24 September 2010
My girlfriends and I enjoy going to the movies together. We treat ourselves first to a high-quality dinner out and update each other about our health and our grandchildren. We’re at the stage where strategies for falling and/or staying asleep have also become a favored topic of discussion, and it sometimes happens that one or the other of us otherwise insomniacs nods off in the darkened theater following our lavish meal and plentiful wine. We hoped this would not befall us during our most recent cinematic outing; after all, I am Love is a film about an older woman and her much younger lover. And indeed, there was little chance of dozing off in this gripping melodrama.
Io Sono L’Amore (directed and co-written by Luca Guadagnino) is a sumptuous, gorgeous film that bombards and satiates the senses and (almost) fully satisfies the mind and emotions. In brief it is the story of a wealthy, rigidly patriarchal Milanese family and its sudden disruption through the power of illicit love. It is also the story of an “awakening,” of liberation from the confining codes of upper-class behavior.
Significantly, it is the female side of the family that achieves this breakthrough: wife and mother Emma Recchi, fabulously played by Tilda Swinton, discovers her true self in a passionate affair with the sensual young chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who seduces her with a dish of prawns. Daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) breaks free of family expectations through her art studies in London and by coming out as a lesbian. But son and heir to the family business Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) is tragically trapped between his loyalty to the Recchi dynasty on the one hand – he has just been anointed by grandfather Edoardo Sr. as joint successor with his father – and his unconventional ideas, working-class sympathies and hidden longings on the other.
Edo embodies a divided heritage which emerges only gradually in the film. Father Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a controlled, utterly conventional and pragmatic businessman, has subordinated himself fully to the family and and its textile-manufacturing company. It was on a business trip to Russia that Tancredi met his future wife. He gave her the Italian name Emma and brought her back to be installed as mistress of a household staff of royal proportions and elegant formality. On the surface, Emma appears the ideal matron of the haute bourgeoisie: her Italian is flawless, her manners impeccable, her dress stylish, and she manages the staff and the family dynamics smoothly and with tact. But behind the years of adaptation to this role, her younger, more passionate “foreign” self still slumbers. During Edo’s childhood Emma had shared linguistic remnants (and a particular recipe) from this Russian identity with him as a sign of the close bond between them. When Emma is awakened to the roots of her identity, their special intimacy avenges itself tragically.
The film almost overwhelms with visual and auditory feasts, marvelous for their own sake, but also important in expanding the meanings of the narrative. The camera lingers on sharply etched details of the upper-class material culture embodied in the Recchi household, revealing its chiseled perfection: a shot of symmetrically arrayed serving platters is followed by one of the precisely choreographed parade of smartly uniformed servants bearing the food to the dining room and finally a close-up of white-gloved hands completing the presentation. Monumental scenes of Milan’s cathedral architecture are employed at crucial points in the narrative – Emma at the beginning of her unsettling passion, Emma finally confronting Tancredi with the fact of her love for Antonio – and intensify the weight of these moments. Early monochrome scenes of winter snow in the Recchi courtyard yield to the brilliant sun, grasses, O’Keeffean blooms and insects of an almost excessively vibrant nature during the passionate summer love scenes. A similar contrast is drawn between the stifling formality of the upper-class mansion and the shabby rural cottage where the lovers have their trysts, disorderly but alive. The exciting musical score by minimalist composer John Adams, drawn in part from his operas (e.g. Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer), further heightens the emotional sweep and conveys the sense that events transpiring on the screen have a grand, somehow mythic or archetypal quality.
Numerous literary and operatic references further deepen the film’s impact and give it a resonance that transcends the melodramatic plot. Emma’s Russian roots and the story of upper-class family life and adultery recall Anna Karenina; the name bestowed on her by her husband suggests Madame Bovary. The final scene, in which the two lovers have escaped the bonds of family and society and embrace in the misty distance of an – otherwise unmotivated – cave, echoes other classic star-crossed lovers: Dido and Aeneas (Aeneid Bk IV), or, even more to the point, the adulterous Tristan and Isolde, who hide from King Marke in a forest grotto. The sudden, seemingly involuntary passion that overwhelms Emma after she eats the prawns prepared for her by Antonio made me think of the irresistible desire for Tristan that befalls Isolde after she mistakenly drinks the potion intended to secure her affection to her husband. Such details insert the love story into a longer, tragic tradition.
Of course, the events of Io Sono L’Amore are only partly tragic. Emma liberates herself and presumably lives happily ever after with Antonio. Her betrayal of husband Tancredi – another familiar literary and operatic name, for example from works by Tasso and Rossini – with the intimate friend of her son, however, does have tragic implications for Edo. Running throughout the film is the sub-plot of Edo’s secret, perhaps unconscious longings. At the beginning of the film the family eagerly awaits news of his success in an unspecified “race;” it turns out he has tied with his main competitor and friend Antonio – a symbolic event that only later partly reveals its significance. Although Edo tries to uphold his responsibilities as scion of the family business, his dream is to help Antonio open a restaurant. In one scene Edo weeps in what appears to be existential despair on the breast of the loyal, motherly household retainer Ida. We aren’t told the source of his anguish; it could be his conflict with Tancredi over the business, indicative of his suffering under the narrow codes of his family and class. It could also express the pain of a forbidden love – for his mother, for his friend Antonio? Edo has all along shown more enthusiasm for Antonio than for his pregnant girlfriend Eva. We learn just before the final catastrophe that he wanted to tell his mother “something important,” but his discovery of her affair with Antonio makes this impossible. He has been betrayed by the two persons he loves most in the world.
The filmic treatment of this part of the story reminded me of Phaedra, the 1962 movie by Jules Dassin with Anthony Perkins and Melina Mercouri (based on Euripides’ play Hippolytus). The plot is somewhat parallel: the attractive wife of a wealthy, powerful older man falls tragically and irresistibly in love with his son from an earlier marriage. (In Euripides’ version, Phaedra is compelled to love her stepson Hippolytus by the jealous goddess Aphrodite; she struggles, but as a mortal is powerless against her fate.) At the end of the film, Phaedra takes to her bed; a loyal servant closes the blinds as her mistress takes a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Meanwhile her young lover Alexis drives his car off a cliff to the sweeping strains of J. S. Bach, thus echoing the death of Hippolytus, who was crushed by his own raging horses through the curse of his father.
Io Sono L’Amore varies the motifs of quasi-incest and Phaedra’s suicide: Emma retires to her son’s childhood bedroom and curls up on his bed to grieve his sudden, accidental (but somehow fated?) death. As in the earlier film, the faithful servant (here Ida), closes the blinds to darken the room while Emma/Phaedra withdraws from the world. The camera also lingers on a shot of Ida weeping uncontrollably; like Euripides’ Nurse, she represents the average, non-aristocratic, unheroic human being who observes the tragic actions of the mighty and reacts with “normal” emotion. Guadagnino has shifted the parameters and complicated the tragedy by making Edo’s beloved friend the object of Emma’s passion and thus his challenger for her love. She, conversely, is the victor in the contest for Antonio’s.
While not all the cultural echos that resonate in Io Sono L’Amore may have been consciously intended by its makers, they nonetheless contribute – along with the superb acting, stunning camera work and powerful score – to the exceptional quality of this film. Don’t miss it!
16 July 2010
Adele and Sibylle and Annette and Ottilie: Women in Love in 19th-Century Germany
Review of Angela Steidele, Geschichte einer Liebe: Adele Schopenhauer und Sibylle Mertens (Berlin: Insel, 2010), Hardcover, 336 pages.
By Joey Horsley
Angela Steidele has written a beautiful, exhaustively researched account of the intimate friendship of Adele Schopenhauer and Sibylle Mertens Schaaffhausen, two brilliant but little-known Germans who lived in the first half of the 19th century. Through extensive use of largely unpublished letters and diary entries Steidele sensitively reconstructs the fascinating story of their lives and relationship, as they discover each other, move apart and then reunite amidst their sometimes turbulent involvements with a number of other intellectual and artistic women of their day: poet/author Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Goethe’s daughter-in-law Ottilie von Goethe, Scottish author and feminist Anna Jameson and the Italian Laurina Spinola. Along the way we glean new information about the conditions of life for women of the cultured middle class in the early 19th century, as well as about the character of their intimate relationships prior to new polarizing and stigmatizing concepts of homo- and heterosexuality. Initially attracted to each other in large part because of their intellectual and artistic gifts and independent spirit, the women supported each other in the face of a patriarchal society whose legal and social restrictions severely hampered their freedom and opportunities.
Steidele’s study corrects the previously distorted image of writer, silhouette artist and literary promoter Adele Schopenhauer (1797-1849), the lesser known sister of the misogynist philosopher and daughter of bestselling author Johanna Schopenhauer. Viewed in the context of her relationships with women, especially Sibylle Mertens, Adele Schopenhauer emerges as a woman of deep feeling, integrity and intellectual and creative prowess, in contrast to the traditional portrayal of her as a lonely and frustrated spinster seeking to compensate for the lack of a husband through exaggerated, sentimental fantasies. Schooled in literature and life by her “adoptive” father Goethe, Schopenhauer had a sure sense of literary and aesthetic quality – she recognized early the gift of major poet Droste-Hülshoff – and revealed in her letters a highly developed self-awareness; she was “a psychologist engaged in unsparing self-analysis” (11).
Romantically obsessed from adolescence with her close friend Ottilie von Pogwisch (later von Goethe), Adele was devastated when she realized that her own feelings were more ardent and exclusive than her friend’s affection for her. Nonetheless she engaged in flirtations with men; at first she shared romantic feelings for Ottilie’s heartthrobs, presumably to stay a part of her friend’s intimate life, but finally saw that she was being used as a sort of go-between. She acknowledged to herself that her love for Ottilie was out of the ordinary: “Adele Schopenhauer was aware that she loved in a different way” (63). Her later attachments to men were largely out of practical necessity; like most women of her time, she saw marriage as the only option for adult survival, and for Adele it also meant escape from her demanding and financially irresponsible mother. But she was not considered pretty and was more intelligent and learned than was held to be attractive in a female. Her strongest feelings, moreover, were for women, and her letters show that she was generally repelled by male sensuality. Eventually she began to write and gained partial financial independence through publication of her fiction, poetry, letters and essays on art.
Sibylle Mertens (1797-1857), the more unusual of the two women, is even less familiar to modern readers than her life-partner, though her neglect is equally undeserved. Stemming from a wealthy entrepreneurial family from the Rhineland and given the best musical and aesthetic education, Sibylle Schaaffhausen was married at age 19 to a suitable heir to her father’s business; her opinion was neither sought nor considered in the match with a man almost 16 years her senior who shared none of her interests in history, art or music. She and Louis Mertens were both temperamental and strong-willed – Droste described their relationship as a “‘marriage from hell’” (30). Despite bearing six children before she was 31, Sibylle did not allow her maternal or wifely duties to curtail her intellectual or social passions. She was fascinated by the architecture and artifacts that stemmed from the early Roman colonization of Cologne and the surrounding area, and her collections and expertise, especially in the area of ancient coins and cameos, gained widespread recognition. She played a leading role as a promoter and perfomer in the musical and cultural life of Cologne and Bonn, and her salon became the central gathering place of the artistic and intellectual elite, from Shakespeare-translator and Sanskritist A. W. Schlegel to artists and collectors like Wilhelm Schadow and Sulpice Boisserée to composers and performers such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel and soprano Angelica Catalani. Among the most cherished guests of the charismatic Sibylle was Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. An example of the delicious tidbits Steidele’s research has turned up is her description of how both nearsighted women suffered in similar fashion under the social requirement to appear glamorous, without eyeglasses, in public: “Nothing was more annoying to Sibylle ‘than the confusion of an overfilled salon, when I can’t put my glasses on my long nose.’ Droste suffered even more from such conventions, for she was nearly blind without her lorgnette.” (57) As would be the case between Sibylle and Adele, these two extraordinarily gifted women “‘felt intellectually attracted to each other’’’ (57).
Adele Schopenhauer first met Sibylle when she attended her salon in January 1828; both women were immediately taken with each other. In contrast to Adele’s former romantic idealization of Ottilie, her attachment to Sibylle flourished despite awareness of the other’s faults. Sibylle “‘has loosened the icy crust of my heart,’” she wrote. “‘I will probably never love anyone the way I love her’” (79). They spent days and nights together, away from Sibylle’s children and husband, who did not approve of their friendship and eventually barred Adele from the family’s house. By summer Adele compared herself and Sibylle to “‘a couple of people who find each other late and then get married’” (79).
Unfortunately, however, circumstances and the women’s own behavior interrupted their loving partnership after a few short years. There was no legally or socially sanctioned arrangement for such a relationship; the Roman Catholic Sibylle could not divorce her husband as Adele had wished. Illnesses, travel (even over the Alps and back), and Sibylle’s enthusiasm for other women resulted in heartbreak, jealousy and despair on Adele’s part and a seven-year separation. Finally, however, after the deaths of Adele’s mother and Sibylle’s husband, the two lovers were reunited for the seven probably happiest years of their lives (1842-49), during which they encouraged each other’s creative and intellectual work and gave each other emotional and practical loyalty and devotion. Sibylle nursed Adele during her last painful illness, mourned her deeply after her death and attempted to have her remaining works published. For years before and even after her own death, Sibylle’s children (especially her sons-in-law) retaliated against her for her independent way of life and her “‘eccentric friendships’” (225). They sued her for most of her inheritance while she lived and auctioned off and dispersed her magnificent collections after her death, thus virtually erasing the memory of her unique contributions as scholar and archaeologist.
Throughout the book Angela Steidele sets the life-stories into the historical context of same-sex love: “They lived on the threshhold of modern sexuality and shared paradigmatically in the evolution of the new lesbian identity, trying it out and suffering through its birth pangs” (93). Their letters and diaries reveal that Adele and Sibylle reflected intensely about their love for women; both were aware that their feelings were outside the social norm. “‘I can’t talk about my feelings in this relationship to ANYONE; for who would understand me? It sometimes feels like a puzzle even to me, to which my understanding lacks the key and only my heart can find the solution,’” Sibylle confides to her diary, writing about her feelings for the young widow she worshipped when she was in Italy before reconciling with Adele (157). Yet these early “lesbians” were also clear about what they wanted and needed, namely “‘the deep conformity of basic feelings, that harmony in all major views, the constant, definite, almost instinctive understanding, and that clear consciousness of being understood; that unconditional devotion and that unshakeable certainty of being comprehended in every act, every word, even, I almost want to say, every unspoken thought’” (142). The fact that Adele and Sibylle shared a bed and wrote of finding happiness in each other’s arms (90) may not have been considered unusual in their day, but does speak to the likelihood of some form of physical, as well as emotional, intimacy, given the intensity of their feelings for each other.
The book’s focus on women’s relationships sheds new light on Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, traditionally considered by literary historians to be chastely infused with unfulfilled love for the much younger male poet, Levin Schücking. Steidele argues that Droste’s intense intimate friendships with women were equally, if not more important, including (at different times) with both Sibylle and Adele; at one point Annette considered forming a writers’ community together with Adele, Schücking and the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, a bold dream which never materialized (184-5). Moreover, Steidele finds, camouflaged tales of same-sex passion are important elements of Droste’s poetic oeuvre (165ff, 183f).
Details from the daily lives and affairs of the women give the book something of the fascination of an early gossip column. If one of the friends were taken ill, as happened all-too often, another came to stay with and care for her – and enjoy the opportunity to nurture affection and intimacy as well as the ailing friend. Annette nursed Sibylle, Sibylle Annette and Adele. With the successful Scottish proto-feminist and woman-loving author Anna Jameson a further complication entered the erotic and romantic sphere of the friends. Jameson, who made the practical choice to remain legally married despite separation from her husband, replicated Adele Schopenhauer’s obsession with the irresistible yet decidedly heterosexual Ottilie von Goethe. And when Ottilie became pregnant four years into her widowhood – “she bore the most famous name in Germany and was in a real jam” – Anna Jameson and Sibylle Mertens forged a scheme to protect her from scandal: the baby would be born secretly in the relative anonymity of Vienna, with Anna in attendance and financial support flowing from Sibylle (120).
An indication of modernizing roles was the invocation of George Sand to refer to a new type of independent woman who appeared to possess androgynous or “masculine” qualities. Sibylle Mertens, with her commanding presence and unconventional appearance, was associated with Sand (200f); and Adele Schopenhauer used Sand as a figure of reference when writing about the French sculptor Félicie de Fauveau (224), who adopted elements of masculine attire and was notorious for her emancipatory views. Steidele characterizes her two main subjects as they deviated from the still prevailing norms of femininity: “Whereas Adele Schopenhauer offended against the feminine ideal as an ugly bluestocking, Sibylle Mertens challenged it with an attitude that would perhaps have identified her in the Weimar Republic as a Kesser Vater or a butch today” (94). The innocent era of socially approved female “romantic friendships” was beginning to show cracks, as women like Jameson, Mertens, Droste and Adele Schopenhauer claimed traditional male social and intellectual prerogatives and furthermore refused to subordinate their love for each other to love for a man. Angela Steidele has made an important contribution to the social history of women by discovering and so engagingly narrating their stories of attraction and longing, betrayal and loyalty, fulfillment and loss.
(English translations of the German quotations from the book are my own.)
20 June 2010
I have to confess: I’m a “Law and Order” junkie. Despite the ever more contrived and sensationalizing plots, I find myself watching again and again. I especially liked the recently ended original version, with Epatha Merkerson as the drily understated Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. But I’ve even become a follower of the “Special Victims Unit” series that deals with sex offenders, in which “an elite squad,” the dazzling Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) – aided by their more rumpled colleagues Fin (Ice-T) and Munch (Richard Belzer) – unravel one improbable, grisly crime after another without losing their own glamour or crisp sex appeal.
Luise and I have often had occasion to grumble about the relative invisibility of lesbians in media and culture, these days, even when compared to gays. (For example, when a popular German talk show featured recent gains by “gays and lesbians,” the panel consisted of seven men and one lesbian; predictably, she barely got a word in edgewise. – “Menschen bei Maischberger,” November 3, 2009). In last Wednesday’s episode of Law and Order SVU, however, entitled “Shocking Discovery,” the gay girls were front and center. I am still puzzling out my mixed reactions to the show. (The comments at an online lesbian chat were similarly divided between those who “liked it” and those who didn’t. Although few reasons were given for either position, there was a consensus view that Mariska Hargitay was “sooo hot.” )
On reflection, it seems to me that the episode, which was first aired last March under the title “P.C.”, was attempting to pack as many popular and sensationalizing images of contemporary lesbian life into the hour as the somewhat thin and contrived plot could sustain. There was something for everybody; whatever your attitude about lesbians, you could come away from the show with your biases confirmed. A real fence-sitter, the show sought to appeal to the broadest possible audience with a comforting mix of “positive” social messages, negative stereotypes and a dash of titillation.
On the plus side, the episode incorporated a respectful treatment of loving relationships and a fleeting mention of real issues such as coming out, gay marriage, and lesbian battering; the crime plot acknowledged the reality of hate crimes against lesbians.
But the group of lesbian activists around which the show centers was presented as so stereotypical (at once angry and naïve) as to give the whole case more than a whiff of the ridiculous. When militant feminist Babs Duffy (played by Kathy Griffin) charges into the squad room with her band of followers and loudly accuses the NYPD of doing nothing against the killing of lesbians, her rhetoric is so over-the-top, her man-hating attack against the captain and Detective Stabler so unpleasant that we immediately resent her – and doubt her cause. Stabler is especially irritated by all the “P.C.” talk that she emits; the only P.C. he adheres to is “probable cause.” Babs’s supporters, the members of her organization “LesBStrong,” are pictured as sheeplike followers, totally dependent on their publicity-seeking leader for emotional and political guidance. Duffy and her organization are further belittled when fliers they have ordered for a demonstration are falsely printed as featuring “Babs Daffy” as speaker. And after making a pass at Det. Olivia Benson, the babbling Babs is finally forced to confess a secret of her own that even more devastatingly undermines her credibility as a leader of lesbians.
Other clichés and stereotypes abound. The lesbian bar “Kitty Cat” (or was it “Kitty Corner”? – shades of my last blog!) is guarded by an aggressive butch lesbian with anger management issues. When she takes a swing at Det. Stabler she is brought in to the precinct to cries of “police brutality!” from Duffy’s outraged troops. Poor Elliot! The earnest, well-meaning police can’t seem to please these hysterical feminists. We later learn that one suspect in the underlying crimes could have been motivated by his anger at “dykes for taking over the neighborhood.” Given the many negative images of the women and their group, some in the audience will doubtless share his feelings.
So while I’m glad that the sisters got some air time of their own, I’m wishing that SVU could have taken a clearer position on crimes against them. When the Special Victims are children, the noble detectives never hold back their disgust at the perpetrators. When the victims are lesbians, it almost seems as if they deserve to suffer.
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