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Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette”

The Genius of Victimhood 0

Women’s biopic – a genre that helps to rewrite the cultural history and analyze women’s victimization

Anzhelika Artyukh

The history of world culture needs to be rethought. We need to know biographies of women who not only made a huge contribution to different spheres of art and science, but who also demonstrated an extremely high level of courage and passion in their fields. Love or profession – this choice was the reality a century ago and it is still relevant in our time, but probably not to the same extent because the feminist movement in different countries changed female consciousness and gave women more power and free will to decide for themselves. Through biopic films of women, cinefeminism has found geniuses whose biographies help to understand how difficult it was for women to find their own way in patriarchal societies, and how much they paid through suffering to achieve professional success.

The biopic, in general, is a hybrid cinematic form that tells a partly factual, partly fictional story of a real person’s life (or significant portion of that life). It combines melodrama, history, psychological drama, biography, and documentary. It’s a multi-generic film form that includes a wide range of films, from musicals and comedies to serious dramatic works and historical epics.

The biopic has been accused of reducing complex historical events to the myth of the self-made man and the cult of the masculine individual. The female-oriented biopic, however, is completely different from the male-oriented biopic, and is often called “victimology-fetish biopic” (Dennis Bingham). Many such films just repeat gloomy scenarios of female suffering, victimization, and failure, all of which lead to an inevitable downward spiral resulting in sorrow, humiliation, defeat, drug addition, and even madness. But this genre also has some great examples that show very complicated aspects of women’s lives and illustrate the fact that great women always confront being a victim by creating inventions or artworks, or by discovering new ideas.

“Frida”. Trailer

Let’s focus on a few biopic films that show this type of female counter-philosophy and that help to show how love, marriage and societies may make females victims, but passion, talent and self-education can give them the opportunity to go down in cultural history. With “Frida” (2002), director Julie Taymor created a brilliant example of the “victimology-fetish biopic”.  The actress Selma Hayek plays Frida Kahlo, who is suffering after the physical injuries of an accident. Kahlo starts to make art during her recuperation. She has tremendous courage to show her pictures to the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and then seduces him despite the fact that he has a reputation for being a Don Juan. The film shows how love and sexual affairs, in addition to being the subject of her art, become an important part in the construction of Kahlo as a personality. Rivera was not only Frida’s lover and then husband, but also her mentor, partner for discussion and parties, and a permanent cause of her suffering. Frida breaks the traditional patriarchal assumption about the passivity of women. She is very active in her work, and she starts not by seducing, but by presenting her art to Rivera. She educates herself at every moment – while drawing, cooking, dressing, dancing and singing. She wants to be attractive and uses masquerade as a form of mimicry. As Lucy Irigaray writes: “Masquerade has to be understood as what women do in order to recuperate some element of desire, to participate in man’s desire, but at the price of renouncing their own. In the masquerade, they submit to the dominant economy of desire in an attempt to remain ‘on the market’ in spite of everything. But they are there as objects for sexual enjoyment, not as those who enjoy”. Yet in Frida’s situation, art also becomes a part of the masquerade. She not only uses autobiographic elements as subjects in her art (such as her wedding, at which she refused to wear a white dress and instead wore a green and red national costume), but also her suffering due to Rivera’s sexual unfaithfulness and her illness (and subsequent inability to have a child), all of which set the melancholic mood for her pictures, including her self-portraits. She seduces Rivera with her art just as much as with her high sexuality. Her self-portraits feed his male-spectator voyeuristic scopophilia just as strongly as her ability to dance, sing, dress or play. She uses female imagination to the fullest in a life that we can call “life as art”.

“La Danseuse”. Trailer

Much like “Frida”, the film “La Danseuse” (2016, directed by Stepanie Di Giusto) asks the question: What distinguishes women’s art? “La Danseuse” tells the story of Loie Fuller, the inventor of the modern “serpentine dance”, who came to Paris from America at the end of the 19th century. Her dance, which in the film looks like a contemporary art performance using very complicated techniques and colored lighting effects, is the result of very hard physical work; this makes the heroine a victim of her art and her life-choices. But the film is not about victimhood. Fuller is possessed by her dance: she steals the money she needs to go to Europe, she has back pain from the wooden batons she uses in her billowing gowns, and she dances, dances, and dances...sacrificing a normal family life and even refusing to bow to the audience despite of the fact that the audience considers her a star and genius. The film returns Fuller to her proper place in the history of the culture of the 20th century, revealing to modern audiences how this dancer changed the whole concept of art, as well as her discovery of another genius, Isadora Duncan, who was also an architect of modern dance. Fuller’s dance was filmed a few times by pioneers of cinema who were also possessed by the magic of movement. Her dance was imitated many times by dancers around the world. Fuller’s “serpentine dance” proposed a new conception of beauty through her transformation of skirt-dancing that made it reminiscent of a butterfly. It was hard work for a dancer to create these effects of light and abstract visual imagery on the stage, and as can be seen from the early film footage, Loie Fuller was not only an innovator, but also the first female illusionist.

“Frida” and “La Danseuse” belong to art-cinema, a genre that puts the accent on authorship; it has been of critical importance to feminist film studies in large part because women’s access to means of production has been historically restricted. Despite the fact that feminist criticism of the 1970s-1990s went far enough in reconceptualizing authorship, the basic principles of the theory of authorship are still relevant and have roots in Romantic artistic theory. As Andrew Sarris said: “The auteur theory values the personality of the director precisely because of the barriers to it’s expression”. In the case of the women’s biopic, the personality of the genius artist who breaks through victimhood through her passion for art corrects the film-maker’s vision, but does not deny it. The female biopic is based on women’s solidarity, along with a feeling of sisterhood and admiration. But the art of genius predecessors (the paintings of Frida Kahlo, and the “serpentine dance” in the case of Loie Fuller) forms the basis of the filmmaker’s vision and influence on the cinematic imaginarium. Kahlo and Fuller are co-authors with Taymor and Di Giusto, which makes them contemporary. They are great and unique, bright stars who prove that world culture is not just a “boys’ club”.

“Hannah Arendt”. Trailer

Margarethe von Trotta, who made the biopic “Hannah Arendt” (2012), is a great feminist filmmaker and female auteur who, according to auteur theory, always puts an “auteur signature” on her films. As Francois Truffaut defines, “a true film auteur brings something genuinely personal to his subject instead of merely producing a tasteful, accurate but lifeless rendering of the original material”. The auteur transforms the material into an expression of his/her own personality, creating a personal style and developing through themes. So does Margarethe von Trotta, whose first film, “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (co-directed with Volker Schlondorf, 1978), covers a political subject and focuses on an emotionally strong female protagonist. Von Trotta gained experience in the creation of political biopics with her film “Rosa Luxenburg” (1986), which also featured the great actress Barbara Sukowa, the main actress who plays Hannah Arendt in her latest film. For the Arendt biopic, Trotta and Sukowa collaborated to recreate the brilliant mind of the philosopher who analyzed “the banality of evil” following the trial of Nazi executioner Adolf Eichmahn in Jerusalem in 1961. They show how philosophers have a responsibility when proclaiming thoughts that could be perceived as provocative, and which might offend the feelings of ordinary people. “The banality of evil” refers to automatic subordination to the system and the absence of reflection on one’s actions. To do good things requires a special effort and will. To write about this philosophical issue at that time was a very brave but very risky thing to do, especially for a female born as a German Jew but who had had a romance in her youth with Martin Heidegger, a Nazi collaborator. Von Trotta shows in her film how a woman’s life experience influences her way of thinking, and how hard it is to speak in opposition to the traditional Jewish understanding of the Holocaust.

“Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” (2016), a film by Marie Noelle, also shows the power of thought that can both break the chain of women’s victimhood and change history. On screen we see how the first woman who received the Nobel Prize for Physics greatly suffered twice: first due to the accidental death of her husband Pierre Curie, then due to her scandalous romance with a married man. The latter provoked her conviction in the tabloids, but nevertheless, her brilliant mind garnered her the respect of an academia that consisted solely of men. Hard work and honesty are the basic ingredients for success, but not the only ones. For example, the film “Hannah Arendt” looks at a very important and provocative side of women’s education. Namely, a sexual adventure can also be an intellectual adventure at the same time. Likewise, Marie Curie’s emotional relationship with Pierre Curie was a positive asset in their collaboration and success in scientific research. After Pierre’s death, Marie wanted to repeat this experience but was unsuccessful; even after the break-up of the disreputable relationship, she was strong enough to stay faithful to her work.

“Marie Antoinette”. Trailer

Women’s biopic is the most important  genre of cinefeminism around the world. It helps women to re-write the world history of a culture that, in patriarchal times, was very much a “boy’s club”. But this genre refers to biographies not only of cultural geniuses, but also of bright and famous women who have left enduring footprints in history. Sometimes it is a kind of author-fantasy about a woman’s biography. For example, in 2006 Sofia Coppola shot one of the most spectacular biopics of all time, “Marie Antoinette”, which told the story of the Austrian Dauphine who married France’s Louis XVI and became the Queen of France. At the beginning of her career, Coppola worked as an indie-boutique “arthouse” director who was supported by her famous father, the film director Francis Ford Coppola. Sophia Coppola’s own life as an elite girl, and her experience as an actress and model, were very helpful to her as she made a biopic film that looks like a celebration of fashion and design with a main female protagonist who another character describes as looking like “a piece of cake”. As Christina Lane and Nicole Richter noticed: “Coppola’s film shows us that a woman can be a bearer of the look, but not necessarily a bearer of the voice”. The patriarchal rules of the 18th century, as well as the rules of Versailles, made for a character that had difficulty speaking. Having the sole purpose of bearing a child for the king, her body also did not belong to her, and therefore she could be defined as being a “political body”. Feeling pressure from her authoritarian mother, who wanted Marie’s marriage to be strong, Marie entertained herself by designing costumes, hairstyles, food and parties. Coppola expresses her authorship through design and spectacle which still have an influence on the fashion of our time. Stills from the film were published in many fashion magazines and influenced designers. Marie Antoinette developed the feminist masquerade to establish a woman’s right to be publicly seen as having a unique fetish while also having the female power to be a mother. Playfulness and fun became Marie Antoinette’s curse. Her lavish spending cost too much for a country that was nearing revolution, and in the end, the Queen became a victim. Yet through all of the Rococo spectacle, Coppola shows how, through time, beauty can be fragile as well as influential, and how much one woman’s will, fantasy and money can create the style of an epoch.

Every film biopic establishes the filmmaker’s “voice”, which is undivided from the ideas of beauty, goodness, evil, sexuality, motherhood, class, nationality, and gender. Through films, cinefeminism thinks about the role of female consciousness in creating history, politics, science and the arts, and how hard it is for women to attain liberty within the patriarchal traditions of societies. Every biopic creates a specific individual history and memory of a woman, and criticizes the structure of “the gaze” as the voyeuristic scopophilia of the male spectator, which dominated in the cinema of the 20th century. This makes biopics a part of counter-cinema. Through the details of women’s suffering, these films show different models of victimhood, but through the results attained by the working female’s brilliant mind and fantasy, they also show how women reach high positions in the world of culture.