Women in Film Noir V – Is Film Noir’s Representation of the Domestic Sphere Subversive?

In the previous four articles (can be accessed here: I, II, III, IV) I argued that Film Noir represents women as conforming to two central archetypes. These archetypes – the redeemer and the destroyer – are founded on a moral dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate displays of desire. The redeemer exhibits legitimate desires and the destroyer displays excessive desires. I highlighted that this representation conforms to, and was informed by, the repressive structure of the Hays Code. I then noted that this representation can be located in two other Hollywood genres; the screwball comedy and melodrama. I cited Double Indemnity as an example of film noirs continuance of this tradition. As well as conforming to the structures and tradition of Hollywood (the Hays Code, screwball comedy and melodrama) I asserted that film noir’s representation of women is determined by its socio-historical context. I then concluded that the vast de- and re-territorialization of women during and after WWII can be seen as being reflected both directly and obliquely in Film Noir.

In this article, and following ones, I will further explore this claim. I will explore two counter-arguments which assert that film noir, although reflecting the dominant ideology in its narrative resolutions, is subversive. I will first explore the claim that the representation of the domestic sphere in film noir, rather than being repressive, suggests the beginnings of an attack on the institution of marriage. I will disagree and note that film noir represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage. I will therefore conclude that film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere does not constitute an attack on the institution of marriage. I will then explore the claim that the style of film noir subverts its own repressive structure. I will argue that the “powerful” moments of expression are not subversive but rather another standardized means of expressing and containing excessive ambition, lust and greed.

In contrast to my position that the narrative resolutions and characterization of Film Noir reaffirms the traditional conception of family and gender roles Sylvia Harvey argues that:

film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behavior which defy the patterns established for human social interaction, and which hint at a series of radical and irresolvable contradictions buried deep within the total system of economic and social interactions that constitute the know world.[1]

Harvey agrees that Film Noir utilizes the destroyer figure as an example of illegitimate and immoral excess but asserts that this does not serve to reaffirm the status quo. Harvey asserts that the destroyer figure and the representation of the domestic sphere communicate irresolvable inconsistencies at the heart of the dominant ideology. Harvey states that ‘it is the representation of the institution of the family… in film noir [which] serves as the vehicle for the expression of frustration’.[2] To Harvey, film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere subverts the film’s repressive conclusions. Harvey goes on to assert ‘the kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggest the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family’.[3] Whereas I argued that film noir narrative structure and characterization reaffirmed the traditional conception of the family and domestic sphere, Harvey asserts that film noir subverts and attacks the institution of family. To Harvey this subversion and attack on the traditional institution of family is articulated through film noir’s visual style. This negative portrayal of the domestic sphere can be located in Double Indemnity. The Dietrichson home isn’t represented as flourishing or the site through which relationships thrive. When Walter Neff first walks into Phyllis Dietrichson’s living room he remarks on how stale the room smells. The music which accompanies Walter’s entrance into the living room is also dark and disharmonious. The feeling of discontent is further represented through the mise-en-scene. As Walter walks into the living room bars of light are projected across his body which appears to refer to prison uniform. The living room furniture is also stark and the darkness of the room, in contrast to the brightness of the exterior shots, further illustrates the sombre atmosphere in the Dietrichson household. Harvey further notes that the family unit is traditionally the arena in which romantic love is fostered but in Double Indemnity the domestic space only offers death.[4] To Harvey, Double Indemnity’s representation of the domestic sphere as a stale, disharmonious and ultimately deadly place constitutes a ‘violent assault on the conventional values of family life’.[5] Harvey goes on to assert that:

[The] terrible absence of family relations [in film noir] allows for the production of the seeds of counter-ideologies. [This] absence or disfigurement of the family… may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life.[6]

Harvey believes that film noir both subverts the representation of the domestic sphere as well as facilitates the consideration of alternative non-repressive social institutions. Harvey concludes by asserting that ‘Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained’.[7] Harvey is therefore asserting that film noir’s repressive narrative resolutions cannot contain the subversive representation of the domestic sphere.[8]


[1]     Harvey, p. 22.

[2]     Harvey, p. 23.

[3]     Harvey, p. 23.

[4]     Harvey, p. 25.

[5]     Harvey, p. 31.

[6]     Harvey, p. 33.

[7]     Harvey, p. 33.

[8]     Harvey, p. 33.

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Criticising the Critics: Misogyny and the Postmodernism in Fatal Attraction

Along with other styles of articles I will be running a series which looks at important readings of a film from a film critic. I will analyse and explain their position concerning a text and explore where they hit and miss. My first film will be:

 

Fatal Attraction (1987)

 

Leighton Grist’s article ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ looks at several films and examines the allusions to film noir. Grist examines the stylistic and thematic allusion to film noir in Fatal Attraction. Grist notices that Fatal Attraction contains ‘self-conscious references to film noir’ and that it is ‘overtly structured upon an opposition of day and night, ‘normal’ and noir worlds.’.1These opposing worlds are indicated by the radically different mise-en-scene. The day is linked to the domestic Beth and the noir is linked to the femme fatal Alex. The domestic scenes use a slight yellow hue to produce a warm, homely affect. The scenes tend to be cluttered with activity and life. Beth mirrors her surroundings; she is warm, homely and active. She is also passive and dependant on Dan. The noir-styled night scenes that belong to the femme fatal Alex include rather less life. Important are the ‘dark corridors of [Alex’s] reconditioned apartment building… the cage-like lift… [and the] barren, sterile white of Alex’s apartment’.2The industrial motif attempts to communicate the rather basic mechanical and physical elements of a relationship between a man and a woman. As Dan stares out of a window we are shown a meat packing factory. The structure of Alex’s environment, and her character, is built from this cheap, dark and a mechanical atmosphere; Alex is borne out of the shadows. Alex and Beth are both stereotypical characters that are surrounded by stereotypical settings. The femme fatal Alex comes from a noir-like atmosphere and the homely Beth comes from a warm family setting. Grist argues that this is an attempt ‘to naturalise a misogynistic denial of ‘transgressive’ female (sexual) independence before a championing of woman’s ‘traditional’ subordinate domesticity.’3 Grist is explaining that Fatal Attraction’s adoption of two opposing female ‘types’ not only naturalises the belief that a woman may be one or the other but it also reaffirms the reactionary position that an independent and sexual woman is the catalyst for man, and societies, destruction. Independent or sexual woman have lead men to destruction in films such as Double Indemnity (1944), Body Heat (1981) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Grist is arguing that Fatal Attraction is misogynistic. Grist explains that although what Alex says is ‘broadly feminist, such as her demand that Dan face up to his responsibilities when she finds she’s pregnant’ her actions undermine this ‘as she moves from sexual aggression through self-mutilation and harassment to acts of violence and open criminality’.4 Grist is arguing that Fatal Attraction explicitly links Alex’s feminism to her crazed behaviour. Another important point is that in one scene Alex stares through the window and is made to look longingly at Beth domesticity as if there ‘is no other satisfying female role’ and therefore, in Grist’s opinion, affirming the misogynistic opinion that ‘it is what every woman ought to do’ .5

Grist offers an insightful and comprehensive reading of misogyny in Fatal Instinct however I believe, due to the postmodern nature of the film, that Grist underestimates the self-criticising self-aware nature of Adrian Lyne’s film. Concerning Alex living near the meat-packing factory. As Alex is a successful businesswoman, who should be able to afford a good view, her rather industrial and symbolic view is evidently used for its affect; a ironic affect. Her character is produced in a environment where it would be impossible, structurally, to be anything other than a femme fatal. Hollywood’s heritage of thrillers, film noirs and action-movies almost demands her to be mad. Fatal Instinct is postmodern in its dealing with film noir because it takes the femme fatal and noir imagery to the extreme where it can only exist as clique. Because she has to exist in this clique all she can ever be is clique. Hollywood has made her who she is and trapped her into being just a femme fatal. Rather tellingly Alex screams at Dan “This is what you reduced me to”, Alex understands that she is locked into being a femme fatal and she could be as easily understood as screaming at Hollywood and the audience as much as Dan. The excessive foregrounding of misogyny and Alex’s structurally inevitable femme fatal character indicates that Hollywood cinema and film noir are being criticised, explored and taken to the extreme. Taking an element of film to an extreme becomes a device to highlight the regularly accepted aspects of that particular film element. In Fatal Attraction the structural devices used to define and create character are criticised and taken to the extreme and in this way the film produces a postmodern critique of Hollywood and the femme fatal.

 

A side note should be made that Fatal Attraction, and all postmodern critiques, do tend to get away with having their cake and eating it; criticising the treatment of women and characterization as brutal while brutalizing them.

 

1Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ in Ian Cameron (ed), The Movie Book of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista, (1994), pp. 267-285 p. 275.

2Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

3Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

4Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

5Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.