Sunday, 20 September 2015

Difficult Lessons

In most mainstream films - think of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut - lesbian sex is safe. A straight man’s fantasy, it is done so softly so as to emphasise the feminine nature of the protagonists. So genteel; like afternoon tea amongst the lace and porcelain of Lavinia’s café in Chipping Camden; we’ll have a slice of Victoria Sponge and a pot of Lady Grey, please; oh, the tongs for the sugar appears to be missing. Thank you, you are very kind. Watching such films we forget: women are animals. They too like to rut without thought or consequence.

As viewed from the spectator’s seat sex is a turn-off. While watching Adèle and Emma thrashing away on the bed I placed an elbow on a knee and balanced my chin upon my fingertips - to retain my interest I needed to look clinically at what was going on. This isn’t entertainment. It is an ethological demonstration. All the brutality, the uncomfortableness, the pain, the inconveniences of the sexual acted are on display in these scenes. The endless frustration - we can’t get the position quite right -; the worry of losing the orgasm; there she comes…but the delicate damsel brushes quickly past to disappear into the woods; you sprint to catch her up, only to see her vanish over a hill you are now too tired to climb. Gone. Your only hope: another comes next week. The smells. The slobbering mouth. The sweat. Those grotesque contortions of the partner’s face. The greed as they suck out their pleasure from us. It is a picture by Hogarth. Sex. So ugly. Why ever do we do it?

Naturalism. It is a welcome relief. So refreshing to see what really goes on under the sheets. Although this film is not without its own romanticism. Adèle doesn't enjoy sex with Thomas; her head bumping against the pillows, the headboard, the wall, she is a rubber doll wrestled all over the bed until pinned down to the mattress; she’d be on the floor if he didn't finish so quickly. During this performance her eyes are vacant; not in pleasure but sexual emptiness. Is this a physical reflex, caused by an instinctive attraction to women? Is she not turned on by men? We are not sure. She may be only be wallowing in a dark romantic fairy tale.

Primed by a school friend, who has made a pass at her, Adèle notices a lesbian on the street - it is Emma in her blue hair. That same night she masturbates in bed. Does this make her gay? We are not so sure. Fantasy, after all, is fantasy only. This film disagrees: the brief flirtation, the film argues, has awakened her dormant sexuality, which is confirmed by the dream. We have our doubts. An idea has been implanted inside Adèle's head. And it is this idea that is the dominant influence on her current behaviour; an idea that, when we look at it coolly, is external to herself. We suspect that her instincts are far more fluid and unpredictable; her lack of a previous boyfriend means only that she is waiting for the right one; not that she kept herself in readiness for a girl. That said, and her subsequent career as a schoolteacher may confirm this, Adèle is prone to fixing her ideas; a moment of contingency taking on more meaning than it would for most other teenagers. Nevertheless, there is no reason why the idea must remain a permanent feature.

Taunted by the jibes of her schoolmates Adèle is pushed into going out with Thomas; who proves an insensitive lover; his amateur efforts crystallising those fleeting impressions about her own sexuality. But what if Thomas had been a clitoral virtuoso? No male is given the chance to show such talents; Adèle has already made up her mind that a man will not fulfil her sexual needs: when she masturbated over Emma she achieved an orgasm - a woman it must be.

The connection is not as strong as this film suggests. An image of erotic stimulation is not the same as sexual feeling; an image a piece of fiction different from the real thing. If Adèle were to meet a boy she actually fancies the connection could easily be broken. That Emma is a tomboy is surely significant: it is a sign of Adèle’s uncertain sexuality, which lies, as with many adolescents, on the border between gay and straight.

The film is queered in favour of the belief that homosexuality is innate. As if sex could be so simple. Even this movie confirms this truth; Adèle later sleeping with men; while the ending leaves her sexual future open – it could be with boys or girls. And this ending seems seems right. Adèle’s sexual nature is ambiguous; fluid enough to be influenced by the particular situations she finds herself in. Sexual identity in our adolescent years is far more plastic than is generally believed (it is only a minority who are pre-programmed to be wholly straight or totally gay). At this age it is the local conditions of our existence that will decide the gender of our sexual partners; that brief flirtation a perfect example of such contingency. To be true to the teenage reality this film should have allowed Adèle to sleep with Thomas before she sees Emma; the emphasis shifting away from a preconceived idea - Adèle’s sole attraction is to women - to one of sexual plasticity and unsatisfactory experience. But this film will leave nothing to chance. It had made up its mind before the opening titles appeared on the screen.

Until the flirtation Adèle doesn't even know about the existence of lesbians. Yet once presented with this idea she instinctively feels an attraction to women not men. While this is possible - in many cases probable - it pre-empts Adèle’s own adolescent sexuality, turning a sexual persona that is in flux into a fixed identity. This bias is reflected in the first sex scene between Adèle and Emma. Adèle is completely au fait with the act, although she is a same-sex virgin. Shouldn't she be ignorant and clumsy, as with Thomas? Once again it suggests an instinctive homosexuality, which much of Adèle’s character appears to deny.

It is in Béatrice that we see an accurate representation of adolescent sexuality in the 21st century; a time where sex and the idea of sex is culturally pervasive. Out of the eddies of sex curiosity and sex talk Béatrice finds herself fancying girls; so that in a moment of tenderness she kisses Adèle, with whom she must sense a reciprocal interest. But then on the very next day she rejects Adèle’s advances, saying didn’t expect her to take them seriously. So right!  Feelings are complex and unstable; fluid and fleeting they flow in a myriad of different directions before they lose energy, fade, and disappear into habit and routine. Teenage sexuality is carried along inside a whirlpool of teenage emotion; whose force will, from time to time, pop it to the surface; where it quickly disappears back into the watery vortex. Falling for a girl may only last one afternoon. Indeed, there may be nothing sexual about the feeling at all. It is a terrible, a 20th century mistake to think that love requires sexual intercourse.1

The film prefers the fashionable argument. Adèle’s experience confirming a tendentious reading of a scene from Marivaux - it is where the hero falls in love at first sight - by a schoolteacher who argues that such an act makes it pre-determined; a sign, no doubt, of some underlying natural order. This is too easy. Beauty, by whatever means we define it, is, by itself, not enough of a cause: some relationship has to exist between the two partners to make them mutually attractive.2 Lesbians are on Adèle’s mind. She will thus notice when two women are intimate on the street; her interest intensified by the one lover’s unusual hair colour; an object on which her imagination can fixate. The blue hair, by arousing her curiosity, which is currently stronger than her feelings - they are inchoate and weak - keeps her attention; and so embeds the idea of homosexual love into her psyche. Such an idea could easily become a teenage escape fantasy…into the exotic. What needs to be explained is why, in this case, the idea is turned into the real thing. 

We have our own thoughts. 

Adèle doesn't quite fit into her milieu - her lack of interest in sex sets her apart from her school friends - but this milieu forces her into an action that her sensibility resists: she isn't ready for sexual intercourse. The girl with the blue hair offers an escape from this crude and alienating environment; while both Béatrice and the teacher provide an explanation for her yearning - she loves this strange girl; and this love, because such is the zeitgeist, must be physical; it cannot be spiritual or purely imaginative. 

The director takes a simpler line. For him an idea is the same as the actuality; thus Adèle’s dreams reveal her natural instincts.3  Her destiny is to be gay. This is very French: the concept comes first, and life must accommodate itself to it.4

Adèle is more susceptible to homosexual love than most of her friends.  Nevertheless, we can easily imagine that a different shake of the kaleidoscope would throw up different sexual pattern into her life. It is why the ending of this film is perfect. Adèle is walking away from us. Gorgeously dressed in a blue dress and black tights she has left the gallery; her hopes of a reunion with Emma gone. A man runs out of the door. It is Samir. He and Adèle had met before. Now, in the gallery, as they talk before the portraits of her eroticised body, there is the suggestion…a man calls Samir away. Oh, so he’s gay too. No! He rushes after Adèle, but…he misses her. Running up the wrong street he runs out of the movie. We do not know if he will find her again. The meeting but a moment of transient feeling, or…a sign of burgeoning love. Adèle’s future is open. She could fall for a person from either sex.

The emotional atmosphere in this film is spot on. It has to be if it wants to retain its naturalism. There are, though, moments of wobble. Three years after the break Adèle remains obsessed with Emma. Desperate, she arranges a meeting; it is in a restaurant, and suggests the formality of distant friends. But…lost love gives Adèle extra-sensory perception; and like mouse sniffing the cracks in a wall she finds a weakness; forcing Emma’s to admit that sex with her current partner is poor. Suddenly…Adèle is forcing Emma’s hand up her own mini-skirt; and Emma is responding… It is not to be. The realism holds. Emma no longer loves Adèle. Today her needs are emotional not sexual. Whew! The sighs of relief reverberate around the theatre. This film is sticking with the truth.

The affair was over long before it ended. After the passion, and a period of sexual excess and experimentation, Emma falls for another woman, who represents a new style of life; one more domestic and mature. Already Emma is in love; she is waiting for an excuse to split with Adèle, who kept at a distance - Emma is spending increasing amounts of time with Lise - seeks affection from elsewhere. An affair with a male colleague is the catalyst for what is a brutal rejection.  

Adèle does not understand the intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities of Emma and her friends. The ideas go over her head; while their sensibility is too foreign for her to grasp its implications – for them life is a form of art; material to be played around with until one is satisfied with the result, then afterwards… Once the painting is complete you move on to the next blank canvas. There is also the problem of class. Adèle is a working class girl. Emma and her circle are upper middle class and above; the class differences starkly revealed in a conversation with two PHD students, who are shocked that Adèle wants to be an elementary schoolteacher; which for her is a sign of social betterment. This lack of intellectual ambition highlights certain characteristics about her class which, once the passion is over, could never satisfy an artist like Emma. Adèle’s mental life is too dull to stimulate such a woman, whose mind feeds off ideas and intellectual chit-chat. Emma needs more than a working class wife.

After a party, their first at home together, and one that is overflowing with artists and intellectuals, Emma says that Adèle has done well. She means: you have fitted in. Although, in fact, Adèle has stood out; for she has acted like a demure housewife, cooking and serving all the food. We think of working class women serving as maids in middle class households. Emma, naturally, accepts this subservience with insouciance. There is, however, a problem. Such domesticity is not enough for her; and we wonder if there is not some embarrassment at her lover’s lack of sophistication, which gives Adèle an air of stupidity.5 Emma wants more than bread and bed. She talks about Adèle’s writing - Adèle writes a diary - and suggests she publishes it. But Adèle is not interested in publication. The diary is for her a pleasure only. Like many working class people Adèle’s emotions are a purely private affair; they are not meant to be broadcast outside the immediate family.6 To be a writer? Even the idea does not exist for her. The stories that she does write are for the children at school. They are a task, part of work’s normal routine. They have no meaning. Nor are they to be used to advertise herself - she has a self-effacing personality. Adèle is a teacher and a wife. This is all she wants to be. Adèle is not an artist. She has no interest in ideas. She is an ordinary woman. Too ordinary, and too working class, for Emma, who needs to live someone like herself.7

Emma is growing tired of her young lover, and the lifestyle she represents - few intellectuals could survive long in such a narrow atmosphere.8 When Adèle first meets her Emma has blue hair, dresses like a tomboy, and is going out with an aggressively boyish dyke. Now she is fair, her clothes are smarter and more restrained; they slightly camouflage her sexuality, which appears subdued. It is the influence of Lise. Wild sex and simple domesticity once appealed to Emma, and so she took them up; it was a change of lifestyle that is reflected in her art: Adèle a muse that stimulated a new aesthetic interest: in the erotically charged body; the results of which hang on the gallery’s walls. But that interest has waned, the obsession is over, the style worked out; it is time for a change of muse; it is time for a new lover, for Lise. Ideas and feelings are fused within Emma’s sensibility; though it is the artistic persona, with its odd mix of aesthetic feeling and aesthetic ideas, of aesthetic form, that is the stronger; and this, we see, as she talks about Klimt and Egon Schiele, is drifting into new directions; a sign that her current relationship will soon end. 

Adèle can never be fully human to Emma. An artist treats people as a kind of object.9 Objects are easier to discard…

At the party Lise, who has a passing resemblance to Emma’s mother, is pregnant. Emma is attracted to her condition, and tenderly strokes her bump; encouraging Adèle to do so too. All at once she has become interested in a new form of life, which will, we are sure, become an obsession about a new idea - the mother figure. At the party Emma may already be in love with Lise. At the very least she is curious. Poor Adèle! Curiosity is Emma’s greatest desire. The aesthetic compulsion is too great to resist, and soon there will be a new lover. When the affair has matured we learned Lise treats Emma as a child.

Adèle is feeling through and through. Her feelings, when once released, are intense and extremely powerful; they are a steel rod that fix her to the ground, enabling her to withstand any amount of domestic turbulence. We think of Odysseus strapped to the mast; hearing not sweet songs but the foulest of abuse, the most cruel, the most unjust of recriminations. Feelings such as these will vibrate long after an affair has ended. This is not so with Emma. She is both feeling and idea. This creates a personality that is infinitely more mobile; the emotions fleeting, the ideas fluid and changeable. Lise is Emma’s new way of looking at the world, her presence generating new ideas that will encourage and intensify a new kind of love. Adèle is fresh bread become quickly stale. Emma’s indifference and boredom is the cause of their split, although she cleverly reverses the blame, using Adèle’s infidelity to end the relationship. Sexual jealousy, the loss of control, the guilt - she must know that she is at fault - produces a mad storm of rage which blows Adèle out of the apartment and onto the streets. It is over. For Emma a few insanely unhappy days will follow, and she then will forget her discarded lover. An episode in her life is finished. She will not return to it. It is a completed canvas that hangs in someone else’s house. An artist’s emotional life is strange and disconcerting; very intense it is at the same time quite detached; the artist able to cut off even the closest of relationships at a moment’s notice.10 The effects are devastating. Adèle is left bereft and confused; aware suddenly of an enormous distance that is at the same time incomprehensible - how can feelings be switched off so suddenly? For Emma such rapid disconnections are natural. The relationship has no life; it is a dead thing, and must therefore be thrown away. Harder, for sure, than giving up a favourite painting, but not that much harder; or maybe not even hard at all.

Emma’s class background helps. Her general demeanour temperate, her feelings leavened with ideas and irony, she has been brought up to control her emotions, which she can separate from her beliefs and opinions. A good example is the dinner with Adèle’s parents, where to relieve their anxiety Emma lies, saying that she has a boyfriend. Emma’s parents, at their dinner, are all liberal generosity - everything can be discussed, nothing is forbidden; to be gay is no different than from being a practising Catholic.

There is very little prejudice in this film; although Adèle’s refusal to publicly acknowledge her sexuality points to wider tensions in the society; particularly in her own class, where homosexuality is accepted providing it remains tacit. However, we mustn't assume that this is simply prejudice. Adèle has been brought up to keep her private life private; feelings not so easily controlled in a working class home or on a housing estate. Once out, and Adèle is a good example, strong feelings will cause lasting and serious damage. The middle classes have more luck. With their emotions under control -  their feelings turned into ideas, which can be safely managed - they can be socially gregarious. In Emma’s family to be gay is just one of many innocuous forms of life; while the word itself is nothing more than a descriptive label to which no emotion is attached. In Adèle’s circle the word is irradiated with feeling; the idea that Adèle could be gay causing an erstwhile friend to rage with hate. Although even here the prejudice is not simple: does it arise because of Adèle’s perceived sexuality or because she has suddenly become a strange person through a change of her gender preferences?  After all, one of their group is gay, and he seems popular. Surely the rage has more to do with the communal feelings of a closed community; emotion a highly conservative quality that is more likely to attack than embrace any sudden transformation.

There is something else too. Adèle is on the borderline between two classes; her entry to lesbian life also an education into middle class mores. She reminds us of the hero in A Kind of Loving, and similar novels from the 1950s, where it is the educated working class man who is the most diffident, the most wary of letting themselves go; while the middle class characters, such as Alice in Room at the Top, are free, even decadent spirits. Characters like Adèle and Vic Brown are a socially amphibious species who to protect themselves against the uncertainties of their situation -  dry land or wet? - hold their feelings tightly under control. Although when that control breaks - Joe Lampton at the end of Room at Top; our heroine on meeting Emma - it breaks with cataclysmic force. Nevertheless, much has changed. Today it is identity politics not education that allows Adèle to cross class boundaries. Indeed, education appears more likely to reduce one’s social mobility - those PHD students already come from wealthy families; while Adèle’s education will allow her to reach no higher than teaching in an elementary school.

The relationship ends as destiny dictates. Its failure turns us into a teacher. It is now our turn to look at Marivaux’s words, and explicate them. 

Is it wise to fall for someone we see in the street? To do so is to worship an ideal; it is not love a real person; Emma’s blue hair the first paragraph of a beautiful fairy tale; an escape from narrow life.  But…the escape is meant only to be fleeting; the chapter ends, we put the book in the bag, and enter the market, where we buy carrots, broccoli, potatoes; some tomatoes, and...Will you take a twenty pound note? Do you have rocket? Are those radishes ok? To fall in love at first sight is to create this other person; and it requires great charisma and personal power to ensure she will conform to our first conception; if we are unlucky enough to meet her and start a relationship. Adèle does not have these qualities. Emma does. Emma is also cool enough to get rid of what she dislikes.11 Curiosity was the main attraction. Here is new territory to explore: a pretty girl who is straight, working class, and completely inexperienced; she is a sort of wild child; a guarantee, for sure, of authenticity, of nature. How the artists of the 20th century have hungered after these qualities! For Emma Adèle is no fantasy seen briefly on the street. No. This is research and experiment; where passion is attached to aesthetic investigation; love the means of creating art. Love at first sight? No. No. No. It is to see Klimt for the first time. Marivaux is a dangerous writer…especially for the young and inexperienced. He sets up a universal maxim that is a truth only for a minority. To lose oneself to a stranger is alright for an artist. It perilous for everyone else, who lack the detachment to save themselves. 

The teacher has made a mistake. Literature is not a self-help manual for teenagers; who are liable to take such works too seriously and literally. Adèle is right: to over-analyse these books takes away their imaginative power; the true source of their meaning. It also misinterprets them quite badly. Works of literature are written by minds outside the ordinary; and are thus unrepresentative for many of its readers, who do not share their sensibility. But what if I am ordinary and I believe in these characters? One can easily find oneself in a social scene one does not understand; its alien complexities extremely dangerous to the banal mind. Adèle has been crushed by her affair. Today she walks down a street, alone, and we assume still unhappy. She leaves behind her naked body hanging on the walls of a gallery; this body an inspiration for Emma, whose friends and patron admire the results. Adèle is an object of aesthetic pleasure. For Emma this is the meaning of their relationship. It is what gives it value and permanence. The body disappears. Only the aesthetic object remains.

As she walks away from the gallery does Adèle think such thoughts?  We hope so. By comprehending the inner nature of Emma she may acquire  some of her indifference; at least as to their own relations. It will also help her understand that love is fickle and can fade. We hope she will learn other lessons too, although this is unlikely as she now belongs to the profession she needs to criticise. She must recognise the weakness of schoolteaching; grasp why it is so hazardous for the young – because it makes complicated things too simple; and freezes what should flow. Yes, I do blame the teacher for Adèle’s tragic ecstasy; his exegesis one of the causes of her rise and terrible fall. For although Adèle perceived the limitations of his analysis, his idea has, like some bacteria, seeped into her mind, where it has found a comfortable and too congenial home.

Adèle walks away from us. She is wearing a blue mini-dress; a sign that she inhabits territory that her lover has left long ago. Emma’s life a cycle of change and renewal; Adèle fixing a single experience for all eternity. But blue is no longer the warmest colour. Our heroine is trapped inside a simple idea: that one glance is the same as a lifetime of glances - that like a diamond, which never loses its sparkle, the love object doesn't change. Yet all things change. Few retain their fanatical beliefs forever. As she walks away from the gallery it is possible that Adèle’s feelings are relaxing; her fixed idea breaking up. We hope so. Throw away the blue dress, Adèle! That blue dress. That beautiful straightjacket.


1.  Based on that error we now have a culture where sex is ubiquitous; a very recent invention; for which Freud must take much of the blame.

2.  Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is a demonstration of this idea. It is attraction at first sight. However, the love between Jim Dixon and Christine Callaghan only comes later; it evolves out of their interactions whose evolution is carefully described, so that we feel the moment when love enters the room - it is in the hotel, just as Jim is about to leave Christine for the last time.

3. Is Freud once again peeping out between the sheets?  For an alternative view of adolescent sexuality see Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

4.  See the wonderful scene in Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet, where a student will not accept that Judt has not sat the Khâgne - the usual entrance requirement for the École Normale Supérieure.

5.  Adèle’s problem is acutely described by Arthur Koestler in The Reader’s Dilemma (in The Yogi and the Commissar).

6.  Contrary to much middle class mythology the working classes are very private individuals; this privacy masked by periodically extrovert behaviour at public events – such as Saturday nights at the club, popular festivals and beach holidays. The dinner party… Oh dear. The idea of inviting a friend into one’s home to eat is an odd and incomprehensible idea to someone from this class.

7.  Are the psychologies of male and female artists different? Do the former find it easier to live with partners from a different class? A book needs to be written.

8.  As a man from the working class, I feel that the middle class cut off some of my vital vibration when I am with them. I admit them charming and educated and good people often enough. But they just stop some part of me from working. Some part has to be left out.

Then why don’t I live with my working people? Because their vibration is limited in another direction. They are narrow, but still fairly deep and passionate, whereas the middle class is broad and shallow and passionless. Quite passionless. At the best they substitute affection, which is the great middle-class positive emotion.

But the working class is narrow in outlook, in prejudice, and narrow in intelligence. This again makes a prison. One can belong absolutely to no class. (Autobiographical Sketch by D.H. Lawrence in A Selection from Phoenix, edited by A.A.H. Inglis)

The last sentence is the true artist speaking. Since Lawrence wrote art has changed. It has become an increasingly middle class pursuit; middle class artists no longer running away from their class background but embracing it; Emma a good example. Art itself has become bourgeois. A wild animal - let’s think of a jackal - has been tamed.

9.  The best description of an artist’s world view is Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Written in the first person we see all the characters, and many of the events, drawn as cartoon and caricature. This, truly, is the artist’s vision; whose unreal qualities simultaneously see more and see less than you or I.

10. This may be the import of L’Avventura. Antonioni has created a masterpiece about his own, that is the artist’s, indifference.

11. Contrast with the charismatic but mad Jason in The King of Marvin Gardens.


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