Ten Fingers and Nine Toes: Embodied Representations of Pregnancy in Avant-Garde Cinema

Agnès Varda’s 1958 short L’Opéra Mouffe (Diary of a Pregnant Woman) is a provocative investigation into Varda’s personal response to her first pregnancy with her daughter Rosalie. This sixteen minute black-and-white piece, produced at the dawn of the French nouvelle vague, offers a poetically emphatic insight into Varda’s reflections upon her own physicality and sexuality. The development of her body and the foetus within is rendered abstract by the lyrical flow of image and sound. Varda forms a dialectical montage that combines nostalgic, anticipatory music (composed by Georges Delerue) with sequences that focus on the physically volatile nature of pregnancy in contrast to the romance of everyday life (the market, the bedroom, children playing in the street). It is a film that fluctuates between violence and romance, thus exploring how pregnancy can arouse psychological and philosophical contradiction.

Particularly relevant is L’Opéra Mouffe’s approach to rendering the foetus gothic, even grotesque, in its abstraction. Static sequences present a dislocated foetal subject. A woman’s swollen stomach is juxtaposed with a ripened pumpkin, opened before the camera with a carving knife, the seeds scraped out and filmed as objects separate from their creator. Shots of a pigeon trapped inside a fish bowl, a sprouting cabbage, and a limbless doll glued to an iron figuration of the female body—suggestions of an unknown developing within—are blended with delightful sequences of a man and woman copulating, and of the people on the rue Mouffetard in Paris, the market Varda frequented at the time. But Varda has not produced a film that is entirely light-hearted, or merely provocative; rather, it seems to disentangle her psychic divisions. This cinematic comment on the pregnant body disturbs idealistic definitions of pregnancy without negating the possibility that the creation of life is an act of love. In this way, L’Opéra Mouffe offers a balance between the fear and joy experienced by Varda as her body changed.

Following the disturbance that Varda’s film offers it is an inherently difficult task to sketch a consistent theoretical outline for a cinematic aesthetic of the pregnant body. Semiotic and psychoanalytic scholarship, as they relate to both cinema and language in general, have dictated that the female is categorically silenced, or unspoken for. Where the feminine is represented, she is delineated, as object to the male subject. In cinematic terms, this is connected to the theorisation of the male gaze.[1] But the problem of representing the pregnant body is further complicated by the issue of split subjectivity. Pregnancy constitutes a crossroads in subjectivity as it presents a breakdown in the relations between self and other. For Julia Kristeva, the pregnant body is a site of feminine subjectivity that is confused by the development of the foetus within:

Pregnancy seems to be experienced as the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and of an other, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech.[2]

This delineation of subjectivity suggests the delicate complexity of pregnancy, combining the reality of the foetus with the female. But how can this split subjectivity be represented? Like those of the female body in general, visualisations of the reproductive body are often caught in the trappings of a patriarchal culture. Imogen Tyler writes: “First-person narration and visual representations which bear witness to the ‘unique temporality’ and transient subjectivity of pregnant existence from an embodied perspective are largely absent from Western culture”.[3]

Yet Varda’s film certainly suggests a possibility for speaking pregnancy without some of the narcissistic reduction of difference that marks both representations termed ‘foetal-centric’, and some of the feminist analyses of pregnant subjectivity.[4] Therefore, to illuminate this complexity, I turn to avant-garde cinema, noting its capacity to offer unrecognised approaches to both pregnant embodiment and subjectivity. I will argue that the cinema can actively—though discontinuously and partially—embody an experience of pregnancy. Instead of attempting to locate one representation of split subjectivity that best speaks to embodied experience, I will instead propose that the cinema can figure the complexity of this subject without negating the possibility of difference.

Pregnancy and Representation

A complex vision of pregnant identity—as argued by JaneMaree Maher via the writing of Luce Irigaray—is best figured by the metaphor of the placenta. Maher notes that, rather than reinscribing some humanity for the immaterial foetus, the placenta refigures it as a metaphor for change, upheaval, some transformation in meaning. The placenta can be said to mark the temporality of the female body—its lack of fixation: “The possibility of an organ that does not belong to one body, but rather is turned to multiple sites, reforms embodied subjectivity in terms that are much more fluid”.[5] The placenta connotes the locus of tension for the connectivity between the female and foetus.

Yet the wave of scholarship on images of the foetal body often gestures towards possibility without actually determining where complexity in representation might be located. In her article attacking the pro-life propaganda short The Silent Scream (Bernard Nathanson, US, 1984), Rosalind Petchesky argues that we must “restore women to a central place in the pregnancy scene … Contexts do not neatly condense into symbols; they must be told through stories that give them mass and dimension”.[6] In Fetal Positions, Karen Newman (like Petchesky) suggests that understanding the pregnant body is a more complicated task than simply refiguring the woman back into imagery of the foetus. That would (to paraphrase Newman) reinscribe individualism.[7] Furthermore, for Newman both positions (i.e., the autonomy of the foetus, and the individualism of the mother) “display a profound human nostalgia for the realist image”.[8] Similarly, many scholars including Valerie Hartouni, Barbara Duden and Rebecca Kukla have offered their own complex, historically specific deconstruction of the effect of foetal imagery with only some foregrounding of how exactly this might be reworked in relation to pregnant subjectivity.[9]

Therefore, I want to move away from any realist or literal critiques of the body that negate its complexity, and approach pregnancy in the cinema with some new dynamism, referring to the possibility of a full and rigorous analysis of its representation and historicity. While I respect the dynamic history of feminist film criticism, I take up Rosalind Galt’s point that its tradition operates as a form of iconophobia: “Post-Mulveyan feminist criticism often takes as axiomatic a rejection of spectacle per se, deploying it as a totalizing category that can stand for patriarchal image culture”.[10] Therefore, with further emphasis on Kristeva’s notion of the split subject, my analysis will not reduce itself to a binary methodology (i.e., embodied vs. oppressive representation). Instead, the possibility for complexity will be fostered in my analysis of the films A Sketch on Abigayl’s Belly (David Perry 1968), Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage 1959), Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (Cristian Mungiu 2007) and finally, Ten (Abbas Kiarostami 2002). In these films it is more appropriate to grasp that any depiction of pregnancy is inherently incomplete. Indeed, such a gesture of radical incompleteness—apart from being central to the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben and related contemporary thinkers—is among the essential tenets of the philosophy of figural filmic analysis, a body of work that will be crucial to my argument.

Figural analysis, which has emerged in Europe over the past two decades, departs strongly from realist models of representation as well as classically expressive models, and moves beyond semiotic and poststructuralist models of the 1960s and 1970s. According to the principal architect of figural theory, French critic Nicole Brenez, a film “ought to be thought about in the relation that it enters into with the real—a relation of knowledge, not expression; analogy, not reproduction; work, not substitution”.[11] This methodology is useful for reading the pregnant body, not just as it exists as a split subject, but as one formed beyond the bounds of conscious control[12] and that has a relatively unknown outcome for both mother and foetus within.[13]

In order to illuminate the complexity of pregnant representation—with a specific focus on its temporality and maternal subjectivity—figural analysis, particularly via Brenez, filmmaker-theorist Jean Epstein and philosopher-theorist Jean Louis Schefer, provides the methodological conception that cinema, like the body itself, works as a fluid organism. Images are never an example of some ultimate truth, but figural theory proposes that cinema can provide new avenues for examining the labyrinth of embodied experience. As Brenez has remarked: “In this enterprise of identification between history and its narrator … the subject opens itself indefinitely and becomes, literally, the possible subject [le sujet du possible]”.[14] How the cinema constructs, deconstructs, explodes and enables practices and understandings—both in terms of the pregnant bodies it represents and the intended effect upon the embodiment of the viewer—is the topic of this essay.

The Union of Science and the Image

There is a strong tradition in feminist scholarship of representations of pregnancy that relay power dynamics within techniques of viewing and listening. The cinema, in particular, is related to technological apparatuses, such as the ultrasound, that screen the pregnant body. Lisa Cartwright’s 1995 book Screening the Body proposes that scientific and cinematic imageries are interrelated through their obsession with bodily observation. Cartwright notes that both X-ray technology and the film projector were invented and utilised in the early 20th century, a simultaneous development she finds significant because both media are concerned with tracking, recording and re-shaping images of the body: “The cinematic apparatus can be considered as a cultural technology for the discipline and management of the human body, and … the long history of bodily analysis and surveillance in medicine and science is critically tied to the history of the development of the cinema as a popular cultural institution and a technological apparatus”.[15] She links the two for their obsessive observations and consequential refashioning of bodily perspective and notes that “I would argue that medical and scientific film motion studies provide evidence of a mode of cinematic representation and spectatorship that is grounded in a Western scientific tradition of surveillance, measurement, and physical transformation through observation and analysis”.[16] For Cartwright, this epistemological tendency produced by the image recalls the persuasive theory of Foucault as it produces a “method and technique of physiological viewing [as] a disciplinary and regulatory power”[17] .

This allows for the suggestion that, while imaging technologies may work to regulate power structures, they do not always subordinate women in the traditional sense. Marina Warner has noted that before the invention of the microscope it was largely perceived that the female body was merely a passive receptacle for the active male sperm:

The microscope eventually revealed the importance and function of the ovum in human generation. From the investigations of Von Baer in 1827 women’s role in reproduction was rehabilitated, and the mother emerged as a vital procreative, not merely a nutritive, force in the genesis of a human life.[18]

This is not the crux of my point, as Warner’s historical evidence simply reiterates the apparently powerful, didactic effect that images have upon dominant systems of knowledge. But it is suggestive for the tradition of scepticism in feminist film theory that continuously denounces the patriarchal functions of the image.[19] For figural theory, when the cinematic apparatus acts to destabilise the pregnant body, it can defamiliarise our idea of this body as one with a fixed subjectivity. Further, it does not deny that traditional dynamics of power and exchange exist within representation, but instead argues that it is more appropriate to grasp the ideal body—in a paradoxically enabling gesture—as an impossible goal.

This suggestion of incompleteness can be demonstrated through the potential for reflexivity. Here, the observations of medical technologies can be aligned with not just the scientific but also with the notion that technological discourses of vision do not necessarily produce concrete, or objective, predications. As underlined by figural theory, and proposed (for example) by Steven Connor, representation can actively renew approaches to the body.

X-rays certainly represented an important form of visual prosthesis, and are part of the process whereby vision was autonomised, taken out of and beyond the individual human body, through various forms of device and apparatus, including telescopes, microscopes, and the various forms of analytic vision that followed on the development of photography, including motion analysis and spectroscopic analysis. All of these forms of vision extended the capacities of the eye. But these forms of prosthetic seeing are more than just enhancements; they are also reflexive forms of seeing, that is, ways of envisaging vision itself.[20]

For Connor, like Brenez, an image can incite reflexive action. Rather than fostering the post-structuralist notion[21] that analysis follows the act of perception, what I will suggest through figural theory is that the cinematic can provoke visions of complex subjectivity.

Conceiving the Cinema

This notion of reflexive representation as an act that destabilises and in turn creates possibility can be related to the work of Jean Epstein, an experimental filmmaker of the 1920s loosely affiliated with the trend towards Impressionist cinema. His theory laid crucial ground for the ways in which Brenez and Schefer came, in the 1980s and 1990s, to understand the body in cinema as the cornerstone of figural theory. Two decades after the invention of the moving image camera, Epstein published a short book entitled Bonjour Cinema!. This was 1921; Epstein was mesmerised by the overwhelming sensation of being a spectator before the screen. He quickly grasped the potential for the cinematic image to reframe the spectators’ perspective on the human body—in particular, the face—and thus cause an uncanny reaction, or what he termed photogénie[22] (for which the English word ‘photogenic’ would be merely a pale substitute). For Epstein, the cinematic image is overwhelming because it projects the body we already know, but captured from an angle that subjects the viewer to a defamiliarisation of self, something akin to the sublime.[23] Epstein referred to this as photogénie’s inherent beauty.

It was the cinematic that prompted him to reconsider his relationship to what he could see around him. Unlike the frightened audience for the Lumière brothers screening of A Train Pulling into a Station in 1896, who ran from the projection of a train thinking what they were seeing was a real object, for Epstein the cinema provided an indescribable shadow of the body (a photogénie). Nicole Brenez suggests that the subject of this theory provides for defamiliarisation as reflexive vision: “Cinema ceaselessly reignites this initial dialectic between the ordinary plasticity of appearances and the indescribable evidence of each body. This is Jean Epstein’s formula: ‘Vision staggers in the face of resemblances’”.[24]

Epstein’s notion of photogénie can be related, at one level, to the figuration of the ultrasound in the politics of pregnant representation. Representations may unavoidably constitute an aporia—but figural theory assumes that this suggests dynamism. Here the work of Jean Louis Schefer, a French cinema theorist from the 1980s largely influenced by Epstein, describes how images are false objects: “What attracts me to the perfection of this world isn’t its illusion; it’s the illusion of a centre I will never be able to approach. This illusion has no centre but is a mechanism for the elision of objects”.[25] In terms of the pregnant bodies that cinema represents and their intended effect upon the viewer, this attitude points not only to a change in perception, but also to how we should begin to approach the cinema itself. Through Kristeva’s notion of splitting, I will consider how the cinema can construct possibility in the wake of complex subjectivity, always noting that a “body is not already given, and can never be given; it results from a visual and aural syntax or parataxis which never hesitates to leave itself in the state of a perpetual sketch”.[26]

For feminist film studies, figural theory is useful as it suggests that all processes of analysis constitute an aporia or an insoluble contradiction that cannot be transformed. The body in cinema is a paradox because the spectator’s experience of it combines their own understanding of their body and the body they are presented with on screen. In Schefer’s understanding, there is always anxiety when one attempts to produce a totality of the image. In this sense, representations of the body cannot be regarded as a universal truth, because such a being does not exist and can never exist in cinema: “The body cannot be synthesized. It’s not the sum of the parts of the face (gestures, mimes, accent), but at the same time it’s a leakage of all those things, a spinning perspective, a new amputation of this incontestable unity. Such a body is, nonetheless, and quite strangely, a signification above all … a signification rather than an anatomical reflection”.[27]

In his description of the limitations of analysis, Schefer draws upon his own subjective experience, particularly in regard to his childhood, to determine how he came to approach the cinema before him. Schefer believes identification does not exist per se, but that the spectator relates to the audiovisual through a process of tension between what is on screen and their own memory. Schefer considers that cinema is without memory; the lens captures those images of bodies that are constructed for us to represent an image. It is not truth but that which stems from the relation of the director, actor and spectator’s memories and understandings of time.

Upon viewing the first reels of cinema, Epstein saw that it produced an unknown throughout, his photogénie. The effect of the image is that it resists story, narrative, closure—it is infinitely spinning: “There are no stories. There have never been stories. There are only situations, having neither head nor tail; without beginning, middle, or end, no right side or wrong side; they can be looked at from all directions … without limits in past or future, they are the present”[28] . We can link this to Imogen Tyler’s philosophical musings on her pregnant experience. She wrote of her then pregnant body: “I am not metaphor, but real alien becoming, perpetually modified”[29] . Here, the cinema and the pregnant subject are interrelated, bound by their mutable temporality and split subjectivity. Therefore my analysis of the films to follow will combine the paradoxical nature of the body on screen with recognition that the subjective process of analysis contributes to the impossibility of fully perceiving the body on screen.

Locating Pregnant Subjectivity

I start with the avant-garde—a mode of production and exhibition that can reveal pervasive personal and cultural tensions. Reality and pleasure are two states relevant to the maternal body. The blinding pain of childbirth transforms itself into a literal, physical connection between infant and mother, breast, vagina, inside and outside—the ordinary sexual connection between woman and man is refigured between mother and infant. For the infant to thrive, it must have full access to the mother’s whole body. This new relationship is one typically romanticised by some avant-garde filmmakers to such an extent that conservative social discourses have reacted censoriously.

In 1968, Sydney-based filmmaker David Perry released A Sketch on Abigayl’s Belly, a two-minute 16mm portrait of Perry’s then pregnant wife, Abigayl (also active as an artist). Perry was a key member of the Sydney-based underground film movement known as UBU. This was part of an international wave of film co-operatives whose philosophies were anti-national, anti-commercial and anti-narrative. Perry and his crew experimented with the plasticity of film, deliberately tampering with the chemical construction of prints to produce a ‘flicker’ effect—a visual poetry of image, colour and texture. Perry, along with the other members of the group, actively sought to combine artistry, painting and sculpture with filmmaking. The UBU artists referred to themselves as “filmers”, merging the words painter and filmmaker. During this period in metropolitan Australia, cinema was becoming regarded as an artistic medium, something more than simple entertainment for the masses.[30]

A Sketch on Abigayl’s Belly is a visual poem of Abigayl’s pregnant body. Perry utilises montage effects, placing her swollen stomach next to shots of a balloon in order to project an aura of sensuality. Abigayl is naked in the film, but most of the shots of her are concerned with the curve of her stomach, breasts and face. Perry originally produced the film because he was nervous about becoming a father; the lyricism, visual poetry and montage of affect demonstrate a Romantic sensibility applied to the imagining of the maternal body. In Sketch, Abigayl smiles wistfully at the camera, massages oil into her naked body and gazes out a window. This is a beatified, sexualised and amorous audiovisual representation of pregnancy. The film has attracted censorious attention from the Australian Classification Board and the general public, up until as recently as September 2009.[31] It was initially banned in 1968 for its provocative content by the Government, a ban that was first overturned in 1970; then, in 2009, during an exhibition at a gallery in Mosman, a gallery director was accused of censoring the film because of its nude content. While it is relevant to consider why this work attracted the attention of censors (state-appointed or self-appointed), and why a sexual, pregnant body is still too confronting for some viewers, I am more interested here in examining how this film, and others like it, offers us a way to reconsider the feminist critique of the visually oppressed pregnant woman.

Before offering a full analysis of Perry’s work, we can consider a similar film from a comparable underground movement, this time in the United States. Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is concerned with the filmmaker’s wife, Jane, birthing their first child in water. It is a silent film (as is much of this artist’s work), made solely by Brakhage as both cinematographer and editor. Although Perry does not show his wife giving birth, both his film and Brakhage’s are quite similar in terms of their representation of the maternal as sensual, romantic and ethereal. Like Sketch, Window offers a pulsating montage: short shots signifying the beauty of Jane’s body, her skin and facial expression next to shots of her fight to push out the infant. This is a visually confronting work, in that all of Jane’s body is revealed to the camera; the moment of crowning, of birth and placental expulsion are explicitly shown. Her body moves together in rapid succession with the elements of water and light; her lips, breath, breasts and stomach are sweaty. It is a purely physical romanticisation of the flesh. If the ultrasound oppresses the woman’s body, then it is tempting to offer the counter-suggestion that Brakhage and Perry realise the power of female/maternal presence. Both films, in this sense, echo the politically activist style of mid twentieth century modernism at its artistic and cultural height. Brenez and Adrian Martin believe that Brakhage creates films that are “in constant processual movement between the poles of abstraction and representation”.[32] The avant-garde, as a mode of production and exhibition, is regularly cited as galvanising its own political movement to rupture mainstream moral and social paradigms.

Although these films appear to rupture a longstanding taboo regarding the sexuality of the pregnant body and, in turn, seem to dignify the complexity of the maternal experience, more needs to be said with regard to their place within social discourses of pregnancy. In Film: The Front Line, Jonathan Rosenbaum finds that Brakhage, in concert with many poetic film-makers of the time, expresses a “metaphysical conceit … which reduces the universe to a list of male possessions: This is my wife, my child, my gun, my dog, my camera, my house, my car, my summer vacation, my life”.[33] Brakhage and Perry romanticise what is taboo, transforming the Other into an ideal object. This is an attempt towards transgression, as an intense moment photographed to be beautiful but also startling, yet both are fetishistic in their construction of pregnancy and labour. In this way both films can be aligned with the tradition of foetal imagery as another form of reduced subjectivity.

However, when we return to figural theory it is apparent that these films constitute the impossibility of figuring the split subject. They are not only performing a traditional sexual objectification of the female body via the gaze, but are breaking open the taboo of female, pregnant sexuality. The eroticised feminine (the heightened presence of her body), combined with the pain of childbirth (the obviousness of Jane’s physical and emotional struggle), with trust placed in the hands of the father/partner Brakhage and Perry (that these women allowed their bodies to be revealed in this way) present a split subject on screen. The notion of splitting refers not just to the complexity of the subject but might be related to the complexity of idealisation itself. As Kristeva says:

When feminism demands a new representation of femininity, it seems to identify motherhood with that idealized misconception and, because it rejects the image and its misuse, feminism circumvents the real experience that fantasy overshadows. The result?—a negation or rejection of motherhood by some avant-garde feminist groups. Or else an acceptance—conscious or not—of its traditional representations by the great mass of people, women and men.[34]

It was these two films that first prompted my interest in the subject of the pregnant body. What had been constructed seemed to deliberately offer no calculated aesthetic resolution. Put simply, they are a declaration of paradox, a confusion of subjectivity. For the sexual subject, these films recall the words of the French art critic, Nora Mitrani, who wrote in 1950:

Erotic representations, if they do not cause vertigo or tears, are despicable. And from the moment, they bring dizziness and scandal, they are considered suspicious. Their content hits a certain notion of the Sacred, that we caress despite our conscious tastes, the certainty that the pregnant woman’s belly is sacred, as much as the little girl. The forbidden and the gentle, rather than the multiple radiant woman and her endless variations of kinaesthetic experience—all keep to inviolate the conventional female beauty in the most dangerous passion.[35]

In this way, approaches to the pregnant body in the cinema require some recognition of both the split subject on screen and the split nature of spectatorship. In relation to world cinema, which I will now move on to, this can offer a richly diverse field of study for scholars on the subject of the pregnant body.

Pregnancy and The Third Cinema

For figural theory, approaching the structure of national cinemas must always refer to historical and cultural subjectivity. Schefer wrote that the spectator is inseparably linked with the screen: “It’s the affects themselves, and not signification (which here is the deferral of their liaison), that constructs an anterior world”. [36] Analysis must refer to specificity of the viewer with the film at hand. Following this, I want to investigate two films outside the Western canon and consider how the figural theory can be applied to engage with cultural specificities.

Scholars have noted that the Western media is lacking a complex discourse of maternal subjectivity. Therefore some expanded focus is necessary—particularly with examples outside the United States.[37] The films I will analyse in this passage belong to what is termed a Third Cinema, an alternative to generic or mainstream Western cinematic practices. While they may not resolve some of the issues apparent in the representation of the pregnant body, they certainly complicate the subject.

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days exhibits fluidity in its approach to pregnant subjectivity that is similar to Varda’s short, but also provides the interrogation of a specific national context, namely Romania in 1987. Moreover, it presents a necessary examination of abortion from the viewpoint of a decidedly female (rather than strictly maternal) subjectivity. My approach to the pregnant subject is attempting to suggest the diversity of its experience. What is most interesting about Four Months is that, as a Romanian production, it is removed from the political discourse of the United States that tends to dictate discussions of abortion (i.e. pro-choice/pro-life) and, in turn, offers an alternative vision.

Four Months explores the experience of a young female university student, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), helping her friend, Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) through what is colloquially termed a backyard abortion. It is representative of the New Romanian cinema, a revival of film culture and production in that country, drawing on the particularly rich culture of contemporary Eastern European filmmaking, especially that of Slovenia and Lithuania. More broadly, Four Months represents part of a global movement of films that are termed contemplative. Contemplative cinema refers to both filmic narrative and form, where the camera lingers or remains static on conversations, gestures or moments for extended periods of time, with the aim to probe or engage with the subject at hand.[38] In Epstein’s terms, contemplative cinema offers an extended photogénie, where ellipses are avoided and the body (while not necessarily filmed in close-up) is focused on from unusual or non-mainstream angles to create an unprecedented viewpoint. Schefer extends upon Epstein’s notion with a theory of affect. As glossed here by Brenez: “Schefer invented a new syntax which works in such a way that, just when you believe you are able to reasonably get hold of a firm thesis, suddenly the idea slips away by means of a false grammatical relation and the movement throws you back at the text like a spinning top”[39] . In contemplative cinema, this is directly realised as a deliberate disengagement of the cinematic body before us as stable.

This prolonged construction of aesthetic and narrative in Four Months, provides a figuration of memories, objects, scenes and gestures that allows for both the nostalgia of a time passed (similar to Goodbye Lenin! [Germany 2003]), as well as the oppression and hardship of communism. Four Months is set on the cusp of the disintegration of the Eastern bloc, but it also conjures the time when Romanian culture was still defined by an extreme patriarchy, when condoms were poorly manufactured or rarely used, and both the contraceptive pill and abortion were illegal. While the fact of the illegality of contraception is not made apparent in the narrative, it would be known to any Romanian viewer[40] and is crucial to understanding the film’s construction of female subjectivity.

Here, what is evoked is the fluidity of pregnant subjectivity in relation to dynamics of power and the uncontrollable nature of contraception. Four Months opens up a space of interrogation for the experience of abortion. The plight of Gabriela recalls that the pregnant body is one with split subjectivity, yet formed beyond the bounds of conscious control. This film refuses closure to any of the contradictions apparent within its narrative, ensuring that the foetus is a material, visible site of tension but also providing for the intensity of experience for these two women. Fiona Jenkins[41] utilises the images of the aborted foetus in the film to add weight to her deconstruction of scholarship from the US by Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant on the ProLife/Prochoice debates. Jenkins suggests, via Butler’s scholarship on the notion of grievable life, that the abortion debate should regard images of the foetus as a form of disruption within hetero-normative frameworks: “If the ungrievable life is not simply the excluded life, demanding protection within the order of rights that confer and acknowledge membership in the human, there is yet a sense in which the foetus might emerge as an ungrievable life as a function of the foreclosure of a field of possibility and plurality”.[42] While Jenkins places her argument in the context of the problematics within the pro-choice movement as it determines the right to abortion as key to admission for full citizenship for the woman, Christine Battersby’s reading of Butler suggests that the question of pregnancy requires further theorisation with emphasis upon female subjectivity. Here, Battersby recognises that the abortion debate “feed[s] on a tradition of locating rights in individuals, as if individuality was something that was established with maturity and was retained until death, unless there was some ‘fault’ or ‘illness’ or ‘failure’ in the individual”.[43]

Though Jenkins’ notion of the queer foetal subject is useful for American abortion politics, this Romanian production—with its subtle emphasis on an unwanted conception that is intrinsically tied to dynamics of power—provokes Battersby’s suggestion for further theorisation of female subjectivity. The film acknowledges the presence of the foetus in tandem with systematic control over female sexuality. In this way, the Scheferian notion of affect—a kind of theoretical extension of photogénie—is useful as it operates against constructions of truth or unity and suggests that the signification of the body in cinema will contain no decisive answers to the questions it raises.

This is apparent within the film’s aesthetic construction as it works to offer a reflection upon the problems at hand. The stretched temporality of the narrative exacerbates filmic anxiety. The spectator will witness the long process of booking the hotel room, the anguished wait for the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to arrive, and the rapidity with which he conducts the procedure—nauseatingly contrasted with the extended time he takes to rape both women. Surrounding this central tension produced by the abortion sequence are some remarkably incongruous moments—such as in the extended footage of the dinner party. As persuasively argued by Constantin Parvulescu, the film offers a complex, non-committal view of Romanian society in the 1980s:

While in the 1990s films, almost every memory of the communist world seems grotesquely perverted and becomes an object of ridicule, 4 Months starts by depicting a corner of this world as an oasis of human dignity. In its initial sequences, a certain nostalgic gaze surveys sets, objects, and characters. An initial positive layer of memory is then overwritten by a more problematic gestalt of real-existing communism. But 4 Months never comes close to the indignation of the 1990s. A more pensive, less virulent reflection on the past characterizes its narrative, facilitated not only by the increased temporal distance form the Ceausescu era, but also by the awareness that to accuse is to excuse.[44]

The lack of finality in the conclusion incites a necessary tension. Questions regarding the outcome of the abortion are deliberately provoked, but prudently left unanswered. It is a work that details and narrates the plight of Romanian citizens in a time of totalitarianism, neither offering simple answers to processes of national remembering, nor sensationalising the two female protagonists’ situation.

Four Months reveals that more work needs to be done on both power structures in relation to the representation of female identity, as well as the fluidity of pregnant subjectivity. To conclude on this note, I will take as my final example another film from the Third Cinema that makes virtually no mention of the foetus or ultrasound, but is instructive in its gestation of maternal identity. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), in line with the new wave of Iranian films on the subject of female subjectivity including The Apple (1998) and My Tehran for Sale (2009), refreshes cinematic engagement with constructions of the female body and her psychology and, for the Western spectator, bridges the gap between the Western and Arab worlds usually fraught with prejudice, particularly with regard to the female ‘empowered’ West and ‘oppressed’ Middle East. Ten is shot entirely from the dashboard of a car and focuses on ten conversations between a female taxi driver (Mania Akbari, herself a noted filmmaker) and her various passengers. The conversations are predominantly improvised, thus combining the forces of humour and boredom, and focusing on the particulars of intersubjective space or the energy that is formed by two people conversing. The primary focus of each conversation is issues of femininity and motherhood.

Kiarostami composes each shot so that it reveals the expressivity of the face and upper body. Both the driver and the camera remain stationary in the vehicle (except on one or two occasions) and, as an aesthetic and narrative device, this technique of stasis evokes (I would suggest) a figuration of the pregnant body—being contained within a physical and emotional condition for ten months, and thus instigating some growth within and reflection upon the self. Ten evokes Kristeva’s vision of the split subject in relation to pregnant subjectivity as neither the voice of Mania nor her son is completely dissolved. Ten seems to directly refuse the possibility for a dialectical resolution.

Insight is provided into the process of both acceptance and refusal and presents a turning point in subjectivity; a turning point that is not bound by the physicality of pregnancy, but by a change in identity. This is particularly clear in the discussions between Mania and her young son Amin:

Mania: I’ll tell you something. No one belongs to anyone, not even you; you’re my child but you’re not mine. You belong to this world …
Amin: Sure …
Mania: … We try to live here …
Amin: (interrupting) That’s right … but you don’t let me speak! I’m only a child. I can’t belong to myself. I have to grow up to attain an age that will allow me to belong to myself.
Mania: What’s your problem today? You have to be mine?

As Ten unfolds, Mania becomes increasingly detached from her son. She discusses and reflects upon her identity through conversations with other women. The film offers no conclusions, as each sequence ends like a rhetorical question: Where to from here? For Mania’s maternal identity—an identity in conflict with her family, her vision of herself and the society to which she belongs—there is no obvious answer or immediate resolution. The film invokes a stasis, a milieu, a projection and reflection of something undetermined—a state of undetermined subjectivity. Each fragment poses a rhetorical question, a working through of ideas, something yet to become: What happens next? This is precisely what is suggested by figural theory,  that the body in cinema presents a defamiliarised subject without a predication.

As I have argued, dynamic representations of pregnant subjectivity are more apparent than scholars have previously allowed for. The cinema can offer an inherent diversity in its appreciations of subjectivity. In the first instance, it is necessary to figure some of the common motifs, totems and proposals and to collect and aggregate individual forms of expression from discourses outside the mainstream as well as within it. By acknowledging the possibility for every imaginable discourse of pregnancy, we can begin to grasp a sense of embodiment—not as a totalised continuity or wholeness, but precisely as a radically enabling, open-ended discontinuity.


[1] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Screen Autumn Vol 16 No. 3, 1975.

[2] Julia Kristeva, “Women’s Time” Signs Vol 7 No. 1 Autumn, 1981.

[3] Imogen Tyler, “Reframing Pregnant Embodiment” in Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism, eds. Sara Ahmed, Jane Kilby, Celia Lury, Maureen McNeil and Beverley Skeggs, New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 292.

[4] Fiona Jenkins, ““Queering Foetal Life: Between Butler and Berlant”, The Australian Feminist Law Journal, no. 30, 2009.

[5] JaneMaree Maher. “Visibly Pregnant: Toward a Placental Body”, Feminist Review, No. 72 2002, p. 97.

[6] Rosalind Petchesky, “Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction”, Feminist Studies, Vol 13, No 2 (1987), p. 287.

[7] Karen Newman, Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality, California: Stanford University Press, 1996.

[8] Ibid., p. 68.

[9] Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993. Valerie Hartouni, Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies and the Remaking of Life, Minneapolos: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Rebecca Kukla, Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture and Mother’s Bodies, Maryland: Rowland and Littlefield, 2005.

[10] Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 250.

[11] Nicole Brenez in William D. Routt, “For Criticism: Part One” in Screening the Past, no.  9 (March 2000), http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/shorts/reviews/rev0300/wr1br9a.htm> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[12] Maher, Ibid p. 97.

[13] Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, “Confessions of Two Feminist Anthropologists as Mutual Informants,” Fetal Subjects: Feminist Positions, eds., Lynne Marie Morgan and Meredith W. Michaels. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

[14] Nicole Brenez, “The Ultimate Journey”, Screening the Past, no. 2 (December 1997), <http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/reruns/brenez.html> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[15] Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 3.

[16] Ibid., p. 8.

[17] Ibid., p. 18.

[18] Marina Warner, Alone and All of Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1976, p 42.

[19] Galt, Ibid., p 251.

[20] Steven Connor, “Pregnable of Eye: X-Rays, Vision and Magic”, < http://www.stevenconnor.com/xray/> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[21] Nicole Brenez (trans. Adrian Martin), “Incomparable Bodies” in Screening the Past, no. 31, 2011.

[22] Jean Epstein, trans. Tom Milne, “Bonjour Cinema and Other Writings”, Afterimage, no 10 (Autumn 1981), pp. 9-38.

[23] Paul Coughlin, “Sublime Moments”, Senses of Cinema, no. 11 (December 2000), < http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2000/11/sublime/> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[24] Epstein in Brenez, Ibid 2011.

[25] Jean Louis Schefer (trans. Paul Smith), The Enigmatic Body, London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 115.

[26] Brenez, 1997 Ibid.

[27] Schefer, Ibid, p. 128.

[28] Jean Epstein, trans. Tom Milne, “The Senses 1(b)”, Afterimage (Autumn 1981) p.

[29] Tyler Ibid. 291

[30] Danni Zuvela, “The UBU Moment: An interview with Albie Thoms”, Senses of Cinema, no. 27 (July 2003), <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/27/albie_thoms/> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[31] Sean Nicholls, “Mosman Can’t Stomach ’60s Nude Art Film”, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September 2009, <http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2009/09/24/1253385082642.html> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[32] Nicole Brenez and Adrian Martin, “Serious Mothlight: For Stan Brakhage (1933-2003)” in Rouge, no. 1 (2003), http://www.rouge.com.au/1/brakhage.html (accessed 13 June 2011).

[33] Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film: The Front Line, Denver: Arden Press, 1983, p. 24.

[34] Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater” in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980, p. 234.

[35] Nora Mitrani “Je au Il” in Rose au cœur violet, éditions du Terrain vague, Losfeld, Paris 1988, p. 12-13. Trans: Marie Zorn, English version accessed at www.dreamorous.com on 11 February 2011.

[36] Schefer, Ibid, p. 115.

[37] See reasons for explicit focus on Hollywood in essay by Iris Marion Young “Pregnant Embodiment” and books by Lucy Fischer “Cinematernity” and E. Ann Kaplan “Motherhood and Representation”.

[38] Dudley Andrew, What Cinema Is!, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010.

[39] Brenez, Ibid, 1997.

[40] Constantin Parvulescu, “The Cold World Behind the Window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian Cinema’s Return to Real-Existing Communism”, Jump Cut, no. 51 (Spring 2009), <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/4months/index.html> (accessed 13 June 2011).

[41] Jenkins, Ibid.

[42] Ibid, p. 83.

[43] Christine Battersby, The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 18.

[44] Parvulescu, Ibid.

About the Author

Lauren Bliss

About the Author

Lauren Bliss

Lauren Bliss is a PhD candidate, researching the figure of the pregnant body in the cinema. She has both creative and academic essays published for BAFICI press, Metro magazine and Screening the Past.View all posts by Lauren Bliss →