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Penthesilea

Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen
1974
90 mins Colour 16 mm

Penthesilea

Penthesilea is a film in five sections, with each section in one continuous take, i.e. two reels added together with an 'invisible' junction.

Section 1
A mime of Kleist's "Penthesilea" shot with a static camera at a fixed distance. (Heinrich von Kleist, Prussian writer and poet, committed suicide in 1811, aged 34, together with his friend Lady Henrietta Vogel).

Section 2
Peter Wollen speaks/reads the words of the directors. As his speech develops, the camera gradually disengages itself from the speaker and weaves a complex web around him / independent of him. At times, the camera picks up cue cards from which the speech was read, but sometimes the text on the cards is not identical to the spoken text.

Section 3
A complex arrangement of images of paintings, sculptures, bas-reliefs, comic strips etc. on the theme of the Amazons. The transitions are effected by animated masks and wipes. The sound track presents the 'birth' of a new form of language.

Section 4
An early silent film called 'What 80 Million Women Want' [about womens suffrage], superimposed on a medium close-up - in colour - of a woman's face. The woman speaks the words of the feminist Jessie Ashley (died 1919). At various points the sound track is taken over by the sound of machinery and women's voices talking indistinctly.

Section 5
The screen-image contains four video images. Each video image presents one of the four preceding sections. A fifth tape had been added and sometimes displaces one of the other video tapes. In the fifth tape, the camera circles around the stage-performance of the mime and adds images of the Penthesilea actress taking off her make-up and addressing the camera. The film-image occasionally zooms in on the one of the four video images, and the sound track contains similar zooms-in on accompanying sound tracks of the first four sections.

Birmingham Arts News, March 1978

Working on Penthesilea - excerpt from an interview with Laura Mulvey

The starting-off point was always Kleist's play Penthesilea ... The play interested us for various reasons. For one thing, Peter had just found the Ernest Jones'* essay on dying together which is about Kleist's extraordinary life, or rather death. Also I was interested at that time in male phantasies of women, coming out of my work on fetishism and Allen Jones. So it was the psychoanalytical aspects of the story which appealed to us first of all. Also we wanted to make a film about a story, rather than a film of a story, so it was an advantage that this was a story that had been told many times and had been changed radically by Kleist so that its other meaning came out ... i.e., the fact that the woman killed the man rather than the man killing the woman; this changed the psychological implications of the story. Then obviously the whole concept of the Amazons is interesting from the point of view of women now. Women being so mythless; lacking myths of their own, looking to the Amazons as one of the few myths of strong women that actually exist. We wanted to hold onto that and go into it in more detail, trying to find out whether it was a feminist myth or whether it was a kind of male phantasy myth. All that appealed to us and we started reading up on it, looking into work that had been done ... The interesting thing about the Amazons for women is that they appear as a society of women outside of male society. But also as women in struggle, they carry spears and fight and ride horses, and have very phallic connotations. They appear like the idealised image a sexist society has of men/women - of phallic women. At the same time, the whole mystique Kleist goes into, of dying together, is very much a return to the idea of the strong woman as the mother. It has two sides to it, both that of the phallic woman and that of the mother.
Screen, p 121, Autumn 1974

*English psychoanalyst and translator of Freud

Direction, Production, Script: Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen
Camera & Lighting: Louis Castelli
Sound & Portapak: Larry Synder
Titles and Animation: Don Lembeck

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