Cinematic Violations in Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Mācon

Marsha Gordon

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

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Peter Greenaway's 1993 film The Baby of Mācon depicts an excess of violations performed upon the female body. In its most violent and horrific depiction, "the daughter" in the narrative, played by Julia Ormond, is repeatedly raped to death by a virtual army of men. Because the film's narrative is set up as a masque (an early English play form relying heavily on spectacle and audience participation) taking place within the film itself, the distinctions between fiction and reality in this enactment of physical violation and murder are blurred. This double representation of a performance within a performance (along with an audience in front of an audience) foregrounds the self-conscious distance at which Greenaway locates his spectator, thus confusing traditional models of spectatorship and cinematic distancing. In so doing, Greenaway exposes the cinematic spectator's own fascination with seeing sexual violence while the film simultaneously participates in the aestheticization of this violence.

Within the film, violence is conceived of in terms of looking (spectatorial consumption) and showing (directorial composition). The film thus explores not only the physical and sexual violation of the female body but the spectator's and director's culpability in, and desire to see and represent, these acts of violence. The "daughter's" violated body is fetishized to the point that it ceases to make sense in traditional spectatorial terms, which necessitate guiltless voyeurism and pleasure in looking. Greenaway ultimately collides some fundamental and very antagonistic cinematic notions such as pleasure and guilt to challenge the passivity of his spectators and to question the manipulative role of cinema itself alongside the manipulated role of the cinematic spectator.

Successfully cataloguing abjection through his films and other projects, with The Baby of Mācon Greenaway combines the excesses of melodrama, pornography, and horror in an attempt to multiply the range of spectatorial bodily reactions. Only the genre of the horror film typically exposes and exploits the disfigured female body to the extent witnessed in The Baby of Mācon, a film that defies such generic categorization. Greenaway explains that "most mainstream cinema tends to glamorize, deodorize, romanticize, and sentimentalize. I'm very keen to not do those things" (qtd. in Pally 8). However much Greenaway's camera may look at things avoided by mainstream cinema, he certainly does not fail to aestheticize that which he examines--no matter how taboo or grotesque. Such aestheticization serves to deceptively lure the spectatorial gaze to linger upon often unthinkable acts of violence. [1] Not surprisingly, Greenaway's films receive NC-17 ratings and are even passed over by video distributors in the United States.

Because Greenaway revisits many of the taboo themes addressed in each of his films, it is often difficult to tell precisely who is positioned as the fetishist in his cinematic equation. Perhaps the more important question is: why does Greenaway repeatedly return to the subject of sexual violence? All of his films fetishize sexual acts, most of them violent in some form or another. A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) involves death, dismemberment, sex, birth, order, and decay as it relates to twin animal behaviorists (former Siamese twins) who, at the end of the film, use time-lapse photography to capture their decomposing bodies after they kill themselves. Drowning By Numbers (1988), according to Greenaway, is about impotence--a recurring Greenaway theme that often results in male violence of one form or another (Pally 8). But it is also about ordering the world through games and numbers, and women who drown their intolerable husbands. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) is also about chaos and order, infertility, eating, and the violence and sexuality that exists between people--especially between Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) and his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), the latter who shoots Albert after making him eat her murdered ex-lover.

Given the context of these earlier films, The Baby of Mācon seems a response, of sorts, inasmuch as it complicates its own fetishization to the point of near absurdity. Set up as a masque taking place within the film, most of The Baby of Mācon occurs on a stage in the court of Mācon "presided" over by Prince Cosimo Medici (Jonathan Lacey). Greenaway thus plays with the notion of representation and distance, an idea that Susan Sontag discusses in her article on "Film and Theatre": "We see what happens on the stage with our own eyes. We see on the screen what the camera sees" (368). Sontag's observation points out the crucial mediation of director and camera between the film's spectator and the spectacle of the masque. The traditional masque tried not to separate audience from action, but rather mingled actors with audience both on and offstage. Although Greenaway preserves this in his version of this genre, his film alienates its spectator since the spectator that gets to "participate" is only within the film, leaving the film's spectator at least once removed. The spectator of the film watches the spectators of the play watch the play; the spectator of the film has to see through the camera's eyes instead of his/her own.

The inhabitants of Mācon are plagued with sterility. In the film, an older, diseased woman (hereafter "mother," Diana van Kolck) breaks the chain of sterility by giving birth to a beautiful and healthy boy. The court is amazed, outraged, and jealous. Her other child (the baby's sister) hides her mother from the court, claiming the child as her own and inventing a virgin-birth mythology. To summarize briefly, the baby takes revenge on the daughter who exploits him for profit because he is a "miracle child." The baby kills the daughter's lover-to-be (the Bishop's son, Ralph Fiennes), using mystical powers to command a bull to disembowel the bishop's son. The daughter later suffocates the baby and the court sentences her to death. The daughter is literally raped to death under the watchful eye of the church, her parents are murdered, and the baby's corpse is then dismembered by the court.

Prefiguring the violence of the remainder of the film, The Baby of Mācon begins with a performative birth. Insults are hurled at the on-stage mother-in-labor by the midwives, provoking laughter and applause from the play's audience. The mother repeats a refrain of, "It is coming!" that is echoed by the others present. Her monstrosity is clear from the beginning of this scene--her arm is rotting with disease, she is balding, her chest is bruised, and her face is covered. Occupying the center of the stage, maternity is envisioned as monstrous here by the attachment of physical and verbal horror to the mother figure. Barbara Creed, who analyzes the monstrous-feminine in relation to the female reproductive body in the horror film, links the disgust and loathing of abjection to the maternal:

Virtually all horror texts represent the monstrous-feminine in relation to [Julia] Kristeva's notion of maternal authority and the mapping of the self's clean and proper body. . . . Consequently, [bodily wastes] fill the subject--both the protagonist in the text and the spectator in the cinema--with disgust and loathing. (13; brackets mine)
The opening scene of The Baby of Mācon attempts to provoke--or perhaps parody--a similar reaction of mother-loathing for both the play's and film's audiences. Greenaway envisions childbirth as the locus of sexual violence in a very Kristevan fashion.

Claiming that the baby is the product of a virgin birth, a miracle aligning the child with Jesus and herself with Mary, the daughter usurps the baby as her own and offers her own body as proof to this miracle. Her body becomes a text that the midwives and others read for evidence of her virginity. Spreading her legs on stage for a threefold audience--the "inspectors," the play's audience, and the film's spectators--virginity tests the legibility and validity of the woman's body and personal narrative. The fictive proof of her virginity not only makes the daughter legible, but legitimizes her offspring by validating her "ownership" of the child. The daughter later explains to her "romantic interest," the Bishop's son, that proof of her virginity can only truly be produced by the negation of her virginity: "treat me like a whore and you will see me bleed, and then you will believe me." For the daughter, de-virginization is the moment of the narrative in which her authority can be legitimated through blood-as-letter. Greenaway seems intent to point out that the notion of a discernible "truth" is, at best, fallible; at worst, it is deadly--perhaps as much for the daughter in the film as for the spectator outside of the film.

Ultimately, not even a Joseph can enter her mythology as the baby mystically upholds the daughter's self-representation of the virgin birth. The baby turns against his sister and enforces her own prophecy of a pure and clean body. The daughter's body is a body of contention--caught between the performance of "mother" and the clean and proper body of virginity. As the daughter begins to seduce the Bishop's son (hereafter "Joseph," as she calls him in her continuing self-comparison to the Virgin Mary) her "son" imposes her invented purity upon her. The baby does not allow the destruction of her virginity, forcing the daughter to retain this physical monument that is legible to the court. The baby is the inescapable image who returns, as all repressed things do, to exploit his own exploitation. [2] Using his saintly "powers" to control a bull that disembowels the Bishop's son, the baby rewrites his own mythological origins in Joseph's blood by upholding the "textual" proof contained on and in the daughter's body-as-virginal-text. Stopping any further inscription of his sister's body, he maintains the hymen's division between inside/outside and pure/impure, thereby guaranteeing that she will still signify virginity and thereby validate both of their mythological histories.

As the community enters the manger scene, they read the daughter as the murderer because blood covers her body--primarily from the bull that she kills against the son's warnings. The misreading of the daughter is again based on the assumption that visual proof accurately represents the truth--that the relationship between visibility and reality is transparent and immediately knowable. The passivity with which people accept certain narratives is, in many ways, what the entire film is about. Greenaway destabilizes and questions the relationships between seeing and believing, between reality and fiction. The film seems to suggest that to wholeheartedly believe anything based upon what the eye perceives is not only foolish, but dangerous as well. Representation convolutes reality and even being a witness to an event does not ensure that the "truth" can be known, least of all as the truth is construed through ambiguous signifiers such as the blood that covers the daughter's body.

After slaying the bull, the daughter rants and raves in front of the other cast members who immediately call for the removal of the child. Like her mother during the birth performance, she becomes unintelligible except as her body "speaks" her, as her defiled body narrates itself. She, too, becomes a visual embodiment of the monstrous maternal here: the blood that covers her is emblematic of the inside moving outside and of her association with death, the most abject state of all. The monstrous is thus equated with the sexual in reference to the woman's body: the daughter is punished for her desire, the women of the court have monstrous obsessions with child-bearing, and the other actors and the court find the thought of the "real" mother's sexual past unfathomable.

Greenaway comments on The Baby of Mācon in a way that alludes to his fetishization of sexual violence and the ways in which he uses this violence to affect his spectators: "The film doesn't use violence as an instrument of pleasure. Here there is real retribution, and real hurt. Here there is cause and effect. Cinema is more powerful than the other so-called serious arts. We must insure that it contains challenging and provocative ideas" (qtd. in Shulman 18). Greenaway insists that the power of cinema may and should move beyond the confines of the screen. He thus characterizes The Baby of Mācon as inflicting in extra-cinematic ways. The lines between fantasy and reality, film and life, blur within the violent narratives he creates. Greenaway's desire for extra-cinematic realism moves beyond mise-en-scene and into the audience itself.

In The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro argues for the importance of the oft-neglected body in cinematic theories,

Film is a vivid medium, and it is important to talk about how it arouses corporeal reactions of desire and fear, pleasure and disgust, fascination and shame. . . . Power works in the depths and on the surfaces of the body, and not just in the disembodied realm of "representation" or of "discourse." It is in the flesh first of all, far more than on some level of supposed ideological reflection, that the political is personal, and the personal political. (viii)
Shaviro displays the immediacy and importance of the spectatorial body. Not only is the spectatorial body a crucial theoretical consideration, but Peter Greenaway attempts to directly affect this body through his films.

But it is the specifically female body that serves as Greenaway's canvas for imagining sexual violence and for invoking spectatorial reactions. As Linda Williams' essay "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess" points out, cinema most often conveys pleasure, pain, and fear through women's bodies (4). The spectatorial mimicry or response (depending upon the situation) of emotion or sensation that she finds in "body genres," confirms the spectator's embodied response to certain visual and aural stimuli.

The scene in which the daughter is raped because she cannot be executed as a virgin according to the rules of Mācon society directly challenges the distance of the spectator and the safe illusion of cinema. It is also the scene in which Greenaway seems most clearly desirous to prove his theory about the potency of cinema. The Bishop, revenging his son's ("Joseph's") and the baby's deaths, calls for the daughter to be raped 208 times so that she will be eligible for execution. He bases this sentencing on an historical and mythical invocation of other crimes revolving around the number thirteen--from Christian virgins suffering the "abuses" of the Maccabees to Caligula's sister who was "abused" by a Roman senator. Greenaway's passion for numerology and cataloguing systems that order the world and the body emerge in this mathematically-based punishment that revolves around historical fetishizations of sexual violence.

After the Bishop absolves and blesses the militia rapists-to-be, an act that ironizes the hypocrisy and malice of the church, a bed is wheeled out onto the stage for the daughter. The curtains around the bed are closed; however, they open to allow the camera to enter, leaving the other cast members and the play's audience behind. The film's spectator sees beyond the curtain/screen, whereas the cast members and play's audience can only see what is being "projected." The film points out that what "the people" are allowed to see does not necessarily reflect what is actually happening; that narratives, like histories, have multiple "truths."

The daughter jokes with the two men who are holding her down as part of the rape performance and then screams as part of this act. One of the men holding her confirms the exclusivity of the camera's presence when he states, "no need to act anymore, the audience can't see." Thus shielded from all sight except for the film's spectators', the rapes "actually" take place as the men stop joking (and perhaps acting) and restrain her from moving. In other words, the actress playing the daughter in the play is in fact being raped instead of performing this rape. In one of the men's words: "imagine, an audience of three-hundred, none of them know you're not acting."

The horror of this scene is the film spectator's knowledge of the actresses' rape--knowing that the screams are "real" and not performed; although even the words I have used here lack the precision to properly designate exactly what is happening to whom. Numbers are called out for each rape as the camera pulls back, revealing the rapes in a shadow-play on the bed's curtains. Like a director, Prince Cosimo enumerates the "acts" of rape in the same way that "takes" are called on a film set. In fact, the bed's curtains look much like a film screen, literalizing Cosimo's directorial role. The daughter's screams become horrific background "music" throughout the painfully long ten minute scene, while the aristocracy eats and the Prince places papers with each rape-number onto a stake. The final take/rape finds the daughter dead, placing the film (or perhaps play) also in-line with the snuff film, in which on-screen violence and death are real. The shadows on the symbolic screen are what the other spectators have thus far been limited to in their access to the scene. After the final, 208th rape, the actress's body rolls out of the bed and she is already dead. [3] "A very fine actress indeed," comments one bystander. By making many individuals in the social body equal agents in the actress' rape and murder, responsibility is placed upon collective acts of passive violence instead of a singular one: Cosimo authorizes the violence, the church orchestrates it, the militia acts it out, the play's and film's audiences "accept" it by not intervening, and the whole society is thus responsible for the violence.

This scene thus implicitly mocks its spectators for their passivity. The rape scene further questions the realness of the rape itself, leading us back to Greenaway's comment about "real" retribution and hurt. If, as he states, the retribution and hurt are real, what makes the spectator of this film assured that what transpires on-screen is a fiction? Of course, this is hardly a real fear for contemporary audiences, who understand how to read cinema as fictional and thereby unreal. Plus we all know that--for better or worse--Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes survived the making of this film to go on to other projects. However, I do think that Greenaway intends to provoke the spectator into thinking about this assumed relationship between representation and reality. The uncanny feeling of having been tricked into allowing this rape to transpire highlights the spectator's passivity. Greenaway understands the distance needed by the spectator in order to voyeuristically consume a film and he successfully disrupts the safety of this space.

Causing the spectator to question his or her own spectatorial position and his or her own complicity in this act of rape, Greenaway implies that the film's spectators could be fooled as easily as his courtly spectators. Daniel Dayan notes this inability to intervene in narrative on behalf of the spectator as one of the frustrations that threatens to rend the spectatorial body ("Tutor Code"). The daughter's rape is also symbolic of the viewer who is being symbolically raped by narrative--who is being forced to consume a narrative that reproduces patriarchal dominance through such on-screen violence. However, there is a crucial point of spectatorial resistance here that Shaviro implies in his idea of the spectator as the potential wrench in the cinematic machine. Spectators can always leave the theater, thereby refusing the "rape" or whatever else is being thrust upon them.

This refusal seems especially pertinent in relation to Greenaway's films, where this act of resistance occurs with relative frequency. Audience members "rising from their seats and racing to the exits" during the opening sequence in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover are reported in the 1991 Current Biography Yearbook entry on Peter Greenaway (257). In my own experience of viewing this film in a theater in California, the audience of about twenty was reduced to a mere five by the end of the film. Amidst grunts and shrieks of surprise, viewers filtered out at various points in the film when it was clear that they had seen enough or perhaps too much. These instances seem to verify that Greenaway's cinema is able to affect the spectator in a radical way, eliciting both verbal and physical reactions. Even if spectators are largely passive--or even if Greenaway seems intent on showing them their passivity--they are in fact able to react in a way that makes them active. The very act of getting up and walking out before the film has ended places the "final word" clearly on the spectator's side.

The blurring of performance reinforced at the end of the play and film when the film's cast comes out to bow is reminiscent of Greenaway's own confusing roles as director, sadist, critic, and fetishist. The daughter (or actress--it is impossible to choose the proper name here), the Bishop's son and the bull are all wheeled out in carts--all seemingly dead. The baby is dismembered and only his head is present at the play's/film's end. These four are the casualties of the film--the bodies that are not recuperated through a final bow, who do not acknowledge that this is, after all, "just" a performance, "only a play," or "only a film." It is difficult to discern precisely who is deriving pleasure from Greenaway's often sadistic cinema, but perhaps what is ultimately being critiqued is the notion that the end goal of cinema is, in fact, pleasure. Though Laura Mulvey has approached this same subject matter in a radically different way, the fetishization of sexual violence can be understood as a means by which such a critique can be leveled. However, the risk of the critique becoming impossibly blurred with the uncritical fetish itself is almost inherent in such absurdist narrative. The care with which Greenaway and cinematographer Sacha Vierny photograph otherwise repulsive or unviewable scenes makes understanding Greenaway as a critic of sexual violence a rather difficult undertaking. The stunning beauty of the repulsive in a Greenaway film suggests that Greenaway takes pleasure in the act of forcing his audiences to see (or perhaps even more, to desire to see) that which would typically remain taboo, unseeable.


[1] A film that is as much (if not more) difficult to watch is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 of Sodom (1975). (back)

[2] Another moment in which the repressed returns occurs during a play within the masque that parodies the "real" mother's labor and the baby's birth, confirming that the "true" story lives on in the popular imagination of the court. (back)

[3] I think it fair to say that she has ceased being the daughter here, as it is implied that her role in the play is no longer being acted out. Rather, it is the actress in the play whose is raped by the men. (back)

Works Cited

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Dayan, Daniel. "The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema." 1974. Film Theory and Criticism. Eds. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy. 4th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 179-191.

Greenaway, Peter. The Baby of Mācon. 1993.

- - - . The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. 1989.

- - - . Drowning By Numbers. 1988.

- - - . A Zed & Two Noughts. 1985.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. 57-68.

Pally, Marcia. "Cinema as the Total Art Form: An Interview with Peter Greenaway." Cineaste 18:3 (1991): 6-12, 45.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom. 1975.

"Peter Greenaway." Current Biography Yearbook. (February 1991): 253-258.

Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Vol. 2 of Theory Out of Bounds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Shulman, Ken. "Peter Greenaway Defends His Baby." New York Times 6 February 1994. sec. H :18.

Sontag, Susan. "Film and Theatre." Film Theory and Criticism. Eds. Gerald Mast Et. Al. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 362-374.

Williams, Linda. "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess." Film Quarterly (Summer 1991): 2-13.

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