23 November 2009

Drole de Felix and Western: Cultural Identity and Cultural Exchange in Two French Films

This essay, which I wrote as part of a European Film course is special to me due to my Lebanese lineage and French nationality. I am familiar with what it means to be a beur as conceived in the film, Drôle de Félix.

Beur is a collective term meaning 'Arabe' in verlan (French slang where word letters are reversed). While not having lived in France long enough to grapple with the conflicting experience of being perceived as a beur by fellow French citizens, I can envision that my father and his siblings, had they lived in France and not Senegal during their adult years, would have been regarded as beur and treated as such. Knowing about my father's low socio-economic background and his primary school level of education, and given his so called beur background, it is dubious whether living in France during the 70s and 80s would have blessed him with the opportunities that he was able to make for himself in Senegal.

Living in Senegal, we were though, French citizens with the ability to live in France. But it makes sense why my parents chose to emigrate to Australia, rather than France. They had justification to believe that more opportunities would exist for their children in Australia than in France. I am grateful to them.

At the same time, I recognise that there is a dark cloud looming. Australia has never experienced the 'Arab' presence that France due to its colonial past and its post-colonial policies has known for decades. What Australia will be like then, in the future, I do not know. But it remains disturbing to realise that the racial tensions in Cronulla, back in 2008 and the stereotypical hostility of NSW police vis-a-vis Lebanese youths are so reminiscent of themes in the French film, La Haine.

Vinz, Said and Hubert, in La Haine

There is a term in social psychology relating to intergroup relations, called the superordinate group. It is an umbrella identification that allows separate (ethnic or religious) groups to each retain their own unique identity but at the same time, to also be unified under one common identity, the superordinate group. For example, a high school student may feel strongly about being in the debating team but will also identify under a common Grade 12 group (the superordinate). Similarly a man may identify with being a Chinese migrant while also being an Australian citizen (the superordinate).

According to social psychologists, an ideal social structure for limiting conflict is one that respects the uniqueness of disparate groups while also advocating for one common, superordinate group. This structure allows groups to differentiate themselves (a primary need of group and individual identity) while also giving all groups a common goal and identity at the level of the superordinate group. It is this common goal and common identity that needs to prevail when conflicts are imminent between say, Lebanese Australians and White Australians. It must be salient enough to immediately impact on individual attitudes and ultimately cascade into individual and group behaviour.

Government policies, law-enforcing agents, the media and the judicial are key institutions that may help define the superordinate or alternatively, may negatively influence the individual to abandon any commonality they share with the superordinate group and instead revert to their disparate group identity.

Unfortunately aside from 'drink' (with its associated mateship) and 'sport', I honestly can not think of what it means to be Australian. It is further unfortunate that 'drink' can often lead to inebriation and conflict while 'sport' encourages people to think in terms of separate international and national teams. I think that's where the Australian superordinate breaks down.


Western (1997) and Drôle de Félix (2000) vary in their exploitation of the road movie genre and in the way their migrant or minority characters either assert or subdue their plural identities over the course of their journey. Both films feature the road movie theme of hospitality to advance notions relating to contemporary forms of migrant-host relations and the ideals of multiculturalism. In Western, hospitality is underlined by strict, yet unstated rules of exchange between guest and host. This essay focuses on the unusual hospitality exchange between the main characters, Nino and Paco. Meanwhile, Drôle de Félix employs hospitality themes to voice the unresolved national prejudice towards North African-French or beurs in France. Finally, both films use the strangers encountered along their characters’ journey to advocate a utopian ideal of non-biological family ties.

Western suggests that national identity is not just dependent on where one is from but is instead an all encompassing multicultural hybrid that transcends regional boundaries. To illustrate this message, Western’s narrative sees its characters proudly assert their complex identities. During a discussion with Jean-Baptiste, Nino introduces himself as a Russian immigrant of Italian origin, Paco indicates that he is a Spaniard of Catalan origin and Baptiste introduces himself as a Breton originating from the Ivory Coast. The three men jokingly keep count of strangers who betray more homogenous notions of identity, and certainly prejudice, by refusing to acknowledge a greeting or by asking one of the protagonists to “return to his country”. In this scene, Western essentially opposes traditional integrationist views of French identity. Western’s non-diegetic music supplements this discourse of plurality by becoming less matched to the character’s background over time. While an early scene pairs Andalusian music with scenes relating to the Spaniard, Paco, later scenes employ more hybrid music such as flamenco strings over shots of the Brittany countryside. The closing credits also follow this theme, with each crew member’s name appearing beside the flags of their home country and countries of origin in recognition of their complex identity. Together, the music and credits echo the film’s ideology by evincing an acceptance for plural identities.

Catalan Paco and Nino the Russian migrant of Italian origin

Western also exploits the road movie genre using the theme of hospitality to examine how migrants may belong to a host country but only on certain conditions. While it is true that Paco and Nino encounter various strangers who lay out their own hospitality rules, the focus of this essay is the hospitality that the two protagonists offer each other and the conditions they unconsciously impose on their respective invitation. Throughout Western, Paco and Nino effectively invite each other to stay with newly met acquaintances and each find their hospitality expectations violated. Nino invites Paco to a dinner with Guénalle and her sister with the expectation that perhaps the two men will find their attractions reciprocated and will enjoy a good time, or that Paco will not have a romantic advantage. As it turns out, only Paco invites the women’s attraction which ultimately enrages Nino during a wedding scene. Conversely, when Paco invites Nino to Nathalie’s place, he does so, never expecting that Nino will become Nathalie’s romantic interest and to a degree, his invitation hinges on this very condition. However when the rules of hospitality are transgressed such that Nathalie and Nino grow closer, Paco seethes and becomes aggressive towards Nino. At the national level, this form of hospitality could be defined as a metaphor for the host country whereby as explained by Rosello (9) the migrant is welcomed to France on the condition that he works cheaply or that the host country benefits in some way. This form of hospitality demands that if guests or migrants are to be accepted, they must serve a purpose and certainly not gain more success than their hosts.

Unlike the overtly stated hybrid identities in Western, Drôle de Félix’s narrative tends to underplay Félix’s beur background with the protagonist appearing to identify mostly with being Norman. To begin, Félix seems at home in a world that contrasts sharply with the poverty, crowding, low- income and poor education that typifies the beur’s banlieu (Rosello 5). The well groomed Félix is seen enjoying a seafood dinner in an expensive French restaurant with his Gallic partner. Interior shots of their apartment provide a glimpse of Western contemporary portraits hanging on the wall. Félix’s level of education is also apparent when he points out the oddity of featuring Aristotle on a cathedral. Finally, Félix’s addiction to soap operas hints to an affinity with French popular culture through television. Félix not only appears as a fully integrated Northern French, he seems matter-of-fact with his marginal identities of homosexual and HIV positive individual. To illustrate what Pratt refers to as “incidental” homosexuality and HIV-status (89), Félix is shown routinely sorting pills and casually discussing new HIV drugs in a clinic to highlight the mundane aspect of his illness. In addition, nude scenes with his partner and his “cousin”, together with a visit to a gay bar with his “brother”, indicate that Félix is at peace with his homosexual identity. By contrast, the only hint that Félix may partly identify with his beur background is the non-diegetic Maghrebi music which sometimes accompanies his road journey and his opposition to the extreme-right Front National party.

Despite what seems an understated beur identity, Félix remains conscious of how he is often negatively perceived as beur by others. The racist crime in Rouen and Félix’s subsequent hesitation at the police station recalls a softer version of La Haine (1995). That is, both films allude to multi- ethnic tensions and what Hayward and Vincendeau (321) refer to as French police intolerance vis-a-vis Arab youths. In La Haine, one of the characters indicates that “an Arab does not survive for more than an hour in a police station”. This intertextuality may explain the fear and shame that overwhelm Félix as he witnesses a beur youth in handcuffs and decides to avoid the French police. Through his fear, Félix is suddenly confronted with his undesirable beur identity as seen by others, including the prejudiced bar owner. Drôle de Félix suffers from what O’ Shaughnessy calls “a refusal of a narrative of origin” (151) because Félix avoids dealing with his beur identity.

Following his encounter with the crime scene, Félix’s journey to supposedly find his father is put into question. In fact, it can be envisaged as a subterfuge to both run away from Rouen but also to run away from himself and a beur identity which he finds difficult to endorse in view of the shame it arouses. Félix’s quest is first put into question when Mathilde refuses to believe that he is looking for his father. Mathilde remarks that he is using the road trip as an excuse. Later, after a car collusion, where Félix is insulted, he pre- empts further insults by asking the other driver, “Why don’t you call me a dirty Arab while you’re at it?” This outburst hints to his mental preoccupation and self-consciousness.

What invites consternation is that Félix is so comfortable with his homosexuality or his dramatic illness and never overtly grieves at being unemployed but all the while feels so much shame from his ethnic background due to social and racial prejudice. The film never resolves Félix’s shame. This lack of resolution serves as a metaphor for how, in France, unfavourable notions of beurs and their often unjustified link to crime continue unabated whereas homosexuality, HIV and unemployment are to some degree treated with more supportive social structures (Pratt 89).

In terms of family belonging, both Western and Drôle de Félix suggest that shared biological background does not dictate a person’s sense of belonging. On a national level, this parallels Western’s focus on multiculturalism as a utopian ideal. In a mirroring shot of Félix and his “grandmother” having breakfast, Mathilde is presented as similar to Félix in her television habits and drug ingestion routine. They are also both alone, her as an elderly disenchanted by her relatives and him to the degree that he is an orphan. The two are harmoniously engaged even though they differ in age and ethnic background. Along his road journey, Félix effectively meets with his “brother”, “cousin”, “grandmother”, “sister” and “father”.

Mathilde and Félix - soulmates

Drôle de Félix's structure therefore alludes to the question of non-biological family ties with Félix slowly beginning to understand that biological bonds are not necessary for a sense of belonging and happiness. One of the turning points for Félix’s family concept is when one of Isabelle’s sons tries to convince him of the legitimacy of his many stepfathers. Meanwhile, the “father”, a disatisfied family man, chooses to fish to get away from his family yet has a wonderful time flying a kite with Félix. This highlights the notion that people can in fact be miserable in their own biological family. Félix’s journey eventually curbs his need for a biological father so that he ends up venturing to Corsica with his partner. Western hints to similar family ideals through Nathalie’s passion for having children from different fathers and ethnic backgrounds. Nathalie’s joyful altruism regarding her multi-ethnic family contrasts with France’s unfulfilled pledge (Rosello 3) to be a truly altruistic host sheltering migrants from many different countries. At the national level then, both films advocate for multicultural communities where origin and blood relations make little difference as to whether people can co-exist happily or not.

Works Consulted:

Drôle de Félix. Dir. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, Pyramide Productions, 2000.

Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette. French Film: Texts and Contexts. London, UK: Routledge, 2000.

La Haine. Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz. Optimum Home Entertainment, 1995.

O’Shaughnessy, Martin. The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film Since 1995. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.

Pratt, Murray. “Félix and the Light-Hearted Gay Road Movie: Genre, Families, Fathers and the Decolonization of the Homosexual Self.” Australian Journal of French Studies, 41.3 (2004): 88-101.

Rosello, Mireille. “Introduction: Immigration and Hospitality.” Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 1-22.

Western. Dir. Manuel Poirier. Lionsgate, 1997.

13 November 2009

Authenticism in Almodóvar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre

What does it mean to be real? To be genuine? This essay describes how Todo Sobre Mi Madre’s characters, as actors or actresses, either on stage or in real life, contribute to a discourse on authenticity. It focuses on the binary opposition between acting and being real, or between contrasting environments, and posits that Todo Sobre Mi Madre often deconstructs these oppositions to arrive at Almodóvar’s meaning on true authenticity. Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999) constructs a pluralistic discourse on authenticity which is grounded not only in Almodóvar’s life experience but also on his recurrent ideologies on sexual fluidity and identity.

Beyond Stereotypes
Todo Sobre Mi Madre argues that authenticity rests on a person’s diversity and on what Fouz-Hernández and Expósito term “avoidance of stereotypes” (160). For example, it highlights the binary oppositions inherent in Rosa’s character to present an argument about her authenticity. Rosa is a beautiful young woman who as stereotypes would have it, could easily thrive in a worldly existence. Instead, much like a Jesus figure, she engages in social work, caring for marginal individuals like transvestite prostitutes. As exemplified by her selfless devotion to others, Rosa is a diligent nun with a heart of gold. But she nevertheless secretly breaks her vows by engaging in illicit sexual exchanges until she eventually falls pregnant to no other than transvestite, Lola. To multiply contradictions, Rosa is also a martyr figure who, after courageously carrying her pregnancy full term even despite an atmosphere of maternal disapproval, dies tragically, leaving behind what in Franco’s days would be called a sinful, HIV ridden body. Rosa is therefore painted as a fluid character. Her multiple facets run contrary to expectations. For example, her naivety vis-a-vis Lola remains perplexing given her regular exposure to transgender prostitutes and therefore to the worldlier side of life.

Penelope Cruz as Rosa

What is to make of such complexity in a single individual if only that it informs the viewer of the multi-dimensional nature of authenticity? As the narrative would have it, Rosa is also the love child who, following her death, is fondly mourned by all. This elevates Rosa to saintly status on the grounds that she transcended both morality and sexuality. According to Almodóvar then, Rosa’s authenticity results from the diversity of her character and the deconstruction of dichotomies whether these imply naivety/worldliness, innocence/depth or even beauty/disease and finally, the ubiquitous saint/whore. On broader terms, this non-stereotypical authenticity mirrors El Deseo’s production values “to push the boundaries of genre” (Triana-Toribio 158).

Acting Out Inner Desires
Todo Sobre Mi Madre suggests that often, playing a role, far from alienating an individual from who they really are, can ultimately liberate them, drawing them to a closer understanding of their own desires or their true nature. As evidenced by close ups of Manuela watching A Street Car Named Desire, the aggrieved mother is deeply moved with Stella’s character. Manuela’s obsession with Stella is attributed to the parallels she recognises between the stage character and her own experience with Esteban’s father. Manuela’s performance as Stella therefore becomes only natural and it attracts positive feedback precisely because it is heartfelt. Performances are portrayed as tools for catharsis rather than for imposture.

During one stage scene, we watch the new Stella cry intensely from labor pains. The narrative’s focus on that moment of Manuela’s performance can be read as a suggestion that her pain on stage echoes her real life grief and her longing desire to give birth again to her son. In other words, it infers that her performance has become a vehicle for her unexpressed desire to regain her lost son. This is further evidenced by Manuela’s later eagerness to adopt the new little Esteban and take him with her to Madrid. Overall, Todo Sobre Mi Madre's performances can be read as therapeutic means of tapping into one’s true nature and desires. In what Garlinger cautiously refers to as “an identification with women on the part of a gay director” (Garlinger 120), this existence by proxy may well be familiar to Almodóvar. The director has often focused on women who are over represented in his films (D’Lugo, 29, 63). Just as Manuela identifies with Stella and vocalises through Stella, Todo Sobre Mi Madre's director may find personal expression and authenticity through the women in his films.

Resembling Your Dream of Yourself
According to Almodóvar, being true to your own self, having self-integrity is the key to true authenticity. On the surface, Agrado and Lola’s transgender behaviours could be read as shallow. That is, they both recall the stereotypical drag queens that assume their new sexuality through excess, show and appearance. This reading would agree with Spanish film scholars who have often attacked Almodóvar for what they saw in his films as “shallow character development” (D’Lugo 9). But as claimed by Agrado: “A woman is authentic only in so far as she resembles her dream of herself. Todo Sobre Mi Madre indicates that what makes a person real is not their body but their sentiment (Garlinger 123), what is inside of them. Agrado’s stage performance is a camp discourse but far from being a shallow parody of gay culture, it is a strong affirmation of the authenticity of gay sentiments and the authenticity of being gay.

The refreshing and honest Agrado

Agrado is saying that she has physically transformed herself not because she is essentially a fake but because what is inside of her longed to find form and expression. In his discourse on authenticity, Almodóvar also “draws attention to the construction of the body” (Fouz-Hernández & Expósito 159). By highlighting her highly engineered body, Agrado not only alludes to her own construction but also to the construction of all women. All women, not only the men who desire to be them, are more or less subject to highly demanding aesthetic rules. The efforts required to attain feminine ideals render women no less fabricated than the men who desire the female form. By equating her efforts to those of other women, Agrado becomes as authentic as any of them.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre
's narrative also indicates that true authenticity is not achieved by merely projecting a cohesive self to others. Rosa’s mum is an example of a person who wishes to project an idea of herself to others and who in fact falls short of this image. As a morally self-righteous, cynical individual, Rosa’s mum scorns her daughter’s sexual affair and refuses to have anything to do with prostitutes or other marginal individuals. For example, she will not suffer a transvestite holding her grandchild, let alone endorse the reality that such a marginal figure is actually the child’s father.

Lola, Rosa and Manuela's common lover

Yet, for all her claims of propriety as mother and grandmother, Rosa’s mum is a deceitful individual. She is an artist who forges work and passes them as real. What makes her inauthentic is her inability to openly acknowledge her own fabrications: Rosa’s mum truly believes that she is a morally upright individual. Yet another way in which the narrative questions her authenticity is in her desire to hide that her grandson is HIV positive. This dissimulation of truth for safeguarding one’s reputation as a proper citizen of the world contrasts sharply with Agrado’s shameless revelation of her own construction. It renders Rosa’s mum inauthentic.

On Nationalism...
In terms of nationalism, the film suggests that authenticity within a person’s background is not lessened by the fluidity of their homes and their migration across different worlds. To illustrate this, Todo Sobre Mi Madre highlights several migrations across opposing worlds. There is Manuela, a downtrodden mother fleeing underground Barcelona to raise a child and establish a respected, professional status in Madrid. There is Manuela’s return to underground Barcelona to find her husband following Esteban’s death. It is followed by another journey to Madrid to raise a substitute son away from his prejudiced grandmother. These migrations illustrate the relative importance of each place in shaping Manuela’s character. Madrid sees Manuela evolve into a self-sufficient career women and mother but Barcelona is the setting where she finds joy and solidarity among friends. The underground world, both on and off the stage, also plays an important part in her personal development including her reconciliation with her husband. Madrid and Barcelona while representing opposite realms nevertheless both contribute to Manuela’s identity. The film’s argument is that people do not just originate from a single place or environment, nor can they claim a single socio economic background that will mark them for life but rather, people can in fact be shaped and evolve in largely disparate worlds each contributing to their character and their authenticity.

This argument on authentic identity across disparate worlds reflects Almodóvar’s journeys both in life and in cinema. Like Manuela, the director emerged from humble beginnings in a Manchegan village which saw him migrate to Caceres in La Mancha and then onto Madrid where he taught himself film making (D’Lugo 15). All these places have inflected upon the director’s way of seeing things and representing them on screen. For example, he claims “My sister had a fashion design shop in Extramadura, and that world stayed with me” (D’Lugo 5). Almodóvar’s migration as director is equally evoked. Where once the stringent moral laws of the 70s made Barcelona’s underground film festivals the few places where Almodóvar could screen his short films (D’ Lugo 15), today the director has arisen “from a marginal figure within a marginal film culture to international prominence” (D’Lugo 4).

Works Consulted:

Todo Sobre Mi Madre. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, El Deseo S.A., 1999.

D’Lugo, Marvin. Pedro Almodóvar. Springfield, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Fouz-Hernández, Santiago and Expósito, Alfredo Martínez. Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema. London, UK:I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Garlinger, Patrick Paul. All About Agrado, or the Sincerity of Camp in Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre. Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, 5.1(2004): 117-134.

Triana-Tiribio, Nuria. Journeys of El Deseo Between the Nation and the Transnational in Spanish Cinema. Studies in Hispanic Cinema, 4.3(2007): 151-163.

I wrote this essay as part of a European Film course.

4 November 2009

Facebook - Your Meddling Relationship Advisor

I previously mentioned the lack of diplomacy that Facebook showed in dealing with its Unfriending feature. But this is a little more serious.

Check this. Now Facebook has taken to telling me what to do with my friends. Yes, Mr Facebook here, thinks it knows what's best for me and my relationships.

Recently while viewing my Live Feed I accidentally glanced on the far right only to see a couple of Suggestions, each featuring a photo of one of my friends.
One of them said, "You haven't spoken in a while."
Mark that...
And just below that profound observation was the magic social healing suggestion: "Poke Her!"


Poke Her. As if that would solve anything. What an insight. I've poked people in my time so believe me, the Lack of Poking has never been a sign of social ineptness on my part! But now, to be bullied by a PHP application into Poking my friends, no, that's going a little too far.

Another friendly advice told me that I should Suggest some new friends to one of my friends. Facebook was concerned that: "She only has 17 friends".
Obviously Facebook thinks that 17 Friends is something to be ashamed of. Facebook wants everyone to be a social climber and value quantity over quality. Facebook, you should be ashamed of yourself!

Please do not become paranoid about this mysterious Facebook ability to meddle in your private affairs. You have to understand that by joining Facebook and therefore storing your private business in its servers, you take as much a risk as you do joining GMail or any other online service...But be reassured that no human is actively stalking you and monitoring your activities on the Evil-Facebook-Control panel while munching on popcorn.

Well except if you call an auditing programming algorithm a stalker...I've come from an IT background and that algorithm is not difficult to implement, it's just a matter of programmatically auditing particular Wall to Wall interactions between two users during a particular time and introducing rules that alert the Facebook user when those interaction rates are too low. So Facebook evidently has the knowledge to surmise who I interact with most and who I have neglected for a while.

But should it care? And is it really Facebook's business? And while meddling into my private affairs, should it really try to shove it's own narcissistic and superficial social values in my face?
Hell no.

I am not really outraged, only amused.

Because it could be worse.
I could be glancing to the far right and seeing the well meaning suggestion:
"Don't forget to reply to Tania and tell her about your new crush at work."
Now that would be amusing to me but it would drive most non-IT people up the wall. (Get it, the Wall? oh, well I thought it was funny.)

Because like Google Mail which uses content intelligence to display relevant advertisements while you view your emails, I gather that Facebook also has the capability to gather insight about the gist of your Messages...and whether you've replied to them or not!

Anyway I wanted to post this because I think it is very rude to meddle.

2 November 2009

Picnic at Hanging Rock - Reviewing the Critiques and the Cult

This essay examines the cultural and critical reception of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) over the last thirty years. The first part of the analysis draws upon O’Regan’s formations of value (111) together with the cultural and film making policies of the 1970s and 1980s to illustrate how these concerns have informed critical perceptions of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The second part examines new ways of seeing this film. By evaluating a number of critical and cultural sources, this essay explains how Picnic at Hanging Rock is now elevated to cult status in a way that mythologises Australian national identity. Finally, it highlights Picnic at Hanging Rock's uniqueness as an example of Lotman’s “fifth stage” (quoted in O’Regan 222) in cultural transfer.

In terms of O’Regan’s formations of value, there is a trend in 1970s critical reception of Picnic at Hanging Rock to reconfigure Australian film as a credible cinema and emerging artistic elite. This follows from a government driven desire to compete with dominant Hollywood mainstream by either devaluing US productions in terms of their popularity and lack of prestige or moving away from classical US narratives (O’Regan 115). A fine example of this formation of value is provided in McGuiness’ review of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Here, the emphasis is on aesthetics and cinematic sensitivity as a testament to the film’s quality (188). By comparing Weir to Swedish director Bo Widerberg, McGuinness implies that Australian film is capable of reaching European standards. This valorisation positions European cinema as an artistic and prestigious benchmark to aspire to. Meanwhile, it downplays the rival Hollywood cinema. Through repeated focus on the mysterious aspects of the film, McGuinness also highlights the elusive quality of the narrative which is a further departure from US cinematic values. By stressing Picnic at Hanging Rock's favourable reception in national audiences, (189) he evokes the discernment and taste that must evidently exist in Australian audiences and so too, within Australian culture.

Picnic as art and quality

By contrast, Tudor’s formation of value defines Picnic at Hanging Rock in much the same way as a Hollywood film. His formation of value distinguishes the film as a dominant mainstream production within the national cinema. His review criticises Weir’s heavy use of symbols and imagery at the cost of the narrative (212). He scorns the film for an over reliance on style which takes away from any presumed quality. The narrative’s open-endedness and the film’s aimless focus on the unresolved investigation are seen as deliberate. According to Tudor, the director seeks to mystify audiences for commercial value. In his view, the film’s success indicates that the filmmaker must have pandered to national audiences (212). The result is that Picnic at Hanging Rock is envisaged as a box office hit, sustained by a tenuous narrative and laden with bemusing art direction. Tudor expresses a value system that divides Australian national cinema into two types of films whose respective natures emulate either the Hollywood mainstream or the national cinema. In his view, Picnic at Hanging Rock employs “an overly close association with commercial values and the market.” (O’Regan 127)

Miranda, elusive and bemusive

Ian Hunter’s 1970 critical analysis is informed by a yet another formation of value. Hunter’s review is further underpinned by an ideological malaise and a refusal to see the film’s relevance with national reality. His antagonism reflects a national desire to define an Australian identity independent from British influence. Hunter reads Picnic at Hanging Rock as tying Australia to Victorian, class-based and religious ideologies whereby only the palest, most beautiful corseted females like Miranda, can gain entry into another world and where the “worship of beauty and nature in this scheme of things has its roots in the love of suffering and death” (Hunter 192). According to Hunter, perceiving the beauty of Hanging Rock equates to a love of death by sacrifice which is painfully akin to concepts of religious suffering and rigid Victorian discipline. Hunter also qualifies Picnic at Hanging Rock as pro-British and having “nothing to do with this country” (191). His formation of value effectively devalues national cinema because of its “regressive and conservative values” (O’Regan 131).

Picnic as 'conservative' and 'pro-British'

In the 1980s, the desire to qualify national cinema as consisting of worthy and recognisable ‘types’ of films that could directly compete with Hollywood genre films, led several critics to retrospectively ascribe a generic interpretation to Picnic at Hanging Rock. Even today the redefinition of Australian films in terms of their generic conventions is seen as advantageous (Moran & Vieth 2) and improves insight into the richness of Australian cinema. For example, McFarlane interprets Picnic at Hanging Rock as falling into the Horror genre. He associates the beauty of Hanging Rock with the “lurking horror” (62) of the girl’s unexplained disappearance. His conception of landscape as beautiful yet treacherous echoes Gibson’s argument (48) that Australian films have used mise-en-scene to give meaning to the landscape and that this meaning is usually tainted by European fear towards the indomitable Australian land.

The ominous Hanging Rock

A recent analysis of cinematic representations of missing children also lends a horror quality to Picnic at Hanging Rock if only to explain the film as a psychological apparatus that allowed Australians to replay and mourn the unsettling reality of their children’s disappearance in the bush (Wilson 8). Wilson states that films which explore these disturbing issues often “angelise” (10) their missing subjects. Similarly, Miranda is compared to a Boticelli angel by her teacher, Dianne de Poitiers. The film’s lack of resolution is a “mode of respect” (Wilson 4) when dealing with a difficult subject as emotionally horrifying as the death of innocents who have gone missing.

The last fifteen years, has seen more documentary film making and audience interest for docudramas that merge fact with fiction. It follows that Picnic at Hanging Rock has been culturally received as a mystery rather than as a period film (Ebert np). Underlying this cultural reception is a desire for audiences to become more involved in the text and to engage with a speculated truth. The late 1990s, saw a rising cultural focus on the possible true event behind the story. The film was increasingly envisaged as a fictionalised dramatisation of some fateful real event. No longer limiting itself to the open ended narrative which offers no solution regarding the college girls’ disappearance, the new mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock now resides in resolving whether or not its narrative is derived from fact. This is illustrated by the paraphernalia accompanying the film’s 2001 limited edition DVD. Production notes accompanying the DVD, highlighted a possible hidden truth behind the story. During shooting, producer Patricia Lovell is said to have reported “We are having trouble with time here. All our watches seem to be playing up. Mine stopped at 6.00 p.m” (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”). This lends credence to the uncanny magnetic effect that the Hanging Rock site has on the character’s watches or sense of time and suggests a factual background to the story.

With Picnic at Hanging Rock alluding to mystery, national identity was mythologised to its own advantage. The film’s limited edition DVD package was launched by none other than the film’s elusive Miranda, actress Anne Lambert. In a well scripted interview programmed by ABC Television (Murphy np), Anne Lambert alludes to Joan Lindsay’s strange behaviour during shooting, whereby the author proceeded to hug Anne and call her “Miranda”. There is no doubt that recent trends in cultural reception of Picnic at Hanging Rock welcome speculation as to whether Miranda existed and that the author may have known her. This reception serves a cultural purpose because it gives rise to a mystical Australianness replete with literature secrets and natural mysteries. Through this paradigm, it no longer matters that modern Australian circumstance remains elusive and continues to evade cinematic capture since that is after all, the very nature of the mysterious.


While Picnic at Hanging Rock's enigma titillated national audiences, the film became seen as a cult film both locally and internationally (Denis np; Le Vern 1). This is due in some part to the mythologising of the Australian landscape. The Hanging Rock location became associated with eerie happenings arousing both curiosity and wonder while inciting tourist visits (Murphy np). One French movie reviewer goes as far as claiming “it is no coincidence that the disappearance takes place on an aboriginal site: this only amplifies the magic of the events; with those who disappear becoming virgins who are sacrificed to ancient gods 1” (Le Vern 3). These terms enhance Picnic at Hanging Rock as an exotic “Other” to be consumed by those eager to discover the legends and secrets of a remote land.

But it is not only through myth that the film has gained world repute. The international success of director Peter Weir means that Picnic at Hanging Rock is often written about as part of an auteur’s trilogy of work along with The Cars that Ate Paris and The Last Wave. Rayner qualifies Weir’s work as evincing “a stylistic unity in which European and American concepts of auteurism emerge” (12). Weir has earned his mark of auteurship and his films, including Picnic at Hanging Rock are internationally recognised as works of art (Rayner 12).

If there is an Australian film that alludes to Australian cinema as a “disseminator of culture” (quoted in O’Regan 222), it would be Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film has been recognised as a possible inspiration or a model that can inspire Hollywood film. Several film reviews (Le Vern 1; Ebert np; “Death and the Maidens” np) dealing with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) favourably allude to Picnic at Hanging Rock either as Coppola’s inspiration or as an audience point of reference. Both films are seen as dealing with a group of young girls' reaction to a repressive institution and their eventual death. Le Vern states that “those who have appreciated the melancholy of Sofia Coppola’s sugary requiem must imperatively discover its ancestor of 25 years” 2.

Melancholy in Virgin Suicides

Accordingly, The Virgin Suicides becomes an imitative cinema based on an Australian film. Australian cinema is elevated as an originator of ideas and a forerunner of aesthetic value from which a Hollywood film can be modelled. This is a reversal of Lotman’s fourth stage because it is the Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock that becomes a model to be copied and extended elsewhere (O’Regan 221). After thirty years, Picnic at Hanging Rock has evolved from a second stage film concerned with looking into the past (O’Regan 19) to be recognised as an original source of world culture, or fifth stage cinema.


1Ce n'est pas hasardeux si la disparition a lieu sur un site aborigène: cela ne fait qu'amplifier la magie des évènements; les disparues devenant des vierges que l'on sacrifie aux anciens dieux.

2Ceux qui ont apprécié la mélancolie du requiem doucereux de Sofia Coppola doivent impérativement découvrir son ancêtre de vingt-cinq ans.

Works Consulted:

“Death and the Maidens”. BFI – Sight and Sound. April 2000. 28 August 2008

Denis, Emmanuel. “Pique-Nique a Hanging Rock”. DeVilDead: Le Cinéma Fantastique en DVD. Undated. 4 September 2008 http://www.devildead.com/indexfilm.php3?FilmID=858

Ebert, Roger. “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. Rogerebert.com. 2 August 1998. 2 Sep 2008

Ebert, Roger. “The Virgin Suicides”. Rogerebert.com. 5 May 2000. 28 August 2008

Gibson, Ross. “Camera Natura: Landscape in Australian Feature Film.” Framework 22.3 (1983): 47-51.

Hunter, Ian. “Corsetway to Heaven: Looking Back to Hanging Rock: 1976”. An Australian Film Reader. Eds. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan. Paddington, NSW: Currency Press, 1985. 190-93.

Le Vern, Romain. “Le Coin du Cinéphile: Pique-Nique a Hanging Rock”. DVDrama. Undated. 4 September 2008 http://www.dvdrama.com/news-27907-le-coin-du-cinephile-pique-nique-a-hanging-rock.php

McFarlane, Brian. “Horror and Suspense”. The New Australian Cinema. Ed. Murray, Scott. West Melbourne, VIC: Nelson, 1980.

McGuinness, P. P. “Peter Weir’s Hauntingly Beautiful Film Makes the Film World Sit Up:1975”. An Australian Film Reader. Eds. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan. Paddington, NSW: Currency Press, 1985. 188-89.

Moran, Albert and Vieth, Errol. Film in Australia: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Murphy, Justin. “No Picnic at Hanging Rock”. ABC Television. 8 August 2004. 28 August, 2008 http://www.abc.net.au/tv/rewind/txt/s1168554.htm (transcript)

O’Regan, Tom. Australian National Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Picnic at Hanging Rock. Dir. Peter Weir. Picnic Productions, 1975.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock”. Picnic at Hanging Rock Limited Edition. Undated. 2 Sep 2008. http://www.picnicathangingrock.info/weir/weir.html#prodnotes

Rayner, Jonathan. The Films of Peter Weir. London and New York: Cassell, 1998.

Rayner, Jonathan. Contemporary Australian Cinema. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.

The Virgin Suicides. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Paramount Home Videos, 1999.

Tudor, Andrew. “The Aussic Picture Show”. An Australian Film Reader. Eds Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan. Paddington, 1985. 211-14.

Wilson, Emma. Cinema’s Missing Children. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003.

I wrote this research article in 2008 as part of an Australian Cinema course.

Mr and Mrs Smith - Spectacle vs Aristotelian Action

In this essay, I will examine Mr & Mrs Smith as an essentially anti-Aristotelian action film. I will argue that it favours spectacle at the expense of dramatic, Aristotelian action by highlighting its lack of concern for a morally challenging, ethically inspired, character-driven resolution (Leitch 112-113). I will illustrate how this anti-Aristotelian film engages its audiences primarily through spectacles of a sexual nature until it is forced to adopt staged violence to sustain further interest. Finally, drawing from the essential masculinity of female action figures (Leitch 117), I will explore the way Mrs Smith’s positioning in relation to Mr Smith successfully lends credence to her potency as action figure while her combined male-gendered and female-gendered traits create an element of surprise which contributes to the film’s spectacle.

The action in Mr & Mrs Smith is anti-Aristotelian because its characters are not concerned with making decisive actions that would morally distinguish them and which would shift events in the direction of a resolution. In Mr & Mrs Smith, disagreement is a prelude to physical violence rather than debate and as such, the film is “invested in the staging of conflict as spectacle rather than in its resolution” (Leitch 112). The ethical question posed quite early in the narrative is whether a husband or wife, each a professional assassin, would kill their spouse if hired to do so. This is a morally confronting question for two married individuals, one which, coupled with years of mutual secrets should lead to much painful decision making on behalf of each party or at least several heated discussions that would make for engaging dialogue. However as Leitch asserts, today’s action films have little to gain from presenting dialogue to their viewers (112). Instead, the issue of marital miscommunication is hushed to make way for exhibitions of the couple’s expertise as assassins and showcase their highly trained, skilled bodies. Thus follows a series of episodic, fast-paced, physically charged scenes where husband and wife flaunt their perfect bodies and attempt to outrun and outsmart each other.

Mr & Mrs Smith evidently sees spectacle as more important than resolution. The scenes immediately preceding and following the revelation of the couple’s double identity are executed through rapid editing, with repeated attention to stunts, technological know-how and verbal sparring. Apart from a scene where Mrs Smith angrily reviews her wedding video, there is no evidence of deep psychological introspection in either character and as such, their Aristotelian agency towards maturation and transformation is limited. The couple occasionally exchange bitter words which reveals their competitiveness and introduces a comic element but which nevertheless evinces a lack of depth or negotiation given the circumstances. Stunts seem to equate the bodily mastery over space as action, in an attempt to testify again and again for the Smith’s credibility as action figures (Leitch 115).

"Look what I can do!"

For example, Mrs Smith fearlessly escapes from her high tower by gliding across the city on a pulley, a feat which would be remarkable if it did not already recall her descent from the top of a hotel. The film also repeatedly showcases technology not only as “extensions of the body” (118) but also as testament to the film makers’ up-to-date-ness. This technological parade includes heat tracking binoculars, an array of monitors running complex applications, Mr Smith’s impressive guns and even some strategic product placement as Mrs Smith operates a Kodak camera.

In terms of spectacle, Mr & Mrs Smith is also underlined by an exciting, sadomasochistic economy with Mrs Smith being the dangerous, “unconventionally active and aggressive” woman and Mr Smith “as submissive and wanting” (Aaron 80). The suspenseful sexual tension combines with a destructive spectacle and rises to a peak as husband and wife physically trash each other and their house, reaching levels of excitement that eventually and violently consummate them, affording audiences with a pleasurable release. In what seems like a moral dilemma, Mr Smith challenges Mrs Smith to shoot him and for a second, her face distorts under the pain of the decision. But in fact, once the couple is reconciled, their decision not to kill each other, far from having arisen from some real transformation, is assumed to have resulted from the renewed spark in their sexual life. As if it were not enough, the indirect allusion to the actors’ off-screen relationship imbues this make-out scene with added voyeuristic pleasure. It is this sexually tinted spectacle that unravels at the expense of Aristotelian action.

"This is what we get up to offscreen, as well!"

Mr & Mrs Smith remains anti-Aristotelian by concerning itself with the kinaesthetic performances and explosive spectacles that it provides, rather than with its “dramatic unity of action” (Leitch 105). If this were unified Aristotelian action, the Smiths would have combined forces and advanced against their common enemy since the start of the film. Instead, the couple is pitted against each other for a good part of the film. The happy revival of the Smith libido would presage the film’s conclusion were it not for the late introduction of the couple’s common enemy. Having staged yet another reason for more spectacle, where it is the duty of the couple to battle against a third party and protect each other and their marriage, the film does not hesitate to feature Mr and Mrs Smith in further mind blowing, explosive battle scenes. In light of the film’s narrative, the final battle scene in the store seems redundant. Yet it is the most explosive, the loudest and the most destructive on a large scale.

Oh no, the audience wants the set destroyed..what shall we do next?

Rather than succeeding by becoming more masculine, as Leitch would have it (117), Mrs Smith emerges as a potent adversary through her positioning in relation to the male action figure, Mr Smith. In addition, she provides an element surprise that not only disconcerts her male opponent but also challenges viewers’ expectations. Like many of her female hero counterparts, notably Alias and Charlies Angel, Mrs Smith retains her sexually alluring appearance (Coon 2). Mrs Smith’s surprise element resides in the implausibility of her characteristics. On appearance, she remains an icon of glamorous femininity: full, sensual lips; feminine curves; impossibly toned, thin limbs and glorious long hair. But as her dominatrix outfit semiotically suggests early on in the film, Mrs Smith is a powerful female. We have evidence that she is more technically proficient than her husband. When fighting him, she can deliver the punches equally well as take them. We also learn that unlike him, she has no qualms about using physical violence to extract information from a spy hence indicating that she is more aggressive in male-gendered terms. At work, she isn’t far from a bully. The high tower, all-female staff headquarters over which she rules, contrasts sharply with the flat structure in her husband’s rundown office. Far from showing mercy to her own sex, Mrs Smith derogatorily demands a cup of coffee as though to prove she can be more tyrannical than a man when dealing with women. Mr Smith is portrayed as more sentimental than his wife, more eager to make up, and a victim of her ruthless ways. He is seen as suffering from his wife’s cunning, especially when she takes away his backyard artillery stash. In terms of male-gendered personality and mental traits, the text elevates Mrs Smith vis-a-vis her husband. Her relative positioning justifies her credibility as a female locus of action. Yet Mrs Smith’s panoply of seductress remains intact as this is essential for audience pleasure and surprise.

The result is that the text paints Mrs Smith as an unlikely embodiment of seemingly incompatibly gendered features to surprise the viewer at least in the first half of the film. The unravelling of Mrs Smith’s hidden strengths is central to the spectacle. Mr Smith’s uncertainty concerning whether his wife would actually kill him and his foolish demeanour whenever she outsmarts him, contribute to the comical undertones of this spectacle as much as they evoke surprise about Mrs Smith.

This anti-Aristotelian film narrows action to spectacles of the body, technology and sexual intensity. It is prepared to stage violence at opportune moments even when the narrative has run its course. Mr and Mrs Smith are never morally or ethically engaged with their dilemma and fail to demonstrate agency in seeing through their marital problems. Aspects of their characters are only used to emphasise spectacle, with Mrs Smith, in particular, being positioned favourably as a feminine locus of action.

Works Consulted:

Aaron, Michele. Spectatorship: the Power of Looking On. London: Wallflower Press, 2007.

Coon, David Roger. “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: the Selling of Charlie’s Angels and Alias.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33.1 (2005): 2-11.

King, Geoff. “Spectacle, Narrative, and the Spectacular Hollywood Blockbuster”. Movie Blockbusters. Ed. Julian Stringer. London & New York: Routledge, 2003. 114-126.

Leitch, Thomas. “Aristotle vs. the Action Film”. New Hollywood Violence. Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Manchester: University Press, 2004. 103-125.

Mr & Mrs Smith. Dir. Doug Liman. 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 2005.

I wrote this critical article in 2007 as part of an Advanced Film Studies course. And by the way, I love a good spectacle.