In 1975, when Chantal Akerman came out with Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, some viewers were perplexed. Why was the filmmaker devoting so much time to the protagonist cleaning the kitchen or peeling potatoes, when there is more sensational stuff to show – like the fact that she’s a sex worker, or that she kills someone? In an interview with Camera Obscura, Akerman said, “I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher… It’s because [cooking and cleaning] are women’s gestures that they count for so little.”
I was reminded of this quote while watching the veteran Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein’s provocatively titled Devil Between the Legs, at the International Film Festival of India. The story revolves around a couple, Beatriz (Sylvia Pasquel) and her insanely jealous husband (Alejandro Suárez; his character stays unnamed), who suspects that she sleeps around. In an early scene, he wakes up, goes to her bedroom, lifts up her nightdress and clicks a picture of her bare bottom. He looks around the room and finds a bra. He stuffs it into his underwear, and after a few seconds, mumbles that it’s “not even worth for that”.
Why does he hold her in such contempt? Consider Beatriz’s first big scene, where she is applying makeup – really elaborate makeup. She is going to a tango class (though she will tell her husband, later, that she went to the gym and had a massage for her bursitis). Her husband is right. She really is sleeping around. The husband’s mistress – to whom he gives a pair of red panties – tells him, “Thank god you have such a lusty woman.” In later scenes, we will see Beatriz use a dildo. Elsewhere, she will straddle her husband and have sex.
None of this – the adultery, the lust, the bare-bottom photography, the red panties, the kinkiness, the jealousy – should seem “odd”. We are, after all, in an era where cinema can show us anything. The surprise comes from the fact that Beatriz and her husband are really old. In an echo of Akerman’s statement, Ripstein, who is 76, seems to be asking why there is a “hierarchy of images” when it comes to sex? Why does it always have to be young flesh?” If Akerman said that peeling potatoes was in no way “inferior” to a kiss or a car crash in terms of the importance of the event, Ripstein seems to say that jealousy, attraction and repulsion are not exclusive domains of youth.
He told Variety, “Sexuality is usually presented via young people and beautiful bodies. We thought, at our age, that it was fundamental to talk about passionate madness which goes beyond physical strength.” The most startling aspect of Devil Between the Legs is how unapologetic Beatriz is about her sexuality. Towards the end, she walks into a seedy hotel. The manager thinks he knows her type. He makes up a narrative in his head: Her husband has been having an affair in this very hotel, and she found out, and now she wants to kill herself in the same room he has been sleeping around in and make a dramatic statement (and a dramatic exit).
But Beatriz tells him, in the most matter-of-fact manner: “I came to fuck.” The manager – a man well below her social class – is amazed. He says, “You are a mother, maybe a grandmother.” Beatriz says, “Yes, I am old. Old and horny.” What she says feels a bit like she’s explaining herself, but you see why she needs to say these words. Because she needs to make others understand, and they keep refusing to. She says, “I did it because I felt like it. It is my nature. I did it because I have an urge.” It reminded me of that old statement that when a man sleeps around, he’s a stud, but a woman who sleeps around is a slut.
Beatriz isn’t just a woman. She’s an old woman, whose flesh has folded into deep wrinkles. She’s supposed to be long past these desires. Even the domestic help, a young woman named Dinorah, judges Beatriz. She’s bought into the patriarchal notion that if the old man is jealous of his wife, it’s because he loves her. (Ripstein calls the couple “intimate enemies… Relationships of crazy love are also ones of crazy hate.”) Dinorah is, thus, on the old man’s side. Beatriz’s tango partner – a married, middle-aged man – judges her, too. During a break, when Beatriz tells him some of the things her husband thinks, he accuses her of coming on to him. He says she looks “like a wife” but speaks like a whore.
Perhaps the shock, for him as for us, comes from the fact that he doesn’t know Beatriz from earlier. Devil Between the Legs gives us a few lines of dialogue about how Beatriz and her husband met, and how their early life was – but we never see the younger Beatriz. The director doesn’t seem to want to slowly “acclimatise” us to this woman’s desires – like in, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973), which depicted the breakdown of the relationship between a middle-aged couple, Marianne and Johann, over a decade. (Bergman based the screenplay on his own relationships, including the one he had with Liv Ullmann, who plays Marianne.)
At one point, Marianne says, “I was hedged in by all the griping and endless demands! Goddamn you! Was it so strange that I used sex for leverage? I was outnumbered, having to fight you, both sets of parents and society! When I think about what I endured, I could scream! I tell you this: never again! You sit there whining about conspiracies. Well, it serves you right! I hope you’ll have it rammed down your throat that you’re a useless parasite.” We never get such an “explanation” about Beatriz, which is why she is such a subversive character. She’s essentially saying, “I’m very old, and I have a very strong sex drive. Deal with it.”
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2019 13:37:14 IST