Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Dirty Story

Above: Jean-Noel Picq with Jean Eustache during the filming of A Dirty Story

Disclaimer: the film I write about here is unfortunately not readily available at your local video store or netflix queue—and for that, I apologize. I have heard that is available on video in the U.S. if you look hard and get lucky.

A Dirty Story (1977), by French post-new wave director Jean Eustache, is a 50 minute short film in two parts. I was able to see it, screened in the original format, at the Berkeley Film Archive. The BFA hosts an impressive calendar of screenings and film series, which you can peruse here:

The first part of A Dirty Story, shot in 35mm, presents an actor accounting his experience of finding a peephole into the ladies’ toilet of a café he frequents. The actor, Michael Lonsdale, recounts the story to a group of three women and one man, whose faces appear quite titillated and engaged by the tale. Later, their responses confirm this reaction.

Above: Michal Lonsdale

Michael explains that the hole is at floor level, and provides a direct line of sight to the ladies’ vaginas. He quickly becomes addicted to the hole, and spends hours upon hours in the café along with other addicts, taking turns looking at the women as they pee and shit. Through the course of this experience, he finds that he is repulsed by some vaginas and turned on by others. By looking at the women’s shoes, he matches the vaginas to their owners, and is surprised to find he is often attracted to the vaginas of ugly women, and repulsed by the vaginas of beautiful women. This comes as a kind of revelation to Michael; that all the conventional standards of beauty are trumped by the true indication of attraction. At no point does he describe what physical features he is attracted to—size, shape, color, coiffure, etc. Eventually, he becomes so obsessed by the hole that he decides to quit it, cold turkey.

The second half of the film is shot in 16mm, and presents a different man recounting the same story. The stories are almost identical—there are some small discrepancies in phrasing, but all the major and minor details are the same. The significant difference is that the second part is technically a documentary. The man telling the second dirty story, Jean-Noël Picq, is the man whom the story actually happened to. His audience is comprised of three different women and one different man, who find the story generally less scintillating but not entirely objectionable.

The premise of this film provides me with a hefty amount of critical fodder and I will try to be as organized as possible in my response. It seems to me that the three major notions at play are as follows.

1. Voyeurism and the pleasure and politics of seeing.
2. Eroticism, including everything that may fall under this umbrella, such as sexuality, sex (as in male and female) and sex (as in fucking).
3. Subjectivity and truth in story telling.

I must admit that I had to consciously withhold any objections to the story arising from on-the-spot feminist interpretation. It would have been foolish (and easy) to write A Dirty Story off as a misogynist fantasy, and I do believe that my understanding of the film is more profound as a result of this initial restraint. But since the film is primarily men talking about anonymous women’s vaginas, I would be remiss not to look at it through a feminist lens. Michael and Jean lament that the hole allowed them to see women’s vaginas in an immediate and direct fashion that is not replicated in normal life, even during consensual sex. They also remark that women do not expose themselves in public the way male flashers are want to whip their cock out on the subway train. In addition, they both describe a beautiful women with a disgusting vagina who catches on to the scheme, and becomes more ashamed and humiliated than she would have been had she been raped (their words, not mine).

In all of these remarks, there is the implicit condemnation of women for being unduly ashamed of their vaginas. The argument being, that the sex organs are ultimately responsible for true sexual attraction, and therefore should be made more accessible in order to determine sexual compatibility. However, there lies an inherent contradiction in criticizing women for being ashamed of their vaginas while also criticizing the vaginas themselves. In doing so, Michael and Jean play directly into the fears of many women—that their vaginas are ugly.

The counter argument (and maybe Eustache’s argument), is that because Jean and Michael do not provide a physical description that would objectively determine what makes a vagina ugly or beautiful, repulsive or attractive; subjective experience remains the only criterion. It would therefore be irrelevant to provide any physical criteria, which would inevitably change from subject to subject.

Secondly, I would like to take to task is the very notion of shame; as it is incomplete. In Jean and Michael’s comments about the woman who uncovers their ruse they circle around, but do not speak directly to, the other important factor at play: violation. Rape and voyeurism are two forms of sexual violation, and their comments suggest that this particular woman was better equipped to deal with rape, perhaps by a combination of her own personal experiences and her societal experiences. I find this idea utterly absurd. The differences between physical and visual violation are enormous, and it is foolish to create a hierarchy of the two experiences. Unlike physical violation, visual violation can go undetected by the violated, and it is a far different thing to discover having been violated then to experience the violation as it occurs.

Shifting gears, I would like to address the fictional versus the autobiographical account of the story. In the end, the two accounts are the same. The second rendition has closer ties to actual experience, but that one is real and one is fact and one is fiction ultimately bares no effect. All stories and all storytelling share the same relationship to experience whether or not they occurred to the person relaying the tale. Michael tells the dirty story, and it is untrue insofar as it does not apply to his own life. However, it is true insofar as it applies to Jean’s life. On a larger scale—a much larger scale, actually—on an infinite scale, one could argue that all stories have been the real experiences of someone, somewhere, and therefore, all stories are "true".

The “down the rabbit hole” motif of the story also points towards infinity as it relates to the subjective experience. The hole, which begins as a finite thing, opens up an infinite world. Michael/ Jean says that it seemed that the hole was created first, and then the door, and then the café around it. This, going from the specific to the general, is truly a poetic scenario. As if sin and temptation were created before man even existed; as if sex was created first, and then the body, and then the world around it.


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