Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Laughter: Past and Present of A Question of Silence

by Laura Mulvey

Marlene Gorris

1 January 2021

Marleen Gorris (Dir.), A Question of Silence (De stilte rond Christine M.), 1982. © EYE Film Institute Netherlands. 


Marlene Gorris’ film A Question of Silence, released in 1982, clearly emerged out of the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s and the subsequent dissemination of its influence. I would like to begin by summing up its story and then reflect on the dilemma it posed for those women, of which I was one, who had campaigned for a radical feminist cinema throughout the 1970s. Gorris’s film begins with a murder. Three women, who happen to be in the same shop at the same time, respond to the owner’s patronising embodiment of patriarchal power by spontaneously and collectively killing him. Their act is both arbitrary and over-determined; it is at once a subversive, almost surreal, gesture of feminist anger and also empty, outside any coherent political discourse.  The film’s narrative then revolves around the woman psychologist who agrees to testify in the three women’s defence in court and is faced with their silence, a refusal of speech that transforms the initial act of violence into a more complex challenge to patriarchal power. During the trial, the ‘question’ of the women’s silence gradually confronts the legitimacy of male power, symbolically epitomized in the legal process and embodied, in turn, by its professionals, that is, the administration of the court’s authority and, of course, the judge himself. The implicit absurdity of this drama of non-communication erupts at the end of the film in laughter, in an outburst from the three women into which their psychologist is drawn. This is the film’s compelling and, in many ways, fascinating point. On the one hand stands the law, with its command of the language that regulates society in the interest of men; on the other hand, women, invisible and mute, for whom silence and laughter offer refuge and resistance. And here, the film is very much in keeping with the spirit of the present event ‘The Laughter that Silences the Law’.

When I saw A Question of Silence, on its release, my response to the film was coloured by the movement for a feminist avant-garde aesthetic with which I had been deeply involved, both as a critic and as a film-maker, during the 1970s. For this movement too, the question of language and silence was of the essence, but extended, crucially, to the language of film itself as a repository of and mechanism for patriarchal power. The films that we supported, and indeed made, challenged or broke with those cinematic conventions that had, for instance, constructed the female figure as an object for male visual pleasure. And a mode of transparent narrative and naturalized characterization underpinned the given conventions of film language. In order to fight for a new cinema, the movement turned to an avant-garde or negative aesthetic, a kind of return-to-zero, that would make the relation between material and meaning newly visible and therefore open to challenge. The mid to late ’70s had been the high point of feminist avant-garde cinema. Remarkable films had been made that seemed to herald a new dawn, for instance, to cite a few landmarks: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (1975), Yvonne Rainer's Lives of Performers (1972) and Film About a Woman Who… (1974), Valie Export's Invisible Adversaries (1977). Peter Wollen’s and my Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) also took part in the critical debates and experimental aesthetics of the time. However varied they might have been, these films questioned the language of cinema and experimented with alternative film forms, insisting, as it were, that a radically political cinema must also be radical aesthetically. From this, feminist-formalist, perspective, A Question of Silence was disappointing. Although from time to time a bit stylistically clunky, the film was shot conventionally and edited traditionally, using such familiar cinematic devices as close-ups and shot/counter shot. Narrative, character and event were woven unquestioningly around audience identification, without any gesture towards distanciation, self-referentiality, or the splitting open the sign, all significant devices for avant-garde cinema of the time.

With the passing of the decades between 1982 and 2019, some aspects of A Question of Silence now seem to have more in common with certain cultural concerns of 1970s feminism than I was, perhaps, aware at the time. I was part of a strand of the Women’s Liberation Movement that had found in psychoanalytic theory a useful tool for making visible the patriarchal unconscious underlying society. We were influenced most of all by Freud, but also by Jacques Lacan, and I found the latter’s concept of the Symbolic Order of particular relevance for cultural criticism, capturing precisely how patriarchy structured women's oppression and sustained its own authority through its language, its culture, and, above all, its law. These issues are, of course, central to A Question of Silence. A question of silence must also be a question of language. The three silent women on trial are therefore characterized by their deviant use of language and rational defiance of rationality, and the drama ultimately challenges the phallocentric ritual of the law itself.

A few days before the UCL IAS event, ‘The Laughter that Silences the Law’, I participated in a panel discussion about the very early days of women's film festivals. Discussing the way that these festivals had constituted a breaking of the silence that had surrounded films made by women across the history of cinema, I found two quotations particularly relevant. Preparing this presentation for the IAS, I felt that they are also relevant to the fictional world of women in A Question of Silence. Ursula Owen, when asked about the collective’s motives for founding Virago Press in 1975, said: ‘Silences. Perhaps the most important issue addressed in our early publications was the absence of women’s voices and experiences in the culture. We wanted to publish books about lives that had been invisible and with sentiments that had been unthinkable.’ And Sheila Rowbotham said in Women’s Consciousness Man’s World: 

The oppressed without hope are mysteriously quiet. When the conception of change is beyond the limits of the possible, there are no words to articulate discontent so it is sometimes held not to exist. This mistaken belief arises because we can only grasp silence in the moment in which it is breaking.[i]

Laughter is, of course, famously subversive. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, the established order is turned upside down when the oppressed ridicule their oppressors. In the same spirit, Hélène Cixous ends ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, her discussion of the male castration anxiety that so dominates Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, by saying: ‘You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing’.[ii] But while the outburst of laughter at the end of A Question of Silence belongs to this carnivalesque tradition, it also evokes the relation between women and language that runs throughout the film. The women's laughter functions as a non-verbal mode of communication, mutual and exchangeable, at once a collective gesture outside the restrictions of male language and an affront to the ritual site of that language’s authority: the court of law. In psychoanalytic terms, their laughter refers to the close relation between the body, emotion, and expression that characterizes the pre-Oedipal mother-child relationship theorized by Julia Kristeva.    

Although we were only semi-aware of it in the early 1980s, the concentrated period of feminist avant-garde film was coming to an end. At the time, A Question of Silence seemed to look backwards; it was traditionally narrated and stylistically safe. But, with hindsight, this film might also have been a forerunner of another kind of women's cinema: more committed to finding a general audience and to inserting its provocation as nearly as possible into the mainstream. And, however safe it might have seemed stylistically, the public space of neo-liberalism, then emerging over the horizon, would not necessarily be all that safe for a film like A Question of Silence.

[i] Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973) p. 30.

[ii] Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, trans. by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, 1 (1976), 875-93 (885).

Laura Mulvey is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. She was Director of Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) from 2012 to 2015. Her most recent book is Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times (2019). Her latest edited books are Feminisms (2015); and Other Cinemas: Politics, Culture and British Experimental Film in the 1970s (2017). Mulvey made six films in collaboration with Peter Wollen, including Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), and two films with artist and filmmaker Mark Lewis.

Her work has helped shift the orientation of film theory at its intersection with psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Texts cc by nd. Images are licensed for single use.