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From Door Frame to Freeze Frame: Femmes Ante Portas

by Milana Vujkov
(CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA, 2008, Framed: Delimiting the Film Image
     A Cinema Studies Group interdisciplinary graduate conference)

Part I

The idea for this paper was mostly derived from a discourse I did not follow since I

have written, 'Fallen Women' in Hollywood Melodrama 1930s-1950s, as part of a

Melodrama studies module, during my MA History of Film and Visual Media studies. I

have been interested in the Hollywood femme fatale 'type' as appearing in films or written

fiction, or indeed the comic book format, since childhood, and it had always held a certain

fascination for me. They seemed to have had the 'upper hand', a secret knowledge of the

truth of things in a diegesis, and were, at least for me, much more interesting and intriguing

than the male heroes of the story.

Dangerous and witty, most of the time they seemed to know exactly what they

wanted, and although their goals were mainly mercenary in nature, and not particularly

morally admirable, they still had a strength of conviction that I felt was lacking in their male

counterparts in films. Of course, they were always conveniently breathtakingly beautiful.

During the years I became casually, although increasingly interested in the

mechanism of my identification with these cinematic ego- ideals, and ways in which my

admiration for these characters affected my notion of desirable feminine attributes and

behaviour. The established feminist wisdom is that what I was offered through the fixed

images of these women was 'an identification with the active point of view'1, that of the

male hero, or male author of the narrative, and that my gaze was a trans-gender male gaze,

while the object of my interest was a two-dimensional male fantasy figure. This could have

answered the question of why I was so fascinated with the glamour of these femmes and

attractiveness they held for the men in the stories. However, it did not satisfy my curiosity

as to why my identification with these 'shady ladies' gave me a very real sense of active

female empowerment, rather than just the pleasure of sexual 'one-up-manship' feeding a

classical Freudian investment of energy and displacement that generally goes into futile

female narcissism2 and the dubious thrills of the 'power behind the throne'.

Since I will be analysing the film texts using Jungian textual analysis, rooted in the

intuitive and emotional response of the interpreter3 rather that the substantially more popular

Freudian analytical discourse- my renewed instinctive response to the images of femme

fatales that I was about to review again for the purposes of this paper was as relevant as the

actual analysis of the film text.

Well aware that for centuries women have certainly and dominantly tended to

'internalise men's images of them, making them their own.’4 and thus succumbing to the

pressure of patriarchal society's persistently promoted pre-verbal symbols'5 I was eager to

see if I was as 'brain-washed' as I was supposed to have been as a young girl. I wondered if

my renewed intuitive viewing of some archival footage would produce an entirely different

effect, being that I was now actively and consciously aware of the mechanism and the

gender politics behind constructing of the aforementioned narratives.

Part II

The first thing I have noticed in viewing the selected film texts that all had, in one

way or another, a dominant femme fatale as an actual plot device, rather than a credible

three-dimensional character in their story-line, was that the actual diegetic gaze of the

women in the narratives seemed to be an active, even aggressive one. Men, and the audience

gazed at them, for sure- but they, most definitely, seemed to gaze back!

I also noticed that very frequently the femme fatales were introduced to the story in a 'frame

within a frame'- a favourite visual device was the architectural lines of doorways, arches,

corridors, windows, and sometimes, if their characters were performers-they appeared,

limb-by-limb, from behind drawn curtains. If they were not exactly introduced thus, at

pivotal points of the story, they were framed, icon-like, at entrances and exits, gazing back

at the hero, and therefore the audience, in defiance and challenge of male authority. Almost

always a reverse-shot was employed, as well, and the spectator was given the opportunity to

witness the femmes point-of-view, however falsely constructed it might have been.

I have then utilised the Jungian method of amplification, primarily responding to the

emotions aroused in encountering the image-as-symbol of a powerful female figure fixed in

her posture and gaze at a portal, and connecting it to a personal value system and history,

with all the variety of associations that this experience brings. My first impression was of

the icon as used in Christian mythology, particularly of the Eastern Orthodox tradition,

which I am a part of- an icon as bearer of religious significance and bestowed with the

power of deity. And, as St. Basil the Great, so conveniently for the purposes of my

argument, pointed out- the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the


The doors, entrances and corridors, inevitably it seems, brought upon associations of

female mysteries, the hidden female reproductive organs, the vagina, as well as the vagina

dentata, barriers and rejection, as well as openness and invitation- but also the Gates of

Heaven, the Gates of Hell, 'Pandora's Box', closing and opening of doors as the 'rhythm of

the Universe' and, funnily enough- saloon doors of Western lore, the moment when the arch-

villain gunslinger appears and the real challenge to the hero begins.

I have also noticed that the chiaroscuro element of positioning a beautiful women at

the point where darkness and light meet, whether she is entering from the light into the

darkness of the room, or emerging from the darkness into the light, brings upon the

associations not only of bringing unconscious elements of the psyche into consciousness,

but also of seductive monsters guarding the gates of a sacred place, and, therefore, the

archetype of the Sphinx, as well.

In analyzing these associations, I decided that they were, although subjectively

coloured in nature, in synch with the actual logic of the characters in the diegesis of the

analysed film texts, and this further led me to formulate several lines of enquiry.

Firstly, could these iconic images be active within their static nature, just as the icons

in Christian iconography are bestowed with divine power simply by 'standing in' for the

divine being? Could they be fixed images that are in turn animated by the sheer power of

representing an archetype, by being, therefore, archetypal images, rather than merely

objectified for the indulgence in scopophilic fetishism of the cinema-going masses, the cut-

out icons that bring upon the 'freezing of the flow of action in moments of erotic

contemplation' as Laura Mulvey has coined it,7 conjuring a sense of flatness positioned to

titillate, rather than bring verisimilitude to the screen?8

Even more to the point, icons in old Christian tradition, and therefore, in our

collective unconsciousness, as opposed to their contemporary connotations in the

vernacular, have not only the two visible dimensions, but also, most importantly, a third- the

divine aspect that 'activates' them, brings them into life.

I was left with the inevitable question, of course: what archetype in our collective

minds do these women exactly represent? What archetype was I subliminally honouring by

being so inspired by these texts?

Realising that at this point I would be arguing not so much for the conscious

intention of the filmmakers to purposefully create screen goddesses, which is an obvious

point, but for the subversive affect these deities might have had on the female viewer. As

Sandra Kemp argued, a change of perspective utilising the facilities of active imagination

opens up the possibility of 'redefining the art-object as a temporal matter, a becoming-object

rather than a being-object' 9and hence it clears the path for countless new opportunities of

reinterpreting already familiar and traditionally over-analysed texts.

This in turn led me to the second phase of the process of amplification, which is

made within the symbolic text, where clusters of images endowed with archetypical

energies can be found, and their symbolism uncovered by their unifying emotional power.'10

Undoubtedly, the archetype that these ladies were vessels for was the dark lady, the negative

anima, the witch and the demoness, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about

his destruction11, the shadow aspect of Eve, Lilith, the arch-female herself, and one of the

oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western Culture.

But in the olden times, witches were burned at the stake, and however two-

dimensional and repellent this Manichaean depiction of women might seem to us today, the

novelty was that in the 20th century, and especially in the cinema, the femme fatale seemed

to be not-so-secretly, slightly paganly, venerated. She was a fascinating and glamorous

creature to depict, especially through the vehicle of a star, and Hollywood is a town built on

glamour, and, it would be useful to mention at this point, literally founded on Judeo-

Christian mythology.
And although the anima is a contrasexual archetype in men, a projection of an aspect

of the psyche that has characteristics of the female gender, and is unexpressed and

unacknowledged consciously- its counterpart being the animus, in women. (43, Izod), an

archetypal image has an universalising potential for both sexes. However, it is still shaped

and coloured by the culture of its time in order to communicate through its language and

signifying systems.12

And so it is through the cultural unconsciousness, as the site of collision of psychic

energies originating from the collective unconsciousness and the contradictions of

oppressive social formations13 (1991:391, 50 Izod) that these generic images are born, and

very often due to the very nature of their origins embody desires and fears not yet

consciously felt in society.

In other words, these archetypal images of the mythological destructive, but hence

active, feminine archetype often predicted the future yet to come. They certainly

prophesised an increasing feeling of collective ambivalence towards the full power and

authority of the female gender, as well as, Weher has noted14, revealing the intensity of our

conditioning in viewing the symbols of female authority in society.

In understanding the transformation of the original cinematic Hollywood femme

fatale into a new hybrid form of the femme fatale as action figure, 'freeze framed' at will for

the contemplation of the home-cinema viewer, we need to keep in mind that whatever

happens to the images that are the vehicles by which archetypes find expression, the

archetypes themselves are not destroyed. They surface again in another form15.

Part III

The gender progressive twenties, with the birth of talkies, and cinema as we know it,

brought the fore two femme fatale archetypes, the androgyne Garbo and Mae West, the

perfect combinations of the cinematic animus and the anima, along with the flapper gold-

diggers, the 'tarts with hearts'. A femme fatale would lead the men astray in order to play,

and only lost in the game of love- if they loved too much. The thirties, pre-Code, were even

more sophisticated in the presentation of strong female characters, but it seemed that the

femmes gained too much too soon, only loosing out if they were carried away by their

ambition and career drive. In the late thirties and the forties, the post-Code, World War II

era, the femme fatale became the villainess, not a real woman, but a doppelganger, as

Haskell argued, a magnet that draws off the impurities of other women and disinfects them.

16- the form with which we most associate the type in cinema today. This portrayal of

women as predators, brought upon no doubt by the usurped collective shadow of the War,

also coincided with women taking up men's jobs en masse due to the very real labour

shortage. The reactionary and curiously sexually repressed fifties brought back home the

traumatised hero, urging the femmes to leave behind their hard-won freedom and the

working place, and retreat to a domestic bliss of gadgets and ennui. This, in turn, inevitably

brought upon a significant decline in the femme fatales as leads, unless in an overtly

parodied form- the 'real thing' would only occasionally pop up as a minor character.

However, the power of the archetype they represented would usually form a 'hidden

narrative', as in the case of 'fallen women' in Hollywood melodrama of the time. In the late

sixties and seventies, with the true advent of feminism, and as a collective patriarchal

reaction to it, the fatales ironically almost disappeared from the screen, and were only in full

force as a possible partner in crime to the angst-ridden male protagonists.

In the meantime, something was seriously boiling underneath the surface, because, as

we have discussed, an archetype cannot disappear, it can only be suppressed, pushed

underground, and appear with even more force next time around. The eighties and early

nineties brought upon the most hard-nosed, self-possessed, and, most importantly,

unredeemed femme fatale archetypes we have ever seen on screen. Simultaneously, in the

late seventies, with the growing popularity of the horror genre, we witnessed the curious

capacities of the emerging Final Girl character, a term coined by Carol Clover. The last

character standing in the showdown with the maniacal (and often feminized) male psychotic

murderer at large- as Clover argues, her 'triumph depended on her assumption of the gaze'.

Her adopted masculinity was, however, the key to her success, and that was the rub for the

feminist viewer, labelling her 'an agreed upon fiction', a vehicle for a male viewer's own

sadomasochistic fantasies17. But we cannot deny the importance of this new type of heroine

for the female audience. The Final Girl not only outsmarted, but also out-gazed her

assailant.18 Finally, somewhere in the fusion of the 80's new fatale and the Final Girl the

new action figure of the femme fatale avenger and adventurer had appeared, as seen in the

likes of Nikita, The Bride, Lara Croft and so many female super-heroes of the fantasy film

genre- bringing us full circle to the femme fatale androgyny of the early twenties, an

homage the phallocentric 20th century cinema has inadvertently, and with delicious irony

has paid to women's lib.

Bursting out from the constraints of their 'frame within a frame', their 'icon

mantelpiece' in the cinema of yore, the femme fatale, or more simply, the archetypal image

of the active feminine principle, is now in full motion in global cinema, and, hence, in the

minds and hearts of young women everywhere. It can only be stopped intermittently and

temporarily by a lonely click on the 'freeze frame button', thus creating a fresh form of an

icon to adore.

1 Laura Mulvey, Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by Kong Vidor's 'Duel In The Sun'; (Framework
16-16-17, summer 1981); (ed) Sue Thorman, Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p.124
2 Molly Haskell, From Reverence To Rape: The Treatment Of Women In The Movies (Chicago & London: The University Of
Chicago Press, 1987), p.383
3 John Izod, Myth, Mind and Screen: Understanding The Heroes Of Our Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) p.8
4 Izod, 2001, p.66
5 Demaris Wehr, Jung and Feminism: Liberating Archetypes (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987:p.123-4, citing Emma Jung, Anima and
Animus: Two Essays, 1957:p.20, Izod, 2001, p.48
6 Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit 18:45: 'The honour paid to the image passes to the prototype' Icon/Wikipedia

7 Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema, (Screen: Visual and Other Pleasures, Glasgow: University of Glasgow,
1975); Sue Thorman (ed), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p.63
8 Thorman (ed), 2005, p. 63: Mulvey, 1975
9 Sandra Kemp, Reading Difficulties, Patrick Campbell (ed.) Analysing Performance: a Critical Reader (Manchester; Manchester
University Press, 1996, p.155), Izod, 2001, p.29
10 Izod, 2001, p.28
11 Janey Place, Women in Film Noir; Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir (London: BFI Publishing, 1989), p.35
12 Izod, 2001, p.47
13 Rushing, Janice Hocker and Thomas S. Frentz, Integrating Ideology and Archetype in Rhetorical Criticism, Quarterly Journal of
Speech: 1991, p.391), Izod, 2001, p.50
14 Izod, 2001: Weher, 1987, p.24
15 Izod, 2001, p.150
16 Haskell, 1987, p.60
17 Carol J. Clover, Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, J. Donald (ed.) Fantasy and the Cinema (London: BFI
Publishing, 1989), Thornham (ed.), 2005, p.242
18 Thornham (ed.), 2005:Colver, 1989, p.245


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Kaplan, Ann (ed.), Women in Film Noir, (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1989)

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Internet Source: www.


Blue Angel (Joseph Von Sterneberg, 1930, Germany/USA)

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981, USA)
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967, USA)
Bound (Wachowski Brothers, 1996, USA)
Cabaret, (Bob Fosse, 1972, USA)
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958, USA)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974, USA)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944, USA)
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999, UK/USA)
Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987, USA)
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002, USA)
Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939, USA)
Kill Bill I & II (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004, USA)
LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997, USA)
La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990, France)
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001, UK/USA)
Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005, USA)
Moulin Rouge, (Baz Luhrmann, 2001, Australia/USA)
Murder My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944, USA)
Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953, USA)
Out Of The Past (Jaques Tourneur, 1947, USA)

Pandora's Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929, Germany)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994, USA)
The English Patient, (Anthony Mingnella, 1996, UK/USA)
The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942, USA)
The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990, USA)
The Hot Spot, (Dennis Hopper, 1990, USA)
The Lady From Shaghai (Orson Welles, 1947, USA/France)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946, USA)
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958, USA)