Experiment Perilous


What I propose is to sketch, within the context of ‘film and the other arts’, a reading of an individual film: Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944), made for RKO, with George Brent, Paul Lukas and Hedy Lamarr, and based on the 1943 novel by Margaret Carpenter. My reading will probably seem a bit perverse, or at any rate, will seem to offer little by way of a generalisation which could help define ‘cinema and painting’, even though in this case, both the book and the film in question clearly belong to cycles, in one case of gothic romance, and in the other of 1940s women’s melodramas where paintings play a narratively significant role. In fact, Experiment Perilous may seem a late and derivative example of a constellation which film scholars have begun to analyse quite fully and convincingly. (1) In order to provide a frame of reference that will hopefully lend my comments on Experiment Perilous a measure of pertinence in the context of the present topic, I want to signal in many of these films the presence of a painted portrait. This strikes me as a feature worth commenting on, but let me start with some general points about paintings and the painted portrait in the cinema.

Cinema and Painting

A painting in a film, at any rate, in a classical Hollywood film, seems to me always at a disadvantage by the very fact that it signifies too much (the whole history of art) and too little (merely another image, another view amidst the many others that make up a film): by its very kinship as image, it is already devalued as art while at the same time having to signify a special kind of value, the cultural super-value of ‘Art’. The painted portrait in a film suffers doubly: it is radically insufficient as a signified and it is contradictory as a sign. Hence the fact that a painting in a film so often creates a notable gap which the narrative has to motivate – usually, by making the hero an artist, which is to say, by concentrating on questions of morality and personality at the expense of aesthetics (i.e. whether the paintings are any good), or by making central the social significance of a marginal activity and an unconventional existence (the bohemian life styles of artists in films like Minnelli’s Lust for Life [1956] – Van Gogh; Huston’s Moulin Rouge [1952] – Toulouse Lautrec), or, finally, the existence of a painting in a film can be motivated by pointing to it as the source of an enigma – the enigma attaching itself not so much to who is being represented as to why the represented is an enigma to one or several of the characters (e.g. in a film like Preminger’s Laura [1944]). For the viewer, however, the enigma is also that of wanting to know why there is a still image in a moving picture? It is as if, a painted picture in a film invariably activates what Roland Barthes called the narrative’s ‘hermeneutic code’, but we might also say that it activates one of Todorov’s properties of the fantastic, a hovering, a consistent undecidability of discourses.

At the same time, especially a painted portrait in a film motivates a host of determinate signifiers, partly historical (it justifies a period setting and a genre), partly social (in a world of objects and people, a painting is always extravagant, excessive in that it is both object and person), partly economic (whoever owns a painting has surplus value to display or dispose of, which means it also often functions as a signifier of class), and finally, the signifiers are inescapably sexual (Beauty, Perfection, Woman, the Unattainable Object of Desire).

In the second instance, what the fact of a painted portrait underscores (as opposed to a photograph which brings a certain temporality into the narrative: a past motivating a present or a future, as in the celebrated example of Chris Marker’s La Jetée [1962]), is that the person represented does not move and will not move, that (s)he is arrested, immobile, given over to a terminal stasis – a stasis made the more unnatural and uncanny in cases where it does move, whether because it seems to step out of the frame into the diegesis (again, Laura, or Lang’s The Woman in the Window [1944]), or because the picture becomes alive by the gaze it casts (Hitchcock’s Suspicion [1941] and Rebecca [1940]). By this fact alone, a portrait in a film is an alien body, a double, invariably obscene for being too exposed, too obsessional, but obscene often also by its very vulnerability: a potential for aggression is straightaway lodged in the film, which is itself gendered. To the fixed posture of the portrait corresponds a fixation on the part of the beholder, making the picture the site of an almost caricatural sadism.

‘Bad Art’

In this sense, I would argue, the genres of the fantastic, the uncanny, the gothic are almost invariably present whenever there is a painted portrait in a film, insofar as it casts a radical uncertainty around what is alive and what is dead, it installs at the heart of the filmic representation a memento mori. I am stressing this, perhaps overstressing it, because of that other dialogue which takes place in every film featuring a painting, namely that between the cinema and the art over which it supposedly triumphs: in this respect, a painting in a film tends to evoke the gesture of a David, raising aloft the slain head of Goliath, and passing it around for everyone to see. Is this, one wonders the reason why Hollywood films, when connoting ‘art’ invariably resort to bad painting, to the most hackneyed idioms of C19th salon painting, queasily hovering between neo-classical pomposity and photographic realism, what Marc Vernet has described as the ‘portrait psycho-pompe’? The argument would be that such films are in some measure the revenge of the cinema on painting, celebrating the cinema’s own myth of artlessness and naturalness by emphasizing the artifice of the other, drawing new life by warming itself at the ashes of a pictorial form the cinema helped to consume. But I’m suggesting that the inverse is also true: a painting in a film is like a black hole, it sucks up all energy and movement, and to that it extent, it is the painting that mocks the cinema, not the other way round.

Another argument, of course, would be that Hollywood does not recognize these portraits as bad painting, naively assuming that this is what real art is like. Such a view rather too readily shares high culture’s contempt for the popular, to which it imputes a cynicism directly proportional to its own snobbery. But before we dismiss this line of reasoning, it is as well to remember, as Diane Waldman has pointed out, (2) how relentlessly and even hysterically Hollywood has denounced modern (non-representational) art, associating it with moral decadence, mental instability or insanity, and even political subversion: terms not so different from those used by campaigns against ‘degenerate art’, and reminding us of the social as well as political tension which the widening gap between avant-garde art and mass culture produced in the 1930s and 1940s. Experiment Perilous does not altogether escape the philistine clichés, making the sculptor Clag something of an Expressionist when he seems particularly frustrated with his art and is unhappily in love, and making him a heroic realist in the style of Arno Breker when he shows off his master-piece: the massive sculpture entitled simply ‘Woman’.

I shall argue that Experiment Perilous knows its painted portrait to be bad art, though not in any obvious art-historical sense. The film indeed places painting, sculpture and literature in an ambivalence that seems to me essential, and this in two respects. Firstly, the dialectic that operates whenever a medium defines itself against another, where the ‘victorious’ one both defers to the other’s cultural status while nonetheless denigrating that very status is particularly acute in Experiment Perilous, showing the portrait as fundamentally insufficient, in need of a complement or supplement. (3) Experiment Perilous suggests immediately what supplement such a salon painting needs: circumstantial matter, anecdote, in short, narrative. Meaning attaches itself to a painting in a film only thanks to a set of narrative motivations – the portrait’s occasion, its origin, its function: why was it painted, who painted it, and who is obsessed by it – a motivational nexus which Experiment Perilous rather explicitly refers to as the portrait’s ‘fatality’.

What I would propose is that the mediocrity of these portrait-paintings is less a matter of aesthetics and more a question of ontology, so to speak: mediocrity being here the effect of a certain void or vertigo emanating from the portrait, or rather its pretence of a presence: in other words, it is bad not because of its kitsch classicism or some other stylistic solecism, but because of the multiple perturbations it brings to the narrative. A reciprocity sustains this relationship: if the portrait in Experiment Perilous needs a narrative, the narrative of Experiment Perilous might be said to be nothing but the tremors caused by the painted portrait.

This becomes very clear in the scene where Hunt, the narrator-hero, visits the gallery and sees the portrait for the first time. The encounter gives rise to a shot-reverse-shot sequence in which the portrait looks down at Hunt, suturing him into the story. In the scene which follows, back in Hunt’s hotel room, several narrational indices of disturbance are deployed: a montage of voices, obsessively repeated key words, a slow camera movement tracking round the hero, ending on a zoom-in on the hero’s face, while voices continue to assail him.

Experiment Perilous: The Story

At this point, let me rapidly remind you of the story line of Experiment Perilous, and indicate in what ways it resembles the plot of other films of the same genre and period.

In Experiment Perilous, Nick Bedereau, a wealthy New York socialite, is married to the young and beautiful Allida, whom he met one day at an outing, and almost immediately took to Paris and then back to New York from her father’s farm in the rural splendours of Vermont. We first hear about Nick and Allida from Nick’s spinster sister Cissy Bedereau whom the hero-narrator, Dr Hunt Bailey, meets on a train making its way to New York during a stormy November night in 1903. Intrigued after hearing that Cissy had died the very day she arrived in New York and especially after discovering that their luggage had been mixed up, Hunt finds his way to the portrait of Allida in the museum, and taking advantage of his sculptor friend Clagg, visits Nick and Allida at their house. Both husband and wife turn to Hunt for help, each implying that the other is mentally unbalanced, terrorizing or spoiling their only child, the five year old Alec. Hunt has discovered Cissy’s diary in her luggage, a fact that further involves him in the strange world of the Bedereaus. More and more convinced that Allida needs to be rescued, Hunt meets Allida secretly, first in a department store and then in a bar, promising to take her to a safe place in the country during Nick’s absence. But Nick has set a trap for Hunt, and there is a violent struggle between the men, while Allida and her son are dying upstairs of asphyxiation from a faulty gas furnace. Hunt manages to knock out Nick and smash the bedroom window, but he cannot prevent Nick from setting fire to the house. Nick is killed on the stairway when his prized statue topples from its pedestal, but Hunt, Allida and Alec are rescued from the blaze. All three of them are united in the countryside, after Allida has successfully repelled an over-zealous detective.

From the Woman’s Point of View: The Matrix of The Gothic as Genre

Experiment Perilous

From his own much closer study of films such as The Two Mrs Carroll (1947), Dragonwyck (1946), Gaslight (1944), Notorious (1946), Rebecca, Suspicion and Laura, Marc Vernet concludes that their thematics invariably involve a number of fixed motifs: an older man, associated with a past which includes either foreign extraction or an aristocratic background, suddenly falls in love with a beautiful, innocent young woman and marries her, after which he begins to find fault with her, or persecutes her psychologically to the point where she questions her own sanity, not least because her husband worships her and puts her on a pedestal, out of reach even to himself, with the very same gestures with which he threatens, humiliates or infantilizes her. At this point a younger man emerges on the scene, equally taken by her as the husband was but quickly siding with the young wife against the husband. Eventually, in an often cataclysmic showdown, the younger man frees the heroine from the murderous attention of her husband to take her to a quieter life somewhere else.

The gothic mansion, the aristocratic husband, the painted portrait – so many ways of enclosing, fixing, embalming and encasing the woman in a role and identity she mustn’t recognize as hers. Two decades of psychoanalytic film theory have shown us how to read these films as the working out of a particularly ambiguous oedipal fantasy, centred on the woman: that of an incestuous attachment to the father, and the tormented but also thrilling process of being handed from an older man to his substitute, the younger male. As a representation of how a woman is passed from father to husband, but also as an ideologically extremely conservative, because ‘therapeutic’ version of the Cinderella fairy-story, it is a scenario which, with very few variations, has been one of the mainstays also of romantic popular fiction. (4) As already mentioned, Experiment Perilous is itself based on the best-seller novel by Margaret Carpenter.

Studies of melodrama and the gothic in film, and in particular, Mary Ann Doane’s The Desire to Desire (about the Woman’s Film of the 1940s) have further explored the genre’s significance for the female spectator. More fundamental than the representation of the heroine’s masochism in respect of the father or the fetishization of the woman as image, is for critics like Doane the question of the woman’s access to subjectivity under patriarchy, the impossibility of recognizing herself other than as image, an image constructed for her by the desire of others. Doane, in effect argues that the Woman’s films proffers ‘impossible’, self-contradictory identifications, but she also shows the very impossibility of these textual ‘subject positions’ to be the key to their emotional efficacy, giving the female spectator an authentic viewing experience if only of the very impossibility of female sexual identity under patriarchy. Impossibility itself is thus the drama which these films continually stage. Particularly telling are those cases where the woman’s body is no longer the locus of visual pleasure but becomes the object of medical attention, as in John Brahm’s The Locket (1946) or in Tourneur’s earlier Cat People (1942).

Experiment Perilous responds in almost all particulars to this scenario, and might be said to exacerbate it, in the way it dovetails the woman-as-image with the woman-as-medical symptom (and in this respect, it is comparable to Max Ophüls’ Caught [1949]). As Cleg says of Hunt in Experiment Perilous when the latter describes how he would paint Allida in a field of daisies: “we’ll make an artist of you yet”, joining the art discourse with the medical discourse, and indicating their collusion in respect of a common object: woman. After all, the woman’s image is here so entirely constructed both within the conventionality of the C19th style of painting and within the culturally saturated male projections (nature/daisies vs. culture/salon) that the portrait is as if voided of meaning under the pressure of the many discourses trying to fix themselves in relation to it. And yet, the very convergence of so many discourses raises the question whether any of them exhausts the significance of the motif, or whether the voiced ones do not cancel each other out, making room for yet other, possibly complementary, concerns which a film like Experiment Perilous is also able to foreground.

For the Other Gender: Woman on a Pedestal or as Prey

In terms of the mechanisms of identification set in motion by classical cinema, Hollywood films rarely address only one group of spectators. Indeed, a major key to classical cinema’s narrative economy is the way several fantasy structures find a single textual articulation. At its most obvious, one might argue that the female oedipal fantasy actualised by Experiment Perilous already has its male counterpart written into it: that of the fetishisation of woman into image, and her reduction to a mere object of exchange and transfer between men. Nick Bedereau not only remakes Allida in his own image (the Paris experience of art lessons, the piano lessons, the ball gowns, the priceless gifts), he also puts her on the proverbial pedestal, of which the portrait he has had painted of her is the metonymy (removing her, but in the mode of controlling her: she is obliged to repeat, to relive the pose in which the painting caught her). If Experiment Perilous here self-consciously plays out the fin-de-siecle imagination of the woman as Madonna, the film knows, just as Nick Bederau knows, that the woman is made virginal, only the better to suspect her of sin and transgression.

Yet this scenario of male sadism and necrophiliac fetishism, this duality of adoration and humiliation does not feel quite right. What makes Experiment Perilous different from the other films in the cycle of the 1940s woman’s film is the fact that it embroiders rather more extensively on the cultural and gendered fantasies it transports. What I would argue is that female and male fantasy scenarios in Experiment Perilous are not only intertwined but placed asymmetrically to each other, with the result that, insofar as the film centres on Nick Bedereau, the confrontation with Allida is a confrontation with the nature of his own desire, which leaves him the villain, but a villain as baffled, unhappy and tormented as the torment he inflicts on the heroine, his innocent wife. Yet inasmuch as the film is also centred on Hunt Bailey, the doctor, it launches him on an inverse trajectory to that of Nick Bedereau, the point of intersection being the portrait, or rather, its repression and displacement.

Several features in Experiment Perilous call for comment. For one thing, as I have summarised it, the plot is far more linear and chronological than the film actually tells it, indeed the narrative unfolds in a particularly tortured and convoluted way. Furthermore, it complicates the basic pattern of the genre in at least three ways:

*We learn very little of Allida; she is without mystery or allure, the very opposite of the femme fatale. By contrast, Nick Bedereau is given a very rich psycho-biography, making him a kind of second cousin to Citizen Kane (with whom he shares a troubled childhood, and what the narrative calls ‘a Napoleon complex’). The narrative establishes a most involuted temporality between Nick and his son Alec, in which the child is indeed father to the man, in more senses than one: Nick as a child, is made responsible not only for the death of his mother in labour, but for his father’s suicide, while Alec, Nick’s son (having been fathered the night Nick sent to his death Allida’s suitor, the young poet Alec) is not only being driven insane by Nick who tells him stories about beautiful women as evil witches. The son is also indirectly responsible for the death of Nick, who cannot bear not knowing for certain whether he is indeed Alec’s father. (5)

*Secondly, what complicates matters is that there are too many young men vying for the oedipal challenge. Apart from Hunt Bailey the doctor, there is Clegg, the sculptor, Maitland, the painter (interestingly, not a significant character in the story, highlighting the fact that neither the portrait nor the painter are important for the narrative or the fantasy scenario) and finally, there is Alec, the young poet, while not forgetting at the very end, the unnamed detective who pursues Allida to the cottage, where she wards him off by resolutely inserting herself into the patriarchal lineage, protecting the Bedereau name on behalf of her son’s future.

*Finally, there are too many unresolved or unmotivated episodes and mysteries (the opening train journey, the sister’s fearfulness in the thunderstorm, the mistaken travel cases, the stolen diary, the visit to Clegg’s studio, the man in two-toned shoes following Hunt in the snow, Hunt’s other woman who phones him from the department store).

All of these excesses might be summed up by saying that the film has too many narrators, too many voices (starting from the doctor’s voice-over to the sister’s narrative in the train, from Clegg’s taunts to the memoirs and manuscripts found in the travelling-case) suggesting that the film’s narrative authority and regime of knowledge is artfully complicated and suspended, as befits a genre hovering between the fantastic and the gothic, but also as if to ward off, defend against or disavow what the excessive verbal and narrational activity is opposed to: the portrait and what it represents.

The Portrait: The Rule of Perfection

And what the portrait represents is ‘perfection’. I began by saying that the painted portrait in classical Hollywood films is in some sense beyond good or bad, beyond aesthetic categories, because it refers to an ontological category – a sort of malaise in the system of representation itself, a physical manifestation of a radical form of absence, an abyss or a void into which all life drains and disappears: this abyss, I now want to argue, is signified in Experiment Perilous by the kind of negativity implied in the notion of artistic or human perfection. If from the perspective of the female spectator, the portrait haunts Allida as the very emblem of her physical non-existence, as that which imposes on her an a-temporal and sterile repetition, from the male spectator’s perspective, it is not the portrait that haunts Nick, Clegg, Alec the poet, Hunt and Alec the boy, but Allida’s existence itself: the fact that the portrait does not stand for her, does not substitute for her, does not replace her. My first hypothesis is therefore that Allida is present in the film as her own ghost: the portrait being her memorial, her mausoleum, her shrine. She is -hence the troubling malaise the film provokes – superfluous, fatally threatened by her double. So much so that affect, passion, emotions of longing, desire, regret are as if blocked by the fact that both she and the portrait exist side by side.

For what does the portrait have to do with this oedipal story, with this fantasy of being passed from father to husband, and even with that other quintessentially male drama of knowing and not knowing, knotted around the question of parentage? At first glance, very little. Surprisingly, the portrait itself appears only once, when Hunt visits the museum (since it is housed in the ‘Bedereau wing’ we must assume that the museum is indeed a mausoleum), but it is present every time Allida tries to speak, only to be either interrupted by the men, or by some parapraxis of her own, like losing her necklace. Refigured by the narrative, taken in charge by it, the portrait is everywhere: Allida mute, Allida interrupting herself, or censured by her various task-masters (“no…no…no”), her gaze unfocused, or infantilised and deprived of motor-coordination, spilling tea, asking for a second sherry when her glass is still full and then emptying it accidentally over the cocktail table (ill.5). One of the most agonising moments occurs when, after being asked to marry Nick, she faces the camera in anguished close-up, pleads with him to give her time, and reframed by the camera, seems to be troubling and touching her own image, which we now realise is her reflection in a shallow pool of water, which she touches and disturbs. As the ripples subside, she is firmly reframed and realigned by the printed page of the diary superimposing itself, by the fame voice narrating the wedding, to which correspond the male’s eyes of Hunt reading it: only then can she re-enter the fiction.

On the other hand, for a man to have a portrait painted of his wife is an act wholly overdetermined: it is an act of possession, which means it is also readable as an act of desperation, bearing the traces of defeat, and thus, the very desire for possession lets us see what it is the fetishised representation of: the fear of loss and thus the spectre of betrayal. There is a famous precedent for this conjuncture in English literature, to which Experiment Perilous seems indirectly to allude to: Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess”. Indeed, the Duke of Ferrara who shows a visitor – as it turns out, an emissary come to negotiate about a dowry – around his private art collection, is Nick Bedereau’s even more ruthless predecessor. Not only did the Duke have his wife painted, but once her likeness had been caught to perfection in the painting, he proceeded to have her murdered, mainly, one infers, because he despised her for being pleased by the attention of other men:

She had
A heart… how shall I say?… too soon made glad
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
She thanked men– good; but thanked
Somehow… I know not how… as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-year -old name
With anybody’s gift…. (6)

The lines bear a striking similarity to the birthday scene in Experiment Perilous, where Allida thoughtlessly casts aside the priceless necklace given to her by Nick for some wilted daisies and a poem from Alec. It is the only scene in which Allida’s looks might be said to ‘go everywhere’: at all other times, her gaze is fixed, immobilised, as we have seen, in the act of being looked at.

The Insipid

Experiment Perilous

If mentioning Browning, the quintessential Victorian, reminds us of one part of the post-romantic imaginary associating woman, perfection, the portrait and death, there is another cultural complex in which perfection is also inscribed negatively – that of the same, the similar, the insipid. Fredric Jameson once pointed out how crucial for an understanding of, for instance, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal it is to appreciate Baudelaire’s horror of poetry that exhausted itself in the naming of sensations:

Taken individually the various sensations collected by the Romantics fade and wither, and what was freshest and most vivid in them comes across the generations to us as the very epitome of the insipid, a dialectical reversal in which pure sensation turns around into its own opposite, its own absence. In this situation it was the originality of Baudelaire to have conceived of a new way of articulating the various sensory experiences against each other, for the point [about “Correspondances”] is that you cannot mingle the senses until they have first been clearly separated from each other…. All of Baudelaire’s work can be seen as the reduplication of this initial and paradoxical mingling of contraries in order to distinguish them: dandyism, sadomasochism, blasphemy, so many attempts to flee the insipidity of pastel, of harmonic consonance or sentimental effusion, by soiling it with its dialectical opposite. (7)

In Experiment Perilous the insipid is inescapably associated with the portrait, insofar as it stands for beauty, perfection, the ineffable: precisely, Allida and the pose in which the painting freezes her, and which she is fated to repeat. In fact, the insipid here has a more specific name: it is ‘how do you like your tea – with or without sugar?’. Tea is what Allida is painted pouring in the portrait, it’s what she offers Hunt when he first meets her, it is tea she spills when something begins to happen between them, and it is tea Nick contemptuously contrasts with ‘something stronger’ when he pulls Hunt away from her. In fact, tea is first introduced by Cissie during the opening scene of the train ride, when she pours him tea to have with his beefsteak (a semiological-culinary solecism that would delight the Roland Barthes of Mythologies).

Perfection is Death (of Desire)

The emphasis on the insipid leads me to my second hypothesis about Experiment Perilous, namely that it is a film not about either male or female desire, but about the loss of desire, the death of desire. Let me argue this briefly with a quotation from another film, this time from the 1980s rather than the 1940s, where a husband imagines how he, his beautiful wife and his somewhat less beautiful mistress discuss why he became unfaithful:

The Mistress: Some men are bastards. (Looking at the wife:) Deserting a woman like her …
The Husband: Maybe he finds her too beautiful.
The Mistress: Too beautiful?
The Husband: I mean, too refined, too ideal … What’s left to desire when you live with a gem like her? You have it all … What can you still hope for? Nothing … To die. (8)

The scene voices with rare candour one of the commonplaces of the post-romantic romantic (i.e. gothic, decadent) imagination (but also of Lacan): perfection is equated with death, though not of the woman, but of the man. And what death here means is the death of desire. Translated into the terms of Experiment Perilous, the film tells not so much the story of the seduction of Dr Hunt Bailey by the beautiful Allida via her portrait, but of Hunt’s seduction by Nick Bedereau, the older man seducing the younger in the hope of rekindling, through the desire of another, his own desire, which is ultimately not for his wife, but for his own death: the glacial world of the film’s New York winter is as frozen as Allida is in her portrait. The portrait appears as merely the ruse, or rather the Medusa’s head, which mesmerizes Hunt and makes him an easy prey not for a femme fatale but for an homme fatale, for Nick’s diabolical plans and monstrously skilful designs. As “Hunt” says to Cleg when he suggests a visit to the Bedereaus: “I’m game”.


Desire, we do not need reminding, stands under the rule of metonymy, the fragment, the fetish. What the insipid connotes, on the other hand, is the terrible rule of the identical, the likeness, the metaphoric. Metaphor itself is insipid, unbearable, unless it is held in place by metonymy: what holds in place ‘Allida’ is of course that the men, faced with her perfection, want something else, that their interest is constantly directed towards plotting and scheming, towards intrigues and devious games. What seduces the doctor is Nick’s Madness, not Allida’s Beauty. By contrast, the artists in the film recognise in Allida the Medusa that Nick has made of her: Clegg’s sculpture of ‘Woman’ (“that’s how he sees us, with snakes in our hair”) represents a perfection which is petrification, while the obverse is the fragmentation and dismemberment of bodies so prominent in Clegg’s studio. Alec the poet, on the other hand, has to pay with his life for completing a poem, which at first, wisely, he breaks off in mid-sentence. In the case of Nick and Hunt, the fantasies of Galatee and Pygmalion which appear to be so central to the artists’ discourse in Experiment Perilous strangely seem to turn into those of Dr Frankenstein, failed artist and body snatcher. Nick and Hunt discover in each other a similar madness, so that their final show-down becomes an act of exchange between men, the passing on of an obsession. No wonder, therefore, that the film ends where it began: Hunt ‘returning’ Allida to the field of daisies from which Nick took her, and thus to the point where it can begin all over again.

Where does this leave us? If the film is about male subjectivity as much as it is about female subjectivity, it charts in both cases a certain tortuous impossibility: for what we have is a kind of delirious evocation, a kind of paroxysm of masculinity in crisis closer to Buñuel than to Hitchcock, with Experiment Perilous chronicling the Criminal Life of Nick Bederau rather than the romantic obsessions of Scottie in Vertigo (1958): nowhere more so than in the truly Buñuelian moment at the end, when the exploding fish-tanks seem to fuel rather than smother the flames of the burning mansion.

To conclude where I began. The cinema takes revenge on painting, but at quite a risk to itself: the horror provoked by a painted portrait in a film is the horror of the insipid, the merely descriptive, the cinema haunted by its own origins in photography, the view, the pictorial, the naturalistic, and at the limit, the mechanically reproductive. In this respect, the portrait is a threat to the classical cinema only insofar as it is a threat to narrative. What I tentatively formulated earlier can now be restated. Classical cinema needs ‘classical’ painting, that is, ‘bad art’ for precisely the same reason it needs ‘woman’: as the currency that motivates, as much as it necessitates, narrative. It is the painted portrait of a woman which reveals this state of affairs, but it is the coexistence, in the same narrative space, of portrait and woman that appears to be the ultimate perilous experiment.

* * *

This essay originally appeared Iris, No. 14/15, 1992.


  1. See Marc Vernet, “La mise en scène de l’homme arraignée”, Caméra stylo no 6 (May 1986), 85-91, and “Le portrait psychopompe” in Figures de l’absence (Paris: coll. Cahiers du cinéma, 1988), 89-112.
  2. See Diane Waldmann, “The Childish, The Insane and the Ugly”, Wide Angle vol 5 no 2, 1982, 52-65.
  3. This holds true, for instance, in the relation between television and literature, where programmes on authors also tend to draw attention to the gap by a kind of insistence on pleonasms. See Roland Barthes, “The Great Man on Holiday”, in Marshall Blonsky (ed.), On Signs (London: Blackwell, 1986).
  4. See, for instance, Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1985), and Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (New York: Methuen, 1982).
  5. It is notable that all these films hold out the possibility of a second marriage. One is reminded of Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: Comedies of Remarriage (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1984) and his essay on melodrama, especially on Letter from an Unknown Woman, where he pursues a similar theme (Contested Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). It suggests a certain complementarity of genres in the American cinema, which would make comedy, melodrama and gothic paranoia plots share a certain fundamentally similar configuration: fundamentally similar, that is, in relation to the American view of the family.
  6. Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”, Collected Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1935), 55.
  7. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 316-317.
  8. Transcript from Trop Belle Pour Toi (France, 1988, dir: Bertrand Blier).

About The Author

Thomas Elsaesser is Professor Emeritus of Cinema Studies at Amsterdam University and since 2013 Visiting Professor at Columbia University.

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