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O Magazine


By Eulàlia Iglesias.

– The woman in love risking her own life is an archetype that fiction has almost abandoned completely. Not many contemporary works include women who will to expose themselves to their own sentimental suffering.

Is ‘loving’ the most important thing?
or The mysterious case of the disappearance in films of women who love too much

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

Manuel Clavero

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

L’important c’est d’aimer: an upset Romy Schneider.

Among the meta-stories that the recently deceased Andrzej Zulawski allowed himself to introduce in his film Cosmos, a quite faithful adaptation of an eponymous Witold Gombrowicz novel, I’d like to highlight a joke about another of his films. One of the characters affirms that L’important c’est d’aimer is an awful title. That’s what the director thought too, but he nevertheless left us one of the most devastating love stories ever told. I read not long ago in some social network that during a recent viewing of L’important c’est d’aimer at the Filmoteca de Catalunya some members of the audience couldn’t help but laughing. It isn’t surprising. In Zulawski’s films, emotions are always shown in a state of nearly hysterical and totally shameless paroxysm that sound weird in contemporary film styles in which there’s no room for feelings taken to the extreme, skin-deep, without any kind of ironic distance.

The seventies were probably the decade in which most films of the sort were shot. From the eighties onwards, the art of falling in love was partly substituted by its institutional simulacrum through a sub-genre, romantic comedy, which, as someone already said, contains two fallacies, minimum, in its denomination. Romantic comedy isn’t so much articulated around the rites of coupling, but rather it scrutinises the series of relational dynamics that are produced between a man and a woman before marriage. In romantic comedies, the most important thing isn’t to love, but to get involved in a relationship. And the happy ending means that the woman is never left alone.

Current romantic dramas that target teenage audiences also show a traditional idea of love, be it in hybrid post-modern form (Twilight saga’s devoid of blood romanticism) or in titles ascribed to certain classicism, like The Notebook (one day we should study why this film is a kind of phenomenon for a segment of the audience). The idealised image of romance that these films portray still opts for the woman who is loved instead of the woman who loves.

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

Brief Encounter: a bewildered Celia Johnson.

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

Letter from an Unknown Woman: an abandoned Joan Fontaine.

For women characters in contemporary film, the important thing is no longer (only) to love. The progressive normalisation of female roles promotes that their protagonists define themselves more independently from their men, be it a husband, lover, brother, father or son. We welcome the still scarce amount of action women, adventurers, super heroines, detectives, leaders, rebels, and warriors… To the professionals that give themselves to their work to the point of not having time to devote to their private lives. To the friends that share their experiences without paying attention to whether a man is watching them or not. Also to comedians who have introduced a feminist perspective into comedy… Is there no longer space, thus, in current films for a woman who loves beyond everything else, above all if she isn’t loved back?

Modern literature is born, in part, from the respective adulteries of three female characters. Their stories don’t seem too glorious at first sight. Emma Bovary is little more than a petite burgeoise with airs who takes refuge in a romantic illusion to escape the boring panorama of her provincial married life. Anna Karenina falls in love with a young man without too much substance to end up, like Emma, taking her own life. Nora Helmer, the main character in Ibsen’s Doll’s House, undertakes the most symbolic gesture of them all when she abandons husband and sons without the appearance of any other man in the picture, sick of being treated as a second-class citizen. But in the three cases, the escape from a traditional marriage to embrace a (possibly) more exciting passion entails a form of rebellion against social conventions, against their own medium and the role they had been assigned as women. There’s no male equivalent to the fatal love of these women. For young Werther, unrequited love wasn’t at any point a challenge or a sentence to ostracism

Love will tear us apart (again)

In a scene from Brief Encounter, we hear the voice-over of Laura, the protagonist played by Celia Johnson, who silently confesses to her husband: “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” Celia’s thoughts summarise the extraordinary condition of love in the everyday life of most mortals, as was understood by romantics and surrealists.

When romantic writers attributed themselves the capacity of dying for love and the surrealists advocated from their fiction to jump into the abyss of l’amour fou, they aspired to the same eternal intellectual glory. Women who love too much tend to do it without any kind of theoretical mattress to soften their fall. Feminism has done a necessary revision of the idea of romanticism understood as a straitjacket that limits and conditions women, and which from fiction works as an opium balsam to calm frustrations. But love can be also understood as a form of rebellion against a social order that has never made things easy for females. Let’s vindicate, thus, those women who, in film, have never feared to love beyond conventions, turning their attitude into a form of individual affirmation that often condemns them to loneliness or ostracism.

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

Gertrud: a split Nina Pens Rode.

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

Phoenix: a disturbed Nina Hoss.

Gertrud, the protagonist of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s eponymous film, is the supreme priestess of women who love too much. Her creed can be summarised in two words: amor omnia, love is everything. After several relationships, Gertrud certifies that, to men, romanticism is always secondary. They will never choose a relationship before their professional career. They won’t even hear of it. She doesn’t want to abide by this order of things and prefers to be alone before betraying her absolute way of understanding love. Gertrud’s is an act of faithfulness to herself, a subversive stance in a society in which love is understood only within the limits of the family institution and in which a woman is still defined through her relationship to her husband and/or children.

In The Deep Blue Sea, Hester (Rachel Weisz) also ends up accepting her solitude after she breaks up with a younger man for whom she abandoned her husband, a failure that also leads her to a failed suicide attempt. Terence Davies places the devastation of the protagonist at the same level of an England still affected by the consequences of the Second World War. The internal battle she has gone through in appearance doesn’t lead to a happy ending. But deep down it has allowed her to know herself better and to escape a conformist marriage.

In love from her teenage years with a man who isn’t even able to recognise her, Lisa (Joan Fontaine), the protagonist of Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, has lead a much fuller life than if she had accepted to marry the provincial military man her parents had chosen for her. To Lisa, love is a form of personal growth that doesn’t prevent her from assuming her responsibilities as a single mother or marrying a man she doesn’t love in order to guarantee certain stability for her son. A peak of women’s films, Letter from an Unknown Woman also presents a kind of post-mortem triumph on behalf of the protagonist. Reading the letter that the already dead woman he barely even remembered has written him, Louis Jourdan’s character realises that it was Lisa who was always alive whereas he had been dead for years.

In the most recent Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss), trying to re-connect to a pre-war identity that can’t be re-constructed but through a simulacrum, also aspires to being recognised by her husband Jim. The man isn’t able to do so after the plastic surgery she’s undergone since her face was disfigured in a concentration camp. From her romantic perspective, Nelly is opposing two hegemonic narratives of today: the one that marks that the experience of the holocaust must be articulated from Jewish identity, and the feminist one (or mere common sense one) which indicates that she should reject a husband who probably denounced her to the Nazis. In this film set in post-World War II Berlin, Christian Petzold partly connects with the foundational base of feminist discourse around films that denounce the idea that a woman only exists inasmuch she’s looked at by a man.

Lars von Trier is one of the few directors who has worried about how to portray women that love too much in postmodern times without having to resort to classic films or to parody women’s films. Breaking the Waves presents an amour fou, a passion stronger than death, taking place in the seventies. Probably conscious of the anachronistic nature of the romance, Von Trier sets the story in a Presbyterian community in which faith is lived with an intensity that seems more typical of other places and times. Besides, he introduces the shadow of a doubt over the main character, Bess (Emily Watson), through an insinuation about her mental health uttered by her sister-in-law. The psychiatrisation of any behaviour escaping social norm on behalf of women has been a constant all throughout history. The bells that toll at the end of Breaking the Waves celebrate Bess as the heiress to Dreyer’s protagonists (Von Trier has always wanted to hold his compatriot’s relay) and also all women who ever loved beyond any rules.

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

Breaking the Waves: a deranged Emma Watson.

The obsolescence of certain female archetypes. – O Production Company

The Deep Blue Sea: a blurred Rachel Weisz.