“This is the dark night of the soul for the female gothic heroine, the anxiety that the adult world is as dark and lustful and avaricious as her worst fears have suggested to her. Or put another way, we might say that the gothic heroine is beginning to discover dark desires and evil intentions within herself, and when she sees those emotions in others, when she sees that society at large embodies and then institutionalizes those flaws, she recoils from the realization that evil is the way of the world.”—Diane Long Hoeveler [1]

“Just when all seems lost, something unexpected happens, ghosts take shape in the mind, how can one run away from it, this phantom with a voice and a body, it is part of oneself.”—Max in The Night Porter

As early as the 1880’s, when Eadweard Muybridge began experimenting with motion picture studies, the default, or ‘unmarked,’[2] subject was inevitably rendered as male. If women were photographed, they had to have some kind of prop or be acting “as women.” The past 135 years have been saturated with moving image content focused on heterosexual male bodies and desires, with the female appearing as a far more static object. It has been rare to see movies dedicated to genuine stories of women and feminine desire—so much so, that sometimes female viewers do not even believe such films exist. What is even less visible in our culture are films about women’s non-normative, so called ‘deviant’ desires, what I will refer to as sadomasochistic women’s films.[3] This sub-genre is immediately subjected to scrutiny by active spectators, with good reason, as the patriarchal society we live in attempts to force women into positions of submission as a given. As Linda Williams writes, “No equivalent subversion is available to the female masochist, who Silverman notes, appears less perverse precisely because masochistic desires seem so culturally “natural” to the prescribed sexual passivity of female subjects.” [4] One may ask, why bother watching a movie specifically about women in humiliating or sadomasochistic positions, when that is the standard way in which women are presented in our phallocentric culture everyday? Furthermore, what differentiates a ‘sadomasochistic women’s film’ from the vast majority of films produced that present women in subservient roles?

The answer has to do with the fact that S/M women’s films such as Belle de Jour and The Night Porter, are films that portray the female subject as a human being expressing agency in her desires, as opposed to the typical (horror) film that easily sets up the woman as victim, or object of male desires. The female protagonists of the abovementioned two films often endure violence, bondage, and humiliation, but the diegesis indicates that these positions are actually ones desired by the protagonists. While it may initially appear that the male character is in control of such supposedly degrading situations, the complexity of the films reveal that the women are at least equal, if not ultimately dominant. Amer falls into the category of the S/M women’s film, and does so in a way that is different from its kinky giallo predecessors; Ana, Amer’s protagonist, is tormented by a being created from her own psyche, not an outside force. She is haunted by the possessive shadow of the giallo assassin not necessarily ‘real’ in the movies diegesis, but who appears as a specter created by Cattet & Forzani. While Séverine of Belle de Jour and Lucia of The Night Porter exude power in frenzies of sex and violence, Ana often appears to be completely powerless since the figure she plays horrifying games of hide and seek with is none other than herself.

The term “Women’s Film,” is often related to classic melodramas, “weepies,” and “chick flicks,” types of cinema that are not usually related to the horror genre at all, although Linda Williams does name the melodrama as one of the three “body genres,” along with horror and pornography.[5] These so-called gratuitous and excessive genres are interrelated in their attempts to evoke a physical response in the spectator, be it stomach-churning, sexually arousing, and/or tear-jerking. At the time of its release in 1974, The Night Porter was almost completely panned by critics who were either too disturbed to notice its brilliance, or too confused at the film’s combination of Nazi concentration camp imagery and sadomasochistic love. Feminist film theorist Teresa de Lauretis was one of the only strong supporters of the movie, seeing it as one delivering a strong feminist message. In her response to The Night Porter at that time, she states that a woman’s film is one “that deals with female experience from within, that investigates the deeper strata of female experience, that seeks answers, causes, and the dialectic nature of that experience rather than presenting only a surface, whether polished or scarred.” [6] Regarding the film at hand, de Lauretis states further that The Night Porter “is a love story, not the stupid, sappy, stereotyped Eric Segal kind, but a mature and complex view of love as guilt, selflessness, and death.” [7] Looking over reviews of the film, it seems as though there has never been such a disparity in cinematic critical reception. Pauline Kael, referring to The Night Porter as a “porno gothic” writes, “The film’s claim that it’s saying something important is offensive.”[8] While I find Kael’s dismissal of the film to be uninsightful and offensive in itself, it is worth explaining the plot, which may lead readers to understand why some viewers find the film completely aberrant.

The Night Porter (1974)

The Night Porter (1974)

Liliana Cavani’s film tells the story of a violent love affair between Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former Nazi SS officer, and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), a former concentration camp inmate. The film does not demarcate a fine line between consensual actions versus assault, therefore making it difficult to define the actions occurring as abuse or elaborate sexual games. Whether these depictions are meant to show actual events or vivid fantasies is a highly debatable argument that has no clear answer. The film heavily uses flashback sequences, although at times it is difficult to discern which character the flashback belongs to, or even if the imagined scene ever really happened. When the two meet by chance years later in a Vienna hotel, the logical assumption of the spectator is that Lucia will turn Max in for his past war crimes. Instead, what ensues is a surprising display of sadomasochistic power relations, in which there is a back and forth exchange of psychological and sexual control. Ultimately they are both murdered by a group of Max’s ex-Nazi cohorts, who believe that Lucia’s reappearance and ability to speak are dangerous. De Lauretis writes:

“Why then is this a woman’s film? The way in which Lucia is victimized, the truth she discovers in herself and lives out, the imagery of her bondage to the Father (this is obviously the meaning of her being chained and hiding under the table), are a true metaphor, however magnified, of the female condition. That the same ambivalence exists in the Father, who is nonetheless, objectively, the oppressor, only makes the metaphor complete. The world is not made of the good and the bad like a Western. In the real world good and evil are inseparable; the only valid categories are right and wrong, and those are determined by history, by human consciousness and human choice.”[9]

Kael’s pejorative claim of The Night Porter being a “porno gothic” is another statement to be contested. While convincing arguments have been made that the film is not pornography (mainly in regards to the reservations Cavani enforced regarding how excessive the sex scenes are, or rather, aren’t), Kael’s statement brings up a counterpoint—why is the term “porno gothic” used negatively? While much of The Night Porter does evoke some gothic qualities of the 20th century—concentration camps, the nullification of good vs bad, love as death, etc—the type of sexuality depicted, namely fantastic sadomasochism, is, as Linda Williams argues, more acceptable and progressive than generic pornography precisely because the fantasy involved creates a distance from the viewer. She states, in context to S/M porn as opposed to base imagery of people fucking, that “violence is depicted not as actual coercion but as a highly ritualized game in which the participants consent to play predetermined roles of dominance and submission. Discussion thus often ignores the fact that in these scenarios women can just as well be—and often are—the dominators.” [10] This is not to say that the scenes of sexual aggression in The Night Porter are ritualized or playful, but rather, that the medium of cinema itself acts as a buffer, where the spectators know that what they are watching is not reality. Of course, depictions of sexuality involving figures in Nazi uniform have become a modern fetish (Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975), Salon Kitty (1976)), but what makes The Night Porter so remarkable is the fact that Cavani takes on such loaded subject matter, full of opportunities for depictions of sexual exploitation, and then goes in another direction with them. As Kriss Ravetto states in The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics, “She [Cavani] explores the inseparable relationship between the desire of the victim and that of the victimizer, which cannot be read as purely sadistic (as the victims argue) nor masochistic (as feminists argue), but as dangerously intimate.”[11]   

Belle De Jour (1967)

Belle De Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel, the grandfather of surrealist cinema, brings us another one of the more memorable sadomasochistic women’s films, Belle de Jour (1967). While Cavani stages her kinky hi-jinks in front of the imposing, disturbing façade of World War II atrocities, Buñuel uses the more easily digestible world of a bourgeois Parisian housewife. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman with quite a creative fantasy life. She is unable to consummate her marriage with the handsome doctor Pierre[12] ultimately finding sexual pleasure working in a high-class brothel ran by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page). Eventually she meets a client named Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) a young, leather-trenchcoat-wearing criminal with bad teeth, who threatens to ruin her supposedly idyllic married life. Within this overarching story, however, the fantasy sequences are the most fascinating, and allow the viewer into the mind of Séverine. The masochistic scenarios created by her daydreaming mind include being whipped and raped by horsemen, having cow manure hurled at her, and having her forehead grazed by a bullet while tied to a tree. It may be difficult to envision such acts being representative of a woman’s desire, but Buñuel nuances these scenes with a type of dark, illogical humor. The opening sequence that begins with a romantic horse and carriage ride, ends with Séverine being bound and whipped; as she cries out and struggles for help she yells, “Pierre, please don’t let the cats out!” This exclamation, completely out of context with the rest of the sequence, brings into question any notions of reality that viewers may have thought were being played out on screen. It shows how in the reveries of phantasy, banal thoughts about real life sway in and out.   

The definitive scenes of Séverine’s agency through phantasy occur with the double-ending. Buñuel shows us that in cinema, a character can have it both ways. After Marcel shoots Pierre in a crime of jealousy, confining the victim to a wheelchair, Henri, a family friend and antagonist to Séverine, arrives at the door, ready to reveal to Pierre all of the indiscretions his wife has committed. Upon his exit, Séverine is first confronted with a wheelchair-bound husband, silently weeping at the news of her behavior. Moments later she looks up again to see him mobile and happy. As he rises from the wheelchair with a smile on his face, we hear sounds from all the phantasies Séverine has experienced—the meow of a cat, the bells of moving cattle and a horse-drawn sleigh. This is a happy ending, although not one of an average women’s film. In a video interview, writer and social-critic Susie Bright states:

“No one is ever going to accuse Buñuel of being a feminist, no one is ever going to say ‘ah yes, the great feminist film Belle de Jour,’ and yet it is a movie of great interest to feminists who study imagery and sexuality–it always has been and always will. Because you have a female protagonist who’s sexuality is at the center of the movie and in fact she gets to live out all kinds of outrageous behavior. She breaks every rule that she’s been brought up with, and at the end she doesn’t get punished for it. That’s really the best part of all, she seems to have gotten away with murder, only in the case of a woman’s life, she has gotten away with sexual pleasure.”[13]

The Night Porter and Belle de Jour depict on-screen behavior friendly to female agency that foregrounds the gothic plight of Ana in Amer.


Amer (2009)

Amer shares qualities with the previously discussed films, but what makes it unique is its constant self-reflexivity. The movie shows three different moments in the protagonist’s life, all of which follow the development of a woman’s fear of male aggression, but in this case, also how this fear has been internalized. In the climactic sequence during which Ana flees from a dark, faceless aggressor, it becomes apparent that she is attempting to free herself from a violent entity that society has implanted within her. Cattet & Forzani use the space and objects of giallo films to show how cinema, as an inherently perverse artistic medium, is a device that produces not only fear, but also desire in viewers and characters. The constant extreme close-ups of eyes bring attention to the looks exchanged or stolen by characters, as well as the gaze of the spectator. As Ella Taylor mentions in her Village Voice review of Amer, the movie displays “an arty creepiness that literally gives equal opportunity to the male and female gaze in an orgy of dueling eyeballs.”[14] Taylor is bringing attention to the constant close ups of characters’ eyes, which look confrontationally at each other. I would go so far as to say that the film not only gives attention to male and female gazes, but also the gazes of dead bodies, ominous keyholes, trees, etc. Even when there is only one character in the scene, it is filled with an uncanny, polymorphously perverse feeling that someone or some thing is observing—of course the true observers are the audience. From the opening credit sequence, attention is directed to the eyes of Ana and her parents, as we approach and arrive at their home, which is none other than a gothic chateau in the south of France.

As the story unfolds, we see that young Ana (Cassandra Forêt), perhaps eight years old, is complicit in the fetishistic act of voyeurism. She is constantly looking through keyholes, of her parent’s room and the caretaker Graziella’s, who appears to be an evil witch. This act of spying is the only way that Ana, and the audience, is able to gain information about what goes on in this strange house. Specific references to classic giallo-era films are almost immediate, calling to mind Argento’s Suspiria, the color saturated, horror-fairytale about a girls’ ballet school ran by a coven of witches. Referring to Suspiria as a fairytale is not an exaggeration, as the protagonist, Susie Bannion (Jessica Harper), must count the steps to find the door in order to subdue the head of the coven. In Amer, Cattet & Forzani use this story structure only at the beginning, literally as a child’s phantasy/memory. The mixture of phantasy and reality soon becomes intertwined as Ana looks upon her newly deceased grandfather.[15]

In Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” he is quick to point out the difference between fairytale and uncanny encounter, two devices that Amer melds together, but in some places also coagulates. He states, “Fairy tales quite frankly adopt the animistic standpoint of the omnipotence of thoughts and wishes, and yet I cannot think of any genuine fairy story which has anything uncanny about it.”[16] Ana’s examination of her dead grandfather, however, is a textbook example of the uncanny. As she wanders around his deathbed and room, opening drawers, and snooping around, we get the feeling that her grandfather’s eyes could open at any moment (and they do). Freud would consider this an uncanny experience, “whether an apparently animate being is really alive, whether a lifeless objectmight not be in fact animate.”[17] Ana goes so far as to touch her grandfather’s face, partially smearing the funeral make up recently applied to the body. This attention to making up the dead and the uncertainty of life within a body, hauntingly foreshadows the closing scene of the movie.

The final scene shows Ana’s naked body laid out on a slab in the morgue, seeming to be a victim of suicide. A morgue worker sensually washes her body and applies lipstick to the apparent corpse. While beautiful dead women are a common misogynistic trope, particularly on contemporary television crime dramas, Cattet & Forzani draw this scene out, adding moans of breathing to the soundtrack, creating a perverse, necrophilial sense of the uncanny. The feeling of uncertainty over whether this beautified body is alive or dead confronts the visual pleasure viewers may commonly find in typical movie imagery of dead women. Just before the end credits begin to roll, Ana’s eyes begin to open, creating a shock similar to the earlier resurrection of the dead grandfather.[18] This confusion over whether the characters are living or dead creates a strong sense of the uncanny that once again blurs the distinction between phantasy and reality.     


This article is part of an ongoing series, Chapter One can be found here.


[1] Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to The Brontes. University Park: Penn State U Press, 1998. p. 81.

[2]Peggy Phalen defines the ‘unmarked’ body as a white, heterosexual, male one. She writes, the “relationship between self and other is a marked one, which is to say it is unequal. It is alluring and violent because it touches the paradoxical nature of psychic desire; the always already unequal encounter nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality; the failure of this hope then produces violence, aggessivity, dissent.” Phalen, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993. pp. 3-4.

[3] From here also referred to as S/M women’s films.

[4] Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: U of California Press, 1999. p. 213.

[5] Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly. Vol 44. No 4 (Summer 1991). p. 3

[6] de Lauretis, Teresa. “Cavani’s “Night Porter”: A Woman’s Film?” Film Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1976-77) p. 35.

[7] Ibid. p. 6.

[8] Kael, Pauline. “The Night Porter.” Published: unknown. Accessed: November 27, 2015.

[9] de Lauretis, Teresa. “Cavani’s “Night Porter”: A Woman’s Film?” Film Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1976-77) p. 37.

[10] Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: U of California Press, 1999. p. 18.

[11] Ravetto, Kris. The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2001. p. 153.

[12] Played by Jean Sorel, who was also incidentally cast in many gialli such as A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971).

[13] Bright, Susie, video interview in “That Obscure Source of Desire,” supplement in the Criterion Collection edition of Belle de Jour, 2012.

[14] Taylor, Ella. “Dario Argento, Minus the Humor, in Amer.” Village Voice. Published October 20, 2010. Accessed February 21, 2015.

[15] This sequence is also referential to giallo, this time “The Drop of Water,” the opening story of Mario Bava’s 1963 proto-giallo anthology Black Sabbath.

[16] Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

[17] Ibid.

[18] While not necessarily intentional, this sudden, split-second eye opening is reminiscent of the brief moment in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), when the leading female character (Hélène Chatelain) awakens at the normal 24 frame-per-second cinematic speed, within an entire film made up of still images. A number of scenes in Amer and Strange Color play with freeze-frame and shutter speed that immediately brings Marker’s avant-garde classic to mind.