Judith, Offred and Lady Macbeth

June 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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In the course of the same week I watched an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, saw William Olroyd’s film Lady Macbeth in the cinema, and attended the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Festival Hall. All three narrate extremes of female subjugation.

Coercion directs Offred’s every move in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel (she has credits as co-writer and co-producer). The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the United States as Gilead, a newly formed theocracy where women lose all autonomy. I remember Atwood’s declaration that everything it described has already been inflicted or is being inflicted on women somewhere in the world – she hadn’t of course foreseen the current threats to so many freedoms in Trump’s America.

Adding to our awareness of barbarisms elsewhere, the contemporary references now introduced bring Gilead’s regime of evangelical Christian fascism an imaginative step closer to the present. As in Orwell’s 1984, there’s ubiquitous surveillance, paranoia, betrayal for the sake of survival. Punishments, like salutations, are biblical, in a viciously literal manner; rape is systematic, institutionalised as sacred and pure.

These horrors are the more disturbing for being seen in fragmentary glimpses, spoken of in whispers or choreographed to conceal, like the scene where victims are themselves commanded to enact collective murder. Women’s enslavement parallels the killings of gays and others whose existence offends the rulers. Silence prevails, not just in the voicelessness of the oppressed, but pervading sunlit streets as well as shadowy rooms and corridors, stifling spontaneous life. Offred is played with watchful intelligence by Elisabeth Moss, and her tale unfolds through interior monologue.

Power in this near-future dystopia is achieved by reversal, the brutal stripping away of prior freedoms. Olroyd’s film explores Victorian forms of coercion. It’s derived from Nikolai Leskov’s novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, published in 1865, which tells a different story about power than that of Shakespeare’s play. Among the many rights that women didn’t have in that particular year were those of property in the event of marriage: everything a woman had owned belonged to her husband. Katherine, the film’s teenage protagonist, has been acquired by her violently dictatorial father-in-law along with a parcel of land. Her bridegroom is middle-aged and bullying, her new home a cheerless and loveless house that comes with a warning not to step outside.

The film’s style and imagery emphasise confinement, the domestic cage, in sundry ways. Strict morning routines of shutters opened, corset painfully tightened, unwieldy crinoline frame (both cage and sign of status) set in place, followed by static shots of Katherine unwillingly demure on the sofa – all establish a claustrophobic, imprisoning world. Rare moments of release occur during the absence of both patriarchal figures (not gentry but uncouth owners of industry with crises to manage), when we see her stride off across the moors (like the Northern accents, they suggest Yorkshire and, by association, the Brontës). These first intimations of rebellion offer us a nature-loving heroine to sympathise with, but Katherine becomes an anti-heroine whose defiance takes her over the line to villainy.

Strong willed and impulsive, she discovers passion in the arms of a servant, the dark-skinned Sebastian. Race as well as class powerlessness has an unforced visibility in the film. Anna, Katherine’s black maid, is a mutely alert witness. She might be expected to turn ally, but driven by sexual desire, Katherine shows no need of sisterly solidarity. Events proceed at a pace appropriate to the abrupt curtailment of the classic Victorian marriage scenario from which women can’t escape. Murder puts a stop to it. Not just once.

In its script, editing and soundscape Lady Macbeth displays perfectly judged economy, both when it conveys cramped resistance to reiterated dullness and futility, then the wild and startling actions of a victim suddenly unbound by wilful disregard of morality. Nobody triumphs, two fates are horribly sealed, and we are left with nihilism as one answer to deprivation of a woman’s freedom. A very young woman and a disastrous answer that visits even harsher injustice on others. This tale is told with acute penetration. What the camera shows us, most often in insistent close-up, is a shockingly uneasy view of the past, convincing in its unfamiliarity, and not without mystery.

However much we expect our heroines to be good, the story of violence begetting violence on women’s part has deep roots in Western culture, starting with Medea. Bluebeard is another age-old story, one of Perrault’s fairy tales, published in 1697 but, like most of those we know, originating in oral tradition. Its many elaborations over time carry a cautionary weight for women, about the dangers of romantic love, about male secrets and threats. Charlotte Brontë makes explicit references to it in Jane Eyre, where the locked doors at Thornfield Hall prompt Jane to wonder what Mr Rochester conceals, before she discovers the truth about his locked up wife. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca reworks Brontë’s novel, with the mystery of Max’s dead wife shadowing the life of the new one, while both male characters exhibit an emotional carelessness bordering on sadism before their husbandly devotion is confirmed. Angela Carter subverted the Bluebeard narrative in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the titular story in her 1979 collection, and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ was likewise the central story in her collection of 1983.

Bartok’s one-act opera has only two singers. Judith has eloped with Duke Bluebeard, forsaking her family and the man she was meant to marry, recklessly ignoring sinister rumours and proclaiming a love that overrides fear, which she believes will bring light to the castle’s menacing darkness. Her words and song vie with his as she lays claim to the truth, demanding keys to the locked doors, even when the first opens on a torture chamber. The libretto, by the Symbolist poet and film theorist Béla Balázs, has a visual density that animates each vision of wealth, power and beauty, tinged with blood, until the seventh door reveals Bluebeard’s three previous wives in living death. The music, composed for a large orchestra, expresses this battle of wills in a maelstrom of ambivalence, deep sonorities of foreboding shrouding mesmeric rippling chords that suggest the magical or uncanny.

We can see in Judith not so much a willing victim as a woman who overestimates the power of love and the power of her own eloquence. Neither she, Offred or Katherine is subservient. All three are active figures. Before her capture Offred had a husband and young daughter, the former killed (it would seem) as they tried to escape to Canada, the latter taken from her. She’ll fight to find her. There’s a resistance movement out there, and nine more episodes.

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