2002, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Cinema
issue no. 45 <http://www.ejumpcut.org>
Passion and a
passion for learning
in The Governess
by Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt
The 1998 film The Governess, written and directed by Sandra Goldbacher, begins with the death of a young Jewish woman’s beloved father in mid-19th century London. In accordance with Jewish law, the woman, Rosina da Silva, is barred access to her father’s body in death. Later, for financial reasons, Rosina takes a job as governess in the family of a wealthy scientist, Charles Cavendish. By the end of the film, Rosina gains “access” to the bodies of both Charles and his son. Although the film belongs to the strong woman genre, its narrative deals with the woman in relation to both literal and symbolic access to the male body, the penis and the phallus in a manner that qualifies any simple affirmation of the heroine’s power.
The film contrasts the bodies to which Rosina gains access—father and son—with the scientist father figure associated with the mind, and the handsome, athletic son linked more to his body. They both desire the beautiful Rosina who’s positioned between them. This configuration places the film within a larger narrative paradigm in literature and film, one structured around a mind/body opposition. In this paradigm, a conventionally attractive, intelligent young woman is engaged or married to an intellectual, often upper-class male, but is discontented. Her malaise is revealed to be sexual in nature when she meets a working class man associated more with his body than his mind who consequently awakens her sexuality. The “mind men” in these narratives are explicitly depicted as poor lovers and often subjected to a variety of narrative punishments. On the other hand, the “body men” demonstrate stellar sexual performance and in general have privileged status in the narrative.
In addition to depicting differing, hierarchized masculinities, these narratives usually depict the domain of the mind, often equated with the upper-class, as stultifying—a spirit-shattering existence filled with pompous, shallow people—whereas the working class world of the body men has great vitality, as epitomized in Titanic. This scenario with deep-seated roots in Western narrative tradition resonates with particular force in 1990s Hollywood films; it proliferates in mainstream works such as Titanic(1997), Legends of the Fall (1994), The Horse Whisperer(1998), Moonlight and Valentino (1995) and I.Q. (1994), as well as indie works such as The Piano (1993) and Sirens (1994), among many others (Lehman and Hunt).
The ideology supported by these films reinforces the cultural clichés that intellectual men are inadequate lovers while working class or “earthy” men are inherently good lovers. The intellectual in Sirens bobs up and down on his wife as she stares vacantly at the ceiling, while the handyman—whom the wife goes to later that same night—immediately touches her in all the right places, giving her a furniture-gripping sexual experience. The brainy brother in Legends of the Fall fears his first sexual encounter with his fiancée, whereas the body brother is shown bringing the same woman repeated ecstasy their first night together (after the intellectual brother’s grisly death). Several assumptions are tacitly promulgated by these narratives: 1) power is obtained by controlling intelligent, attractive women through sexual performance, 2) women will benefit from the sexual experience the body men can give them, and 3) body men “have what it takes,” without developing their minds, to “give it to” women. In fact, as expressed in these films and other cultural venues, developing the intellect might actually undermine sexual appeal in that intellectuals are seen as socially-awkward nerds. Anti-intellectualism prevails. In these narratives, the body is “where it’s at,” so to speak, with an assumption that also has insidious undertones for women since they have historically been defined by culture as “bodies” more than “minds.”
The emergence of the body guy as a prominent figure in twentieth century literary and filmic narratives and the common opposition between the body guy and the mind guy within such narratives is related to capitalism and its attendant urbanization. In his book, Castration, Gary Taylor demonstrates that prior to Freud it was the testicles, not the penis, which dominated the literary and artistic representation of the male genitals. He links this to an agrarian economy where people were routinely exposed to the castration of farm animals, an act that removed the testicles, not the penis. Since Freud, however, the term castration has centered on the penis, not the testicles. Indeed, he virtually reverses the previous situation by minimizing mention of testicles in his writings. Taylor insightfully argues that this shift is directly attributable to the fact that Freud belonged to the first generation where the population pendulum had shifted from the farm and the land to the city; the majority of people were now cut off from the land and the people that lived and worked it.
The implicatons of Freud’s over-emphasis on the penis are far-reaching and complex but for our purposes here, it is sufficient to note that capitalism and the rise of an urban economy were central to it. It is no coincidence that the emergence of the body guy in literature coincides with this new urbanization. Early major examples of the body guy include the gamekeeper in E. M. Forster’s Maurice and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterely’s Lover. In both novels the gamekeepers are highly sexualized in opposition to the upper-class men. Similarly, the split between the mind and the body figures prominently in Hermann Hesse’s novels such as Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund where, once again, sexuality is located in the realm of the body guy while it is excluded within the mind guy.
As we have demonstrated in relationship to Titanic this mind guy/body guy paradigm has become very prominent in recent cinema (1999). The body guy figure in both literature and cinema is frequently tied to the land and/or the working classes and this can be understood in relationship to capitalism. Capitalism frequently creates nostalgia for a presumed lost past, though it is important to emphasize that those visions are of an idealized past that never existed. The gardeners, the gamekeepers, the cowboys, etc. that populate many of these narratives arose as highly romanticized, sexualized figures precisely when people were no longer in direct contact with them. The actualities of sweaty, smelly bodies inhabited by uneducated, crude, inarticulate, vulgar, rough men could disappear behind idealized images of a special relationship to the land, nature, and eroticism. And if one was not dealing with removed idealized figures of the land, the qualities attributed to those body guys found logical expression within the class distinction between blue collar and white collar workers. The blue collar workers became the class equivalent of the body guy, someone who worked with his hands rather than his mind and developed his muscles rather his brains. He may not have been close to the land but he was “clos” to his body.
In this paper, we will examine The Governess within the mind guy/body guy narrative paradigm and then compare and contrast it with Conceiving Ada, another independent film directed by a woman that engages similar issues. In The Governess, writer/director Goldbacher challenges some assumptions underlying these mind/body narratives. Rosina is drawn to the world of the mind, her sexual passion awakened by intellectual stimulation. When her employer Charles Cavendish learns of Rosina’s illicit forays into his laboratory—a space forbidden to all family members—he makes her his assistant. Together they experiment with photography, seeking to concoct the first fixative agent for photographic image preservation. Rosina and Charles begin a torrid sexual affair after a fertile intellectual and professional collaboration. Unlike the bumbling and/or cold-fish mind men of other 90s mind/body films, Charles is initially portrayed as a sensitive, passionate lover, within the constraints of his time.
The body man, Charles’s son Henry lives outside the world of the mind, expelled from Oxford for wanton use of opium and prostitutes. We see Henry playing racquetball and frolicking on the beach, whereas Charles is associated solely with his scientific work. Like other body men in the paradigm, Henry is immediately attracted to the beautiful Rosina and confident in his advances toward her. In a major departure from the dominant pattern, Rosina rebuffs Henry in favor of Charles. For her, Charles has what she wants to learn, and her desire is as much cerebral as sexual.
Henry’s lack of control over Rosina also departs from the 90s paradigm; there the body men seldom falter in their ability to win over seemingly inaccessible women; and they often have a degree of control over the women by literally saving them from physical and/or psychological deaths. Rose in Titanic actually says, “Jack saved me in every way a person can be saved,” and Ada in The Piano says, “Let Baines [the body man] save me.” Henry, though confident of his own body and abilities, displays shameless desperation when he cannot have Rosina: He cries hysterically, pleads, and runs after her.
Rosina as the woman in between subverts the dominant paradigm; she is not saved by a man but acts to direct the course of her own life, taking a job as a governess in the first place to avoid an arranged marriage. She then acts on her curiosity about Charles’s work, insists on an equal professional partnership with him after she becomes his assistant, and initiates sexual relations with both father and son. Visual control is equated with sexual control. Though she and Charles previously made love with their clothes on, Rosina removes his pants while he sleeps, exposing his genitals, and then takes a photograph of him. Similarly in a later scene Rosina orders Henry to undress for her and caresses his prone body, as does the camera in a way traditionally reserved for the female body.
Although Goldbacher deviates in this way from the 90s paradigm, she still maintains a basic opposition between mind men and body men. In other films of the pattern, mind men are subjected to humiliations and/or eliminated from the narrative while the body men assume privileged status. In The Governess, Charles is eventually revealed to be a decidedly unsympathetic character, a narcissist and sadist. Though Rosina contributes to his work by inventing a darkroom and inadvertently discovering the crucial ingredient for photographic fixation, he publicly denies her contribution and humiliates her in a sadistic fashion. As with other films in the paradigm, such cruelty is associated with the narrative trajectory of the mind men. Ada’s husband in The Piano chops off one of her fingers when he learns of her affair with body man Baines, leaving her unable to play the piano that she so passionately adores. Cal in Titanic slaps fiancee Rose when he learns of her affair with Jack and ultimately tries to kill both of them. Charles viciously turns on Rosina when she uses the camera lens, a phallic device he has forbidden her to handle, to photograph him naked as he sleeps deeply from too much alcohol.
Though Henry’s body man is more unstable than others in the pattern, he’s a veritable saint compared to Charles, so that the narrative firmly maintains an opposition between the two men. Charles ultimately attempts to control Rosina and deny her identity as an inventor/scientist. On the other hand, Henry gives himself over to Rosina’s sexual desires and also accepts her identity as a Jew, a vastly important aspect of her life that she withheld from Charles. In contrast to Charles who could not respond when Rosina initiated playfulness, Henry offers her an opportunity to be playful. At one moment, we see Henry and Rosina gleefully dancing on a beach as Charles solemnly watches from afar. This scene is formally and thematically similar to one in Titanic in which Jack takes Rose from the sedate upper-class dining room to steerage for a “real party” and joyfully dances with her. Perhaps most significantly, body man Henry is depicted as potentially a better lover than Charles. Charles and Rosina make love with their clothing on and Charles’s hands shake as he touches her. Henry readily removes his clothing and touches Rosina in a confident, tender manner. And like other mind men in the 90s pattern, Charles is ultimately humiliated. In the film’s final scene, after Rosina has stolen one of his camera lenses and started a successful photography business in another city, Charles visits her studio and says, “I’m in your hands, Miss DaSilva. Do with me what you will.” Rosina’s response is to do nothing more than photograph him and he dejectedly leaves.
In the course of exploring how the woman gains access to and control over the male body, The Governess includes two scenes of frontal male nudity. The first and perhaps more significant of the two occurs when Rosina takes nude photos of Charles as he sleeps. After she has finished, she leaves the photos for him and exits the room. When we next see Charles, he has a troubled look on his face as he examines a photo of himself with a magnifying glass. As a direct result of this experience of being photographed unaware and then seeing the results, he instantly ends his professional and personal relation with Rosina, even going so far as to take full credit for their co-authored scientific research which led to the discovery of photographic printing. To gain retribution, Rosina brings a copy of the offending photograph to a family dinner and boldly disrupts family life by marching up to Charles’s wife and presenting it to her.
The above-described sequence of events is richly embedded within interconnecting threads. If at the beginning of the film, as we have mentioned, the young woman was denied access to her literal father’s body, she now has gained access to and control over the symbolic father’s body. The control comes in both how she objectifies the body of the man in her photograph and then how she later uses that photograph for her purposes. One of the astonishing layers of complexity here comes from the manner in which the sequence references such accounts of the history of art, photography and cinema; it echoes both John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.”
It is now commonplace to acknowledge that the history of art, photography, and cinema objectified and eroticized the female body for the male, privileged viewer’s gaze. Yet Goldbacher here imagines the origin of photography as a moment that offered the possibility of a quite different direction. She depicts it as involving a mutual sharing and exploration of bodies with the woman behind the camera as well as in front of it and with the man in front of the camera as well as behind it. Within this context the patriarchal scientist’s response suggests why such an avenue was quickly shut off. The troubled image of Charles studying his genitals through a magnifying glass suggests his worry about something much more than his endowment (this is not another of the penis-size jokes that populate contemporary cinema). His disturbance at the very fact of the photograph indicates he has realized a central tenant of male nude photography—what Richard Dyer would so memorably describe as the fact that “the penis isn’t a patch on the phallus.” The issue is not this man’s penis.
In fact, the film makes clear that Rosina is pleased with Charles as a lover and that she takes the picture as a memento of their bodily pleasure. This contrasts with penis-size jokes; in targeting an individual as the butt of the humor, such jokes end up glorifying better-endowed men who can satisfy women and whom women desire. Goldbacher makes clear that the problem is the man’s, not the woman’s. Charles reads and responds to the photograph in a manner quite different from Rosina’s intent. Much as he is a symbolic father-figure in the film, his response symbolically encapsulates male responses within the history of photography—and cinema—to the male nude. That is, in looking at the male nude, the male viewer will discover that actual penises, when shown, are not what they are cracked up to be. In order to maintain the awe and mystique of the phallus, the penis has to remain hidden.
Male nudity is thus also embedded within the mind/body split. At the moment that the governess takes the nude photograph, she both documents and finalizes the process of introducing the mind man into the world of the body, the realm of the senses. He originally inhabited the lofty realm of the mind via his immersion in mathematics and science. He does not envision photography being about faces, the nude body, or any other body of pleasure for that matter. In a sense, Rosina drags the mind man down into the world of the body and its pleasures. Feeling threatened, he responds by withdrawing back into the world of the mind and securing his symbolic position via his (false) claim to be the inventor of photography, what Western culture would typically call the “father of photography.”
If on the one hand, Goldbacher elaborates a complex and profound representation of the penis, on the other, the narrative’s melodramatic consequences around the nude male body and its photograph place the film within an established 90s discourse about the penis. Beginning with The Crying Game (1993), the penis has commonly been shown within highly melodramatic contexts (Cobb, 1994; Angels and Insects, 1995) or it has precipitated such events after a slight narrative delay (American History X, 1998). Although these films contribute to breaking the taboo on the representation of the penis, they also contribute to a continuing cultural belief that showing the penis is, as it were, a big deal (Lehman). These films, The Governess included, all imply that images of penises have to be motivated by and/or precipitate extreme responses. In that regard, melodrama is not as far removed from awe and laughter as it may seem. The penis, if it is shown, has to elicit a strong response and melodrama is one such response.1
The film’s second instance of male nudity, again thematically complex, is also melodramatic. The sequence involves the son rather than the father and once again centers upon the governess’ gazing upon and controlling the male body. The son, the body guy, has fallen in love with the governess. When he comes to her in her bedroom, she assertively commands, “Take your clothes off. Let me look at you,” and he complies. Although this scene has only glimpses of frontal nudity, it clearly refers back to the nude scene involving the photographing of the young man’s father. The governess demands access to the male body with an emphasis on looking. And both moments relate back to the beginning of the film with her blocked access to the dead father.
Near the end of the film, after the governess rejects the son and leaves the family, we see the distraught young man emerging naked from a swim in the ocean. The glimpse of his penis in this shot is tied to the emotional anguish highly visible on his face. His nakedness, a sign of vulnerability, along with his behavior and intense emotional distress, indicate melodramatic excess, here illness.
The Governess, then, is certainly unusual in relation to the mind/body split. It initially eroticizes the realm of the mind rather than the body. Then it proceeds to have the woman seize control over both the mind guy and body guy, in the process rejecting the promise of sexual fulfillment from the body guy that other films within the paradigm celebrate. At the end, we are left to admire the manner in which Rosina takes control over her life, seizes the photographic apparatus, and moves behind it rather than in front of it. From such a perspective, the film is quite remarkable. However, as so frequently happens with narratives that push in new directions, in an important way The Governess gets caught within the very paradigm it seeks to escape.
At the end of the film the governess has sublimated her sexuality and become a symbolically powerful figure; the symbolic father figure now willingly sits in front of her camera as her subject. The film then reaffirms a central element of the dominant manner in which Western culture posits the mind/body split, as in the long religious tradition wherein high states of spiritual development of the soul are premised upon denial of bodily pleasures. And Freud’s well-known formulation of psychoanalytic sublimation echoes the same tradition. The Governess, in seeking to critique both poles of the mind/body split ends up reaffirming the polarity. Why should this woman pay such a price? She denies herself the pleasures of the body in order to occupy a position of power at the film’s conclusion. Perhaps the final nude image of the son on the beach inadvertently raises the same question. Rosina is not there to see his body; only we do. The son’s nudity seems to indicate his anguish at his loss, but that image of his youthful, sexual body is lost on the governess. This may serve for the audience as a punishment for her rejecting him. Within the film’s narrative logic of the film, she could have had the pleasure of this body so perhaps in the end the narrative reaffirms the body guy after all.
The Governess bears comparison with the 1997 film Conceiving Ada, written and directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson. Both films feature intellectual women who are passionate about apparati related to image technology—the camera and computer—which belong to career fields that are still vastly male-dominated. The women in both films ultimately control the apparati by overcoming men who attempt to block them from progressing with their work. In Conceiving Ada, computer scientist and cyber-geneticist, Emmy, makes contact with the historical figure, Ada Byron Lovelace, daughter of the renown 19th century poet, Lord Byron. The film is based upon the fact that Ada Lovelace, a mathematical genius, developed the first computer program long before the realization of the computer. Like The Governess, the film represents Ada as a woman who discovers the pleasures of sex with intellectual men. As Ada puts it, “There were times when my passion for learning was confused with, well, passion,” and she unashamedly seduces the men who teach her what she wants to know. Like Rosina in The Governess, she delightedly shares sex and intellectual work with them. As such, this is another film written and directed by a woman that locates female sexual pleasure in the realm of the mind man as opposed to the body man.
The modern day story line in Conceiving Ada complicates the scenario, however, in that Emmy lives with Nick, a man who is marked as a body guy through his muscled physique and association with the working class (we see him welding and working as a bartender). The mind man in Emmy’s life is her elderly mentor, Sims, an ailing, disembodied figure (played by Timothy Leary, strongly associated with the late 60s phrase “expand your min”) with whom she only interacts via video camera and monitor. The world of the mind is still privileged in Conceiving Ada, but in the modern day version it is not connected to sex although intriguingly it is connected with procreation.
The opening scene of the film shows Emmy and Nick making love in a highly conventional manner, after which Emmy immediately returns to work with her computer, prompting Nick to ask, “Now?” Emmy replies, “You inspire me,” in a tone more sarcastic than sincere. Nick is specifically banished from her intellectual domain (he is not allowed to touch her computer) and seems to primarily satisfy her physical needs which are totally separate from the exciting domain of her mind. Nick’s rivals are, as it were, Ada and Emmy’s commitment to her work. The opening sequence presents their lovemaking as little more than a pleasant distraction, not something that arises from or is connected to Emmy’s intellectual life, in contrast to the excitement of the sexual life between Rosina and Charles.
The emphasis on mind over body is complicated by the body guy, however, in that Nick impregnates Emmy and vehemently encourages her to have the child, an event that takes Conceiving Ada in a different direction from The Governess. Although initially reluctant, Emmy decides to keep the fetus and is shown as quite content with motherhood in the film’s closing scene. This occurrence seems to contradict the depiction of the Victorian woman Ada’s dilemma as an intellectual woman. Ada feels her three children stifle her ability to complete her work, and she speaks disparagingly of motherhood: “While there was a wish for an heir, there was no real desire for children” At another point she remarks,
I don’t know how my children ever came out of me. They’re not what I wanted to come out of me. I don’t know them.
Ada’s elision from history is not a result of her collaborator’s duplicity but arises instead from the fact that she simply does not have time to complete her work due to family commitments:
I had no time to think and dream in peace...I was never independent of a pressure to do something I didn’t want to do...all my energy was spent on trying to resist other peoples’ manipulations.
Paradoxically, Emmy’s work becomes inextricably entwined with child-bearing. Because of a computer glitch involving a DNA chip, Emmy’s daughter, Claire, is born with Ada’s memory. Ada will now live on because of Emmy’s work with cyber-genetics and the fact that Claire will literally keep Ada alive and perhaps pass her on to future generations. In the final shot of the film, Emmy is shown happily caressing Claire as they watch Ada on the computer, implying that Emmy’s “real” contribution to society and the source of her power within society rests with her curly-haired beauty of a child. Emmy now spends time structuring Claire’s life, reminding her about her math homework, piano lessons and a baseball game and telling her that she only gets two hours a week to work on the “Ad” computer program. The film positions Emmy to redirect her energies away from the computer to her pregnancy in that her obsession with work is unhealthy. Her obstetrician says to her,
You’re going to have to abstain from cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods, strenuous exercise and working long extended hours has to stop.
When Emmy responds, “You’re sounding just like Nicholas,” the doctor replies, “You ought to listen to Nicholas a little bi” This depiction supports the stereotypes of intellectuals as anti-social and focused on mental matters to the point of self-neglect. In addition, the emphasis on child-bearing in Conceiving Ada is disturbing at this historical moment.
Certain career fields have only readily been open to women in the West for around the last twenty-five years. Although women have succeeded in these previously male-dominated fields in record numbers, representations of women being excited about and enjoying their careers are nearly absent. Media have focused instead on career women having babies and/or expressing discontent with their life choices. Hollywood films have featured dysfunctional career women who must be brought under control and/or learn to be better mothers; these include Fatal Attraction (1987), Baby Boom (1987), Junior (1994), Disclosure (1994), One Fine Day (1996), The Horse Whisperer (1998), I Am Sam (2001), and Kate & Leopold (2001).
This notion of the subordination of career to childbearing is depicted also in Marleen Gorris’s 1995 film Antonia’s Line that sees women’s contribution to “the world” as a matter of passing on genes. Antonia raises a daughter as a single mother. The daughter, who becomes an artist, gets pregnant by a man she uses only for the purpose of conceiving and has a daughter. The third generation daughter matures into a brilliant mathematician/ musician who reluctantly decides to keep her fetus when impregnated by a childhood friend. Her daughter—the most beautiful of all with red, curly hair and pouty lips (similar in appearance to the actress who plays Claire in Conceiving Ada)—becomes a writer, the storyteller who documents Antonia’s life, the implication being that the very story we just watched may not have come into existence without such a long line of heirs.2 The titles Antonia’s Line and Conceiving Ada both point to the presumed centrality of conception and lineage in relation to female control and power.
The Victorian mathematician Ada asks if Emmy intends to save her and Emmy replies that she’s found a way to clone Ada’s memory so she can take her rightful place in history. From her deathbed, Ada says that she doesn’t want to colonize Emmy with her essence, but Emmy ignores Ada’s wishes and proceeds with a cyber-genetic experiment that gives her daughter Ada’s memory, voice and spirit. Ada’s essence will be saved by the child Emmy has produced, implying that a human body is needed for a history to be perpetuated.
Claire’s importance is further emphasized by Nick’s inexplicable disappearance from the narrative; Emmy and Claire sit in front of the computer in the way that Emmy and Nick had done previously. With the privileging of Claire’s character, the mind/body dichotomy in Conceiving Ada is specifically couched in terms of ideas/people, a notion that is reflected by the film’s title itself. Emmy is conceiving of Ada—re-inventing, re-formulating, re-envisioning her—through her ideas and work, and she has literally conceived Ada with the birth of Claire. Claire’s existence in many ways supplants the importance of Emmy’s work. Not only is Ada carried on by Claire, but Emmy too, in that Claire is learning mathematics and computer programming like her mother.
The manner in which Conceiving Ada ends with the delighted woman’s devotion to her daughter contrasts sharply with the ending of The Governess where the woman steals the lens, seizes the means of photographic production, and sets up a business for herself (leaving the Cavendish’s young daughter she was hired to tutor). Although the two films may seem similar in depicting their heroines’s intellectual aspirations and sexuality, the narratives in fact are quite different. Conceiving Ada celebrates woman as mother and the mother-daughter bond (ironic in light of Ada’s story) while The Governess celebrates woman as independent, using her mind and her skills to accomplish her goals rather than relying on a future generation. The irony of Leeson’s representation of motherhood is that she as writer/producer/director resurrects Ada Lovelace through documenting her historical achievements in this film. Thus Conceiving Ada itself poses an alternative to literal genetic inheritance.
The two films are ultimately similar in that a mind/body dichotomy is maintained through the representation of male characters. The appeal of the powerful male intellectuals is undercut while the body guys are depicted more favorably. Rosina rejects Charles who betrays rather than mentors her when he sits before her camera and says, “I’m in your hands, Miss DaSilva. Do with me what you will.” Similarly, in Conceiving Ada, Sims has no body and the other intellectuals Ada has relationships with fail to successfully mentor her. On the other hand, The Governess suggests that Rosina may have erred in rejecting body guy Henry. As previously mentioned, the last image of Henry shows him collapsing in grief over Rosina’s departure as he emerges from the sea nude. The image of his romantic suffering accentuates the attractiveness of his youthful, nude, well-toned body. This could have been Rosina’s.
When Nick temporarily leaves in Conceiving Ada, Emmy is shown as distraught, unable to work, and delighted when her man returns. Also, Nick shops for groceries, cooks, serves meals and generally looks out for Emmy’s health. Emmy is even indebted to Nick in that his meddling with the computer to sabotage her work (out of concern for her health) serendipitously produces the outcome for which Emmy is looking. And of course, he is half-responsible for conceiving the beloved Claire. Although body guy Nick may be living elsewhere at the film’s close, his role as a father and non-intellectual is depicted as crucial for their daughter’s mental health. Emmy tells Claire that Nick will be coming later to take her to a baseball game, and she must do this to live a “normal childhood” The body guy is “the man for the ” sexually, socially, and spiritually.3
In Conceiving Ada, a mind/body polarity is also affirmed by Emmy’s visual presentation. Emmy begins the film with flowing, red, wavy hair, but in a gesture to protest being pregnant, she herself cuts it off into a short, boxy, less flattering style. At the film’s close, Emmy wears her hair long again and her facial beauty is accentuated with more make-up than she has previously worn. In fact, the return of her beauty is presented in a particularly dramatic manner. After Emmy parks the motorcycle she’s been riding, she and Claire sit at a computer. As they sit, Emmy still wears a helmet, but then removes it, shaking her long hair to loosen it fashion-model style. Although this scene—the narrative’s denouement—emphasizes the mother and daughter’s shared immersion in the computer as a source of pleasure and fulfillment (Claire can’t wait to work on Emmy’s computer program), the final image of them emphasizes their physical attractiveness. Emmy and Claire nearly face the camera in a tight medium shot that is eventually freeze-framed. Their gaze at the off-screen computer monitor becomes a moment for film spectators to marvel over their resemblance to each other and their beauty. Thus, Emmy’s conventional attractiveness and her motherhood locate her firmly within the domain of the body and traditional femininity.
Compared to Conceiving Ada, The Governess may seem to cross the mind/body dichotomy in presenting female accomplishment and satisfaction, but it also maintains the split in two ways. First, as we have noted, at the end of the film, Rosina appears to have abandoned bodily pleasures, sublimating them entirely to her work. If she once knew interrelated mind/body pleasures, she now seems to have lost sexual pleasure. Ironically, the very nature of her work reinstates an ideas/people dichotomy. Rosina insists on using the camera and photographic processes to capture and fix the images of people as opposed to Charles’ insisting on using the camera only to document items for scientific research.
Directors Goldbacher, Leeson, and Gorris all associate their heroines with functions of permanence and immortality, be it through giving birth to children who embody the future or capturing images of bodies on film for the future. The Governess at least poses an alternative to both traditional notions of immortality and a body/mind separation by linking curiosity and intellectual pursuit to the site of the body—the locus of traditional sexuality—thus opening a space to explore imaginative, alternative sexualities.Notes
1. In a somewhat parallel manner, Heather MacDonald’s play Dream of a Common Language (1993) stages male nudity with reference to art history in a highly melodramatic way. In the play, set in 1874, the wife of a well-known male artist, and herself a former artist forces a male friend at gunpoint to pose nude for her (see Lehman).
2. The pregnancy motif is encapsulated by a character in Antonia’s Line who is constantly pregnant because she loves the state of being pregnant (and always appears in a full term condition on screen). Rather than stop getting pregnant, she bears a massive number of children and dies at a relatively young age.
3. The privileging of body men also occurs in Antonia’s Line. When the artist daughter wants to get pregnant she finds a buff, black leather-jacketed motorcyclist who makes passionate love to her repeatedly and impregnates her on the first try. On the other hand, Antonia’s brilliant granddaughter, Therese, picks up an intellectual graduate student in a bar who is ultimately humiliated. The student is shown feverishly relating his ideas about socialism, capitalism and the impact of society on male/female relationships to Therese, but his mental enthusiasm is undercut in the next scene when he is shown standing naked on the sidewalk with a newspaper over his groin as Therese throws his clothes out a window. A female voice-over refers to his intellectual discourse as “self-indulgent blather” and goes on to say,
She experimented with a few intellectuals, but found them wanting...nor was she compensated physically.
Berger, John. 1973. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin.
Dyer, Richard. 1982. “Don't Look Now: The Male Pin-up” Screen 23, nos. 3-4: 61-73.
Lehman, Peter. 2000. “Crying Over the Melodramatic Penis: Melodrama and Male Nudity in Films of the ‘90s” in Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture, edited by Peter Lehman. New York: Routledge.
Lehman, Peter and Susan Hunt. 1999. “’Something and Someone Else’: The Mind, the Body, and Sexuality in Titanic” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, edited by Kevin Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Mulvey, Laura. 1975. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” Screen 16, no. 3: 6-18.
Taylor, Gary. 2002. Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. New York: Routledge.
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