In the ad art for Radha Bharadwaj's Closet Land, a woman's face rises in
the sky over lines of barbed wire, broken in the center where barbs are
transforming into birds and taking flight. Our first view of Outremer,
directed by Brigitte Rouan, opens out into bluest void, then lowers to a
barbed-wire barrier. Both films are about grounded souls who struggle,
sometimes to the death, to take wing into promise and possibility, and
the sexual and real-world politics that hook and hold them down. Closet
Land's agony plays out in dark, constricted spaces where a woman's
imagination acts as metteur-en-scene and casting director.Though the
sunny sea- and landscapes of Outremer's Algeria seem large enough to
accommodate any aspiration, the film's trio of French sisters are driven
inexorably by sex and politics into tragic culs-de-sac. Closet drama
or life abroad - in either venue, the territory under siege is a woman's
body and soul.|
Bharadwaj's highly stylized and Rouan's apparently artless reports from the front culminate in epiphanies, visions of heroines so altered by barbed experience that, in the end, they assume the size and stature of goddesses. A casualty of the old critical in-and-out, Closet Land has suffered the kind of skin-deep read so prevalent among film reviewers driven primarily by deadlines and the contemporary demand for hip distanciation (sic). Entertainment Weekly's box score of critical grades for Bharadwaj's smart, passionate directorial debut averaged out at D, lower even than that earned by the brain-dead thriller Sleeping with the Enemy.
Labeled a politically correct, hohum-nothing-new take on an artist's crise de conscience when she is arrested and tortured by the sociopathic agent of a totalitarian state, Closet Land - though presented by Ron Howard's Imagine company and distributed by Universal - swiftly sank into last-week's-movie limbo. That's our loss. Closet Land's got room for far more than Amnesty International polemics; the film works most potently as a woman's redemptive fantasy, a harrowing Alice in Wonderland descent into the darkness behind the brain to discover "the soul's true face". An abused child may create multiple personalities to defend against soul-deep violation and the backlash of guilt it generates, echoing humankind's begetting of god(s) to trigger, punish and forgive the first fall, whatever mythic form it takes. Closet Land's Everywoman (Madeleine Stowe) is both molested child and fallen Eve. In that teeming theater in the round, the human mind ("the ultimate closet" as Bharadwaj calls it), Stowe projects a primal drama - with a cast of two - out of the original sin she has taken on her own shoulders. At the film's outset, Stowe, kin to Kafka's Joseph K., finds herself at existential ground zero: in the dark, arrested without cause, a female "thing" handled by a brute who communicates in muddy gutturals. When the suspected subversive's blindfold is removed, white light flares momentarily then fades to halo Alan Rickman's cultivated, almost ascetic features. Out of her imagination's rich store, Stowe has created a man of many parts, an actor who will play both satan and saviour to her sinner. Rickman receives her as the "officer-in-charge", but he wears many masks - Grand Inquisitor, fellow victim, father, lover, therapist, the rapist - before he baptizes Stowe into authentic selfhood. It shouldn't be surprising that Stowe is midwifed into knowledge and empowerment by a hands-on interrogator, a man wholly focused on every nuance of her physical and emotional life. Her only father-figure molested her, and Rickman's Big Brother omniscience stands in stark contrast with the blind or indifferent mother who "never noticed" what a Sunday suitor did to her little girl in the closet, or even how that child reconstituted herself after that first breaking and entering. At first, like some magical guide into the dark woods of fairy tale, or a scrupulous psychiatrist, Rickman wonders if the whole venture might not be a mistake, and offers to let her go. He's cat-and-mousing her, of course, but it's also somehow a necessary ritual, like inviting the vampire in before he can bite you. His lovely guest pens stories for kids, and it's her latest - titled "Closet Land" - which threatens to subvert the repressive emotional regime that has allowed her to convert a child's traumatic fact into chaste fictions, at the cost of anything like the normal adult sexuality. Even as a character in search of an "official apology", Stowe is author over all and must consent to take the first step.
Production designer Eiko Ishioka (Broadway's Madame Butterfly and the Paul Schrader adventure film Mishima) makes the torture chamber/womb that is Closet Land's sole, set a monochromatic mixture of decors: classical marble pillars, futuristic black-slab desk/operating table, a primitive chair barely held together by frayed leather bindings, and deep, floor-level drawers that contain nasty tools and information. Like memory, this hard place is a grab-bag of styles, a black-gray-white setting in which a scarlet smear of lipstick or the sullen red of a fired-up barbecue grill signals the reenactment of a child's rape. Or of that wound - every Eve's loss of innocence - that may or may not become the raw material for full-fledged sexuality, character, even art. Stowe's wound is like Hester Prynne's scarlet letter, an advertisement of gender-based existential guilt. Her old fall permits flying only in the mind, on the green wings of a cat, one of her comforting kiddie-lit animal characters. In the story that has brought her to the attention of The Authorities, a little girl is locked in the darkness of a closet by her mother. Lonely and frightened, the child imagines that the coats and shirts hanging above her are transformed into a friendly menagerie, including the winged cat and a friendly rooster that play with her until her mother returns. In his therapeutic guise, Rickman probes the significance of this core story and its origins: What did your mother not notice? Why was the child locked in the closet? Stowe resists with all her might, insisting her stories are just "cotton fluff". The white magic of her fictions must be preserved. She cannot countenance the eruption of dark forces there, of less-than-sanitized animal life. Flying is only possible if one never looks down. Rickman's gynecological torture - including a crude grope to see if she's menstruating, the application of a red-hot skewer and electrical shocks - forces her to focus on blood and pain "down there", the primary associations that divorce her spirit from her body.
What skeletons in the closet do Stowe's stories keep down? After Rickman strikes the white-nightgowned penitentee unconscious, her nightmare self emerges, fabricated out of a child pornographer's Manichean fantasies: her thick black hair is caught up in garishly beribboned ponytails, her face is a Raggedy Ann mask of smeared lipstick and mascara as applied by a child, and she wears only a black bra and panties. This manmade caricature is Stowe's internalized version of her own arrested sexuality. "Statistics show that women who wear black underwear are closet whores", booms a loudspeaker over the insinuating tango rhythms of "Hernando's Hideaway". Cut to Stowe and a lover in a bedroom suffused with dull red light; in the adjacent closet, dark, hangered clothes move ominously. Between the mocking punctuation of the song's "O-lay!"s, the loudspeaker voice nails Stowe: "You are frigid...not normal...you are bad. That's why your mother didn't notice. Men don't want you. They can slam the door and leave." Finally, she's forced to stand in front of a large screen, on which is projected an image of her and her bedmate. There she's denuded of even a name, depersonalized into a number. Such erasure - of self and sexuality - is the legacy of child molestation; but it also suggests the powerfully seductive buildups and letdowns that dominate contemporary media images of women.
Recall, for a moment, Luis Bunuel's Belle de jour, another surreal excursion into what may be the fantasy life of a repressed woman molested in her childhood. Catherine Deneuve escapes into dreams of whoring, where this good little girl is most turned on by punishment, by lovers who assault her with broken bottles, shit and a mysterious buzzing something in a box that causes orgasmic pain. In her nightmares, there are black bulls called Expiation and Remorse; in her upside-down lust, she pleads, "Don't let the cats loose!"
Impossible not to see Stowe and Deneuve as sisters under the skin. But Bharadwaj's writer has let the cat loose already - if only as a benign playmate. As Rickman once again busies himself "down there" - this time inflicting unbearable pain on her foot - Stowe's face gazes upward for help, up into those spaces where her green-winged cat is at home. So far has she come in this pilgrimage, however, that she is ready to embrace the duality of her magic. In ezpressionistic animation, the mouse-child huddles terrified while the cat, a black, blanketing shadow, swoops down upon her. She is drawn into its huge eye, covered by its great paw, and finally devoured. Only then is she carried away, transported beyond the pain she has associated with penetration. The grownup real-world woman cannot ever get innocence back again, but by marrying extremes - darkness and light, ups and downs, holding on and letting go - she is well on her way to wisdom.
Closet Land's beginnings are reversed in the film's cathartic moments. After Stowe's last blindfold is removed, she incandesces in her own enlightenment. Emerging, through a kind of birth canal, from her uterine hell, she simply leaves Rickman, now a superfluous projection, behind. Bharadwaj's quester has come wholly to herself, making her way on her own power. In its closure, this rite of passage oversubordinates complex metaphor to political specificity, as though the experiences of Alice in Closetland had to be pulled out of its author's head into the Real World for validation. Small matter. Enfin, the film's surrealism, its black humor and superb performances, are to be trusted. For Bharadwaj - and for Luis Bunuel - a woman's erotic liberation contains multitudes.
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