Queer cinema has gained scholarly attention in recent years as a manifestation of the conflicts, anxieties, and liberation of European sexuality. Robin Griffiths’ Queer Cinema in Europe, the first anthology of its kind, probes the questions and implications of sex, gender, and identity in contemporary European filmmaking. An esteemed group of contributors discuss the varieties of lesbian and gay representation to deconstruct and redefine notions of national identity and culture in a diverse European context. This volume explores a wide scope of films, directors, and genres to forge a new understanding of what it means to be queer in the twenty-first century.
About the Author
Robin Griffiths is a lecturer in film studies at the University of Gloucestershire, United Kingdom.
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Queer Cinema in Europe
By Robin Griffiths
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2008 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Queering the Family in François Ozon'sSitcom
... Oedipus begins in the mind of the father.
François Ozon's Sitcom (1997) was part of an international fin-de-millénaire wave of "arty family shocker" films, as one critic dubbed them,' that put the spotlight on bad fathers, particularly on their psycho-sexual crimes. Along with Ozon's work, there appeared, for example, the Danish Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1999), the American Happiness (Todd Solonz, 1998) and the British The War Zone (Tim Roth, 1999), all culminating in the arrest, banishment or murder of the abusive patriarch. A number of important distinctions, however, set Ozon's Sitcom apart. One is its treatment of transgression, particularly in the form of incest, as a liberating rather than traumatizing act. Another lies in Sitcom's portrayal of proactive women: whereas in Festen, Happiness, and The War Zone, women are represented as passive enablers and/or victims of the father's tyranny; in Sitcom, they take an active role in the film's happy, healthy resolution of conflict. Still another distinguishing feature is the film's outcome in which a new family order is represented, organized around queer relationships that are realized upon the elimination of the father. These distinctions can be attributed to Ozon's restaging or queering of Freud's Oedipal drama, which turns on the recognition of a multiplicity of sexual desires, as opposed to masculine desire alone, the only one Freud would legitimate in his theories of human sexuality.
Sitcom opens with the parting of a red curtain, signaling to the viewer that what is being represented is indeed a "scene," a drama that has been staged. In this scene, a father, briefcase in hand, is returning from work to his bourgeois home where he finds his family members regaling their "papa" with a hearty round of "Happy Birthday." The camera lingers on the home's elegant façade as the family inside celebrates the birth of the patriarch. Their joyful singing is cut short, however, by the cocking of a gun. After a female voice is heard asking, "Jean, why?" a round of shots and screams are heard and, then, silence.
The film flashes back to "several months earlier," ostensibly so the viewer can learn what has led to the father's violent act. This time, a woman is approaching the house. A comfortably yet elegantly dressed "lady of the house," Hélène, greets the woman at the door. This latter is Maria, the new maid, and her accent indicates that she is "foreign;" she tends to look at Hélène mysteriously when Hélène's attention is focused elsewhere, but no clue is given yet as to what this mystery might be. Next we see Nicolas, the nerdy introverted son, reading a science magazine. Then a handsome young man, David, arrives and locks into a lusty embrace with the daughter, Sophie, who has just bounded down the stairs to greet him. Finally, Jean, the father, returns from work to round out this picture of the perfect bourgeois family. Only today, dad has brought home "a gift." To the horror of his wife and delight of his children, he unveils a cage containing a white lab rat.
In the next scene, Maria arrives again at the door, this time to attend a dinner party; since a guest has fallen ill, Hélène has invited Maria to take her place. Maria is arrayed in a revealing evening gown, and compared to Hélène, she is clearly overdressed for the occasion. But this detail does not faze Hélène – to the contrary, she seems delighted. However, the appearance of Maria's Cameroonian husband, Abdu, who arrives at the door shortly after Maria, does distract her. At the very least, Hélène seems "surprised" by his appearance, but then regains her composure in order to welcome the guests (who are clearly marked as "foreigners") into her home.
As Maria and Abdu share before-dinner drinks with Hélène, Jean, Sophie, and David, Nicolas, the introverted son, sits alone in his bedroom where he is drawn to stroke the rodent (Hélène has insisted that Nicolas keep the creature in his room), and from here on out, each person who comes in contact with the rat will express heretofore hidden sexual desires. At dinner, Nicolas interrupts Abdu's explanation of French colonial history (of which Jean and Hélène appear woefully ignorant) to announce that he is homosexual, and then runs back to his room. The mother is beside herself with grief, while the father remains calm: "It's nothing serious," he reassures, "just adolescence, a passing thing." Maria convinces Abdu, a high school gym teacher presumably familiar with the woes of teenage boys, to have a talk with Nicolas. But once in Nicolas's bedroom, Abdu proceeds to seduce Nicolas – that is, after the rat bites Abdu. In a scene that follows, daughter Sophie allows the rat to crawl all over her supine body. She then commands David not to touch her and tells him she will "talk to him like a dog." A little later, she is aroused from sleep, clutching her crotch as if writhing in the experience of an orgasm. But then, seemingly inexplicably, she makes her way to a window, opens it and jumps out. The camera focuses on her crumpled body below.
The film now jumps forward to show that Nicolas is nothing less than radiant – coming out has clearly agreed with him. Sophie, on the other hand, has transformed into a frustrated dominatrix, confined to a wheelchair and open in her suicide attempts that go unnoticed by the rest of the family. Nicolas is apparently actively enjoying his newly expressed sexuality as streams of beautiful men answering his personal ad for the "group plan" file joyously into his bedroom. This excess is a contrast to Sophie's lack: paralyzed from the waist down, she can no longer be brought to orgasm despite David's efforts to stimulate her orally, even with the added enticement of his being clad in nothing but a dog collar and skimpy underpants.
Though Nicolas and Sophie have both come in contact with the rat, their reactions could not be any more dissimilar – or any more Freudian. The application of Freudian theory to Sitcom is in fact appropriate, given Ozon's acknowledged predilection for the reading of clinical case histories, along with his suggestion that Sitcom could have been titled "'the rat family' after the famous case study of Sigmund Freud." This study is recorded in Freud's 1909 essay, "Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis," otherwise known as the "Rat Man" case. In this essay, Freud addresses the "nuclear complex" (which he renames the "Oedipus Complex" one year later) and he also makes reference to "the penis significance of rats." In Sitcom, then, the rat signifies or substitutes for the penis, which is itself, according to Freud, the "prototype of fetishes."
The concept of the penis as the prototypical fetish – the "original fake" – is key for decoding the mystery of desire in Freudian thinking. For Freud, fetishism "is, as is well known, based on the patient (who is almost always male) not recognizing the fact that females have no penis," and "on the other hand ... recognizing the fact that females have no penis" (203). To allay the fear of castration that the sight of the woman's (lacking) genitalia inspire in him, the male "takes hold of something else instead – a part of the body or some other object – and assigns it the role of the penis which he cannot do without" (203). This "way of dealing with reality," Freud adds, "which almost deserves to be described as artful," is encapsulated by Freud in the phrase "I know, but still." This acknowledgement/disavowal formula, entailing in its very articulation the work of the mind, is the foundation of sexual fantasy, that which makes desire possible. The word "fetish" derives from the Portuguese "feitiço" and the Latin "factitius," both rendered as "factitious" in English, meaning "made by or resulting from art; artificial." To claim, as Freud does, that women do not fetishize because they do not have a penis to protect is curious, since the penis even for the male is connected to desire only insofar as it is a made-up thing, a fantasy. According to Freud's own logic, it would make more sense to say that if women do not fetishize, it is not because they do not have a penis, but because they do not fantasize or, in other words, because they do not use their minds.
Interestingly, Freud himself writes in "'Civilized' Sexual Morality" that it is woman's "civilized education" (176) rather than any anatomical difference that inhibits the expression of her desire. He states explicitly that he does not believe that "women's 'physiological feeble-mindedness' is to be explained by a biological opposition between intellectual work and sexual activity." Rather, women's "upbringing forbids their concerning themselves intellectually with sexual problems though they nevertheless feel extremely curious about them, and frightens them by condemning such curiosity as unwomanly." "In this way," Freud continues, "they are scared away from any form of thinking, and knowledge loses its value for them" (177, Freud's emphasis). Freud's notion of the dominance of male desire here rests on a rather thin assumption that the fear of being deemed "unwomanly" is enough to prevent women from ever getting "curious" about their sexuality, and more, from thinking at all. But in Sitcom, as we shall see, when women do get curious – when they touch the rat, fetishize, fantasize, think – the whole Oedipal scheme takes a queer turn.
Once the rat is understood as the fetish signifying the penis, Nicolas's and Sophie's drastically differing reactions to contact with the rat can be decoded, in Freudian terms at any rate. For Freud, Nicolas's homosexuality would be a perfectly understandable, even felicitous condition, given that females are castrated and, thus, repulsive, as he writes in "Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality," in the section referring specifically to homosexuality: "Depreciation of women, and aversion to them, even horror of them, are generally derived from the early discovery that women have no penis." If males turn to homosexuality or fetishism – which for Freud both operate according to the desire for keeping the (fantasy of the) penis – it is to ease castration fears so as to enjoy more effectively what they already have. As a female, however, Sophie can only have her sexuality figured as (the) lack (of a penis). When she awakens clutching her crotch, in Freudian terms she would be awakening to the sense of her castration. Further, jumping out of a window signifies for Freud the wish to have a baby, which is also the wish to have a penis.
Freud makes the connection between jumping (or falling, more precisely) and having a baby in "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman," where he interprets a female patient's suicide attempt by jumping off a bridge as her wish to have her father's child (162). It is important to note that the woman in this case attempts suicide when she is rejected by a female lover. But, as Sarah Kofman pointed out, Freud's "symbolic equivalence ... between penis and child" means that "[e]ven when femininity seems to be the most firmly established [i. e., in motherhood], it is still the masculine desire to possess the penis that imposes its law." "Homosexuality," therefore, is just another way to say "masculine desire," the only kind of desire there is for Freud. Thus, the real problem in this case is precisely that of a woman's desire ("homosexuality in a woman"), which Freud cannot or refuses to recognize. As he sees it, the woman's suicide attempt cannot come as a consequence of being rejected by the woman she loved, but only by "the very wish which ... had driven her into homosexuality – namely, the wish to have a child by her father" (162). This wish to have the child/penis, which is moreover simply the wish to desire, is precisely what women are not supposed to do. The woman in Freud's case, however, "remained homosexual out of defiance against her father" (159), suggesting that she continued to pursue her desire, but on her own terms, that is, as desire for another woman. Unable to account for desire in any other terms than male-centred, Freud's only option is to stop the analysis: "As soon ... as I recognized the girl's attitude to her father [which, Freud notes, extended to a "sweeping repudiation of men" in general], I broke off treatment ..." (164).
Whereas Freud breaks off treatment when faced with the idea of woman's desire, Sitcom imagines another scenario: the woman as fetishist (i.e., as one who desires, both sexually and intellectually). When Sophie touches the rat, her sexual desire is expressed in terms of sadomasochism, specifically where she is the dominatrix (indicated in her announcement to David that she will "talk to him like a dog"). But if this desire (in fact, desire of any kind) is not deemed "proper" to a woman, might not Sophie's attempted suicide be interpreted as a desperate appeal to have her desire recognized? After all, Sophie is explicitly forgotten by or left out of familial accounting on numerous occasions throughout the film, both before and after her suicide, most notably by her own mother. For example, after Nicolas announces his homosexuality, one of Hélène's concerns is that Jean will never have grandchildren. "But what about us?" Sophie interjects, referring to her and David. After a peremptory apology to Sophie, Hélène shifts her attention to David: "Oh, David, you know I never doubted you." In another instance, Hélène overlooks Sophie when expressing concern for her son's "illness" (i.e., his homosexuality), even though her daughter is the one engaged in open suicide attempts and self-mutilation. This time, Sophie explodes: "Nicolas! Nicolas! Don't you ever worry about me?" "I've never distinguished between the two of you," Hélène cajoles, "I love you as much as Nicolas, your father does too." But Sophie's rage will not be quieted as she retorts, "My father's nothing but a homo!" "You know your father's not homosexual," Hélène tries to reason, "you're the living proof!" "Just because he touched you twice in his life?" Sophie cruelly taunts. When Hélène charges that Sophie is "full of poison," Sophie concurs, but with a qualification: "That's right! The poison of truth!"
The "truth" Sophie reveals concerning her father's "homosexuality" is more aptly what Luce Irigaray calls "ho(m)mo-sexuality," defined as "the exclusive valorization of men's desires/needs, of exchanges among men" (171): "Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, ho(m)mo-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, ... and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man's relations with himself, of relations among men" (172). Jean's two children are the meager "proof" of his heterosexuality, his "heterosexual alibi" that covers his distain for women who, not bearing the penis, have nothing to desire. If Jean has had sex with Hélène, it was only to meet what Freud deems to be the ideal demands of civilized sexual morality," that is, reproduction. For Freud, "reproductive" (i.e., civilized) activity and "good" (i.e., natural) sex have nothing to do with each other, since "good" sex can only be had with the "phallic" woman (who is really a fantasized male) – if it must be had with a woman at all.
Excerpted from Queer Cinema in Europe by Robin Griffiths. Copyright © 2008 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Notes on Contributors
Introduction: Contesting Borders: Mapping a European Queer Cinema
Part One: Queer Identities
Chapter 1: Queering the Family in François Ozon’s Sitcom
Chapter 2: Representing Gay Male Domesticity in French Film of the Late 1990s
Todd W. Reeser
Chapter 3: The Films of Ducastel and Matineau: Gay Identity, the Family, and the Autobiographical Self
Part Two: Queer Aesthetics
Chapter 4: The Body Picturesque: The Films of Bravo Defurne
Chapter 5: The Mechanical Reproduction of Melodrama: Matthias Müller’s ‘Home’ Movies
Robert L. Cagle
Chapter 6: The Animated Queer
Part Three: Queer Spaces
Chapter 7: Bars to Understanding?: Depictions of the ‘Gay Bar’ in Film with Specific References to Coming Out, Les nuits fauves, and Beautiful Thing
Chapter 8: Queer as Turk: A Journey to Three Queer Melodramas
Chapter 9: Bodies without Borders? Queer Cinema and Sexuality after the Fall
Chapter 10: School Is Out: British ‘Coming Out’ Films in the 1990s
Part Four: Queer Perfomances
Chapter 11: Trans-Europe Success: Dirk Bogarde’s International Queer Stardom
Chapter 12: Subjection and Power in Monika Treut and Elfi Mikesch’s Seduction—The Cruel Woman: An Extension of the Configuration of Power in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Late Oeuvre
Chapter 13: Berlin Is Running: Olympic Memories and Queer Performances
Chapter 14: Transgressive Drag Kings, Defying Dildoed Dykes: A Look at Contemporary Swedish Queer Film