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A Second Nature
Antonia's Line reimagines life, after patriarchy.
Alan A. Stone
"I am a feminist, both by temperament and
intellect, and my films are shaped by my outlook on life." Those are the words
of Dutch film-maker Marleen Gorris, who wrote and directed Antonia's Line,
winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Gorris's "outlook on life" as a radical lesbian feminist has gotten more
attention from the major media than her astonishingly beautiful film. It is
now well chronicled that she began her film-making career as a writer who
took a screenplay to Belgian experimental director Chantal Ackerman and tried
to convince her to make it into a movie. Ackerman in turn challenged Gorris
to live her feminist politics by filming her own screenplays (and encouraged
her by confiding that "directing isn't that difficult"). Rising to the challenge,
Gorris made two feminist manifestos.
The screenplay Gorris had offered Ackerman became A Question of Silence
(1982). Three women who are strangers to each other go berserk and kill the
male proprietor of a dress shop whose chauvinistic behavior in stopping one
of them for shoplifting unleashes their repressed rage. Put on trial, their
lawyer argues that they were not responsible, but instead victims reacting
to centuries of humiliation and physical violation that have scarred the collective
unconscious of every woman.
This parable of justified rage put Gorris in the forefront of radical feminism,
a position she consolidated with Broken Mirrors (1984), a savage depiction
of male brutality to women which combined scenes from a brothel and from the
cellar of a serial killer, who is photographing a female victim as she starves
to death. Together, these man-hating jeremiads earned Gorris a reputation
as "the apotheosis of angry militant Eurofeminism."
For nearly a decade, that reputation appeared to have been a marginalizing
curse to the promising film-maker. She disappeared into the Eurofeminist underground;
and although she continued to work, her career as a creative writer-director
But Gorris, though missing, was far from dead; she had completed the screenplay
for Antonia's Line in 1988 and spent years trying to get backing to
launch the project. Finally, with help from Hans de Weers, she put together
a consortium of investors, and teamed up with British producer Judy Counihan.
Counihan had started in television commercials, moved to the aptly named Red
Hot Organization in New York where she made commercials for Bill Clinton's
1992 presidential campaign, and then jumped into cinema as co-producer of
Before the Rain, a critically-acclaimed Macedonian British film that
earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The very next year, with
Counihan on board, Antonia's Line captured the Oscar, and a piece of
the lucrative American market coveted by European investors. Instead of rejoicing
over this brilliant film and its deserved success, both Gorris and Counihan
seem to be slightly worried that their radical feminist constituency will
feel they have sold out. In a striking demonstration of feminist solidarity,
only women were allowed to attend the premiere of Antonia's Line at
the Cannes Film Festival. Gorris's public statements about the film have,
in contrast, disingenuously tried to draw a line between her art and her politics:
"I don't put political or moral lessons in my films." Nothing could be further
from the truth; indeed the writer-director's "lessons" -- an affirmative moral
vision rooted in her feminism -- help make Antonia's Line a memorable
film with intellectual depth as well as shimmer and sparkle. Counihan concedes
that the two early Gorris films were uncompromising, much harder, and more
didactic. They deeply influenced her own career and she admits, "People who
know Marleen's work will be surprised at the change. Women are allowed to
change. This is a mellower side to Marleen." But, addressing feminist critics
with the deft touch of a well-trained spin doctor, she adds: "It's in no way
a compromise of her politics. It's feminism for the '90s."
All this spin is unlikely to mollify radical
feminists who considered Gorris one of their own. Her early films were guerrilla
warfare: Men were the enemy and women took no prisoners. But Antonia's
Line imagines a truce in the gender war. Drafted if not dictated by women,
the terms of the truce grow from a simple premise: that women must create
their own identity, that they are not to be defined "through their roles as
wife, mother, or daughter."
Antonia's Line is about the new world created by that truce, and
the life, family, and community women will have in that world. After patriarchy
is dethroned and the war is over, how will women build families? How will
they live, and how will they die? Gorris's answer presumes that patriarchy
has been the main obstacle to human freedom, dignity, and fun, and that men
can only be accepted into this new world if they are willing to accept the
matriarchal terms of the truce.
Gorris calls her film "a fairy tale": an ironic comment on the possibility
of women actually achieving such independence, but an accurate description
of the aesthetic method of this imaginative and touching film. Transcending
the bleak anger of her earlier films of feminist rage, Gorris has discovered
in herself a sense of humor and used it to explore the whole gamut of human
emotion. We commonly think of emotions as a customary array of reactions to
our lived experience. Since William James, philosopher-scientists have encouraged
this limiting view by tying emotions to basic physiological responses; and
Freud's critics scoffed at his elaborate theory of repressed emotions by arguing
that, when it comes to emotions, you either have them or you don't. This simplistic
on-off switch picture does not begin to explain the complex range of feelings
in human experience. Every introspective human being knows that emotions come
in unlikely mixtures and surprising oppositions: that feelings of depression
often lurk behind our anger, that tears unexpectedly accompany laughter. Emotion
is the music of life, and, in its portrayals and provocations, Antonia's
Line is a marvelous demonstration of the subtlety, complexity, and surprise
of unfamiliar emotions. Any film can play on an audience's emotions, that
is Hollywood's specialty; only a great film like Antonia's Line reveals
a new way to live, with its new and different music.
Gorris's film makes use of a narrator who introduces
and tells a small part of her story. This device puts emotional distance between
the viewer and the raw experience portrayed in the film, and Gorris works
that distance to marvelous effect. The narrator, whom we will eventually discover
is Antonia's great-granddaughter, matter-of-factly informs us that Antonia
(Willeke Van Ammelrooy), now an aging great-grandmother, knows even before
she gets out of bed that this will be the last day of her life. There will
be no explanation of how this knowledge came to her, why or how she will die.
But her death is presented to us as neither a frightening premonition of the
end nor an act of suicide, but as a kind of human magic that strips death
of its awesome power over us. This simple, nuanced, and profound beginning
sets the stage for an adult fairy tale about a world in which people live
and die, and women have mysterious powers. Antonia will call her loved ones
to her side; and most important of all, her little great-granddaughter who
is fascinated by death is to be given this precious opportunity to watch.
Strange to say this film is as much about death as it is about life. But we
are initially kept at a safe distance from death because Gorris wants us to
recognize Antonia's philosophical acceptance and not just bathe in empathy.
Antonia, weighed down but still handsome and unbowed by age, starts her
last day with familiar morning routines: opening the shutters, feeding the
goat. Then, as she looks out the kitchen window, her memory flashes back to
the end of World War II; Antonia and her teenage daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans)
are returning to the Dutch village where Antonia was born, to claim the farm
she has inherited. They enter the bedroom of her supposedly dead mother who,
surprisingly, is still alive and still cursing her unfaithful "shit bag" of
a husband who died 30 years earlier. The mother, like others in this film,
is a creature out of Breughl. Bouncing on her deathbed, she refuses to die
quietly. Her final words when she recognizes Antonia are, "Late as usual."
Antonia and her daughter are more curious and amused than sad.
Gorris scripted and directed the mother's death scene for laughs with the
priest as the straight man. At the church service, the dead mother suddenly
sits up in her coffin and surreally bursts into "My Blue Heaven." The director's
camera makes us realize that this scene takes place only in the mind's eye
of Danielle, whose creative fantasies add a seeming note of magic realism
to the film. In keeping with the mood and the affirmative feminine principle
of the film, Danielle sees the tortured Christ on the cross -- the male principle
-- turn his head and smile benevolently on the proceedings.
Running through Antonia's Line is a conflict between these two principles.
According to the male principle -- which rejects life as a source of unending
misery, with death the only escape -- man can suffer all his life because
he is preoccupied with death and the meaning of life; according to the life-affirming
female principle, a child can thrive on her curiosity about death and a woman
can enjoy living because she does not expect life to reveal its meaning. Gorris
conveys these ideas not through an argument, but in the development of the
characters: Antonia, who founds the new line of women, and accepts the cycle
of life and death because she accepts nature in all its plenitude; Crooked
Finger (Mil Seghers), a recluse with a house full of books and a mind crammed
with learning, all apparently poisoned by melancholy. Antonia is the earth-mother
who absorbs and dispenses the not-so-simple wisdom of nature as she works
her farm until she dies. Crooked Finger is a tortured Schopenhauerian character
who, having absorbed all the scientific male wisdom of western civilization,
is finally driven to suicide. Antonia and Crooked Finger have no biographical
past to ground them for us. They cannot be understood in "realistic" psychological
terms but that mystery of their past adds to rather than detracts from their
development as characters.
Gorris's film is Mozartian in its beauty --
so artfully made that we are carried along by the surprising flow of the narrative
without being forced to recognize the intellectual daring and craft of the
film-maker. No film in recent memory is at once so rich in ideas and so intellectually
Antonia's daughter Danielle is first seen as a dark-haired, nondescript teenager
in a shapeless dress. Her wish-fulfilling imagination prefigures her talent.
She will be an artist; and Antonia unpossessively sends her off to art school:
Bonds between women are important to Gorris but they do not constitute identity.
Danielle returns an artist but still unfulfilled. She wants a child, though
like her mother Antonia she has no use for a husband. Antonia who can solve
any natural problem takes her to the city, and by a happy mistake, to a home
for unwed mothers. At the home they meet Letta, hugely pregnant, a vivacious
woman who does not necessarily like getting pregnant or having children, but
unabashedly loves being pregnant and giving birth. She is defined not by her
role of wife or mother but by the fructified state of pregnancy. Delighted
to help Antonia and Danielle fulfill their mission, she introduces Danielle
to one of her male relatives.
Danielle is a demanding lover, wanting more not because of sexual passion
but because of her passionate wish to be impregnated. When the willing but
finally exhausted young man falls asleep, we see Danielle standing on her
head as she helps the sperm on its way. She is fully naked and the camera
reveals for the first time that she is a woman with a beautiful body. Back
in her shapeless dress she gaily runs from the hotel to join her mother and
Letta who have been waiting patiently during the romantic interlude. The women
are conspiratorial in their mischievous joy -- the man has been used in this
affair, though without mean spirit. We can believe he feels like Don Juan,
not one of his victims. Having stood her naked actress and the conventional
sexual escapade on their heads, Gorris has presented first death and now sex
in imaginative ways that surprise and delight her audience; and she does it
with dazzling ingenuity, thumbing her nose at the traditional sacred patriarchal
role of father and the institutions that legitimate and illegitimate children.
Danielle gives birth to a girl, Therese, who is soon revealed to be an intellectual
prodigy. Her school teacher Lara shows up to discuss this prodigy's education.
Danielle takes one look at Lara -- long-haired, blond, and as unglamorous
as Danielle -- and in her mind's eye sees, as we do, Botticelli's Venus on
the half-shell; it is love at first sight. Gorris presents their love with
impeccable taste and judgment, neither in-your-face nor apologetic. The women
are neither carefully platonic nor swooning over each other: simply a young
couple "naturally" falling in love with each other. Gorris knows that we cannot
hold a mirror up to "nature," that "nature" is itself a human invention; but
Antonia's Line is her fairy tale and this scene, and indeed the entire
film, comes close to a convincing realization of naturalness. There is a feminist,
perhaps lesbian agenda in this portrayal of love at first sight. But Gorris's
art, with its reassuring good humor, transforms her political concerns into
a moral project, lifting the film and her audience to a new acceptance and
understanding of difference.
Though Crooked Finger embodies the male principle, he is not the only man
in this film. Some are left over from the gender wars of Broken Mirrors,
and there is one unforgiving example of patriarchy: a father matched by two
brutal sons, a silenced wife, and a half-wit daughter DeeDee. DeeDee is treated
like an animal by the men in her family and raped by her older brother. Antonia's
daughter, who has gone to their farm to fetch a saw, catches the brother Pitte
(Filip Peeters) in the act. As Pitte backs away from his ravaged sister's
hindquarters, Danielle impulsively picks up and throws a pitchfork, skewering
him just where you might expect. Pitte will disappear from the village wounded,
though (unfortunately) not permanently incapacitated, with his hatred of women
as intact as his evil nature. Danielle takes the rape victim back to Antonia's
farmhouse where she is installed in a growing community. Antonia has already
saved the village idiot Loony Lips (Jan Steen) from the torment of nasty little
boys; and he, another creature out of Breughl, has followed her faithfully
thereafter. He and DeeDee ("like finds like") become a devoted couple. Antonia's
dinner table further expands as the village priest, whose joy for life cannot
be contained within a clerical collar, moves in, soon to be joined by Letta
of the pregnancy project. Recruited by Letta, the defrocked priest finally
has a true calling -- producing his own 12 apostles. In this allegory about
the twisting authority of culture versus the liberating power of nature, Gorris
makes us value the eccentrics even as she spurns the patriarchal institutions
that caused their eccentricities.
Antonia, the great matriarch, presides over her happy commune enjoying the
rhythms of the seasons and majestically sowing her seeds. This handsome woman
is not without male suitors, notably Bas (Jan Decleir), a widower with a string
of obedient sons who follow him like ducklings after a duck. In yet another
ingenious reversal of "gender politics," Bas -- a good and simple man -- proposes
to Antonia, explaining that his sons need a mother. Antonia, without cruelty
but with that look of mischief in her eye we have come to recognize, tells
him that she has no need for his sons. But if Antonia does not need a man,
Bas seems to need Antonia. So farmer Bas and his obedient sons loyally attend
Antonia, helping with the chores, until she finally tires of her self-imposed
chastity. Prepared to offer Bas everything except her hand, she dictates the
terms of their new relationship: They are too old to impose their relationship
on their families, and at their age once a week will be sufficient (though
they agree to negotiate should a need for greater frequency arise). Bas builds
a little hut in the countryside and in a charming scene, carries Antonia over
Soon love-making breaks out all over: Danielle and the school teacher sacredly
beautiful in their female nakedness; the buxom, middle-aged Antonia, cavorting
in the arms of her faithful Bas; DeeDee and Loony Lips, an incongruous copulating
pair, she a butterball and he a string bean stretched out over her; and Letta
riding her defrocked priest who chortles with a joy he never felt in the pulpit.
The ardor of these couples grows until they are all making so much noise that
the young prodigy, Danielle's daughter Therese, cannot sleep.
Into this Eden of innocent women and natural
joy comes the serpent Pitte, a Satan who returns after many years to rape
Therese, revenging himself on the child of Danielle. While DeeDee consoles
the young prodigy, Antonia takes up a rifle and tracks Pitte down in a bar.
Unable to bring herself to kill him, she puts her curse on him; and in that
awesome moment, one has no doubt that Antonia's curse has the awful woman's
power the misogynist Dominican fathers feared when they wrote the Maleus
Malefecarum. Pitte is cruelly beaten by the other young men who discover
what he has done and kicked spectacularly in the groin. When he staggers home
looking for help he is drowned by his own brother who hates him and wants
to inherit the farm.
The narrator tells us that the proverb is not true: Time does not heal all
things. The precious child prodigy Therese has been forever scarred by the
rape. In this Eden, rape is the primal sin, hardening the heart against love.
Therese has been tutored by Crooked Finger who, despite his bitterness,
loves this girl and has shared his learning with her. She loves him -- the
way girls have always loved a father who teaches them -- in a relationship
that Gorris allows to undercut the primary bonds between women that form the
structure of Antonia's Line. Indeed, she is incapable of loving anyone
but him. Letta's oldest son Simon has worshipped her from childhood; and she
finally becomes pregnant by him. Although she does not love Simon, she decides
to have the baby -- a girl, of course -- the great-granddaughter of Antonia
whose gift is to be fascinated with death. But Therese has no maternal love
for her child. She hands the newborn Sarah to her husband and turns back to
her mathematics book. Simon the father will mother Antonia's great-granddaughter.
As new life comes, so comes death, sudden, surprising, but matter-of-fact
and even humorous as we have come to expect. But then Crooked Finger hangs
himself and it is quite a different matter. Gorris leaves us no emotional
distance; Therese is heartbroken, and as Crooked Finger's body is cut down,
little Sarah, peering through the window, takes in the whole catastrophe,
studying death and these reactions to it.
One day as Antonia and Bas, now showing their age, get up from the dinner
table to dance, we see that little Sarah has Danielle's gift. She imagines
in her mind's eye that the dead have returned to life, and that Antonia and
Bas are as young as when they first met. Antonia has already told us that
life is the only dance we dance, but Gorris reassures us that Antonia's line
will go on dancing in her granddaughter's creative mind.
The earth mother, the painter, the intellectual prodigy, and the little
student of death who tells the story: Each has created a human identity. And
that creativity is the hope of Antonia's Line. However it comes out
for them, Gorris herself has done what only a great film artist can do: created
another world, with possibilities we might otherwise have found inconceivable,
and a naturalness we might otherwise have found unimaginable.