New York

Sally Potter

Just Above Midtown Gallery

Among the events promoted on Franklin Furnace’s press release for its “Women Performance Artists from London and Los Angeles” series, Sally Potter’s film Thriller was billed as “the first feminist murder mystery.” As an imaginative attempt to uncover the antifeminist, antisocialist foundations of the conventional operatic narrative form, Thriller is deliberately ill-suited to that genre. Its aim is to expose, not impose, the artifices of dramatic construction.

Thriller focuses on two juxtaposed narratives: footage of an exemplary opera, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, being performed onstage, alternates with Potter’s staged exegesis of its plot. She begins with the tragic end of the real opera, the death of a female seamstress. Though La Bohème’s seamstress, Mimi, dies of tuberculosis, Potter’s female lead claims to have been the victim or witness of a “murder.” This opening sequence is set up with the flashy camera action of a Hitchcock thriller, the pretense for such suspense being that this woman cannot remember what happened, and is driven to recall it, as if she were the “spirit” of the dead woman sent back to earth to understand her life.

The dingy attic in which Potter’s rendition takes place stands in sharp contrast to the romanticized conception of bohemian life in Puccini’s opera. Through fast cutting between surrealistic moments of intrigue and melodramatic moments from the opera, Potter’s narrator tries to guide us to the point. Mimi’s death, she insinuates, was tactically important in La Bohème so that the male survivors could display their courage and dignity to the audience. Hence the question becomes, why should a male artist’s life be any more valuable than that of the expendable Mimi? As Potter sees it, the crime has been perpetuated by the opera’s author, who geared his narrative to the orthodoxies of his ruling-class viewers.

Unfortunately, Potter’s gimmicky editing tricks and disconnected sequences do not convince us of these discoveries. The most provocative material in the film is not visual; instead, it is the series of questions posed for us by the narrator. Speaking of the bohemians, the narrator asks, “Do they suffer to create in the way that I suffer to produce?” And later, wondering why the men in such narratives appear as “heroes in their display of grief,” she inquires, “Would I have preferred to be the hero?” These questions provide the bluntest articulation of Potter’s perspective, yet in the context of her confusing cinematic technique, they become merely moments of parenthetical lucidity.

Thriller does contain flashes of cinematic incisiveness, but this ambitious film is more a Marxist-feminist tract written with difficult surrealistic images than a rigorous analysis of an operatic genre buttressed by 19th-century sexism. After I saw the film, Potter, who was in the audience, was more than willing to answer even unasked questions; she explained the film as if she had explained it many times before. She knew her opera, her history and her argument. But in Thriller, her desire to trace the dynamics of sexuality, social class and “high art,” and her choice of visual devices, too often operate at cross-purposes.

Joan Casademont