Saturday, March 30, 2013


Clothes make the woman.  A servant dressed as a duchess.
There is one fascinating sequence in the unexpectedly mild Farewell My Queen (2012), the only film I've seen about the French Revolution which could be described as "understated."  The Revolution has begun, everyone is fleeing Versailles and Sidonie, reader to Marie Antoinette and profoundly devoted to the queen, has been asked to assume the disguise of the queen's intimate friend, the Duchess of Polignac.  (Everyone is all in a tizzy about the suggestion of homosexuality in this film, but it seems a rather tame escalation of the intimacy among women customary of the time.  It was a way to experience tenderness unavailable in conventional marriage, and for the Queen it was a relationship which avoided the accusations of treason which would have followed any relationship with any male.)  The Duchess will pose as her maid.  It is simply a matter of exchanging clothes.

Tellingly, this exchange of identity begins with a ritual humiliation.  One of the Queen's attendants insists on stripping Sidonie down to her skin.  No man is present, but clearly Sidonie feels vulnerable and attempts at first to cover herself, but admonished to stop.  The implication is that such modesty is presumptuous in the presence of her superiors, especially the Queen.  And it works.  The ordinarily feisty Sidonie is docile, accepting -- perhaps a little resentful -- but she patiently waits for the Duchesses's gown to arrive to be put on her.

What follows is equally instructive.  As you can see by the illustration above with Lea Seydoux (whose performance has been woefully underappreciated), Sidonie's head is no longer bowed and subservient.  Her head is up, her shoulders are back, she walks with command.  Anyone who has worn formal clothing of a previous era may recognize how the structure of those clothes affect the way one holds one's body and, consequently,the physical attitude one presents to the world.  Sidonie walks as a duchess, and even though the other staff knows who she is, they are confused as to how to acknowledge her, now neither wholly another domestic, but not wholly a duchess.  (This is complicated by the fact that Polignac's elevation to the title was rather questionable to begin with.)

As the film ends, the charade is successful.  Polignac is rather snippy and bitter for a maid, at least within the privacy of the coach, but upon presentation of the papers to the guard, Sidonie is appropriately both demure and haughty, and she and the Duchess and the Duchess's beard-husband are given safe passage.  From then on, Sidonie literally disappears, vaporizes.  We hear her, but we do not see her, as she mourns the fact that she shall now become no one.  Because, after all, what dress is she to put on now?

Stripped of uniform, stripped of personhood.
Compliance (2012)  seizes on the difference between being clothed and being naked and builds it into almost its entire narrative.  Again, the agenda is humiliation, and again, that humiliation can lead to a loss of identity, of self-possession, of self itself.  It is not necessary to recap the plot -- the internet is full of discussions of its veracity.  I also recommend you check out the various videos on line on the Milgrim experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment about the way people will both comply with authority and assume dictated roles of power. [These ideas are also explored in the two films - German and English- of Funny Games directed by Michael Heneke and in Das Experiment and The Experiment, also German and English films, which restage the Stanford experiment.] At least Marie Antoinette had a benign intention -- to save two beloved companions.  Here the sole item on this fastfood menu is cruelty.

And as if having to wear a fast food uniform wasn't humiliating enough by itself, now poor Becky is forced to take it -- and all her clothing off.  A lot of other things happen, and the real central manipulation takes place between the prankster and the distressingly foolish store manager, a woman so unable to handle authority that it is a wonder she was not part of the last presidential administration.  But it is Becky who is functionally naked for over and hour of this film's brief running time, and as it progresses we see how she loses the ability to object, to protest, to resist; the share fact of nakedness compels submission.  A naked person is a weak person and that simple step virtually destroys the young woman's sense of herself as something worth attention, respect, simple decency.

Even the epilogue of the film virtually ignores her in favor of her confused manager.  I suppose it makes sense -- the manager is our surrogate in the film, the one who is manipulated in a way we are seduced into saying could never happen to us.  She makes the mistakes we would make.  It's harder to identify with a victim as purely victim as Becky.  Moreover, she becomes voiceless and almost numb somewhere after the half-hour mark of the film.  And if Compliance is meant to be a cautionary tale, than the behavior to be cautioned against is that of the manager who truly had the power to put a stop to the whole thing, not the poor naked employee.  Happily, director Craig Zobel manages to keep that going without having to humiliate the actress herself.

And most terrible for both characters in these two different films is that they are made to feel shame when it is those who put them in that position who should feel the shame.  And a nod to both directors, (Benoit Jacquot and Craig Zobel, respectively) who made us witnesses to their degredation without creating a prurient or voyeuristic filip to the action, other than what is already embedded in these sorry events.


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