I was intrigued when I spotted the flyer for A Feminine Cinematics: Luce Irigaray, Women and Film, as I had just been to a talk by Irigaray at the ICA, London, and had been struck, on this occasion, by how her notion of intersubjective exchange could be conducive to film spectatorship. Other than the essays, one of which is by Caroline Bainbridge, in a special issue of Paragraph: A Journal for Modern Critical Theory published in 2002, Irigaray’s work has not been picked up by many film theorists, so I was keen to read an extended discussion of what her work might offer cine-analysis. Ultimately, Bainbridge’s book does not disappoint, though this is mainly due to her reading of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) in the penultimate chapter, where both the potentials and the pitfalls of an Irigarayan analysis are tested, but where the dynamics of the film itself reign supreme.
A Feminine Cinematics begins by laying out the terrain of the Irigarayan concepts that Bainbridge applies in her analyses: parler femme, female genealogy, specula(riza)tion, mediation and sexual difference, to name but a few. This is all presented clearly and precisely, making the chapter a useful introduction to these difficult and confusing concepts for undergraduate and postgraduate students of visual culture more generally. A chapter summarising the history of feminist film theory follows, also exploring possible Irigarayan contributions to the field, i.e. the notion of the screen as a membrane, a mediative model of spectatorship, and la praticable, which for Irigaray encompasses the theoretical dimension of the actual setting of psychoanalytic practice. Incidentally, Bainbridge’s appropriation of la praticable in chapter three to discuss the sites of distribution and reception of her chosen films seems to be a rather conservative interpretation of it and the least convincing chapter of the book. In chapter two, Bainbridge claims that a focus on the importance of sexual difference for the feminist project of explicating female pleasure in cinema is key to the aims of her book. While this statement is unproblematic in itself, it becomes so in relation to her choice of films, which can be loosely grouped into two camps, one somewhat disobedient, the other fairly obedient. The disobedient camp includes Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996), Carine Adler’s Under the Skin (1997) and, to a lesser extent, Liv Ullmann’s Trolösa (Faithless, 2000). All of these films contain problematic representations of female identity, the woman as object and/or victim of suspect male desires, which the protagonists negotiate via other relationships in the narrative. In A Feminine Cinematics’ use of an Irigarayan methodology, these other relationships are with mothers, sisters and daughters and the emphasis is on bonding and affiliation as sources of female empowerment and stability. The question of female pleasure in relation to the male imaginary in these films is put forward as having to do with female masochism, which in an Irigarayan trajectory can only be negative. There are seemingly no examples of negativity in these films that are not ultimately resolved by reconnecting to the maternal, which suggests, as Irigaray does, that severance from the maternal is the root of all ill. In the midst of all this obeisance, Bainbridge’s brief analysis of Faithless introduces a less stabilised – and, to my mind, more productive – engagement with a feminine temporality that unhinges the chronology of past, present and future and thereby enables a renegotiation of both the male and female protagonists’ identities. But this point of temporal disjunction is not returned to again until the later chapters, where extensive analyses of Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) and Campion’s The Piano open up its potential for a less well-behaved feminine cinematics.
The second, more obeisant, camp of Bainbridge’s films includes Marleen Gorris’ Antonia’s Line (1995) and Moufida Tlatli’s Samt el qusur (The Silences of the Palaces (1994). While her exegesis of their narratives is wonderfully compelling, I found myself looking at her account of the segregation of spaces in these films with the same anxiety that turns a lot of feminist writers and artists off Irigaray, criticism which Bainbridge is well aware of and somewhat defends. Both film analyses focus on the feminisation of domestic space as a stronghold of female subjectivity and on the use of kitchens and attics as enclosures for the female protagonists’ becoming. It is difficult to divorce these analyses from essentialism and from the traditional tropes of femininity that have been enforced on women. After citing Irigaray on the happy co-existence of mother and daughter in the natural environment, Bainbridge concludes:
Antonia’s Line, then, presents us with a version of this relation that seems remarkably pertinent to Irigaray’s project. Antonia and Danielle and Danielle and Therese live in precisely such a domestic arrangement, and they strive to establish the kind of matrilineal community where lines of female descent are foregrounded in their memory of the past and their hopes for the future (p. 116).
It could be said that these films give themselves too easily to an Irigarayan lens that ultimately flattens their radicality. Funnily enough, it is when Bainbridge returns to The Silences of the Palaces in her conclusion to address colonialism and race – issues which diverge slightly from Irigaray’s emphasis on sexual difference – that the strategic value of an Irigarayan analysis becomes more suggestive. As Bainbridge here states:
A feminine cinematics grounded in counter-telling tales of cultural specificity arguably begins to address the complex interrelation of modes of difference that inscribe themselves in, through and alongside gender (p. 192).
Mostly though, the feel-good factor of the female pleasure that resolves the tensions and anxieties in the films explored in this book follows the shift in Irigaray’s work from mimesis to representation. In her early work, Irigaray’s appropriation of masquerade and mimesis to rupture the status quo and to expose the fragility of all identity was seen as politically empowering. This aspect of Irigaray’s thought is explored in relation to Under the Skin and Female Perversions. But Irigaray moved on to practices of healing the female imaginary, which necessitate mediators such as mother/daughter representations, angels, and representations of the divine in the sense of beauty. The upshot of this trajectory is that Bainbridge interprets her protagonist’s journeys as resolutions of female identity, the protagonist’s discovery of their lost maternal link or genealogy providing a sense of female pleasure. This is all very well, but doesn’t go anywhere near exploring why female protagonists and their spectators might derive a pleasure that is not simply masochistic from the unresolved, i.e. fragmentation, dissolution, and dereliction. Without a doubt Woman has upheld the male imaginary, acting as a projection screen for desire and a container for negativity and the death drive, but is the only alternative to this a female or feminine imaginary based on mother/daughter relations and situated in the home or domestic sphere?
Fortunately, Bainbridge’s analysis of The Piano, while incorporating these spaces, is not swallowed up by them. Bainbridge rises to the challenge of the film’s dual ending by not posing one or the other as a resolution. The ending which shows the protagonist Ada (Holly Hunter) making a new life with her new partner Baines (Harvey Keitel) and her daughter is criticised for domesticating the wild, uncanny nature of Ada’s desire throughout the film. The ending, which shows Ada plunging to her death to drown alongside her beloved piano, is not read as simply a negative space of feminine desire that could only continue in death. Instead, Bainbridge deploys Sigmund Freud’s notion of deferred action operative in the concept of the primal scene to unhinge this negativity. The image of the piano sinking in the water acts as a threshold where feminine identity is both undone and remade in the continual process of becoming, thereby making sense of the family scene as a potential, but not the sole, outcome in Ada’s struggle to enunciate her femininity. I would have liked such an approach to be read back into the previous chapter on Orlando, which is much more pat vis-à-vis Irigaray’s notion of feminine becoming. The appearance of the angel at the end of Orlando is read as a positivised threshold of female becoming rather than an ironic one, even though the fact that the angel is played by Jimmy Somerville lends a particular camp and ironic nuance to this transformative threshold.
That said, Bainbridge also shows what the value of an Irigarayan framework might be when she grafts the latter’s notion of feminine enunciation onto film theory to produce a potentially explosive reading of its classic concepts of narrative and enunciation. While enunciation has been avidly debated in classic film theory by such theorists as Raymond Bellour and Stephen Heath, it is Christian Metz’s forays into the subject that Bainbridge takes to task. She dismisses Metz’s theory of enunciation as limited and masculinist, although Metz, to be fair, is equally critical of the occlusion of the enunciative voice, discours, in the emphasis on story or histoire in mainstream narrative cinema. The difference between Bainbridge’s and Metz’s critiques though is of crucial importance. Where Metz’s leads to the conclusion that narrative has to be somewhat eschewed or, at the very least, self-reflexively worked on (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) for discours to stand out, Bainbridge goes so far as to say that in narrative cinema itself there is a space for a discursive framework that privileges the “I/you” address of enunciation. This is what she sees in the films that she has chosen and this is a useful observation vis-à-vis a feminine cinematics, i.e. that the latter can derive from pleasure in narrative itself and that narrative does not necessarily take up the neutral position of a third voice. Irigaray is key to this observation, which Bainbridge extends into speaking about a “transferential relation to the text” (p. 123). Bainbridge’s analysis of the maze scene in Orlando is a good example of this model of spectatorship, the camera allowing the spectator to take up the positionality of the protagonist in a way that signals the exchanges that can occur between them once the screen is thought of as membrane rather than mirror or window.
The camera follows Orlando [Tilda Swinton] into the maze and shows her rushing off towards the distant corner. As she turns the corner, she turns and rushes into camera, towards it; at the next turn of the maze the camera takes on Orlando’s viewpoint: the spectator does not see Orlando but sees what Orlando can see. […] The distance between spectator and screen, spectator and narrative, spectator and image is eclipsed and manipulated to insinuate the spectator into the formal and narrative structure of the sequence (pp. 150-51).
Ultimately, then, it is the dynamism of the films themselves, which become the enunciative marks in an Irigarayan histoire that would seek to stabilise them.
A Feminine Cinematics: Luce Irigaray, Women and Film, by Caroline Bainbridge, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke and New York, 2008.
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