PRINT January 1983


The notions of vice and virtue, as defined within patriarchy, function as traditional motifs throughout the history of film production. This duality is most apparent when characters emerge from opposing corners—cowboys and Indians—but the incorporation of stereotypical dualities within a single character engages more ambitious complexities, especially when that character is a woman. For while a man’s fall from grace can prefigure a broad field of possible transgressions, the woman’s temptations are inevitably linked to her sex and how she wears it.

This good/bad motif was entertained by a number of films in this year’s New York Film Festival Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Identificazione di una Donna (Identification of a Woman) pictures a man obsessively riveted by what he sees as the moral mutability of “the fair sex,” while Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan foregrounds its heroine’s appropriation of vice to redeem her virtue. Joseph Losey’s La Truite (The Trout) employs the notion that sexual repression is a girl’s ticket to ride. And finally, Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Bolwieser (and in almost all his other films) suggests that sexualities are not random spurts, but the results of highly manipulative social constructs. I will preface any further comments by noting that the depictions of vice and virtue in these films are, of course, determined by the libidinal economies and sexual proclivities of the men who have directed them.

Identificazione di una Donna is Antonioni’s first film in 18 years to be set in contemporary Italy. A more appropriate title would have been “I Am What I Am: Me, Myself and I” Niccolò, the hero (Tomas Milian), is a middle-aged film director searching for both a girlfriend and something to make a movie about. “You’re unfathomable. You manage to be smart and stupid, good and bad, bitter and sweet,” he coos to his girl friend of the month. He is looking for his ideal, “[a woman] to be quiet with . . . as with nature,” a woman whose poeticized alternation between good and evil works not to disrupt his assumptions but to neutralize her presence; a woman whose franchise is her exoticness, the apex of which is her absence. But the next best thing to her absence is her objectification. And Carlo di Palma’s flawlessly gorgeous cinematography assures us this view with an elegant constancy.

Mavi (Daniela Silverio) is the first of Niccolò’s girlfriends to appear. She is a rich young woman easily seduced by pouting men who think they’re intellectuals. The couple makes leadenly pretentious conversation in lots of different houses with nice furniture. He is usually dressed and she wears underpants with nothing on top. Her family soon removes her from his clutches. His next girlfriend, Ida (Christine Boisson), looks like Mavi but has a bigger forehead. She is a young actress rebelling against her privileged background, and sporting a well-practiced swagger which is supposed to indicate an aggressive independence. Niccolò provokes her with his whining nostalgia for Mavi, while she tells him that horseback riding excites her sexually. They sit in boats on deserted expanses of water and say the word “solitude” repeatedly, but most of the time they sit in modish rooms, he dressed and she in underpants with nothing on top.

The film is a sluggish parade of elegant assignations and stylish brooding. Niccolò paces his cute little villa and stalks pretty young women like Portnoyon leave in the Mediterranean, in search of the perfect seminal receptacle. Instead of critically viewing the notion of the female “ideal” as it perpetuates the fiction of women’s sexuality, Antonioni projects the fictive as the representation of the actual. The exclusion of women from subjectivity is replayed in stunning fashion, substantiating the notion that all of woman is fugitive (goodness, badness, speech, etc.) except the silent stereotypical figure that settles the male gaze. And any ironic content in this film has been swallowed by the powerful overture of its original model, that of a tantalizingly seductive bourgeoisie. Amusingly, the film’s closest connections are not with the formidable bastion of Euro-intellectual art cinema, but with Emmanuelle. Just Jaeckin’s soft-core exposition of Sylvia Kristel in underpants with nothing on top. Identificazione di una Donna identifies only Niccolò, the troubled but well-appointed mope who suffers from the top of his head to the tip of his cock. It is a film about buttocks and beautiful real estate. And, of course, women and houses do share a similar function in that both can be the elegant repositories of what men consider to be their capital.

If Identificazione di una Donna excels at the close-up scrutiny of the female body and of its use as a vehicle of deliverance beyond good and evil, then DeMille’s Madam Satan is a long-shot display of humorously explicit sexual spectacular. Made in 1930, it tells of Angela (Kay Johnson), a wealthy socialite, and her efforts to lure her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) away from the charms of Trixie, a song-and-dance girl (wonderfully portrayed by the young Lillian Roth, ironically the author, many years later, of the sad I’ll Cry Tomorrow.) In the face of her husband’s sexual philandering the good wife understands that her masochism necessitates an infinite resilience, and when her martyrdom begins to wear thin, she borrows the costume of vice to fight fire with fire and win back her man. She attends a masquerade on a dirigible dressed as Madam Satan, a wily, provocative vamp, and makes Trixie, her rival, look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Madam Satan is hailed the belle of the ball, thanks to her sophisticated form and oblique promises of dirty delights to the salivating men who surround her. Bob falls in love with her, innocent of the fact that this tempting morsel is nothing more than his glacial wife, the one he had dismissed as “above all women and below zero”—the virtuous woman he didn’t desire. Angela realizes her newfound position of power, and before unmasking herself tells Bob that she will give herself to him only if he wipes out the memory of all other women.

Madam Satan is an interesting combination of Victorian didacticism and saucy drawing-room farce. While predating the golden era of the screwball comedy, its fluid dialogue (written by Gladys Unger and Elsie Janis) carries intimations of the coming genre. Not surprisingly one of the film’s art directors, Mitchell Leisen, later went on to direct many of Paramount’s smoothest comedies. DeMille couples this literate, witty style with the density of the extravaganza, culminating in a stunning dance sequence aboard the dirigible, a baroque compendium of Metropolis, Busby Berkeley, and Oskar Schlemmer.

The film features intense male bonding, allowing Bob and his friend Jimmy (smartly depicted by Roland Young) to drunkenly sing together, play together, shower together, and even go beddy-bye together. Angela is denied camaraderie with other women, the sole exception being her maid, who hardly shares a relationship of reciprocity with her boss lady in this dream world of spectacular expenditure. Trixie and Angela are linked only through their rivalry over a man. This competition is later broadened to include a beauty contest, which Angela/Madam Satan, as the simulacrum of evil, wins hands down. All female concern, all strategy, lies in securing the figure as the pose that rivets the gaze, and the women are willing to juggle the accoutrements of vice and virtue to achieve their ends.

Where Madam Satan argues for the relinquishment of pleasure as the price of virtue, La Truite focuses on repression as a sexual stimulant—on the power invested in refusal. Directed by Losey and based on the novel by Roger Vailland, it portrays Frédérique (Isabelle Huppert), a woman who uses sexuality as an instrument of aggression, plundering and accumulating profit along the way. From the secret club of her teenage years where she and her girl friends pledged to get things out of men without giving them anything, to her current circuitous antics, she is defined by a confluence of virtuous denials and purposeful calculations. She understands the economies of capitalism on both a numerical and a libidinal level. She is currency. She choreographs her way from a trout farm in the Jura region of France to the high echelons of multinational corporate dealings. And yet Losey depicts her not as an ambitious, forthright woman but as a blank child, implying that her exploitative demeanor is not a learned exercise but a “natural” function of her gender. She walks around in short skirts, drinking milk and saying things like “I’m afraid of nothing . . . I’m never tired . . . I’m never hungry.” These coy declarations are not issued together, of course, as this might have an overly aggressive quality. Rather, they are released separately in quiet moments, like treasured little pellets of shit. And those who understand this rhythm of retention and release never underestimate the perfection of the appropriate moment. Frédérique mixes prepubescent sexuality with a trancelike denial of the goods, and her rise to power can only attest to the successful consequences of this behavior.

Frédérique is at home in the world of men and their money, whether she is jetting across the globe, daintily slumbering with her head on some mogul’s shoulder, or inhabiting the fancy hotels of the international capitals. In Tokyo she meets a “woman of the world” who boasts of having “made love” over 33,000 times (to rich men only), claiming that the sense of sin gives her great pleasure. Though sex seems to be gratifying for her, Frédérique’s real pleasure lies in her denial of the genital function—a virtue whose economy seems to lie in repression. While the refuge of denial could be an apt position when one is intent on extracting vengeance for past humiliations, Losey is simply not up to the task of dealing with this radicality. His supposed indictment of sexual strategy and the preponderant characteristics of multinational capitalism reads, instead, as a toney homage to the good life, and his naming of Frédérique as the prime mover who perpetuates the extremities of the sexual contract might very well be his deluded idea of a happy ending.

The speculation in feelings and false universalities that mark all these films were always areas well scrutinized by Fassbinder. Although his films entertain melodramatic strategies within a relatively traditional narrative structure, he cannily utilizes the power of these overtures without being subsumed by their conventions. His handling of so-called “moral issues” like vice and virtue never dissolves into stereotypical reification of dualities, but rather is complicated by his recognition of the social organizations that instruct our desires.

Bolwieser was produced for television in 1977 and has since been reedited for theatrical release. Adapted from a novel by Oskar Maria Graf, it is a florid recounting of the pleasures and self-deceptions of lower-middle-class life in the Germany of the 1920s. Bolwieser (Kurt Raab) is a passively plodding station-master whose wife, Hanni (Elisabeth Trissenaar), is bored by her isolation and provincial surroundings. Pictured as a beautiful and lusty doyenne of the interior, she patrols her domain (the home), straightening bric-a-brac, preparing meals, and grooming her body. Like every other woman on the block, she is inside waiting. She begins a series of affairs knowing that her beguiling manner will calm the suspicions of her gullible husband. Eventually her trysts are discovered and result in a scandal which is soon brought to court. In defending her, Bolwieser, who is desperate to recuperate his hallucination of their marital bliss, is indicted for perjury and sent to jail.

Almost none of the players in this film are characterized as either good or bad. Their power-mongering and gossiping are presented as symptomatic of the economic and psychological tendencies that shape their social lives. Hanni, even though she remarries while Bolwieser is languishing in prison, is not punished by the scenario. Her sexual candor is not viewed as a fall from virtue, but merely one of a variety of ways that people employ to both pleasure and brutalize one another.

In 1856 Gustave Flaubert was tried and acquitted of having committed outrages against public and religious morality and decency. The charges resulted from the publication of Madame Bovary in serial form in the Revue de Paris. This tale of a woman’s fall from grace in 19th-century France inflamed its readers, who were already addicted to a habitual diet of serialized novels. Today, the delivery of these fictions is carried on by the medium of television. It is well suited to the rhythmic enraveling of events, rife with emotional crescendos and the condensed, magazinelike procedures that we call soap operas. So it seems appropriate that Fassbinder, whose work has been dismissed by some as “petit-bourgeois soap opera,” on occasion embraced television as a vehicle for the broadcast of his work. And Bolwieser is not far removed from the misbegotten maneuvers of Flaubert’s Bovary. However, where much television production is still rendered via strangely static, theatrical long shots, Bolwieser is coated with close-ups which enhance the “up close and personal” qualities of the medium. And unlike the cascade of parallel action which comprises the soap-opera style, Fassbinder’s depictions have a slower, more singular quality, drawing on a specific dramatic arena rather than on a chorus of duets attesting to moral guilt or innocence. He positions the spectator in such a way as to be vulnerable to the empathetic device while still able to objectify its machinations. Interestingly, this description of Fassbinder’s working procedures, this sense of near and far, is not unlike Charles Baudelaire’s description of Haubert’s portrait of Madame Bovary: “To be as capable of calculation as of dreaming.” This suggestion of a relatively free field could also apply to Fassbinder in his interest, not in the naming of vices or virtues, varieties of sadism or masochism, but in the ways in which we comply with or resist the clichés of our own destruction.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who reviews regularly for Artforum.