Teaching Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence
The University of Washington Tacoma does not have a film major, but students can take courses in a film track in an Arts, Media, & Culture major. Most students are newcomers to film as an area of study, and this influences my pedagogy. I teach with a film/historical chronology in mind, so students gain a sense of what life was like for women as depicted in film and as feminism in Western countries gained force in the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century. This topic seems like ancient history to some, so through film I attempt to demonstrate its relevance, such as in this lesson plan, which includes a film screening, reading scholarship on the film, and discussing it all together or in small groups. We also make connections to films and literature shown and read in other parts of the class.
For the lesson plan I describe here, I have chosen the seminal second-wave feminist film Der Stilte Ronde Christine M. (1982) by Dutch feminist filmmaker Marleen Gorris. Translated for English-speaking audiences as A Question of Silence, Gorris’s first film powerfully evokes aspects of the second-wave moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The film is about three “ordinary” women1: a single secretary, an older widow, and a younger mother with children who, though all strangers to each other, reach a breaking point when shopping at a boutique. The young mother shoplifts and is confronted by the (male) manager; this is witnessed by a diverse group of women in the boutique, and the secretary and waitress join the shoplifter’s revolt, which turns violent. The violence occurs below the frame, but intent is shown and actions are heard. The women then go their separate ways, peacefully accepting the inevitable police summons, and are brought to the authorities. A woman psychiatrist is hired by the court to determine their sanity.
Gorris ultimately felt Silence was “willfully misunderstood” (Bear 1996) by mainstream critics. Still, she went on to direct the more mainstream feminist film Antonia’s Line (1995), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. She also directed the Virginia Woolf adaptation, Mrs. Dalloway (1997).
Historical/Contextual Level: The class before screening, I mark the historical context by comparing this film to earlier works under study, in terms of both story and form. I explain how the film is radical and provocative, noting that it works not only through consciousness raising, but also through the slogans “Sisterhood Is Powerful” and “The Personal Is Political,” which are aligned with the US women’s liberation movement. Regarding these philosophies, I encourage students to ask: How does the film reveal the personal lives of protagonists as political? Which scenes affirm that sisterhood is not only possible but powerful? I also note that Gorris released the film into mainstream distribution in 1982, a time when many audiences were not ready to consider cinematic violence if enacted by women, even as a plot device and offscreen (as here). Along with this background information, I remind students of our key levels of analysis: historical/contextual, formal (stylistic), and narrative. Then, after watching the film, students read William Johnson’s review in Film Quarterly (1983).
Formal/Stylistic Level: This was the era when women began to understand the power of film, and thus more women started to make films. In making films feminist, these directors centered women characters and experimented with the form. For example, Gorris opens with no credit sequence (which is disorienting); she moves the story forward little by little, circling back to elaborate previous points in the narrative that expand our knowledge of the characters’ lives and help us understand their actions. From this formalist experimentation Gorris leads viewers to a growing understanding of and (generally) into an alignment with the protagonists’ points of view.
Narrative Level: Is there an “other plot” to the story as Gentile suggests (1985, 156)? To explore the film as a temporal art form (an art that flows through time), I pose questions about how the film opens (with the psychiatrist and her husband playful on a sofa) and ends (with the couple far apart outside of the courthouse).2 We also explore the arc of the story, or what changes. I utilize “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence” by Judith (now Jack) Halberstam who writes, “Imagined violence. . . is the fantasy of unsanctioned eruptions of aggression from ‘the wrong people, of the wrong skin, the wrong sexuality, the wrong gender’” (1993, 199).3 I also reference Sharon Willis, who, in a discussion of the film Basic Instinct (1992), writes, “To read our public cultural representations, ‘rage’ belongs to and marks nondominant groups; those who inhabit stable positions of power do not need rage” (1997, 66). Kathleen Rowe’s introduction in The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (1995) is very useful for discussing the film in relation to excess, resistance, and laughter as liberation.
Additional Questions for Class Discussion (if not arising through the question and answer period or student responses)
- Think about this fictional murder in relation to gender reversal: how is it that we commonly accept men murdering women as entertainment but find this film difficult? Forty years later, the film continues to shock. What might that mean?
- Historical and Formal Levels4
- How does Gorris blend a counter-dominant film structure in a melodrama-gone-wrong story? (A feminist strategy places women at the center and views the film from their perspectives; a Brechtian strategy distances the viewer through sound, camera, or other formal means; this film does both).
- Where is there repetition visually and aurally? Does the repetition work to help us understand the women’s lives or the director’s choices as feminist (i.e., was your consciousness raised?)?
- Narrative Level: If the point of melodrama is to align the woman’s role with “waiting, suffering, and sacrifice” (Doane 1987, 180), how does this film explode these conventions?
- Why are we sutured to the psychiatrist’s point of view? (If her consciousness is raised, is yours?)
- What is the significance of the class, race, and gender of the main characters? What about the silent women?
- Do you laugh with the psychiatrist and others during the film and in the courtroom?
Student Voices from the Class Discussion Board
- “The film… shows a brilliant portrayal of the ways the patriarchy can drive women insane.”
- “This film is interesting because it depicts the female main characters as fully responsible for their horrid deed but also worthy of being understood.”
Through films and literature, discussion board posts, and class discussion, students recognize how films from the past offer a view as to why feminism came into being; they also understand the deeply felt and shared realities of women’s lives.
Antonia’s Line. 1995. Directed by Marleen Gorris. Los Angeles: First Look Pictures. 102 minutes.
Basic Instinct. 1992. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Culver City, CA: TriStar Pictures. 128 minutes.
Bear, Liza. 1996. “Marleen Gorris: In the Name of the Mother.” Ms. 6, no. 5 (March): 75-76.
Bovenschen, Sylvia. 1977. “Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?” Trans. Beth Weckmueller. New German Critique no. 10 (Winter): 111-37.
Citron, Michelle, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, and Anna Marie Taylor. 1978. “Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics.” New German Critique no. 13 (Winter): 82-107.
Doane, Mary Ann. 1987. The Desire to Desire: The Women’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fischer, Lucy. 1989. Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gentile, Mary C. 1985. “Feminist or Tendentious? Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence.” In Film Feminisms: Theory and Practice, 153-65. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Halberstam, Judith (now Jack). 1993. “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representation, Rage, and Resistance.” Social Text, special section “Sex Trade,” no. 37 (Winter): 187-201.
Johnson, William. 1983. “A Question of Silence.” Film Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Winter): 40-43.
Mrs. Dalloway. 1997. Directed by Marleen Gorris. Los Angeles: First Look Pictures. 97 minutes.
Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. 2011. Film: A Critical Introduction. Third Edition. Boston: Pearson, Allyn, and Bacon.
A Question of Silence. 1982. Directed by Marleen Gorris. New York: Quartet Films. 92 minutes.
Root, Jane. 1985. “Distributing a Question of Silence: A Cautionary Tale.” Screen 26, no. 6 (November-December): 58-64.
Rowe, Kathleen. 1995. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Willis, Sharon. 1997. High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
1 This is how the characters are referred to in the film.
2 Film: A Critical Introduction (Pramaggiore and Wallis 2011) is helpful for understanding how films make meaning.
3 This scholar more recently began publishing under the name J. Jack Halberstam or Jack Halberstam.
4 I mark both historical and formal here because experimenting with the formal elements was a practice more common to this time period than to our present moment, and filmmakers in European countries were awarded government funds for film production, as Gorris was for this film (see Root 1985, 59); this allows the director more freedom to experiment according to their (feminist) vision.