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A feminist fairytale
Lionel Delplanque's Promenons-nous dans les bois (Deep in the Woods, 2000)
"With its strong anti-oedipal heroine and liberated approach to sexuality," Promenons-nous dans les bois quickly sheds its slasher movie packaging to rewrite a traditional fairytale in feminist terms. So argues Colette Balmain in this sophisticated study of Lionel Delplanque's popular French horror film.
Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.
—Moral to Charles Perrault's "Le petit chaperon rouge" ("Little Red Cap," 1697)
Marketed as a French version of Scream (USA, 1996), Lionel Delplanque's Promenons-nous dans les bois (France, 2000) is one of the few, and most successful, French horror films to come out since Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959). Literally translated as "Let's walk in the woods," the film won the Grand Prize (Silver) for European Fantasy Film at the Catalonian Film Festival in 2000, and was nominated for the Grand Prize (Gold) the following year.
However, Delplanque's adult reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood story has little in common with the flattened pastiche of Wes Craven's Scream, and a great deal in common with the more subversive and aesthetic—what I have elsewhere contended to be feminist—concerns of the European, and in particular the Italian, horror film. Whilst Promenons-nous dans les bois has been compared favorably with the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, it is perhaps closer in theme and style to the gothic sensibility of Pupi Avati's early films, especially La Casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with the Windows that Laugh, Italy, 1976).
As opposed to Scream's blank parodic surfaces, Promenons-nous dans les bois utilises the fairytale format to construct a political allegory and feminist parable, one that destabilises the fixed paradigms of oedipal desire and reactionary politics which define the American slasher film. In what follows, I argue that in contrast to the puritanical Victorian morality of Little Red Riding Hood when taken as a cautionary tale—which continues to be the central point of American slasher movies—Promenons-nous dans les bois restores this tale's feminist potential and subverts the patriarchal, capitalist repression of female desire featured strongly in modern, mainstream horror cinema.
Five young actors are invited to perform an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood for young Nicolas (Thibault Truffert), the autistic grandson of aristocratic millionaire Alex de Fersen (François Berléand), as a present for the boy's eleventh birthday. A strange gamekeeper named Stéphane (Denis Lavant), whose hobbies include taxidermy and the rape-murders of young women (an obvious nod towards the figure of Norman Bates [Anthony Perkins] in Alfred Hitchcock's seminal Psycho ), and a policeman (Michael Muller) who remains mainly marginal to the narrative throughout, conclude the cast of nine characters in Promenons-nous dans les bois.
On the surface, the film conforms to the typical conventions of the slasher movie (to which it has been compared), as laid out most coherently in Carol Clover's 1992 book Men, Woman and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. For example: the male killers, Stéphane and Alex de Fersen, are both propelled by psycho-sexual fury; Alex's gothic mansion is set well away from "civilisation," much like Clover's "terrible place" (and Stephen King's "bad place"); beautiful young adults—the theatre troupe—comprise the pool of victims who are picked off one by one in graphic and murderous detail; and the eventual victor over the wolfish Alex, Sophie—played with some finesse by Clotilde Coureau—fits the role of Clover's "final girl," whose task it is to contain and conquer the male monster(s).
But the masochistic "becoming-wolf" of Alex de Fersen (who dons the wolf costume from the play in order to commit his murders), through an act of self-strangulation and the young cast's polymorphous sexuality all serve to place the film well outside the more puritan concerns of the American slasher movie and its reactionary bourgeois morality. In Promenons-nous dans les bois, the final girl is neither sexually repressed nor mannish, as in the American model. Rather, she is a feminine and feminised lesbian who functions as a site of disruption for Oedipal models of desire. In Delplanque's version of "Little Red Riding Hood," the puritanical, patriarchal constraints of the fairytale's morality play are overturned due to the liberation of desire from the repressive apparatus of "appropriate" femininity against which the masculine subject is constructed.
This liberation is effected most clearly in the sexual games, played out for the voyeuristic (but not necessarily masculine) pleasures of the cinematic spectator. Indeed, it could be argued that the desiring gaze in Promenons-nous dans les bois acts as a "block" of resistance to traditional theorisations of the gaze, which construct the primary cinematic gaze as male/sadistic/controlling. Not only is the liberation of Alex's animalistic and perverse becoming a product of his masochistic self-negation; it is the male body of Wilfried (Vincent Lecoeur) which "provokes" his transformation. Moreover, the explicit sexuality of the young theatre troupe is explored in great detail from the lesbian and loving encounter between Sophie and Jeanne (Alexia Stresi)—thus opening up the possibility of a lesbian gaze—a contrast to the more predictable and rushed heterosexual coupling of Jeanne and the blond, beautiful, narcissistic Wilfried.
In fact, it is Mathilde (Maud Buquet), the only female character who does not engage in sex, who is Alex's first victim following his transformation into "the big bad wolf." In Promenons-nous dans les bois, gender identity, like sexual identity, is molecular rather than molar, and is not reducible to the "either/or" binarisms of the Oedipal model.
Unlike her American counterparts, Sophie does not pay for her non-familial desires with death, but instead is the only female character to survive the murderous attentions of Stéphane and the wolfish desires of Alex. The final showdown has Sophie and Matthieu (Clément Sibony) confronted by Alex in the garage as they attempt to escape. While Matthieu cowers in the car— "abject terror personified"—Sophie finally embraces her "becoming" as Little Red Riding Hood in its feminist form, and in so doing finds the strength to fight and subdue her aristocratic oppressor. This is at odds with the more puritan demands of the American slasher film, which demands the repression of (female) sexuality.
As Donato Totaro points out, "American horror, like its popular culture in general, is generally prudish and too deeply entrenched in a Puritan past to really engage in sexuality, which is so important to the horror film." The liberation of female identity from Oedipal constraints in Promenons-nous dans les bois works to break the syntax of the conventional slasher movie. It replaces the signifier with what Deleuze and Guattari term the "schiz and the flow" of the desiring machine and the body without organs. And in so doing, the narrative eludes the social codings of the capitalist machine and colonisation by Oedipus.
Sexuality in French cinema—as in many European national cinemas—is utilised as part of a more generalised politicisation of the cinematic image. This can be traced back to the formation of French national cinema as an "art" cinema in the space between the two World Wars, and formalised within poetic realism and its explicit critique of bourgeois society, as well as in the more recent obtuse palates and activist politics of Jean-Luc Godard and the saturated canvasses of Luc Bresson. A well-known example is the opening sequences of Godard's Week End (France, 1967), in which Corinne (Mireille Darc) graphically recounts a real (or perhaps fantasised) sexual encounter to her lover. As Monika Wagenberg points out, both the cinematography and the use of music in this sequence functions to disrupt any sexual pleasure in the story, as well as the objectifying and fetishising gaze of the (male) spectator.
The rules of the game
While the frequent references to the oral tradition of fairytales, and the embedding of intertextual quotations to other well-known horror films—the opening sequences call to mind those of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece The Shining (UK, 1980)—may well be an expectation of the contemporary horror film, the cultural referencing to the French cinematic tradition may go largely unrecognised. By acknowledging the relationship between Promenons-nous dans les bois and French national cinema, the politicisation of the cinematic-image can be better understood.
Along these lines, the commonalities between Promenons-dans les bois and Jean Renoir's black comedy Le Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, France, 1939)—banned upon its initial release for being demoralising—helps to explain the former film's overt political use of the aesthetics of horror cinema through the format of the fairytale. In Le Règle du jeu, the decadent sexual games of a group of bored aristocrats is brought to an abrupt conclusion by the accidental shooting of a young aviator and war hero, Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain), by the working-class gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot).
As in Le Règle du jeu, the use of a play within the film—which in Promenons-nous dans les bois is a traditional rendition of the Brothers Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood—acts as catalyst for the uncovering of decadent desires beneath the civilised veneer of both the aristocracy and the bourgeois. This is most aptly formalised in Delplanque's film in the aristocratic grandfather's "becoming-wolf" and the corresponding but transversal becoming of the narrative's final girl.
These becomings are part of the very textuality and intertextuality of the fairytale narrative, which transverses the horror movie format, destabilises the relationship between coloniser [Oedipus] and colonised [Desire], and transgresses the usual iconography of femininity and masculinity associated with American horror films. In this respect, Promenons-nous dans les bois itself "becomes" a feminist parable, of female and feminine strength against male oppression and subjugation.
Cautionary tales and forbidden desires:
Little Red Riding Hood
Some scholars hypothesise that over the centuries the "Little Red Riding Hood" tale was altered by men to play down and perhaps suppress woman's capabilities and independence.
The origins of the morality play that we know so well, via the Brothers Grimm and later Walt Disney, can be traced back to Charles Perrault's 1697 short story, "Le petit chaperon rouge." Unlike the Grimms' tale, however, in Perrault's story Little Red Riding Hood does not survive her encounter with the big bad wolf, instead providing sustenance for the wolf and thereby serving as a cautionary tale for young girls with respect to men's wolfish desires. The Italian version of the tale, Italo Calvino's "The False Grandmother," has more in common with that of the Brothers Grimms'. Here, Little Red Riding Hood possesses resourcefulness and courage, and once determining that her grandmother does not, and cannot, possess a hairy tail, manages to elude the wolf and therefore escapes the unfortunate fate of her earlier French counterpart.
As such, Calvino's version depicts Little Red Riding Hood not as a passive victim but as an active survivor: the prototypical final girl of the slasher film narrative. A later French version of the tale, "The Wolf and the Three Girls," also bears more than a passing resemblance to the well-known Grimm version. In it, both the grandmother and the girl are gobbled alive by the wolf, only to be freed by the townspeople when they kill the wolf and slit open his belly, from which the two emerge: a metaphor perhaps for being reborn into patriarchal society? In both of the subsequent revisions to this version, the parable's feminist potential is negated by the addition of patriarchal rescuers: Little Red Riding Hood now becomes the prototypical "damsel in distress" of a gothic narrative rather than the final girl of the modern slasher movie.
The version performed by the theatre troupe in Promenons-nous dans les bois is that of the Brothers Grimm, with huntsmen replacing the mother and daughter with stones in the belly of the wolf: a patriarchal rather than feminist parable. This (re)production takes place in front of the dinner table, where Nicolas sits transfixed before the intense acting out of the fairytale. The violence of the play within the diegesis mirrors the violence that ensues as a result of the grandfather's "becoming-wolf" and the liberation of his animalistic tendencies, and is focalised through the autistic gaze of the silent and speechless Nicholas.
The multiple versions of the oral folktale, and its subsequent cultural revisions, folds into and upon the world within the cinematic frame, creating multiple layers of textuality and intertextuality that are ultimately inseparable from the characters' multiple becomings. In Cinema 2: The Time Image, Deleuze writes about the transformation of self into other in the cinema of the time-image as undermining forms of the true based upon the perspective of the coloniser, a perspective in which "'I is another' is the formation of a story which simulates, of a simulation of a story or of a story of simulation which deposes the form of the truthful story."
As a result, the "ego = ego" identity model of traditional feminist and psychoanalytical paradigms is displaced in Promenons-nous dans les bois in favour of subversive becomings, as the characters are caught up in the metatextual foldings of the cinematic narrative. An oral folktale folds into a written morality play only to refold constantly back upon itself, offering a number of variations on the original story which thereby constitutes an archeology of the cinematic image: from the frame narrative in which a mother relates the fairytale to her sleeping son, stopping when Little Red Riding Hood gets to the door of the cottage in which the big bad wolf lies in wait; to Alex and Stéphane's brutal pillage (rape) of the daughter when they rip the boy-child from her womb—a reworking of the Brothers Grimm tale into one told by the male oppressor; through to the final sequences in which Sophie takes on the mantle of the feminist Red Riding Hood. And although an Oedipal explanation is offered—the grandfather was witness to his mother's brutal strangulation as a child - the manner in which the fairytale and the filmic narrative constantly mirror each other ultimately subverts such attempts at oedipalisation and the colonisation of desire.
The plan(e) is infinite, you can start it in a thousand different ways; you will always find something that comes too late or too early, forcing you to recompose all your relations of speed and slowness, all of your affects, and to rearrange the overall assemblage. An infinite undertaking. But there is another way in which the plan(e) fails: this time, it is because another plan(e) returns full force, breaking the becoming-animal, folding the animal back onto the animals and the person onto the person, recognising only resemblances between elements and analogies between relations.
Just as Promenons-nous dans les bois's narrative is subject to multiple foldings and becomings, the central figures of Alex and Sophie themselves become caught up in a system of becomings, one which mirrors their fictional, and fairytale, counterparts. Self-strangulation and the death of the self leads to the birth of the other: Alex "becomes-wolf," and through his becoming sets off Sophie's more reluctant becoming from the Little Red Riding Hood of Perraut's tale into the feisty heroine that the oral renditions of the story have hinted at, if not always formalised, and prefigured in the Brothers Grimm version through the character of the grandmother rather than the child.
In addition, Matthieu can be interpreted as "becoming-woman" as he steps into the traditional role vacated by Sophie, that of terrorised and traumatic victim. And the protracted sequences of Wilheim's death, in which he is initially disfigured and then chased through the woods, only to end up caught in an animal trap, subvert the traditions of "visual" pleasure associated with female death in the horror film.
Terrorised by bodies that disappear and then reappear, and by her constant distrust of the two male actors, Sophie is nothing if not a reluctant heroine. It is the death of her lover, and the needs of the tormented and autistic (abused) Nicholas, which lead Sophie when confronted by the "wolf" to take charge and transform into an avenging angel and the instrument of the wolf's death. Sophie is both a feminist and feminine heroine, one who subverts the binary distinctions of the masculinised model of femininity that has come to be synonymous with the modern horror film.
In both cases, the becomings disrupt the fixed terms through which the characters move. Alex "becomes" the big bad wolf of the fairytale, having abandoned his human form, and the over-determination of the signifiers of "Little Red Riding Hood" (as inscribed within Sophie's oscillation between the gothic "damsel-in-distress" and the horror film's "final girl") makes her impossible to categorise within traditional feminist and psychoanalytical paradigms. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, "Becoming is involutionary, involution is creative. To regress is to move in the direction of something less differentiated. But to involve is to form a block that runs its own line "between" the terms in play and assignable relations."
Just as the film's approach to questions of sexuality positions it outside the puritanical paradigm of American horror, its cinematography and camerawork also function to distance Delplanque's text from the reactionary constraints of patriarchal (and Victorian) morality. Unlike the structuring point-of-view shots of the traditional slasher movie, the narrative in Promenous-nous dans les bois is determined and produced from the focal point of young Nicolas. In other words, the narrative is focalised through the eyes of an autistic/abused child who is locked in a silent and speechless world outside our comprehension. Constant cuts from violent events to part-shots of Nicolas's face, his eye to the keyhole; long shots transforming into close-ups as he stands at the top of the stairs witnessing Stéphane's attempted rape-murder of Sophie; and the arrival of the "big bad wolf" all provide alternative ways of imagining the world to that inscribed by the dualistic functioning of the killer/final girl PoV technique.
The world of adults is here viewed through the traumatised gaze of a child, in a manner that disrupts the dictates of conventional cinematic perspective and critiques the positioning of the cognito within a determinate world. This is a disconnection of spatiality, one of the functions of what Deleuze calls the cinema of the time-image, and integral to the form of "any-space-whatever" which he describes as follows: "The connection of space is not given, because it can come about only from the subjective point of view of a character who is, nevertheless, absent, or has even disappeared, n0t simply out of the frame, but passed into the void." As Deleuze suggests, the fact that children are subject to a certain motor helplessness—here foregrounded via Nicolas's autism—means that the world can reveal itself "in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare."
Like Neil Jordan's adaptation of Angela Carter's revisioning of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, The Company of Wolves (UK/USA, 1984), Promenons-nous dans les bois can be considered a feminist fairytale with its strong anti-oedipal heroine and liberated approach to sexuality. And whilst it is being marketed on the basis of its resemblance to recent American horror hits such as Scream and The Blair Witch Project (1999), the film has little in common with the reactionary politics of either of these movies. Building upon an approach to cinema as a means of artistic and political expression as embedded within the very concept of French national cinema, Delplanque's adult reworking of the Brothers Grimm fairytale replaces the patriarchal privilege of the former with the feminist potentialities of the oral folktale.
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