Women Poisoning Men with Mushrooms in Cinema 2017


women poisoning men with mushrooms in cinema 2017, bourgeoisie reported missing


William Oldroyd,  Lady Macbeth , 2016

William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth, 2016

Paul Thomas Anderson,  Phantom Thread , 2017

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, 2017

Sofia Coppola,  The Beguiled , 2017

Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled, 2017

Mushrooms frequently popped up in films in 2017 as a way women chose to poison men. I am thinking of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth and and Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson. In the first two, the results are fatal, whereas in Anderson’s film Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, recovers and then proposes marriage to Alma Elson, played by Vicky Krieps. The films Lady Macbeth and Beguiled take place during the late 19th century. The violence and constraint inflicted in Lady Macbeth on the principle character Katherine Lester, played by Florence Pugh, by the men around her is arguably the most extreme of the three films. Unlike in the other two films, poisoning with mushrooms  is used against a man who has barred the main character access to her desire rather than against a man who is or has been implicated in it. In Beguiled the poisoning is preceded by the erotic attraction that the women from the American South, played by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, have shown for the Union Soldier John McBurney, played by Colin Farrell, while he has been incapacitated from a wound received in battle. His return to health brings with it an unleashed and previously obscured propensity for violence against the women who have saved him. At the moment the mushrooms are served to McBurney, his propensity for violence has once again been quieted by his apparent acceptance of the civilized rules of the women who run the school for young ladies in which he has been given shelter. The question of how profound or superficial really is this transformation is left sufficiently open to add a level of verisimilitude to the soldier’s self-representation as being reformed.  Part of the way Beguiled engages its audience is precisely through a hermeneutic gap it leaves open around the relation of either raw or sublimated aggressivity to erotic desire on the part of the women it portrays.  Anderson’s film in contrast to the other two films takes place in the 20th Century, more precisely, in the 1950s. Although the main two women characters are working, it is also clear that they do so within a patriarchal society that constrains them. When Reynolds Woodcock is first alone with the beautiful and young Alma Elson, who will become his muse and model for his designs, he takes advantage of the moment to try to…  design clothes for her. The idea of constraint that is also productive of a display of feminine beauty--a chiasmus of aesthetic liberation and physical confinement--is made manifest by the beauty of the women in the clothes he designs and the camera’s attention to the way putting on the clothes is a form of bondage. However, it soon becomes clear that the wish to constrain and control an object of desire is not limited to the male character. Alma Elson decides to poison her lover who appears to be losing interest. When he is near death from having ingested the poisoned mushrooms, prostrate and unable to move, Reynolds has a vision of his beloved mother. When the second time he consumes the poison from Alma whom he has now taken to be his wife, he looks at her with a knowing smile. She rejoices in telling him as he chews how she looks forward to his being incapacitated and then to her returning him to health. Anderson’s film represents a man’s masochism as a way of willingly returning to a cherished state of passivity in a woman’s care that Woodcock associates with his mother. The film contains a series of interlocking provocative and complex representations of desire. The presence of the use of mushrooms in all three films as the means for women to poison men brings to mind the persistence and even resurgence of male violence against women that has recently been made more public largely by the efforts of the women directly affected. At the same time, the films offer a variety of narrative forms that reflect a range of how complex or brutally simple can be the motivations and interpretations of a single action, in this case, poisoning. As for why mushrooms in particular… I am struck that they lack chlorophyll and hence cannot synthesize the sun’s rays into food like other plants. This lack that produces a parasitic surplus recalls sexual difference in its relation to the unconscious as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explained it and about which recently I have been reading again, this time in the book What Is Sex? by Alenka Zupančič. Although there is the potential that the current moment of an increased consciousness around violence against women will be trivialized and recuperated by being embraced by simplistic identity politics that reduces women to a gender that is the same as men just more essentially pure, there is a more radical possibility. As Zupančič writes:

“...the political existence of the ‘women question’ does not lie in any specificity or positive characteristics of women, but in its capacity to inscribe the problem of division and difference into the world the homogeneity of which is based on exclusion. This exclusion--and this point is absolutely crucial--is not simply the exclusion of the other side, or half, but above all the exclusion (‘repression’) of the split (social antagonism) as such: it is the erasing of a social antagonism. Its reappearance (in the form of feminist struggle) is the appearance of the social division in the pure state, and that is what makes it political, and politically explosive.”


On The Reported Disappearance of the Bourgeoisie


Michael Haneke,  Happy Ending , 2017

Michael Haneke, Happy Ending, 2017

Lauren Greenfield,  Generation Wealth  (exhibition at ICP, New York City), 2017 -2018

Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth (exhibition at ICP, New York City), 2017 -2018

Michael Haneke’s Happy Ending recently opened in New York City, while Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition Generation Wealth at the ICP was just closing. Both appeared to share as a central topic what might be called bourgeois aspirations. In connection to the U.S. premiere of his film Haneke gave an interview with the Village Voice in which his reply to a compliment from the interviewer for his “skewering the high-class bourgeois attitude” I found reflective of Greenfield’s exhibition although curiously not of his own film:

“I think it would be a false takeaway if you had the impression that I was trying to skewer or deal with the bourgeoisie, a class that we think of in [terms of] the early twentieth century, but that doesn’t exist anymore. Western societies, at least Europe — because I can only speak for Europe, as that’s only what I know — consist really of entirely middle class, with the exception of very few families. The middle class may be slightly wealthier or slightly less wealthy than others, but nonetheless, everyone belongs to it …”

Income inequality in Europe is not as extreme as in the United States but Haneke’s point I take to be about the dominant ideology around conspicuous consumption that has spread by the increasing homogeneity of global capitalism. That Haneke’s point about Europe is valid also in the U.S. is well-illustrated by Greenfield’s exhibition. The obsession with personal consumption is not limited to any one income level--certainly not to the 1%--although members of the 1% are just as certainly the primary beneficiaries on a material level from this obsession, even if--as Greenfield’s work makes clear--wealth frequently turns out to be a source of long-term despair for those most successful at achieving it or holding onto it. Many of the people represented in Greenfield’s photos are people whose economic survival is precarious but whose display of a worshipful attachment to wealth links them to the super rich engaged in the same display.  This prevalence of a culture of consumption regardless of economic status is not accidental or merely a case of the disempowered happening to mimic the empowered, rather, it is a fundamental way in which global capitalism currently operates, representing all of us to ourselves as willing participants and calling us to self-identify as such. A single mother who takes a second job to pay the bills refers to her second job as the “business” that she runs just as surely as Bezos runs Amazon. This is the way “middle class” in Haneke’s use of the term appears to be an ubiquitous and inescapable attribute for people having the status of “citizen” within the U.S. and Europe--even if they struggle to hang on. When I worked at a center for people diagnosed as severely mentally ill we were instructed to refer to them as “clients.” It was as customers that they were usually recognized and identified themselves as having rights . If Greenfield’s exhibition puts the ubiquity of bourgeois values on display, Haneke’s film, on the other hand, does not. The wealthy extended family that is the focus on the film has been compared to the people who are the focus of Bunuel’s film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Bunuel’s world is one in which a working class culture exists alongside that of the Bourgeoisie and has not been completely reshaped in the image of the consumer culture of those of means. This contrasts with the reconstruction and assimilation of all culture into the horizon of consumerism where everyone is out for herself that Haneke describes in his interview even if it is easier to mistake the vision in the film for one no different than that of Bunuel’s film. Haneke’s film does show black industrial workers outside the family but not as caught up in ubiquitous consumer culture. Haneke is clearly one of the most important of our contemporary filmmakers, so I am drawn to look closer to see what I have missed. What is different from Bunuel’s film is the centrality of a child’s point-of-view, particularly through her use of social media. One of the most conspicuous qualities of today’s consumer culture is the thorough colonization of childhood by corporate culture. At 61, the data I provide through my use of social media has a limited shelf-life and value compared to that of my children. They and their peers are building everyday the wealth of social media companies--for example, of Google. Haneke’s film does not show the breadth of consumerism across different economic groups--its horizontal expansion--but it does focus very acutely on its vertical expansion into the life of children. This is also true of Greenfield’s exhibition although Haneke’s film puts more of a focus on the image-making, communication and spectatorship made available to children through social media. Haneke has said that most important to him is what he leaves outside the frame. I associate this to what I called in the last two issues a Cinema of Limits. This kind of film very expressly leaves out shots that would be absolutely de rigueur for a film made according to the rules of the big Hollywood film. In our day, generally speaking, the latter is based on representing vision as omnipotent whereas the former has a secular sense of the idolatry inherent in our society and opens up a space for our own production by not showing it all, and, by doing so, allowing us to enjoy what we do not have.