Agnieszka Piotrowska on psychoanalysis, film noir and the ‘Nasty Woman’


This has been a very busy time for me, as I know has been the case for many academics. Not only did we have the end of semester 1 for our MA/MSc courses in Digital Film which I convene, with the exam boards and markings and dissertation supervisions, but I have also been organising a symposium in Poland for our Psychoanalysis in Our Time research group that I have been co-running with Ben Tyrer for 3 years now.  The initiative is funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers and our symposium in Sopot, with Professor Elizabeth Cowie being the keynote, will focus on the notion of the “Symptom” – in its broadest sense. The meeting will take place between 6-9th April just in time to get ready for our BAFTSS conference.  My own presentation will be a new piece of work – an African film noir which I have completed recently with my Zimbabwean collaborators.  The connection between this event and BAFTSS is that some members of our Psychoanalysis in Our Time network have formed a new BAFTSS SIG Psychoanalysis and Cinema, which will have its first outing during this year’s BAFTSS conference.  Our panel’s subject will indeed be film noir and we will present different takes on it.

Personally, I am most interested in the figure of femme fatale in film noir. ‘Oh not that again’ I hear you sigh but I want to explore traces of the femme fatale in other ‘nasty women’ (borrowing the famous Trump phrase about Hillary Clinton) in cinema and culture.  The femme fatale, both as a male fantasy and as a representation of female power, derives her endless appeal, I would argue, not only from her sexuality and beauty, but because she offers an exhilaratingly perverse way out of the rigid patriarchal systems of power and authority. She offers hope – of doing things differently, even if in a slightly (or very) ‘nasty’ way. Once upon a time, in the heyday of femme fatales in the 40’s, she might have been the sole figure fracturing male dominance in narratives presented by Hollywood. And now? Should we not consider Amy, of the Gone Girl, a descendant of the femme fatale in some way? With her beauty, her deviousness and the real crime that is committed by her, and not by the guy she so expertly frames for an imaginary crime? What about Sarah Polley’s mother of the Stories We Tell fame? And the filmmaker herself, too, in a way? Are their deceptions, their indiscretions, their beauty, as well as their ultimate creativity not part of the heritage of the femme fatale tradition? And then I ask myself how does a ‘nasty woman’ doubling as ‘femme fatale’ function in other cultures?  In Zimbabwe’s oral traditions there is figure of a woman who is mysteriously powerful, who can be good or bad, depending on what she feels about you… So there you have it– my new research project, in a nutshell.

Psychoanalysis in our time

Escape the movie

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