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Cinema's Missing Children

Emma Wilson

(Columbia University Press (US))

Vanishing Point

In certain serious movies of late, the motivating presence at the story’s center is actually an absence: a dead child. Both Todd Field’s critically acclaimed In the Bedroom and Nanni Moretti’s forthcoming The Son’s Room, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, concern families dealing with the sudden loss of sons.
—Godfrey Cheshire, The Independent Weekly, online edition


During the spring of this year, while American, British and Iraqi citizens were losing their lives in scores in Iraq and the Israelis and Palestinians continued to trade casualties in their perpetual conflict, the media in the United States found time to become fixated on something else: Two missing people.


Prior to their disappearances, Laci Peterson and Elizabeth Smart were –- except to their families and friends -– not people of national note. One was a young wife from Modesto, California. The other a Utah teenager. Once they vanished, however, they became sensations, drawing attention in a matter wholly disproportionate to the circumstances. After all, thousands of people go missing in the U.S. each year. Few of them engender Fox News Channel hour-by-hour updates.


But the coverage was in line with a recent ramped-up interest taken in cases involving lost children. Laci Peterson was late-term pregnant when she disappeared, and the concern for her was intertwined with concern for her unborn baby. The 15-year-old Smart, a child herself, was abducted by a stranger from her Salt Lake City home last summer.


The two stories came after a year -– 2002 -– in which America grew almost obsessed with stories of missing children; there seemed to be a new horrifying story every week. Along with Smart, there were, to name two, five-year-old Samantha Runnion and seven-year-old Danielle van Dam, two young California girls who were kidnapped and murdered. The bodies of Laci Peterson and her undelivered child were ultimately discovered in April. Her husband is charged with the killings. Smart’s drama ended in happier fashion. She was discovered alive in Salt Lake City, Utah, in March.


The ascent of the vanished child to the level of national preoccupation is nothing new to film scholar Emma Wilson, who has been tracking the phenomenon in both Europe and the United States for years. Wilson, a professor at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, contends that images of missing children have become among the most predominant and haunting in western art, particularly in film. Using a handful of contemporary art films as illustration, Wilson argues that while cinema has become increasingly focused on the missing child as a means to explore ruptures in both family and societal dynamics, filmmakers have grappled – and sometimes struggled – with identifying tools within the medium to adequately represent the emotional toll that losing a child carries.


But as a devotee and defender of cinema, Wilson maintains that such an effort may be less an indictment of the limits of film and more a reflection of the shattering and irreconcilable power inherent in a child’s death or abduction. She examines the distinct approaches filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan, Jane Campion, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Pedro Almodovar take toward filling the space left by such a loss. In addition, Wilson draws upon modern research in psychology and sociology related to childhood trauma to help flesh out her thesis – with Freud as a departure point. (Water and its metaphoric relationship to amniotic fluid is a recurring motif in the book.)


The language is pervasively, and sometimes distressingly, academic. Wilson isn’t writing for the masses here. That never detracts from the weight of her intellect or scholarship, however, and the book is demarcated into chapters dedicated to analyzing each film separately, a helpful mode of organization when one is swimming in theory. It also makes sense thematically. Wilson isn’t attempting to identify common elements among the films she analyzes. Rather, she seeks to detail the manner in which each director establishes and represents the impact of a missing child.


Several of the films discussed, Kieslowski’s evocative Blue (1994), Almodovar’s melodramatic All About My Mother (1999) and Campion’s critically-panned Portrait of a Lady (1996), among them, concern the imprint a child’s death leaves on a surviving mother. All three are very different films, in tone, style and character. Yet, the three address all-consuming grief.


After the death of her husband and daughter in a car accident, Blue‘s heroine, Julie (Juliette Binoche), empties her life of anything to which she can connect emotionally: people, possessions, vocations, encasing herself in the vacuum of anonymity. Images of the daughter are never seen again after the first few minutes. The film appears to take on this hermetic quality, with the remote Binoche transmitting little in terms of what would be objectively described as despair – or any other emotion for that matter.


Wilson submits, however, that Kieslowski does, in fact, express Julie’s mourning in alternative form, utilizing innovative cinematic techniques. One involves the intrusion of music into Julie’s consciousness (along with a shimmering blue light). Another is the director use of a slow dissolve into pitch darkness that occasionally interrupts scenes, signifying Julie’s momentary slippage into the abyss. By limiting Julie’s expression of grief, the “film indicates . . . that this loss is precisely unspeakable, that it ruptures the symbolic order, that it is silent through the duration of the film,” Wilson writes. “The loss recurs, and is commemorated, however, in colour and in space, two modes which precede language and lie outside its reach.”


Wilson’s isn’t the exclusive take on Blue, however. One can quibble with the author’s working premise -– that Julie’s loss isn’t directly delineated in the film – by contending instead that her grief seems to fill its every frame, camouflaged by Binoche’s exquisite and layered performance. Even so, such a disagreement doesn’t detract from Wilson’s insights into Kieslowski’s technique. They can make you appreciate the film in a new way.


Julie’s seeming opposite is the nurse Manuela (Cecilia Roth), in All About My Mother, who embraces an entirely new avenue of personal connection after her son is killed by a car. She flees Madrid to return to her home city of Barcelona in order to inform the boy’s father of the death of a son he never knew. Once there, she assuages her suffering by caring for refugees from society’s margins: prostitutes, transvestites, a pregnant nun, an aging actress. Unlike Julie, Manuela’s loss is written on her face in almost every scene, even when she is joyful. Arguing that Almodovar is essentially secularizing a Catholic ritual, Wilson views Manuela as the mater dolorosa -– the sorrowful Virgin Mary cradling the crucified Christ.


In the aftermath of her son’s death, Manuela, Wilson argues, is transformed into nothing more than an automaton, locked into an eternally repeating role as the suffering mother. (In that sense, Wilson, somewhat counter-intuitively, gives Kieslowsku’s Julie more credit for assuming control over her life, despite her desire to make it a meaningless one.) As such, Manuela repairs to Barcelona as part of a fantasy: By seeking her son’s father, she will preserve her relationship to her son – and in that her own identity.


It is true that throughout the film, Manuela sublimates her own needs; she is mother to all. Yet, Wilson’s reading feels like a rather bleak one, given the spontaneous moments of warmth that surface in the film. By casting Manuela in the thankless role of an actress eternally re-creating the passion of the Virgin Mary, she abandons the film to pessimism. Throughout his career, Almodovar, as Wilson reports, has been interested in the emotional spectrum traversed by women. Given that, Manuela may not simply be a prop in a Catholic drama, although the director’s Spanish heritage makes it easy for Wilson to go there. Another interpretation could be that Manuela hasn’t embarked on a search for redemption as much as a quest to close a circle in her departed son’s life. (His last wish, so to speak, was to know his father.) The film seems more concerned with moving forward in the face of trauma, even optimistically so, rather than confine itself to a never-ending cycle of suffering.


Interestingly both Blue and All About My Mother, along with a third film discussed, Olivier, Olivier (1992) by Agnieszka Holland, address the concept of a replacement for the departed child. It’s a notion that Wilson could have explored further. In Blue, Julie discovers her husband’s mistress is pregnant with his child and her response is to give their country estate to the woman so that the child may be raised as Julie’s was raised. In Mother, Manuela ends up raising the son of the pregnant nun who died in childbirth, a son who shared the same father as Manuela’s son. (Both children are given the same name.) In Olivier, an imposter for an abducted child takes refuge in the child’s family and remains there. These are survival mechanisms of the highest order, but they are never Wilson’s focus. That is the author’s prerogative, of course. Identity confusion does become prominent in Wilson’s analysis of the stark Ratcatcher (2000) by Lynne Ramsay, although there Wilson appears more concerned with how the child protagonist of the film identifies with the child he inadvertently murdered.


Wilson’s concept of the missing child is elastic and expansive. She offers a spirited defense of Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), even though it is unclear – and she concedes as much – why the film is included in the book at all. Loss, to Wilson, includes the loss of innocence experienced by the victim of a pedophilic assault. She’s certainly correct there. There can be no disputing the psychic devastation such an act inflicts. The problem is that Happiness isn’t particularly concerned with those injuries as much as the person who caused them.


A primary character in Solondz’s film is respected suburban family man Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), who is slowly losing control over his hidden desire for children. His condition ultimately results in two rapes of young boys, acts that are not portrayed in the film. Wilson seems primarily interested in how Solondz takes all of his characters at face value: he simply depicts, he doesn’t judge. She congratulates him for his decision to spare the audience from witnessing the sexual assaults. Not only does that, in her opinion, save the film from being the exploitative piece that some critics have maintained it is, but it also supports Wilson’s contention that some traumatic episodes in the lives of children simply cannot be fully represented through film. Happiness “works to suggest that its subject – child abuse – encompasses so much more which resists the viewer and remains outside of representation,” she writes.


Wilson’s defense of Happiness is welcome. The film is smarter, tougher and more challenging than its detractors would admit. It doesn’t however, fit seamlessly into her exegesis. Bill’s victims aren’t fully realized characters. (One is never even introduced.) The loss of innocence she describes is indeed felt by Bill’s son, once he discovers his father is a monster. But the son’s trauma, too, is not a major factor in the story. Wilson dwells upon the concept of the sexualization of children in order to find an entry point into the subject of abuse, but because Happiness restrains itself in exploring that subject, there’s nowhere much to go from there. And because the film doesn’t concern itself with the trauma suffered by Bill’s prey, it appears to exist outside the universe of films that Wilson’s study embraces.


The biggest disappointment comes with Wilson’s discussion of Exotica (1994) and the work of director Atom Egoyan. A great deal of Egoyan’s work concerns lost children and damaged childhoods, making him an ideal subject for Wilson’s scholarship. Instead, Wilson confines much of her treatment to her fascination with Egoyan’s wife, the actress Arsinee Khanjian, who appears in each of his films. Their collaboration – and her role as his inspiration –- is undeniably interesting, but its inclusion here seems misplaced, never more so where Exotica is concerned.


The film, which details a father (Bruce Greenwood) who becomes obsessed with an adult dancer following the death of his young daughter, doesn’t feature Khanjian as a primary character. She’s the owner of the strip club. While virtually ignoring Greenwood’s central role in the film (and, one would assume, the central role in Wilson’s study), Wilson strains to shoehorn Khanjian’s character into her analysis by contending that her character’s bisexuality breaks down gender barriers with regard to male and female sexual behaviors. Khanjian’s character likes to watch the dancer Christina, just as Greenwood’s character does. That’s fine and good, but so what? Wilson also omits any mention of Egoyan’s subsequent masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter(1997), which dealt with the loss of children (en masse, in a school bus accident) in both a more profound and subtle way than Exotica. Even a passing reference would have been appreciated.


Cinema invites argument and none of the above should be read as a condemnation of Wilson’s effort here. She has pinpointed a rising cultural undercurrent and tied to it an emerging trend in independent film, breaking new ground in the process. Moreover, her work is underscored with a personal compassion for the plight of children. Her book makes for compelling reading for anyone interested in thoughtful and compelling film analysis and her commitment to the subject matter should be unquestioned. But as any parent can tell you, when a child is involved, there is always a second point of view.

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