Laura Mulvey's paper against cinematic visual pleasure represents one of the most significant essays on feminist cinema. Her determination to shatter the conventions of traditional cinema was heavily influential and had a lasting effect, not only in feminine cinema but in any type of filmmaking that proposes an alternative to the mainstream. At the same time, Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman represents one of the bravest exercises in unfiltered cinema and still inspires cineastes of all genders to take risks and experiment with the form. Mulvey's theories and the film are closely intertwined and their long-lasting legacy deserves to be revisited.
Undermining Visual Pleasure
In her 1975 essay, Mulvey uses psychoanalysis theories developed by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to reveal the problematic nature of mainstream and Old Hollywood cinema, regarding women's portrayal. Mulvey states that she intends to use the mentioned theories as “a political weapon.”
In the first part of her essay, Mulvey is using Freud's scopophilia definition and Lacan's mirror phase to analyze cinema. About the first theory, she explains, “At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey, 1975). At first, she says that cinema's nature is too remote to offer any voyeuristic pleasure, but that mainstream cinema evolved in such a way that this may be the only pleasure one may get from a film. “The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy” (Mulvey, 1975). Mulvey compares the cinematic form to a mirror because it has a strong anthropomorphic aspect. “The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form." Therefore she discusses Lacan's theory of the mirror phase and the way it relates to cinema.
Lacan explains that the mirror phase occurs when children see themselves for the first time in the mirror and perceives their reflection as more complete than their own body. In explaining this concept, Mulvey states: “Recognition is thus overlaid with misrecognition: the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego” (Mulvey, 1975). The scholar also says that the spectacular nature of mainstream cinema has a similar effect on the audience. “Quite apart from the extraneous similarities between screen and mirror (the framing of the human form in its surroundings, for instance), the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego” (Mulvey, 1975).
With the help of psychoanalysis, Mulvey finds two aspects of mainstream cinema that she thinks are deeply troubling: scopophilia through voyeurism and reconstruction of the ego through identification of the projected image. According to her, these two concepts are the main reason for female objectification in cinema, and is very critical of them: “Both are formative structures, mechanisms not meaning. In themselves they have no signification, they must be attached to an idealization. Both pursue aims in indifference to perceptual reality, creating the imagined, eroticized concept of the world that forms the perception of the subject and makes a mockery of empirical objectivity” (Mulvey, 1975).
Mulvey mostly analyzes classical Hollywood films -- the 1910s to the 1940s -- but she explains that her theory also applies to films from the '50s and '60s. However, her starting point is the old musical film in which female characters perform for the male character. “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1975). In this way the male protagonist gains power over the female character, which is then transferred to the male spectator. She explains this concept by introducing the “three looks” that occur while watching a film: “that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion” (Mulvey, 1975). Through cinematic devices, the first two “looks” disappear, and the spectator starts identifying with the main character, usually a male, and becomes the “bearer of the look”. Two of the devices that are used for this effect are the show-girl character and the erotic close-up. She explains the first one by saying:” A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude”(Mulvey, 1975). The second device is a complete objectification of women, reducing the female character to a close-up of her legs, her face, etc. “One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen” (Mulvey, 1975).
Besides pure visual pleasure, Mulvey argues that there is another reason the “male gaze” reduces the female character to a passive object. “She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence displeasure”(Mulvey, 1975). The scholar explains that the “male gaze” has two modes of dealing with this danger: ” preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star)” (Mulvey, 1975). In the first case the “look” makes sure of the female guilt for not having a penis and sometimes even punishing her, while in the second case the threat is turned into pleasure by fetishizing the female beauty.
Finally, Mulvey explains that to challenge the “male gaze," filmmakers must discard the conventions of mainstream cinema. She considers it is very important that the cinematic look and the audience's look must stop disappearing into the third look, the character’s and she insists that ”without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator), fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” (Mulvey,1975). Mulvey urges filmmakers to approach the cinematic form from an avant-garde perspective and to do what she says is doing in her influential work:” It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article”(Mulvey, 1975).
As influential as Mulvey's article would become, it didn't go by without some criticism and maybe certain critiques may have helped in expanding Mulvey's theories. Early critique resulted in Mulvey's response called “Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1981). However, criticism and dialogue continued, especially on two issues.
An aspect of Mulvey’s work that constantly surfaces in academia is that she ignores the gaze of the female spectator. Feminist scholar Mary Ann Doane suggests reversing the gaze and turn it into “the gaze for [the female’s] own pleasure” (M.A. Doane, 1999, p.134). In this case, the woman becomes the active voyeur and the male body becomes the object of the gaze. However, Doane warns that the role-reversal only “reinforces the dominant system of aligning sexual difference” (M.A. Doane, 1999, p.134) and calls for discussion about the gaze that is outside the female-male struggle.
The answer may be within queer theory because Mulvey ultimately ignores any possibility for queer interpretations of the gaze by focusing singularly on the gaze of the heterosexual male. This has left room for many scholars to discuss this case. Talking about what she calls “ambiguous lesbian” movies, scholar Karen Holinger argues these films ”have attained considerable mainstream popularity with both lesbian and straight female audiences by refusing to identify itself unequivocally as a portrayal of female friendship or of lesbian romance. The sexual orientation of its female characters is never made explicit, and viewers are left to read the text largely as they wish.” (K. Holinger, 1998, p. 6)
Regardless of the continuing criticism of the article, Mulvey's paper is a crucial step in theorizing feminist cinema and it’s no surprise that its publishing was almost simultaneous with Akerman's film.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, is the full title of the 1975 film by Chantal Akerman about a lonely widowed mother. The narrative is mainly following Jeanne's routine along three days as she is cooking, cleaning, and mothering. However, every day she is also having sex with male clients at her house, for her and her son's subsistence.
Mulvey's theory applies perfectly to Akerman's film. Jeanne's activities and the way the film is shot offer the spectator a sense of avant-garde cinema that tackles themes of womanhood, sex, and mundane life in a radical way. At an impressive 3 hours and 10 minutes, the film presents the daily activities of Jeanne Dielman almost in real-time. The first day is presented as a perfectly executed routine. She wakes up, receives the visit of a client, cooks, eats with her son, spends time with him, and goes to sleep.
Two key moments of her first day are the visit and the scene in which she is having a bath. The first scene is very interesting because Akerman refuses to show the sexual interaction. After the two enter the room, the camera is simply filming the door from the outside. The next shot is with the two leaving the room. This simple yet effective way of filmmaking is denying any voyeuristic pleasure that would normally come with the showing of a sex scene. The bathroom scene is also important because it's filmed, again, in a simple and distanced way. It's almost as if the camera happens to be in the room and the main character is washing. Jeanne is in no way objectified or fetishized and the activity of showering is shown as it is in reality: just a mundane daily task.
The second day consists of roughly the same activities as the first day. However, the second day she is also seen at a restaurant, at a store, and as she is babysitting. Like on the first day, Akerman refuses to show sexual intercourse, still denying any visual pleasure for the spectator. While the second day is similar to the first one, there are slight moments of mistake in the second one that threatens the stability of Jeanne's routine. Probably the most significant one is when she overcooks the potatoes and must go to the store to get new ones. This results in the fact that the dinner is not ready when her son returns home.
During the last day, her mistakes become more obvious and her schedule is ruined. She doesn't get to sit in her place at the restaurant, which is upsetting, and she is constantly in a hurry. However, there are times when she is seen just waiting and thinking, due to her routine being disturbed.
The climax of the film consists of the final sexual encounter Jeanne has. The scene is shot in a deadpan manner and is far from being erotic. However, the protagonist has an orgasm, which takes her by surprise and tries to oppose it by shoving the client away from her. In a post-coital scene, Jeanne kills the man with a pair of scissors. The final scene of the film sees a bloodied Jeanne staring out the window. This ending can be interpreted in many ways. It can symbolize an attack upon the patriarchy, but this is too obvious. A better interpretation could be made through her routine, the orgasm being the most extreme threat to her very organized lifestyle. Like Mulvey, who proposes a cinema removed from visual pleasure, Akerman's character actively fights against pleasurable experiences she didn't desire.
Jeanne Dielman is an experimental film that presents an organized woman who does not need the presence of a man to be a housewife. The realist, deadpan aesthetic is a reaction against a canonic cinema that’s made solely for pleasure. This is exactly what Mulvey says she wants to happen at the end of her article:” The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions (already undertaken by radical filmmakers) is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment”(Mulvey, 1975).
Mulvey's and Akerman's works form an essential foundation for women's cinema both in theory and in practice. But they also represent a simple yet challenging form of cinema that invites the viewer into an unglamorous world of pure raw emotions.
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18. https://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(1).html, accessed on 1.10.2021
Doane, M.A (1999). Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator. In S. Thornham (Eds), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (pp. 132-145). Edinburgh University Press.
Hollinger, K. (1998). Theorizing Mainstream Female Spectatorship: The Case of the Popular Lesbian Film. Cinema Journal, 37(2), 3-17.https://doi.org/10.2307/1225639