THE AMBIVALENT BODY: ON THE SHORT FILMS OF MONIKA K. ADLER
By Robert Smart
Paraphilia Magazine, January 2014
Adler’s next film, Purification, is short, just under five-minutes long. The description provided for the film states: Affliction, purify, virtue – Seville, December 2008. Cardinale Alessandro Zacchia II decided to purify a young Polish nun to free her from her sinful past. The specifics of this back story are not delineated in the body of the film itself, no titles or dialogue or visual shorthand spell out any of this, so left with only the evidence of the film itself one confronts a highly inscrutable and disquieting spectacle touching on these themes implicitly, the entire episode open to a wide range of potential interpretations and responses.
The photography in Purification is a stark black and white; the images startling in their simplicity, the action and settings reduced to a nearly absolute minimalism, bordering on still photography. Every scene is shot from a fixed camera position and there is no Zooming in or out, no alteration in the distance between camera and subject. The soundtrack is simple but profoundly effective, consisting of a recording of a Mass from a Croatian Cathedral. Given the situation and the religious trappings of the primary setting the use of religious music is completely congruent while at the same time given the erotic, violent and bizarre nature of the behaviors on display the use of this music is again, as it has been in other examples of Adler’s work, markedly ironic and disjunctive.
The Cardinal is a strapping, shirtless man in black pants, shown initially in an attitude of intense concentration, as if preparing for physical or spiritual trial, shoulders rounded, impressive musculature taut, resembling a brawler before a boxing match, his image reflected and repeated three times, possibly intended to suggest his role as representative of the Holy Trinity of the Patriarchal deity.
Purification 2Before introducing the figure of the nun there is a brief return to the image of the skinned dog first seen in The Beauty of the Shadow, its exposed bone and gaping eyes the truth beneath the skin’s attractive surface. The nature of the nun’s past sin is revealed in pair of ambiguous images separated by a quick cut, both of them a tight two shot of the nun lying cradled in the arms of an unidentified nude woman. In the second shot her hand clutches at and her mouth is concealed behind the prominent nipple of one of the woman’s pendulous breasts, simultaneously evoking maternal solicitude or lesbian ardor.
For the second time Adler presents us with an echo of the Pieta. In Chernobyl of Love, the murdered male lay across the lap of his lover as she devoured his brain. In Purification the nun is held in the lap of another woman. This trope presents a multiplicity of connotations, lover and beloved, parent and child, assailant and victim, sadist and masochist, corporeal and spiritual, all embodied in the flesh of two people occupying a pose that refers, however obliquely, to classical art.
The Pieta is followed by a Close up the nun’s rapt, tear-streaked face, awestruck with either remorse or terror – or both – at the punishment that awaits her.
The action of the film moves to an ancient room of massive and decaying stone. There is a primitive wooden cross on the wall to one side of the Cardinal. The setting is as austere as anything in Bresson or Dreyer. The nun has her face pressed into a white wash basin held there by the strong arm of the Cardinal whose eyes are raised upward in a state of serene vacancy. After several seconds she is allowed to rise up, in extreme slow motion, hands spread, mouth agape in terror or rapture, and once upright, her wet white slip clinging to her breasts and revealing her nipples, turning toward this man who is either torturing her or delivering her – or both.
There is a cut on a quick dissolve and then they are embracing, his arms around her, hers pressed to his chest, head raised and canted upward, nestled into his neck. The height differential between the Cardinal and the nun emphasizes their inequality and elicits associations with father and daughter, the seeds of obedience, guilt, masochism and submission planted in childhood, the house of the father giving way to the house of God.
Purification 3This embrace is held for several seconds before another dissolve and cut separates them, the man holding the woman’s face in his hands. He caresses her face and she moves her head toward him, her expression ambiguous. His hand slowly moves up to stroke her hair then gradually moves to the back of her head, drawing up a handful of hair as his other hand positions itself at her back and she braces herself for the resumption of her purification. He drives her head back down into the basin, her hands spreading to catch the sides of it, one hand seeming to count the seconds before surrendering and lying flat on the rim of the basin as the image fades to black. The sounds of the Mass continue throughout all of this and the closing credits.
The erotic charge of this sequence is inescapable and associations between the nun’s embrace of her tormenter carry echoes of Liliana Cavini’s controversial feature film The Night Porter, a film that Adler admires. The structure of ritual, authority and subjugation fuels the sexual frisson of the participants. The nun in Purification realizes a disturbingly erotic spiritual apotheosis in the grip of the oppressive system in which she willingly participates.
The idea of complicity between assailant and victim is disturbing and indeed for some people intolerable. Yet, as suggested by films like The Night Porter and Purification this complicity has roots that derive from deep in the culture itself, in the institutions of family and church and school, in the dynamics of authoritarianism, unquestioning obedience, brutal punishment and humiliation that was, as psychologists such as Alice Miller have demonstrated, a large part of pedagogy during much of European history. With such conditioning the horrifying events that wracked Europe were not inexplicable but inevitable.
The church with its polarized worldview dividing reality between lightness and darkness, the damned and the saved, the righteous and the just, the profane and the sacred, is a breeding ground for scapegoating, and for the assumption of roles like righteous attacker and perfidious victim. The pervasive misogyny of both the church and the wider traditional culture naturally reduce women to one of several profoundly delimiting and ultimately precarious positions within this society.
The nun’s complicity in her own subjugation, her enthrallment at the hands of the Cardinal are the manifestation of the discredited but persistent values and psychic structures of a dying order that nevertheless still contaminates our bodies and spirits.
One imagines that after the nun submissively counts out the seconds of her next submersion she will rise again in a state of enthralled terror to embrace the agent of her punishing purgation.