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With Child
Michael O' Pray reviews Cate Elwes' With Child For the BFI's Monthly Film Bulletin, 1988

The inception of video brought with it, before the growth of technical gadgetry, a unique opportunity for artists to explore the domestic, the objects of everyday life, without the large-scale effects and inevitable abstraction of film. For this reason, landscape is difficult to include in video, as the domestic is in film. Video reduces and flattens, deflating any grandiosity, while film magnifies and overwhelms with its scale.

Catherine Elwes' tape successfully portrays such an aspect of daily life - pregnancy but does it with much wit, through a series of dreams or fantasies. There are moments in the tape when the woman (Elwes herself), shown in a tight distorting close-up on her bespectacled eyes, either daydreams or slips into sleep. Toys, her own and ones acquired in anticipation of the birth, are animated using stop-motion techniques to express her anxieties, anticipated pleasures and, more interestingly, murderous desires. Her later tape, There Is a Myth, depicting the child at the breast, also invokes Kleinian notions of the power of aggressive feelings projected on to the infant.

With Child is a highly controlled and precisely paced tape which manages to express a whole set of feelings, thoughts and desires: the nostalgia for the mother's own childhood through old toys and their simple mechanisms (clock, music box, battered piano); the embodying of the future in the animated infant's clothes; fears of the doll/child as attacker, as threat, with flashing lights turning the doll into an uncanny object. Throughout, love and desire and the sexual act which initiated the pregnancy are represented by two cheeky soft toy monkeys, who make love in a scene of wicked humour mixed with tenderness. The conjunction of a monkey's tail and the accidental fall of the sheets mimics wittily the penis' movement in the vagina.

Elwes' camera pans across rooms, now and then showing the outside world of trees, rain, a back garden and hanging washing. Sound is used imaginatively to suggest the observing mother waiting, the domestic and the imagined world - wind, rain, a stifled cry, heart beats, a piano and a segment of classical music to accompany the copulating monkeys. When the toys take on a life of their own, they anticipate the individuality of the infant, as a consciousness over which control and responsibility (desired and feared) is at first necessary but also lost. In the last sequence, the naked mother dresses a doll, as if it were an infant, while at the same time phrases related to childhood and motherhood appear on screen in French with their English translation.

With Child is about the patient preparation for an expected child, in both a physical (clothes replaced on shelves) and mental way. Its refusal of sentimentality does not exclude a range of other feelings - nostalgia, love, humour, fear, anxiety and aggression. Throughout, it expresses a keen visual intelligence, a wit and realism born of working through fantasies not often acknow- ledged in women's visual work on the phenomenon of birth.

Michael O' Pray
BFI Monthly Film Bulletin
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