Her Twentieth Century:
The Postmodern Cinema of
Katherine Gyékényesi Gatto
Like a New Age novel, the Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi's debut film, My Twentieth Century (Az én XX. századom), takes the viewer on a serendipitous journey through time and space, into a multiplicity of settings, seemingly unrelated. Yet this mélange of science, art, feminism, and history, like the New Age philosophy of synchronicity,2 does possess a basic idea which is expressed at the end of the film, through the message that Thomas Edison sends around the world in his first experiment with the telegraph: the world is magnificent, and mankind who has learned how to shape it, is also magnificent. Filmed in documentary black and white, and framed in the manner of the silent movies, the picture is a rich, dramatic canvas of chiaroscuro, illuminating in exaggerated fashion the duality of creation through images such as a contrasting pair of black and white horses, a pair of ducks swimming, a set of twins, pointing subconsciously or consciously to the director's affinity to portray the yin and yang of the cosmos from a masculine perspective, i.e., through binary oppositions,3 a limited and limiting view of reality which Enyedi actually seeks to subvert.
The multifarious elements of life and existence are conveyed through the geographic shifts from New Jersey to Budapest, to Paris, to Burma, to Hamburg, to New York, to Austria, to Tokyo and through the passage of the years 1880 to 1900. Even God has an unusually feminine /feminist role in the film as a group of twinkling, chattering, female stars who address mortals from their celestial abode, commenting, sighing, encouraging, laughing in their tinkling bell-like voiceovers.
Enyedi's wonderment at the endless mysteries of the universe and the human soul is expressed through concrete characters and a quirkily original story line. The film deals with the adventures of identical twin girls, Dora and Lili, born in 1880 in Budapest, to a poverty stricken young mother in a chilly hovel, reminiscent of the kind of setting into which D.W. Griffith might have placed Dorothy and Lillian Gish.4 The birth vignette contrasts dramatically with the truly momentous occasion of the age shown in the previous scene-that of Thomas Edison switching on the world's first string of outdoor Christmas lights in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Both events represent new beginnings, one a product of man-controlled science, the other, a product of female nature-both miracles. We behold the awe and amazement in the faces of the crowd staring at the display of lights, and the expression of utter joy and marvel on the face of the new mother. It is these two threads, the miracle of female produced life, and the miracle of male produced science that form the warp and woof of Enyedi's turn of the century film tapestry.
On one level, Enyedi and her versatile and talented cameraman, Tibor Mathe, "create a tantalizing gossamer fable in the gorgeously lit style of the early black-and-white silents while lamenting how we failed to fulfil the liberating promise of late nineteenth century technology."5 On the other, they address the dilemma of twentieth century woman's schizophrenia. Together, the twin sisters, Dora and Lili, both played by the same actress Dorotha Segda, come to embody "the duality of the modern woman faced with trying to remain a figure of sexual allure yet sharing equal status with men in running the world" (Thomas 16). Enyedi poses this latter question in one of the final scenes in a whispery voiceover: "Which woman would make you happier?" and the inferred answer from a man's point of view is "both." In other words, men ideally would demand a sexual and cultural duality from women: they want both their virgins and whores. In reality, Enyedi says, women are either one or the other, as a result of socialization and fate.
This fate, or the absolutely surprising nature of life is underscored in the film's third scene. It is a snowy, blustery, cold Christmas Eve in Budapest, circa 1888, and the twins seated at the foot of a monument to the Lamb Triumphant are selling matches to the passersby. Falling asleep, they dream of the donkey of Jean Renoir's "Little Match Girl" coming to take them to safety, while in actuality, each is carried off in a different direction by two mysterious men in opera hats.6 Thus, separated in childhood, each girl grows up taking a completely different path in life.
After an interlude of scenes shot in Paris, Burma, Hamburg, and New York, in which Enyedi interweaves her views on science, nature, and even the marginalization of Hungary from the rest of the world, she rejoins us with Dora in the year 1900, as Dora is riding the Orient Express on New Year's Eve. We are privy to Dora's thoughts on men through voiceovers which reveal how Dora empowered by her sexuality, like the goddess Diana, appraises and hunts men in order to exploit them. Dora is a picaresque figure, frivolous, deceitful, sexually attractive, characterized by her kitten-like mewings, and coquettish, flirtatious glances and laughter. Her bare shoulders and billowing breasts, and later her curvaceous buttocks speak of her exhibitionism which she cunningly uses to entice and control men, truly a case of the body erotic merging with the body politic.
Coincidentally, Lili, carrying a cage of messenger pigeons and documents, also boards the train the same evening. She is, as we later learn, on a secret mission with revolutionary undercurrents. The contrast between the two sisters, the virgin and the whore, is emphasized by the setting and ambience. Dora is riding in a luxurious dining car, drinking champagne, while Lili rides in a crowded car with peasants and their grunting animals. Dora is driven by her greed and hedonism, while Lili is impelled by her idealism, innocence, and passion for righteousness.
The narrative moves forward after a break in which a dog is shown undergoing a Pavlovian experiment in the laboratory. Enyedi, through this seemingly unrelated episode, attempts to drive home the point once again, that twentieth-century science like the dog with electrodes on his head, can be tied up in the confines of the laboratory and yet know nothing about the world. Thus it can be used for any purpose, good or bad. Once, on an earlier occasion, in an interview with a New York Times reporter, Enyedi had spoken about the dangers of our over-technical and soulless age, and stated explicitly that science has lost its moral basis.7
Finally, both girls arrive in Budapest, unbeknownst to one another, and several incidents occur which strengthen their archetypal portrayals as virgins and whores. Dora dressed to kill in her furs and elegant hat in a moment of leisure plays with her elevator boy toy while an Argentine tango sung by Carlos Gardel plays in the background. Lili, on the other hand, pursues her plans to carry out her covert mission. Again, it is a fateful coincidence that a book, planted in the bottom of her pigeon cage on the train by an equally zealous young revolutionary, falls out of the cage into a snowdrift, and is recovered by a handsome, bearded professor type, known only as Z. This last episode serves to introduce the foil, a man, portrayed as an investigative student of life, who will sharply delineate the virginal and the whorish characteristics of Dora and Lili. The book he finds, entitled, The Law of Mutual Assistance in Nature, also functions as a symbol of Enyedi's ongoing dialectic with the theories of science.
Z, the archetypal male of a patriarchal society, meets Lili, where else, but in a library where he ironically admires not her brains but her buttocks (the male gaze), as she descends from a ladder leaning against the bookstacks. In the next take, they are chatting in the street and he invites her out that evening but she refuses. Subsequently, we learn that Lili had planned to and did bomb the movie theatre where Z had wanted to take her that evening, and that Z does not know that Lili was the perpetrator.
Meanwhile, Dora is pursuing her own pleasures by executing a jewellery heist through clever trickery and true to her nature does bear out the sayings that "diamonds are a girl's best friend," and that "there is a sucker (especially male) born every minute." In another scene, Dora finally catches a glimpse of Z at an exhibit, and we are led to believe that they will soon meet.
The central episode of the film, and where the twins' archetypal identities are examined on a pseudo-scientific level, is a lecture on "Sex and Character" by the renowned Viennese philosopher, Otto Weininger, which is sponsored by the Union of Hungarian Feminists. Essentially, the professor's lecture reflects the prevailing attitude towards women in a patriarchal society. Lili is present in the audience and hears Weininger declaim that there are two types of woman, the virgin-mother and the whore, and that both find their root or basis in their sexuality. Both are dominated by the phallus and in and of by herself the woman is simply zero. This pseudo scientific lecture which posits the notion that women are not equal to men morally nor intellectually is cleverly subverted by Enyedi's having Weininger deliver the lecture with more than a usual dose of histrionics. In fact, Weininger becomes downright "hysterical" in defense of his thesis.
Once again there is irony in the fact that it is Lili, the sexually unawakened one who hears the misogynist lecture and is strangely paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. Her actions in the following scene with Z are a last ditch effort to maintain her political ideals and independence in the face of the encroaching power of her own and Z's desire. In self defense she carries out part of her mission by hurling illegal revolutionary fliers from the top of a factory chimney and starts preaching the tenets of feminism to herself: "a woman has a life aside from man," and "women, instead of coffee, will brew dynamite."
Her alter ego, Dora, does consummate the sexual relationship with Z on a cruise ship near the port of Fiume. Z, believing it is Lili, whom he sees flirting and cavorting with the men on board, is pleasantly surprised to find out that she is indeed what he thought she was underneath the innocent and passionately idealistic facade- a whore after all. Dora, plays her erotic role to the hilt, by seducing the sleeping Z in his cabin, taking his money, and then returning to her cabin next door where she carries on with another man while Z is forced to listen to their passionate moans. Dora is the ultimate, promiscuous woman, who leaves Z moon-struck and baffled.
The parallel seduction of Lili takes place once Z has returned to Budapest, and accidentally bumps into her on the street. This is truly Lili, but Z believes she will behave like Dora. As she undresses in his apartment a while later, he comments that she is coy and almost like a genuinely innocent girl. And as the viewer knows, Lili is a virgin and does say to Z that she is embarrassed, but Z blinded by his lust and arrogance is neither clever nor perspicacious enough to perceive the truth. Two scenes later, after an aborted attempt to bomb the Minister of the Interior at a public building, Lili, paralyzed and frantic, rushes to escape from the pursuing guards and enters a mirrored lit maze.
The ménage à trois comes to a head when the three meet in this funhouse of mirrors sequence, reminding us of Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai (Thomas 16). The existence of both Lili and Dora is finally revealed to Z, and the twins themselves are finally reunited. Z had been led to the hall of mirrors by the same magical donkey from earlier in the film, and probably symbolizes the strange twists of destiny, while the mirrors represent the moment of truth for all three characters. Z closes his eyes in disbelief as the twins' identities merge into one. In the final scenes of the film, Lili sets free one of her carrier pigeons with a message tied to its foot, while in contrast, Edison is shown sending his telegraphic message about the magnificence of the world and man around the globe, alluding to the miraculous scientific advances of the new century.
My Twentieth Century with its constant use of iris shots and film references, besides being a tribute to the birth of moving pictures, clearly one of the great scientific discoveries, also points to the utilization of film for soul searching and philosophizing. The ending sequence first shows Lili with her carrier pigeons in her role as an idealistic revolutionary, then Dora as a sultry temptress eating grapes, and finally both of them as babies with their mother. As Enyedi explained in the aforementioned interview: "I am trying to say something about the many faces of every person and the many possibilities a person has at the beginning of life and how sad the pre-made roles are when they are accepted later" (Stone 23).
The multiplicity of meanings and settings and the limitless potentiality of the final scene in My Twentieth Century intimate what I believe is the film's postmodern feminist subtext - to subvert the patriarchal, logocentric order. In the words of Ann Rosalind Jones, man (white, European, and ruling class) has claimed "I am the unified self - that controlled centre of the universe. The rest of the world which I define as the Other, has meaning only in relation to me, as man, father, possessor of the phallus."8 First and foremost, the film's style rejects the patriarchal notion of linear narrative- an epic story leading to a discovery of a great truth or myth. In its place Enyedi has followed the exhortations of Cixous to produce a visual and audio text that "is open and multiple, varied and rhythmic, full of pleasures and, perhaps more importantly of possibilities."9
This style of writing and film-making which embodies the plurality of woman's sexuality allows Enyedi to illuminate and deconstruct the masculine and singular, libidinal economy of writing and thinking in binary oppositions. My Twentieth Century exaggerates the notion of dichotomous pairs, through the use of black/white, Dora/Lili, reason/emotion, body/soul, beautiful/ugly, self/other, whore/virgin, light/dark, rich/poor, science/nature, physicality/spirituality, love/sex, activity/passivity, and so on.
Again, in Cixous's view, and as embodied in the film, all these dichotomies find their inspiration in the fundamental dichotomous couple, man/woman, in which man (in this case Z) is associated with all that is (active, cultural, light, high) generally positive and woman (in this case the twins) with all that is (passive, natural, dark, low) generally negative. Man is the self; woman is his Other. Thus, woman exists in man's world on his terms. As is illustrated in Weininger's lecture in the movie, she is either the Other for man, or she is unthought. After man is done thinking about woman, "what's left of her is unthinkable, unthought" (Cixous and Clement 65).
Thus, as another French feminist, Luce Irigaray, states, and Enyedi so well embodies in her twins, the only woman we know is the "masculine feminine," the phallic feminine, woman as man sees her.10 She further clarifies this notion with the use of the word speculum to capture the nature and function of the idea of Sameness in Western philosophy and psychoanalysis. "Specularization," commented Toril Moi, "suggests the necessity of postulating a subject that is capable of reflecting on its own being."11 Because of narcissistic specularization, masculine discourse has never been able to understand woman, or the feminine, as anything other than a reflection of man, or the masculine. Witness Z's behaviour and confusion within the film, as well as Weininger's lecture. At the same time, within this context of Irigaray's specularization, the scene in the hall of mirrors takes on a whole new meaning, i.e., the twins, Dora and Lili (two feminine selves of a whole), mirror the nameless masculine Z.
Furthermore, Irigaray's strategy aimed at enabling woman to experience herself as something other than the "Other," the marginalized, the "waste" or "excess" of a dominant ideology provides the foundation for Enyedi's use of the word "her/my" twentieth century and the film's content.12 Firstly, Irigaray urged women to speak in the active voice and avoid the ultimate inauthenticity of the passive voice, thus, "my" twentieth century instead of the usual authoritative, masculine, "the" twentieth century.
Irigaray, as well as Enyedi, is perturbed by the unwillingness of science (the strategy and discourse of the patriarchy, and remember Weininger's reference to the stringent scientific method used in all his research ) to take responsibility for its own words and deeds. Enyedi, on the other hand, through her choice of language emphasizes the subjective and takes full responsibility for her representation of the scientific (shots of inhumane treatment of a dog and a gorilla), political and sexual revolutions of her century.
Another strategy to subvert the patriarchal order and what I believe is the philosophical subtext of the film is Irigaray's suggestion to mime the mimes men have imposed on women. "If women exist only in men's eyes, as images, women should take those images and reflect them back to men in magnified proportions... Miming the miming imposed on woman... intends to undo the effects of phallocentric discourse simply by overdoing them."13 Film, in Enyedi's hands, becomes the perfect "tool" to grandly mimic the patriarchal definition of woman, virgin/whore, in all its duality and to subvert it in its entirety.
And for those film critics who found fault with Enyedi's baroque style of film-making, I purport that it was not a lack of a "unifying logicravishing fragments without coherence or meaning,"14 but rather a conscious attempt to subvert the logical consistency required by phallo-centrism.
To reiterate, My Twentieth Century then is an exploration of the feminine history of the last one hundred years according to "her" way:
"She" is indefinitely other in herself. This is doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious... not to mention her language, in which "she" sets off in all directions leaving "him" unable to discern the coherence of any meaning. Hers are contradictory words, somewhat mad from the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whoever listens to them with ready-made grids, with a fully elaborated code in hand (Irigaray, This Sex, 29).
The twentieth century in Enyedi's hands does not become a linear or sequential time pointed toward a goal. Rather, it is cyclical (repetitive) and monumental (eternal).
In the closing, travelling camera shot we are moving swiftly down a river (river of time?) to the openness of a vast and never-ending sea. This sea, the future that is present, and the river, the present that is past, seems to offer limitless possibilities. Life's stream of coincidences do carry us inexorably to a higher plane. Buoyant, brilliant, witty, dream-like, and beautifully captivating, Ildikó Enyedi's film - which won the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes in 1990 - is a luminescent fairy tale, told from the princess's vantage point, and far removed from the tenets of socialist realism, the Hungarian tradition of film-making of the last fifty years.
1 Ildikó Enyedi was born in Budapest in 1955. She received
a B.A. in economics, following which she pursued film studies at the Academy
of Film and Theatre in Budapest in 1980-84. She made her directorial debut with
an experimental film in 1981. Her filmography includes Rózsalovag [dokumentär]
(1981), Az én XX. századom (1989), Bűvös vadász (1994).
2 Synchronicity within this context reflects the idea that life is a stream of coincidences that, once we tune into them, carry us inexorably to a higher plane.
3 In the French feminist, Hélène Cixous's view, masculine writing and thinking are cast in binary oppositions, e.g., man/woman, activity/passivity, sun/moon, culture/nature, day/night, speaking/writing, high/low. See Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement, "Sorties," in The Newly Born Woman, Betsy Wing, trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 63, 65.
4 See "Twins from Budapest, Singularly Independent," by Vincent Canby in The New York Times, The Arts, March 17, 1990, p.13.
5 Consult Kevin Thomas's article,"Twentieth Century: Enyedi's Valentine," in the Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1990, p.16.
6 Refer to "Twentieth Century traces march of time," a review article by Dave Kehr in the Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1991, p. 33.
7 For the complete interview by Judy Stone, see "Twins on Different Tracks Through the Years," The New York Times, November 4, 1990, p.23.
8 Ann Rosalind Jones, "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L'écriture Feminine," Feminist Studies 7, no. 1 (Summer 1981): 248.
9 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 259-60.
10 According to Claire Duchen, Irigaray believes "that before a 'feminine feminine,' a non-phallic feminine, can even be thought, women need to examine the male philosophical and psychoanalytical texts which have contributed to the construction of the 'masculine feminine,' the phallic feminine, in order to locate and identify it" (Duchen, Feminism in France, pp. 87-8.)
11 See Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 132.
12 Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, Catherine Porter, trans. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 29.
13 See Rosemary Tong's Feminist Thought, A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder and San Francisco: Westview Press, 1989) p. 228.
14 Consult Hal Hinson's review article, "Lost in 'My 20th Century'," in The Washington Post, January 4, 1991, p. 6.