Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema, by Geneviève Sellier. Translated by Kristin Ross. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. Paperback, $22.95, 280pp. ISBN: 0822341921.
When it comes to feminist film criticism in relation to “male” genre movies, there seems to be two camps. One acknowledges female complicity in the patriarchal structure, sees a more rounded Jungian interpretation of “exploitation,” where the devouring male subjects are aspects of the unassimilated psyche as opposed to (or as well as) external sadists. They choose the glass half-full of realization that these are universal forces, the yin and yang of the human mind as reflected through history, art, and film. Critics in this camp include Carol Clover, Barbara Creed, Camille Paglia, and Molly Haskell. But for some reason this sort of Jungian-Freudian-eastern based interpretation gets less academic cred than the glass half-empty feminism wherein exploitation is something done by an external male to an external female for the purpose of titillating an unseen male Other, the “viewer behind you in the theater” imagined by critics like Laura Mulvey. Her “Visual Spectatorship in Narrative Film” is the baseboard for this sort of reading, and since it’s one that requires no self-examination or metatextual realization in the writer, it’s popular in academia. Sadly, despite its cool cover, Geneviève Sellier’s Masculine Singular falls into the latter camp. A grumpy book if ever there was one, Sellier writes engagingly and with a ferocious intellect, but keeps winding up all her points the same way; no matter how much we like the women in these films, they are being objectified, associated with death and sex, and not treated as adults.
Just as in Jungian interpretations of male-centered myths, but reversed: women’s unconscious ego, the animus, appears in dreams as sometimes a prince, sometimes a monster. As in fairy tales, the guise of the animus changes according to one’s maturation; they turn from horses in puberty to become snarling wolves or beasts that turn prince only when the woman is able to see past their “disguise” — or recognize that their “disgust” at chest hair, cocks, rough salty sailor talk, etc., is not necessarily “right” but fear of entering into that gruesome cycle of sexual penetration, childbirth, menstruation and death.
The male version of this transmutation takes a similar turn. Man falls into the Venus Flytrap cathouse seduction siren rock song — and is then trapped, chained to the same cycle of sex and death. But in order for freedom to be properly relinquished, it has to be there in the first place. Often the man goes from being tied to mom’s apron strings right to being chained to the wife without respite — except maybe for his college days — resulting in such a web of apron strings it may take several lifetimes to untangle them. Often, angry wives think they can shout at their husband to cure this, but the reverse is true. The wife assumes the projection of total bitch, the man an immature layabout. But rest assured, neither one is winning; they are just trying to out-ugly each other. Like Israel and Palestine, they love to shout.
The bottom line of it is, in my own opinion and experience of course, when it comes to popular cinema, feminists tend to exaggerate and condemn the notion of male pleasure and “the gaze.” They see the male viewer as the Lacnian “Big Other” whose obscene enjoyment structures reality but in doing so unwittingly buy into the very system of deception they seek to condemn. The obscene enjoyment of the other — the “anal father” — is not understood as a self-perpetuating myth originally created to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes; they refuse to acknowledge that the perceived enjoyment they see in men is “a show” — an attempt to preserve the illusion of patriarchal control, which females as well as males buy into unconsciously in a proto-fascist type of Stockholm Syndrome. When angry feminists rant about the oppressive power of man-made cinema, they illuminate their own relative lack of independence; they presume they have objectivity outside the realms of their own gender and time. Meanwhile, other truly liberated women just shrug it off, or enjoy it for what it is — the little boy bluster of the man behind the curtain.
None of this is to say Sellier’s concerns aren’t totally relevant, well-founded, and well presented. But after providing some cool insight into the political and social origins of the New Wave (lots of talk about government funding and justified criticism that more women don’t get grants in France), Sellier spends the bulk of the rest of the book trolling through “the canon” to point out bits of oppression and misogyny as if passive-aggressively following the instructions of her thesis advisor rather than engaging in a topic she truly loves and wants to share. One wants to ask why. Why drag us down, other than to get published for tenure purposes?
Of course, all films are open to multiple, even contradictory, readings. This fact sadly eludes people all across the academic spectrum, not just dogmatic feminists. If Sellier sees oppression and symbolic sadism all over the nouvelle vague, fine, but in coming back to it again and again she becomes like the stereotypical nagging wife who can’t let anything go. She’d rather obsess over our darkness than light a candle, since it’s a phallic symbol and therefore an emblem of patriarchal oppression. Ironically, the bulk of her critique lies in pointing out that French (male) auteurs use women in their films in the same way — as objective projections of their own hostile ambivalence toward their Other, which in their case c’est la femme mysterieux. Since Sellier won’t see her own complicity, her text can’t help but fall into a neurotic pattern. When discussing the critical reaction to Bardot’s liberated sexuality in . . . and God Created Woman (above) for example, she quotes De Baeque on Bardot’s appeal: “(Through) her complexity, her opacity even, she brings modernity to the films of the New Wave.” See? What’s wrong with that? But Sellier doesn’t see this opacity as a compliment: “To represent the woman as an ‘ungraspable,’ ‘opaque’ Other is one of the oldest ways of denying her the status of full-fledged subjectivity.” (33). Hey baby, ditto. Where’s the love for this obscene anal father? At least the auteurs of la nouvelle vague had some love in their hearts. Sellier finds their love lacking, but what is she offering in return, besides rote condemnation?
In seeking to find an answer to what exactly this book seeks to achieve (besides a sense of righteous indignation or sad dejection depending on your gender and love for the films discussed), we turn to the back cover quotes section, wherein Dudley Andrew notes: “Sellier’s bracing expose has stripped the New Wave of its stylish attire to reveal an unappealing male body. Vigilant and determined, she has trolled a sea of French criticism to net her evidence.” He’s right, but why? If you buy this book based on your love for cinema, French New Wave, or even Jeanne Moreau, prepare to see that love netted, landed, and filleted. What Sellier and her publishers don’t grasp is that if a determined vigilante goes trolling for unappealing human bodies, she will always find them. Vigilantism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; take Jodie Foster in The Brave One! Men may be jerks, but at least they don’t go trolling to find an “unappealing” female body, not intentionally. They try to do the best they can with the trolling gear God gave them. But damn, Princess Sellier is out to intentionally find frogs where once were princes, and when she realizes she’s in a swamp, instead of digging on the slimy critters with all their crazy ribbits, she freaks out. And another thing: stripping anything or anyone of his, her, or its stylish attire isn’t something to do in anger or violence. If a woman wants to hide her unappealing body beneath said attire, we’re usually willing to give her the benefit of the doubt; that’s called chivalry.
Where Masculine Singular does work is in its ample use of articles in Cahiers du Cinema, Cinemonde, etc., from the period, criticism from both male and female, negative and positive perspectives. If nothing else, that alone makes these films — and the book — worthwhile by, among other things, showing just what a lively and invigorating intellectual scene was in Europe at the time. Kristin Ross’s translation is succinct and punchy, and the cover design (by Jennifer Hill) is great, with Jeanne Moreau holding the telephone in that famous still from Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. Add some stylish fonts and acid free paper and you have a cool-looking book on la nouvelle vague that may fool you into thinking it’s as cool inside. But rather, it’s like one of those girls who gets all tarted up with her friends to go out but then stand in the corner, growling at anyone who tries to buy her a drink.
To be fair, Sellier tries sometimes, but even when championing a complex actress like Jeanne Moreau, Sellier always has to stretch the point that casting women as Other is an odious cop-out:
The figure of the modern woman chosen by the cultural classes, Moreau at the beginning of the 1960s embodies an image of the feminine that associates sexual freedom with death . . . and is hence part of a very ancient tradition. The masculine on the other hand, is defined as the human in all its social and cultural potentialities, and as the embodiment of the immortality brought about by artistic creation. (98)
Instead of seeing the equation of sex with death as a cool Batailles sort of thing, Sellier equates it with uncool death: literal death, slow and unpleasant, like syphilis in an army training film. She can’t even groove on fake death, she’s so cowed — the type of mom who wont let her boys play with toy guns or weapons, unwittingly compelling them to join the military when they get older, just to get a fix. Where’s the love for death that is inherent in all true lovers of cinema? Sellier aint got it. Her worldview is limited because she excludes her own enjoyment and complicity. That’s what’s making her miserable, not Pierrot Le Fou. If she had some distance from herself she might realize that men are objectified as well, in everything from Gold Diggers of 1933 through to Sex in the City. And it’s all okay.
Even Truffaut — whom Sellier obviously has some affection for — is guilty in her eyes. She can’t forgive the perceived sadism of, for example, a deeply humanist film like Shoot the Piano Player (right): “The film’s unconscious sadism consists in making the two women die in order that we might be better able to sympathize with the hero’s existential unhappiness. Women for Truffaut seem even more dangerous when they are loving then when they are tramps.” (109)
First of all, Truffaut would never call a woman a tramp; and secondly, there’s no sadism in giving an actress a good death scene; death is not “real” death in the movies. Ask any kid who plays war in the backyard: big crazy elaborate deaths are what the game is all about. Men like quick deaths in trenches from gunfire, or little deaths grabbed on the sly in illusion-shattering trysts. Women want their men to die slow, so they can be around to sob and make sure our last few hours are filled with tears and guilt. Would you criticize The Dawn Patrol for its use of death as a tool to further our sense of existential identification? Would you, Mme Sellier? Why not, Edmund Goulding — a woman’s director — directed it. Maybe if they just stopped fighting, the men could all die in the hospital where you could hover over them and cry into your handkerchief and win a nice Oscar.
Just to show you chicks agree with me on this: in her essay “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place writes of the femme fatale: “It is her strength and visual texture that is imprinted on our memory, not her ultimate destruction.” The noir film’s visual style overwhelms the constricting patriarchal narrative “so compellingly that it stands as the only period in American film in which women are deadly but sexy, exciting and strong.”1 In other words, she may have to die to please the censors, but the life of the “fallen woman” is immortalized; it’s her we remember, not the “good woman” who submits to male authority. The noir films tacitly acknowledge the ineffectuality of man’s attempt to control women, revealing it as the last-ditch effort of the ego before dying. Escaping to Mexico with all the money is no guarantee of anything, only death guarantees an end, that the credits of old age and beyond are for someone else, not our heroine, now out of reach from harm, slow illness, wrinkles, and boredom.
I don’t wish to demonize Sellier, who does make a lot of well-earned points, especially in her complaints that her country’s national endowments in that era rewarded money to the established — male — auteurs, not women who might have actually fucked with the status quo if given a loud enough megaphone. In this and other ways, Sellier does supply a needed voice of dissent on the overcrowded shelves of academic new wave analysis. Yet is it really to fair to blame the films themselves? Is it their fault unimaginative professors still reach for them like teddy bears when it’s time to publish or perish? It seems in this book that Sellier’s points are ultimately worthless since she herself has no abiding love for cinema. At any rate it doesn’t translate well into English. Even in comparison with Mulvey herself, Sellier seems dour. When she discusses Agnes Varda’s Cleo 5 to 7 you’d expect her to brighten up, but while she praises the film’s mature characterizations, there’s no real life or love in her writing.
If, in their use of women as actresses, these male auteurs excise their personal fears as men (rather than flesh out complex female characters with external interests and ambitions), is that really sexist or just honest? And if we can’t be honest about our sexism, our racism, or ambivalence and inner demons, if we can’t learn the lesson from the repressed’s constant violent returns, then what good is art, anyway? I’m not saying Sellier is wrong: there needs to be a louder and more free-thinking feminine voice in cinema and every point she makes is apt. But to attempt to “ruin” our appreciation and reverence for such playful and loving works of art as la cinema de nouvelle vague is to be guilty of the very thing you condemn.
- Place, Janey, “Women in Film Noir,” Women in Film Noir, Ann Kaplan, editor (London: BFI, 2001), p. 63. [↩]