Riddles of the Sphinx

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) is a British experimental drama film written, directed and produced by academics and artists Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. The film consists of seven parts which follow (loosely) the life of Louise, a middle-class woman with a four-year-old daughter Anna. The majority of the film focuses on part four which consists of 13 scenes shot in long, continuous 360-degree pans of the spaces occupied by Louise: we pass over staircases, net-curtained windows, buses, roads. At intervals, the camera cuts to Mulvey speaking directly to the camera, narrating the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx from the Odyssey. The film is an avant-garde rendering of domesticity and motherhood and the spaces – architectural and mental – that they exist in.

Mulvey's work on feminist film theory is possibly best expressed in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which develops how scopophilia ((Ancient Greek: σκοπέω skopeō, "look to", "to examine" + φῐλῐ́ᾱ philíā, "the tendency towards") or the act of looking with pleasure creates an anti-feminist perspectival dominant narrative that reproduces the woman as object. In Riddles of the Sphinx, Mulvey and Wollen set out to describe a feminist vernacular for cinema that disrupted the male gaze.

As Mulvey told the BFI, “In the 70s, the women’s liberation movement collectively insisted that images were a political issue and that images were the site of struggle. And as I had spent the 60s just more or less doing very little but going to movies and loving the cinema, it seemed logical to take a step back and think about the way in which my new consciousness of the politics of images might relate to the cinema that I loved so much, primarily Hollywood.” In Riddles, the panning camera shots, focus on voiceover rather than visuals, and lack of interest in exposition or extensive characterisation makes the action diffuse and energy unfocused, an attempt by Mulvey to develop a film language that treated the woman as “subject of inquiry”.

The film doesn’t look to create a novel way of seeing but to disrupt what already exists; as Mulvey said, “Only by working with words, images, stories, legends, aesthetics – all the things that kind of circulate in society – and shifting them into different kinds of constellations, reconfiguring them [could one] shape a women’s movement, so to speak.” The result is a film that refuses to centre a singular subjectivity, and attends instead to the elliptical nature of consciousness. As Geoffrey Howell-Smith wrote, “Such openness is a precious quality in the cinema, whether commercial or avant-garde, in both of which coercive strategies have often reigned supreme.”

The Sphinx in antiquity was a figure with the head of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. She guarded the gates of Thebes and devoured those travellers who couldn’t answer her riddles; after Oedipus correctly guessed the answer, she ate herself (or threw herself from her rocky perch, depending on the version you read). She represents the keeper of the threshold; the possessor of the answer. Freud wrote that the question posed by the child, “where do babies come from?” is a riddle of the Sphinx. Here, the mythological proportions that govern female identity in cinema – frightening, exacting, consuming, vulnerable – are juxtaposed against the settings of everyday life in the 20th century, highlighting how the cultural and cinematic concept of the woman abridges a reality in which women’s lives are continually circumscribed by childcare, elderly care and insecure employment. That this Sphinx is asking questions that are still relevant to women’s lives means that this film remains a landmark in both British cinema and feminist representation.

Watch Riddles of the Sphinx on TANKtv.

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