Photographic print from negative
Confessions To The Mirror, 16mm, colour, 68min,
Premiere London Film Festival 9 October 2016
Funded by the Arts Council of England, Financial Assistance University of Westminster, LUX Distribution.
Amidst a visual extravaganza of costumes and hand-made sets, Sarah Pucill’s new film Confessions To The Mirror takes its title, from the French Surrealist artist, Claude Cahun’s (1894-1954) incomplete memoir (Confidences au miroir, 1945-1954). Following Cahun’s text, the film includes Cahun’s early and later life and work including her political propaganda activity and imprisonment in Jersey with her partner Suzanne Malherbe during the Nazi occupation of the island. The tracing of a life is made conscious through the projection of images of the couples home in Jersey into a domestic London setting.
As a sequel to Pucill’s previous film, Magic Mirror (16mm, b/w, 75min, 2013), Confessions To The Mirror (16m, col, 68min) continues Pucill’s experiment to bring cinematic life to the photographic and written archive of Claude Cahun. In her new film Pucill animates re-stagings of Cahun’s black and white self-portrait and still–life photographs with voices from Cahun’s text Confidences au miror, thus collaging and transposing Cahun’s black and white stills and words, into colour and soundscape.
Francesca Rusalen + Francesco Cazzin, No Fest Experimental Film Festival Text 2017
Roundtable Discussion: The Women of the London Filmmaker’s Co-op, Moving Image Review and Art Journal, Volume 4, No 1 + 2, 2015: 3P1-Roundtable-MIRAJ | P2-Roundtable-MIRAJ | P3-Roundtable-MIRAJ | P4-RoundtableMIRAJ | P5-RoundtableMIRAJ | P6-RoundtableMIraj | P7-RoundtableMIRAJ
“A Dialogue with Claude Cahun: Between Writing, Photography and Film in Magic Mirror and Confessions to the Mirror”. Chapter by Sarah Pucill in forthcoming book Cinematic Intermedialities, published by Edinburgh University Press, Ed Marion Schmid and Kim Knowles. February 2021. (Film Still on Cover).
“Coming to Life and Intermediality in the tableaux vivants in Magic Mirror and Confessions To The Mirror “ by Sarah Pucill. In Experimental Film and Artists’ Moving Image Series: Experimental and Expanded Animation, Editors, Nicky Hamlyn, Vicky Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, September 2018.
“Mirror Tricks: Magic Objects”, Maxa Zoller, Leaflet with LUX Blu Ray Publication, 2021.
“Doubling Images: Troubling Objects”, Laura Guy, Leaflet with LUX Blu Ray Publication, 2021.
Reflections on the exhibition ‘Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’ at Ottawa Art Gallery 2019, by Michelle Gewurtz the curator.
“Into the Mothlight” Podcast. Interview with and produced by Jason Moyes.
on my 16mm films over 3 decades, in light of the the recent publication of the LUX Blu Ray of Confessions to the Mirror. 52mins. Published September 2021
Televised documentary in France (ARTE) and Germany (ZDF) “Masquerade and Games – The Female Artists of Surrealism”, Dir Maria Tappeiner. Televised date: France and Germany 16 February 2020. By the German public broadcaster ZDF in cooperation with the French/German public broadcaster ARTE. Directed by Maria Tappeiner.
Extracts from Magic Mirror and Confessions to the Mirror appear alongside an interview with me in my studio. The focus is on my work with Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore in Magic Mirror and Confessions to the Mirror. Documentary includes Lee Miller, Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, and Meret Oppenheim.
Short Introduction from Laura Guy, Maxa Zoller and Sarah Pucill. Screening followed by Q+A + Discussion with Maxa Zoller and Laura Guy and Sarah Pucill
Clips from Magic Mirror and Confessions to the Mirror will be shown in the play The Invisible Adventure (2020), (Cahun’s text (1930) , written and directed by Marcus Lindeen. The play is based on three living people whose life or work; a brain scientist, an artist and a patient, draws upon contemporary debates around identity. “The Artist” in the play is based on interviews with Sarah Pucill , “The Scientist”, with the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, and “The Patient”, with Jérōme Hamon.
After Paris (10-14 October) the production will play at:
Comedie de Caen, Normandie : 3-6 November 2020.
Theatre de Gennevilliers, Paris: 10-14 October 2020, then at Comedie de Caen, Normandie : 3-6 November 2020.
London Film Festival, Official Selection October 2016
Close Up Cinema, Q+A Laura Guy, London, February 2017
Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, Official Selection, March 2017
Creteil International Women’s Film Festival, Paris, Official Selection, March 2017
National Portrait Gallery, London, Q+A Sadie Lee, March 2017
Cinematek Oslo, ‘The Dream That Kicks’, Q+A Greg Pope, 11 June 2017
White Cube, Bermondsey as part of the exhibition ‘Dreamer’s Awake’, 6 August 2017
Photofilm: Sampling the Archive, organised by Katja Pratschke and Thomas Tode[
GUGA (Center of Architecture, a venue that is in opposition to the hungarian government), in co-operation with the Metropolitcan University, Budapest, Hungary. Part of: Verzio, Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, Budapest, Hungary.
BEEF Bristol Experimental and Expanded Film, Brunswick Club, Q+A VIcky Smith, Bristol ,20 Feb 2018.
Bagdam Lesbian Cultural Festival, Toulouse, France.
International Women’s Film Festival Dortmund, Official Selection, 12 April 2019.
Ottawa Municipal Art Gallery, “Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore”, Installation with props and costumes from the film and 10 minute clip, curated by Michelle Gewurtz, 7 September 2019 – 10 February 2020
Clips from Magic Mirror and Confessions to the Mirror will be shown in the play The Invisible Adventure (2020), (Cahun’s text (1930) , written and directed by Marcus Lindeen.
The play is based on three living people whose life or work; a neuro-scientist, an artist and a patient, draws upon contemporary debates around identity. “The Artist” in the play is based on interviews with Sarah Pucill , “The Scientist”, with the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, and “The Patient”, with Jérōme Hamon.
After Paris (10-14 October) the production will play at:
Comedie de Caen, Normandie : 3-6 November 2020.
75 Years Commemoration of the Liberation of Jersey, Jersey Heritage Trust, Screening and Presentation planned 16 May 2020. Event was cancelled due to Covid19.
Ottawa Art Gallery Screening Presented by Curator Michelle Gewurtz Q+A with filmmaker present, 28 November 2019.
Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen, Holland. Staged as an exhibition in “Under The Skin” curated by Julia Steenhuiseen. 15 October 2020 – 17 January 2021.
LUX LAUNCH OF BLU RAY DVD. Screening + Talk with Sarah Pucill, Laura Guy and Maxa Zoller. 19 April 2021.
Mal Seh’n Kino, Frankfurt , Screening organised by Korola Gramann in relation to the Women Surrealist exhibition at Schirn Kunsthalle planned 19 April 2020, is postponed until May 2021.
Kunsthal, Rotterdam, the exhibition ‘Under the Skin’, curated by Julia Steenhuisen 2020 (largely closed due to COVID) tours to Kunsthal, Rotterdam, 21 May – 28 August. Magic Mirror is staged in a separate seated dark space.
Toronto Women Film Festival, February 2022.
Published in Sequence Magazine Issue No1, Summer 2010
To start off with shall we have a more general conversation about the thematic concerns of your films? How might you summarise some of the most important concerns about your work?
I like to experiment with film language in different ways for each new film, so for me the actual film language is the subject matter. My early short films took on a particular kind of language, all close up, often using a macro lens, mostly on a table; object and liquids were the ‘content’. Then Swollen Stigma(1998) and Cast(2000) incorporated performances within a Surrealist language, where I began to work with performance and literally a wider spatial frame. Within that, issues of the body, from a feminist and lesbian perspective were key concerns for me. Then my work took a turn, after the death of my late partner in 2001 (the film maker Sandra Lahire), where I wanted to break the seamlessness of the staging, and instead wanted to expose some of the filmmaking process. I wanted to do this to incorporate something of the subject, or the subjective, which included the autobiographic and the performance of the filmmaking; the arrangement of camera, sets, lights etc so that that mixes with the performance that is framed. I also wanted to retain the quality of staginess, the contrived artificiality, and constructed set-ups, to show the process of that staging. The exposing of the process then becomes a calculated artifice but I find that interesting to work with.
‘Important concerns’ encompasses quite a wide selection but I could say the importance of the image, a focus on how the film is edited as being part of the image. The silence of the image has been important in my work, even if sounds are heard they work usually to re-enforce the dumbness of an image, but by dumb I also mean to say the silent speech of the image that triggers responses that go beyond the rational or the easily known. There is a distance and a potential space for reflection if part of the normative audio-visual language is taken away, which I think is very important. I suppose I seek constructed images that are strong, and that somehow go beyond just being an image. Also, texture has been important throughout my work, an attention to tactility, expressed visually as well as through sound, which is about materiality. I could describe all my work as being very concerned with a materiality, and latterly, in my later work, in mortality; my interests have shifted to being more about the connections between materiality and mortality.
The three films that spring to mind are Stages of Mourning, Taking My Skin, and Blind Light (2007), all of which were made in succession after my bereavement. In Stages of Mourning , the materiality of the moving image is examined for its capacity to carry the ghost of the deceased. In Taking My Skin, I talk with my mother about birth and death. We compare her experience of giving birth to a child and feeding it, with my experience of the sudden death of a lover, so the transition between immaterial and material is a focus of the film, which is the edge of our life span. I have been interested in the space between the psychical, the emotional, and the material. In Blind Light, the material is in the performance, the light, the camera, the room, the moon, sun, and clouds in the sky. The voiceover describes an experience that could be a death, though it is unclear. In each of the three films, time is important: inStages of Mourning, the time when my partner was alive, and the time of filming when she is dead; inTaking My Skinthe ages of myself and my mother, and our reflection on an earlier time when I was tiny and dependent on her, and on the time before I was born.
How does this connect to your last film, Fall In Frame(2009)?
I thinkFall in Frame is less concerned with those areas. The film maybe marks a break into a different way of working. The material is still important but the film creates a distance with the viewer. A difficulty is being expressed, a difficulty around constriction that connects feminine identity with a self-reflexive structural film practice. It is not, therefore, a film that provides an experience of the materiality of cinema viewing; instead, the viewer is thrown out of being enwrapped (enrapt) in the sensuality of film. In that sense, it isn’t an easy film to watch in parts. There is a seduction, but I think you get thrown out of that too.
Tell me more about your thoughts on the spectatorial experience here.
I think there is an irritation that the performer (a young woman) incites as she looks at herself in a mirror repetitively. Along with a seduction of the lighting and kind of picturesque interior image – that obliquely references historical (Western) painting of the woman by the window, sewing or reading or brushing her hair – there is a sense that the viewer is being excluded from this narcissistic action. Also, in the moment where the performer lifts her dress to, or for, the camera, the sense of a rational order starts to crack; I think the viewer’s reaction is to not want to look. After throwing everything on the table out of the window, the trail of her dress follows her, and with it clichéd objects of femininity such as dolls and a pram,, as well as film cans and a camera that films her. At the end of the film, when she reaches the sea, she leaves the camera on the trail and then leaves the frame.
We have had different conversations recently about the title of your new film (currently in post production). Would you like to say something about how you arrived at Phantom Rhapsody?
The Phantom part of the title I will talk about separately; it’s the ghost of lesbian identity in art history or in cultural history generally. Rhapsody, came about whilst thinking about being enraptured by an image or of someone. Then I was thinking about the wrapping and unwrapping of an image. The way in which I am showing the process of arranging lights, costume and set, is as if the image is being wrapped and unwrapped; to affect a desire in the audience, but also the magician, who is in a state of rapture over her image-making and her model. So out of rapture came Rhapsody, which described something unpredictable, inconstant and unevenly or irregularly structured, all of which seemed to fit the film and what I wanted to communicate. I also liked the idea of a title referring to sound when there is none.
Performance is a very big part of the new film, which is a departure from your earlier films. What were your intentions?
I chose to not have professional performers, as I didn’t want the performances to have a seamless veneer of acting. So although a performed veneer is there, so is a gap that exposed the transition from the person to a character, or emotional state, that they were being asked to perform. This is consistent with the film where the build up is shown between preparations for the image before completed images from paintings are performed. The performer moves between different identities – as camera crew, actual self and the performed or theatricalised character.
I have experimented with film language in different ways for each new film. In Stages of Mourning, Taking My Skin, and Blind Light, and to some degree in Fall in Frame also, the filmmaking process is exposed through moving lights, opening window blinds, moving tripods, preparing the set etc; all these things have become a part of the performance of the film, so that the performance that the film frames becomes synonymous with the performance of making of the film. In my last film Fall in Frame, the first half focuses more on the performance of the filmmaking process, and the second half focuses on the performance within the frame. A self-reflexivity of the filming process is juxtaposed with the self-examination of a young woman, so that a structural film approach is conflated with the question of gender: the constriction of self-examination within femininity is set against a constriction of self-reflexivity within structural filmmaking. So there has been a natural move towards performance.
In this film, I wanted to think about the idea of a surface as both an image and an act, and performance was a way to do this; the idea of an identity as a surface that can change positions as he/she changes costume or performance.
In this film, I wanted to think about the idea of a surface as both an image and an act, and performance was a way to do this; the idea of an identity as a surface that can change positions as he/she changes costume or performance.
The new film features female archetypes, which relates to the question of performance.
The female archetypes that the film suggests refer to the Venus image in the Western canon of Art History, which includes both Christian and mythological iconography. Two scenes in the film show a specific Venus from a well-known painting – Valazquez’s The Rokeby Venus (1650) and Bronzino’s An Allegory of Love and Time (1545) – but other scenes show a more general Venus-like Goddess figure. , The Venus images traditionally assume a heterosexual positioning, but I have intervened in these images, inserting a woman in place of the cupid figure.
Cloth and painting are very much interrelated in this film, tell me about this.
Female nudity in the Western Canon of painting has always been painted with cloth; drapery intersperses between clothing, backdrop, curtains, and furnishing covers. The folds of the cloth mimic the folds of the body. Cloth and the painting become synonymous as the specific histories of pigment in paint and in cloth and their symbolic references were interrelated. It is symbolic of the feminine as a construct in patriarchy; the cloth takes on the shape that it surrounds, itself having no substance as a shape. The cloth is used both to project an image onto (as a film screen) and to screen off the image.
I wanted to make the connection between the stage set in painting with the theatre and early cinema. I wanted to draw connections between these three mediums specifically thinking about female nudity or semi nudity. I was interested in the act of constructing an image, the spatial problem; the magic of making three dimensions appears two-dimensional. The use of cloth to hide or reveal the body or hide the background is used as an aid to arrange the 3D image onto a 2D surface. I was interested in the shift from the actual space to an abstract space by covering the background with cloth and so making a stage that masks off the actual space. In Stages Of Mourning and Taking My Skin I explored these ideas by showing the covering of the actual space I was filming with cloth to render the space an abstraction, a stage. In this film, I make a stage set, and as such, it is placeless in physical terms, even though it is symbolically specific.
How does the film sit within the body of your work in terms of feminist and lesbian politics?
It is more upfront, but only in that the language is upfront because I am working with iconographic imagery. The lesbian element in my work has often been there in ambiguous ways, whereas in Swollen Stigma and Cast the lesbian relation is suggested. In this film the woman’s naked body is posed with her back to the audience, the magician woman has visual possession of her body which runs counter to (Western) artistic traditions of desirability of female nudity for men. A lesbian inference is clear, though it is also open. I’m not interested in presenting a fixed static image of what a lesbian ‘is’, rather what she ‘might be’. I’ve never wanted my work to be addressed solely to a lesbian audience partly because as experimental work my audience would then be very small.
The woman is naked and the magician, also female is clothed, thus implying a certain type of power relation. Why is this and how did you want the nakedness to function?
Women’s nakedness in the history of Western Painting has often been set against the man being clothed. The woman’s body is available for the audience where the gaze is assumed to be masculine and heterosexual. I wanted to play with this by giving one woman a cloak and stick and making the other woman (semi) naked. Also, it is the magician or other woman who has visual possession of the front of the naked woman whose back is turned to the audience. The actual women swap roles between different magicians and between different life models, so three performers play a magician as well as being the nude model. In this way, I wanted to create a fluidity of identities between the clothed and unclothed women, and between the magicians. What they wear comes from the curtains; as the lights are moved, their appearance changes. My intention here was to create a fluidity of identity to extend beyond the boundary of the skin, so that so that self-image extends into the light in the room, the set, the props etc.Tell me about how the film explores the idea of magic and illusion.
In my most recent films, I have focussed on exposing the filmmaking process, in as much as wanting to create a space between being behind and in front of the camera. So, that was about exposing the illusion of cinema. For this film, I wanted instead to work with the illusion of cinema in a way that enables its illusionist quality to take up space, to frame the illusion as an illusion. Inspired in part by the theatrical beginnings of cinema, where, in silent black and white, the edit join for example, is celebrated more as a moment of magic, rather than as a device to enable a narrative sequence (which is what it became in mainstream narrative cinema). The idea of the image as illusion also had to do with constructions of identity as a visual surface.
There are constant references to the idea of appearing and disappearing. Why and how is it significant?
It is an essential characteristic of film. It is mortality and it has to do with the female body, its capacity to make life appear from nowhere, her capacity to make magic. It is the basis for titillation, to conceal then reveal. This innocence of early cinema where the represented image is celebrated merely for its capacity to appear and disappear is a way of staying with the magic of the moment, so that the wonder of being here or of not being here, the wonder of cinema and the wonder of life can be felt to the full without the interruption of deferment that narrative and the build up of knowledge takes you to. But this is also about the politics of identity, where a surface image is only a layer that can be worn or taken off.
I wanted to create a fluidity of identity by making layers of identity with the wig and the cloak, and by interacting costume with props with the background curtains so that a relation between set, props, light and performance inter-fuse. In the film, the making of the image (the arrangement of light, set, background, costume) is a performance, which at the same time references painting, theatre, and cinema, and in each, there is an element of magic where images appear from nowhere.
What is the importance of the Phantom, in the title and as an image?
I don’t expect this to be immediately understood by the viewer, but for me the phantom resonates in terms of the invisibility of lesbian representation in mainstream culture where her presence is felt only in partial terms, that is with ambivalence, as a person only half present. A general feeling of unreality in relation to selfhood connects with the idea of an identity as being only a surface, as is the construction of femininity. So the phantom resonates both in terms of femininity as well as in terms of lesbian subjectivity. Inevitably, the phantom is an image of the dead so there is something in that for me at a personal level I guess. Before she died, my late partner Sandra Lahire was writing a PhD thesis that was examining the idea of the lesbian as a phantom figur). Terry Castle’s book The Phantom Lesbian, which describes the ghostly presence of the lesbian in the canon of Western literature, has been influential to me; the ghosting of a history that gets erased.
London, April 2010
Sarah Pucill lives and works in London
Dr Margherita Sprio lives in London and teaches at University of Essex, Department of Art History and Theory
by Gloria Morano
As analysed in the article On Female Presence and the Act of Seeing, Sarah Pucill’s Early Shorts and her more recent Taking My Skin are characterised by rich and complex Structuralist experimentation with the representation of the female face. By bringing together liquids and solids, bodies and inanimate objects in every film, she transforms the face into an acute study of the act of seeing and its inherent hapticity.
From the late 1990s, she continued to develop these themes as part of her filmic research, whilst tackling issues of lesbian and feminist identity more openly.
In Swollen Stigma (1997, 20 minutes), Cast (1999, 17 minutes), Stages of Mourning (2004, 17 minutes) and her very recent Phantom Rhapsody (2010, 18 minutes), the sexual character of the female presence takes on a fundamental pre-eminence. This is key to the development of an investigation into the intimate experience of desire and the subjective repercussions of one’s own image and comparison with the female body and image of others.
Swollen Stigma opens with the image of an eye in extreme close-up. The viewer realises immediately that ocular perception and the act of watching will once again be at the centre of the filmic construction.
It is followed by the appearance of two armchairs in a domestic interior, lit by a large window. The close-up of the eye is repeated, this time filmed from the side, followed by a return to the frame of the sitting room where a woman now appears, seated in one of the armchairs, restless and melancholy. Images of the woman alternate with other subjective shots in which we see the opposite armchair through her eyes, while hyper-real sounds (her fingers as she runs them over her eyebrows and through her hair) intensify this subjective perception which involves the viewer in the sensations of the main character. With a montage evocative of Surrealism, especially the atmospheres created by Maya Deren, we witness the appearance of another woman who moves enigmatically.
Sarah Pucill thus stages the tension between presence and absence, the desirous images of memory transformed into a phantom presence. The actions of this second imagined and desired woman are indecipherable and disturbing, like in a bizarre dream: she appears head down at the end of a hallway wearing a long white dress, head down once again on the armchair in a loose garish dress, as her feet toy with the curtains at the window, then lying on the ground, with her eyes open, surrounded by flowers (this image, the first in a significant series, appears in colour).
The obsessive desire that the first woman experiences for the latter is then developed through an interplay of appearances and disappearances of two female bodies. While the movements of the main character are sometimes composed of a sequence of sophisticated double exposures, in the following sequence the legs of the desired woman are outlined in the main character’s action of opening and closing the doors of the kitchen cupboards. From this moment on, the images exude a dreamlike sensuality, created by means of bodies visually present for a few short instants or objects which suggest bodily forms: memory and desire combine with the suffering of the main character in a dreamlike physical contact. The boundaries of her subjectivity become blurred, infiltrating every domestic object and every habitual action, allowing desire to take subtle possession of every image. The bodies, their movements and their spatiality are transformed into a complex evocation desirous of the absent woman.
As the minutes pass, the colour scenes recur more and more frequently. The gentle, otherworldly luminosity of black and white is opposed more and more forcefully by the realist nature of colour, which, paradoxically, is also used in the dreamlike images of the desired woman. Red takes on a fundamental symbolic meaning, with the dress and stockings she wears in one of the scenes becoming liquid that, mixed with water, drips into the sink.
Every return to black and white becomes a breath-stopping moment of irrealism, causing the loss of orientation in space and time, with this effect being strengthened even further by the colour sequences. The viewer finds him or herself suspended in an increasingly complex state of perception, in which the distinctions between the domestic actions of the main character and the indecipherable actions of the female phantom become blurred, with the former seeming almost more mysterious and abstracted than the latter.
Within this profoundly dreamlike formal construction, the passage which associates the flame of the hob with the pistil of a flower and the eyebrows with roots in the ground creates an aesthetically rich and intense erotic imagery: the presence of the desired and absent female body pervades every action and leads to progressively more erotic images.
The highly erotised nature of the images takes the creative comparison between the domestic actions and objects and the female figures to extremes. This same comparison permeated the Early Shorts in the form of a sophisticated geometric study. The haptic dimension is tackled here by visualising the desire of the main character. Sensuality is directed towards the succession of flowers in the images, which are observed, washed, caressed, cut with a knife and eaten from a dish set at a laid table. The eroticism of the images examines touch, sight and taste in a synaesthetic dimension which is elaborated extensively in the work on the duration and pace of the images and on the subjective assignment of sensations and fantasies. In the closing minutes of the film, this culminates in the action of the desired woman as she swallows some flowers immersed in a bowl of milk.
As the film-maker Sandra Lahire states in a masterly article on Swollen Stigma:
The woman’s lips and tulips display an osmosis between their insides and outsides as if their skins were turned inside out. The private becomes public in a turning inside out, or eruption, in an on-going scenario. The viewer oscillates between joining her point of view and seeing her in full shot as if her mental furniture has seeped out of her.
Our need for a tangible unified subject is dissolved into layers of possible differences or identities. Both the woman and film surface itself ‘feel’ what the body, hand and objects are tracing. Film and skin are fused. Drops of water glide down a luminescent white bowl, as if expressed from a nipple.
The originality and profound interest of the work of Sarah Pucill lies in the complex link between formal experimentation with the materiality of the image (the materiality of the film strengthens and adds to the work on the surface of the body) and the reflection on the possible representations and relationships between different female subjects. The investigation into female and lesbian subjectivity and the relationship between different female points of view is formed within the images in the fragile boundary between figuration and abstraction, visibility and touch, and objects and bodies. The concepts and representations of identity and otherness are problematised and made figuratively complex.
According to the analysis of Sandra Lahire:
The film refuses to lead the viewer through a ‘realist’ story, thus implying the question, ‘whose realism?’ Instead we draw ourselves along to confront the mechanism of narrative itself. Voyeurism is denied in favour of the viewer’s mirror identification with the entranced woman whose past passion insistently flares into the moment.
The female and lesbian dimension observed in Swollen Stigma, as in Cast, Stages of Mourning and Phantom Rhapsody, is also apparent in the sophisticated formal work on the flow of perceptions and on an intentional disorientation between different subjects by means of effective ambiguity, built upon sounds, movements and actions, spaces and colours. The symbolic elements which refer to the lesbian dimension (for example, the flowers and blood through the use of the colour red) are introduced into the images in a dreamlike, disturbing atmosphere marked by changes in pace. The symbolism used here is free from pre-established theoretical dogma. It is interwoven into a meaningful creative work which does not overlook the complexity and paradoxes of intimate experience, which, in the case of Swollen Stigma, is an experience of memory and desire.
Cast delves further into the potential ambiguities in the figure of the desirous female subject. In this short, images of girls, dolls and women alternate with images of objects and human subjects, in growing confusion. The film highlights the problem of figuration, the fleeting and multiple nature of the reality underlying the images, thanks in part to the use of faces reflected in mirrors (a process that will be used again in Taking My Skin). What is real? What is image? What is reproduction and semblance? As in her earlier films, Sarah Pucill displays a particular interest in the representation of faces and the circulation of gazes. At times, the faces of the dolls appear more expressive than the human faces, which are extremely made-up. In Cast, the ambiguity and complexity lies in the disorientation created by these shocking, dreamlike images, aided by a very slow and hypnotic pace. Suddenly, halfway through the film, this atmosphere of mystery is broken abruptly by the sound of breaking glass and a radical change of setting. We move from a domestic interior to a beach, where a number of motionless women-dolls are lying.
As Sandra Lahire emphasises once again in one of her texts:
In Pucill’s film there is a nexus of gazes between women of different ages and sizes, and between their own body casts as well as dolls. A seamless pan joins dolls being pulled out of a drawer with the women made up as dolls, lying on a beach by the sea’s immensity. The film asks how, within the nature of film, a spectator can travel visually in a different body or into a different scale of space. As each woman sits in the other’s lap, their distinct eye views of their own bodies become ‘fused/ confused’. There is a little death of each self.
Sarah Pucill’s far-reaching work takes a creative approach to the concept of the circulation of subjective female point-of-view shots, through the mise-en-scène of different female bodies and dolls and their continuous contrast with their own reflection in a mirror.
This visual proposal regarding the complexity of the image evokes Frédéric Neyrat’s interesting reflection:
…the ghost of subjectivity, which is our multiple being, that which envelops the primary duality of the image. The originating power of the image, its infinite plastic telos, mutters behind its primary speculative dimension. It presents the power of the multiple peculiar to subjectivity, which no subjectivisation can, nor will, definitively unify .
In Stages of Mourning (and later in Taking My Skin) Sarah Pucill creates a direct relationship between her own autobiographical experience and her creative research into the presence of female bodies, reciprocal gazes and the circulation of subjective point-of-view shots.
While, as was analysed in the previous article, Taking My Skin investigates the reciprocal gaze between the director and her mother, Stages of Mourning is constructed as a meditative and mournful process involving the body of the artist and the images of her late partner Sandra Lahire. Sarah Pucill immerses her own image amongst photographs and recorded footage of her former partner. She herself performs as she observes and edits them, developing a mise en abîme created by different layers of meaning and movement. The various frames, initially disorienting at times, gradually reveal all the photos of Sandra Lahire, often in the company of Sarah Pucill, and show their shared work on the human body, the use of mirrors and reciprocal gazes.
Sarah Pucill adds these significant lines as the film opens:
from work and from life
tracing the surface
I put you together
to put myself together
in the grain of the pixel
for a bit of you
out of time
Her personal work on bereavement and memory therefore fits in with her creative reflection on the circulation of gazes through images and the meditative wealth that this creates. The power of these images lies in the vitality of the balance between appearances and disappearances, the thin line between documentary elements and dreamlike components generated by her desire for the presence of her lost partner and the reality of her absence. The music and silences add to the intensity of the meditative dream of Stages of Mourning.
Sarah Pucill’s most recent film, Phantom Rhapsody, is surprising due to the great irony used by the film-maker, who makes some of her actresses act awkwardly and clumsily. By proposing a highly theatrical black and white mise-en-scène, with the staging and changes continuously on display, the director takes up the classic images of the female nude, reviving the renaissance iconography of Venus in a critical manner and associating it with the world of silent films and magical effects.
Four women alternate in the roles of the magician, the nude model and the director, staging the preparation of a scenic pose each time. As ever, the mirror is used within the shot. Therefore, the image is always doubled, calling it into question and stripping it bare.
With Phantom Rhapsody, Sarah Pucill compares the pictorial, the theatrical and the cinematographic space. At the heart of this creative study is the representation of the female body, the circulation of roles, gazes, and desires. In an interplay of ever tighter focuses (the camera shot, then the physical frame and, lastly, the mirror), the director investigates the fascination of preparing a scene and holding a pose. However, in the last instance, she primarily uses an interplay of double exposures and appearing and disappearing bodies to examine their visibility and the ephemeral nature of images.
The great innovation of this last short by Sarah Pucill is the irresistible comic quality of the actresses: their energetic clumsiness, the intensity of their actions, the power of their reciprocal gazes and their gazes into the camera suggest a turnaround in the cinematographic art of the British film-maker. The ironic construction of the performances provides an illuminating insight into the figurative examination of female bodies. Phantom Rhapsody creates an atmosphere which is both tense and liberating, a dynamic balance between mystery and comical strangeness which lead to the intense and joyful participation of the viewer in the various actions of the actresses. This seems to us to be a significant innovation: her work on the circulation of subjective female point-of-view shots seems to have given way to a different experiment with the presence of the bodies in the scene; a burlesque experiment which toys with the visual codes of female figuration and disarranges them with humour and creative wealth.
[o] La furia umana, No. 5, summer 2010.
 You Be Mother, Milk and Glass, Backcomb, Mirrored Measure.
 Mirrored Measure, the film immediately prior to this, ended with a close-up of a moist eye, whose brightness concluded the intense circulation of water and glass between the two female presences.
 Sarah Pucill’s partner, who passed away in 2001. The film Stages of Mourning focuses on her mourning for the deceased. Sandra Lahire participated in the creation of Swollen Stigma as photography and sound assistant.
 « The Fairies Banquet – A visual fugue of eye, tongue, fingers, Sandra Lahire on Swollen Stigma », in Coil Magazine No. 7, 1998.
 The clear reference to Deren is repeated here (At Land, 1944).
 « Little Deaths » in Make magazine special issue on the Miniature, 1999.
 L’image hors-l’image, Editions Léo Scheer, Paris, 2003, p. 20.
 Sarah Pucill moves the lights, opens and closes the curtains and thereby changes the scene before the viewer’s very eyes. This is the same device already used primarily in Blind Light and Fall in Frame, which study space in relation to the bodies that occupy it.
In this essay I explore Catherine Russell’s writing on ‘impure’1 Structural Film and the autoethnographic,2 which I draw on in my discussion of three works, Chantal Akerman’s, News From Home, (1976), Jayne Parker’s Almost Out, (1984) and my own film Stages of Mourning (2004).
In the 1970s, whilst the high Modernist Structural film movement sought to eradicate any trace of the personal or the subject as author, in the wider frame of Visual Art, the feminist art movement was making famous the slogan ‘The Personal is Political’. In fact the impact of feminism in art criticism was major, and feminist critique and practice succeeded in shifting the parameters for what could be valued as art. The consequence was that the frames of reference for artistic debate expanded, so emphasising the intersection between the ‘personal’ and the wider social and political context. An important point here was that the shift was as much in the criticism as in the practice.
In her book Experimental Ethnography, Catherine Russell compares the relationship between ethnographic cinema and avant-garde film practices, the key connection of which is the question of looking. She proposes that Structural Film be read in the wider context of the history of representation and visual culture, and re-visits Structural film from the perspective of post-modern ethnography.3 She acknowledges the challenge that the Structural Materialist film theories of Peter Gidal4 and Malcolm Le Grice5 pose in terms of unsettling the passivity of the spectators’ otherwise voyeuristic gaze. This challenge to provoke a more fluid viewing experience where the spectator becomes both passive and active, as seeing subject and observer, she incorporates and develops in her critique of ‘impure’ Structural Film. Gidal and Le Grice’s discourse to blur the distinction between theory and practice, intellectualising and perceiving, subject and object of the gaze, is echoed in her writing on the autoethnographic Following on from Constance Penley6 she argues that because of the desire invested in looking, the spectator of Structural Materialist Film is not ‘freed’ from the technology of the gaze. Russell extends Structural Materialist Film theory where the subject is understood in universal terms (and therefore the subjects’ viewing experience) to embrace a confrontation with looking that is not divorced from the socially differentiated ‘embodied’ subject. In her chapter on Structural Film, she describes the work of a group of filmmakers that she sees as marginal to Structural Film because voyeurism is confronted literally as a ‘content’ or as a mode of representation, rather than as a ‘disciplinary techology’7 that she ascribes to the endeavour of Structural Materialist Film. Ackerman’s News From Home is given primary place in her analysis of ‘impure’ structural film works.
The experimental autobiographical work that arose in the 1908s and 1990s in film and video in the Us, Russell has defines as autoethnographic or domestic ethnographic. In general this work has diaristic elements but the author and his/her claim to truth or objectivity is put into question, as is the idea of a self as ‘whole’, self-knowable and fixed. Understanding moving image practice as the medium best suited to explore questions of a de-centred subjectivity, she points to the critical value of a practice that tests the limits of self representation as the autobiographic becomes autoethnographic. This is the point where the film or video maker understands his or her personal history as implicated in the wider social and historical framework. As distinct from autobiographic work that retains an essential self that is fixed and is revealed as a singular and known ‘truth’, the autoethnographic instead stages the self as a performance, the self is objectified and as such is acknowledged within the social world. In this staging of subjectivity, subject is fragmented as a consequence of the inherent quality of the medium. It is a simultaneous crossing between the spheres of the private and public world where the subjects of documentation are the artists themselves (often also their family or friends). The framing of this ‘self’ acknowledges that the ‘other’ within the self already undermines self-awareness. This idea of the ‘other’ within the self, as the splitting of self between image/sound, subject/object, and past/present is explored within this self-reflexive approach to autobiographic artists film and video.
In News From Home, the voice-over of the filmmaker’s mother’s letters to her while she was away from her home in Belgium, is overlaid with extended duration static shots of New York streets and subway. Following from her previous films Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the marginal world of the women’s household work is a key element. The letters recount the mundanity of daily routine, medical ailments and economic worries which are interspersed with the mother’s declarations of love and sadness at being separated from her daughter asking her to write back and return soon. The mother’s emotional outpouring is in marked contrast to the anonymity of the public space of New York street life, which serves to intensify the sense of a mother’s closeness. The personal is shared with the viewer and is thus made public. The presence of the mother becomes all pervasive. The reader barely pauses for breath, the continuousness of the reading being paralleled with the continuousness of the actual and ‘real’ time of the profilmic and the viewing experience. The voice-over alternates with a silence, which in turn is set against the presence and absence of traffic sounds and of filmed streets that alternate between busy and empty, of people or of traffic. Extremes of closeness and distance are conflated so that uncertainty is evoked; is in the relationship between the mother that is alienating or the New York metropolis? A sense of being in transit is literally shown on screen but is also expressed symbolically by the letters. Throughout the film, it is the profilmic that is in transit (the people, the traffic), the displacement of the filmmaker is only suggested in the underpinning autobiographic narrative ie via the letters. However, in the final shot, the filmmaker’s transience is literalised as the camera/filmmaker very slowly pulls away from the shore, and in the long tracking shot pulls away in real time in the boat, until Manhattan is far in the distance.
What the film addresses above all is a collision between the private and public that questions the assumption of what is subjective and objective, but also of who is at home and who is foreign. The passers by the on the New York streets are of diverse racial heritage. Binary power structures of both gender and race are here exposed in terms of expectations of traditional ethnographic film, that is, the voice-over as objective and at home, which is re-inforced with what the camera shows, that is ‘other’ and not at home. Here camera and voice-over are disjunctive. The anonymity of the cameraperson is partially maintained, until in the final very long take where the person behind the camera is, we realise, on a boat, and we assume is leaving the city she has been living in to return home to her mother. The film’s resolution brings the autobiographic and the professional together as it is the person behind the camera who is in transit and displaced, and who is exposed in terms of her private and social autobiography. The questions of displacement that the film addresses resonates in terms of the filmmaker’s Jewish heritage.
Similarly, in Almost Out (1984) by Jayne Parker, the video centres primarily on a relationship between the video maker and her mother who sit in full view in an editing suite naked, and talk. The issue of looking is central to the video. Modernist elements of reflexivity are evident as image (the editing suite) and as voiced dialogue. A cameraman is present in the first half hour or so, as voice only, and his camerawork is discussed between the three. There is a laying bare of the video making process as the performers react and respond to camera frame and zoom during the process of shooting The video was made at a time when nakedness in feminist quarters had become a taboo so this video was a bold attempt to challenge the an idiologue which was that women were necessarily dis-empowered by being naked for a camera. Issues concerning the gaze and questions of power are discussed as the cameraman for example comes in close on the artist’s react, saying that the camera can be brutal, and the question of whether the camera can hurt is voiced. The filmmaker’s success here is not in simplistically negating this point but in moving beyond the problem by talking through it, ie talking through the potential ‘harm’ a camera can do to a body simultaneously as the camera frames. The artist here is crucially both objectified body as well as speaking subject who directs the cameraman.
The durational element is important for the ultimate reading of the video, which sets up a context between seeing and listening to a body/subject. The viewer’s relation to the womens’ nakedness changes during the viewing and listening as the initial shock of nudity subsides. As the video progresses, the discussion becomes solely between the mother and daughter. The question of trust is raised as the mother explains why she has chosen to be naked in front of a camera for her daughter. Her reason is that she wants to give whatever she can to her daughter and that she understands it is important for her. Her trust and generosity cannot at this point be separated from the way in which we see the mother’s naked flesh. The discussion continues more specifically on their relationship. Whilst the mother is given the space to questions which she does at times, it is the daughter asking and the mother answering, offering her time, her body, her honesty, her thoughts. There is a sense that the filmmaker’s lines are semi scripted and that the mother’s are not. Also, that the questioner wants to draw something from her mother, as if something is being tested. The harder and more direct the questions become, the harder it is to listen, yet the harder also to stop watching. The closer the intimacy between the mother and daughter, the greater the involvement of the viewer. The daughter asks the mother where she came from, and the mother shows the camera an daughter her abdomen At this point the separation between the material body and the psychical seem the most disparate. At the same time the sense of necessary failure in being ale to return to the place of ones origins is most crystallised. The illusion of unity that the language of video brings in the suture between image and sound is brought to the fore in this moment of failure for the evidence to satisfy.
My recent film Stages of Mourning, was made soon after the death of my late partner the filmmaker Sandra Lahire.8 The film is a compilation of footage and photographs that I had lying around after her death (some were shot as private footage, some for a public audience). The seventeen minute film consists of me performing in front of the camera in silence in a home cluttered with large and small photographs, a 16mm projector, video and a computer that all bear her images. My intention for the film was to highlight the sense of fragmentation that occurs when confronted with death. I enact through the representational mediums of photography, film and video, processes of a splitting of the self as image, images that split between subject/object, past/present, and private and public. The question of authenticity in terms of the truth between representation and real object was a key concern; the truth of the performance, which is both staged and authentic, and of the truth in terms of the self which here appears scattered. A sense of fragmentation is played out to the camera as I re-stage a pose in a photograph, move inside the photo or film projection, or sit at a computer screen whilst orchestrating the performance of my late lover with the click of a mouse. Whilst the film is also an emotional lament about my loss, there is at the same time a self-conscious striving, that is staged to camera to pull the scattered fragments together, to re-live the past in the present.
Unlike the previous two works discussed here, Stages of Mourning lays bare the life circumstance of bereavement for the filmmaker as a period of crisis. The film opens with written text that is addressed to the deceased in the second person (you). In this way the viewer is implicated in a position that is awkward and uncertain; shut out, as voyeur, or as empathetic bystander. The film title Stages of Mourning is ambiguous in the sense that a stage is something both for a public audience as in the theatre and is an internal and private process of for example, mourning. I wanted the film to encompass both sense of the word, as for an artist what is private and what is public is often not separate. For the viewer, the mourning is real but it is being staged at the same time. As I perform with the ghost of my late partners image in the lens-based material, I perform my desire for her image to be real; to elicit a truth from the image of her as if a trace of here could be a part of here. In the moment of acting out this searching, the futility of the exercise is made apparent; the illusion is both real and not, it conveys a presence that is believable, even if at the same time this believability is a cheat.
The film stages an examination of the self, split between the here as viewer and there as screen, the here as living and the there as memory. An oscillation is experienced in the shifts between different frames of time and spatial frames. The viewer watches and maybe identifies with the performer as filmmaker and griever who is also looking at the image and her late lover. Self and other are played out in multiple forma; present/past, self/representation, self/lover. The close identification of the filmmaker and performer with the deceased lover suggest a collapsing of self/’other’ in this time of recent loss.
As a meditation the nature of the materiality of film, the film draws influence from the Structural Film concern of reflexivity. The experience of repeatedly seeing two faces (myself and my late partner) for twenty minutes draws attention to the ‘stuff’ o the medium, as texture and as physical entity, as computer terminal, projector or to the physicality of the photography in terms of scale and colour. As in Almost Out the performance is both actual and scripted, I stage a performance for the camera whilst grief is being lived, so destabilising the distinctions between what is actual and what is staged The desire to re-live the past I enact on film whilst also interrogating questions of the experience of the present, of self, and of making a film. My roles as a human being, as an artist, performer, camerawoman and editor are thus conflated and exposed.
In the works I have discussed, the artists are engaged with the canonical avant-garde film and video debates, as well as with a combination of the autobiographic, and their subjectivity. In these works, it is in the moment of the most personal or actual, in the moment of the most intimate and therefore subjective, that the self is opened up to the viewer most forcefully as a shared experience. So what is apparently confined to the domestic and private, here switches place with the public. These works exemplify the autoethnographic mode in a way that the intellectual and emotional are not separated out and the way in which the fragmentary nature of the medium of film is laid bare; in News From Home, a dislocation of voice-over with image, in Almost Out, the split between speaker, seer and seen and between an other and the self, and in Stages of Mourning, also the split between seer and seen, and between an other and self but with an importance emphasis on the present ad the past. In each work there is an internalisation of an ‘other’ that is embraced as a part of the self. Each work reveals elements of uncertainty between self and other, the stages and the actual, often creating a sense of disorientation the intermixing of different registers of communication, that is between symbolic and literal, abstract and indexical. The films also undertake an element of risk in exposing what is culturally designated as private. But also in the risk of the process of making, that is of combining artistic ‘objectivity’ from the emotional attachment that is inevitable in one’s ‘subjective’ relationship with one’s life. And so it is in the interstices of uncertainty, in the confrontation of the unknown with oneself that the Other, which is both within and outside oneself, is most fully shared with the spectator in the risk to expose what is close but also uncertain.
2008 (Performance and Installation)
Collaboration with Deej Fabyc (and Oreet Ashery, Hugo Glendinning, Hester Reeve)
2008 Toynbee Hall, London
2007, DV, col, sound, 7min
Collaboration with Marcia Farquhar as part of her 12 Shooters (A film project with Book) 12 filmmakers including: Uriel Orlow, Dryden Goodwin Saskia Olde Wolbers, Andrew Kotting, funded by ACE