Steven Ball
Marie Craven
Solrun Hoaas
Daryl Dellora

Melbourne independent filmmakers

Leo Berkeley
Giorgio Mangiamele
Michael Buckley
Moira Joseph
 
     


Marie Craven

 

 

Sourcing a Maiden's Head

by Freda Freiberg


This article was originally published in Cinema Papers, August 1995.

The heroine 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.

Perhaps Craven 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 head.

 

However, 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.

Alice is 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 world.

 

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.

Colour is 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.

 

This concert 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 tale?

The formal 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.

These interpretations 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.

Otherwise, 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.

The higher 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.

Back to Marie Craven profile


   
 

 

Melbourne independent filmmakers is compiled by Bill Mousoulis