Saturday, April 21, 2012

Feminism

Film: De Stilte Rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence) Format: VHS from Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

I live in a town with a large university, which gives me the benefit of having a gigantic additional library at my disposal. While I can’t get things through interlibrary loan, I can have access to the library collection. Since it’s a public university, my taxes pay for it, so I get that for free. I renewed my card today and walked out with a couple of films, in particular De Stilte Rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence), which I haven’t otherwise been able to find.

This is an odd film, one of the first real cinematic visions of violent feminism. It unquestionably follows a film like Jeanne Dielmann and presages films like Thelma and Louise. The story is as odd as it is simple; three women who don’t know each other brutally murder a shopkeeper in Amsterdam and are put on trial. Before the trial, they are investigated by a psychiatrist who tries to determine what led these women to commit murder. She shocks the court by declaring that the women are legally sane, a declaration that sends waves through the court, her life, and potentially society.

As the film progresses, we learn more and more about the three women. Christine (Edda Barends) takes center stage in terms of the title, but is also the character who speaks the least. After the murder and her arrest, she becomes non-communicative, refusing to speak about any issue. The psychiatrist Janine (Cox Habbema) questions her, and while Christine draws pictures, she says nothing. She is more successful with the other two. Annie (Nelly Frijda) is a divorced waitress who speaks openly and laughs constantly. Anna (Henriette Tol) is a secretary who has started to recognize that she not only has a particular power, but that her abilities are both wasted and purposefully ignored.

The three women, of course, are meant to be the center of the narrative, but in general, it is Janine who takes center stage. The film is in many ways less about what the women did or even why they did it and more about how Janine comes to understand their actions, and eventually to at least partly condone those actions. Much of her awareness comes from Anna, who, of the three women, is the most forceful in turning the questions back on her questioner.

While the story of our three murderers is an interesting one, Goris is right to focus on Janine, because her awakening is the most interesting in the film. We have in her an accomplished, powerful woman in her own right—a psychiatrist frequently called on for expert testimony. As the film progresses, we learn, though, that she is still a second-class citizen in her own home. A dinner party requires that she do all the cooking, for instance, and afterwards she is expected to submit to sex whether she wants to or not. It is events like this that wake her up to the cause behind the attack on the shopkeeper, since by the end of the film it is evident that she does understand the why of the event even though the three women never tell her explicitly.

Perhaps the most effective device used in the film is the series of short sequences depicting the men in the lives of the imprisoned women. In each case—and this becomes true for Janine as well—the men are unable to come to grips with the events at the shop except in terms of how those events affect them specifically. Christine’s husband, for instance, can only question why she would do this to him—he’s had to ship the children off to other locations because he is incapable of caring for them himself. Anna’s boss comments that she was a necessary part of his business, but in a flashback we see that her function was strictly to keep things organized, and any opinion she expressed was purposefully and specifically brushed aside. Events like these lead us as audience down the same path as Janine so that, by the end of the film, we understand the motive behind the attack as well. Janine experiences the same thing when her husband (Eddie Brugman) tries to force her to change her testimony so that it won’t reflect poorly on him or his career as a lawyer.

My one complaint here is the music. It is loud, jarring, and often highly reminiscent of this film’s musically unfortunate decade. I’m reminded, in fact, of a film like Ladyhawke that is crippled today by its dated and cheese-filled musical score. Even though the music here is plainly dated and often ugly, there are still some interesting choices. For instance, some scenes (particularly the one in which Janine truly begins to understand the women) have a soundtrack that is in many ways akin to a horror movie. And it’s appropriate—what Janine is realizing is horrific.

This is an impressive film start to finish. The ending is shocking, and Goris’s choice to leave that ending ambiguous was a smart one. While we don’t know what Janine will do next, we know that it will be significant. We don’t know the outcome of the trial, but it is not the result that we care about. What we want is to understand, and Goris leaves us enough breadcrumbs to follow the trail and arrive at the conclusion she wishes.

Why to watch De Stilte Rond Christine M.: A shocking and powerful feminist statement.
Why not to watch: The music is wretched.

4 comments:

  1. This is truly an uber-feminist film. You are so right about the music!

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  2. There were a few times it was almost effective in the horror movie way, but most of the time...yeesh!

    This is a film that I think I'd have hated 20 years ago. Now, as the father of girls, I'm much more in tune with feminist thought.

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  3. I even like the music, it strangely fits – in an unfitting way...

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  4. To each his own, I guess. I found it jarring and not always fitting with the film itself.

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