Mad World

Left: Zoe Beloff, Shadowland or Light from the Other Side, 2000, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 32 minutes. Right: Zoe Beloff, Charming Augustine, 2004, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 40 minutes.

SOME CALL IT DREAMING; others deem it madness. Still others describe it as a rare ability to see beyond what’s real. During the late nineteenth century, this particularly tenuous state was given considerable attention by two distinct groups: psychiatrists and spiritualists. Though their methods and purposes differed, their research shared a dependence on vulnerable young women as subjects.

This overlap between science and the occult—and its impact on women—is the subject of Zoe Beloff’s Shadowland or Light from the Other Side (2000) and Charming Augustine (2004). Both black-and-white stereoscopic 16-mm films draw on historical records: Shadowland on the 1897 autobiography of a medium, Elizabeth D’Espérance, and Augustine on an 1870s case study from the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, the domain of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who counted Sigmund Freud and Alfred Binet among his students. As the film conveys, Augustine was admitted there in October 1875 for a feeling of paralysis in her right arm and attacks of hysteria. Notes in her file indicate that she was the daughter of servants and had been sent to live for a time with a man—her mother’s lover—who repeatedly sexually assaulted her.

Beloff takes the Victorian Age as both subject and muse, using vintage filmmaking techniques, including a lurid, sweet voice-over and floating paper “specters” on barely concealed strings with costumes and props evocative of the era. But within her theatrical aesthetic and compelling storytelling, Beloff poses a knot of complex questions about the treatment of girls and women. Shadowland begins innocently enough, with Elizabeth as a child imagining—or perhaps seeing—visions, and Augustine melodramatically, with black-and-white photographs of the heroine on her spare hospital bed in the midst of convulsions, yet in each film the narrative unspools into a series of strange and disturbing events. Viewers are gradually made aware that the girls’ imaginations and identities were held captive to the whims of scientists and showmen-cum-philosophers.

It is difficult not to apply the lens of present-day perspectives to Beloff’s work: The diagnosis of hysteria has been refined, now understood as disassociation and an array of other discrete ailments, while pharmaceuticals and talk therapy have supplanted electroshock treatment and amyl nitrate; Elizabeth’s visions would still attract attention, but now she may well have her own reality show. But Beloff forces viewers to ask: Are we any closer to understanding these girls’ experiences? Are their symptoms or abilities an escape, an illness, a gift, or some combination?

Charming Augustine and Shadowland will screen at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Monday, April 27, at 8.30 PM. For more details, click here.