Give Me a Smile
by Caroline Rumley — Georgia State University
December 20, 2016 – 12:14
[Please watch the video before reading the below text.]
Michel Chion, in writing about the voice in cinema, tells us that it is much more than the vehicle of language and expression; such aural elements are also “analyzed and distributed in the spectator’s perceptual apparatus according to the relation each bears to what the spectator sees at the time” (3). In this short film, entitled “Give Me a Smile,” I tinker with this perception as I put Nana’s voice (from Godard’s Vivre sa vie) into Jeanne’ s mouth (from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), melding the two films into one. I am drawing on the cafe scene in which Nana is interviewed by a prospective pimp and on the scene from Jeanne D’Arc that Godard screens for Nana in his own film, spliced to better fit the sounds into the various mouths. In particular, there are close-ups of Jeanne “talking” about making more money as a prostitute and about her trials in making it on the screen, all the while waiting for her death at the stake. This could be enough of a commentary, a reinforcement of what Godard is probably getting at by having Nana watch this particular film in the first place. That is, we know in both films that the women are doomed; Nana resorts to prostitution to make ends meet, only to be shot, and Jeanne will be burned to death! Doomed, indeed! Considering this aural-visual mash-up through the lens of Laura Mulvey’s work on visual pleasure, though, can give us more of an insight as to why this might be, and a small editing choice at the end of the piece can at least start to turn over the gender-biased tables.
Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to propose that the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form (58), where woman is “tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (59). As a being, woman has “not the slightest importance" to use Boetticher’s words. Rather, what the heroine provokes or represents is what counts (63). To bring this to form, the dominant order has structured cinematic ways of seeing and taking pleasure in looking (61). Mulvey points to Freud’s associating this scopophilia with taking other people as an object (60). What, if not that exactly, is happening with Nana in the cafe scene? She would like to become a more prosperous prostitute and Raoul restructures her decision-making, taking her as an object to mold and use and eventually sell.
Raoul’s male gaze also projects its fantasy onto the female figure. Nana and Raoul openly discuss this being looked-at-ness. Simply because she is “a pretty girl,” he concludes that she can be a successful actress. Nana understands this- that in this traditional exhibitionist role women are “simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (62). She has, indeed, used her looks in trying to become an actress. But in this mash-up, we only hear Nana’s voice. The person speaking is Jeanne, shorn like a sheep and dressed “like a man.” The erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as an object might well be torn asunder. But is this really the case? We know that the story of Jeanne D’Arc is in part a religious one, that Jeanne must be tried and punished for her religious views. A case could be made for intersectionality when looking at both films as one, that there is both gender and religious bias. But the way Dreyer’s film is structured shows more of a patriarchal stance than a religious one. The men loom large over Jeanne, looking down at her physically as well as politically. The gender-domination aspect of the film is so strong that it almost dwarfs the storyline. It is doubtful whether it would even exist if Jeanne had been a male. With Nana’s voice coming from Jeanne’s mouth, then, suddenly her captor (played by Theater of Cruelty author Antonin Artaud, which adds another layer to the mix) appears to be both leaning into her and leering at her with intent, while she seems to be on some sort of tranquilizer to get her through what lies ahead, which is not unheard of in circles of prostitution. The erotic basis for pleasure for the male who is looking seems to be alive and well, indeed. Because this confrontation is taking place in a jail cell, we can also read that this erotic pleasure is also coinciding with a voyeuristic one, in which the pleasure lies in “ascertaining guilt, asserting control, and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness” (65), which is exactly what is happening with Jeanne.
Mulvey makes a case for the dominant male gaze being a key proponent in Hollywood films, and hopes that the artisanal film can be different since it is freed from Capitalistic mores (60), but that just isn’t happening here. Nana might have shaken off the power of one man, her husband, but she literally becomes Raoul’s property in this French New Wave film just as she might in any classical Hollywood film. She is his Sternbergian “perfect product” (65) who must “give him a smile” to complete the transaction. And we know what is coming up for Jeanne. In Jeanne D’Arc, also not a classic Hollywood production, the men are controlling all aspects of the “film fantasy” (63). Mulvey says woman is the spectacle (63), and Jeanne is nothing if not the headlining act in the carnival forming outside her cell. She is the image that must bear the look all the way to the stake. Unlike Nana, who acquiesces, at least Jeanne refuses to give the de- manded smile.
Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. Translated by Claudia Gorbman, Columbia University Press, 1999.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham, New York University Press, 1999. pp. 58-69.
Caroline Rumley holds an M.F.A. in Theatrical Design from UT Austin and is currently studying Film in the graduate program at Georgia State University. A multimodal storyteller, she is interested in the visual narrative in its many forms, especially in what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “thin-sliced” instance, that brief flash that tells you all you need to know. Her creative work includes both moving and still images and can next be viewed at the upcoming Puppy Love show at the Hathaway Contemporary in Atlanta.