Working-Class Heroines, Reviewed

The following article originally appeared in print in the November, 2018 issue of the Dublin Inquirer. It was also published on the Inquirer‘s website.

The stories told by working-class women in inner-city Dublin that are included in Kevin C. Kearns’ book Working-Class Heroines have acquired a new resonance in contemporary Ireland.

It might even be fair to say that this book resonates more strongly today than it did when it was first published in 2004.

In the wake of the Repeal the Eighth and Take Back the City movements, these oral histories, with their stories about women fighting for bodily autonomy and a right to housing, highlight the origins of contemporary struggles.

These narratives offer a framework through which we can judge how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

In Their Own Words

Working-Class Heroines is the result of more than 30 years of research, a compendium of detailed oral history documenting the oft-forgotten details of working-class life, with a particular emphasis placed on working-class mothers.

It was something of a “pioneer path” more than 50 years ago when, in the 1960s, Kearns set out to be an urban oral historian, he said, by email.

Back then, Irish academics “associated oral history and folk history strictly with the west of Ireland, especially the Gaeltacht regions”, he says.

Yet there he was, “exploring the lower-income working-class neighbourhoods of Dublin that Irish journalists used to call slumlands,” he says. “From the Coombe through the old Liberties and into the tenement rows of the northside.”

In Working-Class Heroines, Kearns uses the narratives gleaned from urban “mammies” to construct a case for their reinsertion into the larger narrative of Irish social history, and to ensure that their stories of survival are not relegated to the footnotes of Irish femininities.

“Back in those days women were absolutely ‘voiceless’”, Kearns says. “And they dare not try and speak out against their husbands or any man […] I found the women so pathetically abused and defenceless in those days. So I determined to try and tell their stories in their own words.”

Working-Class Mothers

The word “mother” is laden with symbolic meaning in Ireland’s national discourse. It is a concept wrapped up in images of Mother Ireland, a figure chaste and maternal, sacrificial and tenacious.

The mothers interviewed in the book occupy a particular space as a result: the concept they embody, that which is devotional and pure, is at odds with the reality of their lives. They are admonished, abused and neglected – at home, and by the state.

The book is divided into chapters detailing everything from home, family, finances, sex and marriage, to religion, drugs and death. Throughout, Kearns interrogates the societal pressures placed upon urban mothers.

As Kearns tells it, the origin of their plight lies in the “flight to the suburbs” by middle-class families that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, which left lower-income families to live in a decaying city centre, raising eight or ten or twelve children in cramped quarters with no more than two or three rooms.

Often, the women of these urban families were expected to marry young and begin to care for children almost immediately. It is here that the traditional narrative of family life begins to unravel: what was propagated by the state was the husband as breadwinner, with the wife as stay-at-home caregiver.

However, as Kearns documents here, for working-class “mammies”, this was rarely the the reality. Husbands faced constant layoffs. Some squandered what little money they had on alcohol or gambling. This left women to rear the children and make ends meet. Many had to find menial cleaning and care-taking jobs.

Molly the Piss

As Dr James Plaisted, an inner-city doctor for over 40 years, says in the book: “[Mothers will] get up at six o’clock in the morning and go in and clean offices, and they’ll be home to get the children up and fed and out to school.”

The day isn’t over yet. “And then they’ll do their work in the house and do the shopping. And the man, if he’s unemployed, he’ll lie in bed until 11:00 and do nothing […] Your woman fed him and she’ll be back at half five in the evening to clean offices again,” he says.

Working-class mothers were just expected to “get on with it”. Husbands were granted freedoms of which their wives could only dream. Many men would rather become distant from family than have their pride wounded by being seen to help with household chores.

In one notable exception, Kearns quotes Lily Foy, a woman who grew up in the Coombe watching helpless men neglect family and home, and who married a man quite liberated for the 1950s, who helped with cleaning, cooking and washing.

However, his helpful attitude was taken as “woman-ish”, and Foy’s mother took to calling him “Molly the Piss”. Distress, an ever-present facet of working-class inner-city life, was expected to fall squarely on women’s shoulders.

Evictions

Reading Heroines, you begin to see how little autonomy mothers had. While many suburban mothers had access to better education and information around sexual health, and so some limited autonomy, many inner-city mothers were bullied and much more closely controlled.

This control could manifest through bodies such as the church and the state. Mothers, who took to looking after money and finances due to neglectful husbands, were often under the thumb of the Dublin Corporation.

The “Corpo”, as it was known, was responsible for social housing in the inner-city. It was notoriously ruthless in demanding rent, often employing eviction crews or local gardaí to help with the forced removal of tenants.

In one harrowing case documented in the book, “the Corpo” forcibly removes an elderly woman who is suffering from dementia. She had lost her husband, her mind had deteriorated and she couldn’t pay the rent. She was thrown out and left to wander Foley Street.

Baby-Making Machines

To the church, another controlling force, women were seen as little more than baby-making machines, and were encouraged – nay, forced – from the pulpit and confession box to have multiple children.

Women with 10 or more children were encouraged to have more, in spite of dwindling finances or heavy physical and emotional toll. Childbirth was viewed as maternal duty rather than personal choice.

Kearns documents how some women were turfed out of the confession box for admitting they could not bear any more children. He interviews May Cotter, who says she was often asked in the confessional why she was not having more children, a question she found invasive. “Didn’t matter if you had the wherewithal or not to feed them or rear them,” she says. “You just had to keep populating the country.”

Meanwhile, sex was a subject not spoken about or acknowledged. And even though they were in charge of home and finances, women were subordinate in matters of intimacy. “The man dominated. Always. Do your duty! His word was absolute law,” says one working-class mother.

Changed, Changed Utterly?

“[There was] nothing romanticized in their oral histories,” says Kearns via email.

“Emotions bared as never before […] And, God forbid, how some bared their anger toward the priests who terrified and condemned them in their younger years! Their faces turned flaming red as they told me every detail. How the husbands were tyrants in the home – and absolute demons in commanding their wives in bed!” he said.

Kearns uses Yeats’ poem “The Song of the Old Mother” to sketch an understanding of these women’s lives.

He might, these days though, have used a different Yeats poem. Indeed, in documenting the stories of these “mammies”, Kearns offers us an opportunity to gauge how things have “changed, changed utterly”. And the ways in which they have not.

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A Dublin Bloom | An Interview With Dermot Bolger

This article was originally published on HeadStuff on July 19th, 2018.

Dermot Bolger is a stalwart of the Irish literary scene, having written numerous novels and plays since the mid-1980s. These include his recent successes Tanglewood, a microscopic look at the Irish property boom of 00s, and The Lonely Sea and Sky, a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of World War II. He is known to indigenous readers as a champion of working-class narratives, but the subject matter of his fiction is far-reaching and touches off many facets of Irish life. It is unsurprising then that he would choose to concern himself with Joyce‘s Ulysses, a sprawling narrative that interrogates the contradictions of life in Dublin in the early 20thcentury.

Humble Beginnings?

In between paltry sups of tea, Bolger details the complicated history of his fated adaptation. “I was approached by Greg Doran, who is now the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to do a production of it,” he says. However, changes in Irish copyright law would affect his work while it was still in its infancy. Originally, the copyright on works lapsed 50 years post the author’s death. This means that when Bolger began to pen the show, Joyce’s writings were in the public domain. This was in the early 1990s.

The script that Bolger had written found life as a rehearsed reading in the United States. The once-off production was staged to an audience of 1300 people. However, when it came to stage the piece in Ireland, it was clear that they would have to contend with new state laws: “It quickly became apparent that the European Union was going to change its copyright laws, it was going to harmonise [them]. It was going to take the German model of 70 years … So [Ulysses] was going to come back into copyright.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

That author was not sure a theatre would commit to a project if its legal status became uncertain. Despite this, he found a work-around to ensure his project found a certain life: “The day before the copyright reverted to [Joyce’s estate], I actually did a reading of it. I got a number of my friends to do it in the Project Arts Centre. We did it at ten past nine in the morning because we figured ‘no solicitor would get here in time.’ We tried to get two men and a dog, but we couldn’t get a dog so we just did it with the two men, and we read it.”

This story is suitably Joycean, as the author himself also had to contend with innumerable laws to get his works published. Ulysses was banned in United States – copies of it were burned by the New York Postal Authority – and although contemporary audiences consider it Ireland’s national text, it would not be openly available in the country until the 1960s, 40 years after its initial publication.

Eventually, Bolger got in contact with Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and together the pair revived the production in 2012. With the text out of copyright once more, they were able to transform it into a full-blown play.

Metempsychosis: A Question of Adaptation

“—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.”

This is how Leopold Bloom, the unlikely hero of Ulysses, explains a cumbersome and philosophically-charged word to his wife, Molly. This is when we meet our protagonist, and from here we follow his journey through Dublin on June 16th, 1904. Despite its reputation as a mostly-inaccessible text, the narrative of Ulysses, at its very heart, is simple: Leopold, an Irish Jew of Hungarian descent, wanders through the capital on the day his wife is to have an affair. What proves to be a challenge for some, though, is the scrupulous digging required to appreciate the novel to its fullest. Although simple at its core, the book is buried beneath several layers of irony, shifts narrative styles between chapters, and through dialogue, Joyce has sprinkled his book with meditations on art, literature, nationalism, love, sex, and smut.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Indeed, the very idea of transmigration is central to text: it is based on Homer’s Odyssey, with each hour in the book corresponding to a year in the life of Odysseus, Homer’s quintessential hero. Others have attempted a certain kind of transmigration before: In 1967, American film director Joseph Strick adapted the book for the screen. The resulting production, although occasionally showing promise, quickly devolves into a highlight reel with wordy narrations. Critic Pauline Kael famously said of it, “[Ulysses is] an act of homage in the form of readings … plus slides.” Does Bolger feel he has streamlined the text enough for theatregoers, without isolating the scholars?

“The Abbey version is different from the Tron version,” he says. “And this version is quite different from the Abbey version of last year [the current production enjoyed a successful run in October of 2017]. There’s still the emotional essence of the book. Because the book is 18 episodes, a dazzling array of linguistic styles, covering 265,000 words, you have to figure out what to cut.”

For Bolger it became of matter of focusing on what sections best flesh out the characters, to provide them with the depth for which the novel is most famous: “In the Tron version there was a whole section in the newspaper offices, as there is in the book. A week into rehearsals, I said to Graham [McLaren, director of the Abbey version], ‘the newspaper offices isn’t really telling us anything.’ I mean, we see how Bloom’s contemporaries relate to Bloom and everything else, but nothing that we haven’t been told elsewhere.” The scene is question is the Aeolus episode, in which Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s insert character, miss meeting each other for the first of many times.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Bolger continues: “It began as the play of the book, and now it’s almost the play of the play. Novels give you a lot of scope, because generally novels aren’t read in one sitting and you’re able to have subplots. I just had to figure out the emotional journey of Bloom, and of [his marriage to Molly], what made their marriage. In the end I had to go into the areas of the book that most engaged my intellectual curiosity, but also most engaged my empathy.”

What makes the current run at the Abbey unique is the use of puppets. Some of the characters made famous in the novel are portrayed here by grotesque, uncanny caricatures of human figures. Rudy Bloom, the deceased son of Leopold and Molly, appears as a small, blue, Tolkien-esque figure, with accentuated facial features and dark, beady eyes.

The same act of transformation is seen in characters who appear in the Cyclops episode of the book: Joyce used this piece to criticise the atavistic and animalistic nature of staunch nationalism. In this section, Bloom enters Barney Kiernan’s pub only to be chastised by a man known only as ‘the Citizen’, a Republican and anti-Semite. In the Abbey version, he is gaunt and menacing. By choosing to depict him in such grotesque terms, Bolger and McLaren have only emphasised Joyce’s original critique: that atavistic nationalism is inherently malformed.

The puppets are also used to emphasise the more comedic aspects of the book. When adapting the Circe episode, in which Bloom and Dedalus experience physical manifestations of their greatest fears, characters from earlier in the text appear again, only this time as body puppets worn by the actors. The bawdy and acerbic dialogue is punctuated by slapstick comedy, as the performers milk as much humour out the situation as possible: this includes Brian Burroughs as a masturbating Buck Mulligan, and Faoileann Cunningham as a flirty and accusatory Gerty McDowell.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

On the humour found in the book, Bolger says: “Nora Barnacle [Joyce’s partner], who believed Joyce should have stuck to the singing, used to complain that he’d keep her awake at night laughing at what he wrote. The fun thing about Ulysses is that the most theatrical bits of it – like Nighttown [the ‘Circe’ chapter] – are actually very theatrical. There’s a lot of subtle humour going on there, there’s really a lot of very Dublin humour that has gone past you before you actually realise that it’s a joke, and the humour is very contemporary. It’s something you could imagine two fellas sitting at the counter in this bar saying.”

Another departure from the book is in how Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is handled: In the novel the entirety of the last chapter, titled ‘Penelope’, is dedicated to Molly’s rambling stream of consciousness. She meditates on life with her husband and recounts the events of the day from her perspective. In the Abbey production, her speech is spliced into sections and introduced to the narrative at intermittent points. It therefore centres the narrative, and the staging that Bolger and McLaren have created reflects this: Molly, played with great delicacy by Janet Moran, spends the majority of the play in her bed in the middle of the stage. The audience, and indeed the action of the day, is centred around her, and her interruptions offer the perfect, almost grounded counterpoint to Bloom’s highfalutin musings.

“Molly’s monologue is the most theatrical part of the book,” Bolger says. “It unbalances any show because basically you would have to have everything else in the book in Act One, and Molly in Act Two.” Bolger chose to present Molly’s piece in this way to give his production a more streamlined, dreamlike quality: “When Molly is awake, and Molly is having a monologue, and Bloom is asleep, and Bloom is reliving his day in dreams, you can have that strange, fractured narrative quality that dreams have. Like, you and I could be in this pub in a dream and be on a bus two seconds later in the same dream.”

“By having Molly in the foreground, I could then begin to dig into the emotional heart of the journey of this man who has lost his son at 11 days old and has not fully recovered from that.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

A Question of Relevance

Despite ambivalence from many readers, Ulysses continues to entertain into the 21st Century. The annual ‘Bloomsday’ festival, set every year on 16th June, attracts tourists from across the world. Fans mimic their favourite sections from the book, and map Bloom’s journey through the city minute by minute. How is it that a book so seemingly of its time, with dated reflections on the Irish psyche and the nation’s place in the world, be so appealing to contemporary readers?

Another example of transmigration it seems: “I read Ulysses for the first time at the age of 14,” Bolger says, “on the impression that it was a dirty, scandalous book. And when you’re 14, it’s not. Then I read it when I was 24, and when I began to adapt it, when I began to read it seriously, Bloom was still a year or two older than me. Then, each time it was done, I had a different relationship to Bloom, because now I envy his relative youth. I turn 60 next year.”

He continues: “It’s like an appreciation of whisky, or any great work of literature: You respond differently to it at 20 as you do at 30, as you do at 40, because you’re bringing your life experience. Some years ago, I lost my wife, and now I understand the undercurrent of grief running through Ulysses in a way that doesn’t have a direct connection, but my life experience [is there] now that I return to it.”

The theme of loss is ever-present in Ulysses. It is what eventually brings Bloom in contact with the young, bookish Dedalus. The protagonist Bloom finds a son-surrogate in the young Stephen, who is looking for a paternal figure himself in the fallout of his mother’s passing.

Bolger also finds something relatable in the character of Leopold Bloom, who is played in the Abbey production by actor David Pearse. “[Bloomsday], this alternative national day, is in honour of a Hungarian Jew, who, even in the funeral cortege to Glasnevin Cemetery [as seen in the ‘Hades’ episode], you know is an outsider.”

Bolger feels that if Joyce had chosen to make Bloom either Catholic or Protestant, that that would have come with significant baggage, denoting the character with many presuppositions based on Irish history: “He doesn’t have that same easy familiarity. If he had been Catholic, we would have had many preconceptions about his politics. If he had been Protestant, then he becomes part of the same lost, vanished ascendency class of Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu … Who wrote out of the sense that their own power was fading away. Because he was Jewish, he didn’t have any power. And because he is an outsider, he is observant of everything … He’s present, but he’s also excluded.”

In a passage near the book’s closing, Dedalus and Bloom, having squandered money in a brothel, end the night by going to a cabman’s shelter. They discuss politics, and Bloom, having been persecuted for his outsider status for the duration of the books, quips “a revolution must come on the due instalments plan.” Indeed, the same forces that oppressed Bloom and Dedalus – forces of religion, sectarianism, and oppressive attitudes towards sexuality, art, writing – have been unravelled in recent years not by divine intervention, but by slow, calculated manoeuvres by grassroots movements. Social change has come through the long, arduous work of the everyman.

We hint at this in conversation. Bolger smiles: “Yes, I think Bloom would sit very comfortably in the Dublin of 2018.”

Ulysses runs until the 21st of July. Tickets can be purchased through the Abbey Theatre website.


Featured Image: Ulysses by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

10 Years On | Is Funny Games A Soulless Exercise In Movie Violence?

This article was originally published on HeadStuff on March 14th, 2018.

*This article contains spoilers for Funny Games*

The original Funny Games debuted in 1997, generating a critical storm of both condemnation and adoration. Directed by arthouse darling Michael Haneke, the film acts as a contemplative thesis on the nature of consumable violence, particularly that which is expressed through the American slasher film. As an audience we are forced to question which strains of violence are permissible and which are simply tasteless, a challenge that proved too much for some filmgoers.

Haneke remade the film, beat for beat, with an American cast in 2007 (and released on this day in 2008). The act of remaking emphasises the director’s original critique – that through viewing the film once more we are satisfying our desire to witness repeat violence, and by transposing the setting from Austria to the United States, he brings the critique straight to the originator of cinema violence, Hollywood.

The plot of the film is thin by design. It is less concerned with narrative convention than it is by scrutinising filmic violence. Its goals are outlined clearly from the get-go. A well-to-do family venture to their lake house to vacation: Ann Farber (Naomi Watts), her husband George (Tim Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) travel along a tranquil country road listening to opera, and take turns guessing the composers of the tracks they are listening to. This supposed calmness is interrupted when the main titles appear, and a heavy metal song by US band Naked City plays over the dialogue, silencing the family, operatic score and the initial serenity of the scene. The comfort of the middle-class existence continues to be uprooted by the visit of two home invaders, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), who torture the family with a series of sadistic games that ultimately result in their deaths.

Haneke has never shied away from class critique. In fact, it has become exemplary of his work. His 2005 psychological thriller Caché, for example, centres around the collective guilt of French colonialism and the country’s treatment of Algerians. Even his most recent film, Happy End (2017), features periphery commentary of the lived experience of immigrants in Calais. However, what these films contain, and what is missing in Funny Games, is backstory. The protagonist of Caché is punished for mistreating his adopted younger brother, an Algerian, in his youth; his experience acting as a metaphorical return of the repressed narrative for the French nation. The family in Happy End are embarrassed by a rogue contingent in their collective for ignoring the plight of migrants in France. Such narratives contain middle-to-upper class families who face their comeuppance for wilful prejudice.

Little is known about the family in Funny Games, save for that they maybe enjoy quinoa. Their characterisations are not just flat, but practically non-existent. We know that they listen to opera, own a boat, that they keep their house in pristine condition and have a fully stocked fridge, but there is no catalyst for the violence inflicted upon them. They are simply blank canvasses upon which Haneke can cast his experiment in torture porn.

The captors are not named consistently. Initially introduced as “Peter/Paul”, they refer to themselves throughout by a variety of pop culture double acts, such as “Tom/Jerry” and “Beavis/Butthead”. They also invent numerous inconsistent backstories, telling the family that they come from poverty, that they are simply bored rich kids, or that they are drug addicts who steal from wealthy families to feed their habit. Their names and backstories are not important. Much like Ann, George and Georgie, they lack traditional characterisation and act as omnipotent beings who seemingly know what is about to transpire before the audience does. They enact violence in a methodical, cool and collected way, making for some unnerving performances from Pitt and Corbet.

Funny Games - HeadStuff.org
Michael Pitt as Paul in Funny Games (2007). Source

 

Despite its reputation, the film shows little explicit violence. Instead, the violence is simply implied by clever use of filmmaking techniques. When the captors force Ann to undress, Haneke does not give in to the sensationalist tendencies of Hollywood cinema, instead choosing to rest the camera on a close-up of Naomi Watts’ pained expression, and the reactions of her traumatised husband. We are therefore forced to imagine the violence in our minds, and question what it is we expected to see or, more bleakly, what some viewers might want to see.

Any indication that the family will escape their circumstances […] are offered up and immediately crushed, quelled, quashed, and rejected by a film that takes every conceivable route to confuse and shock you into thought.

The film also contains what may be the most upsetting sequence I have seen in cinema, and again, the action immediately preceding it takes place offscreen. Broken and bound, the family are left helpless as Paul goes to the kitchen to make food. We watch him leave the room, open the fridge and proceed to make something to eat. Then, a loud bang is heard, followed by intermittent, animalistic screeching. This continues for some time as the audience is left puzzled as to what has happened.

The following shot is of a blood-stained television, a staggering image that Haneke makes great pains to emphasise (because what more screams violence in American media than a bloody telly?) The invaders squabble among themselves while the film remains static on this shot, and eventually they leave. The following sequence reveals to us what has happened: Ann is seen in the background, hunched over, utterly speechless and dehumanised. In the foreground: the body of her now dead son, Georgie. He has been shot by Peter, his blood spewed over their once white walls and their television, the horror of home invasion made reality in their pristine middle-class lives.

Funny Games - HeadStuff.org
The bloodied television set in Funny Games. Source

The next ten minutes are shot as an excruciating single-take. We watch Ann struggle to get up, hobble offscreen, free herself of her bonds, and come to comfort her broken husband. The audience is made process the horror of what has happened in real time alongside the fictional family, and therefore made aware of the outcomes of the violence they so easily consume in mainstream cinema.

Throughout the piece, any indication that the family will escape their circumstances, any glimmer of hope offered to suggest we will soon follow traditional narrative standards, are offered up and immediately crushed, quelled, quashed, and rejected by a film that takes every conceivable route to confuse and shock you into thought.

Georgie’s death, for example, stems from Haneke’s rejection of narrative expectations. Prior to this we see Georgie break from his captors and escape the house. A set-up such as this conjures many suppositions: when a child breaks free in a horror or slasher film, it is expected that they are going to find help, from authorities or from a friend, á la The Shining for example. This does not happen. Georgie is found by Paul, who kidnaps him once more, takes him back, and this eventually leads to the boy’s murder.

Later, when Peter is shot by Ann, providing the audience with some much-needed catharsis following their litany of violent acts, Paul simply picks up a television remote and rewinds the scene, thereby preventing the action from having ever happened. Narrative convention is once more usurped, and we are left to question which modes of violence are acceptable (the death of an evil-doer) and which are not.

Regardless of what version you are watching, Funny Games is a painful watch,  acting as a rather soulless one hour and fifty-minute essay in violence on screen and how we need to change our ways. It is one of the few films I have watched in my lifetime that actively positions itself against the viewer and takes every conceivable opportunity it can to anger you. Then again, maybe it was not supposed to be enjoyed in any conventional way, especially when taken for what it is: a filmic experiment into our enjoyment of violence and nothing more.


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Dancing in the Margins: How Inclusive Are Dublin’s LGBTQ+ Spaces?

This article was originally published on June 6th 2017, on the Dublin Inquirer‘s website.

In its early days, the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar hosted a few different nights.

The centre – which had opened in 1979 in what was then an underdeveloped neighbourhood – was a three-storey knocked-back warehouse with a small black-box nightclub. It had a dance floor, mirrors and mineral bar at the end of the upstairs area.

The weekend disco was called “Flikkers”, named after the Dutch word for “faggot”. It was one of the only nights for LGBTQ+-identifying individuals in the country, and soon became grounds for experimentation, liberation, and conversation between people who otherwise may not have found each other.

Thursday nights were designated “women’s nights”, but that was hotly contested by its male patrons, says Izzy Kamikaze, the LGBTQ+ activist and occasional DJ.

Thursday “wasn’t a particularly high-demand night”, she says. It would attract 20 or 30 people in a given week.

“I often went on a Saturday night [too] and there could be a couple of hundred men and maybe two or three women,” she says. “If you were looking to cop off” – she laughs – “then it certainly wasn’t the right environment.”

Indeed, some feel that even decades later Dublin’s clubbing scene, that staple of queer identity, remains focused on cis gay men, with other members of the community pushed to the margins.

Spaces

Tonie Walsh, co-founder of the magazine, GCN, and current curator of the Irish Queer Archive, says that the Hirschfeld Centre had its pluses, though.

“Despite its flaws – and we’d be silly to imagine it as a perfect nirvana – it created a space for a generation of Irish lesbians and men to imagine and embrace new identities,” he said.

As he sees it, the conversation should focus less on attendance figures, and more on how those who used the centre’s various spaces felt in coming together to build a community.

It was “a home from home for young lesbians and gay men who […] had been devalued, expunged from family and community lives […] to build a positive, holistic attitude to their lives,” he says.

Outside of the centre, there were other attempts to establish nights for women: every Saturday, the proprietors at J.J. Smyth’s on Aungier Street offered an upstairs space to LGBTQ+ women.

“There was no dance floor, [only] a sticky carpet, and a portable sound system. Most of the dyke-scene stuff was like that,” says Kamikaze. Eventually, this scene withered away.

More Public

As LGBTQ+ people have become more prominent in the public sphere, some in the community have become more introspective.

Speakers and writers are challenging omissions in present-day LGBTQ+ campaigning, to create an intersectional dialogue between sexuality and issues of race, class, and gender.

Take Anne Mulhall’s depiction of the Yes Equality campaign in 2015, as focused on white middle-class gay men.

“The failure to address migrant communities or to include LGBT migrants and people of colour in the Yes Equality campaign compounded the alienation, marginalisation and exclusion that are the experience of minority communities in a white nation,” wrote Mulhall, a lecturer at University College Dublin.

Some feel the same about Dublin’s clubbing scene, that this staple of queer identity remains focused on cis gay men.

“It’s like every area of life: trans people are not catered to meaningfully,” says Gordon Grehan, the operations manager of Transgender Equality Network (TENI).

He sees more education and awareness as necessary. “Often the people in the L, G, B parts of the community are lacking in knowledge,” he says.

Clubbing in the nineties was an important part of Grehan’s life and his gay identity, and being able to meet other gay men in a pre-internet age was exciting.

“I don’t think there is something like that for trans people, but I do think there are spaces that are very inclusive,” he said.

But Grehan questions whether the answer to this is a nightclub just for trans individuals. “Is that a bit othering?” he asks.

“What are we saying, that trans people need something that others don’t? Everywhere should be trans inclusive is where I’d be coming from, and that there would be certain spaces that are majority trans or trans-only spaces, but I don’t know if a club should be one of those spaces,” he says.

Some promoters have made an effort to create inclusive LGBTQ+ club nights. Cormac Cashman, who is behind the weekly events “PrHomo” and “Mother” held out of The Hub in Temple Bar, says he has made great efforts to make his spaces inclusive.

This includes a gender-neutral bathroom policy. “Trans inclusivity is vital on the LGBTQ scene. We’re a community,” he says, by email.

“Honestly I don’t know why people get so worked up over bathrooms. Why the fuck should anyone care who is in the next cubicle to them?” he says.

Emily Scanlan has also worked to address the omissions present in Dublin’s LGBTQ+ community.

She has, in her career as a club promoter, organised nights for queer-identifying women such as “Cake,” and “Crush”. She set up the latter after the end of the lesbian-and-bi night K.I.S.S, which was around for about 10 years then weaned out.

“And at that stage there were absolutely no lesbian or bi nights whatever, and so I set up Crush with GCN, and that was really successful,” she said.

These days, she runs “Spinster” once a month out of Sycamore Street near Dame Lane. It’s mostly marketed to queer women but she strives to make it as inclusive as possible, she says.

“It’s not a ‘gay’ night, I never said that anywhere, I want it to be really inclusive […] There are a lot of lesbian and bi women at it, of course, but it’s very open. It’s the kind of place anyone can come to and have fun. I feel it’s the most inclusive thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

It is harder to run a commercially viable club night for a smaller and more marginalised group of people, though. “I don’t know if [Spinster] would work every week,” says Scanlan.”[It is] a hobby for me. I have a full-time job.”

Grehan echoes Scanlan’s sentiments: “In the trans community, the cohort of people who are interested in going out every week or every month is much, much smaller, so I don’t think you could create a club around that.”

The Rise and Role of Drag

One of the mainstays of LGBTQ+ club nights in Dublin are performances by charismatic drag queens. It’s a draw.

Drag queens grace the dance-floors of “PrHomo” and “Mother”. The George has also hosted a drag-themed bingo night every Sunday for 20 years. It was a platform for performers such as Shirley Temple Bar and Veda.

But as drag has become more mainstream, some have begun to cast a critical eye on the stereotypes and the ideas of femininity that it can spread – and have asked whether in some forms, it can alienate groups in the LGBTQ+ community.

For some, drag has served as a way to explore gender identity.

“As I started to perform, I suddenly realised that, just by putting on a frock and a wig and clown make-up, that I was challenging the norms and stereotypes of gender,” said Noel Sutton, who has performed in drag regularly since the nineties.

When you perform outside of the rigid stereotypes inscribed onto you, “you become a magnet for people who feel different”, says Sutton, who is also the manager of Dublin’s LGBTQ+ film festival GAZE.

But that’s changed a bit as drag has moved from the margins.

Says Grehan: “Some trans women have a problem with drag queens in terms of creating an idea of femininity that isn’t real. That causes confusion around what it means to be a trans woman, or to be a woman.”

There’s a move in drag towards being as glamorous as possible, or to be as passing as this incredible attractive cis woman, he says.

“But that holds up an idealised version of how women should look, and particularly trans women, which is reductive and unhelpful.”

To some, it’s unsurprising that as drag has gone mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race – in a particular form, and with a particular attitude – there are questions raised about the potential dilution of drag.

“The judging on that show has given the impression that only a certain presentation of drag is worthy – and this is a hyper-feminine, padded and contoured version,” said Declan Buckley, known for his drag persona Shirley Temple Bar.

But while there are many who take to the stage without considering the political currency of drag, who simply want to entertain, there are many others “who are challenging the norms and the stereotypes,” he said, by email.

Sutton says that the idea that some would cater their personalities to fit an established ideal is disappointing. “I never set out to look like anyone when I dress up,” he said.

For Buckley, however, the idea that someone can “do drag wrong” is counterintuitive. But it’s a conversation worth having, he says.

“While the visual aspect of drag – through exposure and over-familiarity – may have lost some of its capacity to be impactful, the performative aspect still allows us to do what we have always done: poke fun, raise questions, rally the troops and entertain,” he says.

It is not just sections of the trans community that have come to challenge contemporary drag. Some queer and feminist critics have also criticised such performances, in particular what is presented, and indeed mimicked from, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In this critique, drag is often seen as an outlet through which cisgender gay men can express a certain kind of misogyny: with gendered slurs and harmful stereotypes of women as ditsy, promiscuous or dangerous.

Club promoters in Dublin may be isolating some of the LGBTQ+ community by supporting drag acts that spread these ideas.

“I think there is something very challenging for trans women in that this is a cisgender man performing and being able to take the layers off and live [his] life and not have people take that second look at [him],” Grehan says.

“Really thoughtful and good drag is aware of that, and aware of the binary and what they’re doing,” he says.

From Criminal To Campaigner: An Interview With Senator David Norris

This article was originally published in the University Observer in March 2017. It was later published online.

 

David Monaghan speaks to Senator David Norris as he receives UCD LGBTQ+’s Foy-Zappone Award.

 

IN JUNE 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised within Irish law as a result of the Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill. A century-old law that saw LGBTQ+ people thrown into prisons, beaten, tortured and analysed as sexual pariahs had finally been overruled, and many felt they could now begin the long journey to feeling like they were welcomed in Irish society.

The progenitor from which the momentum for decriminalisation came was David Norris, a former Joycean academic-cum-Senator, who kick-started the movement in the late 1970s. It is because of his efforts that many are no longer considered criminals in their home country, and why successive generations of LGBTQ+ individuals are now unaware of the threat those handcuffs held.

In February 2017, nearly 24 years since his efforts to increase the rights of sexual minorities in the country resulted in decriminalisation, David Norris has been honoured by UCD’s LGBTQ+ society. He recently received the annual ‘Foy-Zappone Award’, a prize reserved for anyone seen to do remarkable work within the field of LGBTQ+ rights advancement. It is named for Dr. Lydia Foy and Katherine Zappone TD, the inaugural recipients of the prestigious award, and Norris is the fourth person to be honoured since its inception in 2014.

 

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Source: senatordavidnorris.ie

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Photo credit: senatordavidnorris.ie

Known for his jovial attitude, before the prize-giving began, Norris joked with society members and recounted various anecdotes from his career as a political activist: “I was once approached by a man who was worried his dog was gay,” he quipped.

The event began with a short screening of an RTÉ recording from 1975, featuring Norris being interviewed by the late Áine O’Connor – possibly the first time an openly gay man had been seen on Irish television – as the somewhat younger but still recognisable activist is asked upfront if he is sick. “When they approached me,” says Norris, addressing the audience that had formed to hear him speak, “they said, ‘well, we’ll have your back to the camera and disguise your voice,’ and I said, ‘well then I’m not doing it,’ because the whole point in being on television […] was to disprove the idea that we’re monsters.”

“If they had me sat there like the Elephant Man, back to the camera, in shadow, using a disguised voice, of course people would think I’m a fucking monster.”

Of course, RTÉ suggesting something like this was symptomatic of the time: many gay people were simply too afraid to be vocal about their sexuality in public for fear of violent backlash, or in extreme cases, incarceration. Norris, however, never shied away from discussing his sexuality, and he took his first baby steps towards campaigning for equal rights in 1969, as he informed the audience: “There was an advertisement on the back page of the Observer newspaper and it said ‘Homosexual? […] Send address on envelope to The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, 28-something street, Manchester.’ And I sent off my ten bob […] and became a member.”

“IF THEY HAD ME SAT THERE LIKE THE ELEPHANT MAN, BACK TO THE CAMERA, IN SHADOW, USING A DISGUISED VOICE, OF COURSE PEOPLE WOULD THINK I’M A FUCKING MONSTER.”

In the very early 1970s, Norris’s activism became more overt, shifting from the personal sphere to the public. Seeing the Troubles unfold in Northern Ireland, Norris was involved in the formation of the ‘Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association’, which was established to show solidarity with oppressed Catholics north of the border.

Although a member of the Church of Ireland, he felt Roman Catholics were being treated with contempt, but he became incensed when fellow campaigners suggested Presbyterians were more tolerant in the Republic, prompting Norris to stand up and say, as he recalls now: “‘You think you don’t discriminate but you do. I am ‘homosexual’’ – that’s the way we said it in those days, as if we were a species of rare butterfly – and I eventually persuaded them to include reform of the criminal law as part of their agenda, and that was the first time in Ireland that any group had committed itself to law reform.”

 

Aine

David Norris speaking to Áine O’Connor on RTÉ television in 1975, as chairman of the Irish Gay Rights Movement.

Despite this initial success there soon followed a brief hiatus in Norris’s overt campaigning until 1973. He explained to the audience that a conference was held in Trinity College at this time on the broad topic of sexuality, but as the event progressed it became increasingly apparent that most of the attendees were interested in the more specific and much more taboo subject of homosexuality. Norris continues: “Then they started another conference in 1973 that I went to, and they had various people from England coming over, [such as] the editor of Sappho, a lesbian magazine, and we had our own people, like Hugo McManus.”

Out of this sprung the Sexual Liberation Movement, of which David Norris was a member. Disappointed with the direction the group was taking, he led the first split and formed what became known as the Irish Gay Rights Movement. The first event was held by IGRM on the grounds of Trinity College. Norris, expecting a meagre 20 or so interested patrons, was shocked to find that, in fact, 250 people had shown up. “That set my little nose wriggling,” Norris jokes, “and I thought, ‘oh, there’s money to be made in this’.”

“I AM ‘HOMOSEXUAL’’ – THAT’S THE WAY WE SAID IT IN THOSE DAYS, AS IF WE WERE A SPECIES OF RARE BUTTERFLY”

The IGRM then began regularly holding discotheques. Later, Norris helped found the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, which became a social hub for an oppressed and overlooked minority for many years after its inception. Norris recalls: “On the night it opened – St. Patrick’s Day, 1979 […] 450 people turned up! This surging, seething mob outside [was] trying to push the doors in […] I noticed that the floorboards were deflected, because of people dancing […] So I stopped the music and made the announcement […] and got hissed and booed, and then somebody said, ‘c’mon now lads, at least somebody gives a shit about our welfare.’”

Norris and company began work on fixing the issue and the Hirschfeld Centre was up and running again weeks later. Although he enjoyed working at the Centre, Norris admits that he knew little of the music that was played at the venue: “This led to me interrogating Freddie Mercury over his membership card and whether it was up to date – and I did the same to Elton John! I hadn’t a clue who they were!”

The Hirschfeld Centre, although successful, was targeted numerous times. Norris informed the audience of one such occasion: “I was in the office on the top floor […] and I could see sparks [coming from the roof]. When I got up I found a bomb […] Someone had put […] two milk churns full of explosives, one on each side of a barrel of petrol, and they had poured petrol on the roof and thrown up firelighters […] the idea was to heat up the roof, and that would explode the milk churns, blow the lid off the barrel of petrol, blow the roof off, and send flaming streaks of petrol down to the discotheque, where about 300 people would have been burnt to death.”

“THIS LED TO ME INTERROGATING FREDDIE MERCURY OVER HIS MEMBERSHIP CARD AND WHETHER IT WAS UP TO DATE – AND I DID THE SAME TO ELTON JOHN! I HADN’T A CLUE WHO THEY WERE!”

Horrified, Norris entered fight or flight mode and used fire extinguishers he had carried with him to put out the firelighters. It was a narrow escape. The Hirschfeld Centre eventually burned down in 1987: “I was in bed about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning,” Norris recalls, “and I was called down as a key holder […] and I ascertained that nobody had been injured, the archive was rescued, and the insurance was in place [and] I sat back to enjoy the fire.”

The Irish Gay Rights Movement, which had been founded by Norris, was about to experience another major split, as he explained to the audience at the award ceremony: “I was pushing for political change and public agitation – and this was a very, very frightened community at this stage, we really were threatened by the criminal law […] and a lot of people didn’t want [public agitation]. They wanted [us] to keep our heads down, and to be quiet, and to have discos, and meet somebody to go to bed with […] all these perfectly natural human things, but they wanted to cut out the political things.”

 

iqa

Image via The Irish Queer Archive.

David Norris then moved on to form the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which aimed to change the status of male same-sex activity in Irish law, then illegal. In 1983, Norris took this challenge to the High Court, and later the Supreme Court – where he was represented by former President Mary Robinson – and it was rejected both times.

The case was then brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Norris and Robinson, the latter of whom had made the submission, where it was found that Ireland’s anti-gay law breached the European Convention on Human Rights. “We won by one vote,” Norris reflects. “And there were about twenty judges, so it was very narrow. The Irish judge, of course, [voted] against us.” This ruling paved the way for decriminalisation by the Irish government in June 1993.

With such a vast, long-standing and notable career in campaigning for the advancement of gay rights, it is unsurprising that Norris would be selected as the next recipient of the Foy-Zappone award. Speaking to OTwo after a long talk, and a round of questions, he is quick to inform that receiving such accolades always comes as a surprise: “I’m surprised people remember these things, because my policy is to go straight on to the next thing and keep forging ahead, and I don’t look back very much, so it’s lovely.”

“I NOTICED THAT THE FLOORBOARDS WERE DEFLECTED, BECAUSE OF PEOPLE DANCING […] SO I STOPPED THE MUSIC AND MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT […] AND GOT HISSED AND BOOED, AND THEN SOMEBODY SAID, ‘C’MON NOW LADS, AT LEAST SOMEBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT OUR WELFARE.’”

The audience that had come to hear Norris speak and receive the award was comprised mostly of people in their twenties. “A lot of young people don’t realise it was a criminal offense, which surprises me,” Norris admits.

Senator Norris made headlines in 2013 when it was announced that he had developed cancer on his liver, and he had to undergo a transplant in late 2014 as a result. A month before receiving the Foy-Zappone Award, he signed off from his duties at Leinster House for a time, citing a chest infection. “I couldn’t breathe,” Norris explains, “I couldn’t do anything, and I was put straight into hospital […] Then they found I had a very severe form of diabetes […] But my energy levels, physically, are not what they used to be.”

Has Norris’s physical health impacted on his work in the Seanad? “I used to speak on absolutely everything,” he says. “But now I’m much more targeted. I select the issues on which I could make an impact, and I speak on those. For example: Alice Mary Higgins [Senator for the Civil Engagement group] put down a thing on the Canadian Trade Agreement, and I did my research on it and made a really passionate speech, and my speech led to Fianna Fáil abstaining, and the government were defeated […] which was good, but some of the other issues that are going around I just leave them.”

 

lets

Image via LetsMakeHistory.ie.

One issue that Norris has spoken about is the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which currently prohibits women from attaining legal abortions in Ireland. “I think [the eighth amendment] is dreadful,” he says. “I don’t understand how somebody outside a relationship, with no connection to the people involved, can presume in their arrogance to tell a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped by a neighbour, that she has to keep the child. I think there should be choice: if women keep the child in those situations, or in terms of fatal foetal abnormality, or rape, or incest, then that’s wonderful and I admire them for it, but I definitely think they should have the choice.”

In 2011, Senator Norris entered the race to become the ninth President of Ireland, a position hotly contested by six other candidates. Support initially fell in his favour, with Stephen Fry even tweeting that Ireland “couldn’t have a more intelligent, passionate, knowledgeable, witty or committed President” than the famed Senator.

However, it was revealed in July of that year that Norris, over a decade previously, had used notepaper with the Oireachtas letterhead to send a letter to the Israeli High Court. He asked for clemency in the trial of his former partner, left-wing activist Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of statutory rape. Norris withdrew from the race later that same month, but re-entered in September when it seemed support was moving in his favour again. Norris eventually lost to Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN FAIRLY LOQUACIOUS, SO THAT DIDN’T REALLY CONCERN ME AT ALL, AND I NEVER FELT IT WAS A BURDEN. THERE WAS OFTEN QUITE A LOT OF FUN INVOLVED IN IT, AND I WAS QUITE IRREVERENT IN THE INTERVIEWS I GAVE.”

Reflecting on this period, Norris calls it a “destructive and homophobic experience.” He elaborates: “RTÉ put out jokes that [said] ‘David Norris would like it up the Áras’ […] If they had said that kind of thing about women, they would have been burnt to the ground. They said I advocated parents having sex with their own children – I mean, crazy, crazy stuff […] And then also the Israeli Government were involved in releasing information which only they had about the case Ezra [Nawi] was involved in, which was actually a honey-trap by the Israeli police.”

Norris continues: “my whole campaign team — bar three people — buggered off and left me. Not one of them officially resigned. I learned it on the Nine O’Clock News […] that the principle PR woman […] no longer worked for Norris campaign. It was devastating – the utter scandalous disloyalty.” Despite losing after an embittering and dramatic race, Norris feels that our current President, Michael D. Higgins has done a stellar job. “I do think we have an excellent President […] He’s a little academic [and] if you tune into his speeches, if you’re tuned into his wave-length, they are brilliant.”

 

flikkers

Flikkers Dance Club in the Hirschfeld Centre 1985/6. (Photo: Tonie Walsh).

The Senator has seen huge political and social changes in his lifetime, particularly in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. Having been born into a state in which he was considered a criminal, Norris now lives in a country where he need not live in fear of incarceration simply because of who he is, where anti-discrimination laws exist in LGBTQ+ individuals’ favour in areas of employment, the provision of goods and services, and speech, and where he can not only adopt children, but also marry the partner of his choice. And this is to say nothing of the Gender Recognition Bill, which allows Ireland’s trans citizens to change gender on legal forms without interference from doctors or psychologists.

“I rarely thought about [the changes that were possible],” Norris explains. “I had a series of defined targets at each stage. The first one was knocking out the criminal law, and then building on the social and human rights legislations. So I was usually targeting an immediate object, and planning and strategizing for that, rather than looking beyond that, at the next thing, because that would have been a waste of time.”

When asked if he ever felt a burden of responsibility in being one of the first openly-gay public figures in Ireland, Norris responds with a firm and decisive “no,” adding: “I’ve always been fairly loquacious, so that didn’t really concern me at all, and I never felt it was a burden. There was often quite a lot of fun involved in it, and I was quite irreverent in the interviews I gave.”

Film Review | Aquarius Is a Poignant Reflection on Ageing and Intimacy

This article originally appeared on the HeadStuff website on March 16th, 2017.

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius is a poignant reflection on ageing, a focused character study on the protagonist Clara (Sônia Braga), who tries to live her life in spite of multiple intrusions to its status quo. Although the socio-economic conditions of modern Brazil exist on the peripheries, make no mistake, this is a film about an individual and her quest for inner peace in her increasingly tumultuous personal life.

The film centres on the ageing Clara, called ‘Dona Clara’ by friends, a retired journalist, as she struggles to hold on to an apartment her family has held for generations. She refuses to sell to a construction company looking to own the property, despite being the last person left in the building, even as she faces pressure from her closest family to accept a deal. The construction company’s attempts to persuade Clara turn sinister and they stage orgies and religious gatherings in apartments upstairs, forcing our determined and caustic protagonist to take action.

The film’s opening sets the tone: we are introduced to a young Clara (Bárbara Colen) who attends the 70th birthday party of her aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). Friends and relatives gather and recount Lucia’s various achievements, and it is discovered Clara has recently survived a battle with cancer. While Lucia’s achievements are listed – she entered Law at a time in Brazil’s history when it was difficult for women to engage with such systems – her mind wanders elsewhere: she recalls moments of intimacy from her youth while her nieces and nephews speak, and reminds them that in their recollections they skipped over the ‘sexual revolution’ of which she was a proponent.

Aquarius - HeadStuff.org

The film then moves to the present and shifts focus to the now older Clara, who appears to be inspired by her vivacious aunt. She reels against the passage of time, refusing to let age be a determining factor in what she can or cannot do: she simultaneously owns records and cassettes alongside digital formats like .mp3 files, and her battle to retain her long-time home, despite outside interference, becomes an extension of this. Clara desperately tries to hold on to her youth, and long, focused shots of a cabinet owned by her aunt Lucia, whose apartment she now occupies, articulates this struggle of sentimentality versus a more exterior, harsher reality. “I am a child and an old lady all together,” she tells her now grown-up children.

This film is to be applauded for its depiction of the ageing female body. A close-up in the film’s first act briefly depicts Clara naked, her right breast removed via mastectomy, and it is not shown for the appeasement of the heterosexual male gaze. Rather, it appears to emphasise her character’s long history, and by not expressing nudity in a sexual, performative or submissive manner – Clara appears naked not to fulfill the needs of a male contemporary, but rather to wash her body – the film asserts her independence and highlights her solitary existence. When Clara experiences sexual intimacy – she is accosted by a widower at a dance club, and later hires a gigolo – she asserts dominance, guiding her male partners in the act. The film is unabashed in its depiction of ageing sexualities and champions the sexual prowess of its middle-aged protagonist.

Aquarius - HeadStuff.org

Of course, in a film that is more focused on impalpable themes of ageing and the passage of time, the plot takes a backseat until the film’s final act, at which point, much to the film’s detriment, it takes centre-stage. The text loses momentum here when it attempts to wrap up things up having spent a concentrated amount of time on subtext. However, without giving too much away, it delivers one of the most satisfying endings in recent memory as Clara stands up to her tormentors in a climax designed to please.

In all, Aquarius is a beautiful-looking film (Mendonça Filho makes ample use of each frame, filling the text with a plethora of visual information that it warrants repeat viewing), with a poignant and nuanced depiction of one woman’s struggle against the passage of time. It is a case study in determination and will power, and a celebration of its middle-aged protagonist.

Aquarius is in cinemas March 24th. View the trailer below.

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