Student Work

Le Bon Ordre

Senior thesis by Julia Wohlstetter '15

Woman behind camera
The Good Order of Women: Silence as transgression in the films of Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis and Marguerite Duras

Abstract: Every sound we make defines us. Through sound, we judge others attractive, boring or repulsive, dangerous or even divine. But our judgments sexualized because sound has always been gendered. Aristotle writes that a woman’s voice is proof of an evil character and, citing Sophocles, states that “Silence is the good order of women”. In her famous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey critiques Hollywood’s "silent images of women”. It’s not that women onscreen never speak, actually they talk a lot. Women are bitchy or motherly. They prattle or murmur or gossip, but no matter what they say, it’s always nonsense. In fact, from antiquity to the present day, the act of reducing a woman to silence has always been a project of patriarchal culture. However, by examining the works of filmmakers Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras and Claire Denis, we may begin to redefine and subvert this project. In film, as in life, silence makes us anxious and the works of these three women are all characterized by an intentional, often extreme, muteness that leaves the viewer unmoored. Silence embodies death and our fear of death. To be silent is to refuse communication and to renounce thought. Often silence speaks with more veracity than words do, as it is the direct language of the body. In films, it exposes the façade of story and of spontaneous speech. Transparent and opaque, it simultaneously reveals a surface meaning, while posing a series of unanswerable questions. In the end, as we examine this multiplicity of silences, we realize that silence is a form of transgression, a power in itself, that could turn women into the manipulators of discourse in film. We begin to see that feminine silence is not as simple as the Ancients would have us believe, and perhaps the silent image of a woman is, in the end, much more unsettling than that of a woman speaking.