Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s film (1977) addresses the position of women in patriarchy through the prism of psychoanalysis. Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) draws on the critical writings and investigations by both filmmakers into the codes of narrative cinema, and offers an alternative formal structure through which to consider the images and meanings of female representation in film.
The film is constructed in three sections and 13 chapters, combining Mulvey’s own to-camera readings around the myth of Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx with a series of very slow 360 degree panning shots encompassing different environments, from the domestic to the professional. Louise, the narrative’s female protagonist, is represented through a fragmented use of imagery and dialogue, in an attempt to break down the conventional narrative structures of framing and filming used to objectify and fetishise women in mainstream cinema. This could be seen as a formal development of the Lacanian analyses that Mulvey had applied to the female image in film in essays such as 1975’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (in Screen).
Riddles of the Sphinx attempts to construct a new relationship between the viewer and the female subject, presenting her through multiple female voices and viewpoints. The dialogue, constructed from the different voices of Louise, her friends and fellow workers, brings a shifting and ambiguous range of meanings to the film, in contrast to the explanatory authority associated with a conventional voice-over. Other voices and images from outside the film’s narrative world also question and disrupt pre-supposed meanings and symbols of the woman within and without the screen; from the mythical enigma of the Sphinx to the appearances of artist Mary Kelly and Mulvey herself.
As Mulvey herself subsequently put it, “What recurs overall is a constant return to woman, not indeed as a visual image, but as a subject of inquiry, a content which cannot be considered within the aesthetic lines laid down by traditional cinematic practice.” — Lucy Reynolds, BFI Screenonline
Laura Mulvey was born in Oxford on 15 August 1941. After studying history at St. Hilda’s, Oxford University, she came to prominence in the early 1970s as a film theorist, writing for periodicals such as Spare Rib and Seven Days. Much of her early critical work investigated questions of spectatorial identification and its relationship to the male gaze, and her writings, particularly the 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, helped establish feminist film theory as a legitimate field of study.
Between 1974 and 1982 Mulvey co-wrote and co-directed with her husband, Peter Wollen, six projects: theoretical films, dealing in the discourse of feminist theory, semiotics, psychoanalysis and leftist politics. The first of these, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) explored concerns central to Mulvey’s writings: the position of women in relation to patriarchal myth, symbolic language and male fantasy. Penthesilea represents an experimental British venture into territory… read more