As the 11th edition of the FEFFS (the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival) kicked off on September 14th 2018 in the cinemas VOX, Star and UGC, 10 days of discussions and showings gave us a sharper and inside look in the fantasy world of cinema.
The Chromosomes XX event presented 10 various films to illustrate « feminine creativity » in genre cinema, aiming to better comprehend the complexity of female characters and their portrayal in fantasy film.
Among the panelists, Mélanie Boissonneau gave a thorough presentation regarding not only the perception of french fantasy and horror cinema but also the presence of female protagonists that she considers to be essential to these genres.
A summary and english translation of her presentation :
« Chromosome XX : L’indispensable ADN du cinéma horrifique français »
Chromosome XX : the indispensable DNA of the french horrific cinema
by Mélanie Boissonneau
Mélanie Boissonneau has a PhD in film and audiovisual studies. Her thesis is entitled: PIN-UP! Figures and uses of cinematographic pin-up at the time of the Hollywood "pre-code" (1930-1934). She teaches at the University Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Member of the IRCAV, she published in 2010 Pin-ups in cinema, co-written with Laurent Jullier.
Boissonneau explains that french fantasy and horror, although not often recognized or acclaimed, has actually existed for nearly a century. She observes that it is difficult for french fantasy horror to gain attention whether in France or internationnally, due to multiple reasons among which the most important is the lack of fundings. However, when those films do come to life, although in general « women represent only 32% of protagonists visible on screen », Boissonneau points out that « female protagonists are omnipresent in the horror and fantasy genre ».
But why are women essential to horror film ?
Boissonneau goes on to explain that women will first of all play the role of the victim to the monster, but most importantly will fill the part of the « scream queen » - Fay Wray or Elsa Lanchester being the pioneers of such characters first developed in the 1930’s. A scream queen is an actress who has become associated with horror films, either through an appearance in a notable entry in the genre or recurring roles in the genre.
She points out that according to Pascale Fakhry1, the representation of female protagonists is linked to the different feminist movements that spanned the history of the United States : depending on historical and feminist context, we’ll see alternately « independent women », « sacrificial mothers », « single mothers »…
As Boissonneau studied this chronological representation transposed to french cinema, the ambiguity she observed with female protagonists in french horror led her to focus on the recurring themes she found : maternity, mother figure and child figure.
Boissonneau analyzed a varied list of films, presenting disparities, released between 2000 and 2018.
As she observes the different molds in which female protagonists tend to appear when it comes to horror cinema, she mentions the theme of child-mother relationship and, depending on the films - either the sacrifice of a fairytale-like mother (Promenons-nous dans les bois / Deep in the woods, 2000), an androginous female figure who is both victim and persecutor (Haute Tension / High Tension, 2003) or a pregnant woman turned killer to feed her demonic baby (Baby Blood, 1989) – she explains that female protagonists are shown in sufficiently ambiguous ways as to make us distrust the usual stereotypes to which we are accustomed.
In order to explore how exactly women are portrayed in french horror cinema, Boissonneau chose to dedicate her study case to 4 directors that even though, in her words, take different paths, their respective filmographies remain linked through what seems to be an obsession for maternal and childhood issues : Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo / Pascal Laugier / Lucille Hadzihalilovitch.
Maury and Bustillo
The filmmaking duo Maury and Bustillo put at the core of their cinematographic work, according to Boissonneau, the themes of filiation and maternity, with a recurring presence of criminal mothers in a certain number of their films : Livide / Livid (2011) – where « maternity and femininity rhyme with death and criminality » ; Aux yeux des vivants / Among the living (2014) and A l’intérieur / Inside (2007) – in which « pregnancy is not synonymous with tenderness and happiness ».
Quoting Carol Clover², Boissonneau reminds us about the common assymetric distribution of roles in horror cinema : « the function of monster and hero is reserved to men whereas the function of victim is reserved to women ». However, she explains that Livid, Among the Living and Inside « question those categorizations, as the female protagonists are alternately victims, heroes and monsters, whereas the male protagonists are heroes for the few seconds preceding their death, victims of a conflict that does not concern them ».
Boissonneau mentions « the link between the monster in horror films and the woman/victim, as they are united by their status of ‘Other’ » raising questions around the monster : « what to do when the monster is a woman ? The persecutor of the film is a woman, but who is the true monster ? Both women’s bodies are mutilated, they are both persecutors and victims. Does the horror come from the staging, making the monster more human, and turning the pregnant woman into a monstruous warrior? ».
Following those thoughts, Melanie Boissonneau focuses on Inside, and the questions relative to maternity (the traditional perception of maternity versus the way the protagonist Sarah seems indifferent to her own pregnancy but also the threatening presence of The Woman – portrayed by Beatrice Dalle – coming to steal the unwanted baby) as well as the shift from victim to persecutor : « the maternal figure […] becomes source of terror and excludes herself from the norms and stereotypes surrounding maternity ». She explains finally that the monster becomes human through its pregnancy, whereas the problematic pregnancy of the woman-victim turns her into a monster.
Strong female protagonists are also to be found in Laugier’s cinematographic work, who are, « in a quite traditional way, bound to secrecy and intimacy ». Boissonneau observes that from Saint-Ange / House of Voices in 2004 to the more recent Ghostland / Incident in a Ghostland (2018), but also The Secret (2012) and Martyrs (2008), « the films are supported by women and the narrative develops around their relationships ».
According to Boissonneau, the links binding cinematic picture and women in Laugier’s films bring us back to the theme of childhood (and child abuse in particular). She explains that Laugier destabilizes the audience by taking away the possibility of trusting the strength of stereotypes : « the young vulnerable girl will not necessarily develop into a merciless warrior, or survive at the end. Virginity or pregnancy do not function as a talisman against the monsters […] Laugier shakes up the genres in a cinematographic and sexual way » where women are tortured back into child form and lose their feminine aspect and female body.
Finally, Boissonneau explores the work of the third director, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, who shows « highly complex female characters » in her film La bouche de Jean-Pierre / Mimi (1996), which she qualifies herself as a ‘social horror film’. The director focuses primarily on the theme of childhood, the « children’s world is consistently opposed to the world of the adults, mainly female, where the older ones are considered as ‘Other’, often scary ». In both Innocence (2004) and Evolution (2015) « there are no men, the adults are women watching over the group of kids in their own way ». Here again, Boissonneau explains that the director operates a shift in gender stereotypes and what the audience is used to. She points out that « the community of young girls in Innocence is a very strong stance, since groups of little girls are so absent from the screens, in opposition to young male thugs or schoolboys ».
According to Boissonneau, Evolution also breaks the stereotypes so much so that the female protagonists become « autonomous and threatening figures, detaining power and knowledge. It’s the kids’ bodies, little boys in this case, that are manipulated, forced, to give life. For Hadzihalilovic, that reversal makes the situation more harrowing, more oppressing, giving it the aspect of a nightmare. More so than the inversion of genders, it’s the porosity of femininity and masculinity, made possible by the fantasy anchoring, that causes a true disturbance ».
French horror and fantasy genre is maintained, as Boissonneau puts it, in its own instability through ambiguous female protagonists.
Boissonneau concludes : « what is most striking in the end is the obsession for maternity or actually filiation, which is deployed in the films studied. […] In Maury and Bustillo’s work, femininity is usually linked to maternity, nearly always failing or problematic. […] Whereas when Laugier, and Martyrs in particular, approaches the question of childhood from the perspective of destruction and violence, […] Hadzihalilovic builds organic worlds : vegetal in Innocence, mineral in Evolution ».
1 Pascale Fakhry defended her doctoral thesis, entitled « The Hollywood horror movie for women: a study of the genre and its main female characters from their emergence in the 1970s » at the University Paris 3 in 2011. She has taught cinema at Saint Joseph University (Lebanon) and at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. She is the author of several articles on horror films whose main character is female and an article on the representation of Islam in horror cinema.
2 Carol Clover is an American professor of film studies, rhetoric language and Scandinavian mythology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film" (1992)