New York

The Bad Sister

Laura Mulvey’s and Peter Wollen’s film The Bad Sister, 1983, is a fantasy thriller based on a novel by Emma Tennant which was, in turn, a reworking of a 19th-century Gothic tale. Tennant switched the genders of the major protagonists, resulting in a narrative that came down in favor of the Devil/Vampire rather than God, contrary to the conventions of the original. In the film, Jane is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy landowner. Along with her mother, she is disowned and expelled from his estates. She subsequently makes a new life in London, but becomes obsessed with memories of childhood, the image of her legitimate half-sister, and the mystery of her mother’s death. Through the agency of Meg, an enigmatic older woman with vampiric powers (and one of several “mother” images in the film), Jane is guided through dreamlike journeys in search of her own “truth.” From this archetypal hero tale, albeit restaged from an alternative gender position, the authors have teased out a scenario that works on the text of the Oedipal complex, which, according to classical psychoanalysis, the child must resolve in order to accede to its place in culture (what Jacques Lacan would call its Symbolic identity). The Bad Sister is therefore a return to the specific concerns of the directors’ Riddle of the Sphinx, 1977, and a continuation of their exploration of the place of the “feminine” in a social order that has traditionally been constructed around the male subject.

The tale is constructed through different narrational voices. It is introduced by a TV producer investigating Jane’s disappearance following the murders of her father and half-sister, the only clues to which are the speculations of her pastor/confidant and her taped diaries, through which Jane “invents” the narrative of her own history. The film presents us with a complex narrative structure—spatiotemporal disjunctions shift from the “reality” of the television codes of documentary and interview, to the colored landscapes of hallucination, to the cinematic flashback, and characters split and congeal into various personae. Jane’s legitimate sister, against whom she expresses a hysterical delusionary jealousy, is her “other self” complicit with patriarchy, and like the father, she must be destroyed if the death of the mother is to be avenged and Jane is to gain “freedom.” Jane’s estrangement from the social order is precipitated by her boyfriend’s affair with another woman, recapitulating her father’s rejection, whereupon she undergoes an emancipatory transformation by cropping her hair and donning the denim uniform of androgyny. This scene carries one of the film’s few symbolic references to matter outside the actual diegesis: the photograph of Louise Brooks on Jane’s dressing table, which reminds us of the conventional cinematic convention that presents woman as spectacle and punishes her for being so. Jane is aided and incited to violence by Meg/Dracula, who, together with a sect called the Wild Women, represents the irrational forces of the “other,” amongst whose “evil” transgressions, according to the Law, are the defiance of time, space, and death.

While there is much in the film to inspire a healthy critique of theoretical psychoanalysis, it is at times too elliptical, at times self-consciously didactic. What connections, for instance, are to be made between Jane’s Oedipal problem and the economy of desire and death represented by vampirism? The issue seems to be whether there can be any meaning without entry into the Symbolic—whether we can properly speak of the “feminine” at all outside its construction in language. If Jane-as-Oedipus destroys the Law of the Father, what options are left for her being in the world? Must she assume the phallic role herself, or has she to occupy some preverbal, or anti-Oedipal, state of mutism or madness—or, perhaps, the alternative spatiotemporal reality of vampirism?

While the film narrates Jane’s problematic relationship to the Symbolic, it nevertheless seems to suggest that her “freedom” lies elsewhere. Not only are we told at the outset that she has disappeared from the scene (she has become “mute”), but her parricide and relationship to her legitimate “other” are played out in the fantasy space of the Imaginary. Furthermore, her identification with the undead (unsocial) mother (with whom she is reunited at the end) remains total throughout the narrative—that is, she does not make the transfer in choice of love object from the mother to the father necessary in Freudian terms for her to form a heterosexual relationship. We see her unable to respond to her boyfriend. Jane therefore seems to be caught in the pre-Oedipal dyad of the child/mother.

The Bad Sister is the authors’ first film to be shot entirely on videotape, a medium which has tempted them into special effects. As with all their films, however, their seeming rejection of the formal aspects of filmmaking gives us little signification at the denotative level of the shot. We are presented with a somewhat clichéd mise-en-scène and an almost documentary style of shooting whose lack of visual symbolism exposes the film’s dependence on the verbal text.

Jean Fisher