‘Perhaps we could have loved each other’: Re-visioning Women in La bohème
by: Isabelle McNeill , May 15, 2019
by: Isabelle McNeill , May 15, 2019
The grisettes were young, working-class women who became a ‘type’ in nineteenth-century French literature, most notably in the works of male writers such as Alfred de Musset and Henry Murger. Usually a seamstress, lace-maker or flower-maker, the hardships and creative agency of the grisette’s labour were diminished in depictions that emphasised gaiety and sexual freedom. Typically, she was depicted as a passive provider of services, whether sexual or sartorial. In conventional narratives, the tragic death of the grisette was put into the service of the bohemian male hero’s coming of age: he buried his youth with the extinguished girl. The forms of femininity embodied in her representations have endured persistently through Western culture, not least in narratives of La bohème.
However, it is possible to translate the grisette’s stitching into a video montage, to use the form to emphasise women’s creative agency and to rework narratives against the grain of male traditions of artistic genius. Already in the 1970s, feminists practised such tactics to represent women in writing and filmmaking. In the twenty-first century, it is still just as urgent – but now it is more accessible than ever to reuse cultural materials to make what Adrienne Rich described, in ‘Conditions for Work’, as a ‘common world’ of women’s experience and possibility (1979: 203).
In 1979, using offcuts of 16mm film found outside Soho production houses, Sally Potter stitched together a feminist critique of Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème, which was based on Henry Murger’s 1840s tales and play. She called her short film Thriller. In addition to 16mm stills and filmed sequences, production stills from the opera and excerpts from its score, the film included the famous shrieking violins from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), underscoring Potter’s investigation of what B. Ruby Rich called ‘femicide’: narratives that instrumentally kill off women (1998: 227).
Potter turned the consumptive flower-sewer Mimi into the narrator and investigator of a story that had been primarily told by men. Acted and narrated by the black French actor, Colette Laffont, Thriller exposed and reconfigured the structural divisions between the heroes of the bohème myth – the male artists and poets – and the working-class women who were positioned as muses, their labour and labouring bodies effaced from the creative space occupied by the men. Thus, Potter created her own, tactical feminist space through the making of the film. She worked collaboratively with Laffont and her other actor, Rose English, shooting and editing in the squat where she lived, a space previously used for sweatshop labour (Mayer 2009: 35).
For me, Potter’s film with its re-use of footage, stills, music and space offers a model for feminist, audiovisual re-vision, a term I take from Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay ‘Writing as Re-vision’. ‘Re-vision’, explains Rich, is, ‘the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction’ (1979: 35). She frames this as an urgent feminist imperative. Re-vision, ‘is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival’ (1979: 35). It offers resistance to the erasure and death of women.
More recently, in Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed has considered ‘how a world is shaped as memory’, suggesting that ‘memory can be wilful’ (2017: 262-3). The past acts on the present, Ahmed reminds, at the same time showing how certain ways of remembering can become acts of resistance. In her earlier work, Ahmed also explored disorientation as a concept, experience and activity that might work against the reproduction of heteronormativity and whiteness (2006). Queerness, for her, is a form of disorientation that disrupts ideological habits, opposing normative, straight lines. Re-visioning cultural memory, as Thriller shows, can be disorienting, resisting the past’s invisible straight lines.
Having concluded that Mimi’s death was indeed a murder, Thriller ends by suggesting that the repeated narratives, performances and gestures of the fragile, dying figure of Mimi—and her ‘bad girl’ counterpart Musetta (Rose English)—fix feminine roles and keep women apart. Mimi’s voiceover declares, ‘we were set up as opposites and complementary characters, and kept apart to serve our roles. Yes, it was murder. We never got to know each other. Perhaps we could have loved each other.’ Mimi, who first sits in a chair to the fore of the frame, then stands and moves over to the slightly-open door in the corner of the room, where Musetta has been repeatedly glimpsed during the film, and the two women embrace.
This ending was the starting point for my video essay. As part of a larger project for which I was researching the attic space in La bohème (forthcoming), I studied a number of film retellings of Murger’s tales alongside the opera. Having watched Thriller, I began to pay particular attention to the relationship between Mimi and Musette, as she was known in Murger’s texts. The women’s interactions focused on their relationships with the men around them, in narratives that conformed to Potter’s analysis of the opera. However, with the phrase ‘perhaps we could have loved each other’ in my mind, I was struck by fleeting, poignant gestures of tenderness and affection between the two female characters.
My video essay responds to Potter’s ‘perhaps’. In its first part, I outline the context: I draw out continuities in the divisive and femicidal narrative of the opera and film versions of La bohème, offering a glimpse of Potter’s critique. In the second part, I excavate cinematic gestures to re-vision Mimi and Musette’s relationship. Gesture is significant here: Potter’s film has a focus on the repeated performance of balletic motions and stilled images of Mimi/Musetta that recall how Mimi’s hand is ‘frozen’ in the famous aria from the opera. Potter evokes the freezing and restrictive repetition of myth and its effect on women’s bodies, even if her film refuses it in more than one way (e.g. a throbbing heartbeat on the soundtrack). I am reminded here of Agnès Varda’s focus on the repeated gesture of gleaning, a poverty-driven stooping in The Gleaners and I (2002), and its fixing as a charming image in nineteenth-century painting.
I recycle and reshape fragments of earlier films, opening out vital, submerged gestures of love and tenderness between women and disorienting the straight lines of La bohème narrative as it persists in cinematic memory. I have used sequences from King Vidor’s La bohème (1926), Paul Stein’s Mimi (1935), Marcel L’Herbier’s La Vie de bohème (1945), Aki Kaurismäki’s La Vie de bohème (1992), and Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo (2013). This last film has a more tangential relation to the bohème myth, via Boris Vian’s rewriting, but bears many of its hallmarks, including the fragile, dying muse.
I use slow motion, defamiliarising music, enlargement, and the removal, layering and repetition of dialogue to amplify gestures of tenderness and affection between women. In a tribute to the effaced lives and labour of the grisettes, I have appropriated fragments and carefully cut them up and re-sewn them to release gestures of love from their reified incorporation into conventional narratives: creativity as an act of (shared) survival.
In the context of the digital era of accessible and manipulable archives of audiovisual material, I understand the audiovisual re-vision of cultural memory to be part of the everyday practice of living a feminist life. I hope that other enduring narratives can be reconfigured through such use of video.
As Victor Burgin has argued, film can be fragmented now in ways that ‘upset the set patterns that plot the established moral and political orders of the entertainment form’ (2004: 8). I have made use of relatively accessible technologies and materials that circulate as commodities, employing techniques that are easy to acquire. This move rejects the singular authority of the male artist or filmmaker in favour of an approach that aims to share patterns and stimulate other creations, allowing for flourishing of shared affective responses.
To conclude, I offer a small contribution to what Hito Steyerl, resituating a concept from Dziga Vertov for the digital age, calls ‘visual bonds’ (2012: 43), forging collectivity through images. For Steyerl, digital fragments of cultural commodities circulate as ‘poor images’ (e.g. the degrading that happens in importing images from DVD, as I have done), which have the potential to create alternative affective connections. This resonates with Adrienne Rich’s idea of a ‘common world’, which resists the ways in which ‘women’s relationships with women have been denied or neglected as a force in history’ (1979: 204). Finding gestures of love in poor images, I am wilful with cinematic memory: women could have loved each other, we did, and we still do.
Use the HD button to adjust the video’s quality.
I am deeply grateful to all those who have offered feedback and guidance in the process of making this work; in particular, my thanks go to Georgina Evans and Louise Haywood for their tactics and support.
Ahmed, Sara (2006), Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Durham: Duke University Press.
Ahmed, Sara (2017), Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press.
Burgin, Victor (2004), The Remembered Film, London: Reaktion.
Mayer, Sophie (2009), The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love, London: Wallflower.
McNeill, Isabelle (forthcoming), The Rooftops of Paris: Cinematic Perspectives, London: Wallflower.
Rich, Adrienne (1979), On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Rich, Ruby B (1998), Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Durham: Duke University Press.
Steyerl, Hito (2012), The Wretched of the Screen, Berlin: e/flux for Sternberg Press.
La bohème (1926), dir. King Vidor.
Mimi (1935), dir. Paul Stein.
La Vie de bohème (1945), dir. Marcel L’Herbier.
Psycho (1960), dir. Alfred Hitchcock.
Thriller (1979), dir. Sally Potter.
La Vie de bohème (1992), dir. Aki Kaurismäki.
The Gleaners and I (2000), dir. Agnès Varda.
Mood Indigo (2013), dir. Michel Gondry.
Film excerpts are used according to fair dealing legislation that allows copying for ‘criticism, review or quotation’.
Images from Gallica’s digital collections (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) can be circulated for non-commercial purposes provided the indication ‘Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF’ is included.
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