Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Five films about sexual awakening

Films about growing up and sexual awakening are dime a dozen. Most of them however are mired in the worst kind of sentimentality and are full of stupid cliches, which is a shame because it is such a fascinating subject for artistic exploration. The end of innocence, the onset of puberty and the feelings of melancholy, dread, excitement, loneliness and pleasure that come with it. This is the time when we realise, though almost always in retrospect, that something is lost forever in the irreversible march of time. The inner life gradually becomes more and more mysterious and isolated from the outside world and the way in which we perceive the world around us changes drastically, affected as it gets by a heightened subjectivity.

The films that follow explore this subject with respect that it deserves. They are also some of my favourites of all time. It is also interesting that most of these films derive their imageries, metaphors and situations from classic fairy tales. The number 1, 3 and 4 are themselves structured like a fairy tale (with Blue Velvet even making a direct allusion to The Wizard of Oz) and number 2 uses the tale of frankenstein as a narrative device. It is not hard to understand why this must be so. Fairy tales, before they were turned into harmless entertainments by kiddie television, were filled with real dread, menace and danger, some of them even bursting with explicit sexual metaphors - like the story of little red riding hood. Genre-wise all these films can also be classified into horror films, though relying only on mood, atmosphere and an unspoken and suggestive menace. (Last year's Spanish-Mexican film Pan's Labyrinth went some way to fill this gap in our cultural consciousness. It should have been there too in this list. I was actually trying to highlight films which have for some reason not gain popularity and familiarity that they deserve. Except for the number one which is already a part of popular film canon, the other four are not so famous.) So here it goes...

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, USA, 1986):Jeffrey is a very curious young fellow. He already has a nice innocent blond girlfriend but what fascinates him is the mysterious brunette in the neighbourhood with really dark secrets. The film is one long sexually charged frightening nightmare, the kind which you want both to keep dreaming and to end at the same time. The tone is often parodistic, though it is always too strange, too bizarre and filled with dread to be really funny or ludicrous. It is in fact an ironic and self-conscious commentary on the exact same subject, the dark corners and alleyways that sexual knowledge can lead one into and the innocence that struggles to survive once you find yourself in that subconscious underground. In the film Jeffrey manages to destroy the monster and gets reunited with her innocent blond girlfriend (with sweet sentimental music in the background) in the end, showing perhaps that the innocent love has survived the dark nightmare but then everything is little too sweet to be really true.

2. The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1973): This is not really about sexual awakening but it has to be there on any such list. It is an extraordinary portrait of the haunted and desolate inner life of a child. The film is about two young girls, the younger five and her elder sister who is few years older, growing up in rural Spain after the devastation of the civil war. The young girl sees the original James Whale's Frankenstein and is fascinated, and not afraid, by the story of the monster and the little girl in the film. Her sister is much too precocious and feeds her feverish imagination even further with some invented tall tales about a haunted house and real life monsters. The true horrors of the outside world soon intrude into her already haunter inner life, confusing her further and taking it further into the realm of her imagination.

Actually there are allusions to sexuality too. The elder sister in one scene accidentally cuts her finger and then smears the blood on her lips. Later in another scene she feigns death to frighten her little sister. They both in a way already know the main themes of adult life, sexuality and death, but they have only a subconscious inkling of what these are. The two young girls are truly extraordinary, specially Ana Torrent who plays the young girl. I was shocked to see her all grown up (she even smokes!) in the documentary featured on the fantastic double disc criterion dvd. (When I saw Pan's Labyrinth I was surprised to find so many parallels on so many levels. I later read in an interview that Guillermo del Toro himself acknowledged this film as an influence and a benchmark.) Also if you are in new york in October don't miss the screening at the museum of modern art. It is being shown as a part of the retrospective of films from Spain made under the Franco dictatorship. It is gloriously beautiful and deserves to be seen on the full screen. In any case the excellent criterion dvd shouldn't be hard to get. For more details links to a few reviews here.

3. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France, 2005): A residential school for young girl dark inside the woods. Young girls arrive the school mysteriously, unclothed, in coffins through underground tunnel.At the school all they study is ballet and biology, actually only the evolution and the life cycle of butterflies. As they grow up they are assigned hair-ribbons of different colours each different for different age-group. They are not allowed to leave the school or meet people from outside. One girl succeeds in running away but she is never heard of again. There is a regular ballet competition in which some women from outside choose a younger girl to take into the outside world. Else they have to wait for the completion of the final stage of training upon which they board a mysterious train and reach the real world, that is ours. The film ends with the girl frolicing in a public fountain while the water erupts orgasmically.

What is all this supposed to mean? This is a real headscratcher of a film with so many mysteries that will keep you occupied for days after you have seen it. The basic idea however is simple enough and it is quite provocative. Hadzihalilovic seems to be suggesting that a girl's journey of sexual maturation is also a journey from prelapsarian innocence to debauched and sullied whoredom. Girls are being raised only to perform their roles as biologically determined sexual beings. This is not a radical idea. Many feminist parables such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale use the same idea but the film is way more fascinating and mysterious than anything I have read or seen on this subject. The credit for that of course goes to the technical aspects, specially the visual and aural design of the film, which is even more astonishing because it is her debut film. (She had assisted and worked as editor on films of fellow french provocateur Gaspar Noe, who is also her real-life partner.) The highlight of the film is the incessant drone and buzz soundtrack, which is somewhat a David Lynch trademark. The lighting, set design, the atmospheric mood of sexual dread and the sensuousness of imagery, all of these are Lynchian too. I am not of course saying that it is unoriginal or derivative in any way. In fact it is actually the opposite - a startlingly original film. There is even a bizarre scene in which girls perform in a dark mysterious theatre which reminded me of club silencio from Mulholland Drive. More details about the film from sight and sound. More reviews here.

4. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weier, Australia, 1975): Another film set in an all girls residential school. Only this time the period and place is explicitly identified -- 1900 in rural Australia.A group of girls go on a picnic trip on Valentine's day to the Hanging Rock near their school. While others luxuriate in the summer sun three virginal girls and their teacher mysteriously disappear after they go exploring the rocks on the mountain. Nobody, including the audience, ever finds out what really happened. Though the film itself does leave a lot of clues which will ensure that you keep thinking about it long after it has ended. Like Innocence this is all about mood and atmosphere too. This time it is extraordinarily sunny, warm and filled with wide open spaces. The best part of the film is the initial sequence where the girls walk through the rocks. It is similar to the long sequence in L'Avventura, only this time the images and the landscapes of elongated vertical rocks and cavities therein are awash in sexual menace, evoking familiar themes of sexual knowledge and associated dread, fascination and horror. In one of the interviews Lucile Hadzihalilovic cited this film as an influence which also gives a lot of clues into meanings of both these films. One viewing is certainly not enough for either of these films. You definitely need to see both more than once.

5. Fat Girl aka À ma soeur! (Catherine Breillat, France, 2001): Perfect film for a grumpy valentine's day. Like I said earlier I feel extremely irritated with films which treat the subject in a trivial and shallow fashion and exploit it for cheap and easy laughs or sentimental manipulation. Fat Girl (I prefer the original french title "For My Sister") avoids all of these. In fact it goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It is a brutal assault on the romantic idea of "losing the virginity" which so obsesses young people everywhere and which is so shamelessly exploited by commercial hollywood filmmakers. There is also a long sequence, the central set-piece actually, which will raise everybody's consciousness when it comes to penetrative sexuality (it sounds funny but I am actually serious). Breillat makes a real mince-meat of prevalent romantic discourse and their celebration of female virginity and male machismo. It certainly raised my consciousness about these things. Though I would be more interested in what women think of it. It will certainly enrage some section of feminists though perhaps others will welcome it. It is actually quite gruesome in its portrayal of sex and violence (which it takes to mean the same thing) and its polemic approach may not appeal to everybody but it is certainly an intelligent film on an important and sensitive subject. It is also very witty. I can never forget the scene where the younger sister is playacting with her imaginary lover and after hearing his complaints about her promiscuity says that she says, "I am not a soap-bar you know"! Also don't miss the macabre lines from a poem she sings on the beach.

Long post. I was thinking of just writing a couple of lines for each of these films. I have anyway written about most of these before on the blog too, sometimes more than once. You can use the search tool on the top to search. Earlier posts link to reviews and essays about the articles. In any case you can always search on google and wikipedia. They are all great films and my favourites and they all come highly recommended from me.

16 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

"The inner life gradually becomes more and more mysterious"

In fact the opposite is the case, as we become hopelessly embroiled with this world and the beings that populate it.

The Saint said...

Columbia pictures entry into Indian cinema

http://youtube.com/watch?v=1YeWctsnw8I

the saint said...

Saawariya is based on F. Dostoevsky's short story, White Nights.

Alok said...

cat: yeah in a way. we always find ways to simplify things. complex and rich inner life is not something everybody is comfortable with. what i was trying to say was the role sexual desire plays inside our heads, the way it creates subconscious motivations and makes us hide things and manipulate people in devious and interesting ways.

saint: not a fan of Bhansali, In fact I despise him. I hope it is not another copy. Luchino Visconti's La Notti Bianche is based on the same story. It is a story with very high potential for easy sentimental melodrama so another reason why I am not excited.

the saint said...

Despise is a strong word, don’t you think so? Alok, either you don’t know the usage of word or you think it’s hip to nonchalantly throw Indian directors out of window.
The point I’m trying to make is that by watching foreign (even Indian) movies or writing about them on a blog doesn’t make you a connoisseur about movies.
See, personally I might not like bansali’s work, but to use the word “despise” will actually mean utter arrogance. And if you want to be arrogant, stop blogging direct a movie, prove your worth, and then use the word “despise”.
I think your words do betray your learned image (created by reading your blog).

Alok said...

whoa... that's only the second angry comment that I have received on the blog. interestingly the last one was also on a post about bhansali and said pretty much the same thing. too lazy to find out the post but I tried explain there why I hate his style of filmmaking. yes, hate would probably have been a better word.

interesting, I have not even mentioned bhansali in the original post here. don't know where he came from.

anurag said...

Very nice post. While reading it, I was thinking that 4 of the 5 films are about female sexuality. I havent seen two in the list (The Spirit of the Beehive, Picnic at Hanging rock) but the first and the last are my favorites too, I am not so sure about no. 3. Also, as you mentioned, most of such films are structured like dark fairy tales, and I was not able to think of some film which has a more direct/alternative approach !

the saint said...

What image is created in your mind, if I say I hate Hindus, or I despise Muslims?

So when you say you hate Bhansali’s work, means you are extremist by nature. And if you refute my observation that you aren’t an extremist then in that case you don’t feel hate, which means again the wrong usage of word.

What I’m trying to harp is not whether Bhansali’s work is commendable or not, but how we use words inappropriately in our everyday life. Words are very powerful tools, and they conjure varied kinds of images in people consciously and sub-consciously, so using them wrongly can be very catastrophic.

Alok, I wasn’t angry when I wrote the earlier comment but I was taken aback by your use of word “despise”. I really feel amused when people carelessly use words, without even wondering the effect they (words) can have on others.

Alok said...

anurag: true and quite understandable. with women the whole process of growing up is much more complex and much more interesting, both for biological and social reasons. with innocence may be it was because i saw it in theatre. try watching it again, this time with use an earphone...

saint: understand your position now. may be it is because i hate so many things about the world and about myself that i have grown accustomed to it. Love, now that's one word I am extremely careful with.

Falstaff said...

Nice. Can I put in a good word for Kusturica's Do you remember Dolly Bell?. A lovely coming of age / end of innocence story - sexually and politically.

Alok said...

Oh I haven't seen it. Underground is the only Kusturica film I have seen yet. Let me see if I can find the dvd here. thanks.

jyothsnay said...

excellent post Mr Zembla

"...The end of innocence, the onset of puberty and the feelings of melancholy, dread, excitement, loneliness and pleasure that come with it....' I would not agree with you on that specific point "the end of innocence"..well, it does exist, and this influences so charmingly, the initial trajectories into one's sexual awakening or the social's appreciation of it. I would say, it's the phase- Adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood, crammed with rapid physical growth and sexual development, which creates a sweet turbulence that's inexplicable. and more than solitude, in this phase needs one needs company of others to form his/her identity...you do agree, this is the phase when our tribal instinct gets stronger
@ your collection
you know that Blue Velvet failed to enthuse me. I feel it is highly overrated a film. yes, I know, you nod disapprovingly. But I say it once again
"Innocence"- I loved it a lot. It drew me into the fairy world painted n darker hues, there's certain degree of ambiguity about life, which is soo alien a concept for that age
"The Spirit of the Beehive"-I have not seen this film, but would love to. Read ur reviews/earlier posts on this..will curtail my annoyance over its lack of presence or non- availability in the market here
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" haunted us - the little women in our family for a period longer than a year. The film proven to be so compellingly attractive to us-three girls that we used to wear that deliriously melancholic mood over our faces n laze around in the garden, under the sun, with some imaginary rocks hanging around us and one of us vanishing as the finale...:)))))
It stayed with us, girls then, for long a time, due to its hypnotic effect
It's a drowsy and mesmerizing film n how desperately we wanted to see a different ending for the film, when we watched the film second time. I was too young to capture that buried or awakening sexual hysteria in young girls then, but loved it for its sunny (as u said) haunting mystery aura
The beauty of this film lies in its deliberate avoidance of leaving a final explanation to the viewer. The film itself is a whimsical emotional experience. Is this film a symbolic rendition of that burning desire to remain frozen in the beauty of sweet adolescence?
I blamed the silent rocks for the girls' disappearance...
I should watch this again now. I may see something different as a woman now.
should thank you for this lovely A trip down memory lane!

Alok said...

I loved the way you described your experience of watching picnic on the hanging rock. beautiful...

jyothsnay said...

Thank you Alok
guess, it's the influence of your post clubbed with the passion with which I (my sisters too) held a few beautiful memories of our childhodo when we had limted entertainment n whatever seemed gossamerish, we greedily consumed n relived each one of them...ah classics n the power of a child's imagination....

Anonymous said...

nice blog!

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