There Are No Easy Answers for Feminism in ‘Riddles of the Sphinx’

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's seminal experimental film is an interesting synthesis of rigorous feminist film theory and avant-garde sound and music.

“Women within patriarchy are faced with a never-ending series of threats and riddles”, states the feminist icon Laura Mulvey at the beginning of her seminal 1977 film Riddles of the Sphinx, a quote that perhaps best defines the thrust and agenda of the entire production, which was co-directed by Mulvey’s husband, the prominent film academic and semiotician Peter Wollen.

Mulvey and Wollen’s work here largely consists of a fragmented and psychoanalytic stream-of-consciousness narrative, presented as a series of abstract visual montages with frequently dissociative sound, all examining society and culture from the perspective of women.

For example, there are sequences in the film that show the mundanity of what used to be viewed as purely “women’s work” (a very long take filmed in a telephone exchange conveys the tedium facing a battery of female telecom operators), and also the economic and familial issues affecting women in the ‘70s (heard via a discussion about the difficulties of balancing work with the exclusively-maternal childcare responsibilities of that period; this sequence takes place in a café and is shown in an extraordinary shot that slowly pans 360°).

However, the film overall doesn’t offer accessible, simple entertainment, nor does it offer answers to the plight of women in a patriarchal society. Instead, Riddles of the Sphinx is presented as a non-didactic journey into the subconscious (“does the oppression of women work on the subconscious and well as the conscious?”, asks an off-screen narrator, alluding to one of the “riddles” of the title), and so we end up with snatched fragments of female experience, all culminating in a challenging and dense discourse that encompasses feminist theory, a critique of cultural and social patriarchy and British politics and, considering Mulvey and Wollen’s association with advanced film theory — avant-garde and experimental film production methods, too. Indeed, Riddles of the Sphinx would be an ideal core text for those studying graduate-level film theory and psychoanalysis.

The film also features a lovely music score by Soft Machine’s keyboardist Mike Ratledge, most of which is heavy with the blooping arpeggios of analogue synthesizers, and most of which is also underpinned by an effective spoken-word narration — the latter sounding strikingly and coincidentally similar to the prim-and-proper Alice in Wonderland-inspired voiceover in The Dukes of Stratosphear’s psychedelic Psonic Psunpot EP. The music overall is reminiscent of both Brian Eno’s ambient output from the ‘70s, and Philip Glass’ hypnotic score for Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

Ratledge’s minimalist work is beautifully repetitious and uniform here, lulling the viewer into a peaceful trance and allowing them the space to consume the visuals, sound and dialogue without overbearing and distracting musical accompaniment. Most of the time it’s even possible to allow the music to seep into the subconscious and disallow awareness of its presence – which I’d guess was Ratledge’s primary intention — but one would surely notice immediately if it was suddenly removed, key as is it to the mesmerizing tone of the whole production.

Extraneous to the complexity of the film’s subject matter, there is even simple pleasure to be had in just poring over the film’s historic ’70s footage; what makes all the film’s images additionally appealing is their new, pristine quality, the result of an impeccable digital transfer by the British Film Institute. Riddles of the Sphinx was shot using a 16mm Éclair camera, so the film naturally has an inherent amount of grain, but without having had a contemporary post-production improvement, much of it would have visually resembled faded, washed-out and archaic television news reportage. The film is presented here in a dual DVD and Blu-ray format too, making this BFI package, without doubt, the most definitive release the film is ever likely to require, bearing in mind the wealth of supplementary material included.

Overall, Riddles of the Sphinx is an interesting film by one of the world’s most important post-war feminists, and in Wollen, one of its foremost film theorists. The film can be rather dry and anti-cinematic at times (on one occasion, Mulvey sits like a newscaster and reads extensively from papers in front of her, as if giving a scripted lecture), but nevertheless, the occasionally static form still doesn’t affect the veracity of content; considering the complex subject matter, most of the time the film turns out to be visually striking anyway, which is an achievement for a text so cerebral. Riddles of the Sphinx could have ended up a fascinating examination of the relationship between female representation and patriarchy, but one totally lacking visual flair. But that’s not the case here, thankfully.

Extras accompanying the film are extensive, and include: a full HD transfer (in addition to a standard presentation); a newly-recorded audio commentary by Mulvey; Mulvey and Wollen’s avant-garde film Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons), produced in 1974 and focusing on representations of women in Amazonian culture; a short conversation with Mulvey about Riddles of the Sphinx and a selection of her other films, and a fully illustrated booklet featuring both full production credits and new and fascinating essays by Mulvey, the cultural theorist and film critic Sophie Mayer, and Rob Young, the music journalist and a contributing editor to the experimental music magazine The Wire.

RATING 7 / 10