Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

Feb 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 1

The Theatre of Cruelty

Three Directors and their Female Subjects

by Kathleen Murphy


Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie and Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Tristana (1970), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) can be described as theatres of cruelty, in which the objects of human desire are displayed, withheld, surrendered, withdrawn. Each of these directors created idiosyncratic cinematic forms in which to play out the central drama of sadomasochism. Each observed those forms from a position of amusementÑrueful, savage, perverse, detached. As audience, practicing guiltless voyeurism, we may find ourselves lost in light or darkness, depending on the ways in which these artists imagine "the collision between desire and the object of desire."


These particular theatres of cruelty feature men and women in mortal if not always moral combat. The prize is power and sometimes a strange form of salvation. Actresses Marlene Dietrich, Tippi Hedren, Catherine Deneuve, Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet are variously devil, exotic pet or child, beauty for a day, melancholiac, and obscure objects. But whatever the persona, each fights for free will, for director’s cut of her particular life-movie.

Cinematically and sometimes metacinematically, these primarily blonde dominatrixes or submissives struggle to create their own fictions; to find their own legs and move on their own; to organize spatial realityÑspectacle--around their own images; to defend against the consuming gaze of lover, director, audience; to attend to their own appetites and rituals of transubstantiation. Legs, masks, mouth, eyes. These are the private parts - alternately weapons and wounds - that focus their struggle to become, in Laura Mulvey’s terms, "makers of meaning," not simply bearers of meaning.


Within each of these films, the director consciously or unconsciously casts his surrogate or surrogates, men who dream of immobilizing, penetrating, consuming, directing the objects of their desire. In his seven collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg consistently cast actors who resembled him in the roles of Dietrich’s unmanned lovers, coaching them to speak in his own distinctive rhythms. In The Devil Is a Woman, their last film together, emasculated Lionel Atwill is primary stand-in for von Sternberg, with virile Cesar Romero as his second and rival.

Hitchcock makes his usual token appearance in Marnie, coming out of a hotel room to gaze down the hall at his shapely star, walking away, then turning to look into the camera eye, making the audience complicit in his appreciative voyeurism. The director is represented by two aptly named male characters: the owl-eyed, short, balding, chubby Strutt, Marnie’s first robbbery victim in the film and the one who is most vindictive in his desire to punish her; and Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland, a dark, sexually dominant voyeur.

In Tristana and That Obscure Object of Desire, Fernando Rey - elegant, ultra-civilized, chauvinistic, vain, pathetic, self-serving, forever unsatisfied - carries Bunuel’s water - as well as those mysterious burlap sacks. In Belle de jour, Michel Piccoli’s Husson - reminiscent of Marnie’s Sean Connery in his dark looks and appetites - expresses the director’s sardonic understanding that the durability of desire depends on its being perpetually withheld, that the paradox of consumption lies in the fact that eating innocence renders it excrement.

Belle de jour’s Pierre Clementi, Tristana’s Franco Nero, and the double figure of Rey’s servant Martin and his cuckold Manoleto in That Obscure Object of Desire represent Bunuelian masculinity that, only seemingly, lies outside the pale of social convention or the super-ego: outlaw dandy Clementi has a knife in his walking stick, Nero’s Bohemian artist pretends to wield a radical paintbrush; misogynist, possibly homosexual Martin implements and savors his master’s basest scenarios, and bullfighter Manoleto plunders Conchita before Matthieu’s eyes.

Bunuel’s view isn’t symbiotically attached to his mutually devouring male or female leads. Rather, his self-effacing gaze is fluid, encompassing psycho-sexual, social, political and economic patterns and dynamics of compromised or blocked desire.


Von Sternberg’s voluptuous Romanticism takes the form of intense irony, the deliberate deflation of beautiful objects of desire. Whatever visually seduces the eye in his films, he ridicules and degrades and forces us to see through. Loving beauty and meaning, he throws it away before it can decay or be devalued. The complex, exquisite artifice of his eye-trapping textures, décor and lighting constitutes the frail scrim that barely camouflages nothingness. He dreamed of one day creating a purely synthetic film, composed entirely of the patterns of light and shadow of which he was a master. He felt that his directorial effort to break down egocentric performers into stylized gradations of light and shadow was a necessary kind of sadism, "if it should be considered sadistic for a sculptor to chip his stone or pound his clay."

Collaborator Marlene Dietrich may have begun as his passive clay in their first film The Blue Angel (1930), but this Galatea soon began to practice creative autonomy. By the time of The Devil Is a Woman, their 7th and last collaboration, von Sternberg’s chiaroscuro illusion had turned termite, beginning to consume his art from within; the beautiful mask he had lighted into existence armored up against his penetrating gaze, dominating his design.

In these nearly narrativeless parables, what Andrew Sarris calls "a continuous dream of emotional autobiography," Dietrich’s characters become ever-more proficient in directing themselves, in systematically forcing their lovers to strip away everything but blind faith in a savior who is nothing but trompe-l’oeil. It’s hardly surprising that Depression-era audiences turned down the invitation to play Peeping Toms to these erotic, hermetic, minimalist rituals.

If von Sternberg called his eminently self-reflexive movies "therapeutic shakedowns," Alfred Hitchcock saw himself as administering ameliorative shock treatments: "I provide the public with beneficial shocksÉthe only way to remove our numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock." Pace Sir Alfred, beneficent therapist, but films like The Birds and Marnie (both starring Tippi Hedren) aren’t so much morality plays as exercises in sadomasochism. Shock treatment became both subject matter and directorial modus operandi.

Within highly expressionistic contexts, Hitchcock often plunged smugly self-contained, icily desirable blondes into the acid-bath of brutal experience in order to shock them into painful maturity. But his personal obsession with the unattainable Hedren led him to subject her characters to brutal rape by the beaks of birds (the weeklong shoot sent the actress to the hospital) in The Birds and by a voyeuristic "collector" of exotic species in Marnie. At the end of The Devil Is a Woman, Dietrich’s trajectory out of the life of the director’s surrogate is very deliberately reversed; narrative logic would seem to lead elsewhere, but von Sternberg pulls his luminous object of desire back into their final cinematic collaboration. The farewell gaze she levels at her erstwhile creator and prime mover is wise, unwavering, formidable. In cruel contrast, Tippi Hedren, exiting her two Hitchcock films, stares emptily into the camera eye, a traumatized, helpless child. Totally dependent upon the men - kin to her director - who control the vehicles in which she is merely a comatose passenger, the actress is delivered up to the cinematic equivalent of prison or taxidermy.

Bunuel testified that "it’s natural for me to tend to imagine and work out a situation from a Sadist or Sade-like point of view." But in the three films under discussion here, there’s no stylistic evocation of eye-slashing shock as we reach the stations along the via dolorosa his bourgeoisie travel toward their various crucifixions. Rather Bunuel’s unembellished art immerses us into a surreal stream where personal and public history flows inexorably, even serenely, onward, towards what we imagine will be eventual apocalypse.

Uniformed like a toy-soldier in her little Dior officer’s coat and hat, Belle de jour’s Severine marches up a staircase to assault a heaven of grown-up bad behavior in Madame Anais’ brothel. She’s dreaming of coming undone, escaping her good-little-girl life, where she plays doctor with her sexless husband. What she fantasizes the brothel to be is a perfectly polite, friendly middle-class women’s club, visited by clients who play-act masochistic butler to sadistic marquise and show off funny little sextoys such as the jolly Asian’s mysteriously buzzing box.

In the aftermath of the Asian’s visit, we can only imagine how cruelly the man used Severine’s flesh, since she can’t. We have to reach our conclusions from her post-coital sprawl, the softening of her usually porcelainized features and the presence of a bloodied sheet. The operative reaction here isn’t shock; it’s a sardonic Bunuelian chuckle. Not surprising that Bunuel should wonder why people didn’t laugh more at his movies, given the black hilarity generated by Severine’s school-girl versions of sadomasochistic theatre pieces.


Bunuel’s remark that "the female walk is one of the things that attracts me most" inevitably recalls Jeanne Moreau’s stepping out in those adorable little boots for her decadent employer’s erotic edification in Diary of a Chambermaid. But as noted earlier, the female walk - and the limbs that generate that motion - focus the question of individual freedom and mobility, the power to remain upright rather than supine or crippled, the ability to take cover when targeted by an arresting gaze.

From her first film with von Sternberg, Dietrich was defined by the pain and pleasure her eroticized legs might deliver. In The Blue Angel, fairly moaning the highly cynical "Falling in Love Again," she sprawled with masculine bravado in a chair, her arms draped over its back, naked legs straddling its sides, their spread an invitation to vagina dentata, an advertisement for eros and thanatos. Similarly, in The Scarlet Empress, von Sternberg dissolves from a shot of a tortured man swinging upside down as a clapper in a huge Russian bell to a very young Catherine the Great-to-be in a garden, swinging her pantalooned legs up into the camera, the darkness under her skirts eventually filling the screen. The juxtaposition recalls Tristana’s climb up to the top of the church tower, her bare leg attracting the lascivious attention of the boys behind her, where she hallucinates Don Lope’s head as the bell clapper. This psycho-sexual itinerary is completed in a penultimate scene when one-legged Tristana, looking like death, clumps angrily down a hallway on crutches, until her body simply blacks out the whole screen.

The Devil Is a Woman, a title forced on von Sternberg, is adapted from Pierre Louys’ 1898 novel Le Femme et le pantin, as was Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. It’s set during a hallucinatory Spanish carnival during which all rules are suspended and license reigns. Von Sternberg’s most synthetic film, it brims with delirious artifice: in lighting, décor, costume, performance, narrative movement. At times, the dialogue makes sense only if one assumes that Dietrich and her director are speaking directly to each other about their cinematic collaboration.

Consider Devil’s finely tuned sadism as the director’s surrogate - recounting his story in flashbackÑessentially shows the young man who has already become his rival the moving pictures of his progressive unmanning by Dietrich’s Concha Perez. Don Pasquale believes he’s telling a cautionary tale, but he has not yet fully grasped the meaning of the morality play with which Concha means to strip him down to bare-bones faith and self - knowledge. This is sadistic soul-saving in a fallen world where mastering illusion and style is the only salvation.

In a seaport dive, festooned with nets and shadows, Concha is the star performer: her perfect face is juxtaposed with three ugly caricatures of Everyman, each of whom pays for her love with various kinds of food. She smiles as she sings "Three sweethearts have all three I am true...and I could be as true to you." From von Sternberg’s bitter point-of-view, Dietrich’s mask of flesh may be sublime, but carnal matters come down to consumption. "Give a man a finger and he bites off the whole hand," quips Concha. Von Sternberg’s exquisite spectacles of light and shadow are akin to medieval morality plays that compulsively rehearse humankind’s inescapable fate as food for worms.

After her show, Concha wends her way up to Pasquale’s balcony seat, and pooled in light, cocks a bare leg up on the small table, leans over and appropriates his cigarette. The man she is educating to death remains in shadow. Not much later, in her room, she will repeat the same gesture of appropriation, then deliberately pass out of Pasquale’s frame space into that of her bullfighter lover to place the cigarette in the younger man’s mouth. Along with Pasquale, von Sternberg is cast as Dietrich’s audience, watching as she claims center stage, the props of phallic power, and all the existential exit lines in his theatre of cruelty.

From the start, Concha is constantly on the move, an elusive image that refuses to be pinned down and named. The moment when she does come to a dead stop - exiting the door of the hospital room where Pasquale, von Sternberg’s surrogate, may be dying (in a duel, he deliberately stood still for her lover’s bullet, as she requested) - is Pirandellian mystery. It’s as though the film is on pause, all the momentum and fictions of libidinous carnival simply ebbing away into considering silence.

Concha systematically robs Pasquale of his money, his good name, his profession, his self-respect and manhood and finally his life - consuming it all. At the end of The Scarlet Empress, von Sternberg keylights Dietrich’s sculpted features at Catherine’s ultimate moment of apotheosis: you can see the skull beneath the skin. This is the illumination Dietrich and von Sternberg bring to The Devil Is a Woman as well: the awful knowledge that neither religion nor goods nor flesh nor art can escape the appetite of the grave.


Our first view of the eponymous character in Hitchcock’s Marnie is of an attractive woman, a full purse under her arm, purposefully walking away from the camera. Here and in subsequent shots, we are denied Marnie’s face, privileged only to see her partsÑintercut with a meeting of the police with Strutt, her most recent robbery victim.. The woman her husband-to-be will later call a "cold, practised little method actress of a liar" is labeled by Strutt, as "a witch," "the brunette with legs." The self-created woman must be damned for attendingÑhowever perversely--to her own appetites and controlling her own narrative itinerary. When Hitchcock cuts back to Marnie, she is thrusting her hands into a bathroom basin to wash the disguising darkness out of her hair.

As Bernard Herrmann’s score soars orgasmically, Marnie stands up, her blonde mane thrown backward like a rising curtain, her joyous face finally wholly available to our eyes. Flushing her protective coloration, one of her many masks, down the drain, Marnie imagines she is free to be wholly herself. That this is delusion has been signaled by Hitchcock’s presence in the corridor of her hotel moments before. As earlier remarked, the director’s gaze has already snared herÑand the audience has been enlisted in his unyielding voyeurism.

In the film’s penultimate scene, Marnie kneels before a safe she means to rob. Traumatized both by a forced marriage to a sexual blackmailer who rapes her on their honeymoon, and by the death of the stallion who has been her chosen means of ecstatic transport, she smiles fixedly as she tries to reconstitute her mask by acting out her usual method of restoring existential equilibrium and control. Stretching out her arms to plunge them into the safe, she finds she cannot take hold of the object of her desire; no matter how strongly she thrusts, her phallic momentum is blocked. (Hitchcock’s camera zooms in and out to express her impotence.)

Behind her, Marnie’s handsome husband, Hitchcock’s dark avatar of predatory masculinity, avidly eyeballs her unmanning. In a gratingly punitive voice, he mocks her inability to take his money: "What’s wrong, Marnie? What’s mine is yours now." Having breached the "national treasure" between her legs, Marnie’s rapist-therapist-husband continues his deliberate demolition of her carefully constructed self-worth by claiming joint ownership of the food she has consumed to keep herself intact, independent, mobile.

When Marnie lunges for a revolver, she and Rutland wrestle; the camera turns, tilts, to measure her helpless fall, her twisted and boneless legs. The image, of course, echoes Marnie’s repressed memory of her slatternly mother’s bare legs - one of them broken - tangled with, immobilized by the hairy limbs of one of her clients. The child Marnie, confronted with this primal scene, kills her mother’s tormentor with a poker. In upstanding adulthood, Marnie opts for perverse sexual self-sufficiency: she gets off on castrating "strutting and rutting" men by stealing their goods, and by controlling the physical power of her stallion between her legs.

The exception to Marnie’s self-empowerment, mobility and uprightness is the man-hating mother whom she, playing "sugar-daddy," "sets up" but cannot seduce into loving her. Whenever she kneels in supplication at her mother’s knee, the maternal safe, Marnie’s weight against that once-broken, primally "aching" limb is rejected, her emotional hunger denied. Both mother and daughter are impotent, tripped up. By film’s end, Marnie’s nourishment and mobility are under the control of her zoo-keeper husband. Having symbolically castrated the actress he saw as stripping him of sexual pride, Hitchcock never spoke Hedren’s name again. When the director removed his devouring gaze, the object of his desire simply ceased to exist within or outside his sadomasochistic fictions


The old adage in Tristana - "To keep a woman honest, break her leg and keep her home." - perfectly describes Marnie’s fate. But in the circular itinerary of Belle de jour, Severine may well be a homebody who travels freely by way of fantasy. Whether her journey out of the pastel dollhouse where she lives with her insufferably kind Boy Scout-husband is a child’s rite-of-passage into sexual adulthood, whether it represents a kind of killing insanity or a creative coming to terms with repressed desire, is moot.. Like Severine at the brothel peephole, we may exclaim in righteous disgust, "How can anyone sink so low?" but we can’t take our eyes away from the besmirching and breaking down of Bunuel’s chicly costumed china doll. The director, always discreet and urbane, subjects noone’s fetishes to contempt; rather, he shares his inimitable eye for the beauty of banality, the pornography of propriety, the sublime madness of civilized life.

Riding in the carriage of her imagination, Severine is summoned to sadomasochistic theatre by bells. In her fantasy, her suddenly potent husband directs his brutal footmen to drag her to a tree for flogging. Bunel focuses our eyes on Severine’s limp legs, her nylons down about her ankles, as she is dragged through drifts of autumn leaves. The trajectory of her "female walk" begins here, continues through shots of her feet beside the perfume bottle she drops after devilish Husson tempts her to sin; of her legs as a child, up which the camera rises to view her passively receiving a workman’s caresses; of her smartly shod feet mounting the stairs to Madame Anais’ brothel; to her legs entwined with her thuggish bedmate Marcel.

In her mind’s eye, Severine directs her own theatre of cruelty, though her scenarios are never the stuff of grand passion or hard-core pornography or resonant religious iconograpy. Her co-stars are by and large cartoons; and her props - whips, cats, bulls, buzzing insect, excrement, broken glass, coffin - are never carnally compelling, so far are they from the real thing. Still, by film’s end, both of Severine’s main men are down and she’s still on the go.

In a shootout that looks like inept B-movie melodrama, Severine kills off bad Marcel after his bullets have put good Pierre into a wheelchair, a paralyzed vegetable. To get Pierre back up on his feet, to get a rise out of her long-suffering Ken doll, Severine conjures up Husson to confess - with cruel kindness - her sins. Several disjointed, sharply cut shots of weeping Pierre in his chair segue into what may constitute a new "once upon a time": her husband stands up, taking off the dark glasses that might have afforded him a blacker, richer vision of his babydoll wife and her appetites, and happily starts mixing afternoon cocktails - probably Bunuel’s cherished martinis.

Serene as a nun in her chic little white-collared black dress, Severine gazes out her window at the coach which carried us into Belle de jour. It passes down that familiar avenue and out of frame, while the camera holds on drifts of autumn leaves. Truth is that the carriage in this picaresque journey was always Bunuel’s vehicle; Severine, dreaming movies in which she could never get a leg up on her own sexuality without someone else’s prop or prod, was never her own auteur.


In Tristana, Catherine Deneuve’s journey, according to Bunuel, traces the "progressive degradation of illusions and purity...typical of all human life advancing toward maturity." As insubstantial, uncomplicated child, she walks into the movie as though drawn by Bunuel’s uncharacteristically forward-panning camera. Taking pleasure in Saturno’s tripping up of a soccer adversary, she rewards the mute boy with an apple, like some mischievous Eve who doesn’t yet see any harm in takingÑor causing--a fall.

When she eats - golden fried bread, garbanzo beans or a poached egg - the virginal Tristana displays a surprisingly vulgar appetite. Her exaggerated savoring of food is as close as she ever comes to a natural expression of erotic arousal. She believes in free will, the ability to make distinctions and choices between, say, two peas, two streets, two men. Her guardian, an anachronistic aristo, aging Don Juan, and mild-mannered devil, first gets her down on her knees to put his slippers on, then on her back to service him sexually,

Not until Tristana returns to Don Lope’s home, a cancerous tumor necessitating the amputation of her leg, does she come to control what destiny is left to her. As Lope shrinks into pathetic old age, Tristana seems to grow larger, harder, colder-hearted but richer in hot autumnal color. As her single leg pumps the piano pedal, she draws darkly powerful music from the instrument as though her wound has opened new depths in her character. Tristana has been masculinized, fitted out with phallic substitutes - her wooden leg and heavy cane - that ensure her confident though circumscribed navigation of a man’s world.

By the time she stands on her bedroom balcony, opening her robe to display her body to Saturno’s horrified gaze below, Tristana’s heiratic monstrousness suggests the ancient Celtic sheila-na-gig, a grimacing fertility figure that holds its nether regions open like curtains, forcing the viewer to gaze into the informative darkness of womb and tomb. She is like a blasphemously sterile variation on the Catholic Madonnas who open their wooden bodies like cabinets to show the child savior within. Tristana’s iconography dead-ends the eye, and inspires only the revelations of nightmare. A very far cry from Tristana’s beginning, when a beautiful young woman strolled into Bunuel’s garden of the world, and offered an apple to an admiring boy.


In Bunuel’s Obscure Object, the ability to see clearly is problematic from the film’s title on. Certainly, noone in the film seems to notice, let alone draw any conclusions about the anarchic state of the world, despite eruptions of terrorism at every turn. The eruptions have paradoxically become part of the tapestry of everyday life, without shock value. Two women are the obscure objects of Matthieu’s obsession; but is that because his eyes have fallen upon a woman of such singular beauty and character he is forever in thrall to her? No, a boyish young woman, a new maid, turns up in his house one day; and as predictably as a knee-jerk, he must seduce her. That evening, he makes his move, not noticing in the least that his slender French gamine is now a lush Spanish beauty.

At no time during Matthieu’s eminently discreet confessional in the train compartment does he muddy the waters by mentioning either the prevalence of car bombs or the fact that he’s pursuing two different brunettes. His audienceÑa midget psychoanalyst, a judge, several children, a charming womanÑnever appear to be shocked by any of Matthieu’s examples of his inamorata’s sadistic performances. Rather his torture seems just the right size for small talk. So despite the combined wisdom in the coach, no eye-opening conclusions are vouchsafed. Time passes pleasantly, the trip simply goes on until it ends, and afterwards Matthieu joins Conchita for another round of endlessly postponed desire.

From the start, the characters in Obscure Object are rarely still, though they never seem to reach any destination. They escape by train, drive to the country, walk away from jobs, are deported, escape, briefly settle down in a house denoted as providing freedom, though it turns out to be just a stage for another performance in Conchita’s sadomasochistic roadshow. Matthieu’s obsessive stance consists of wanting to seduce Conchita, while she pressures him for money and sexual freedom. Confronted by her chastity corset, all impenetrable canvas and string, he attacks it for fully ten minutesÑin much the same Woody Woodpecker frenzy with which Marnie goes at the Rutland safe. Says Conchita, "I am mine, my most precious possession; all I can do is love you madly and stay intact for you."

The two - or rather three - are umbilically connected, frozen in a mutual paroxysm of appetite denied. Even the actual act of sex becomes irrelevant in their struggle, just as the film’s acts of terrorism seem unanchored from any meaningful revolution or political movement. Conchita does not perform from a stage of superior knowledge, to enlighten Matthieu by means of cruel spectacle. Compulsively observing her various betrayals, his voyeurism gets him nowhere. When he finally jumps into the sadomasochistic picture to penetrate Conchita’s flesh by beating her, he achieves no perverse catharsis. Though Conchita declares his violence makes her love him more, this new act doesn’t re-direct the narrative itinerary of their play. The fruitless circularity of Severine’s fantasy life and the mutually damning dance of Don Lope with Tristana become far more terrible in the sweet, almost serene surreality of That Obscure Object of Desire.


When Pasquale first lays eyes on Concha in The Devil Is a Woman, he acts in his hubris as though her value is instantly evident and easily accessible. "What do you take me for?", she ripostes. It’s a consumerist inquiry that resonates through each of the films I’ve discussed here. In the theatres of cruelty imagined by von Sternberg, Hitchcock and Bunuel, players are "taken in," mesmerized, tricked, perversely satisfied by illusion, objects of desire. But Concha’s epistemological query also contains other considerations, from the economic to the spiritual: How much does it take - that is, cost - to deliver consummate pleasure and pain, knowledge and salvation? Where and how far will the vehicle of fiction take actors and audience? The best movie-art always demands of its audience, "What do you take me for?" And, out in the dark, our eyes hungering for epiphany, we invite the orgasmic stroke of the cinematic razor.

Programs Fund