New York

“A Question Of Silence”

The agenda of narrative film seldom allows for any impertinence or surprise, for any disruption in the representation of dominance. Thanks to a number of canny minds still at work in commercial cinema both in America and Europe, we can catch slight glimpses of slippages, but their best chance of congealing into broader representations is probably within the framework of independent film. A powerful example of this mode of dislocation is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an extraordinary gaze into a social (and unsocial) life. Another is A Question of Silence, a first feature by Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris shown in the “New Directors/New Films” series organized by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Although lacking the esthetic achievement of Akerman’s work, A Question of Silence is a riveting exposition, combining baroque narrative flourish with forthright confrontation.

It tells the story of three women who are taken into police custody for their part in a particularly intense collaboration—that of murder. A housewife is removed from the sullen interiority of a messy apartment, a barmaid exits from a world of tough-girl banter and forced frivolity, and a secretary merely uncrosses her sleekly stockinged legs and strolls out of the office. Having ended the life of a vigilantly sadistic male boutique manager, the three leave their casually stereotyped encapsulations and enter a far more explicit mode ofcontainment: imprisonment.

Here they are introduced to a court-appointed psychiatrist assigned to determine their sanity or lack of it. As the film progresses, we watch her progress from a sympathetic but professionally distanced investigator to a woman intent on challenging the repressive formalities of the judicial system, thereby threatening the very notion of professionalism which has sanctioned her function in the world of men.

The story’s advance is constantly displaced by flashbacks which allow for an alternation between the duress of incarceration and the scene of the crime. The enactment of the murder, though discreetly specific, in no way dominates the film, in no way exploits the women’s actions, but rather sets the scene sharply for the film’s most powerful enraveling: the women’s day in court. Reminiscent of Werner Schroeter’s virtuoso depiction of the madness of judicial authority in Palermo oder Wolfsburg, 1979–80, this scene contrasts the male court officials’ pompous surety of knowledge with the psychiatrist’s articulate critical pronouncements. In an interesting reversal, she counters the mens’ increasingly emotional responses with a coolness of delivery that turns the defendants’ homicidal action into nothing less than an exercise in logic. Her verbal transgressions threaten not only the ossified decorum of the court, but also her alliance with her patronizing husband, an ambitious lawyer who fears that her “impertinence” will endanger his own career. Yet she persists in her measured contradictions of the notions of sanity and morality as they are inscribed withinculture, reminding the court of the hierarchical choreographies of class and gender and their resultant marginalities.

As the debate continues, a sound is heard brewing in the courtroom—an insistent murmur which slowly escalates into a cascade of giggles and laughter, into a flood of ticklish escapes from the somber rigor of “reason.” And the laughers are, of course, the women. Not just the defendants and the psychiatrist, but every woman in the courtroom. Interestingly, at each screening of the film that I attended, this infectious rupture spread to the theater audience, producing a moment of stunning solidarity. Back on the screen, the court officials, their patience exhausted, announce that the case will now be tried in the absence of (laughing) women, thereby literalizing the procedures of all legal and social arrangements.

A Question of Silence is a fluent reminder of the cinema’s ability not only to please us with the eloquence of formal, optical arrangements and conventional scenarios, but to critically alter the moments of our lives: to connect the suggestions in the movie theater’s darkened interiority with the exteriority of public life. And in doing so, it is another step in the welcoming of female spectators into the audience of men.

Barbara Kruger