Dispatch From Locarno: Motherhood Horror
(Warning: some spoilers)
There is a lovely scene at the end of Freiheit (Freedom, 2017) a second fiction feature by Jan Speckenbach. Middle-aged Nora (Johanna Wokalek), a dedicated wife and a mother of two has just had dinner with her family. During it she seemed restless and distanced, her reactions hinting at quietly growing doubt rather than a sudden realization or outburst. The camera stays close on her face during the meal. Afterwards she asks her husband, Philip (Hans-Jochen Wagner), if one can truly love. The camera follows her in the apartment as she changes into a dress—we recognize it’s the one she wore in the film’s opening. Nora moves as if in a dream, propelled by a deep, unspoken instinct. She washes the dishes, puts her daughter to bed. In a minute she will walk out—her unsuspecting husband will ask for a pack of cigarettes—and disappear. But for now, we sense her trepidation, her fear. Speckenbach uses the power of ambiguity, withholding information and carefully building psychological tension. If he had only not revealed so much beforehand, he could have us entranced.
Wokalek was riveting as Gudrun Esslin in Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) about The Red Army Faction (RAF) members, and in Freiheit she moves with a velvety smoothness of a cat. Since I saw the film in the context of the 70th Locarno Film Festival, where the film played in the international competition, and during which Jacques Tourneur was given a comprehensive retrospective, it is hard not to think of Freiheit in the context of Tourneur’s psychological horror films, particularly his masterpiece, Cat People (1942). In it, a young woman, Irena (Simone Simon), convinces herself she is, or perhaps truly is cursed—ultimately there’s no difference—by an ancient Serbian spell. She marries happily but believes that consummating her marriage, her carnal passion, will turn her into a ravenous black panther.
We are not far here from the Victorian vision of women’s desire as forbidden and therefore punishable. Irena ultimately loses both her husband’s love and her life. Tourneur’s portrayal of her torment is lovely and stylized; we can’t but feel enormous empathy for a woman so young and already so embalmed—we could say she’s a living dead. Tourneur will deal a much more explicit blow to yet another heroine—Jessica (Christine Gordon) in I Walked With a Zombie (1943), in which we see that horror, true horror, is not merely about shared fear or invisible threats, but also about sacrifice. Women are sacrificed in Tourneur quite brutally. They are not quick slasher victims but suffer delectably, in their flowing gowns, their porcelain skin deathly and unblemished. Pale ghosts. For sure, there are earthly women too in Tourneur. In both Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, one sacrifice is shadowed and confirmed by another (this time not bloody): more common and pragmatic girls—Alice (Jane Randolph), the friend in Cat People; Betsy (Frances Dee), the devoted nurse in I Walked With a Zombie—rescue the men from sexual abstinence and despair.
A similar haunting feeling emanates from Freiheit, and this is perhaps why I have my own idiosyncratic reading of the film, not as a successful social drama, which ultimately it isn’t, trapping its heroine in a cage she is never allowed to transcend, but as a social horror. Motherhood, or perhaps, at times, parenthood lies at the very heart of Freiheit’s general sense of entrapment. Yet as little as we may sympathize with the unfaithful and petty Philip, he partly redeems himself in his newly found role as a single parent. For Nora, however, the only redemption comes when she puts on a blond wig, suddenly looking as monstrous and ghastly as Jessica in I Walked with a Zombie. A lunar landscape gleaming behind her, with a city that looks as if something from a dream, Nora drowns herself in a lake. I was thinking here how little progress we have made in our imagination since Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the two iconic mid/late 19th century novels, in which women transgress (a result of sentimental naiveté in Flaubert), and are punished in a sacrificial way—a double suicide—to appease the more squeamish, and so that social order may be preserved. (Oddly enough, the only woman in Freiheit who is freer and a mother is a sex worker, which neatly inscribes the extent of her freedom to pleasuring men).
Another film in Locarno’s international competition that evoked Cat People more directly as a horror of female sexuality and motherhood is As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners, 2017), by Brazilian filmmaker duo, Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas (formerly of Hard Labor, 2011). It is a stylized fairytale, and as such borrows from Tourneur the basic premise of a woman whose sexuality—or should we say, joy of sex—comes to haunt her. Ana (Marjorie Estiano) hires an inexperienced black nanny, Clara (Isabél Zuaa). Clara has cared for her own grandmother, and there is a suggestion that she has intimate knowledge of suffering. Ana is white and rich, Clara black and poor. For a second we seem to be set up for a pallid morality tale about class, about social and racial divisions. Yet the film quickly transcends such meager expectations. As the two women grow close, Ana’s eerie, ravenous appetite for meat reveals its origin—her body, ravished in the woods by a wolf, now carries an animal fetus.
Dutra and Rojas borrow from old cinema the technique of matte painting (originally used by many Hollywood masters, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles), where the background is painted in, in this case resulting in an eerie Gotham-like São Paulo, a mysterious concrete jungle, in whose deep greens we can espy a lost, enchanted forest. A fairytale setting slowly turned grim, as human passions flare up and acceptance turns to confusion and hate. Accordingly, the film’s palette darkens, from light blue to rich, murky indigos. As Ana keeps her gynecologist appointments, she is told her baby is perfectly healthy, yet she does not care. Her passion for Clara blossoms, but so does her darker, vampiric instinct. The beast has been stirred and, like Irena in Cat People, Ana will ultimately be sacrificed (in childbirth).
As in Tourneur, there is a second, much less expected sacrifice: transformed from a timid maid to a fulltime caretaker, passionate lover and protector, Clara now takes over, not just as Ana’s but, ultimately, her wolf-son, Joel’s, caregiver. Ana’s monstrous motherhood is transformed into Clara’s wondrous one. The latter isn’t without sacrifices, either. Clara is determined to protect the boy from the curse and therefore from his own nature. Like Irena’s from Cat People, her protective efforts are doomed to failure. Ultimately, both Clara and Joel, born of forbidden passion but saved by Clara’s love for Ana, must learn to know themselves. As the townspeople learn of Joel’s true identity, and move to lynch him after an attack, Clara and Joel unite. In fear, yet for once, unlike in Freiheit or in Cat People, theirs is a mutual pact that hints at recognition and possibility. Freedom.