Tag Archives: prostitution

Double Dose of Delphine Seyrig

On the left, we have the seductive, ageless Countess Elizabeth Báthory. On the right is Belgian housewife Jeanne Dielman, who’s somewhat less glamorous than the Countess as she peels potato after potato after potato. What do these women have in common, you may ask? Well, my friend, they’re both played by the great Delphine Seyrig, a Lebanon-born French actress who starred in countless art films throughout 1960s and ’70s. She worked repeatedly with Alain Resnais and Luis Buñuel; she was in William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969) wearing a poofy red wig and Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970) as Catherine Deneuve’s fairy godmother; she also directed a few movies of her own.

In short, she was a multitalented woman (and proud feminist) who worked almost nonstop for three decades before her death in 1990. You don’t hear Seyrig’s name bandied about much by cinephiles these days, which is a shame. Therefore, I’ve decided to bandy it about myself! Seyrig and her quiet mystique are at the center of the two very different films pictured above: Harry Kümel’s arty, nudity-filled vampire movie Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Chantal Akerman’s 3 1/2 hour experimental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In both films, she plays laconic, enigmatic women, but still, you could hardly find more different roles than a bloodsucking aristocrat and a weary, working-class single mother.

Daughters of Darkness is almost all surface, with virtually no substance; thankfully, much of that surface is provided by the glittering, impeccably coiffed Seyrig, whose lipstick matches the blood that flows throughout the film. It reminds me of the work of Roger Vadim (who also made a lesbian vampire movie, Blood and Roses [1960]): pretty, sexy, a little weird, but totally empty-headed. The Countess Báthory follows the usual model of the beautiful, predatory lesbian vampire, as she gradually takes a newlywed couple under her wing and leads the wife in sucking the husband’s blood. And, as usual, she ends up as a burning corpse impaled on a tree branch. Such are the wages of fear.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Dielman is a patient, painstakingly shot document of three days in its title character’s life. Seyrig’s expression varies between a half-frown and a half-smile as she goes about her daily chores – brushing her hair, writing a letter, sending her adult son Sylvain off to school – but her emotions never quite breach the surface, and always remain tantalizingly ambiguous. Is she happy keeping her home clean? Does she hate the drudgery of her day-to-day existence? Despite its repetitive structure, it’s a masterfully dense film that requires far more discussion than I can give it here and now; incidentally, Jeanne also moonlights as a prostitute when her son’s not around, granting the film several additional layers of feminist subtext.

The substance of Jeanne Dielman is just the mundane, never-ending processes and rhythms of normal life, filmed in wearying detail. But through one geometrically composed long shot after another (several set-ups are repeated time and time again; the film doesn’t have so much as a single close-up), you achieve a greater awareness of the processes, the sheer time that they consume, and their emotional toll on Jeanne. (Even if Seyrig’s performance is minimalist practically to the point of being an automaton.) In Jeanne Dielman, the daily lives of women (and their cinematic representations) are joined to the techniques of avant-garde filmmaking, with bountiful if hard to watch results.

At the heart of all that, of course, is Delphine Seyrig. Her face and gestures reciprocate the camera’s patience; she goes about her day methodically, without a shred of movie star ego or exaggeration. In Daughters of Darkness, on the other hand, she brings in just the right level of exaggeration, playing the Countess as a decadent, glamorous, and graceful mass murderer. Yet she does it with surprising understatement – a giggle here, a kiss there. I’ll conclude with a single, beautiful image from the end of Jeanne Dielman, from just after Jeanne’s shocking final act. What is she thinking? What are her plans? All we know is what we see on Seyrig’s face.

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Selling Out on the Street of Shame

Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns’ The Late Show – a blogathon devoted to directors’ late and last movies – rages on. Since I contributed to it on Sunday with a post about Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), I’d like to travel back half a century and halfway around to the world, to postwar Japan. While the legislature debates banning their trade, a group of prostitutes working side by side must fight both poverty and the stigma attached to their profession in Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (1956) or Akasen chitai – more accurately translated, according to the Eclipse DVD case, as the nonjudgmental “Red Light District.”

Released just months before Mizoguchi’s tragically early death from leukemia, Street of Shame is a fitting capstone to a career spent chronicling the abuses suffered and sacrifices made by Japanese women. Although it might not reach the aesthetic heights of such incomparable masterpieces as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), it still contains all the marks of Mizoguchi at his prime: deep focus photography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) used for visually dense storytelling; the evocation of extreme pathos coupled with a flickering hope for future happiness; and richly drawn female characters, both good and evil.

In less than 90 minutes, Mizoguchi juxtaposes the stories of five women working at Dreamland, a brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district. Each has her own attitudes toward her job, and motivations for taking it, but they all have one thing in common: an uphill battle. They’re oppressed enough as women, but as sex workers, they’re directly told, “You’re merchandise.” Socially marginalized beyond the point of visibility, and with the government threatening to cut off their only source of income, they have to take desperate measures just to survive. Poor Yorie (Hiroko Machida) gets married, thinking of it as an escape, but returns when her husband turns out to be as dictatorial as any pimp.

Yume (Ayako Wakao), meanwhile, tries to keep her son from seeing her at work; his shame later leads to a confrontation where he renounces her as a mother. Mizoguchi doesn’t sugar-coat anything, nor does he exaggerate the extent of his characters’ miseries. He just honestly shows every one of the pressures converging on these women as they’re simultaneously exploited by their managers and customers, and rejected by their families in their hours of need. But, in the midst of all of this grim realism, he finds a possible silver lining – the tight-knit community formed by the women, for better or worse.

When their ties with the outside world are cut and the future promises nothing but self-commodification and inescapable debt, at the very least the women still have each other. Like the cast of Pedro Almodóvar’s comparable Volver (2004), the women don’t always support or even like each other, but the basis of their relationships are shared experiences; they each have the same understanding of what it’s like to be coerced into selling yourself. This works both ways, though, as the sly, enterprising Yasumi (Aiko Mimasu) lends out money to her impoverished sisters and makes a killing in interest, earning herself the nickname “Lady Shylock.”

Yasumi’s story is the most telling of the five, since at the end of the film, she’s the only one who successfully leaves the black hole that is the brothel. Her escape, however, comes only through her readiness to play the femme fatale, extorting and betraying those around her when necessary. She knows better than anyone the value of a yen, and she’s bitterly justified in her callous actions. She’s no more “evil” than Ugetsu‘s Lady Wakasa, willing to sacrifice those around her for the sake of self-preservation. Yasumi’s story arc reveals the cruel flip side to Mizoguchi’s vision of female camaraderie.

And speaking of Lady Wakasa, Machiko Kyo reappears here as the brassy young Michiko, who takes on the Americanized name “Mickey” (like the mouse). She’s introduced wearing a flashy, low-cut dress, dancing around in a giant shell à la The Birth of Venus. If Street of Shame‘s women were the seven samurai, Mickey would be Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune): the spunky, frivolous newcomer who doesn’t yet understand the group’s complex dynamics. She initially showcases her sexual allure and seduces away the other women’s customers, but over the course of the film, the routine grinds her down and her vulnerabilities start to show. By the final minutes of the film, she’s an old hand who readily shows the ropes to a shy teenage neophyte.

Thus, Street of Shame (and Mizoguchi’s career) concludes with a disturbing reminder that all this sacrifice and oppression is cyclical. Not only that, but unsolvable, unless economic opportunities and the treatment of women improve. It’s a far cry from the grand, all-for-love melodrama that ended his pre-war masterpiece Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939). The new prostitute hesitantly tries to attract potential customers wandering through Yoshiwara, calling out quietly as she retreats behind a wall. With that lingering image, Mizoguchi’s thirty-plus years of filmmaking fade into open-ended darkness.

What do you think of Mizoguchi, or his representations of women’s suffering? Any and all comments welcome.

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