Invisible Adversaries/The Practice of Love

by Michael Barrett

25 November 2011

Valie Export's body of work, or work of the body.
cover art

Invisible Adversaries

Director: Valie Export
Cast: Susanne Widl, Peter Weibel

US DVD: 22 Jun 2011

The Practice of Love

Director: Valie Export
Cast: Adelheid Arndt, Rüdiger Vogler

US DVD: 24 Aug 2011

Valie Export is an Austrian artist famous for her guerrilla performances the 1960s and ‘70s, such as when she wore a curtained “theater” around her upper torso and invited strangers to reach inside and touch her (she called this “tap and touch cinema”), or when she wandered around a theatre audience wearing crotchless panties (a 1968 stunt entitled “Action Pants: Genital Panic”).

She also made two features, now available from Facets Video under the rubric Facets Limited Editions. In practice, these limited editions sometimes seem to mean transferring the old VHS master onto DVD; frankly it’s the only way you’ll ever see these things. Even through these sometimes rough prints, you can detect Export’s eye for lovely and disorienting city compositions and her talent for tossing off the frankly sexual and/or viscerally disturbing image, such as a prostrate man licking the pavement.
Invisible Adversaries begins with its photographer-heroine (Susanne Widl) dreaming or hearing a broadcast about alien body snatchers replacing everyone with doppelgangers. It would certainly explain much. There’s no particular story beyond this set-up, as most scenes seem organized around an aesthetic idea of playing with sound or image. These are alienation devices of course, and the film feels more interested in these devices than the content being alienated. One terrific and simple device is projecting the heroine’s dreams onto a screen above her bed. The dream, about wearing ice skates everywhere, combines the whimsical and the disturbing in a way that almost summarizes Export’s work.

This approach of aesthetic-alienation-as-content naturally serves the idea of the heroine’s alienation, with the intended pun on aliens and mind control, and we get a sense of thwarted political and sexual angst as a source of paranoia and madness. Often serving as a pretext for the scene’s device is some earnest gobbledy-gook conversation between the heroine and her boyfriend, played by video/performance artist and co-writer Peter Weibel, whom I think of as a German Ernie Kovacs (see his DVD Peter Weibel, Rewriter). I’m sure he contributed the concept of some of these characters’ interactions with video images.

In The Practice of Love, the heroine (Adelheid Arndt) is still going bonkers in this modern world of complacency and control. This time she’s a frustrated journalist who stumbles onto a possible murder and international conspiracy while conducting affairs and having arguments with a couple of lovers (including Wim Wenders staple Rüdiger Vogler). American writer Gary Indiana, who praises Export’s work in a blurb on the box, has a shrieking cameo in the film.

As in the previous movie, the generic thriller elements are a pretext for exploring the heroine’s uncertain, angry, self-doubting state of mind and the various postures it gets her into. You mustn’t go into this supposing that any plots will be neatly wrapped up, but every so often you still get striking aesthetic devices, like a scene where the camera pans around a woman’s shifting in time and space between three different conversations. You may wonder why more movies don’t use devices this expressive and liberating to liven their little plots.

These are frankly arty films that many will find too odd or dull or pretentious or German, and I can’t say they’re free of these qualities, but they also have enough originality to nag at patient viewers and get at least partially under our skin. Put it this way: most movies are easy to watch, easy to forget. These are neither.

Invisible Adversaries


The Practice of Love


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