The Body and the Screen
The Body and the Screen

Kate Ince

Kate Ince is Reader in French Film and Gender Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

American Independent, Melodrama, Romance



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DOI: 10.5040/9781501396519.ch-003
Page Range: 49–72

In recent years, contemporary gender and queer theory have done at least as much as existential phenomenology to make embodiment a focus of research in cultural studies and the critical humanities. If feminist and queer theorists have led the way in exploring embodied cultural identity in all its myriad forms, though, their explorations have also been stimulated by new emphases in post-poststructuralist philosophy such as phenomenology’s encounters with different forms of identity politics.[1] As set out in Chapter 2, early feminist film theory’s identification of the viewed female body as the centre of its concerns was both an enormously productive and a problematic move: it enabled the (ethically and politically) undesirable aspects of cultural texts’ preoccupation with women’s bodies to be identified, but risked – if sufficient attention was not paid to the philosophical underpinnings of these problems – reinforcing the very tendencies it sought to counter. And yet, any call for an end to objectifying images of women in film would carry about as much conviction as calls for a total ban on pornography. The difficulty for film-makers of any gender who want their dramas to give increased ‘space’, screen time, dialogue and attention to female subjectivity is how to undo and rework the codes that embed male subjectivity into film narratives, substituting for them new forms of cinematography and narrative. My exposition of Beauvoirean feminist phenomenology and of a strand of feminist phenomenological approaches to film has already intimated that I think feminist film studies would gain by adopting perspectives from the interdisciplinary field that feminist phenomenology has become in recent years. As Sobchack and Studlar warned in the early 1990s, though, no straightforward substitution of the lived woman’s body of feminist phenomenology for the fetishized female body of Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ is possible, because the lived body of phenomenology can never be described in its entirety by its sex/gender (or race, age or class) (Sobchack 1992: 144). In one of the very few pieces of criticism to make a feminist phenomenological reading of a film directed by a woman, Elena del Rio declares that she is seeking to redress the imbalance created by feminist film theory’s long-held tendency to conceive of the body as ‘a written and a spoken sign’ rather than a ‘material entity’ (Del Rio 2003: 11). This tendency, in del Rio’s view, was ‘[b]orn of urgent necessity’, and did not foresee how it ‘would relegate the sensual and bodily aspects of female subjectivity to a practically irrelevant status’ (Del Rio 2003: 11). Del Rio affirms that she is not entirely rejecting semiotic and psychoanalytic perspectives, but ‘combin[ing] these with a phenomenological approach that identifies bodily action as not only inherently significant, but also indivisible from symbolic and discursive structures’ (Del Rio 2003: 12). The readings I shall undertake will resemble del Rio’s in detailing the pleasure women take in movement and bodily action, while also considering the meanings offered by their living, acting bodies and the symbolic frameworks within which their agency and physical actions take place.

Dancing in the ghetto: Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold first achieved international public attention as a director when her short film Wasp (2003) won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 2005. Before Wasp, which also garnered multiple other awards, Arnold had directed two shorts titled Milk (1998) and Dog (2001), and shortly afterwards she made a highly successful move into feature film directing with Red Road (2006). Fish Tank (2009), which won the 2009 Cannes film festival’s Jury prize as well as being nominated for the Palme d’Or, and was subsequently awarded a BAFTA for Best British Film in 2010, established her as one of Britain’s leading directorial talents, and one of very few British women directors to have received international recognition.

To anyone on the lookout for innovative filming of the active, mobile female body, the opening shot of Fish Tank is electrifying. Mia, the fifteen-year-old girl at the centre of the film’s story line, is leaning over to get her breath after an evidently heavy exercise session. The shot is frontal, and although Mia’s body – seen in her tank top and jogging bottoms against a blank wall – fills only the bottom half of the frame, the heaving of her shoulders and torso and the sound of her breathing instantly grab and keep our attention. When she stands up and moves over to the window to phone a friend with whom she has argued, only her head and shoulders are filmed, from behind and out of focus, meaning that the only image of her face viewable in this opening scene is riveted to her breathing, exercising body. This opening scene of Fish Tank could serve as a model to both women directors and theorist-critics of how to approach the screening of embodied female subjectivity – head-on, with attention to activity, effort and movement, and without fetishistic fragmentation of the female body. It illustrates feminist phenomenological theory in practice, Mia’s agency and intentionality prominent in her dancing as it is in all her bodily actions.

Hip hop dancing, which Mia teaches herself by watching online videos in her local internet shop, is an activity we see her engage in no fewer than eight times in Fish Tank. It is important to the film’s story line and yet a kind of narrative red herring, since despite successfully getting an audition for a dance job at a local club that is advertising for ‘fresh young (female) talent’, she walks out of the audition when she realizes that only erotic and flesh-baring dancers are wanted. The idea of using her dance ability to get out of the continued poverty she faces in unemployment (she is about to turn sixteen and has dropped out of school) comes to nought. When Connor, her mother’s boyfriend, first sees her practising her steps in the kitchen of the family flat one morning, he remarks that she ‘dance[s] like a black’, adding when Mia does not reply, ‘That’s a compliment’: her hip hop dancing is vigorous, athletic and as streetwise as she is. The narrative dead end it turns into, however, only increases the aesthetic and formal importance of the numerous dance scenes in Fish Tank, which never objectify or glamorize Mia, or subject her to a male gaze. In them, her shoulders are the most that is bared, and she is sometimes seen to make a wrong move or execute one badly. It is not the proficiency or polish of her dancing that is emphasized, but the effort and entirely subjective expression that dancing is for her – an outlet for energies that would otherwise go unused and a way to express her desire for a different life.

Figure 3.1. Mia at dance practice in Fish Tank

When Mia returns to the empty flat later on the film’s first afternoon, her concentration on the start of her practice session is disturbed by spotting her mother from the window, leaving her flat dressed for an evening out: the argument they have had shortly beforehand has revived the regular conflict in their dysfunctional relationship. Mia launches into her routine, putting up the hoodie of her grey sweatshirt top to complete her ‘bad girl’ image. The late afternoon sunlight slanting into the room picks out her hooded head and face, and the noisy, rhythmic music, accelerated camera movements and rainbow patterns of the light combine dizzyingly as she jumps and spins, communicating her sensations vividly to the viewer. The next scene of her dancing alone, after she spots the advert for the audition, is much shorter, includes one or two jump cuts, and is framed by shots of her walking to the disused flat and returning home along the landing of her own tower block, as if to emphasize the disciplined regularity with which she rehearses. But when she comes to record a routine on DVD in application for the audition, Mia, wearing smarter jogging bottoms than usual and with her hair down, is filmed from a variety of angles in quick succession, either in full or medium shot, with some rapid pans conveying additional movement inserted into some of these: her dynamism is shared with the viewer by this mobile camerawork. Her rehearsal of the actual audition routine takes place in darkness, and she works it out in silence, filmed by Arnold entirely from behind so that she is silhouetted against the artificial lights outside, with the focus repeatedly alternated between Mia and the view from the window in order to emphasize (it seems) both her dead-end situation and resolve to get out of it. This dance, to Bobby Womack’s cover of ‘California Dreamin’, is slower and more balletic than all her others, showing a quieter and dreamier side to Mia that appeals to Connor when she performs it to him later that evening, at his request. Like the earlier one in the empty flat, the only lighting in this scene is provided by the deep yellow-orange glow of artificial lights outside the sitting room window, so that Mia is sometimes profiled against the glow and Connor, the spectator, is bathed in it. There are no full-body shots of Mia that stand in for Connor’s gaze at her dancing, though; instead, close-ups on her face and upper body keep us close to the sensations of movement she is experiencing.

Performing her audition routine is the second time Connor has suggested Mia dance for him, the first having been in the car park of the pub he drives the family (her mother Joanne, Mia and her sister Tyler) to on the kind of outing to the countryside the girls have rarely had. Here, Connor puts music on his car’s sound system and challenges Mia to dance by humorously doing so badly himself. Drawn in, Mia moves without skill but with obvious pleasure and an infectious sense of freedom – until she hears Joanne, returning across the car park with the drinks, call ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Mia mouths abuse at her mother and strides away barefoot (as she has also been dancing), furious to be interrupted. For Mia, as only Connor notices, dancing is one of the few ways she can enjoy herself at all. Hip hop is usually practised collectively, but she pursues it alone, both because she is too abrasive to engage with people easily and because it occupies her spare time and energy.

Fish Tank’s final dance scene, though, brings Mia together with others rather than isolating her. Connor has disappeared from the family’s life after his semi-drunken seduction of Mia overcomplicated his relationship with Joanne, and as Mia, who is taking advantage of a lift to Cardiff with her friend Billy in order to stage her inevitable departure from the family home, prepares to leave the flat and Essex, she moves to the doorway of the sitting room and says ‘I’m going then’. Her mother, smoking and still teary at losing Connor, is listening to a CD of Mia’s she says she likes, and although she answers Mia with the words ‘Go on then, fuck off … what are you waiting for?’, she then contradicts herself by moving into a dance that is a kind of invitation to Mia to join her – which she does. The two women are utterly contrasted in their looks, Mia dark and dressed in black and Joanne shorter and blonde, but they move in parallel up and down the room, in perfect synchronization that silently acknowledges perhaps the only thing they share – a pleasure in their own physicality and in movement. (We are reminded of Joanne dancing in the kitchen after Connor first stays the night with her.) As they move with effortless adult strides, Tyler joins in by holding on to the back of Mia’s waist in order to keep up, and although this dance à trois is then made humorous by a shot of the family dog reacting with surprise to this unprecedented show of unity in the home, it evokes a powerful bodily tie binding Joanne to Mia and Tyler that can only be acknowledged wordlessly, in movement and in gesture.

In Fish Tank, dance conveys female bodily agency and intentionality in a manner that only a feminist phenomenological analysis can really appreciate: in subsequent chapters I shall discuss other forms of bodily action that work to construct Mia as a paradigmatic ‘phenomenological’ female protagonist, not on account of her character or because of the authenticity it acquires from the performance of Katie Jarvis, but because of the place Arnold grants to agentic embodied action in Fish Tank, and the way she films this. Our participation in Mia’s coming-of-age drama would be impossible without the film’s scenes of hip hop and slower, more balletic dance movement, and the scene in which she dances with Joanne and Tyler is an even more revelatory glimpse of embodied, existential female subjectivity that profoundly suggests its non-individual structure. The Williams family is broken beyond repair, but the synchronized embodied movement of Joanne and her two daughters expresses a resistant, enduring ethical bond between women in which no man is involved.

The embodied female subject in Orlando and The Tango Lesson

Since her debut with the acclaimed short Thriller in 1979, Sally Potter has carved out a place for herself as one of Britain’s leading independent film-makers, but success has often not come easily: her experimental first feature The Gold Diggers (1983) failed to find much appreciation, and she struggled for nine years to be able to complete the highly acclaimed Orlando (1992), her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 Orlando: A Biography.[2] According to one familiar narrative of the history of women’s film-making, the making of Orlando carried Potter from experimentalism and explicitly political reflection on representation towards narrative pleasure, a trajectory followed by numerous other women directors in the 1980s. Whether this narrative is accurate or not, there is no denying the feminist twist Potter gives to Woolf’s story of time-travel and gender-bending from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

In Orlando, Potter treats her protagonist’s travels from the Elizabethan age to the twentieth century in six chapters, 1600 Death, 1610 Love, 1650 Poetry, 1750 Society, 1850 Sex, and finally, Birth (date unspecified). Within these time periods female subjectivity is screened principally through Orlando’s physical actions and movement: as man and as woman (when she is not constrained by her clothes), Orlando engages in an enormous range of physical activity, from the straightforward (running back to and through Queen Elizabeth’s court in ‘1600 Death’, hastening through the maze until she breaks into a run after indignantly refusing the Archduke Harry’s offer of marriage) to the sporting – skating on the frozen river Thames, horse riding with Shelmerdine (Figure 3.2) and motorcycling through London with her daughter. Tilda Swinton’s lithe, muscular physique is given every opportunity to run, jump and indulge in these sporting activities: Orlando courts Sasha, the daughter of the Muscovite ambassador to England, as they skate elegantly on the Thames, in contrast to Orlando’s clumsy fiancée and the self-important English nobleman who insists on having a cloth laid on the ice for him to walk over, and when Shelmerdine is thrown by his horse and twists his ankle after riding out of the mist, she rides them both to safety. In the brief scene of Orlando’s pregnancy, she runs frantically across a twentieth-century battlefield at night, stumbles and falls, but the image cuts to her standing again, and as she moves on, the shelling ebbs away, she rubs her rounded belly, day breaks and she disappears into the quiet mist, communicating a sense of tranquillity and hope. We do not see her give birth, and generally, as a woman, Orlando appears strong, healthy and active rather than passive in her love-making and encounters with other bodies, such as her daughter’s.

Figure 3.2. Orlando rides Shelmerdine to safety, Orlando
Figure 3.3. Orlando rushes into the future, Orlando

Many critics have admired the dynamism, energy and narrative drive of Orlando,[3] but its sexuate character – how and to what extent Orlando’s ‘voyage of “becoming”’ (Pidduck 1997: 172) is female, feminine or feminist – has only really been touched on by Julianne Pidduck. Drawing on Teresa de Lauretis’s essay ‘Desire in narrative’ and Mary Ann Doane’s extension of a gendered economy of stasis and movement to spatiotemporal patterns of genre, Pidduck proposes that there is ‘an explicit play (in both Virginia Woolf’s source novel and Potter’s film adaptation) upon gendered conventions of movement’ (Pidduck 1997: 173). By observing that during Orlando’s ‘utopian feminist voyage of “becoming”’, ‘the dry theoretical problem of gendered narrative movement becomes an explicitly collective project of social critique’ (Pidduck 1997: 173), Pidduck opens the door to feminist accounts of embodied subjectivity and motility, but quickly shuts it again by turning to Mikhail Bakhtin (whose ‘Forms of time and chronotope in the novel’ takes no account of sexual difference) for an account of articulations of time and space within historical literary genres. Although she returns to de Lauretis’s ‘Desire in narrative’ later in her article, she then cites de Lauretis citing a structuralist narrative theorist called Lotman whose fundamental binary opposition is into mobile and immobile character types, again without reference to differentiated embodiment (although de Lauretis herself does add male and female to the theoretical mix). For Pidduck, finding in Orlando the unadulterated dynamism that might seem necessary ‘to a feminist journey of becoming’ ‘would be manipulating the text to my own ends’ (Pidduck 1997: 185): she points out that Orlando ends his/her historical peregrinations in the same places he began them, and there are all kinds of ways in which his/her actions are not effective and purposeful. In my view these instances of inefficacy pertain mostly to his 150+ years as a man, when as England’s ambassador to an unspecified Eastern country, he fails to match the Khan at drinking and to take up arms in battle. If Pidduck rightly points out that Orlando does not achieve much for a narrative that extends over more than 350 years (though I am inclined too to argue that independence, motherhood and success as a writer adds up to a lot), then it should probably be remembered that when assessing the gendered qualities of movement and achievement in Orlando or any film, different levels of action must be distinguished, at least analytically. My descriptions of the positivity and dynamism of Swinton’s movements remain at the level of performance, whereas for feminist phenomenology, different analytically separable levels of action are fused: the body is ‘our grasp on the world and the outline of our projects’ (Beauvoir 2009: 46). It is precisely to counter the deterministic tendencies that arise from building sexual difference into this philosophy of free, transcendent action – as Beauvoir does in The Second Sex by emphasizing women’s historical desire and capacities – that it is worth dwelling on the detail of particular visions and narratives of female embodiment.

The treatment of movement and action to be found in Orlando is continued in Potter’s next film The Tango Lesson, in which Potter herself performs numerous dance scenes with her co-star and real-life tango professional Pablo Verón. By directing and starring in The Tango Lesson, as Lucy Fischer points out, Potter joins a distinguished list of other women artists – Maya Deren and Yvonne Rainer among them – who have made experimental films highlighting their status as dancers and film-makers (Fischer 2004: 46). Fischer’s view that Potter’s decision to make a dance film ‘links her to the mainstream cinema’ seems to me arguable, but she also makes two points wholly supportive of the vision of female embodiment and its capacities, as evident in The Tango Lesson as it is in Orlando. The first, actually articulated by Beatrice Humbert, is that although tango gives the more spectacular role to the man (vividly illustrated by Pablo’s display of wounded narcissism after Sally fails to follow his every move in their one public stage performance), its popularity in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century was in part because it ‘opened a venue for women to exhibit sensuality in public … Tango showed and performed the strong changes in gender roles that were under way at the time’ (Fischer 2004: 50). The second is the ambivalent status of dance on film as both visual spectacle and athletic physical performance. Potter trained as a dancer as well as a choreographer in the 1970s, in her twenties, but for The Tango Lesson had not only to master an entirely new dance form (albeit one she was obviously passionate about), but regain comparable strength, suppleness and technique in her mid-forties, all while directing herself, other actors and the entire film. Her physical achievement alone in The Tango Lesson is remarkable, though not without obvious effort and fatigue – in a scene where she returns to her Buenos Aires hotel after a night’s dancing to find a sheaf of faxes from producers, Sally is seen soaking her aching feet in a hot bath while she starts to phone replies[4] – and if her dancing is not as spectacular as Pablo Verón’s, she nonetheless fulfils her intention ‘to show, somehow, what dancing feels like, rather than what it looks like’ (Potter, quoted in Guano 2004: 471). The aim of the very physical project she undertook in making this personal, clearly partly autobiographical, film was not to produce visual spectacle her audience could marvel at from a distance, but to communicate the intensely bodily experience of dancing, from her woman’s point of view.

Although displayed more subtly, choreography is employed almost as extensively in Orlando as it was to be in The Tango Lesson. This reinforces how Potter’s experience as a choreographer is to the fore in her adaptation, whose credited choreographer is Jacky Lansley, the dancer with whom Potter cofounded The Limited Dance Company in 1974 (Fowler 2009: 21), and who performed in her previous films Thriller, The Gold Diggers and The London Story. And action and movement are not the only way in which embodied female subjectivity features in Orlando, since the idea of the female body as situation put forward by Beauvoir and more recently taken up by Kruks and Young figures enormously in the film’s unusual mode of historical drama. As noted above, Potter divides the film into dated chapters titled Death, Love, Poetry, Society, Sex and Birth: the death is that of Queen Elizabeth I, the love Orlando’s for Sasha and the birth that of Orlando’s daughter (in one of Potter’s few significant changes to Woolf’s text, where Orlando’s child is a son). The moment of this childhood seems to be a mixture of 1928 (the date of Woolf’s book) and the ‘present day’ of the film (1992), in that Orlando rides a vintage 1928-style motorbike with a sidecar through a recognizable early 1990s London of Canary Wharf and Docklands. Orlando is thus always in a defined historical situation, even if he/she inexplicably advances as an embodied and situated subject through over three centuries while ‘hardly ageing a day’, as both book and film state.

That Orlando’s body is his/her situation is illustrated in two evident ways. First, there is his change of sexed body just before her entry into the society of 1750, upon which follow two scenes emphasizing just how objectified and excluded women of the period were. In one, Orlando wanders idly through the sunny, silent long gallery of her country seat to the sole sound of peacocks calling on the lawns outside, adjusting her movement to prevent her voluminous hooped skirts from knocking over pieces of furniture draped in sunlit white dust-sheets. Since Orlando too is clad in brilliant white, the most striking element of this brief scene is her resemblance to the furniture, and hence, the status of woman as property at this period – a prefiguring of how she will be stripped of her inheritance by a lawsuit that begins in the eighteenth century and concludes in the nineteenth. In the second scene, a literary gathering hosted by a countess at which Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison hold court, ‘Orlando is immobilized like one elaborate frosted blue cake on a love seat. Complete with an unlikely sculpted headdress, she becomes a porcelain figurine, hampered equally by costume and convention from moving or responding to the routine snubs of the male “wits”’ (Pidduck 1997: 176). The second manner in which Orlando situates its protagonist in history, already anticipated in the scenes described above, is the continuously glorious use it makes of lavish costume. But although the film is often included alongside Jane Campion’s The Piano (Australia/New Zealand/France 1993) and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (US 1991) in a list of what was in 2003 called ‘the emerging global feminist reappropriation of costume drama’ (Imre 2003: 188), the genre category ‘costume drama’ suggests a realist treatment of a particular era and set of characters never allowed to develop by Orlando’s restless progress. Rather, as Patricia Mellencamp argues, ‘the performative elements (of gesture, glance, pose, costume) are more telling than the narrative. History becomes something to learn from, move through, and get beyond’ (Mellencamp 1995: 283). Orlando the character and Orlando the film skip energetically through history, or perhaps fly in the manner characteristic of Hélène Cixous’s écriture féminine,[5] defying history’s gravity and territorializing forces.

By virtue of its transgendering narrative and passage through nearly four centuries, Orlando allows – or perhaps we should say, gloriously stages – the comparison of woman’s becoming to man’s that Beauvoir speaks of in The Second Sex. One aspect of the film on which much critical commentary has focused is the contrast between the universalist androgyny of Woolf’s text and the queer postmodern reconstruction of a female genealogy in Potter’s film: as Roberta Garrett summarizes, ‘Woolf’s “modernist” project aims to undermine the stability of forms of gender identification, whereas Potter’s “postmodern” interpretation posits a “reconstructed” notion of female subjectivity which acts as a locus of resistance to the “master narrative” of British history’ (Garrett 1995: 96). The birth of Orlando’s daughter and her happiness as a mother despite having been dispossessed of her inheritance would seem to make this digression of film from book unambiguous, and yet Potter has stated that where Orlando’s change of sex is concerned, she thought that using the same actor for the male and female character would help ‘the idea of individuality’ to prevail, and what she has called ‘the seamless individuality across the genders’ would not be lost (Potter in Degli-Esposti 1996: 88). She may have been wary of making a feminist film – ‘“feminist” has become a sort of trigger word that closes down thinking rather than opening it up’ (Potter in Degli-Esposti 1996: 89) – but ended up with one nonetheless, perhaps because of the thoroughly postmodern sensibility of Orlando’s queer, flighty, disrespectful treatment of identity, history and the genre of costume drama.

The Beaches of Agnes and the carnal cinécriture of Agnès Varda

In the cinema of Agnès Varda, the grand old lady of French cinema since at least 2008, when she filmed part of her eightieth birthday party, there is plentiful evidence that female subjectivity is always ‘lived’, that is, embodied and actively animated, even when it remains a viewed object. One of the activities by which we most remember Cléo of Cléo de 5 à 7 and Mona of Sans toit ni loi/Vagabond is their dynamic walking through city and countryside, respectively, which it seems to me we are invited to view as subjective expression rather than in a ‘sex-pervasive’ manner.[6] The representation of animated, mobile female bodies was, however, comprehensively confirmed by Varda’s performance in Les Plages d’Agnès/The Beaches of Agnes, openly acknowledged by her to be a performance ‘of the role of a little old lady … plump and talkative, telling the story of her life’ (Romney 2009: 46), where she engages in or narrates numerous very deliberately executed embodied activities. She reports, for example, how at the age of nineteen, for the three-month period between abandoning her training as a curator and beginning evening classes in photography, she carried out the very physical ‘manual’ labour of rowing for Corsican fishermen as they dealt with their nets, masts and sails. This period, not incidentally also the time of her first significant sexual experiences, has just been echoed in shots of her sailing a small lateen boat across the Mediterranean port of Sète (the location of an early part of the film), then, in a typically wry edit, along the Seine and under the Pont des Arts in Paris. The pleasure Varda takes in practical, embodied activity is signalled here in the very representation of her shuttling back and forth from provincial France – her family had left Belgium for Sète during the Second World War – to Paris, as her film-making career began to take off in the mid-1950s. The most frequent and striking example of symbolic embodiment in The Beaches of Agnes, however, is the humorous but entirely knowing device of walking backwards, which Varda does first on the beach at Sète, again on the Pont des Arts, and later in several more of the film’s locations. This bodily mime of the process of remembering is Varda’s personal contribution to the multiple ‘living’ installations that feature in her film.[7]

Beaches, timeless spaces according to Varda, are the motif linking the seventy-plus years of memories recounted in The Beaches of Agnes, but by mixing autobiographical narration with installation art and filmic and photographic montage, the film also gathers the diverse geography of her life into one document in a way none of her previous films or exhibitions has done. Varda’s preferred locations apart from Sète-La Pointe Courte and the Languedoc – Los Angeles-Venice Beach, Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement and Rue Daguerre and the Brittany island of Noirmoutier, to which she was introduced by Jacques Demy – each figure in a number of her works. Together, these places constitute a ‘world’ in the sense meant by existential phenomenology, where the term’s meaning differs qualitatively from the concept of an objective physical world described by the natural sciences, although varies somewhat from one thinker to another.[8] A specific sense is already given to ‘world’ by Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception, where perception, rather than being an inner, subjective, mental state as for so much previous philosophy, is described as a mode of being in the world and what links the perspective constituted by each lived body to its ‘world’, or environment. ‘I am conscious of my body via the world’, says Merleau-Ponty, or, again, ‘I am conscious of the world through the medium of my body’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 94, 95). Most of Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic theory is formulated around painting, which he regards as a thoroughly embodied form of expression, as ‘essentially worldly’ (Carman 2008: 204). The sense he ascribes to ‘world’ undergoes further development by the time of his draft and notes for The Visible and the Invisible, where body and world come to be seen ‘as overlapping sinews in a common “flesh” (chair), related … as kind of “chiasm”, an “interweaving” or “interlacing” (entrelacs) of threads in a single fabric’ (Carman 2008: 79–80). For Merleau-Ponty by the end of his life, therefore, ‘to understand a work of art is to understand its involvement in the world’ (Carman 2008: 204), where that world is defined as a set of material, fleshy relationships between the artists and the objects and places on which his or her perceptions have been exercised, in the reversible dynamic of perception and expression evident in Merleau-Ponty’s early work and expanded in his drafts for The Visible and the Invisible. Varda’s film-world, accordingly, is the set of locations on which her perceptions have frequently been exercised (by inhabiting them) and of which she has repeatedly composed expressions. ‘World’, for existential phenomenology and for Varda, is materially imbricated with the body that perceives it, which is why the term is so well suited to the locations Varda has contemplated and conveyed with such caring attention in her cinema; they are so entirely fused with her sensibility that it has become impossible to think of her films without thinking of them.

The majority of Varda’s films are powerfully rooted in a particular place, as we have seen, and her film-world is made up of places she has actually inhabited. Her unusually keen vision of her immediate surroundings adds up to more than a ‘sense of place’ – what is expressed is the part played by a material social environment in the construction of personal identity, a belief Varda explained in 1961: ‘I believe that people are made of the places they love or have lived in; I believe that location inhabits and propels us’ (Michaud and Bellour 1961: 14). This steady construction over Varda’s career of a phenomenological geography or ‘world’, expression of which culminated in The Beaches of Agnes, is one evident way in which she may be seen as a ‘lived body’ film-maker. Having set out what I mean by Varda’s ‘film-world’, a few selected critical accounts of its character and texture, including some by Varda herself, will illustrate further how this existential phenomenological character pervades her work as a film-maker.

Numerous critics since the 1960s have in fact remarked on the carnality of Varda’s cinécriture. For Marcel Martin and Jacqueline Nacache reviewing her films up to Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master, it is because of ‘her pulsating sensibility and its carnal vibration’ that Varda’s cinema is ‘profoundly feminine/female’ (profondément féminin), though not ‘féministe’, which for Martin and Nacache requires a militant or otherwise propagandistic message. René Prédal comments that ‘Varda always imposes a natural physical presence that prevents discourse from dematerializing itself by posing problems of skin and hormones right in the middle of intellectual debates’.[9] The most memorable example of Varda’s organization of a film around her own body is probably Daguerréotypes, the 1975 documentary about the community of ‘her’ part of Paris’s Rue Daguerre, the content of which was decided by the entirely material condition that it takes place within eighty metres of her home, where she was looking after her baby son Mathieu Demy. Varda’s use of an electrical cable to measure out the maximum distance her camera could travel points wittily to the centrality of her own maternal body to her film-making, but just as importantly, emphasizes the materiality and materialization of filmic space.[10] The blurring of the boundary between fiction and documentary to be found in so many of Varda’s films is inseparable from – and perhaps largely a consequence of – this insistence on the materiality of space, as is her description of herself as a ‘witness-auteur’ (auteur-témoin, in Varda 1975: 36): in Vagabond, when she introduces Mona as she emerges from a swim in the sea, Varda’s use of her own voice weakens the fiction in favour of a strong dose of documentary by placing herself (anonymously here) in the same film-world as her protagonist. Varda’s acute sensibility, the materialization of filmic space and the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and documentary found across her oeuvre are further ways in which her film-making comes suggestively close to the intentional expression of the lived body theorized by Merleau-Ponty, as well as confirming the incarnate character of her vision. In the next section I shall develop this question of the incarnate character of Varda’s filmic discourse by turning to her acclaimed documentary Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse/The Gleaners and I (2000)

Haptic images in The Gleaners and I

In The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Marks 2000), Laura Marks draws on a number of sources in order to explore ‘haptic visuality’, which she defines (following but modifying the Austrian art historian Aloïs Riegl, coiner of the term ‘haptic’) as vision in which ‘the eyes themselves function as organs of touch’ (Marks 2000: 162). Whereas optical visuality ‘sees things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space’, haptic looking ‘tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture’ (Marks 2000: 162). The haptic image is thus a sensuous image, often a close-up, while haptic perception ‘privileges the material presence of the image’ (Marks 2000: 163).[11] In developing her notions of haptic visuality and perception, Marks draws to a significant extent on Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of film, but also on the work of Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenology of perception emphasizes that the perceiver’s relationship with the world is symbiotic and mimetic – that is, that in embodied perception (and for Merleau-Ponty all perception is embodied) there is an enfolding of self and world of which cinema spectatorship can be seen as a special example (Marks 2000: 163). For Marks, ‘haptic images are often used in an explicit critique of visual mastery, in the search for the way to bring the image closer to the body and the other senses’ (Marks 2000: 151–152). So while she does not accept Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception unquestioningly, its insights about the sensual involvement of our bodies in the world (and in particular, about how the encoding of history in our bodies influences our perception) strongly inform her readings of sense memories in intercultural film.

In Varda’s films, haptic visuality first occurs in Jacquot de Nantes, the film-portrait of her husband Jacques Demy made as he was dying of AIDS in 1990. Varda’s camera tracks slowly and in extreme close-up over Demy’s skin in a tender and regretful observation of its condition, still tanned but now flawed by the purple patches of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Varda films the male body with particular tenderness in Jacquot de Nantes because it is that of her husband: it is of course significant that she comes to haptic visuality in an eroticized relationship and only films her own woman’s body in the same unfocused extreme close-up ten years later. Shots that caress Varda’s own skin occur at two moments in The Gleaners and I:[12] in the first, the camera cuts from a shot of Varda combing the grey roots of her dark chestnut coloured hair to the deeply lined and wrinkled skin of her hands against a car dashboard, as she speaks her rhyming refutation of a famous line about old age from Corneille’s Le Cid, ‘No, no, it’s not “O rage”, not “O despair”, not “O my enemy old age”, it might even be “my friend old age”, but even so, there’s my hair, and there are my hands, which tell me that the end is near.’ This haptic shot is returned to and extended in the second moment, also involving the trope of ageing, where the notion of self-portraiture is explicitly introduced by some high-quality postcard-sized reproductions of Rembrandt portraits and self-portraits Varda has brought back from a trip to Tokyo. Here, her camera moves from a detail of a picture of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia to her own left hand, tracking down her fingers to the base of her thumb then back up her index finger in a movement that caresses at the same time as it searches. The commentary with which Varda accompanies this shot, ‘Saskia, in close-up … . and then, and then my hand in close-up … . which is to say that that is my project, to film one hand with the other’, could hardly echo more closely if she had set out to do so a celebrated passage in Merleau-Ponty’s essay ‘The Philosopher and His Shadow’, in which he describes the meeting of his hands:

When my right hand touches my left hand, I am aware of [sens] it as a “physical thing”. But at the same moment, if I wish, an extraordinary event occurs: here is my left hand as well starting to feel my right, es wird Leib, es empfindet (Husserl, Ideen II p. 145). The physical thing becomes animate. Or more precisely, it remains what it was (the event does not enrich it), but an exploratory power comes to rest upon or dwell in it. Thus I touch myself touching; my body accomplishes “a sort of reflection”. In it, through it, there is not just the unidirectional relationship of the one who perceives to what he perceives. The relationship is reversed, the touched hand becomes the touching hand, and I am obliged to say that the sense of touch here is diffused into the body – that the body is a “perceiving thing”, a “subject-object” (Husserl, Ideen II p. 119 empfindendes Ding, p. 124 “Das subjective Objekt”). (Merleau-Ponty 1964a, 166)

This two-way ‘bodily reflection’ anticipates if it does not already formulate the notion of the reversibility of the flesh Merleau-Ponty would set out in The Visible and the Invisible, a book he did not live to complete, but was working on when the essay containing this passage was published, in 1960. As noted in the previous section, the fragments of and notes for The Visible and the Invisible set out new notions of ‘flesh’ (la chair) and ‘intertwining’ (l’entrelacs) – a reversible material relationship between body and world in which they are not separate entities but ‘threads in a single fabric’ (Carman 2008: 80).[13] Through the deployment of a haptic gaze, Varda’s body – the filming and the filmed body – becomes here the ‘feeling thing’ and ‘subject-object’ Merleau-Ponty describes. Subjectivity and objectivity blur and become indistinguishable auto-erotically, in contrast to the erotic blurring at work in Jacquot de Nantes. The Gleaners and I, inhabited by the enhanced ‘exploratory power’ of the mini digital camera’s movement, develops Merleau-Ponty’s ‘sort of reflection’ of the flesh into a self-portrait of the ageing woman film-maker, a self-portrait in haptic rather than optical space. A further detail of the second of these two moments in The Gleaners and I is important – that the hand to which Varda’s camera moves from the detail of Rembrandt’s portrait of Saskia is obscuring a reproduction of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits that is revealed only when her meditation on the unknown ‘horror’ of her own ageing flesh is over, and she raises the finger. Even then, what we view is Rembrandt’s face rather than his hand: only the next shot, that of a self-portrait by the artist Maurice Utrillo, returns us to an image of an artist’s hand, this time that of a man rather than of a woman. Varda’s haptic moment of filmic self-portraiture ‘as an old lady’ (Rosello 2001) displaces Rembrandt’s mastery of the conventional painted self-portrait – neatly, modestly and without drawing attention to what it is doing in any way, but displaces it nonetheless. A woman’s perception and hands are explicitly privileged at the expense of a man’s in this sequence, so that although the viewer’s senses may shortly afterwards re-engage with conventional masculine self-portraiture by alighting on Maurice Utrillo’s hands, a temporary bracketing-off of the image of the male artist reduces possible sensory engagement to a perceptive perspective gendered female.

A similar kind of suggestively subversive filmic performance can be seen in Varda’s assumption of the identity of ‘gleaner’ in The Gleaners and I, where her actions intersect strikingly with the gender-specific and historical phenomenological descriptions of lived-body experience collected by Iris Young. Young’s ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ essay, as I have already noted, ‘combines the insights of the theory of the lived body as expressed by Merleau-Ponty and the theory of the situation of women as developed by Beauvoir’ (Young 2005: 31), and by collecting, detailing and meditating upon ‘modalities of feminine body comportment, manner of moving and relation in space’ as she does in this essay, Young has in a way set out a framework for a feminist phenomenological film criticism that can do justice to Varda’s performance in The Gleaners and I. Gleaning, Varda notes at one moment in her commentary, is ‘a modest gesture’, but when it comes to identifying herself as the gleaner in the title of her film, it is Jules Breton’s proud and solitary female figure rather than Jean-François Millet’s three more modest ones she imitates. (The two particular paintings at the origin of Varda’s investigation into gleaning are Millet’s Les Glaneuses of 1857 and Breton’s La Glaneuse of 1877.) Opposite Breton’s painting where it hangs in the museum and art gallery of Arras, and in a mirror image of it, though in the same plane, Varda stands with a large bundle of corn on her right shoulder which she then lets drop and replaces with her digital video camera: this is a humorous moment that is also replete with signification, since Varda’s action expresses a preference for a particular use of space while identifying herself in multiple ways, as the admirer and companion of the nineteenth-century peasant women at the origin of her documentary (who were painted by Millet with socially critical intent) as well as a viewing body-subject at the same time as being the viewed body-object they are. The lived body as described by Merleau-Ponty and Young is both immanent and transcendent, immanent in its materiality and situation, yet transcendent in how it is lived by a subject as intention and as action. The ambiguous transcendence of the body when lived by a woman that Young illustrates in feminine body comportment, for example in living space as enclosed or confining or when ‘stand[ing] in discontinuous unity with both itself and its surroundings’ (Young 2005: 38), is both acknowledged and resisted by Varda in self-portraiture that works with and through other bodies and representations of bodies, both female and male. This revelation of different modes of body comportment and relationships to space – including on the part of bodies from different social classes – is crucial to The Gleaners and I, as are the contradictory modalities of feminine bodily existence Young outlines and claims ‘have their root … in the fact that for feminine existence the body frequently is both subject and object for itself at the same time and in reference to the same act’ (Young 2005: 38).

The striking correlation between Varda’s actions and gestures in The Gleaners and I and Young’s Merleau-Pontyan and Beauvoirean framework for explaining feminine body comportment illustrates feminist phenomenological theory in action. Unlike the moments in The Gleaners where haptic images register the collapse of optical space into haptic space and the sensuous enfolding of Varda’s film-maker-body into her perceptual world, it is less Merleau-Ponty’s insights about embodied perception than his understanding of the particular, socially situated character of movement and gesture that are relevant here. In The Skin of the Film, Marks recognizes that feminist criticism and theory have played an important role in the increasing acceptance of the notion of embodied spectatorship into film criticism, but stops short of theorizing any particular relationship between haptic visuality and sexual difference, stating that although ‘the use of haptic images may be a feminist strategy, there is nothing essentially feminine about it’ (Marks 2000: 188). Young, by contrast, develops existential phenomenology in an explicitly feminist direction by focusing on female body experience, and by so doing, both returns to and develops the focus on the lived body and women’s embodied experience pioneered by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. The haptic visuality that occurs in The Gleaners and I is a different, complementary and possibly even stronger confirmation of the identity of ‘lived body’ film-maker that arises out of the construction of a phenomenological geography or ‘world’ in Varda’s cinema.

Catherine Breillat’s Romance and the phenomenal birthing body

French director Catherine Breillat has what must be some of the best feminist credentials of any European film-maker of the 1990s and 2000s, having made (by 2013) fourteen features all concerned with women’s lives and female sexuality. She is associated particularly with the loose trilogy of films about adolescent girls and their sexuality formed by Une vraie jeune fille/A Real Young Girl (1976), 36 fillette/Virgin (1988) and A ma soeur!/Fat Girl (2001), but the majority of her films have a woman or women as their leading protagonists, the only exceptions (where a man or men are equally important focalizers of the narrative) being Sale comme un ange/Dirty Like an Angel (1991), and to a lesser extent, Parfait Amour!/Perfect Love (1996), Brève Traversée/Brief Crossing (2001) and Anatomie de l’enfer/Anatomy of Hell (2004). Breillat seemed to make a clear change of direction when she shifted from original auteurist narratives to literary adaptation with Une vieille maîtresse/The Last Mistress (2007), a version of Barbey D’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel, and went on to make two adaptations of fairy tales in Barbe bleue/Bluebeard (2009) and La Belle endormie/Sleeping Beauty (2010). She has suggested since, however, that the continuity of The Last Mistress with the ‘décalogue’ of original stories that preceded it is just as noteworthy as its discontinuity,[14] and has subsequently moved away from adaptation again with the autobiographical drama Abus de faiblesse/Abuse of Weakness (2013). Dramas of intimate experience are the mainstay of Breillat’s cinema, and it is probably not exaggerating to label her first ten films dramas of female subjectivity.

The international controversy caused by Romance (1999), which was released just over a year before Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi (2000), and whose explicit scenes of oral sex, bondage, masturbation and male erections saw Breillat accused of being a ‘porno-auteur’ (accusations she put down firmly), also marked the start of her widespread acceptance and fame. (She was able, for example, to use its success to get her previously unseen first film A Real Young Girl released.) Romance has been admired for the sobriety and cleanliness of its mise en scène, which makes bold and striking use of monochrome white sets with periodic splashes of vibrant red, as well as of theatrical locations, both interior (the opulent apartment inhabited by one of her lovers) and exterior (the Roman arena in Arles, and the vast sands of the Camargue at Aigues-Mortes, not far from Marseilles). Its main protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey) is a young woman whose boyfriend of some months, Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), is now refusing to have sex with her, which leads her to initiate a sequence of sexual encounters with other men. Almost as striking as the film’s sober, Japanese-style aesthetic, evident above all in its white, black and red colour palette and presentation of blank surfaces, is the interior monologue voiced by Marie. Through this monologue spectators have access to her intimate, complex and often self-demeaning thoughts and feelings about her body and her desires.

The character of Paul in Romance is almost a caricature of patriarchal masculine sexuality, announcing as he drives Marie and his friend Ashley home from a nightclub where he has danced with several unknown women that the thrill of the chase is what befits a man. Paul is unable to bear even a trace of activity or dominance in Marie’s sexual behaviour towards him, though proposes marriage to her as soon as it is confirmed she is pregnant with his child, then makes love to her for the only time in the film, delighted that she is serving his desire to reproduce. As Keesey states, ‘Paul exhibits a mind/body dualism that manifests itself as a Madonna/whore complex’ (Keesey 2009: 119), and this duality also colours – though does not ultimately determine – Marie’s exploration of her sexuality with both her first lover Paolo (Rocco Siffredi) and her second, the headmaster of the primary school where she teaches, Robert (François Berléand). A split between head and body marks the imagery of several scenes of Romance, most strikingly a semi-pornographic fantasy of Marie’s in which the upper half of her body is separated from her pelvis and legs by a guillotine-style contraption built into the wall of a circular room:

On one side of the divide, the upper half of a white-clad Marie lies in a white maternity ward as her husband-to-be Paul bends tenderly over her bed to give her loving comfort. But protruding through the other side is Marie’s lower half, garbed in garters and a flouncy red skirt like a whore, her sex a hole which anonymous, apelike men use to demonstrate their phallic dominance in a scene with red lighting. (Keesey 2009: 124)

Another scene visually constructed around this dichotomy between Marie’s face and her sex (in French, ‘con’) is one in which she is examined, some weeks into her pregnancy, by an entire team of junior doctors she dismisses as ‘spotty interns’ (‘jeunes praticiens boutonneux’ (Breillat 1999a: 64)). As each of them slips on a rubber glove before inserting his hand deep into her vagina, the camera shifts from a position that approximates the look of the doctors at the thick dark hair covering her pubic area, to Marie’s beautiful face, tightly framed, to a position behind Marie’s head – the scene as it appears to her, subjectively. In a brief scene following this one whose location is unclear, but which directly precedes her semi-pornographic fantasy, Marie is seen examining her pubic area and her face alternately in a mirror, and remarks in voiceover, ‘Paul’s right. This face can’t be loved attached to this c***. This c*** cannot belong to this face’ (Breillat 1999a: 65). What Keesey sees as a culturally Catholic division of her person into spiritual and sexual parts is exactly, to my mind, what Marie is countering in her liaisons with other men, and by exploring her masochistic impulses in bondage sex with Robert. Overcoming division will lead to the sexual subjectivity Paul silences and represses, but this is a struggle in which Marie does not always have the upper hand.

At the night club where Paul ignores Marie in order to flirt with other women, she is heavily pregnant and about to go into labour, and it is through the act of giving birth that she finally attains a sort of moral equality between – if not the actual integration of – the sexual and spiritual dimensions of her being. The birth of Marie’s son Paul, by means of which the son exactly replaces his father, blown up in the simultaneous gas explosion of his flat Marie arranges, is filmed with an extraordinarily graphic directness underlining the brute material power of the female body. In keeping with her modest and rather melancholy character, Marie strains quietly on the delivery table rather than screaming and shouting, but the camera then moves directly from her face to an extreme close-up on the baby’s head crowning forth from her vagina, blue and dark-haired against the warm tones of Marie’s blood-streaked thighs. The body that follows is ‘mauve and spindly like the body of a skinned rabbit, with a Veronese-green umbilical cord’ (Breillat 1999a: 73). This birth is an event of erotic bodily power, filmed as graphically as the two intense scenes of BDSM sex in Robert’s apartment, but with the force of the birth heightened by its contrast with the slenderness and paleness of Marie’s body: a ‘phenomenal woman’ both in the brute materiality of the birth and poetically. An ultra-quick tableau shot of Marie moments later with the baby in her arms suggests that the birth’s eroticism is tinged with death, as she is surrounded by flowers that could easily be funeral bouquets, and the following, final, anti-realist ‘oneiric vision’ (Breillat 1999a) of the elder Paul’s funeral similarly hints at death and perverse sexuality. Motherhood is presented in Romance as both an act and a condition of female power, physical and metaphysical, a victorious conclusion to the struggle of Marie’s transgressive sexual journey.

In this chapter I have introduced four of the film-makers central to this book – Andrea Arnold, Sally Potter, Agnès Varda and Catherine Breillat – and offered analysis of Fish Tank, Orlando, The Tango Lesson, The Beaches of Agnes, The Gleaners and I and Romance that shows how a feminist phenomenological approach can bring out the embodied agency, movements and actions of the films’ female protagonists better than any other mode of reading. In the next chapter I investigate the woman’s look in several female-authored films, returning first to Orlando and The Tango Lesson, then offering readings of Breillat’s Brief Crossing and Arnold’s Red Road that explore both agentic looking by women and a (feminist) existential phenomenological approach to vision.

[1] Ahmed (2006) is probably the main publication to date arising out of phenomenology’s interest to queer theoreticians.

[2] As commentators have pointed out, the dispersal of Orlando’s action over more than three centuries makes it better described as an ‘elegy’ than as a fictional biography or a novel: Woolf wrote it above all as a satire on the very grounded and chronological conventions of the literary biography.

[3] Orlando promises the fulfilment of a metaphysical quest where the question concerns what every being is in potentia of becoming’ (Degli-Esposti 1996: 82); ‘I would even go so far as to say that Orlando develops a utopian feminist voyage of “becoming” which can delicately “move”, inspire or amuse [its dispersed feminist] audience’ (Pidduck 1997: 172).

[4] ‘Bruises and Blisters’ is the title of Potter’s commentary on the film in Sight and Sound’s supplement to the 1997 London Film Festival, where she explains that after rehearsing the ‘tango for four’ she dances with Pablo and her two Buenos Airean teachers towards the end of the film, ‘it took two hours to be eased out of my shoes at the end of the day – a doctor in attendance to lance the blisters’ (Potter 1997: 7).

[5] ‘For us the point is not to take possession in order to internalize or manipulate, but rather to dash through and to “fly” (voler)’, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (Marks and de Courtviron 1981), 258. A translator’s note to ‘fly’ on this page explains how in French, Cixous puns on voler’s double meaning of ‘to fly’ and ‘to steal’ in this and subsequent sentences.

[6] The term ‘sex-pervasive’ is deployed to particular effect by Toril Moi (see Moi 1999). Moi links the birth of the sex/gender distinction (which like Iris Young she is critiquing in favour of feminist phenomenology, though only in Beauvoirean mode and less subtly) to the ‘pervasive picture of sex’ born with modern, Enlightenment feminism. Female anatomy began to be pictured as pervaded by sex/sexuality at this point in history, Moi claims, as Western culture moved from what Thomas Laqueur calls a ‘one-sex model’ to a ‘two-sex model’ of sexual difference (i.e., women’s reproductive organs began to be viewed as distinct from men’s rather than just ‘a different arrangement of the same parts’), and biological sex became ‘something that seeps out from the ovaries and the testicles and into every cell in the body until it has saturated the whole person’ (10, 11). ‘It is in the encounter with the pervasive picture of sex that the need for something like the sex/gender distinction is born’, Moi states (12). The idea of sex-pervasiveness seems to me to be particularly pertinent to the female walker or flâneuse, which even feminist criticism has had difficulty separating from the streetwalker, or prostitute.

[7] On the mix of installations into the film, see Bellour (2009).

[8] Husserl refers to the Lebenswelt, while one of the most precise formulations of Heidegger’s notion of ‘world’ can be found in Being and Time, and is summarized by David Farrell Krell in his introductory note to ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ as ‘the structural whole of significant relationships that Dasein experiences – with tools, things of nature, and other human beings’ (Heidegger 1977: 145).

[9] ‘Is this cinema a feminist cinema? No, because apart from the fact that she refrains from any propagandistic intentions, her films are sufficiently open to attract attention and sympathy to the female condition while managing not to impose any militant “messages”’ (Martin and Nacache 1988: 57; Prédal 1991: 20).

[10] ‘I started with the idea that women are attached to the home. So I attached myself to my home, literally, by imagining a new kind of umbilical cord. I attached an electric cable to the electric meter in my house which, when fully uncoiled, turned out to be 80 metres long. I decided to shoot Daguerrérotypes within that distance’ (Varda 1975: 39–40).

[11] Where French film is concerned, Martine Beugnet has been the closest and most prolific observer of haptic processes in the films of Claire Denis and other contemporary film-makers. See Beugnet (2007, 2006, 2004).

[12] When reflecting on The Gleaners and I in Deux ans après/Two Years On, Varda has to be alerted to the similarity between these sequences in her two films, having apparently not noticed it.

[13] A critique of Merleau-Ponty’s notions of the intertwining and the chiasmus is made by Irigaray in Part IV of An Ethics of Sexual Difference, titled ‘The Invisible of the Flesh: A Reading of Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, “The Intertwining – The Chiasm”’ (Irigaray 1993a: 151–184), but since this has in turn been convincingly challenged by Judith Butler, who points out that Irigaray’s critique is endebted to Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualization in ways Irigaray does not acknowledge (Butler 2006) – a very similar response to that of Dave Boothroyd to her critique of Levinas discussed in Chapter 1 – this chapter traces Varda’s implicit feminist challenge to Merleau-Ponty rather than adopting Irigaray’s explicit feminist critique.

[14] This view is borne out by the reading of the film made by Keesey (2009). Breillat borrows the term ‘décalogue’ from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s TV mini-series of one-hour films ‘The Decalogue’ (1989–90).