Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Masochism in/and Italian Diva Films
Valeria Festinese

Last modified: 2010-03-01


In this paper I will discuss Diva Films in relation to masochism and the masochistic aesthetics, analyzing visual style and narrative structure, besides spectator’s pleasure. My subject is based on Gaylyn Studlar’s model exposed in In the Realm of Pleasure, a counter-theory to previous psychoanalytic feminist film theory based on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. She bases her theory on the films made by Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich in the 1930’s. She analyzes multiple levels of textual operation (style, plot, characters) to show how these films are informed by specific pleasures. In contrast to previous feminist positions, her approach is based on the psychoanalytic model derived from Gilles Deleuze's Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty.

Deleuze considers masochism to be a phenomenology of experience that reaches far beyond the limited definition of sexual perversion. So the masochistic aesthetic extends beyond the clinical realm into the arena of language, artistic form, narrativity and production of textual pleasure. Deleuze challenges Freud's Oedipal, father-centered construction of masochism and focuses on pre-Oedipal life, especially the oral stage, when the mother's role is central. The mother is active and powerful, she is a loving but also threatening figure. The female child can assume the same position as the male in relation to the oral mother. As the child matures, the pre-Oedipal perception of the mother as a strong, nurturing figure continues to be a crucial influence, in spite of the increasing importance of the father. Deleuze regards the woman in the male's masochistic fantasy as the loving inflictor of punishment. The masochistic agreement reverses the normal patriarchal contract in which the woman is the submissive object. Such a scenario subverts the gender-defined, socially assigned position of power/powerlessness, master/slave: in masochism any subject can occupy different positions and roles.

I will argue that such a model of masochistic aesthetics helps us to illustrate how Diva films work in relation to the spectator's experience and pleasure while also accounting for the visual style of the genre (full of objects, curtains, mirrors, plants, etc), its non-linear plot and the construction of the characters. In my discussion I will consider films with Pina Menichelli, Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini like Fiore di male (1915), Tigre reale (1916), Rapsodia Satanica (1917).

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