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Venus in Fur, Film. Review. The Limits of Masochism.

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Venus in Furs.

“But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.”

Judith, xvi. 7.

Gilles Deleuze once suggested that Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Fur was not only the inspiration for the modern word masochism but illustrated the paradoxes of punishment (Présentation de Sachar-Masoch.1967). Traditional legal systems threatened, and inflict pain, supposedly as a deterrent. By contrast the ‘desiring machine’ Severin von Kusiemski, wishes to suffer. As a parody of law,  a contract reigns over and demands the whiplash. The Biblical epigraph that heads the novel is equally misleading. Far from embodying worshiped female superiority, the Goddess Wanda, is a creation, Pygmalion style, of the narrator. In these ways one can see how the theme can take us from sexuality to forms of power. 

It is a measure of the achievement of David Ives‘ 2010 play Venus in Furs in Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaption, that it embodies these contradictions in a compelling joute between two players.

The film pans onto a Parisian boulevard. In the background is a looming thunderstorm. An unkempt actress (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife), Vanda, hurries into a shabby theatre. She is auditioning for a production of Venus in Furs. Inside the director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is about to leave, bemoaning on his mobile the talentless candidates he’s already seen. Vanda, late beyond excuse, but pushy to the point of breaking boundaries, persuades him to let her perform.

Vanda already has the script by heart. Alternatively thick and knowing, using the vocabulary of vulgarity and erudition, she dominates Sevrin’s delirium. His infantile ecstasy when punished by a sable-wrapped aunt (playing a role not dissimilar to Mademoiselle Lambercier for Rousseau) has swollen into an infatuation for a heartless Venus. Wanda, of the play, acts this out against the backdrop of a crackling fire. At regular intervals Vanda rails at the “sexism” of the whole scenario.

If a knife and physical pain play a role, psychological cruelty that spins at the centre of the film’s drama. As the novel says, “.Nothing can intensify my passion more than tyranny, cruelty, and especially the faithlessness of a beautiful woman.”

Vanda gets her claws into the inauthenticity of Thomas’ cosseted life with a highly-educated, monied, fiancée as one senses more than a flicker of longing for submission to her edgy presence, at the borderline of the pute. Pushing an implicit conclusion Wanda suggests that his real desire is for her handsome Officer admirer, and she helps a deliciously helpless Sevrin with make-up for his new role.

Echoes of Polanski’s films, from Knife in the Water 1962  (a weapon wielded by Wanda) to Rosemary’s Baby, 1968 (the storm outside) have been noted by critics. At its best Venus in Furs rivals Pinter’s The Servant (1963) with its intense power struggle. There one significant difference from the original novel is absence of three African women. Their presence might have given an additional theme – the  ‘race play’ fashionable in some leftist sado-masochistic circles. (1)

The strengths of the film Venus in Furs (though not the original book which is as vulgar in its pretend elegant way as Vanda) lies in its language, the conversation. This – in different registers of French – is wholly lost in the subtitles, which mix Valley Girl slang with the vocabulary of American Pie. There is no charm and little humour (though you will be able to avoid them on the DVD) It is hard to imagine the original, well received, US play by David Ives written like this.

In an age when somebody is convicted in connection with a sexual obsession with pig slurry the theme of ‘perversion’ has lost its ability to interest, let alone shock. Masochism reminds many of us more of Fifty Shades of Grey (though that was apparently female) than any deep experience or insight. But in Polanski’s film, as for the psychology – the picture is up there with the greats.

(1) Lest we forget (from the Charnel House):

Written by Andrew Coates

June 27, 2014 at 9:38 am

Jean-Luc Godard: Hollande should nominate Marine Le Pen Prime Minister.

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Godard Now Prefers Marine Le Pen.

David Thompson once commented that Jean-Luc Godard, the celebrated, and once leftist, cinéaste was fated to remain a “Young Turk” all his life.

Now approaching his dotage Godard still feels the need to make provocative statements.

Interviewed at length in yesterday’s Le Monde and asked about the European election results he announced,

J’espérais que le Front national arriverait en tête. Je trouve que Hollande devrait nommer – je l’avais dit à France Inter, mais ils l’ont supprimé – Marine Le Pen premier ministre.”

I was hoping that the Front National would come first. I find that Hollande should nominate – I said this on France Inter, but they cut it out – Marine Le Pen as Prime Minister.

Interrogé par le journal sur les raisons de cette prise de position, le réalisateur répond : “Pour que ça bouge un peu. Pour qu’on fasse semblant de bouger, si on ne bouge pas vraiment. Ce qui est mieux que de faire semblant de ne rien faire (rires)”.

Asked by the newspaper the reasons why he took this stand, the film-director responded, “To shake things up, so that we make at least some moves towards changing things, even if they don’t really do so. It’s better than pretending to do nothing.

Jean-Luc Godard continue son propos en rappelant que “le Front national avait deux sièges au Conseil national de la Résistance. A l’époque, c’était une organisation paracommuniste. N’empêche qu’elle s’appelait Front national…” 

Jean-Luc Godard continued his theme, recalling that, “The Front National had 2 seats on the National Resistance Council. At that time it was a pro-Communist organisation. Still, despite this it was called the Front National….”

L’organisation en question n’avait rien à voir avec le Front national actuel, créé en 1972 par Jean-Marie Le Pen. Ce n’est qu’une synonymie…”, font d’ailleurs remarquer les interviewers du Monde. Mais Jean-Luc Godard n’en démord pas :“Non. Si on dit que ce n’est qu’une synonymie, on reste dans les mots, pas dans les faits. C’est un fait. Vu l’importance de la nomination, et de nommer, bien sûr, que c’est une synonymie… Le premier ministre du Luxembourg s’appelle Juncker. C’était aussi le nom d’un bombardier allemand [Junkers]

The interviewers reminded him that this Front National had nothing to do with the present-day Front National, created in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and that only the name was identical (a synonymy). Jean-Luc Godard did not back down, “No. If you say its the same word, you are stuck in words, not facts. It is a fact. Given the importance of this nomination, this is also a synonymy as well…the Prime Minister of Luxembourg is called Junker. That is also the name of the German bombers….

Le cinéaste reconnaît qu’il n’est “pas pour eux”“Il y a longtemps, Jean-Marie Le Pen avait demandé que je sois viré de France. Mais j’ai juste envie que ça bouge un peu… Les grands vainqueurs, ce sont les abstentionnistes. J’en fais partie depuis longtemps”,

The Franco-Swiss film-maker did recognise  that he was  “not one of them” (the Front National). “Jean-Marie Le Pen wanted for a long time to kick me out of France..but I simply wish that things change. The real winners (of the elections) were those who abstained, and I’ve been one of them for a long time. “

During the same interview asked about his latest film, Adieu au Langage Jean-Luc Godard further illustrated his wide culture and knowledge by asserting that the word Parole did not exist  English.

The days of Godard’s radical films, like  Le Petit Soldat (1963) , Week-end (1967), La Chinoise (1967), not to mention his involvement in the Marxist  Dziga Vertov Group, seem so distant now. 

Written by Andrew Coates

June 13, 2014 at 10:50 am

Tomboy (film) Banned by French Catholic School.

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Not Suitable for French Catholic Students.

I am looking forward to seeing Tomboy – a French film which will be shown on BBC 4 this coming Sunday.

The more so as it has got up the nose of the increasingly hysterical French anti-gay movement Manif pour Tous.

The French site Rue 89 has this story today,

A Angers, des collèges catholiques privent leurs élèves de « Tomboy »

120 students at the catholic private school Saint-Martin d’Angers were due to watch the film on Tuesday.

But the cinema Les 400 coups had to cancel the showing, as the school refused to let their charges go and see the. The ban was the result of tressure from the  Manif pour tous, who link it to ‘gender theory’ ( la prétendue « théorie du genre ».

Two other schools have already followed this move.

Meanwhile a few years ago we see this when we Google the subject….

2008.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia’s main body of Islamic clerics has issued an edict banning tomboys in the Muslim-majority country, ruling that girls who act like boys violate the tenets of Islam, an official said Friday.

The National Fatwa Council forbade the practice of girls behaving or dressing like boys during a meeting Thursday in northern Malaysia, said Harussani Idris Zakaria, the mufti of northern Perak state, who attended the gathering

2012.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has banned gays and tomboys from its public schools, a report on the news site Emirates 24/7 said.

There was no indication how Saudi Arabia’s religious police would detect who among the nation’s student population were gay and tomboys.

Perhaps somebody will picket the BBC.

 

Update: Campaign to ban showing Tomboy in French Schools (32,225 people have signed up): Here.

The Missing Picture: The Khmer Rouge.

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The Khmer Rouge carried out one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

From 1975 to 1979 from  1.4 million and 2.2 million people died, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

The Missing Picture, which won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2013, is a heart-rending account of the personal and political tragedies caused by their rule.

Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh uses clay figures and newsreels to evoke the 4 year-long holocaust.

Panh dramatises his 1970s childhood through these painted clay figurines. A happy time, a Cambodia where people enjoy the normal pleasures of food, family parties, dancing and films, is brought to an end by the arrival of the black suited Khmer Rouge.  As part of the middle class (teachers) his parents, with their children, are sent to be the countryside to be “re-educated” in the new ideology.

They are reduced to the level of beasts of burden, scraping what food they can.

All except Panh die, amidst great suffering and the hectoring slogans of their masters. The author himself ends up in the hardest labour camps, for questioning the inequality of rations in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.

In the film Panh looks for the “missing picture”, that is of Pol Pot, and his murders, and the genocide.

There is archive material of slaves labouring on pharaonic irrigation projects, of the Khmer Rouge leaders addressing their followers, with the portraits of Marx, Lenin, Lenin and Stalin behind the podium.

The film makes clear that resistance was impossible but that individuals and  families, by their simple dignity, refused to go along with the ideological terror.

The Missing Picture is a deeply affecting film.

Amongst the many images that haunt the audience is a calm statement: what were those in Paris and eleswherewho  endorsed the Khmer Rouge slogans thinking?

One might well ask.

The reality of life in ‘Democratic Kampuchea was soon known to the world, and the French in particular after the publication in 1977  of François Ponchaud’s Cambodge année zéro.

News rapidly got round about the genocide.

Not, apparently, though to Alain Badiou. He waxed ‘enthusiastic’ about the Khmer Rouge . He defended them tooth and nail against the Vietnamese  invaders who put a stop to their rule.

It was not until 2012 that the fêted philosopher and frequent contributor to New Left Review, expressed any “regrets” about this stand (Here).

People should see The Missing Picture and weep.

Including anybody tempted to admire Badiou.

Written by Andrew Coates

January 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

The Nun (La Religieuse): the Book, the Film and Diderot.

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http://static1.purepeople.com/articles/5/11/47/95/@/1041794-image-du-film-la-religieuse-de-620x0-1.jpg

The Nun. La Religieuse, the Book, the Film and Diderot.

“On objecte que la soumission à une authorité législative dispense de raissoner. Mais, où est la religion, sur la surface de la terre, sans une pareille authorité?”

It’s objected that submitting to a legislative authority does away with individual judgements. But, where would religion be, anywhere on the Earth, without such authority?

Diderot. Pensées Philosophiques. XXXll.

Denis Diderot (1713 – 84) was the director the Encylopédie, and hence, known to all as one of the founding figures of the Enlightenment. As such he remains a name familiar to those ready to expound on the faults of the French Lumières. Did a philosophy that holds the world to be, “a machine, with its cords, its pulleys, its springs, its weights” have lasting social consequences? The Enlightenment has been blamed for the illusions of progress that George Sorel animated the, once, rising bourgeoisie and its functionaries, to Imperialism, the mechanical ordering and surveillance of modern society, to the ‘Orientalist’ attack on the authority of the Qur’an.

Diderot, the writer, genial conversationalist and political activist, is anything but an easy figure to put down by such second-hand criticisms. Straight away we should recognise that he explicitly opposed the most famous ‘Enlightened” Prince, Frederick the Great, by observing that, “le governement arbitaire d’un prince juste et éclaire est toujours mauvais.” (Arbitrary government by a just and enlightened Prince is always bad). That, the “droit d’opposition, tout ensensé qui est, est sacré” (the right to opposition, however insane this might be, is sacred). Rosa Luxemburg could not have put it better. (1)

The Encyclopaedist was then far from a Master Thinker who wished to impose his views on society. Perhaps the best way to approach the Nun, film and book, is to bear in mind this citation from Diderot in the Victorian rationalist, John Morley’s biography, “I have ever been the apologies of strong passions; they alone move me. Whether they inspire me with admiration or horror, I feel vehemently. If atrocious deeds that dishonour our nature are due to them, it is by them also that we are borne to the marvellous endeavour that elevates it.” (2)

In this vein Morley observed that, Diderot, while not making the (much later) claims for women’s social emancipation, had deep sympathy for their oppressed position in 18th century society. Again he cites the author, “They have been treated like weak-minded children. There is no sort of vexation, which, among civilised peoples, man cannot inflict upon women with impunity. (3)

 A Serious Message not Shocks from the Convent.

The Nun, la Religieuse, was written in 1760 and was published in 1796, after Diderot’s death. It was originally a mystification (as my reference calls it) played on a certain M. de Croismare. It was a series of letters that claimed to be from a young woman forced to take the veil, and imprisoned in a convent. It asked for Croismare’s help.

The novel itself is the tale of a superfluous daughter of the gentry, forced by her parents into a nunnery. She has no vocation and no desire to submit to the religious order. She suffers.

La Religieuse’s reputation, to the large numbers who have never read it, as a salacious drama of sadistic nuns, religious frenzy, and lesbian affairs.

It is far from that. The novel is a serious effort to describe the effects of authority, patriarchal(the family), and sacred, on power-holders, and those under their command. The inability of the Catholic hierarchy, for all the existence of people of transparent good will, to deal with those with who refuse their legitimacy, is the binding thread. The weight of Canon law (which had much greater power in 18th century France than in, say, Britain) is underlined. The frustrations of the celibate life – for women – loom large.

The Nun is written in the style of English novels of the same period – Diderot was a great admirer and reader of such authors as Richardson Sterne. Comparing the book with these, reminds one, however, that The Nun is rightly considered no more than a minor work.

The present film, directed by Guillaume Nicloux,  is excellent. I have a vague memory of Rivette’s 1966 version of the same title, which indeed skirts close to pornography. This, dignified, if a little bloodless production, is marked by institutional cruelty and not entertainment.

The process forcing Suzanne Simonin (played byPauline Étienne)  to enter a convent is drawn out by her hostility to the very idea. Despite the young woman’s devout belief this is not the life for her eventually the dutiful daughter goes along. After finding a sympathetic figure in authority, she is half-cajoled into accepting things. This process comes to a halt when a new Mother Superior forces the nuns to follow a stricter rule. They have to wear the cilice, (hair-shirt,). Suzanne burns it, and thereafter her life is made a living hell.

The unwilling Suzanne manages to get transferred to a new convent. The picture is really brought to life by Isabelle Huppert as the Abbess of Ste-Eutrope who takes a more than shine to her charge. Her sufferings are rightly put on a par with Suzanne’s. The conclusion, and they reasons for her living burial in convents, are revealed in a less than conclusive finish.

Inevitably we would think of Philomena. The Nun pales when set beside that film’s warmth. Yet the institutional injustices remain tangled in a not too different set of knots. There are many more of these bonds around in the world waiting to be unravelled. Diderot’s social and political message, in this respect, lends to support to fights against religious and sexual injustice, from those against those who would impose their ideas of gender segregation today, to all laws based on divine doctrine.

Anybody interested in finding more about Diderot could not do better than begin with reading Rameau’s Nephew. A satire of success, of selling oneself to the world, it has been compared to an 18th century Society of the Spectacle. Many would consider it a lot more enduring.

  1. Pages 619, 620. Oeuvres Philosphiques. Diderot. Garnier. 1964.

  2. Page 51 Diderot. Vol. 1. John Morley. Macmillan. 1891.

  3. Page 79. Morley Op cit. Morley also noted that The Nun was “strictly a private performance” (that is, never published by Diderot), and “an expression of the strong feeling of the Encyclopaedic school about celibacy, renunciation of the world, and the burial of men and women alive in the cloister” Page 32. Diderot Vol. ll.

Written by Andrew Coates

December 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm