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Femme Fatale: The Films of Claudia Schillinger

Mike Hoolboom

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

For the past ten years Claudia Schillinger has been engaged in an alternative erotics, reinscribing the place of female desire in a succession of incarnations--girl with a problem, reluctant partner, femme fatale, mother. Her six films inscribe a trajectory whose shape is less linear than cyclic, begun with the solitary longings of a young girl who tries to re-invent herself for a life outside her own. From there she turns to the dating games of Das Wahre Wesen Eine Frau, the overheated bisexual trysts of between, and finally to an examination of that most forbidden of themes--childhood sexuality--dramatized via In No Sense, and presented in documentary fashion in Hermes. In each she is more than filmer and participant, understanding that the inextricable join of sex and power is founded on the images we maintain, in our personal warehouses of the beautiful, the erotic, the permissible. If her project may be deemed utopian, it is because she imagines that these images might change, and so inaugurate a new cycle of bodily transmission, loosed from the implacable grip of psychoanalysis, and from the strictures of law which continue to code our most private encounters.

Dreams of a Virgin (14 min 1985) is a materialist's psychodrama of waiting. Here in the theatre of the self, a young woman assumes a variety of postures, as still borne and unchanging as the architecture she inhabits. In a darkened interior, amidst a maelstrom of slow-moving processing stains, she stands in black against a wall. Suddenly, she is joined by a second self in white, who enjoins her to dance, shown in a dissolving succession of freeze frames. Moments of her naked memories interrupt, breast and thigh and arm, before an impressionistic swarm of blue-tinted shots appears, first in negative then repeated again in positive, showing again her standing solitary. As the piano continues its melodic exchange, we are witness to a series of veiled enclosures, possible moments where she may re-enter her home, herself. The dance recurs a final time, the dancer in white approaching her own image and passing her hand over it, in order to gain the measure of its discontent, or to find some opening, some aperture into which she may be admitted. At last the dark image passes away altogether, and in the space left behind the dancer passes through it, prepared now to face the uncertainties beyond.

If the events in Dreams are not wholly unfamiliar, their meticulous material realization--the scarred and tinted emulsion made to transport these virgin dreams, lift the film from any easy psychological rendering. Its disquieted, pulsing re-photography, its every frame torn from the roots of its expression, enact a solitary ritual which emerges from the disturbed dream of the body. Its quest for opening is also a search for the places in flesh which might be reshaped and re-imagined, its own circle broken to admit the possibility of another.

Fatale Femme (19 min 1985) is a structuralist's self portrait, repeating a small series of still frames strained through a variety of formal procedures. Once again Schillinger has applied herself to the surface of the film, whose mottled, flickering countenance moves in contrast to the still images they depict. Shot originally in super-8, processed by hand as negative, then rephotographed from a wall, processed again as positive, then slowed in a last transfer to video, lends the whole a generational archeology, each leaving its marks, its claims, against the image. Indeed all that Hollis Frampton had aspired to in Artificial Light, with its cycling series of miniatures made to endure a set of material inflections, shows itself here, but now without the moral didacticism that haunted Frampton's modernist imperative. Each cycle obtains more of its subject, moving from abstraction to representation, from a corporeal imagination to a persona comprised of flesh. We see a woman lying in bed, a hand gripping a breast, undressing and then her face, as she reconstitutes her solitary for the world, looking back now into the camera in a marked complicity with her own image.

If her first two films evidenced a movement from enclosure to persona, her next would conjure a narrow domestic arena where a couple could re-enact the learned rites of desire. Das Wahre Wesen Eine Frau (The true nature of a woman) (10 min 1987) opens with a woman addressing a mirror, her gestures of preparation arrested and released via re-photography, and pursued always by a looming succession of fades which threaten to banish her from the site of reproduction. Cast in an electrifying blue tint, processed by hand and delivered in the throbbing grist of re-photography, we are privy to a collection of small moments at a table between a couple poised on the brink of union. In a circling, structuralist reprise Schillinger offers these moments in a montage which always recapitulates before adding new views to its perspective, protracting this drama of waiting. Their catalogue of events is a list learned in media clichÈ--hands shaking out a cigarette, a bottle of champagne opened, his hand moving across her thigh, her purse opening--these two made to repeat gestures each will learn to call love. Between her slow-motion smoking and his ambivalent stasis come dreams of touching. She caresses her stomach, and then his head, before jerking it back abruptly, leading us on to another cycle of rehearsals at the table. Midway through the film we are transported to another locale--now it is the man who stands before the mirror, rubbing his face in preparation. Glimpses of her naked waiting interrupt, and build into a masturbatory offering before she folds her hands back against her chest, alone again. His face in the bath rises and falls in the sopitive rhythm of coitus before a series of snap zooms make it appear that she is pushing him underwater.

The film closes at the table where a final recapitulation of shots occurs. At last she stands by windowlight, the final shot showing two cups of coffee waiting at the table. Schillinger's elegant montage sustains tension throughout, the murky sheen of emulsion which strains representation filling the spaces, the unspoken compacts, between the two. These marks of a hand-made image appear as a concretization of desire, seeming to issue from the body of its female protagonist. The title is a quotation drawn from Last Tango in Paris, in a scene where Marlon Brando looks on at the corpse of his wife, slain by her own hand. In despair he speaks to her, "I can imagine the universe but not you, what did you want? What is the true nature of woman?" This question, suspended between the two of them, would not find its complete exposition until Schillinger's next film, the erotic meisterwork between (10 min 1989).

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between is a masturbatory idyll, joining via montage black and white images of a dildo-wielding woman, two women lying naked together, another before a mirror and a last asleep, turning in solar tumescence. These are framed by color sequences at the film's opening and close. Her introduction finds her lying out of doors in a leaf patterned negligee, the camera discreetly turning to reveal a dildo she clasps to her chest. In the end she rises, awakened from her revel, and masturbates against a tree, before appearing at last alone in her bathroom, contemplating herself as her own image of desire. Between her dreamings a succession of stunning erotic images flicker past, in a simultaneous montage which moves towards climax and abandon. If the man is Das Wahre appears uncertain, caught in his own dream of waiting, here it is women who wield the phallus, and inaugurate a frankly unbridled desire. Alternating video freeze-frames with a supernal natural light, between reprises a world of vaginal release, abundant in its fecundity, and nameless in its easy traversal of bodies and borders.

In No Sense (10 min 1992) is a carefully wrought, domestic drama which turns about the relation of a man and his young daughter. Leaving behind the heavily shaded, emulsified textures of her previous work, In No Sense announces itself in a high gloss color, lending a naturalistic perspective to these views of home. It opens with a slow motion shot of the daughter rocking in abandon, propelled through space, her hair flying, her face twisted in a paroxysm of joy. The camera finally drops to reveal the origin of her content, she is riding a horse, although the sexual overtones are unmistakable. After the title sequence she climbs into the attic and takes a swing, looking up at the undressed dolls suspended from the ceiling. A naked woman lies in bed, her shaved pubis caressed by a man's hand. The girl walks into the room, puts her hands over her father's eyes and he takes her in his arms, all traces of the prone nude vanished. He sings nursery rhymes to her as she rocks on his knee, and via match cut the filmer transplants this scene into a barn, where the singing continues. Later the girl enters the father's room, opens a drawer, looks past condoms and handkerchiefs and emerges with a small coin. When the father returns home, there is a notable tension--is she still there? Will she be caught? But the scene again dissolves into another, the girl rocking once more in the attic where her father looks down at her smiling. The naked woman appears again in bed, the father's head lifted in abandon, before the girl opens yet another door and walks into a room where someone appears to be lying dead. In this beautifully composed dirge she walks towards her sleeping father and settles herself beside him, looking on at his face and the mystery of his groin curled beneath the sheets. He walks downstairs in his underwear, as if the force of her gaze had banished his usual attire. She appears again rocking on a toy horse while he circles her from above. Then they lounge in bed together, lying languorously as if after sex, though there is no touching in the scene. The shaved woman appears momentarily, before the girl surrenders a last time to the pleasure of her rocking, her burgeoning sexual complicity already somehow complete.

While intimations of incest are everywhere staged, the film is so carefully shot that there is no way to know for certain, to separate a child's normal sexual expression from abuse. Schillinger fills the house with the life of a child, now lent an uncannily sexualized aroma, which turns these domestic inhabitants into metaphors for longing. Her concisely phrased direction, playful point-of-view shots and resistance to the inevitable moralizing which closure enjoins, makes this a rare jewel of a children's film.

In all of her work Schillinger has proceeded via identification to find a way 'in' to the life of her projections, and if her last film is not different, its subject remains easily the most distant from the wiles of her own life. His name entitles the film, Hermes (25 min 1995), a self professed pederast whose only satisfying relations endure with those before puberty. An interview shot in video verite fashion comprises the main of the film: "I wanted to tell my parents my story, so I wrote a book, I wrote for six months. I gave it to them and they finally wrote me back. They considered me worse than a murderer... I try to read the body language so I don't hurt the boy. Boys whom I've hurt don't belong in my dream. I want a boy who lives out his sexuality. Of course, I want to expand this area as much as possible, where our ideas meet. For example, I don't want to be fondled by a boy if he feels pressured to do it... These relationships, these happily-ever-after Hollywood relationships are faced with a limitation, namely, puberty. Then the child dies. He's suddenly someone else. It's like a flower dies... It's nice to play with a little cock. I've got something else, a hanging sausage. And this myth I keep chasing is that one day a young boy or girl will take me across that magic frontier of puberty."

His narration, delivered by an actor to preserve Hermes' anonymity, ranges from self justification, philosophical conjecture, guilt, fear and childhood reminiscences. In wrathful indignation he recounts how his two younger brothers were taken away from him, for fear they too would become gay, though he later alludes to a sexual tryst between them.

Insistently interspersed between his ruminations are grainy, black and white shots of Schillinger and her young child at play. Invariably photographed in bed, they narrate an astonishingly frank sexual complicity, counterpointing Hermes' subterranean longings. She enacts a permissible, societally sanctioned mother-child bonding while he speaks of a desire quite beyond the law, banned precisely because it threatens the join that Schillinger demonstrates. Throughout the film she asks herself, "Was there a way for me to relate to him? He asked me that. There was something I could share but I didn't know what yet." What she shares, of course, are some of these early moments between herself and her only child, who demonstrate that power, release and genital sexuality are very much in evidence at the earliest age.

But despite their interrelation via montage these two scenes remain distinct, Schillinger's autobiographical embrace unable to account for the devastation, the unleavened impulses, the dark curtain of pre-pubescence which continues to haunt its subject. While she opens its attendant to the possibility of childhood sexuality, there remains the question of consent and power, and without the voices of his young amors, rendered here in a series of grainy snapshots, there is no way to accede to the filmer's single urgent request: to judge. And to judge fairly.

Nonetheless Schillinger continues to forge a body of work unique in its insistence on pitting the body of its maker against the trespass of desire. Her erstwhile method, of identification through incorporation, speaks of a corporeal invention, and a level of risk few would dare endure. That she continues to challenge marks her as an enduring light of the fringe, casting a rare luminescence on those untrammeled moments others would let sleep, or bury forever.

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Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

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Last revised on 12-11-97 by Isabel Pipolo

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