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The Proprietary Cinematic Gaze in Tony Scott’s

The Hunger

 

by

Deborah Michel

The incandescent image of femme fatale Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) haunts the opening scenes of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) with classic Hollywood glamour; the camera cuts rapidly between her face, body, and the other elements in the scene. Always coming back to Miriam’s face throughout this sequence, it is clear that the driving force in this scene is her icy beauty and dominatrix-attire clad form; in these first moments the misè-en-scene of “noirish” lighting, cigarette smoke, and 40s retro costumes, all point to a standard interpretation according to Laura Mulvey’s feminist film criticism:

 

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy (sic) on to the female form, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.     - Mulvey, 310

 

Miriam is almost mannequin-like in her cool, emotionless expression and severe hairstyle; from behind her chrome-framed, reflective cat’s-eye dark glasses, she reminds one of the icy blonde beauties that have adorned Hitchcock’s films, haughty and impassive. Mulvey’s theories as applied to this scene would thus perceive an obvious example of the woman as image, of the glamorous woman whose appearance represents difference to the male spectator, and who therefore signifies a threat to his masculinity:

 

The female figure . . . connotes . . . a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference . . . the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. - Mulvey, 312

 

Miriam’s presence onscreen exemplifies the classic noir femme fatale through her appearance and demeanor, and also because she seems to dominate her male companion; she is a sexually powerful woman, the threatening presence whose archetype Freud once coined as “she who must be obeyed”. She seems to fit the pattern of a woman whose screen presence denotes the quality of she who is “to-be-looked-at”, and the camera seems to represent the ever-present (heterosexual) male gaze; however her companion John (David Bowie) is also highly glamorized and beautiful, androgynous and attired in fashionably intimidating splendor, positing questions of gender position and role.

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It is not only gender per se that is askew in the narrative, but the relative power that accompanies male masculinity that is specifically challenged; like the highly sexualized, gun-wielding femme fatale, Miriam frankly defies the authority of every man she encounters. Miriam’s authority is total throughout the narrative, in her power over those around her and over life and death; as the dominant vampire, it is she who created John as her vampire companion, as she will soon create her next lover Sarah (Susan Sarandon). As the presumptive maternal power in her closest intimate relationships, she is utterly emasculating, producing unpleasure for the male spectator:

 

 The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety . . . investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery . . . (and) the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object . . . or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star). - Mulvey, 312

 

Miriam’s image is sexually objectified and fetishized in sadistically enticing new wave costume and high-fashion makeup, modeled into an image that is object, not subject; her sexual threat to the masculine is controlled through the use of rapid editing and selective camera work that section her into smaller component parts, according to the manner of fashion photography, music videos, or heterosexual men’s pornography.

 

This notwithstanding, one could not easily declare which of the two best conveys “to-be-looked-at-ness” by the ostensibly male gaze; they both offer sexual fantasy. Miriam’s beauty is cold and deliberate, and she has a commanding and aloof presence, while John seems more directly sensual and inviting. Miriam and John pose a difficult question for Mulvey’s theory of the (heterosexual) male gaze and what the image of this woman (as opposed to this man) represents:

 

According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man's role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen. The man controls the film phantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator.

-  Mulvey, 311

 

Yet in The Hunger, John follows Miriam’s lead in the nightclub as the band Bauhaus performs the throbbing refrain of Bela Lugosi’s Dead; he wears an expression that is taunting and teasing, making sexual suggestions with a glance. Hence they both present a threat to male-masculine dominance, are symbolic of castration, and confound the notion of a strictly heterosexual male gaze.

 

They are apparently a couple of swingers out cruising for a pair of willing playmates, and as such their manner towards their intended quarry is much like that of a sexually predatory male; they are both sexualized “objects” who themselves view others as sexual objects, as toys. The pair are seeking prospective male-female couples to bring home for sex play; they reflect a spectator position of perversely polymorphous sexuality. Here, the spectator’s gaze might well be that of a heterosexual male, but it might also be a gay or bisexual male – or female – gaze which appreciates the images of both Miriam and John. This slippage of gender in the assumed spectatorial gaze and on the screen represents only the first in a series of border transgressions to come; masculine and feminine, sex and violence, animal and human, love and death, all shift uneasily like quicksand in this narrative.

 

As their creator, Miriam is positioned as mother to her own lovers, thereby contradicting cultural laws of heteronormative gender, sex, species, and familial ties; she is literally the all-consuming and smothering mother, a Medean and Medusan nightmare that slakes her thirst on the blood of her own progeny. Her most aggressive persona emerges during sex, as she reveals her vampire nature and feasts on the blood of her lover-cum-prey, the sexualized über monster:

 

Definitions of the monstrous as constructed in the modern horror text are grounded in ancient religious and historical notions of abjection – particularly in relation to the following religious ‘abominations’” sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body; and incest. – Creed, 9

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Shown in the midst of a vampiric assault, blood smeared on her face and dripping from her gaping mouth, Miriam is the ultimate abject embodiment of the vagina dentata; she strikes during sex, rending the flesh and destroying the life of her would-be bedmate, a savage and monstrous betrayal. Yet towards her chosen partner she shows tenderness, although her seeming compassion has its limits; John eventually learns that after a few hundred years with Miriam he is aging rapidly, and losing his former beauty. Realizing that he will die soon, he is further horrified to learn that she knew all along that such would be the case; her attic is full of the coffined remains of her former lovers, all still conscious though decayed beyond recognition.

 

After John has gone the way of all flesh into his attic coffin, there to endure an interminable limbo of undead immobility, Miriam sets her gaze upon Sarah as a replacement companion; she lures Sarah to her lair and seduces her, to covertly infect Sarah with her vampiric blood. In the lesbian love scene that follows, the concept of the male gaze and the female sexual object is blurred; though both women’s unclothed bodies are on display for the camera and therefore qualify as objectified images, this may appeal to other than a male gaze. Their physical beauty and sexuality are deliberately displayed, in a conflation of the monstrous vampiric and the sensually feminine:

 

Here, her function as image is laid bare – if she cannot die, if she is eternal, it is because she is nothing but an image . . . and that image is the eternal feminine itself in its Fatal Woman manifestation, whose attributes never change, nor in the cinema, does her appearance. She is love, cruelty and death, the promise of exquisite destruction . . . the immortal Gorgon . . . the Vampire as Vamp.  – Jenks, 32

 

The misè-en-scene for the lesbian love scene is awash with gauzy veils and flowing draperies, shot in a hazy, soft-focus style; their lovemaking takes place without the need for any male presence. Though Miriam is decidedly the seducer and sexual aggressor, there is nothing particularly “masculine” in her behavior or that of Sarah; their embraces and kisses are passionately, breathtakingly woman-oriented.

 

Feminist film theory of the 1970s and early 1980s does not recognize the concept of a female gaze, let alone of a lesbian or bisexual gaze; this love scene passes under the theoretical radar by virtue of Miriam’s non-human status as a vampire. As this is not “really” lesbian because it isn’t two human women, critics don’t have to take it seriously; at the same time, framing this intensely intimate woman-to-woman love scene as a vampiric assault serves to demonize lesbianism and bisexuality:

 

The 1970s vampire films conflated the female vampire with voracious sexual desire and placed the two ‘at the heart of the vampire narrative’ . . . there might be a connection between this and the rise of the women’s liberation movement, which also led to public fears about a more aggressive expression of female sexuality . . . the representation of . . . woman as lesbian vampire; woman as victim; woman as creature; gender and metamorphosis; abjection and the maternal.  - Creed, 59

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The Hunger is castigated in the press for its glamorous conceit and sexual objectification of women; horror film enthusiasts criticize it for being little more than soft-core porn with excessively arty set design and cinematography. Mulvey and second-wave feminists alike shun the lesbian and bisexual women in their own midst; this assures the failure of the E.R.A. Mulvey can’t envision a female or lesbian gaze because the notion of sex between women is deviant to the feminism of her day; for women to view each other as sexual objects is downright abhorrent to heterosexual feminists.

 

Because this film takes place after the stunning defeat of the E.R.A. and on the cusp of both the AIDs pandemic and the Reagan administration, there is no sex-positive, queer-accepting criticism to receive it:

 

In the vast majority of Reagan-era horror films, monstrosity and queerness are linked in retrogressive ways. The modern horror films’ focus on visceral gore and bodily fluids neatly dovetails into AIDS hysteria as well, even when the monster queer is a lesbian rather than a gay man. The most famous lesbian vampire film of this period, The Hunger (1983), is a good case in point. Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve play attractive and sympathetic lesbian vampire lovers, yet the major seduction scene, set to Delibes’s Lakme, is an excellent example of how the culture industry subtly constructs homosexuality as monstrous . . . what had begun as a beautiful scene of making love ends as yet another monstrous horror: the ‘foul disease of the vampire’ has been passed on once again. – Benshoff, 244

 

Few if any serious comments are made in recognition of the disservice this narrative does to the queer community; because organized women’s liberation rejects “the lavender menace”, there is no need for academic discourse as to the hostile tone the film takes towards queer culture.

 

People with AIDs are metaphorically represented in this film with vivid imagery; the extremely rapid aging and horrifying death of John, the themes of blood exchange and scientific experiments, and of deviant sex all point to a subtle AIDs reference, “The Hunger characterizes vampires as specifically homosexual or bisexual. This film has perhaps done much to cement into place the current social construction of homosexuals as unnatural, predatory, plague-carrying killers, even as they also might provide a pleasurable power-wish fulfillment fantasy for some queer viewers” (Benshoff, 140). When Sarah is stricken with the unnatural disease of vampirism and lays feverish and wasting, Miriam sits at her bedside with implacable poise; she remains fresh and beautiful, a carrier of the plague who does not sicken or die of the disease, and can be perceived as a pariah, an AIDs-infected “Typhoid Mary”.

 

The social climate during the early 1980s was not receptive to a queer or feminist position, and hence The Hunger registers in the collective consciousness as an indictment of both; in this film both queerness and female sexual agency are paradoxically touted and condemned. John suffers and “dies” horribly, vividly depicted as a rapidly aging queer man who is horrified as his youthful appearance evaporates; his wild nightlife at the clubs and in the steam bath with his lovers are a thing of the past. He doesn’t just die, he lingers and has to slowly realize that this disease is the “gift” of his trusted lover, who does not likewise suffer and die; John gets to see Miriam’s ever-young and beautiful face looking into his own as he ages into complete decrepitude. This motif of the glamorous and healthy lover tending a sick and emaciated loved one is repeated when Sarah is taken with the horrific blood disease; thus when Miriam’s dead lovers return to wreak vengeance upon her, nobody feels any pity as she falls to her final demise.

 

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In the final scene Sarah is seen exercising a commanding gaze from her high tower balcony, flanked by attractive young companions, all dressed in white; though she survives to reign as queen of the undead, her victory is a hollow one. Sarah is punished as a permanent exile from the world of the living; she cannot ever go home again, is forever an outsider, and must abide by the dominant social paradigms of the living, hiding from a society that would destroy her if she revealed herself. Her position is not unlike that of many lesbians and radical feminists in the 1980s, she lives “off the grid” in a world of her own creation, because there is no place for her in the culture from which she came; she can only exist as a renegade, a shadowy outcast who resides in a twilight world.

 

Some women have argued for a female spectator position that identifies positively with Miriam or Sarah, prompting Harry Benshoff to query, “What does it mean if lesbians identify with the beautiful female vampires of The Hunger . . . In what ways does this happen and what is the ‘price paid’ in culture-ate-large for yet another depiction of monstrous predatory homosexuals” (Benshoff, 13)? The ambiguous dénouement leaves Sarah’s future vague; the audience can ignore the seeming conclusion that the queer feminist vampires have been duly punished. The spectre of AIDs and the ghosts of feminism and homosexuality are firmly locked out of the cultural dialogue, and society settles in for a decade or more of backlash against women and queers alike; not until the 1990s will positive narratives and discourses about women and queers begin to gain any ground. Until then, a series of horror and suspense films will depict an assortment of murderous and monstrous female and queer others in order to reaffirm the heteronormative mandate in society, leaving a legacy of hateful and misleading images in their wake.

 


 

Bibliography

 

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. New York:

Manchester University Press, 1997.

 

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York:

Routeledge, 1993.

 

Jenks, Carol. “Daughters of Darkness: A Lesbian Vampire Art Film”, in Necronomicon: Book One,

London: Creation Books, 1996.

 

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Movies and Methods, II, Bill Nichols,

ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985. Originally Published - Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18

text c. 2007 - Deborah Michel

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