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A Question of Silence (Marleen Gorris, 1982)

Across a career spanning nearly half a century, Dutch writer and filmmaker Marleen Gorris has explored with delicate precision the aesthetics of kinship among women, and the ways in which women generate intimacy and collective identity in unexpected places. Trained in drama in the Netherlands and England, Gorris made her debut narrative feature, A Question of Silence, in 1982, with an audacious premise: a psychiatrist investigates three women, all strangers to each other, who are accused of spontaneously joining together to beat a shopkeeper to death. That film became the first in a trilogy of movies by Gorris exploring women’s negotiations of freedom within brazenly sexist and exploitative conditions, followed by Broken Mirrors (1984) and The Last Island (1990). Her 1995 feature Antonia’s Line was the first film directed by a woman to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

A Question of Silence delivers an unflinching yet strangely sweet portrait of four women in early-’80s Holland. Janine (Cox Habbema), a court-appointed psychiatrist, is charged with interviewing the three murderers: Christine (Edda Barends), a housewife; Annie (Nelly Frijda), a waitress; and Andrea (Henriëtte Tol), an office secretary. Gorris relays the scene of the killing in brief, highly choreographed flashbacks that break up the psychiatrist’s visits with the three women in jail, each of whom adopts a different tactic of refusal: Christine does not speak; Annie responds with flirtation and taunting, sizing up Janine with hungry eyes and faint smiles; and Andrea is abrasively cheerful. These interviews individuate the women and their specific worlds, while reinforcing the unified experience of their story. Woven throughout are glimpses of the tedium of the characters’ daily lives before the murder. We see Christine grinding away at chores for her husband and children, who scarcely acknowledge her presence otherwise; Andrea suffering her boss’s condescension; and Annie dealing with the lewd jokes of the men who frequent her diner. Through the use of long takes and minimal dialogue, Gorris demands our attention and patience, but offers in return an elegant and powerful meditation on how women challenge what’s expected of them in private and public spaces.

Eliciting no simple or obvious answers, Janine’s questioning of the women increasingly becomes self-reflexive, pulling apart her own facade of contentment and exposing the cracks in her relationship with her lawyer husband. In the penultimate scene, set in the courtroom, Janine testifies to the court that the women are sane—implying that their unplanned act of violence was an understandable response to the accumulating frustrations of their lives in a deeply patriarchal society. That rupture is, in fact, the only logic of a broken world is driven home by the full-throated laughter the three women—and eventually Janine—break into during the trial, stupefying the judges. It is a stutter in the desire for polished continuity in the procession of the hearing.

Set in a brothel in Amsterdam, Broken Mirrors is a menacing spectacle of sexual desire and violence, at once a passionately intimate and terrifying film. Gorris opens with a shadowy figure, whom we will meet many times throughout the film, disposing of a woman’s body at the edge of a canal. From this dismal view of the Amsterdam cityscape we go to the brothel, with its multicolored walls, sunlit pink curtains, elegant mirrors, lush fabrics, and conventionally attractive women in exquisite hairdos. Through Diane (Lineke Rijxman), a recent mother and the newest sex worker at Club Happy House, we gain insight into the details of this industry: the caretaking and romances among the women, who are both friends and competitors; the negotiations between them and their clients; the exhaustion of the cleaning woman who must deal with the aftermath. With lengthy close-up shots, the camera revels in the physicality and frailty of the women—in particular the liveliness of Diane’s co-worker and possible love interest, Dora (played by Tol)—and the awkwardness and ineffectuality of the male guests.

Gorris breaks up the vibrant sequences at the brothel with a chilling series of scenes depicting, from the point of view of the mysterious man seen in the opening, a woman chained to a bed. This kidnapped housewife is played by Barends, who essayed the taciturn Christine in A Question of Silence. At first, she begs again and again for answers, until she realizes that the man’s motive is in fact to make her beg—then she silences herself, refusing to give in, much like her character in the previous film. We soon piece together that this man is a regular at Club Happy House, wreaking violence both within and without. As Dora says at one point while riding in the man’s car, not knowing that he’s the killer, “It’s not much safer being a middle-class housewife than a whore.” She and Diane quit in a dramatic frenzy at the end of the movie, nearly slaying the serial killer on the way out, but Gorris closes the film with a more banal image: the cleaner scrubbing the bloodied mattress, preparing for a new day of work. While the women may leave this particular hermetic world, its routine violence goes on.

The Last Island also explores the nexus of flesh and violence, but through an allegorical science-fiction narrative. The seven survivors of a plane crash—five men and two women—realize that in fact they may be the only people left on the planet in the wake of a world disaster. Gorris at first delivers a portrait of the survivors’ intimacy and friendship. They make use of the tools and objects salvaged from the crash, play card games, and stage a black-tux birthday party for Joanna (Shelagh McLeod). Soon, however, the men plot amongst themselves to convince one of the women to have sex with them in order to reproduce the human race. Going from the courtroom to the brothel to a microcosm of the world itself, Gorris lays bare the design of misogyny, and how it undergirds a deeper social crisis. From the moment the men begin to conspire, a procession of violence begins: a severed hand leads to a slow death; a philosophical conversation about love leads to a homophobic homicide. At the end, however, Gorris leaves us with a quiet kind of hope and joy. All the men have killed each other, and the women mourn and reflect by the shore, their gaze moving from the horizon to each other’s eyes. Their togetherness and survival are one and the same.

Lucy Sternbach lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in Screen Slate and The Brooklyn Rail.