Surrealist Poetics And The Cinema Of Evil: The Significance Of The Expression Of Sovereignty In Catherine Breillat’s A Ma Soeur
by Trevor H. Maddock and Ivan Krisjansen
A ma soeur – the title is a dedication, ‘for my sister’ – is an attempt to give cinematic
expression to sovereignty, after its writer and director, Catherine Breillat, had first pursued the task through poetry and prose. As such, the film’s antecedents are literary,
and also painterly, rather than cinematic, even if Breillat has made previous films that pursue similar goals. In A ma soeur Breillat takes up an established theme, the
ambiguity of the face and the body, particularly as it is depicted in Magritte’s painting
Rape, and renders it cinematically. Like that of the painting, the thesis of Breillat’s film is that while the face rapes the body, the body simply effaces. Sovereignty, which exists only in the instant, is realised only through this self-effacement.
A ma soeur – in English, For My Sister (a.k.a. The Fat Girl) – is Catherine Breillat’s
eighth film. Her cinema has always proved highly controversial and A ma soeur is no
exception. The film deals with an immortal theme, spring awakening, also the topic of her Breillat’s first novel L'Homme facile (1967) and her first film, Une Vraie Jeune
Fille, made in the 1976 but not released until recently. Awakening has always been a controversial theme but never more so than in Breillat’s hands. For her, sexual
awakening is awakening into the fierce order of the wild, an unsettling image that draws attention to the violence at the edges of all our lives. No trivial violence this, it threatens the very existence of society. Thus the image of awakening in A ma soeur is
a vision of evil, and Breillat’s cinema is a cinema of evil.
What is meant by ‘evil’ in this sense? Bataille provides an answer. He writes, ‘If a man kills for a material advantage his crime only really becomes a purely evil
deed if he actually enjoys committing it’ (Bataille 1973: 18). The evil Bataille has in mind is not merely non-utilitarian but profoundly anti-utilitarian. This is why Bataille equates it with childhood. Utilitarian society, he notes, would not survive for an instant if childish instincts were allowed to triumph (18). This relationship between pre-pubescence and evil is the key theme of A ma soeur, where sexual awakening
appears as a time of waiting, waiting for the assault on utilitarian order that will bring about freedom. And freedom, Bataille notes, exists only in the instant (Bataille 1994: 66). Freedom and evil are conjoined.
In a very real sense, Breillat’s cinematic achievement, culminating in A ma
soeur, is a solution to a literary problem. Between the 1967 debut of L'Homme facile,
a book translated into English as A Man For The Asking (Breillat 1969), and her first
movie in 1976, Breillat published two further books and a stage play. The screenplay for Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl) is based on Breillat’s fictional work, Le
Soupirail (1974). Her second film, Tapage nocturne was based on and named after
another piece of fiction (Breillat 1979). Cinema has allowed Breillat to pursue a decidedly literary preoccupation with pubescent female sexuality.
That her overall approach is fundamentally poetic is evident from her first book L'Homme facile, a genre-breaking work that continually recrosses the boundary between verse and prose. It begins with a poem and the text itself displays pronounced poetic characteristics. Lines are often terminated not at the margin but to emphasise to a phrase or a word, as in poetry. Blank spaces and lines are similarly used to create emphasis. The following is an example:
L. turns her back on him
and scampers away to the street corner
where she disappears
(Breillat 1969: 25)
The three dots in the text represent ten line-spaces in Breillat’s book, while there is no
stop after ‘disappears’ even though it marks the end of the chapter. And as indicated
the phrase ‘where she disappears’ is right justified. As well as these devices, words are sometimes capitalised, and parts of paragraphs often perform the function of lines in standard verse. Breillat also creates her own terms, words such as ‘sexcitement’ (29) and ‘ivagination’ (39), and she uses phrases for their purely poetic allusion, like ‘he has pushed his balls too hard into a nebulous question mark’ (31). On the other
hand, any narrative is difficult to discern. Indeed, L'Homme facile is hardly even a
prose-poem. At best, it is poetry with occasional prose-like features.
This peculiarly poetic character of the book has a specific, if unannounced, purpose. For Bataille, the goal of poetry is to express sovereignty, this being the dissolution or vacation of the self. He describes kings and dictators as the antithesis of sovereignty (Bataille 1989: 147). Marguerite Duras once asked him if sovereignty could be given an external appearance. ‘That of a cow in the pasture will do nicely,’ he replied (Duras 1986: 13).
Bataille sees poetry as words never having to serve a useful purpose (Bataille 1994: 66), and be this he means a utilitarian purpose. Kierkegaard had earlier seen poetry as relating to ‘the location of depravity in human life’ (Adorno 1989: 6). The
useless purpose to which poetry testifies for Bataille is the purpose of sovereignty. The self, a creation of utility, blocks sovereignty and must be smashed. He talks of ‘the hatred of poetry’ (Bataille 1991:10). For neither Bataille nor Breillat is poetry
merely a form of convenience or a vehicle for some extraneous content. By its very nature, it is a form that hates utility and loves sovereignty. This core idea of surrealist poetics justifies situating Breillat within that tradition.
The term ‘surrealism’, as it is being employed here, refers first and foremost to a particular idea, the notion that humans are plenitudes seeking dissolution. This idea was famously adumbrated during debate between Sartre and Bataille in 1942 (Heckman 1974: xxv). Independently of Sartre and Bataille, Gombrowicz made essentially the same point (Gombrowicz 1985: 6). Hobhouse describes this surrealism as a surrealism that is still concerned with ‘the potency of images, the life to come of
mysterious forms’ but not necessarily committed to expressive devices such as formal
ambiguity, conjunctions of disparate objects, and surreal dream spaces (Hobhouse 1988: 219), just as it is not inextricably tied to automatic writing. These are simply tools.
Essentially a poet, Breillat’s problem is that the written cannot quite capture
sovereignty precisely because it is the written word (Breillat undated). Bataille also recognised this (Bataille 1994: 84). The words may allude to it but there is something about sovereignty they simply cannot capture. By their very nature, words are utilitarian and so they are always trying to do the impossible, to express that ineffability beyond utility, to say what cannot be said (Wittgenstein 1955: esp.189).
Painting is one solution to this problem, for what cannot be said may nevertheless be shown. In this respect, Magritte’s art is central, for it too represents an attempt to express sovereignty. A good example of this is his painting, Rape (1934).
The work presents a paradoxical image, a head that is also a female torso. The expression on the face is extreme, an expression of shock, with eyes bulging and lips pursed, or at least that is how it seems, for the face has actually been erased. It is nothing more than nipples, a navel, and a pubis. The head is a body and its expression is a bodily expression.
This painting communicates something no poem can express. Nonetheless, as a medium for the expression of sovereignty, it remains limited and in a sense its limitation is the complement to that of writing. Octavio Paz describes this problem:
No painting can tell a story, for none can render passing time.
Painting confronts us with definitive, unchanging, motionless
realities. There is no picture… which gives us the impression… of
movement… In a picture things are, they do not happen (quoted in
Dobyns 1982: vii).
Bataille says of sovereignty, ‘It would be incommunicable if we could not approach it in two ways: through poetry and through the description of those conditions by which one arrives at these states’ (Bataille 1973: 26). From this perspective, it is not so much that poetry is a failure, but there is also another way, in this particular case it is via the moving image.
The connection between poetry and the cinema of evil is emphasized at the very beginning of A ma soeur, in exactly the same way that it is highlighted near the start of L'Homme facile: through verse. A comparison of these verses immediately indicates a connection between A ma soeur and L'Homme facile. The verse in the
A man for the asking
No need for unmasking
He’s yours on sight
In the park
In the dark
The very first night.
Breillat wrote the corresponding verse in A ma soeur when she was twelve (Weigand
undated). It begins:
I get so bored from six to twelve,
From twelve to six,
From twelve to twelve,
All the time…
I could find
Alive or dead
A man, a body
An animal …
A body, a soul,
– I couldn’t care less –
Just to dream.
The first verse describes a man for the asking, the second the longing of a pubescent female for such a man. Both verses imply a link between this man and sovereignty but they also do something else. They emphasize the essentially poetic character of the work as a whole.
A ma soeur tells the story of two sisters, Elena and Anaïs. Elena is fifteen, Anaïs two years younger. Whereas Elena is beautiful, made-up and alluringly dressed, Anaïs the fat sister, is unadorned and apparently yet to reach the stage of caring about her appearance. She’s a slob. Her hair is unkempt; she eats most of the time. She
seems lost in some pre-adolescent fantasy and is incapable of polite conversation, either with her parents or with the only eligible male on the scene, Fernando. The
scene is the beachside. It is summer holidays, a time away from the world of work, just as it is in Breillat’s earlier film, 36 Fillette.
In one scene the sisters are reflecting on how they would like to lose their virginity. Elena says that she wants it to be in the circumstances of love, gentleness and intimacy. Anaïs prefers a savage and anonymous encounter. ‘I want my first time to be with a boy I don’t love. Because afterwards to realise that he doesn’t love you or you don’t and you feel dumb.’ Elena thinks she knows better. ‘You’ll see when you fall in love,’ she says. Anaïs replies, ‘I doubt it.’
As the film unfolds the sisters live out their fantasies. In typical bourgeois fashion, first Elena brings Fernando home to meet her parents. Later, when they are alone, Fernando brags about his sexual prowess. He is indifferent to his lovers. Responding when Elena asks if he loved any of the women that he seduced, he says,
‘I slept with them because I’m a guy.’ He enjoys humiliating and scorning them. ‘Sometimes its so easy it makes me sick,’ he says. Of course, he tells Elena, he feels
differently about her.
There is some heavy petting and soon Fernando is being secreted into the sister’s bedroom. Anaïs has little choice but to pretend to sleep while the lovers go about their business. Elena wants Fernando but at the same time she resists him. She has her virginity to consider. He tells her that if she loves him she’ll let him sodomise her, which will protect her virginity while demonstrating her true feelings for him. He assures her that it is an established practice and nothing to worry about. But she finds the experience agonising instead of exciting or pleasant. Nonetheless she submits.
The next night Fernando returns and takes Elena’s virginity. While critics such as Stratton (2001) typically found these sex scenes to be ‘sensitive to the feelings
of … female characters’ – and by implication, if explicit still a depiction of fairly standard sexual activity – for Breillat they signify the true rape of the film. Fernando steals his mother’s ring to consecrate his dastardly deed. It is all a fraud, as the stolen ring signifies. Elena has been duped and not just by utilitarian order. She has also been cheated by her own deluded fantasies, by her own domesticated adolescent dreams of true love. Now she must pay the price.
All the while Anaïs listens on, weeping silently for a sister. She knew what Fernando had in mind right from the start, the most calculated libidinal gratification without any genuine reciprocity – not that Anaïs is concerned with reciprocity.
Fernando’s deception is the general deceit of bourgeois romance, exposed so ruthlessly in Breillat’s previous film. But Anaïs is not an innocent abroad like Marie, the central character of Romance. The defilement Anaïs must witness is mere
confirmation of what she already knows. Hers is the innocent knowledge of a child who is not fooled by the allure of utilitarian existence. She waits, all the while knowing the truth of sexual relations.
Her waiting comes to its eventual end during a stopover on the way back to Paris, the holidays cut short because of the scandal over the ring. The film offers various omens heralding this final deflowering as the tension relentlessly builds. As they speed down the highway David Bowie is on the car radio singing ‘The Pretty
Things Are Going to Hell’ (Stratton 2001). Car horns blare. Lights flash in the women’s faces. Finally they pull over into a parking bay to rest and as a truck passes the driver’s and Anaïs’s eyes meet. There is something strange, something slightly
sinister in the exchange.
Then, while they rest, a night stalker suddenly, violently strikes. He shatters the windscreen with a monkey wrench and dispatches Elena with a single blow, as if she was nothing more than vermin. The mother is summarily strangled. All the while
Anaïs watches on, chewing on a strip of green-blue toffee. As the attacker drags her from the car she mutters something in a little, barely convincing voice. He stuffs her panties into her mouth and has intercourse with her. Remember, this is not a rape scene for Breillat. This is the truth about sex, about real sex and not the Hollywood fantasy. Just before he disappears, there is a suspended moment as the stalker suddenly recognises a kindred spirit. No words are exchanged. A fleeting look, an animal glance is all that is needed. Then he is gone, vanishing back into the darkness whence he came.
The last scenes are set the following morning. As police lead Anaïs out of the wood she denies any violation. A policeman reports, ‘She was in the woods. She says
he didn’t rape her,’ and Anaïs adds, ‘Don’t believe me if you don’t want to’ – a rather
childish retort. She is protecting her lover, her man for the asking who came along and saved her from the hell of utility, the destination of all pretty things. The final scene is a freeze-frame. Anaïs is a wild, staring, savage figure, hair askew. The cinematic apotheosis of Magritte’s Rape, she is poetry visualised and then rendered in
a moving picture. And the picture tells a story, a tale, an account of the experience of sovereignty.
As if she is hallucinating, Anaïs stares out at the audience. She is inaccessible, her face illuminating the depths of nature, as if she had suddenly awakened to the sounds of animals. In Derrida’s terms, she has given herself over to the naked
experience of alterity, of otherness (Derrida 1976), and is the subject of what Foucault calls a ‘negative attraction’, an attraction freed from the mundane sequence of romance, love and filial connection (Foucault 1994). In the mute presence of this dissimulation, the gaze of Anaïs opens a previously inaccessible void to the audience. It is an uncomfortable experience, suggesting that a most intense state of euphoria is to be had only in that region beyond all standards of civility, morality and law.
The words in the verse, ‘A Man For The Asking’, instantly evoke Anaïs’s fantasy and they explain why her first sexual encounter was not a rape. After all, is her night stalker anything more than ‘a man for the asking’, someone like her to
smash the chains of utility, to set her free? Is he not exactly the kind of person with whom Anaïs wanted to spend that ‘very first night’? She finds her man and the result is the experience of sovereignty. The film freezes at this point. Here it is, the event Breillat has relentlessly pursued, Magritte’s problem overcome and poetry finally visually complemented.
Breillat converts Magritte’s image into cinema through its incorporation into two scenes in A ma soeur. In the first, Anaïs is pondering her reflection in the mirror. She raises her nightie, which exposes her body while covering her face. Eying her reflection with detached disinterest, she exclaims, ‘Slut!’ The mirror image represents a form of alterity, an otherness that screens out the face, which in turn is the sign of reason and utility. Breillat had previously employed this device in Romance (see
Krisjansen & Maddock 2001: 145). In the final scene of A ma soeur there is no naked
torso to provide the necessary features of Magritte’s Rape but the expression on
Anaïs’s face conveys the sense of the body, the symbol of nature, overwhelming the face, representing utility. Disconnected from society, Anaïs’s expression could easily be that of ‘the cow standing in the pasture’.
Between the two scenes providing motion to Magritte’s image, Anaïs spends a considerable time bathing, in the swimming pool and in the surf. These scenes are symbolic and have their precedent in surrealist literature. Indeed, the image has its first expression in early polytheistic myth, in the tale of Diana the Huntress and Actaeon, who stumbles upon her at her bath. In his book, Diana At Her Bath (1990),
Pierre Klossowski’s analysis of this myth, very much in keeping with Bataille’s – and
by extension, Breillat’s – approach, provides an interpretation of Anaïs’s
preoccupation with bathing, which connects it to the expression of sovereignty.
Diana is bathing in what might be called the ‘space of myths’. When Actaeon stumbles across her, he does not understand what he sees. A vision ‘beyond the birth
of words… he sees Diana bathing and cannot say what he sees’ (Klossowski 1998: 51). He misinterprets Diana as a naked woman washing after the hunt and, something of the voyeur, he disguises himself as a stag in order to spy upon her. The goddess is the epitome of instant gratification, of sovereignty, but Actaeon knows only the delayed gratification of the utilitarian, and so he sees a useful body and an accessible sexuality, while the real state of the goddess is invisibility, utterly beyond all utility.
This tale is related to Magritte’s image in Rape. As in the painting, Diana
cannot be tied to a fixed identity, a subject, a face. She is naked, the appearance of raw nature and cannot be appropriated through language and calculation. In Klossowski’s words, she is a ‘mood of nature… [seeking] to foresee nothing whatsoever’ (70). She ‘inhabits an ineffable body made of silence’ (61) and to experience this Actaeon must ‘return to a state anterior to speech’ (51), a state of abandonment of self-consciousness. When he does Diana turns him into a stag and only then can he recognise the goddess’s essence (55). He experiences the dissolution of his selfhood, his dogs no longer recognise him and they tear him to pieces. A plenitude finds dissolution.
Like Diana, Anaïs is concerned with herself as an embodiment of nature. She covers her body in lotion before sun bathing, she washes herself, she sits in the surf and lets the water splash over her, all the time sustaining herself as a object far removed from utilitarian aesthetics. She represents an image of self-abolition and self-effacement, precisely the image of Magritte’s Rape – which, ironically, is no rape at
During the swimming pool scene Anaïs, alone in the water, plays at dissimulation, moving between make-believe lovers. To one spot in the pool she says:
Are you jealous? I haven’t really cheated on you. Women aren’t like bars
of soap, you know. They don’t wear away. On the contrary each lover
brings them more and you get all the benefit,
while to an invisible rival on the opposite side of the pool she declares:
You make me sick! How can you disgust me and attract me so much?
You’re the one I’ll give it all to. No, I’ve never slept with anyone before.
She is the goddess materialising from nature to seduce the blind utilitarian male and turn him back into an animal. Anaïs is a Siren, a mermaid. She might be calling, ‘Come to me. Come back to the animal kingdom.’
In the surf, Anaïs has a limit experience, like that found in Blanchot’s Thomas
the Obscure (Blanchot 1999: 51-128). It is an experience that approaches sovereignty. In Blanchot’s story, the surge of the sea acts to topple the selfhood of the central character, Thomas, into the abyss. The sea is an essential limit, an inaccessible depth that disorientates and disperses the self, so that, as Thomas swam, ‘he confused himself with the sea. The intoxication of leaving himself, of slipping into the void, of dispersing himself in the thought of water, made him forget every discomfort.’
Contemplating ‘something painful which resembled the manifestation of an excessive
freedom, a freedom obtained by breaking every bond’ (56) he watches other swimmers. Anaïs’s experience in the sea is not dissimilar, as her accompanying soliloquy indicates:
I’ve set my heart to rot away
On the windowsill.
I trust in a future day
The crows may come,
I hope they will,
With their beaks so fleet
They will peck away
At this lump of raw meat
O’er which you thought you held sway.
She dreams not of self-abandonment but of utter dismemberment, of disappearance. She dreams of her end not just as a particular being but as a specific thing. It is a vision of disintegration, a image of oneness that scornfully dismisses utilitarian control. It is these scenes between the two images of Rape that, with the help of this
verse, provide meaning to the events leading to the final scene of the film.
Breillat makes use of a strong visual symbolism to communicate her story, just as she did in Romance (Krisjansen & Maddock 1991). In particular she makes
symbolic use of colour. Price (2002) recognises a similar employment in 36 Fillette,
relating it to a scene where the female protagonist, Lili, has her first sexual encounter with an older male. The walls of the room are illuminated in blue and the furniture is an orange-tan colour, the colours of the beach and the ocean, Price suggests. There is a similarity with the place of Elena’s deflowering. In the latter case the walls are a deep greenish blue, the bed sheets are a deep green, and Anaïs’s nightie is a pale
Indeed, this green-blue is the predominant colour of the film. As Price suggests, it is tied to the realm of nature, the realm of subjective dissolution. It is the colour of the central scene of the film, where the sisters have their heads together examining their faces in a mirror. Behind them is the green-blue. A still from this scene provided one of the posters for the film. In A ma soeur the sea is more or less
this colour, and so is the swimming pool in which Anaïs enacts her fantasy. A dress she buys is green-blue, as is a scarf her mother purchases. Anaïs’s bathing costume is green-blue. It is the colour of the toffee strip she chews on, as if it was a cud, during the killings. In A Man For The Asking, Breillat writes of green as expressing
rottenness ‘and please to understand that rot is wholesome and natural’ (Breillat 1969: 29).
Anaïs’s distance from her sister is symbolised through colour, especially in the clothes they choose on a shopping expedition. At first a conflict ensues because the sisters choose identical green-blue dresses and Anaïs is accused of always copying Elena and trying to steal her boyfriend, all of which she vehemently denies. Later, at the cash register, Elena has chosen the same style of dress but this time it is blood red in colour. This concern over dress colour also has its precedent in 36 Fillette, where
Lili complains of new black dress that she would rather it had been blue or green.
In A ma soeur, all the family are attracted by the green-blue colour. Anaïs has a persistent attraction, Elena toys with the idea but then surrenders to utility, and the mother, almost as an after-thought, chooses a green-blue scarf, which she is wearing when she is strangled. A scarf can easily be removed or put on to suit the
circumstances. On this basis and without really thinking about it, she enters Anaïs’s world, albeit on the very margin, and only as a negative presence. She takes her away from her holiday, her break with utility. For this she must atone.
The impending deaths are also signalled through the use of colour. Anaïs is wearing black, the colour of mourning, while following the loss of her virginity Elena always wears red – a red and white dressing gown, red pants, a red dress. In a beach-scene Elena, dressed in red, stands before a red and white tower, a powerful phallic symbol of her fall from grace.
Like so much in Breillat’s film, this fall also has its antecedent in the literary tradition, this time in a text regarded by Bataille as one of the greatest books ever written (Bataille 1973: 16). Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is the story of young
and wild love thwarted when one of the lovers is seduced by the world of utility. When this happens, like Elena, she is lost. The lover, Cathy, leaves the moor for Edgar Linton, a bourgeois. She leaves the wild for what Bataille describes as ‘the well established world of reason’ (Bataille 1973: 19). Elena is similarly seduced, and like Cathy she dies for her error. For Bataille, the connection between atonement and transgression is crucial. Death atones for the betrayal of the wild. In Wuthering
Heights, Cathy’s death is a direct consequence of her transgression. Her husband, the bourgeois, succumbs to the same malady. And in A ma soeur Elena and her mother
In Brontë’s book there is also an attitude of incomprehension towards the renegade that reappears in A ma soeur. The parents have no difficulty in
understanding Elena’s rapist, Fernando. The family embraces him. They are
impressed to learn out he is studying penal law because ‘father insists on it’. But when Anaïs appears upset or disturbed her father asks in an off-hand manner, ‘What’s
wrong with her?’ and his wife replies, ‘It’s only adolescence.’ What lies behind this
kind of incomprehensibility, Bataille suggests, is ‘an instinctive tendency towards divine intoxication which the rational world of calculation cannot bear’ (Bataille 1973: 21). Anaïs seems to her father to be in a dream, upset but by nothing of this world. He is right. His wife tells him in an equally off-hand way that it is something that will pass, like a childhood illness.
The purpose of the violence in the last scenes of A ma soeur is hardly
explicable but in terms of surrealism, a dream of sovereignty and a rage against utility. Famously, Breton described the ultimate surrealist act as running into the street and firing a loaded revolver at random. His point was that sovereignty and rage are connected. Utility is the suppression of sovereignty through reason and civility, and so it is through rage, which is irrational violence, that sovereignty is released. In Bataille’s words:
Only death and desire have the force that oppresses, that takes one’s
breath away. Only the extremism of desire and death enables one to
attain the truth (Bataille 1991: 9).
Rage serves a similar function in relation to sovereignty to that served by automatic writing in the production of early surrealist poetry – it released the drive for
expression from the constraints of reason. This is why rage against the symbols of utility in A ma soeur, Elena and her mother, is tied to Anaïs’s experience of
sovereignty. And as is the case with Heathcliff at the end of Wuthering Heights, with
the destruction of others the self is also destroyed.