Monday, 8 February 2016

“Mock-documentaries are a more reliable source than documentaries”

Nanook of the North is credited as being one of the first feature length documentaries. Made in 1922 by Robert J. Flaherty, it shows the lives of the Inuit people of Quebec, Canada, from fishing and hunting to eating with family. The hypocrisy of this film is that many parts were reconstructed in order to add to the romanticism of the narrative; the ‘family’ at the centre of the film were cast and paid Inuit; the famous walrus scene was re-enacted with spears that were no longer the primary hunting tool, and the clothes worn were nostalgic costume, not the western clothes they had come to appropriate (Duncan 1999: 1). It has been argued that these elements of dramatizing information are still appropriate for the factual discourse of documentary (Ward 2005: 32), however I believe that Nanook of the North falls under the umbrella category of docufiction, and more specifically, docudrama – a text with documentary content, but presented in a fictional form (Springer, Rhodes 2006: 4). In this essay, I argue that the mock-documentary is a more reliable source than the documentary due to the underhand production and actualisation of the documentary form, in comparison to the upfront nature of the mock-documentary, shown through parody and satire. The reason I am using the term ‘mock-documentary’ rather than mockumentary, pseudo-documentary or any other term, is succinctly explained by Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight “mock-documentary suggests its origins in copying a pre-existing form, in an effort to construct… a screen from with which the audience is assumed to be familiar” (2001: 1). By comparing mock-documentaries to documentaries, as well as using my own film, Looking for George as a source, I hope to show how mock-documentaries should be taken as a more valid source of opinion through parodying the often covert agenda’s of documentaries.
Initially, this will be addressed through comparing the current Reggie Yate’s documentaries, Extreme Russia with sketches from the political mock-documentary TRWBT. Subsequent to this, I will explore the techniques that are employed to convey the information about characters in documentaries, mock-documentaries and hoaxes, looking specifically at the cast/crew dynamic of Troll-Hunter, the presenter characters of Dale Mailey from TRWBT and Benjamin Crawley in Looking for George. I will question the authenticity of the documentary presenter and their authority to educate the public. Finally, I will discuss the ethical nature of the mock-documentary, which involves a critique of whether the satirical form trivialises the information or opinion it attempts to convey. I will conclude this essay with an informed opinion of why mock-documentaries are to be taken as a more valuable source of opinion in comparison with documentaries, based on the commentary they make about politics, the media or the documentary form itself. 

A brief history of the Documentary, and the form of the Mockumentary 
According to John Parris Springer and Gary D. Rhodes, Kino Pravda of early 20th Century Russia was the beginning of documentary filmmaking, pioneered by Dziga Vertov with non-fictional films that attempted to record the facts of unscripted life in the newly formed Soviet Union, rejecting any fictional or narrative elements (2006: 1). In 1960’s France, Jean Rouch began to develop his own style of documentary film making, helping to popularise the conventions of cinéma vérité by using hand-held camerawork and synchronous sound. At the same time, ‘direct cinema’ was being developed through the documentaries of Richard Leacock, D.A Pennebaker and the brothers David and Albert Maysles, who worked on observational documentaries. They believed in letting the narrative come together in the editing suite, whilst allowing the filming to remain strictly non-interventionist, unlike Rouch who had a more provocative and interactive approach towards his subjects (Hight 2010: 110). I believe that the problem with the documentary form is the façade of truth, which is undercut by the agenda of the presenter and crew as well as the post-production manipulation of interviews and action, making it seem as though a narrative has developed organically when in fact it has been constructed. A reaction to the documentary format was the mock-documentary and hoax, which parody and satire the tired techniques in order to expose how inauthentic the presentation of information is. These texts often questioned the role of the crew and the presenters, who are edited to seem as though they are invisible to the interviewee, as well as having no agenda other than to film the action truthfully. 

What is the agenda of the text to be communicated to its audience? 
The agenda of the mock-documentary is often made clear through the commentary or critique they are making. This is often not the case in documentaries that are presented as sources of quotable information, created with no intent other than to inform. In my opinion, this is not the case in Reggie Yate’s documentary series, Extreme Russia. The episode to be discussed is called Far Right and Proud. Both the title of the series and that of the episode create a bias towards a fervent nationalism that is supported by the narration over the introduction that includes insightful snippets such as “growing up in the 80’s, Russia was painted as this weird, big baddie”, images of Russian policemen out in force and marches with Putin’s face on the flags. Reggie Yates, a former children’s television presenter and BBC radio 1 host, was chosen to investigate why far right groups, which are well known racist strongholds, were rising in numbers. It seemed as though Yates’ race was used to provoke responses from the small-minded racists interviewed, with comments describing mixed-race children as “freaks”. Yates talked to Dmitry Demushkin, a former neo-nazi, who now led a far-right group and agreed to speak with Yates; however, Demushkin’s agenda outweighed the importance of Yates’ interview about the group’s beliefs. It became apparent that Demushkin was using his interaction with a black man to eliminate previous racist accusations by posting pictures on social media. Yates agreed to attend a self-defence class run by Demushkin, in which he met a man who invited him to a traditional Russian sauna. The nudity obviously made Yates uncomfortable as he made allusions to the apparent homosexuality of being naked in a sauna with another man, belittling the tradition and implying that the tough Russian man was a repressed homosexual. Yates’ agenda here is clear, despite the unbiased pretence of reporting on the support of political parties in Russia. The documentary demonizes the views of the entire group by showing clips that portray them as racist, homophobic and infers the self-defence classes run by Demushkin are the cause of racist attacks on immigrants with no clear evidential link. The agenda of the program The Revolution Will Be Televised (TRWBT) is made clear from the opening title sequence that reads, “Our world is full of hypocrisy, corruption and greed. Someone has to fight back. Shame it had to be these guys”. The idea is that the series exposes the hypocrisy of the media, the corruption of the government and the greed of multi-national corporations. The series is a mock-documentary because it uses factual information but presents it satirically. Like all mock-documentaries, TRWBT relies on audience media literacy to recognise the documentary format of its sketches, and therefore understand the satire. In the first series, one of the sketches used continuously presents mock-documentary style coverage of two lesser-known MP’s, a Conservative named James Tottingham-Burbage, and a Lib-Dem called Barnaby Plankton. In episode three, the two characters wander around an estate, talking presumably to those with lower incomes, about the cuts to their benefits. They ask them how they would feel about moving out of their council houses and into a cardboard box. The agenda is clear: to show how ludicrous the welfare cuts are; to satirize the relationship between politicians and the public, and to poke fun at the documentary technique of the infallibility of the presenters by portraying them as silly and ridiculous. When brainstorming the plot for Looking for George, we took inspiration from TRWBT in the form of political critique. Our agenda was to criticise the political far right parties in the UK for hijacking the patron saint, Saint George, and using him as a figurehead in the Protection of English National Identity Party, or PENIP. The English Defence League use the Saint George flag at marches and often sing the song “With Saint George in my heart, keep me English” at rallies. Through research we discovered that Saint George was historically born in Palestine, fought for the Roman army, and was born to Greek and Palestinian parents. In addition, he is the patron saint for at least four other countries. We tried to make our agenda clear through the blatant parody of the BNP 2014 banned party political broadcast, available on Youtube, in which an animated English Bulldog trots through different parts of Great Britain, criticising the effect of immigration and ‘Islamification’ of the UK. We directly satirised the final part of the video in which a politician says “Just listen to ordinary people like you”, followed by the opinions of apparently ‘ordinary’ people who ask for “British jobs for British people” and the restoration of capital punishment. We began our propaganda video with Saint George drinking a beer, a reflection of the many pictures of Nigel Farage drinking, apparently to make him a more likeable and relatable candidate. We then went on to have opinions from ‘ordinary’ people that reflected the anti-immigration feelings of parties like the BNP and UKIP. We wanted to highlight not only how Saint George had has his identity hijacked in the name of political propaganda, but also how politicians themselves become a product of their campaign rather than retaining their individuality. Our film was released on the same day as the British general election 2015, an election that was dubbed by the BBC as the ‘social media election’ (Wendling 2015: 1). The candidates had become caricatures of their parties, and I feel this was captured in Saint George’s character in the apparent control during the propaganda video, contrasted with the drunken antics towards the end of the film. Whilst our film requires the audience to have an understanding of the policies of UKIP, the use of Saint George by the EDL, and potentially the BNP political broadcast, it is not essential in order for them to grasp the parody of far right policies. Paul Ward’s description of the mock-documentary is apt to what we attempt to achieve with the PENIP party broadcast, “The sober discourse of an informational documentary mode is juxtaposed with ludicrous statistics and outright lies, so that the original conventions appear ludicrous too” (2005: 74). Our agenda is to mock the political broadcast, but its feature in our mock-documentary is made clear from the captions, highlighting the documentary technique that we are satirising. Whilst the agenda of the documentary is supposedly clear from the offset, as shown in Reggie Yates’ narrative introduction, there are often hidden motives that are revealed after a closer reading. On the other hand, the mock-documentary is more open with its intentions, providing they have a level of media literacy and are aware of its fictional nature, and the tropes it is parodying. In this way, the agenda is communicated in a more transparent manner to the audience, despite the biased opinions. 

What techniques are employed to convey information about characters and their roles? The introductory narration is one of the tell-tale signs of a documentary program, often spoken in an over-enthusiastic and disjointed voice. The narration is often used throughout, especially when the presenter is on screen travelling, walking or thinking. Alternatively, the presenter will directly address the camera, breaking the fourth wall and connecting with us, the ‘audience at home’. As aforementioned, captions indicating where footage has come from are another documentary technique, but captions are also used to demonstrate who interviewees are. In most documentaries, the crew are invisible, never being caught on camera or spoken to directly. The effect of this is to create a sense of verisimilitude that implies the action has organically occurred with no directions from the producer or cameraman, often achieved in the editing suite during post-production. The issue I have with this is the pretence of reality, the idea that the action would have happened regardless of whether the camera were there or not.  By parodying the documentary techniques, the mock-documentary highlights the hypocrisy of the documentary. This is achieved in Man Bites Dog, where Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde write, produce and direct the film, as well as editing, filming and acting in it. As seen in fig. 3, the men are often in shot interacting with the main character, with the reflexivity taking a dark turn as they end up participating and facilitating the murders, rapes and cover-ups of the serial killer they originally intended to document.

Another film where the cast/crew are involved in the action of the documentary they are shooting is Troll-Hunter, a Norwegian hand-held horror/hoax about a group of students who, whilst filming about bear killings, accidently become involved with a troll-hunter and uncover a government level cover-up. The self-reflexive nature of involving the crew as cast in this film is purely fictional, as the cast in the film are actually actors. However, this film also satirises another documentary trope; the found footage declaration at the beginning of the film. Troll-Hunter begins with a statement that declares the footage was delivered to the production company as hard disks of rushes, and they have released the film as unedited clips, in chronological order, with no image manipulation. It then goes on to claim that a “team of investigators” had concluded this footage was real. These statements encourage the audience to extend their belief to the idea of reality within the footage. This is one of the reasons hoaxes are not as valid a source of information as mock-documentaries, as they attempt to con the audience into believing the films they watch are factually correct. The presenter is often portrayed as being a source of knowledge and authority in the documentary form, shown through their point of view being constantly consulted in relation to the topic they are investigating. Brian Cox is a physicist and a professor of physics at the University of Manchester, a respected academic in his field, and therefore fully entitled to present documentaries on space. However, when Stacey Dooley, a BBC3 television personality, presents documentaries on marijuana production in South Africa in her recent series Stacey Dooley Investigates, it is difficult to see what her authoritative status is. When Dooley shadows the airport drug enforcement, and comes across a package that was labelled with an address in E16, she gives the valuable insight “The hipsters won’t have any weed to smoke”, and during a three minute action sequence in which she rides with the police, she helpfully points out where she is and what she’s doing, in case we hadn’t been paying attention, “I’m not looking to push my luck, this is Johannesburg, and we’re door stepping drug dealers”. We try and parody the presenter of documentaries like Dooley with the beginning of Looking for George, having a slow-zoom in to Benjamin Crawley standing in a museum, saying “I’m Benjamin Crawley, part-time historian, full-time Englishman, and today I’m in a museum”. By pointing out the generic spot he’s in, we highlight the absurdity of presenter’s narrative. This continues with our travelling shots of Crawley walking along streets in Hebden Bridge or around Manchester Piccadilly Gardens. The humour is accentuated in the wardrobe choice of the Crawley, satirising Richard Clay, a BBC history presenter. The long coat, the flyaway hair and the tucked in shirt are all parodies of the documentary presenter attire. This is just one of the ways we parody the documentary techniques employed to build the characters role. We use typical documentary shots such as the presenter walking towards the camera and then walking past, but we mocked them by having ridiculous narrative. TRWBT also parodies the presenter with the character ‘Dale Maily’, a reference to the sensationalist newspaper and online gossip site, The Daily Mail. In series one, episode three, Dale Maily introduces his story with the tagline “I’m Dale Maily, the fearless hetero journalist” and finishes with “Telling you the right way to think”. The small section of ‘news’ involves him reporting on an English boating race, pretending to hold similar beliefs to those he is interviewing in order to get a response from them. He asks a young man about the Falklands, calling the Argentinians ‘Argies’ and questioning whether or not they should be “beaten down”. The young man responds by saying, “We should let the Argies take the Falklands, and then we kick the shit out of them, and take the Falklands back!” to which Maily and the young man guffaw. The coverage of the boat race highlights the lack of ethnic or religious diversity, and attempts to poke fun at the opinions of the upper class. The Dale Maily sketch uses news tropes such as location shooting, hand-held camera and natural lighting that increase the verisimilitude of the piece; however, because the content is sardonic, the effect is to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation.

 What are the ethical concerns behind the mock-documentary? 
While TRWBT uses factual information, Looking For George uses information that is false and potentially misleading. This could be viewed negatively, as with the first on air hoax by Orson Welles in War of the Worlds in 1938, where a story of alien invasion was broadcast as a news item resulting in a panicked public and policemen storming the studio. The program caused a local mayor to call the studio and announce there were mobs on the streets of a Midwestern town. However, in Looking For George, as Roscoe and Hight say of mock-documentaries, we attempted to “engage directly with a factual discourse, and effectively to encourage viewers to develop critical awareness of the partial, constructed nature of documentary” (2001: 160). We did this through questioning the authenticity of the presenter through using Benjamin Crawley to ridicule the seriousness of documentary presenters. Our film is a hybrid of what Roscoe and Hight would refer to as “parody” and “critique”; parody because we appropriate documentary aesthetics to emphasize humour; and critique because we engage critically in the reflexivity towards factual discourse, raising questions about unethical interviewing practice in the apparent spontaneity of our doorstep interview with Saint George. A lot of mock-documentaries, particularly low budget shorts use non-professional actors. The positive aspect of this is that a platform is created for previously unknown artists. However, the use of a working script and non-professionals means that the quality control is low, and the actors may not have a say in the final cut of the film, as the story is mainly created in the editing suite. This means they may not agree with how they or their character is portrayed, for example, in Looking for George, the actor Mritunjay Sharma was originally cast as Saint George, however his acting was not to a high enough standard that the crew collectively agreed was necessary for one of the main characters of the film. We had to regroup and change our working script, deciding to change the story line in order to work with one of the actors who had more skill in improvisation. We still wanted to use Sharma, however we created a different role for him, which would allow us to use more documentary tropes. We had a ‘victim confession’, which is often used in documentaries, and blurred out Sharma’s face, dubbing over his voice with another actors, and distorting it to an almost humorous level of unrecognizability. The ethical problem with this is that we didn’t consult Sharma before we changed his character, as ultimately, the creative control lies with the crew, not the actors. This meant although he had auditioned for the role of Saint George, he ended up being an anonymous character, with another actor speaking his lines. This could be viewed as unfair, however with the time constraints and limited filming time, we made the executive decision that the harm would be minor and would be a fair judgement for the benefit for the film. With conclusions like these being made without the actor’s agreement, it could be argued that the mock-documentary practice of creating the story in the editorial suite draws actors in with a false sense of trust, as they are never exactly sure of how their character will turn out. The documentary form and style is described by Springer and Rhodes as including “historically specific devices such as the authoritative voiceover narration… the use of on-camera interviews; forms of evidence such as archival photographs, diagrams, maps and charts; and such visual characteristics as handheld camera” (2006: 4). The mock-documentary borrows these documentary elements, as Looking for George did with Crawley’s insightful narration, the interview with Johanna Eccles, the historical images of Saint George and the shaky hand-held footage. Instead of claiming to be filming real people in a “segment of the real world” (ibid), it bases its content on self-referential irony through acknowledgement of the crews presence, satirical narrative and fictional content. The “real world” of the mock-documentary us irrelevant, because what is important is the critique the director/cast are trying to highlight. To be read correctly, Looking for George relies on the audiences knowledge of the documentary format, a basic knowledge of the political parties of Great Britain, and the typical presenter characteristics. Our film serves as a metacommentary on the rise of far right parties in the UK. Whilst non-fiction television attempts to “mediate aspects of the socio-historical world according to varying agendas, ethics and representation styles that typically incorporate a direct address to their assumed domestic audiences” (Hight 2010: 102), the mock-documentary seeks to upset this through parodying many of the techniques used by highlighting their tired effect on the audience. The mock-documentaries are an essential element of modern day media, critical to weed out the tired conventions that become less and less effective with use. Humour points out the pomposity of the documentary form so it can continue to grow in a healthy direction, and while the mock-documentary may not tell us the correct facts about the patron saint of England, we are taught about how documentary and political propaganda rhetoric is dangerous in influencing the nation. 

Duncan, Dean, W. (1999) ‘Nanook of the North’ in The Criterion Collection. Accessed online: [11.05.2015] 
Hight, Craig (2010) Television Mockumentary: Reflexivity, satire and a call to play. Manchester University Press: Manchester Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight (2001) Faking It: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester University Press: Manchester 
Springer, John Parris and Gary D. Rhodes (2006) Docufictions: Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. McFarland & Co. Inc: USA Ward, Paul (2005) Documentary: The Margins of Reality. Wallflower: London 
Wendling, Mike (2015) ‘What makes a ‘social media election’? on BBC. Accessed online: [11.05.2015] 

Banned BNP Broadcast 2014. Accessed online: [15.05.2015]
Extreme Russia dir. By Chris Alcock. (UK: BBCthree, 2015)
Looking for George dir. By Amelie Eckersley, John Hemsoll, Jenny Mcintyre (UK: Unreleased, 2015)
Man Bites Dog dir. By Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgium: Les Artistes Anonymes: 1993)
Nanook of the North dir. By Robert J. Flaherty (USA: Les Frère Revillion, Pathé Exchange, 1922)
Stacey Dooley Investigates dir. By Joyce Trozzo (UK: BBCthree, 2015)
Troll-Hunter dir. By André Øvredal (Norway: Filmkameratene A/S, Film Fund FUZZ: 2011) 

War of the Worlds dir. By Orson Welles (USA: Columbia Broadcasting System, 1938)

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Analyse the visual style (cinematography, editing, mise-en-scène) in The Red Shoes. How does the visual style assist our understanding of the film’s themes and narrative concerns?

The Red Shoes (1948) was originally a fairy-tale by Hans Christian Anderson, and although it was adapted into a film by The Archers Powell and Pressburger, many of the same themes still exist, such as the girl’s desires to dance. The mental state of Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, is explored extensively in the Ballet of The Res Shoes, the colour red is referenced to throughout, and the desperation to succeed is something that has transpired from the original fairy-tale as well. The narrative concerns this essay will focus on are the instability of Vicky’s mind explored through the scene in which she dances the ballet of The Red Shoes.  It will also look at how the visual style assists the audience’s expectations of the film from the opening sequence and the first scene. This particular film has been chosen due to its plenitude of exploitation of visual style to support and influence the audiences understanding of the film’s narrative concerns and themes.

The mise-en-scène translates from the French as ‘staging’ or ‘putting into the scene’ and thus has its provenance in theatre rather than cinema1. However, fairy-tales are often adapted for film due to their dramatic nature and accessibility for all ages. The fairy-tale origins of The Red Shoes is alluded to from the very beginning, with the film opening with an extreme close-up of an atmospheric flickering candle, then zooming out to show a book with ‘Hans Christian Anderson’ written on the spine in ornate gold lettering. The candle sits on the book, with a white-feathered quill on one side and a charcoal black inkpot on the other side. Behind, a piece of tattered, aged parchment nailed to the wall, reads “The Red Shoes”, written in bold, blood red paint. In front of the book sits two small, bright red ballet point shoes, the ribbons frozen in curls out to the side horizontally.
The mise-en-scène of this shot, which takes up less than a minute, visually heralds to the origins of the film and gives us an insight into what the film will be about. According to James Monaco, mise-en-scène is the filmmaker’s tool, which ‘alters and modifies our reading of the shot’2. So the red of the writing and shoes being representative of love, passion and anger was carefully picked by Powell and Pressburger to introduce a motif that will be engrained into the audiences subconscious from the very beginning. The shoes themselves being fairly self-explanatory as a symbol of ballet, poise and elegance let the audience know that they will be important, and as the opening credits show, they are concentrated on more as the introduction continues. The camera technique of extreme-close up zooming out to the view of the whole frame gives a gradual exposition of the fairy-tale idea of the film. The use of a candle as lighting gives the piece an aged feeling as it flickers on the archaic parchment and quill, however the candle is not really the source of light, it is in fact full front lighting which washes out the objects, giving them equal importance.

The animated backgrounds of the opening credits support the fairy-tale ideal, with the red ballet shoes in a fixed position in the centre while the backdrops change. The flowers and sunrise images juxtaposed with the flames and dark trees show the different periods in which the tale has been told, as though it has been adapted in many ways since it’s original creation.
The saturated use of primary colours accentuate the affect of the mood changes, giving the opening a dream like quality, colour adding ‘an entirely new dimension’2. The fantastical feel to the animated opening is encouraged by the major orchestral music, adding to the feel of thematic continuity.

Cinematography depends largely on how the filmmaker transforms perspective3. In the next shot, perspective is played upon to give the audience an understanding of where the scene is set and the status of the characters in the shot.
The first shot of the actual film is from a low angle short lens shot of a staircase and the audience are immediately brought into the action by the sound of crowds shouting. If we are to take into consideration what Bernard F. Dick suggest, that sound is an integral element of mise-en-scène 4, then as the first noise made by actors in the film, this shouting is important to the film, and assists the intrigue created by the low lighting, lack of physical actor presence and the open form of the shot, exposed by the first actor walking into the frame. The plastics of this shot include off-white and green walls with a dusty window lit from the outside and a wall lamp giving off minimal yellow light. From this, the audience become interested in where the scene is being shot, and expectant of a performance once the character in tails appears.
 When the first actor enters the shot, as he is being lit from behind, his shadow is thrown onto the wall making him seem larger, the perspective relations3 meaning that the characters shadow seems larger than normal because of the back light. This gives the impression of importance and stature, supported by his formal dress of tails in comparison to the two doormen who are in grey uniform. The doormen calling him ‘Sir’ explains the status quo to the audience further as well as the shot reverse shot with the actor in tails being above the two doormen, and the fact he gives them instructions based on checking his wealth-connoting pocket watch.
As the door opens, the camera is at knee level with the actors and the student run towards it, giving as sense of a stampeding crowd. Then as the students run up the stairs, the camera following them from above, the audience notices the plain yet smart nature of their clothes. The frame then switches to a static shot of the camera slowly zooming in on the poster of The Ballet Of The Red Shoes while the students run through the corner of the camera. The next shot is of one of the doorman on the floor being trampled as students run over and passed him up the stairs, which cuts to the students ripping the poster as they run pass.
The editing of this sequence is sharp and fast, reflecting the sense of urgency portrayed by the students running for seats in the theatre. The focus of the short lens encompasses all the actors at once, giving no particular student more technical advantage than another, and the lighting washes the scene with no preference. The sequence of film resulting from the montage of shots put together with calculated steadiness creates a sense of urgency, but carefully controlled. The director has chosen the closed proxemics of the stairway and put a large number of fast moving actors in it, but has balanced this with using a steady camera and full front lighting so as not to totally disorientate the audience.

The mise-en-scène of the backstage before the ballet of The Red Shoes starts is lacklustre in comparison to the front of house, the back of the set being plain board with writing on, and crowded with ballerina’s practicing individually. The lighting washes out the features of all the actors and gives no individual preferential highlighting. The set is chaotic with props scattered on the floor and the door broken. The plastics here assist the audience’s understanding of the theme of Vicky’s state of mind being chaotic because they physically show the chaos she is surrounded by. Costume can index emotional and psychological status1, and Vicky’s costume is simple, white and corseted, which shows her purity and fragility of mind. This is contrasted with her red lips, another homage to the theme of the colour red, and juxtaposed with her costume later on as it becomes ragged and dirty, insinuating she has become tarnished and worn out.

The lighting at the beginning of The Ballet of The Red Shoes is dark; the scene is from the audience’s theatrical perspective of a proscenium arch stage. As the red curtains are drawn, Grischa Ljubov played by Leonide Massine is revealed centre stage with a spotlight focused on him to begin with, followed by full stage overhead lighting. This high-key lighting gives an even diffusion to the shot, resulting in low contrast between brighter and darker areas1. The set is a large, colourful painted backdrop, which becomes clearer as the camera cuts to a close up of the scene, giving the audience the cinematic advantageous perspective of the stage. The camera and spotlight follow the subject as he dances on stage, at which point a dissolving montage takes the ballet from the opening shot to a scene with a backdrop of a communal village setting, with a company of dancers and then focuses on Ljubov, dancing as the shoemaker, behind a glass shop front window, holding the red shoes. The montage here does not show us the entire dance; it alludes to it5, and the use of dissolving from one scene to another is a cinematic privilege that assists our understanding of Vicky’s mind as the time is moving quickly and seamlessly.
It is apparent that the shoes, which are lit by a spot light, are meant for Vicky when she comes to the window and see’s a holographic vision of herself dancing in them. This is our first glimpse into Vicky’s mind, and the use of editing here to create a ghost-like image of Vicky relates to her constant desire to dance and perform. There is a subtle flashing light on the shoes when there is an extreme close up. In Western culture, we see flashing lights on emergency vehicles and in film or theatre to represent the distress of the mind or disorientation. When the shoemaker dances with the shoes in his hands, the same subtle flashing spot light is used, this warning becoming a motif. The shoes have become a prop, which have helped to pick out the character3 of Vicky. Often elements of mise-en-scène will work in patterns developed across the length of a film6. The shoes stand on point unattended, still lit by a flashing spotlight, and as Vicky jumps into them the ribbons magically do themselves up. Again this use of editing speeds up the process of the dance, reflecting how much Vicky desires the performance. At this point, Vicky is escaping into the fairy-tale origins of the ballet, shown by the magical element.

As the set starts to collapse around Vicky, the plastic sheeting with characters painted on falling to the floor, the camera focuses on Vicky’s shoes dancing on top of them, insinuating that Vicky is stepping on her co-stars to get the limelight. This could be deduced as Vicky’s view of them as material and unimportant now that she has the lead role.
The camera follows her through the chaos until Vicky is alone on stage, a low camera angle making the set seem tall and imposing, while Vicky is small in comparison. This camera angle makes Vicky seem isolated and the set being so much larger than her gives a sense of entrapment in another world. When Vicky attempts to exit through the door she initially entered through as it is opened by a maternal character with a warm yellow light spilling out, a large imposing shadow reaches for her and drags her backwards across stage. This ability of something not physical having a presence over Vicky leads us into her fractured mental state, which is supported by the extreme close up of Vicky’s sweaty face with unnaturally lurid make up, bright red lips and painted on eye-brows. You can see the physical strain the dance is having on Vicky encouraged by the key light, the effect of this being that we can clearly see Vicky’s turmoil.
The director here decides to expose Vicky’s splintered mind as he edits the silhouette of Ljubov for a brightly lit Lermontov and then replaces this with Julian. At this point we see her mental dilemma in choosing between her love for Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring, who before the performance generously said he would follow her lead, and between her dedication and respect for Lermontov, who before the performance told her the only thing that mattered was the music. Vicky’s decision is seemingly made as she runs towards the image of Julian, however the distorted perspective and Julian’s silhouette is twice the size of Vicky. Her confusion is then added to, as the camera cuts to Vicky in a fantastical empty stage with a skyline of blue and orange clouds, framed by mountains, quickly replaced by a long shot of a smoky blue wasteland. Gravitational forces seem to have been lost as Vicky jumps and remains in the air for longer than possible and then starts to fall through distorted colours.
Lermontov had asked Vicky early on in the film ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which she replied ‘Why do I want to live?’ showing how dancing is not something she wants to do, it is something she has to do. This is translated into her psychotic state of confusion that is reflected in the setting of these fantastical worlds that she has escaped into in order to deal with the pressure of the performance. Bordwell and Thompson comment that setting is not just the container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action3, shown in how the deserted spaces with backgrounds of far off silhouettes of towns, or cliff edges enters the narrative action by highlighting how isolated Vicky feels in the real world by escaping to this dream world. Even though she is imagining the worlds herself, she is unable to make them happy, safe places.

Colour is an important aspect of mise-en-scène, capable of furnishing motifs that develop across the film3. The colour red was always going to be an important theme in The Red Shoes and it is no mistake that both Vicky and Julian, who fall in love, both have red hair. Vicky’s hair in particular is highlighted by the backlighting in the dance scene to make it appear flame like, possibly reflecting the passion she feels for Julian, as he is then projected, through her imagination, before her. The red ballet shoes throughout the dance scene carry this motif of colour; there are often extreme close-ups of just the shoes, which are supported by flashing red lights when there is a close up shot-reverse-shot of Vicky and Ljubov towards the end of the dance of The Red Shoes.
The colour of the film isn’t realistic, as it is painted on by Technicolor, however it isn’t supposed to be, colour is used to create meaning and subconscious theories6 so doesn’t need to be accurate. The brightness of the red brings the object closer to the audience’s attention, and we develop an association with that object. Much like the montage of attraction that is used when Vicky and two female dancers are held in the air, and then the shot is edited to dissolve into painted images of flowers, birds and finally clouds, all three being beige colours. The affect of this is to associate Vicky as a dancer to these majestic objects, but as they are all pale comparisons, we see Vicky as even more fragile.

To conclude, the visual style assists the audiences understanding of the films themes and narratives by helping follow Vicky’s thought process throughout the dance, and noticing, through the mise-en-scène, how Vicky relates to other characters in the film. The motif of the colour red contributes to the patterns of similarity, difference and development3 of our interpretation of Vicky. The camera editing shows a lot of the ballet of The Red Shoes from Vicky’s perspective, for example when we see a shot of Vicky covering her eyes with her fingers, and the next shot is from her view point as fingers uncover the lens, the audience are acutely aware of the significance of this action and how frightened Vicky as a character must be.

The mise-en-scenè, editing and cinematography of The Red Shoes allows the audience to become active, to indulge in the rich tapestry of the film underneath the surface reading. Powell and Pressburger put together their own ballet company for The Red Shoes, which adds to the verisimilitude of the film, and the use of extreme close-up shots of the actor’s faces throughout the ballet which fills the entire frame allows the audience to see in detail the affect of the action on the characters emotions. The use of shot-reverse-shot sequences in the ballet not only give a cinematic privilege to the audience but also allow scenes to be show the dramatic effects without using montage. Although when watching The Red Shoes the audience may not remember exactly how the mise-en-scène, cinematography and editing affect our interpretation, on reflection they would pick out particular scenes based mainly on what they saw, how they were shown it and how it was put together on screen. In this way, the visual style influences the audiences understanding of theme and narrative through it’s ability to subconsciously assist their grasp of the film.


The Red Shoes Screening Date:                   8th October
 Released:                              1948
Running Time:                      133 minutes   
Production Company:         Archers, J. Arthur Rank Films, Independent Producers       
 Production Credits: Director:                                  Michael Powell and Emeric PressburgerProducer:                                Michael Powell and Emeric PressburgerScreenplay:                             Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Hans AndersenCinematography:                     Jack CardiffEditor:                                      Reginald MillsMusic:                                      Brian EasdaleArt Direction:                           Arthur LawsonProduction Design:                  Hein Heckroth Cast: Boris Lermontov                      Anton WalbrookJulian Craster                          Marius GoringVictoria Page                           Moira ShearerGrischa Ljubov                        Leonide MassineIvan Boleslavsky                     Robert HelpmannIrina Boronskaja                      Ludmilla TcherinaSergei Ratov                           Albert Bassermann

In comparing and contrasting the affective presence/absence of the mother in two films, what might we conclude about Swinton as a maternal figure in cinema?

In this essay, I will be focusing on the affective presence or absence of the mother in Lynn Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) (referred to as Kevin), and Erick Zonca’s Julia (2008), where Swinton plays Eva in the former, and Julia in the latter. Initially, it is crucial for the term ‘affect to be defined as this term is notorious for pervading definition. The term affect came to prominence in A Thousand Plateaus, the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, two French philosophers. Written in 1980, it referred to affect as flows and forces, also described as intangible energies, with the translator, Brian Massumi, in the foreword, describing it as “an ability to affect and be affected” (1988: xvi), which implies affect is something exchanged between two people.
Silvan Tomkins, a psychologist and personality theorist, developed affect theory a decade later by categorising affects into six, and later nine, nameable emotion pairs ranging from enjoyment-joy to anger-rage. According to Tomkins, affects “are aroused easily by factors over which the individual has little control” (Tomkins 1995: 54), implying that affects are similar to emotions, but beyond our jurisdiction. Affect can be described as a state of mind relating to an emotion, or the aura created by a situation.
The ‘affective absence’ can be the absence where generic convention has led to our expectation of its presence, so that leads the ‘affect presence’ to become where the conventional maternal ideal has been fulfilled. The psychoanalysts, philosophers and theorists I will use in the essay to explore the affect absence/presence of the maternal figure are Judith Butler, E. Ann Kaplan, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. These individuals work has been selected because of their focus on the development of the mother, the development of the child, and the relationship between the two.

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist, whose work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity strove to trouble the idea of what we perceive as the origin of gender. I intend to extend Butler’s theory to trouble the idea of the maternal, and show how it exists only within the dominant discourse of motherhood – by which I mean child-rearing books, women’s magazines and television shows and popular Hollywood films.
Kaplan is an English professor in New York, who wrote a book called Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular culture and Melodrama, in which she came to two definitions of the ‘maternal melodrama’: the complicit and the resistant. The complicit maternal melodrama “represents the mother as a paternal function, and addresses a male spectator” usually featuring an “intense mother-son relationship” (1992: 69). The resistant maternal melodrama is “from the mother position and about its pleasures and oppressions” (1992: 69). These two ideas will be explored in relation to the films later in the essay.
Widely considered the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud investigated the realms of the unconscious development of the mind based on case studies in the late 19th to early 20th century. This essay will look at the Oedipus complex, a stage of childhood development in which a male child directs his “first sexual impulse towards [his] mother and [his] first hatred and [his] first murderous wish against our father” (1899: 364). This theory is particularly relevant in regards to Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) behaviour towards his mother in Kevin.
Finally, this essay will explore some of the theory of childhood development from Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst from the mid 20th century. Lacan’s work will be used to explore how the child relates to the mother in relation to their ‘want’, ‘need’, and ‘demand’ stage from his work Ecrits and The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis.

As an actress, Tilda Swinton has been described as the “supremely poised ice queen of the cinema” (Lee 2009: 1). Swinton’s acting technique embodies flat affect, often portraying characters as measured on the surface, whilst hiding the chaos beneath. The Independent describes her on screen personality as “elusive” (Romney 2008: 1), while the Guardian describes her as “cool” and “intelligent” (Cochrane 2011: 1). By asking Swinton to perform the maternal figure in Kevin and Julia, both Ramsey and Zonca are making a statement about the idea of the ‘mother’, as Swinton troubles the constructed nature of the maternal figure, to be explored and discussed further.
Although in Julia, Swinton is not the biological mother, she is the predominant female adult in the film who cares for the character Tom (Aiden Gould). I have chosen this film because of the contrast in affective presence of Swinton as a maternal figure between Eva and Julia. This essay will explore the question of maternal affect or its absence in Kevin and Julia, through which I will uncover and dissect Swinton’s performance as a maternal figure within these texts.

In 21st century Hollywood cinema, the ‘mother’ is typically a warm, reliable, responsible woman, who cares for her children selflessly. The stereotype related to the American mother in both Kevin and Julia is long hair, minimal make-up and modest clothing, as shown by the other mothers in the anti-natal class of Kevin and Elena’s (Kate del Castillo) appearance in Julia, as the biological mother of Tom. These stereotypes align the association between motherhood and femininity, subverted by Swinton’s appearance, dress and behaviour in both films. Tilda Swinton has short, cropped hair and is famed for her androgynous style, challenging the idea of what it is to be feminine. In Judith Butler’s work on gender as a performance, she writes that gender is a set of acts, created through repetitive performance, “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself” (1993: 310). If we are to extend this theory to motherhood, it could be argued that the ‘maternal figure’ has been created through imitation, and is not in fact the original, but the effect of motherhood.

The pressure on mothers to fulfil this role often leads to dissociation with the child, as shown by Eva in Kevin. Vivienne Welburn, in her work on postnatal depression, protested, “If we do the job adequately, it is taken for granted that it is ‘natural’ to us, if we do it badly we will be castigated by just about everyone in sight” (1980: 23). The idea that motherhood is natural to all women is troubled in both films, as Swinton’s characters take on alternative relationships with the boy’s they are the mother figure to. In Kevin especially Eva is blamed for Kevin’s actions as a result of her parenting skills, not just by the women in her town breaking her eggs in the supermarket or physically assaulting her in the street, but by herself by making an omelette with the eggs and taking the piece of shell out from between her teeth as she eats it.

Kevin begins with Eva living an idyllic lifestyle as a globetrotting travel writer, but her carefree attitude leads to pregnancy and the result is a child whose brief moments of humanity excuse him from complete evil. Effectively, Eva is shown to sacrifice her independence and her place in the public sphere in order to fulfil the stereotypical association of motherhood with the domestic/private sphere. By the end of the film, Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) actions leave her with no family, no job and no friends. Ramsey has taken the book written by Lionel Shriver and stripped it of its epistolary form; instead of a vocal narrator, the audience is shown the story with temporal disjunctions from Eva’s shell-shocked point of view, that make us question the trustworthy nature of the protagonist. The films subversion of realism uses diegetic sounds that do not fit with the images on the screen, such as the garden sprinkler sound that is repeated throughout but not shown until the end, giving the film a disoriented feeling.
The first scene of Julia shows Julia as a promiscuous barfly, the result of which leads to her losing her job, and being pressured by her sponsor to attend AA meetings, where she meets Elena, a desperate mother whose child is under his paternal grandfather’s care. Elena convinces Julia to kidnap her son with a financial incentive. When Julia realises Elena has no money, she takes Tom anyway, blackmailing the grandfather for $2 million, however her plans are ruined when she has to drive through the border wall into Mexico, and, ironically, Mexican drug dealers kidnap Tom from her. The film ends in a whirlwind of unbelievable violence and guns, where Julia has a moral turnaround in her exchange of the money for the child.

The third person perspective of Julia allows the audience to observe the choices the character makes, whilst conforming to the idea of the resistant maternal melodrama – it explores the trials of motherhood from a fresh perspective, as Julia has only just been put in charge of Tom. The affective presence of Julia as she learns to become a mother is evident in her encouraging words of “Good boy Tom”, when Tom is drying himself in the bathroom, much to both characters surprise. Julia is a character who displays no ‘nurture’ desire in the beginning of the film, stating, “I don’t know the first thing about kids”. When forced into a maternal role, however, maternal characteristics are triggered, repositioning the figure of the mother in traditional discourse. In comparison, Kevin subverts and troubles the genre of the maternal melodrama because the non-linear narrative from Eva’s disorientated hindsight does not conform to Kaplan’s definition when placed alongside the idea that Kevin was never provided with an idealized mother. By mixing the complicit and the resistant maternal melodrama, Kevin subverts the idea of what the maternal is by questioning the audience’s expectations of motherhood.

So how does Swinton’s affective presence or absence as the ‘maternal figure’ in these films subvert the conventions of the maternal melodrama, which have depended upon emotional excess, and legibility of the maternal figure? In Julia, Swinton’s affective presence as the maternal figure subverts the conventions of the maternal melodrama due to the direction in which the character Julia’s emotional excess is directed. Julia is presented as being untrustworthy, shown through her inability to keep her job due to repeated lateness. Her boss snorts in disbelief at her poor excuse of “family problems”, as the character is not the typical ‘mother’ figure in her appearance (tight dresses, over-the-top jewellery, too much make-up, heels) or behaviour (poor time-keeping, alcoholism).
However, throughout Tom’s kidnapping, Julia and Tom become so close that Eva calls herself his mother when questioned by a stranger.

In Kevin, Swinton’s affective absence subverts the conventions of the maternal melodrama through the flat affect of the character Eva, Kevin’s birth is an example of disturbing the genre. In his work on the melodramatic imagination, Peter Brooks, a professor of literature at Yale University, characterizes melodrama as an “indulgence of strong emotionalism” with “extreme states of being” (1976: 4). This is the complete opposite to the post-birth shot of Eva, who sits in a white, clinical room with bare walls and no colour, upright and expressionless as her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) holds a bundle of blankets and coo’s into them. Kevin’s crying dominates the room, merging into the sound of a sander against concrete, a metaphor for overwhelming the eardrums and the psyche. Alongside this, we see no breast-feeding between Kevin and Eva, another example of how their relationship is unnatural from the offset, a denial of the most intimate affections between mother and child. Swinton’s pale skin almost blends into the sheets of the bed, adding to the lack her lack of presence and the unnaturalness of the situation, the blandness of the room making us aware of the absence of colour.

The colour red in Kevin occurs repeatedly, and is undoubtedly a metaphor for the horrors to come, however it could also be deduced that the colour red replaces the affective absence Swinton creates with her use of flat affect in her portrayal of Eva. She uses a red pen when trying to teach Kevin maths, which he purposely flouts by counting to fifty and demanding a stop to the lessons. Kevin turns a piece of bread with unnaturally bright red jam on it upside down on the coffee table, to which Eva glares at him, but does not chastise. Perhaps the most vivid of all is the red paint thrown at Eva’s windows. She cleans it off with the most teeth-clenching methods – razor blades on glass, an electric sander on concrete, scratchy paper on her windshield. The shots of Swinton washing the red paint from her hands are reminiscent of a historically famous woman, who was so affectively absent, she claimed she would “dash the brains” of her new born child: Lady Macbeth. Eva’s guilt in her failings to raise Kevin by society’s norms, not conforming to social scripts and regulations is evident in her eventual affective absence in her interactions with him.

Eva’s guilt is pungent throughout the film, her anxieties made clear as she sees her reflection in her sons actions, made visual through Ramsey’s clever editing of Swinton plunging her face into a sink, and Miller pulling his out. The water signifies purification as Eva tries to wash away the past, but the cuts keep taking us back in time. Kaplan wrote about Nancy Chodorow in her work Motherhood and Representation, a feminist sociologist and psychoanalyst, who theorized “the boy gets his masculine identity through precisely negating his earlier “feminine” identification with the mother” (1992: 33). In Kevin’s similar appearance to Eva’s, it could show the male child’s refusal to negate his identification with his mother.
Red wine is used by Ramsey to symbolise a desire to escape, often shown when Eva has experienced a particularly difficult situation with Kevin. Zonca also uses alcohol as a symbol for escapism, showing Julia often out of control, and then almost stupefied by her hangovers the next day. The character Julia is shown as being ruled by her pleasure principle for immediate gratification, and uses alcohol to forget about her problems. Julia admits to her friend Nick that she’s tired of her life, “I smile and I eat shit from guys, and what do I have? I don’t have anybody, I get drunk, and I’m getting old”.
Alcohol permits an escape from both characters’ lives, however also facilitates their isolation from motherhood, even if only as a temporary escape. Eva covered the walls of her study with maps of countries she had presumably been to, or wished to see, and when asked what they were for by Kevin, she said it was to show an aspect of her personality. When she leaves the room, Kevin takes a water pistol and paint, and shoots the room, ruining the maps and leaving his own mark. Upon return, Eva takes his gun and stamps on it until it breaks. In the next scene, she is shown sitting on the sofa with her feet on the coffee table, shoes covered in red paint, sipping a glass of red wine. The symbolic significance of this scene is overwhelming and has many different connotations, Film4 writer Catherine Bray describing the maps as Eva’s “lost freedom” (2011: 1), but I will explore the phallic ideology behind it. Kevin uses his water pistol, which could represent the penis, to splatter paint, which could be ejaculating and therefore a humiliation technique used on Eva, or urine to leave his scent, in order to mark the room and attempt to regain power over his mother. In this scene, Kevin is attempting to take back control by punishing Eva’s dreams of escape through the paint on the maps, ruining them. The red wine, as alcohol, signifies her need to escape the situation, making her affectively absent as a mother. Religiously, red wine symbolises strength and life, being the blood of Christ, and perhaps Eva seeks strength in order to deal with her daemon child.

Eva does not begin Kevin’s life as an affectively absent mother. In the first interaction scene with Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer), Swinton portrays an affectively present mother, one who tries to engage with her son by asking him “Can you say ball? B-b-b ball?” before rolling the ball towards him. By sounding out the plosives of a simple word, the character Eva is trying to pass on her knowledge to her child and help him to learn, whilst physically stimulating him with a toy. Kevin refuses to respond to Eva, staring blankly at her with a furrowed brow and allowing the ball to roll in between his legs without rolling it back. Kevin only rolls the ball back once when Eva has lost her patience, but then doesn’t respond again.
Kaplan used Freud to explain how and why children learn to speak, “children learn to use language as the means for replacing the loss of the mother” (1992: 29). Freud interprets the learning of talking as a moment when the child becomes autonomous from the mother, so this could be used to explain why Kevin refuses to talk, because he doesn’t want to let go of Eva. Kevin’s affective absence shows how the relationship needs both the mother and the child to participate in order for it to function. Kevin takes no enjoyment from playing with the toys, and does not seem to engage in activities like other children. Therefore he does not fulfil the role of the child that is essential in a mother/child dichotomy. Eva’s calm façade breaks in moments of frustration, for example when she says to him “Mommy was happy before little Kevin came along. Now Mommy wakes up every morning, and wishes she was in France”. When Kevin is incarcerated, Eva still seems to be playing the maternal role, she irons his clothes and folds them, and places them in a room he has never slept in.
The character Julia contrasts with Eva in that she does not attempt to nurture Tom, but does care for him. Julia adapts to her role as a maternal figure in Tom’s life after she kidnaps him, but in a forceful, brusque way. When they first arrive at the motel, she shoves him in the shower, makes him dry himself, and covers him in a blanket whilst he sleeps. This challenges the ideas of Stern and Stern, who wrote a book called “The Birth of the Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever”. This book is a self-help manual on how to be a mother, and what to expect from motherhood. In this book, they write, “you will draw on maternal instincts, developing intuitive ways of holding, touching, and making sounds that build the relationship between you and your baby” (1998: 13). Julia and Eva trouble this idea in regards to how the mother/child relationship is developed. Eva seems to lack the ‘maternal instincts’, whilst Julia develops a maternal relationship with Tom despite her lack of biological connection, and both Eva and Julia display affective absence as a mother throughout. From this we can conclude that Swinton defies the idea of the ‘maternal figure’ by presenting it as an effect of motherhood, rather than the original.

There is a battle between affective absence and presence within the character Eva when Kevin is born. She holds up the baby, who is wailing incessantly, and attempts to arrange her face in maternal ecstasy, but instead freezes in a grimace. Eva shows signs of post-natal depression after the birth. The baby cries for an unnatural amount of time, causing concern from passers by in the street. Eva stands with the buggy next to some road works so that the drilling will drown out the noise of the baby. When Franklin returns home from work, she is lying on the sofa with the curtains closed and a pained expression on her usually crease-free face. Post-natal depression symptoms include tiredness, irritability and indifference to the baby. In an interview in Welburn’s book, where sufferers of post-natal depression are interview about their illness, ‘Ann’ states “Nothing I did seemed to please the baby… I felt helpless… Every single thing that I did, he bawled his head off at, he never smiled, was never happy” (1980: 33). This is echoed in Swinton’s portrayal of a mother who feels she is unable to cope with her own child.
Eva’s pleads with Franklin to leave Kevin settled, when he returns from work. When he picks up the baby, the audience anticipate ear-piercing cries, but the expectations fall short as the child mews in comfort at the touch of his father. Franklins ability to interact with Kevin successfully question Eva’s capabilities, leading to further disconnect from both Franklin out of jealousy and Kevin out of anger. The mother’s life is taken over by the baby, as her appearance changes in order to provide for him, shown by her swollen breasts spilling out of her vest top.

The baby also takes over Eva’s life with his needs, wants and desires. In Lacan’s work on psychoanalysis, he theorizes about a child’s development in regards to their mother, often described as the ‘Other’ due to difference in sex. He writes, “Mans desire is the desire of the Other” (1973: 235), which can be interpreted as desire for recognition from the ‘Other’ – in this case Swinton – alternatively it could be desire for what the Other desires, what the Other lacks – in this case Franklin. In the first case, when a child receives care from the Other, this indicates the Other cares for them and understands them. However as Eva is unable to care for Kevin, the rift between them grows and a lack of understanding stunts their relationship growth. Eva is conflicted in her dislike of Kevin for altering her life, and her desire for him to be societies ideal child. In his earlier work, Ecrits, Lacan writes that desire is essentially a demand for recognition (1966: 431), and that the dependence on the Other for recognition is what structures the drives of the child. (1966: 343). Kevin as a child could be seen as playing up in order to hold Eva’s attention, which is understandable when taking her flat affect into account, and when he doesn’t receive this, his desperation for recognition leads him to act out.
In Julia, it can be interpreted that Julia desires recognition through her promiscuity – a desire for attention and intimacy from men – highlighting her loneliness. She has no ‘Other’ to demand attention from, which could be why she became an alcoholic. This is curbed when she puts herself in charge of Tom, she has responsibility, and her drinking reduces. Neither Eva nor Julia were warned about the effects caring for a child has on you as a person. Against their will, there is a transgression in the character of the female protagonist’s– in early scenes, Eva dances in the rain with Franklin, lies in tomato juice in a crowded festival, enjoys sexual intercourse, yet when Kevin is born, Eva loses the capacity to enjoy anything at all.

To conclude, by comparing and contrasting the affective presence/absence of the mother in Kevin and Julia, I have argued that the ‘maternal’ can only exist within discourse. Swinton has challenged the idea of ‘motherhood’ in these two films through her affective absence. The flat affect makes the ‘maternal figure’ the effect of motherhood rather than the origin, as seen through extending Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Swinton disturbs the conventions of femininity by her androgynous appearance in Kevin, and her over-feminine appearance in Julia, with clothes that accentuate her cleavage. Through this, she also challenges the idea of the mother, as she is supposed to be the ultimate woman – a provider of life. The idea of the ‘maternal’ has been shown to be a set of acts which comes into being through repetitive performance, or in the case of these two films, does not come into being if not performed at all. Instead there is an absence of maternity. In Julia, this is shown through the scene when she buys him food and gives him water, where she performs maternal tasks, even though she isn’t Tom’s mother, or even a mother at all. These tasks do not appear natural to her, so one can only assume she performs them because she has seen someone else do this. Likewise in Kevin, Eva consults a doctor because she has a lack of confidence with what her own parenting skills, and suggests Kevin has autism so as to free her from blame. Ultimately, both films epitomise the sense that neither presence/absence can dictate a woman’s maternal nature, in that conforming to society’s expectations of motherhood will not guarantee a successful mother/child relationship.
Through her use of flat affect in Kevin, Swinton manages to disconnect with the expected warmth and love that a woman is stereotypically expected to express towards their new born. This could be used to explore post-natal depression. Swinton’s performance in Julia contrasts mightily with this, being one of Swinton’s most extroverted roles. As a woman who shows no desire to be a mother, having the idea of her having ‘family troubles’ scoffed at by her boss, Julia takes on the maternal role reticently.


Bray, Catherine (2011). ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ in Film4. Published online: Accessed: 11.01.2015

Brooks, Peter (1976) The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess. Yale University Press: New Haven

Butler, Judith (1993). ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’ in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Routledge: New York

Cochrane, Kira (2011) ‘Tilda Swinton: I didn’t speak for five years’ in the guardian. Published Online: Accessed: 11.01.2015

Deleuze, Gilles and Guttari, Félix. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. The Athlone Press: London

Freud, Sigmund (1899) The Interpretation of Dreams. (1953 ed. Translated by James Stachey) George Allen & Unwin Ltd: London

Kaplan, E. Ann (1992) Motherhood and Representation: The mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. Routledge: London

Lacan, Jacques (1973). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. (2004 ed.) Karnac Books: London

Lacan, Jacques (1966). Ecrits: The Complete Edition in English (2006 ed.) W.W Norton: London

Lee, Nathan. (2009). ‘Review: Julia’ in Film Comment. Published online: Accessed: 30.12.2014

Romney, Jonathan (2008). ‘Tilda Swinton: I am not interested in acting skills” in The Independent. Published online: Accessed 20.12.2014

Stern, Daniel N. and Bruschweiler-Stern, Nadia. (1998) “The Birth of the Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever”. Basic Books: USA

Tomkins, Silvan. (1995) “Exploring Affect: The Selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins” Ed. Virginia E. Demos. Press syndicate of the University of Cambridge: New York

Welburn, Vivienne. (1980) Postnatal Depression. Manchester University Press: Manchester


We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Director: Lynn Ramsey
Producer: Christopher Figg, Jennifer Fox
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller

Julia (2008)
Director: Erick Zonka
Producer: Jeremy Burdek, Bertrand Faivre
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Saul Rubinek