Abjectifying the Self
'I don't want to sleep with men. I want to be opened up all the way. When you can see that the mystique is nothing but raw meat, the woman is dead!' This is Marie (Caroline Ducey), the central character in Catherine Breillat's Romance, talking in voice-over just after she's been taken from behind by a stranger on a stairwell. After a few months going out with the same man, Marie realises he's not one for regular sex, so each night as she stays over at his place, she lies in bed next to him building up an increasing amount of resentment towards her hunky, flirtatious partner. The thing is, no matter how hopeless he proves to be in bed, she can't stop loving him. But how can she be with a man who fails to show her sexual affection? As they sit in a restaurant she tells him he likes it best when there is a table between them, when there is an object getting in the way of their intimacy.
We might think here of Freud and the idea that there is usually an object between a man's desire for a woman: as he proposes in 'Sexuality and the Psychology of Love', man's fear of castration demands he puts a fetish in its place. Now For Freud this fetish - be it a high heeled shoe or underwear, or something else altogether - serves as a substitute for the phallus, but let us suggest it just as readily superimposes itself upon the abject. If Marie wants to be opened up all the way, it's as if she wants to go beyond the object to the abject, wants not so much to hide herself within or behind objects, within the gestures of femininity, as Freud suggests men desire the woman to do, but to force the man to confront her bodily reality. Thus she becomes, in Julia Kristeva's terms, 'neither subject nor object... The abject has only one quality of the object - that of being opposed to I'. (Powers of Horror) This is according to Kristeva the place generally outside and beyond the ego - 'a "something" that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness about which there is nothing insignificant and which crushes me.' Here, she insists, the 'abject and abjection are my safeguards.'
Is abjection Marie's safeguard, does it protect her from feminine being on the one hand and the potential nothingness on the other? Is it a curious form of selfhood? As we follow Marie's journey through the film she doesn't want to enchant men, but neither does she want to remove herself from the world. For Marie an abject state functions like a limbo-land where she accepts the humiliation of her boyfriend's lack of interest in sex, but insistently then journeys through a sexual landscape that includes picking up a stranger in a bar and having a brief fling, involving herself in a sado-masochistic relationship with the headmaster in the school at which she teaches, and then getting buggered on a stairwell. Unable to finish with her boyfriend because she loves him, but receiving no sexual warmth from him either, she seems to put her identity on hold, creating for herself a liminal sexual space of exploration that keeps in check the suicidal, even if her being can never quite settle for the egotistical, the narcissistic: for the 'normal' female social self. That is, the self that sustains the subject through the rejection of the abject, because the abject is the very thing that disgusts the male. This is what Marie is talking about in the quote that opens our essay, and it is the abject Marie's perceived to desire when she says she likes the smell of her partner's penis and he reacts by saying "that's disgusting." Marie, absorbing the abject, wants to de-fetishise herself, and we could even go so far as to say that abjection can function like a paradoxically purgatorial place between being and nothingness. It neither quite gives us a 'personality', but neither does it rob us completely of the will to live - one isn't so much listless as lustful, as our body searches out states of excitation whilst at the same time making sure it is the body rather than the mind or being that is being excited. Thus Marie insists that she doesn't "want to see the men who screw me. Or look at them. I want to be a hole, a pit. The more it gapes, the more obscene it is, the more it's me, my intimate part, the more I surrender."
What we may notice however is the self-assertion present in Marie's abjection, so whatever control she gives away concerning her nervous system in relation to pleasure, she retains mentally, as she becomes a slightly disembodied commentator, a voice-over presence, who knows what the body wants and feels as if she's feeding its desires. There is an air of simultaneous will-power and magnanimity at work here, as Marie gives her body and holds on to her mind. Abjection from this point of view gives her an emotional self-sufficiency. Whilst initially in the film Marie is reduced to tears as she fails to arouse her boyfriend, when she sets off on her abject journey, no matter the humiliation her body can be seen to receive, her mind seems to get stronger and stronger. Even as she is seduced by the head-master who informs her he's slept with ten thousand women - and has records to prove it - her embarrassment and apparent resistance are all part of the game. There is the suggestion throughout Romance that love may be an emotionally strong feeling, but that it is intellectually weak, where the abject feeling allows for a curious intellectual self-discovery: allows a woman to weaken her body but strengthen her mind. Marie may say, as she allows the headmaster to seduce her, "why is it that the men who disgust us understand us better than the ones we love," but this needn't be seen as much of a paradox. If one can feel disgusted in the presence of a man perhaps one can also be disgusting in his presence. And if one allows for the disgusting to be present on the part of both parties, then what we may have is a mutual revelation very different from the sort of seduction traditionally present in heterosexual roles; the sort of seduction Michel Foucault addresses in passing in an interview contrasting homosexual and heterosexual love.
Here in an interview called 'Sexual Choice, Sexual Act', Foucault suggests that '...when a homosexual culture and literature began to develop it was natural for it to focus on the most ardent and heated aspect of homosexual relations.' The interviewer then says he's reminded of Casanova's famous expression that "the best moment in life is when one is climbing the stairs," and adds, 'one can hardly imagine a homosexual today making such a remark.' Foucault adds 'exactly', and we may wonder to what degree an 'abject' woman might agree with Foucault's notion of homosexual men: that the most important thing is not resisting seduction and then choosing the moment to acquiesce, but the very pleasures of the flesh. In conventional seduction, the man would lose himself in a reverie of possibility, and the woman's purpose was to sustain this semi-imaginary projection: she should help him, for, as Soren Kierkegaard's seducer suggests, in The Diary of a Seducer, 'everything should be savoured in slow draughts'.
In abjection there are no slow draughts required. There is no attempt to hide from another an exploratory self, a self that needs to be hidden because the seducer desires a fetishised self: a self with an object, if you like, in front of it, and thus the woman can reach new territories of self-discovery with a man who may be 'disgusting' and who may allow for her own 'disgust' to be present. Throughout, the head-master points up his physical unattractiveness, going so far as to say at one stage 'I may even be revolting'. But as he insists, '...do they [women] want to be respected? In a sense, yes. But respect is in the nature of things: since they're up for grabs, they want to be taken.' Here the headmaster suggests less the slow draught, than the quick swig - after all he's slept with ten thousand women but, as he says, he's no Don Juan, or Casanova, and he's absolutely right if we take into account Kierkegaard and Foucault's take on the seductive mode.
So if we choose to bypass Freud's notion of the missing phallus and suggest the object covering a woman conceals her abjection, then we can see the possible liberation for a woman who no longer needs to cover herself, but goes abjectly naked into the arms of a man. With the object no longer covering the abject, the woman doesn't do so reactively - reacting to the expectations of the seductive man - but bodily, and thus may possess a state of self-liberation that leaves her feeling much more secure than in her role in the traditional part of the seduced. We can say there are similarities then between the homosexual man and the liberated woman, because both demand that the key moment doesn't lie in Casanova going up the stairs and the beauty feigning sleep and waiting for her lover, but much more in the immediacy of the sexual exchange, the direct aspect of discovering and searching out another's body.
Yet we should remember for most of the film Marie still very much loves her boyfriend, and all other men function as surrogates for this love. We notice she won't allow one particular lover to kiss her, and she also insists he wear a condom. If she's going to have a child by any man, then it will be by the one she loves. And that is exactly what happens, as Marie's rather hopeless boyfriend emits a tiny amount of sperm that is nevertheless enough to impregnate her. It's as if what she needs from her man is an aspect not of bodily pleasure, but narcissistic recognition - she may allow the headmaster to pleasure her and for her to discover who she is, but the replication of an aspect of herself must come, it seems, from the man she loves. However once he's served his purpose, can he then be eradicated from her life? This might help make sense of an ending that seems more to pay homage to Bunuel than to serve any diegetic intent. Here Marie sits in a hospital bed with her baby in her arms and at the same time there is a gas explosion at her boyfriend's flat. "I gave my son his father's name. If someone up there's counting souls, we're even." If the boyfriend falls into the traditional model of seduction, and essentially the non-corporeal, as Marie suggests when she notices his insistent need to enchant women on the dance floor, then Marie wants to use him finally for the narcissistically corporeal: for the production of a child. In such an instance the body has its needs met, whilst still perhaps appealing to the woman's sense of narcissism - that she wants a beautiful child she's much more likely to get coming from the loins of her handsome boyfriend than, say, the headmaster. Once however the attractive boyfriend has served this purpose, once she's managed to transfer her love from father to child through the creation of a baby, the vain father is suddenly surplus to requirements.
Now this isn't necessarily Breillat's thesis, but it's certainly suggestively present. It also affirms the contraries of wanting on the one hand a boyfriend whom Marie loves, and on the other lovers with whom she can lose herself in sexual pleasure. It's almost as if the boyfriend is kept for this very purpose - for procreation, for the most standard of male roles, just as he practises the most standard of archetypes on the dance floor as he looks to seduce. However, central to Breillat's thesis here is finding an aesthetic position out-with the male seducer, so that her filmic technique always seems to be opposed to the boyfriend's being. Consequently, the early moments in the film where we see him working as a model, and in later scenes where we see him seducing on the dance floor, are filmed by Breillat in such a way that she robs him of any credence. This is perhaps more accidental than Breillat intended. As she said in a Sight and Sound interview on the release of her more recent Anatomy of Hell, 'After finishing Romance I immediately felt like remaking it. It wasn't that I wanted to disown it, but I knew the subject had two sides...'
Yet her one-sidedness, not just in Romance but in other films also, allows her to rob seduction of its seductiveness and moves it towards much more the area of uncanniness and creepiness. This is especially evident in her earlier Virgin, where an older man tries to get a teenage girl to put out, and it's also there in A ma soeur!, where the beautiful teenager's boyfriend tries to push her into a sexual relationship. In each instance Breillat positions the camera in such a way that she maximises the fatigue of seduction rather the anticipation of it. Through using long takes Breillat doesn't allow for an anticipatory style to develop, the sort of anticipatory style that might adopt faster cutting or jump cutting to capture an emotional rush. If anything Breillat tends to film for cold dread, for the slow elaboration of an often absurd, sometimes creepy ritual. To some degree Kathleen Murphy is right when she says in a Film Comment article on Breillat that at the 'heart of almost all of Breillat's films beats a set-piece, a lengthy seduction sequence that anatomises carnal communion.' Breillat's style here works usefully in tandem with her feeling that so much of sex is about power. 'There is always a moment', she says in a Positif interview, 'where you wish you hadn't slept with that person.' How to film this ambivalence? Breillat chooses not to film it segmentarily but concretely. Instead of showing the lust followed by the hint of regret, she films the ambivalence within the shot. She doesn't believe the emotion is ever categorically one thing or another, so tries to find a filmic style that will create that ambivalence and at the same time force the viewer to share that feeling of indecisiveness. This is the set-piece Murphy talks about, and what Breillat wants to illustrate is the process of perhaps "going too far with men" - to quote the central character Frederique in Breillat's Parfait Amour!.
However, for Breillat this isn't just a technical issue, but a technical aspect that comes out of the being of the performer, and thus moves us into the area of Breillat as excavating the actor, and not just the director as technical master. As she says in Positif 'It's only when the actors come on that I know what speed they're working at ...And then [in Virgin] there's the long passage inside the hotel, which isn't in the script, which makes it even longer. Then there's a second door and she circles round the sofa to gain time.' Breillat then relates how the continuity girl said the scene was already three minutes twenty seconds, and that there were arguments thereafter about the length of a shot in which nothing happens. But for Breillat of course a great deal is happening: there is the ambivalence of the shot reflecting the ambivalence of the character, even the ambivalence of the performer caught in the shot, rather than performing simply for the point of the scene. Breillat we can see is very interested in the discomfiture of the actor, whether this is a sexual discomfort or simply an ontological discomfort, the sort of discomfort one might feel being filmed without a singular function. Indeed we could say central to Breillat's aesthetic is the combination of the sexual and the ontological. As Breillat says, 'what people find difficult to take, and what I love to show them (not out of a cheap desire to attract audiences, contrary to what people might think,) is the reflection of their own discomfort in certain situations.' (Positif) But this discomfort is not only the viewers' but also of course the actors'. As Breillat adds, 'the actors can express both shame and desire at the same time': they can express both the sexual and the ontological.
Now maybe we can return to our point about abjection serving as a de-fetishization, as a de-fetishization that can reveal both the sexual and the ontological How does a woman know the man she will perhaps sleep with will want her for the very reasons that she is willing to sleep with him? If Breillat's is an intellectual cinema it lies less in seeing her work as a philosophical treatise on sex per se, but much more on the interior ambivalence of women who are unsure about what they want and equally unsure what the man wants. This makes her long takes cool and tentative, as she reflects unsure emotions in the camera style and not segmented in the editing suite. It respects Andre Bazin's ontological ambiguity of reality (the importance of the long take which allows for greater freedom in the scene's perception) because the characters are themselves ontologically ambiguous. Thus there are no scenes of singular passion in Breillat's work, as we find in a filmmaker who in many ways influenced her stylistically, Maurice Pialat, and evident in films like Pialat's Loulou, or Police (which she co-wrote). And none of the raunchiness we often find in films of sex (like Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, when Tomas and Tereza first make love, or Bigas Lunas films like Jamon, Jamon and Golden Balls). It is as if Breillat's purpose is to intellectualize sex, to insist upon an underpinning ontology be in place before the woman gives herself to men, for fear of the conventional roles, the sort of Kierkegaardian notions of seduction, kicking in yet again.
By suggesting Breillat's purpose lies in reconfigurating sexual roles, in moving women from a position of phallic absence to abject plenitude, we've also proposed this requires thought, or at the very least neurosis. But we're using neurotic here in an almost positive sense, in that it can release thought as it moves the body from resistance to acceptance. However it moves from resistance to acceptance not in the sense so described in Kierkegaard's Diary of a Seducer, but much more on its own terms, even if those terms start from a position of neurosis, of frustration, of tearfulness and despair, as we see here. If a character lacks this neurotic dimension, if she conforms to conventional notions of being beautiful and acquiescing to seduction, then she is also shown to lack any sense of autonomy. This is exactly what happens with the svelte and stunning sister, Elena, in A Ma Soeur! and why from Breillat's perspective the fat, over-eating and finally raped younger sister, Anais, has relatively greater autonomy. Where the older sister gives in to her boyfriend's demands based on what we could call complimentary coercion that leads her to believe in the boyfriend no matter the boyfriend's clichs and cynical pragmatism, the younger sister receives none of the rituals of seduction from the rapist and her self-awareness is much more present even in the act of rape than her sister's is in the act of being seduced. Obviously this is Breillat's contentiousness at work, but it is hardly empty provocation. It is the director's attempt to work through a problematic no matter the price to conventional notions of either plausibility or social decency. She wants to explore what it takes for a girl or woman to discover a feeling of autonomy, aware that it lies not in her capacity to be seduced, but instead in her capacity to absorb abject fullness.
Maybe some would call this exploration despairing, that Breillat isn't interested in the joy of sex but only its bleaker aspects. But what we're arguing for here is less sexuality that is optimistic or pessimistic, but above all liberating, and so we might be reminded of Gilles Deleuze's idea that what makes art happy is its creation, not necessarily its diegetic optimism. As he once said: '...the essence of art is a kind of joy, and this is the very essence of art. There can be no tragic work because there is a necessary joy in creation: art is necessarily a liberation that explodes everything...' It might seem a stretch to talk of Breillat's work as one of joy, but it is certainly one of explosive liberation if we hold to the possibility of abject release. Breillat's work, then, is in an almost Nietzschean sense, shameless. First there is the notion of shamelessness in relation to one's own life and work. As Breillat suggests, talking specifically about Virgin: 'I don't think it's possible to tell this kind of story without personal details, and this film draws on an experience in my life.' (Positif) Then we have Nietzsche's thoughts on shame. 'What is the seal of freedom attained? No longer to be ashamed of oneself?' (The Gay Science)
Is Breillat's purpose to banish shame, and thus to combine Nietzschean shamelessness with Kristevan abjection to arrive at an alternative to phallic fetishism? After all, what Freud is proposing is a given, an immutable position that cannot psychologically be altered; but Breillat's stance suggests that once the woman's body is not expected to be a site of perfection, but a site of exploration, then all sorts of possibilities are available to it. For Breillat the same holds for art as for femininity. 'I mean all my life I have been put under pressure to look feminine, do my hair nicely, make myself look pretty...and on the few occasions that I have given in, feeling dreadful, the very same people who had bullied me into it weren't happy. The same thing happens in artistic situations.' (Positif) As she says, 'you have to highlight differences, not hide them. I wrote the novel 36 fillette (Virgin) from the original screenplay, because everything I had rewritten was just done to please others.' There is in this a sense a prettification, be it of art or womanhood, that Breillat wants to escape, and there is this sense also that if the head-teacher in Romance can sleep with thousands of women, it lies in his willingness to forego the prettification. This wouldn't mean a woman couldn't look stunning, but there is an acceptance within that beauty of a body that urinates, defecates and menstruates, just as Breillat, if you like, wants to create an art that functions similarly, that also wants to confront. Not to shock, as Breillat has pointed out, but to allow an art that gives a woman her body back on her own terms and not those of masculine expectation, nor one that is full of lack, as in Freudian phallic assumption.
So we can say what interests Breillat isn't abjection as some non-signifying state, but much more a state of signification that includes the body, that insists on the body as the basis for one's being over the body as a space to be covered up and on occasion conquered. But if it doesn't come from non-signification, from some degree-zero state, it does nevertheless come from a neurotic condition that might throw the woman off centre, and this is central to Marie's condition here. Her boyfriend's sexual indifference, and her relative incompetence as a teacher (she can't spell), would seem to rob her of the two stabilizing elements in her life. Yet out of these destabilizations she moves towards self-recognition and self-autonomy. In the first place by taking other lovers and believing she asserts herself in these situations even if with two of them she would seem in a position of inferiority. After all, the headmaster ties her up and a stranger gives her ten bucks and takes her from behind in the stairwell. But Marie believes she is neither blind to the situation, nor sexually inadequate in her role (as she feels she is with her partner). It is as though when she goes off on her abject journey with various lovers she's working off a very low level of ego but a much higher level of self, and this ties into comments the headmaster makes about women. As he says "women yield easily to a stranger but play hard-to-get with a wretch who loves them, who'd die for them and swears he respects them. So it goes. But do they want to be respected?"
Perhaps their problem with the 'wretch who loves them' is that the woman has been pedestalled without comprehension, they have been idealized, but without either intense desire on the man's part, nor the possibility of immense desire on their own. If a woman despises a man who 'loves' her, maybe she is doing no more than despising the idea that the man does not love her, but loves the projection he has created around her, and this would rule out either an epistemological exploration or a passionate release on the part of either party. If, as the headmaster goes on to say, he's had ten thousand women, it lies in this combination of epistemology and passion, in that he may not remember all his lovers, but he did keep details of names and dates, and also explored his and their desires. This would be one of the reasons why a woman could be drawn to him even if he insists he's not a physically attractive man.
But how we might ask does this fit into our comments on ego and self, and a certain type of abjection? There is an abjection that is willing to sacrifice the needs of the ego for the possibilities in the self, and while the Kierkergaardian notion of a woman withholding may be necessary to her reputation, her self-esteem, her ego, it is in many ways a self-denying mode that keeps the self in check. This is a self that is not first and foremost social, but instead desiring and epistemological: she wants to feel the pleasures of the flesh and know the limits of her mind. To do so she needs not a man who will play with her and whom she shall play with - with the man chasing and the woman chased - but a man who will be willing to share in her degeneration if necessary.
This can take very different forms, from Erika Kohut's deliberately abject affair with a younger man in The Piano Teacher, to, say, the normal affair that turns the woman hysterical after the central character in Post-coitum animal-trieste finds herself abandoned. But vital is the degree to which the ego gives way to the self, the way a woman is willing to let this degeneration take place, and the learning curve that can come out of it. For someone like Erika in The Piano Teacher she remains emotionally lost, because her abject state remains too formal: it is an abjection that doesn't include her bodily desires and her mental evolution, but is instead a hiatus from her perceived being, from her career as a teacher and pianist. Marie on the other hand wants this physical and mental evolution, and finds it through an abject journey that insists on relinquishing control, where Erika wants to avoid evolving through insistent control. It's as though Erika doesn't want to evolve because her sense of ego is carefully calibrated, however hollow, and she feels any change to the structure of the self would leave her exposed and desperate - which is more or less what happens. But in Romance Marie starts from a position of ego weakness and moves towards a position of self-definition through sacrificing the ego and defining the self. Each journey she embarks upon with a man may be ostensibly humiliating, but contains a more intense self-comprehension. Erika starts with an apparently strong ego, but we see that she has no sense of self, no inner resources to justify her egotism, and so we're not surprised when she emotionally collapses at the end of The Piano Teacher.
In conclusion we could ask is it through abjection that a woman can assert her selfhood? Deleuze suggests in Cinema 2: The Time Image that 'female authors, female directors, do not owe their importance to a militant feminism. What is more important is the way they have produced innovations in this cinema of bodies, as if women had to conquer the source of their own attitudes and the temporality which corresponds to them as individual or common gest.' However we might extend this into the area of abjection, so that many contemporary female filmmakers (Breillat, Brigitte Rouan and Jane Campion for example) want to know what sort of control a woman can have over her life once she relinquishes the responsibility to be attractive, coquettish, desired on the man's terms rather than her own. She conquers the attitude of flirtatiousness and replaces it with an emotional and sexual directness. She removes the object for the abject, as Kristeva would say, and the I is replaced. But we could say this 'I' is another, anyway, it belongs to a Sartrean gaze that plays up shame, modesty, discretion, no matter the cost to the epistemological and sexual self. Sure, there is something strident, chaotic and insistent in Breillat's vision, but there is also an emotional coherence that makes her work taken as a whole greater than the sum of the parts. She wants at whatever aesthetic price to create a new feminine being out of the abstract femininity she's been forced to conform to for many hundreds of years. Thus Breillat's is a liberating abjection that seeks selfhood even if it must destroy females egos along the way. Including, here, her central character's.
© Tony McKibbin