a Maiden's Head
by Freda Freiberg
article was originally published in Cinema Papers, August
of Marie Craven's new film, Maidenhead, is called Alice.
The name not only shrinks the gap between performer and role,
as the performer's name is literally Alice (Garner), but rings
with references to that other Alice, the creation of Lewis Carroll.
Like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the film is half
dream and half nightmare. If she doesn't actually grow bigger
or smaller, Craven's Alice nevertheless shrinks and swells in
stature; and, at the opening of the film's first extended narrative
sequence, even if she doesn't walk through it, Alice is literally
looking in a looking glass.
If the name
Alice has remained in common usage, however, one cannot say the
same for the term "maidenhead". This word has an anachronistic
ring: it was a euphemism for virginity in a fictional era when
young ladies kept theirs until the time when they were bedded
by the hero, on marriage, thus ensuring respectability, or seduced
and abandoned by the villain, thereby ensuring that they would
forever after live in a state of disgrace; in the first scenario,
becoming one man's property, in the second, every man's property.
is reviving the term to underline the connections with Victorian
fiction (children's and women's); perhaps also to remind us of
the history of the repression of female sexuality. But maybe too
she is using the term, Godard-like, as the sum of its component
parts, maiden + head, whereby maiden = young single woman, old-fashioned
girl and/or virgin, and head = the seat of the intellect and the
imagination, the exercise of self-control and common sense, and/or
an addict. The film is made up of a series of sketches which dramatize
the fantasies of a young woman; their source is in a maiden's
there is no head to be seen in the opening anecdote which precedes
the title. We see only the clothed torso of the young Alice, a
headless torso. Alarm bells are ringing. She presses first one
hip-pocket button, then the other, but the bell keeps ringing.
Finally, she succeeds in silencing the ringing by pressing the
right belly-pocket button. We would seem to be confronted with
fears residing in the body of the young woman (an old-fashioned
girl), fears that must be quelled so that she can emerge confident,
self-assured, active and capable.
overcome by paranoia in three of the sketches: in the encounter
with the saleswoman in the hatshop; in the encounter with adult
sexuality in the bus; and in the street scene, when a suburban
jogger transforms into a murderous pursuer. The panic situation,
heavily dramatized by the use of hand-held camera, fast cutting,
and other filmic means of generating suspense and provoking identification
with the heroine, arises out of an everyday experience and is
resolved in an anti-climax. In the process, common feminine fears
are highlighted: fear of entrapment in marriage, of the hard sell
(social and commercial), of the feminine mystique, of sexuality
(hetero and homosexual), of rape and violence.
Some of the
scenes can be described as classic Freudian scenarios representing
primal fantasies: fantasies of seduction and of the primal scene.
The film is not just about feminine fears, about seeing oneself
always as potential victim. It is also about feminine desires:
for control, for recognition, for intimacy, for the caress of
flesh on flesh. These desires emerge most strongly in the final
two sketches, when the heroine is transformed into a mature, confident
adult, enjoying the experience of sexual encounter and the approbation
of her peers. This trajectory, whereby Alice progresses from playing
the role of victim to playing the role of active protagonist,
suggests that this short experimental film is perhaps a parable
about the fragile female psyche learning to overcome feminine
repression, and gaining the confidence to act and move in the
But, if it
is a parable, it is not a plodding or humourless one. The humour
is there at the start: in the witty, aphoristic verve of the pocket
buttons; in Alice's over-reactions to ordinary situations; and
in the excess of her popular acclaim in the final fantasy of fame.
It is also there in the hyperbolic transformation of the ordinary
into the extraordinary in the scene in the littlest room, where
plain white toilet-paper transforms magically into flowing silk
drapery, exquisitely light and richly colourful.
a primary component of the film. Through the skill of Nicolette
Freeman's photography, its use in costume and décor assumes
an almost abstract quality and a powerful resonance. At times
(as in the disco scene), the film seems like a symphony in red
and blue. Over and above the symbolic associations of particular
colours (e.g., red connoting passion, desire, danger), which are
deployed in the costume design, there is also the sensual delight
in colour for its own sake.
In the street
scene, where the suburban jogger pursues and panics Alice, Alice
wears a red shirt and blue pants; her pursuer wears red pants
and a blue top. This not only suggests that the pursuer is her
alter ego, or her complementary half, it also provokes interest
in colour and costume as a compositional element in the film.
This kind of approach to colour in costume is most pronounced
in the concert scene, where all the women in the audience - and
there are only women present - are dressed in differently-coloured
dresses, forming a kaleidoscope.
scene is initially quite perplexing, for it is the only scene
which does not centre on Alice. The Queen (Jan Friedel), a diva
dressed in salmon satin dress and tiara, singing to a select audience
of women at a private concert in a domestic interior. She sings
a strange aria, called "The Queen's Lament", after which
she is applauded by the audience, which includes the figure of
Alice, whose presence has been suppressed until the end of the
scene. The song bemoans The Queen's "cursed hair", the
"crown" that every woman must wear. Is this another
variation on the meaning of "maidenhead" - a head of
undisciplined hair? Is the diva a role model for Alice or a cautionary
situation, indoor setting and mature age of the diva contrast
with the informal street setting and youthful person of Alice
in the finale, when Alice is applauded by a group of cheering
young female fans in a passing bus. Alice would seem to reject
the diva's kind of fame. She prefers the street to the concert
stage; pop culture to high culture; youth to age; the informal
to the formal.
notwithstanding, I found the concert scene heavy and opaque dramatically,
even if it was supposed to represent a stagey and contrived situation
(it's the old problem of how to represent boredom without boring
the audience). Furthermore, the lyrics of the song are not clearly
communicated to the audience because they are not clearly distinguishable
on the soundtrack.
Philip Brophy has done an excellent job of crafting the soundtrack,
so that it is more like a soundscape than a soundtrack composed
of separate musical and sound elements. Like the colour, the sound
contributes most effectively to the dream-like effect of the film.
This film enjoys higher production values than Craven's last film
Pale Black. Unlike the earlier film, it was shot on 35mm
film, in full colour, and employed the considerable professional
skills of an experienced cast and crew. While acknowledging the
contribution made by the beautifully-crafted and -edited photography
and soundtrack, and the fine performance of Alice Garner as Alice,
Maidenhead remains a work that was conceived and directed
by Marie Craven, and one whose concerns are not dissimilar from
those of her earlier film, Pale Black.
production values and lack of voice-over narration may make the
film seem less personal, but it retains Craven's signature, in
its enigmatic quality, its ambivalences and tentativeness, and
its formal playfulness, while displaying an increased confidence
in the manipulation of the medium of film. Craven operates in
a space somewhere between the avant garde and the popular, in
the general territory of Chantal Akerman's musicals in shopping
malls, if not yet with the stamina or assurance of Akerman. Her
film is a welcome addition to the increasingly diverse range of
feminine voices to be seen and heard in the Australian cinema.
Freda Freiberg, 1995.
to Marie Craven profile