Framing Ladies: From American Film Noir to French New Wave
I shall explore the anachronistic relation of the filmic motif of the framed portrait of a woman to a strand of nineteenth-century aesthetics. I shall examine how the films in which the motif appears are engaged in a subtle and at times clandestine re-activation of nineteenth-century literary and visual culture, as well as pervaded by the fantasy of the woman as ghost and receding image. This re-appropriation of representative strategies familiar to us from literature and the visual arts is very often located at the site of the female body: women become idealized, fetishized, and not altogether paradoxically, dismembered.
Such mobile configurations of meanings and associations are observed in many examples of film noir (the Hollywood films of the 30s that adapt Poe’s stories for the screen; Preminger’s 1944 Laura), and in some of Hitchcock’s films such as Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958). The French New Wave Cinema also draws on this cultural motif: it surfaces in the scene of the oval portrait in Godard’s 1962 Vivre sa vie, in the adaptation of short stories by Henry James in Truffaut’s La chambre verte (1978), in the highly stylised horror movie by Franju, Les Yeux sans visage (1959), and in Agnès Varda’s 1987 playful cinematic portrait of Jane Birkin Jane B par Agnès V.
My aim is not simplistically to link female film characters with literary and pictorial references. Rather, I want to identify recurring visual and diegetic motifs and examine their range of meanings, pulling together discussions of the various films. This transnational motif will function as an entry point into an examination of the translatability of media. Its diffusion across media is, indeed, a striking example of exchange between the instruments and procedures of separate domains, and as such, provides us with a model through which to understand the persistent recycling of images, themes and representational strategies. Concepts from the history of art such as empreinte, moving images and visual anthropology will provide the methodological framework for this investigation
Keywords: Films, Visual Arts, Cultural Motif, Representation of Women, Circulation
Dr. Anne-Gaëlle Saliot
Lecturer, French Section, German and Romance Languages and Literatures Department, The Johns Hopkins University