- The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) Gets a Facelift:Claire Denis' Modern Portrayal of Female Desire in Friday Night (2002)
Luce Irigaray explains in her seminal feminist work, This Sex Which Is Not One, that women experience desire differently from men: "Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity: she is the beautiful object of contemplation."1 Unlike men who enjoy gazing at the female form, Irigaray's essentialist theory posits that women enjoy a pluri-dimensional experience activating the senses—especially touch. Visual art forms, like film, hence present a unique challenge to the expression of female desire. According to feminist film theory pioneers Laura Mulvey, Mary Ann Doane and Teresa de Lauretis,2 hegemonic culture stems from a system of gazes objectifying the woman while affirming the male position of powerful and active subject. As Mulvey states, "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."3 In other words, gender divisions of desire/power generate a creative conundrum that has long been the following: how can cinema, an inherently visual art form that traditionally appeals to the male gaze, convey the multiple and varied dimensions of feminine desire?
While many feminist theories—such as Judith Bulter's revolutionary "gender performativity"4 or Anneke Smelik's "cracked mirror" of reexamined myths of sexual difference in film5—propose alternative critical lenses for viewing and navigating the dominant scopophilic [End Page 239] economy of masculine desire, Claire Denis responds to the polemic through her art. The contemporary French filmmaker's work spans two decades from her first feature-length film, Chocolat (1988), to her recent theatrical release, White Material (2009). Denis' corpus varies in topic and scope from Beau Travail (Good Work 1999), a story of male foreign legion members, to J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep 1994) about a black, gay transvestite "granny killer." Regardless of subject, her work rejects traditional, heterosexual, male-dominated narrative structure in favor of exploring alternative portrayals of feminine (and masculine) emotions. Elizabeth Newton describes Denis' work as the "lifting of convention in favor of an evocation of sensory phenomena."6 Similarly, in her review of Denis' Friday Night (Vendredi soir 2002), Amy Taubin summarizes the cineaste's style as follows: "Certain filmmakers make you hyperaware of the act of seeing. Claire Denis' movies wake up all the senses, and the mind as well."7 Further, Elena del Rio purports that Denis views cinema as an art understood "less through the visual/one dimensional grid of classical representation than through a multi-sensual prism that is as decentered and chaotic as it is filled with intensity of affect."8
Despite the undeniably unique nature of Denis' work, Friday Night shares a striking number of commonalities—intentional or not—with a film released 80 years prior, Germaine Dulac's avant-garde The Smiling Madame Beudet (La Souriante Madame Beudet 1922).9 Taubin suggests as much in her review of Friday Night:
Transitions into and out of fantasy and memory sequences are strangely clumsy, as if Denis were inventing from scratch a language to depict the movement of consciousness. At those moments, Vendredi soir recalls Germaine Dulac's attempt to depict a woman's inner experience in the 1922 film The Smiling Madame Beudet.10
However, awkward editing alone does not link Denis' post-modern work to Dulac's avant-garde film. Although the plotlines of the films come to drastically divergent ends and the two are obviously products of distinct industrial contexts and esthetic moments (i.e. postmodern vs. avant-garde, color vs. black and white, etc.), the films rely on similar narrative (dialogue, point of view, etc.) and stylistic (cinematic techniques, trick photography) devices to depict a story from a woman's point of view. Furthermore, by conveying the primary female [End Page 240] character's innermost thoughts and feelings, both filmmakers present alternatives to Irigaray's gendered economy of desire and propose the gaze as merely one...