|Riddles of the Sphinx (1977).|
Three years after working on their first film Panthesilea: Queen of the Amazons in 1974, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen decided to join forces once again and film what is now known as one of the most significant examples of British avant-garde cinema, Riddles of the Sphinx.
Mulvey and Wollen, before their collaboration in filmmaking, were distinguished film critics and theorists. They not only collaborated creatively, but they were also husband and wife. Both of their theoretical backgrounds influenced their filmmaking, Wollen has written several essays on Jean-Luc Godard and avant-garde cinema, Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” discussed film theory in combination with psychoanalysis and feminism. Mulvey in her essay, that is a special feature of BFI’s Riddles of the Sphinx edition, notes that Panthesilea: Queen of the Amazons works in some way as a prologue to Riddles of the Sphinx. Furthermore, both films question and discuss women’s place within society, and the politics of motherhood and womanhood, and both films put down their roots in Greek mythology. After Riddles of the Sphinx they continued their collaboration on four more films, their final collaborative feature was The Bad Sister (1983). It is worthy of note that the cinematographer involved with Riddles of the Sphinx was Diane Tammes, whose innovative approach made it possible to deliver Riddles of the Sphinx in the expected aesthetic strategy. In addition, Tammes was the first woman cinematographer in the UK, who got accredited by the Union, the ACTT.
Riddles of the Sphinx is broken into seven chapters to break up continuity, long 360 degree pan shots to create a sense of continuity, Mulvey and Wollen use various techniques to create a de-dramatized drama and a riddle of womanhood, motherhood and its representation and role within society. As noted, Riddles of the Sphinx puts down its roots in Greek mythology, and discusses the role of the Sphinx/female in the story about Oedipus from the facet of psychoanalysis; moreover, Freud’s Oedipus complex. The exclusion of women is already portrayed in the aforementioned story about Oedipus and the Sphinx, where the Sphinx is standing outside the Greek city gates of Thebes, not inside. The Sphinx was guarding the city gates, and every traveller needed to answer a riddle to gain access into the city. However, Oedipus was the only one who answered the Sphinx or the monster’s riddle correctly, in that way defeating her. In the same way, as the Sphinx was asking riddles to the travellers, Riddles of the Sphinx is asking riddles to the viewer about the origins of women’s oppression. Moreover, in its narrative the film itself becomes a riddle.
The film’s story evolves from Gertrude Stein’s lines: “A narrative of what wishes what it wishes it to be.” Stein was an established American modernist writer, who broke the forms of traditional and conventional writing. In the same way as Mulvey and Wollen have replaced conventional narrative of the film and have broken it up into seven chapters, so creating intermittent narrative. Seven chapters give the film a certain pattern and builds up symmetry. Accordingly, the first chapter echoes the seventh, whereas, in the second chapter Mulvey reads a piece about the Sphinx, which is written by Wollen, and then in the sixth chapter she rewinds the tape recorder and listens to its playback. In the third chapter grainy photographs of the Sphinx and close ups of its lips are shown, even more, close ups of the celluloid film are portrayed, which emphasises that the film itself is aware of it being a film, it echoes with the fifth chapter, which portrays female acrobats on tinted film. Hence, the pattern is 1-7, 2-6, 3-5, where the middle chapter, chapter 4, tells a story of the protagonist, Louise, it represents inequalities and problems which Louise needs to face after the separation from her husband. Louise is left alone to take care of her daughter, while working as a telephone operator. Each section of chapter four, altogether thirteen, represents a scene from her life, underlining the main changes in her life.
The end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s was an important time for women’s liberation movements, second wave feminism, upspring of psychoanalysis and in general it was a time when various disciplines, especially the arts, tried to break away from old and dusted established norms, forms and views, in order to create it all anew. 1974 was the height of women’s movement, also in the same year British psychoanalyst and socialist feminist, Juliet Mitchell, published her seminal work “Psychoanalysis and Feminism”, in which she notes, that in order to understand oppression and domestication of women one must first understand psychoanalysis. Even more, rejection of phallic and patriarchal psychiatry can end fatalistic for feminism. During the 1970s, Mulvey herself was attending women’s liberation movements meetings, which has also influenced Riddles of the Sphinx.
Moreover, on May 4, 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister. Hence, by the end of the 1970s, there was a noticeable wind of change regarding women’s rights. In much the same way as in the last three sequences of chapter four in Riddles of the Sphinx, pan shots change direction, instead of going from left to right, they move from right to left, to signal the change of mood in the film, as noted by Mulvey in the director’s commentary. The same change and progression of Louise’s life is marked by the use of colours in different sections during chapter four. Take for example, the first section in chapter four – kitchen – the main colours used are blues and yellows, no reds, whereas in the section – at Maxine’s – the set is infused with redness. Also Louise’s questions during the film changes, starting from domestic life in the kitchen section to asking questions about women’s oppression and rights in the playground section. Riddles of the Sphinx may be seen as a documentation of the women’s liberation movement, thus it could be categorized as an essay film. By including the story of Louise, Mulvey and Wollen takes the essay film form and fictionalises it, as noted by Mulvey in director’s the commentary, they did that to bring emotions into the film.
To conclude, the main change in Louise’s life is marked by her relationship with her daughter, by the end of chapter four, Louise isn’t anymore carrying her child, but is walking in the museum holding Anna by her hand. Riddles of the Sphinx starts with shots of the Sphinx, excluded woman, but ends with women as acrobats, the old idea of the woman juxtaposed to the new. The film ends with a spatial riddle, the maze, leading to the suggestion that the problems and riddles that the film tried to answer and solve are just a tip of the iceberg in the women’s liberation movements.
This review was originally written for zombiehamster.com.