Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 8 
14 July

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Auli Mantila's Pelon maantiede (Geography of Fear, 2000) HORROR
Body horror and the gender of space and city
Auli Mantila's
Pelon maantiede
(Geography of Fear, 2000)

Tarja Laine here looks at how Pelon maantiede, a recent Finnish thriller by Auli Mantila, renders the bodily experience of urban space a matter of social identity.

The city and bodily subjectivity

In recent, psychoanalytically-oriented cultural studies, the concept of the body is often understood as sociocultural artefact, a locus and site of representational production through which the subject gains his or her specific mode of corporeal subjectivity. Bodies are not natural, but produced, and they are produced as particular and distinctive types of bodies. In this theoretical framework, scholars like Elizabeth Grosz and Steve Pile have focused on how bodies are constructed via the processes of social inscription through the relationship between the body and the city. According to this approach, the body and the city have a mutually defining relation: "the city is made and made over into the simulacrum of the body, and the body, in its turn, is transformed, 'citified', urbanized as a distinctively metropolitan body."[1]

This means that the significance of social identity in the bodily experience of the city, as well as an understanding of the relation between the body and the city, is of considerable importance. In this article I will look at how Auli Mantila's Finnish film Pelon maantiede (Geography of Fear, 2000) epitomises the way in which fear creates distinct uses of urban space and generates different meanings for men and women of what safe urban spaces consist of. Pelon maantiede is an adaptation of Anja Kauranen's controversial novel of the same name, and the author based her novel largely on the research done by Hille Koskela of the Department of Geography at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Science. According to Koskela, fear of violence and rape isolates women from the urban space and makes them monitor their own behaviour; it can even lead to the withdrawal of women from urban spaces entirely.[2]

Consequently, even though fear is a subjective emotion it is simultaneously a social phenomenon in which the "outside" of collective experience becomes the "inside" of the subject's psychic life. How? An answer can be found in the phenomenological concept of the body. In both Maurice Merleau-Ponty's and Jean-Paul Sartre's phenomenology, the body is not simply a physical object, but an intentional subject that can see as well as be seen, touch as well as be touched. Furthermore, the body is a means of understanding the human order: the actions of the body can be interpreted by others and that experience teaches the subject what he is. This means that the subject lives in the world and is able to relate to others in it through his body. The experience of the world is principally a bodily experience, and the subject's lived body is a subject, rather than an object, in the world.

This realm of bodily subjectivity is also the origin of emotions, which then play a part in the relationship between the body and the city. In his book The Emotions, Jean-Paul Sartre teaches us that it is through emotion that the bodily subject encounters the world. Emotion is not entirely subjective but an all-embracing phenomenon: through emotion the bodily subject reaches out to the world in its entirety: "With our body…we live and undergo the signification of an emotion, and it is with our flesh that we establish it. But at the same time it obtrudes itself; it denies the distance and enters into us."[3] Although they might be experienced as an "external force," however, emotions are not given from without, since they arise from within the self: the subject is filled with emotion by its individual psychology. Emotional experience is therefore not to be found in the external world, or in the "essence" of the subject, but in the texture of the relationship between the subject and the world. This means that it is emotion through which the subject and the world intertwine:

Therefore, it is not necessasy to see emotion as a passive disorder of the organism and the mind which comes from the outside to disturb the psychic life. On the contrary, it is the return of consciousness to the magical attitude, one of the great attitudes which are essential to it, with appearance of the correlative world, the magical world. Emotion is not an accident. It is a mode of existence of consciousness, one of the ways in which it understands [...] its being-in-the-world."[4]

For the subject, the lived body is a condition through which he can have a position in and relation to the world, and emotion is a way of binding the bodily subject to the world in an "indissoluble synthesis."[5] This means that in the case of fear the person who is frightened is afraid of something: "Even if it is a matter of one of those infinite anxieties which one experiences in the dark, in a sinister and deserted passageway, one is afraid of certain aspects of the night, of the world."[6] As Arthur C Danto has noted, a philosopher like Descartes, who held serious doubts about the external world, would have to regard fear as "logically groundless."[7] But for Sartre, fear of "the horrible" means that the horrible exists in the world, and this transforms the subject's relationship with the world on a bodily level. The emotion of fear reduces the distance between the bodily self and the horrible in the world; as a consequence, in horror the horrible forms a synthetic whole "with the disturbance of our organism"[8]—with our bodily relation to the world.

Re-mapping fear

Mantila's film explores the question of what happens to the subject when fear disturbs his or her relation to the world. Pelon maantiede is the story of a group of women who are driven to revenge after years of mistreatment at the hands of men. It begins with Oili Lyyra (Tanjalotta Räikkä), a forensic dentist, starting to investigate the mystery of a drowned man who has washed ashore off Helsinki. Around the same time, Oili meets the new female friends of her younger sister Laura (Anna-Elina Lyytikäinen), and soon discovers that the drowned man is not a single, random incident, but part of a larger plan on the women's part to regain personal space in a city that stands to them as a fearful place. For the director herself, the film is about respect. As she said during the Berlin Film Festival in 2000: "To me, respect means that we all have some kind of private space around us, which ought to be tolerated, ought to be respected. And the fear comes when you realise that the private space you have around you is not being respected."[9]

The title of the film, "geography of fear," implies a situation where women have ceased trying to change their environment, but change themselves instead. In a city where physical threat has become a reality for women, fear disturbs their bodily relation to the external world, causing them to hold their breath, dress inconspicuously, avoid sudden movements and shun eye contact so that "the atmosphere of fear and violence becomes a permanent state, and we become grateful for once again surviving a threatening bind unharmed," as Maaru (Leea Klemola), the leader of the female commando group in the film declares.

In Pelon maantiede, this fear is shown to limit women's freedom to choose, shrink their living space and affect their movement on many levels: it is limited to certain hours of the day, certain spots of the city and certain means of travelling. A central figure in the film is driving instructor Rainer Auvinen (Pertti Sveholm), a man who for years has been teaching the women in Helsinki a "healthy sense of fear of dashing to places you have no business going to. If you are afraid, stay at home. It's a good place for little girls." As he speaks these words in the film, an overhead projector reflects the map of central Helsinki onto his face, thereby giving a presence to the undefined urban threat that women in the city are being confronted with.

Re-sensitising the body

In Mantila's Helsinki, men limit women's choices when it comes to selecting a personal space through violence, threats, blackmail and rape. Mantila's women respond to this state of affairs by forming a commando group that drives around in a black van, wearing black uniforms and forcibly teaching men how to behave. Now it is women who rape, kidnap, torture and murder, all in the name of achieving a respect that, in their view, goes hand in hand with fear. Men must learn that their physical immunity from women cannot be taken for granted—this is the lesson that the women in Pelon maantiede want to teach the world.

Auvinen learns this the hard way: first his car is vandalised, then he is kidnapped and tortured, only to find himself left naked in the wastelands, strange marks all over his body. The world has changed for him forever: the film ends with a shot of him isolated in his home, fearing his potential attackers with a gun in hand.

Oili, who in her forensic work must constantly confront these violations to one's personal space by helping the police identify corpses through reconstructions of bite marks in rape cases, cannot afford herself any human feelings. She is therefore not concerned with the constantly shrinking living space of women, that is until her own sister is raped and battered in a nearby park. Her consequent fear and anger changes her behaviour, her bodily relation with the city in which she lives.

Auli Mantila's Pelon maantiede (Geography of Fear, 2000)At the beginning of Pelon maantiede, Oili is calm and composed when examining the drowned corpse, when she is interrogated by Laura's friends, even when arguing with her sister. Her appearance is well-groomed, feminine and elegant, and she enjoys sex with her boyfriend. After Laura is raped, however, Oili's fear, sadness and anger changes her way of being in the world: she cannot control her movements but is constantly dropping things and staggering, even falling down when she walks.

Her elegant skirts and high-heel shoes give way to running shoes, saggy jogging pants and a Russian leather jacket, and she stops taking care of her appearance. She no longer enjoys being touched, and her behaviour changes first to insecure speech and gestures, then to aggressive, even violent manners. She even changes her way of walking, adopting a more "manly" style. She participates in the assault of Auvinen, only to learn that violence just evokes more violence. An affectionate and erotic scene with Maaru that has an almost cathartic nature follows from Auvinen's assault. It is Oili's attempt to resolve her bodily crisis, a manner of re-sensitising her body. Finally, she is able to step out of that vicious circle in the state of a healthy sense of fear: to be a responsive body, sensitive about the urban space, but not succumbing to fear.

Auli Mantila's Pelon maantiede (Geography of Fear, 2000)Fear, then, functions in Pelon maantiede both as a form of social control and as a way of demanding respect. Mantila shows how women's fear of violence is so pervasive in general attitudes and norms that they have learned well to control the threats to their safety and freedom by adjusting their behaviour, rather than changing their environment. Mantila's women instead take that fear and use it to teach men where their boundaries of personal space lie by re-mapping the geography of fear.

Yet fear proves to be a form of entrapment for men as well as for women, as both Auvinen and the women of the commando group get caught in a vicious circle of revenge and victimisation. This is what is ultimately terrifying in Mantila's portrayal of the geography of fear. Yet Oili's figure, especially in the end, also represents the bodily desire to touch and be touched. But the question of whether this desire—that is synonymous to trust—can ever be fulfilled in an urban space or not, remains unsolved.

Tarja Laine

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Also of interest
About the author

Tarja Laine is a teacher and a researcher in the Department of Media and Culture, University of Amsterdam. She is currently finishing her PhD dissertation on inter-subjectivity and film.

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1. Elizabeth Grosz, "Bodies-Cities," in Sexuality and Space, ed Beatriz Colomina (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), 242. See also Steve Pile, The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1996).return to text

2. Hille Koskela, Fear, Control, and Space: Geographies of Gender, Fear of Violence, and Video Surveillance (Helsinki: Helsingin yliopiston maantieteen laitoksen julkaisuja A 137, 1999).return to text

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (New York: Citadel Press, 1993), 86.return to text

4. Ibid, 90-1.return to text

5. Ibid, 52.return to text

6. Ibid, 51.return to text

7. Arthur C Danto, Sartre (London: Fontana Press, 1975), 92.return to text

8. Sartre, 86.return to text

9. Nick Roddick, "Interviews: Auli Mantila", to text

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