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Rakhee Balaram Click here to Print this Page
Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen

Released in the same period as Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman, Agnès Varda's L'Une Chante et l'autre pas and Coline Serreau's documentary Mais qu'est-ce qu'elles veulent, depicting women's lives under the MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes) in France, Mulvey and Wollen's timely Riddles of the Sphinx focuses on the same themes, of women's lives and personal choice. The film is composed of seven sections with one long central section of thirteen pans that attempts to reverse the Oedipal myth using the history of mother, Louise, and her daughter, Anna. The opening sequence of flipping pages is followed by Laura's on-camera discussion of the Sphinx, which she is shown to be tape recording. Set against Mike Ratledge's hypnotic music, footage of the Egyptian Sphinx and pyramid are then shown at various angles including a series of close-ups of the Sphinx in grainy detail, reminiscent of the photographs in Antonioni's Blow Up (1967) in which the dark and light values take on the characteristics of the unconscious to be deciphered or left ambiguous. The central core of the film is anchored by the innovative 360° pans that tell the story of Louise and Anna (or mother and child). The circular pan as a formal device serves to emphasize the dyadic structure of mother and child and the implications of their (too-tight) bond. Here, as elsewhere in Mulvey and Wollen's films, the technological and conceptual uphold actual possibilities for social change through a subdued and clever use of emotional content. This aspect is played out critically when excerpts of the artist Mary Kelly's installation Post Partum Document, a systematic account of the pain and intense introspection into a mother-son dyadic relationship, are seen being 'edited' by Louise's estranged husband, Chris, when she is asked to visit him at work. This sequence cannily acts as a counterpoint to the film's panning structure by revealing Chris as the symbol of patriarchy, and therefore an object of resistance, for his editing of woman's voice and experience. Thus the directors quietly challenge and reinstate their own moral and filmmaking concerns.

The mobility of woman suggested by Louise's departure from the home and the restrictions of duty and childcare is rendered physically in the sequence "Acrobats" (filmed with colour filters and an optical printer) and psychically in the final one-take 'puzzle ending' where two drops of mercury are drawn together at the center of a maze. The 'resolution,' however, comes earlier in the last pan of the central section when Louise narrates a story she once read about a box containing the Sphinx. She understands the Sphinx's words 'capital' 'delay' 'body' to embody the voice of women ('the voice-over- the voice apart' as Laura decrees at the start) that is shut out of patriarchal society. This is also witnessed in Laura's listening to her rewound and replayed voice from sequence two in sequence six. Liberty is examined and reclaimed at the end of the film, thus joining the beginning and the end of the film in a loose narrative structure. These aspects of women's experience (marginal, shut-out and cut-off) reflect their social status although this relationship could be further perceived as conflating women with the unconscious (Freud's 'dark continent'). However, the film firmly seeks to free women precisely of these representations and misconceptions ("anatomy is no longer destiny") through the Sphinx's reclaimed voice, which suggests conscious action to counter marginalization as exemplified in the search for Union and day-care solutions by the women at Louise's workplace.

Still from Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)
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