Recuperating losses: history, spectacle, motility in Julio Medem's Room in Rome/Habitacion en Roma.
MEDEM: THE DIRECTOR, THE AUTHOR, AND THE FILM
Beginning with Vacas in 1989, through Medem's highly acclaimed films in the 1990s and early 2000s--La ardilla roja (1993), Tierra (1996), Amantes del circulo polar (1998), Lucia y el sexo (2001)--, the trope of the unreliable narrator has been an essential part of Medem's style. As a writer-director, he favors plots where the protagonists are not honest storytellers, especially in terms of their own motivations. This feeling of incredibility is further reinforced by the use of subjective shots, where the viewer witnesses the scene from the point of view of animals or inanimate objects. It is imperative to understand that as Medem is constructing the individual psyche, he is also de-constructing and destabilizing an identity based on myths that prop up the nation and nationality. Nathan Richardson understands the use of the subjective shot in the film Vacas as essential to how nationality is deconstructed: "... camera work problematizes the production of the illusory subjectivity based on the manufacture of an ego-ideal built upon identification between camera, protagonist, and spectator. Thus a film that would be about Basque identity is problematized by a meta-cinematic exploration of the very notion of identity" (197). In this way, the spaces of any of his feature length films--the Spanish wine country and the Basque countryside in Vacas or Tierra, a cafe in the center of Madrid or a forest in Finland in Amantes del circulo polar, a Southwestern landscape in Caotica Ana (2007) and, in Room in Rome, a public street and a posh rented room in the historic center of Italy's capital--are all spaces marked as simultaneously "Spanish", "Basque", and "European".
Through this destabilization of a notion of self via a geographically determined identity, the personal, individual and subjective drive of emotion and sexual desire comes to define Medem's characters. In this regard, part of Medem's style is what Rob Stone in his monograph, Julio Medem, has labeled as "centripetal introspection" where the plot follows memory spirals rather than a linear, progression of events (8). This highlights a personal, subjective reality that is stronger than national boundaries. To achieve this, Medem employs layers of historical significance where categories like "nation" or even "language" become just one symbol more in a spiral of signs that could potentially define a person. Delving deeper into Medem's reliance on the subjective shot, Stone describes it as a way to provide balance and truth to the intense emotions experienced by the protagonists. However, this is also Medem's Achilles heel.
Stone aptly points out that the use of the subjective shot effectively "positions him [Medem] as the only secure point of reference in the quagmire of competing subjectivities, wherein the symmetry imposed by editing creates not a bias but a balance in the tensions" (77). This stylistic signature, then, is only a pretense of subjectivity as the rarity of the view and the editing end up calling direct attention to the hand that controls what is being viewed. In a similar vein, Medem makes frequent use of nudity and explicit scenes of sex as metaphors of emotional truths. Stone generously attributes the director's reliance on the naked form as part of the European auteur tradition as well as a mode of the post-dictatorship film culture in Spain (13). However, underneath the subjective shot and the propensity for nudity, coupled with the close-ups of sexual acts there is an inherited "truth" that Medem does not try to dismantle: that women are constructed as fantasy of man. For example, in Medem's second top grossing film, Lucia y el sexo, Lucia (Paz Vega) seeks out a relationship with her favorite author, Lorenzo (Tristian Ulloa); and she seems to be in control of her sexuality and personal agency. However, at the end of the film it is revealed that whatever power Lucia may have exerted as a protagonist was always a figment of Lorenzo, the "author's", imagination, and is part of a story he is writing about three women who represent his sexual fantasies and conquests. upon this realization, Stone rescinds his previous charitable claim with these words about the abundant nudity of Lucia y el sexo and how it relates to authorial control: "the emphasis on the display of Lucia (and so Paz Vega) as erotic spectacle is such a cliched example of 'woman as image, man as bearer of the look' (Mulvey 1992:750) that the dominant subjectivity of Lorenzo may be mistaken for that of Medem" (160). Reinforcing this alignment between protagonist and director, Tristian Ulloa, along with many of the other male protagonists Medem chooses, all bear a striking resemblance to the director himself (11).
Javier Dominguez-Garcia, celebrating the vision of Medem, writes that the Basque auteur's filmmaking is at once very personal and "dilutes for the spectator the established frontiers between reality and the metaphysical, exploring feelings capable of expressing the universality of the human being" (translation mine, 337). Although Medem has been praised by many critics since the early 1990s as both an auteur who epitomized lyrical, poetic filmmaking, and as a feminist who gave Spanish women strong roles, there has been a 180 degree turn in this criticism since Medem's 2007 film Caotica Ana. Where before Medem was lauded for his camera work and narrative spirals, Caotica Ana collapsed in on itself under the weight of its own stylistic pretenses and disappoints as a transnational and feminist film. In Rob Stone and Maria Pilar Rodriguez's 2015 Basque Cinema: A Cultural and Political History, the authors call Caotica Ana "discordant and incoherent" even some of the scenes "repulsive, unfunny and unerotic" (129). Resoundingly panned by critics and audiences, the 2007 film lost the director and his production company, Sogetel, an enormous sum of money, of this Medem remarked that "Perdi mas que todo lo que habia ganado antes" (qtd in Moreno). Although Susan Martin-Marquez, tries to recuperate the good intentions of Caotica Ana by detailing the film's underappreciated nuances, she reluctantly admits that "despite its many brilliant moments, Caotica Ana ultimately fails in [its] endeavor" (315). Paul Julian Smith begins his review of the film by first asserting that "Julio Medem has arguably produced the most important body of work in contemporary Spanish cinema" (2010: 30). Smith's defense reads more like a vindication of the previous body of work that earned Medem prestige as a cineaste rather than a redemption of Caotica Ana. Although Smith calls moments of the visual style "dazzling," overall the naivety, deeply troubling presentation of Navajo and North African culture, many plot holes, and the infamous final scatological scene far outweigh that technique. Following the flop of Caotica Ana, Room in Rome was a financial coup, but was again not highly regarded by critics. Alberto Moreno's review of the 2010 film begins with a question: " Que hacemos con Julio?" and extends the critique of Room in Rome to all of Medem's previous films asking if the director's style es lirismo o es artificio? Y este uso frontal de la sexualidad de la mujer ... es feminismo o es destape?" (Moreno no pg.). Carlos Boyero was more biting in his review of Room in Rome and the exuberant nudity that goes beyond that of his other films: "Medem les habra ayudado a liberar sus mentes en el convencimiento de que estaban pariendo una obra de arte. Sin sombra de impostura ni de cursileria sentimental. Juro que su pelicula no es convencional. Es peor que eso" (Boyero no pg.). With these ideas in mind, in many ways, this essay also attempts to recuperate the good intentions of the director and the potential that unfolds within Room in Rome. However, while Medem does many things well in the film, it is of vital importance to keep critical eyes and voices--especially feminist ones--on a director, consistently marketed and celebrated as representative of Spanish "transnational" film-making who, via his own "transnational" identification as a Spaniard and a Basque, positions himself as uniquely capable of converting sexual desire into universal truths. Additionally, as with the critiques by Moreno, Boyero, Martin-Marquez, Stone, and Smith, this essay will likewise conclude that the 2010 film does not fulfil its intentions. Room in Rome disappoints, not for its sentimentality or over-use of nudity, as Moreno and other critics have pointed out, but for employing these tired tropes as a vehicle to recuperate the monetary and social capital lost on Caotica Ana.
ROOM IN ROME: TIME, PLACE, AND SPECTACLE
Medem has commented that his two protagonists, Alba and Natasha, discover a "secret guarded in a room in Rome, a surprise from the past that has foreshadowed their relationship" (juliomedem.org. translation mine). According to the auteur, their love is destiny, and time as circular and fluid is what allows their love, and perhaps the historical redemption of women, to come to fruition. Despite circularity being a central theme, Room in Rome is the most temporally linear film that he has produced and it lacks the surreal subjective shots that predominated in Vacas through Caotica Ana. The plot is deceptively simple: two women, one Spanish, the other Russian, meet on the first night of summer in Rome and fall in love. This conceit allows Medem to tell and sell a "transnational" story to a "transnational" audience as the common language between the women is English. After meeting in a bar, we first see the espanola, Alba (Elena Anaya), and the Russian, Natasha (Natasha Yarovenko), in the public space of the street on their way to their respective hotels. They are filmed from a bird's eye view where Alba, who instantly codes as stereotypically "lesbian" through her masculine clothing, is trying to convince Natasha, a tall blonde in a feminine blue dress, to come up to her room for another drink. Despite never having felt that way about a woman before, Natasha is eventually convinced and accompanies Alba inside.
With a musical bridge by Jocelyn Pook (who composed all the music for the film) the camera zooms up from the street, over the rail of a small balcony and into Alba's hotel room. The rest of the film will take place here and on the balcony outside. Once in the room, the bird's eye is replaced by medium, eye-level frames, shots that will predominate the rest of the film. As the night progresses and the two women move from curiosity and passion towards real love, despite the appearance of a linear progression of events, the circular movement of the camera and space between the scenes create the impression that the historia (story/history) between the two women is taking place within an open time where past, present, and future coexist on the same plane. Medem achieves this through the mise-en-scene, his use of tracking shots, and slow, circular pans of the space with very few cuts, marking the 109 minutes of the film as if they were a fluid infinite space. This concept of time is vital to understanding how the women fall in love and will be again fundamental to how feminist mobility is reframed within this film.
To be together, both Natasha (hetero-normative and fearful of how this night will change her life) and Alba (who is in a committed relationship with another woman) must step outside of themselves. Their flirtatious play involves each woman stealing her story, assimilating narratives pulled equally from ancient Greece, the Renaissance, familial histories, and cartographic representations as contained in tourist maps and satellite images viewed from Alba's laptop. In this way, through discovering each other, the women navigate the thin lines between personal and national history, public and private space, cartographic identity and a Freudian one, collapsing and multiplying narrations of historical women, their own mothers, twin sisters, and the women's images in a mirror. Through this, Alba and Natasha as individual women create a series of overlapping temporal and spatial circles that encompass historic, artistic, and political discourses. Within this circular space women can find or reclaim their roles as active participants in the public and private spheres.
The space of the room is visually dominated by artistic reproductions that serve two functions; first, they provide a visual language of beauty and history. Second, they serve as a philosophic landscape that allows the women to participate in discourses of power previously only accessible to men. The use of medium shots creates a diegetic atmosphere that emphasizes the living female form as muse framed within a larger painting, many of them reproductions of iconic Renaissance paintings. By means of this cinematographic style, both Alba and Natasha are intentionally composed simultaneously as protagonists in their own stories and as works of art themselves. This is achieved through the use of a rack focus within the medium shot to create a conversation between two artistic subjects: the actress and the representation in the painting. Indeed, rather than perceive the women from the viewpoint of a subjective, inanimate object or animal, as has been the director's famous style, the viewer is invited to see Alba and Natasha as contemporary iterations of women from iconic paintings and antiquity. Consequently, the viewer must understand the two women both as static figures meant to be read as icons of beauty and form, and, paradoxically, as dynamic, individual players in their own love story. These two seemingly contrary ideas are brought together through editing and the story itself, which, as well, relies heavily on paintings and objects found in the room that allow the women to begin from a place of subjectivity to construct their own agency. They do this through conscious performances, reclaiming historical women from paintings, asserting dominance over maps, and, finally, creating their own "national flag" to assert sovereignty over their lives.
Beginning with the maps, in the first scenes in the room Natasha wavers about staying and exploring a relationship with Alba when a conversation ensues about the distance between the two women's hotels. Alba opens a map and traces the distance between her room and where Natasha is staying. Looking at the map, Natasha gasps and exclaims, "this is a map of the Caesars!" and realizes that Alba's room is located over the ruins of the ancient Pompeo theatre. At this discovery, the camera centers on a close-up of Natasha as she says, not to Alba, but to the room itself: "it is as if all of history is watching us". Establishing the room as a historical place of performance is essential to the film's meaning. As social geographer and philosopher Henri Lefebvre's understands ancient Greek and Roman theatrical space, "spatial action overcomes conflicts, at least momentarily, even though it does not resolve them; it opens a way from everyday concerns to collective joy" (222). In order to open up a dialogue and redirect an entire discourse about women's historical, political, and romantic trajectories, Medem calls upon the power of a history and palimpsest, beginning with Roman theatre as geographic and artistic precedent of the individual representing the collective.
Having established Alba's room as a site of historic performance, the paintings on the wall reinforce and reposition the women in historical spaces previously prohibited to women. On one side of the room hangs the image that most inspires Alba's invented backstory: that of Aspasia, lover of Pericles in the year 400 BCE, on the steps of the Agora in Athens. Situating herself underneath this painting, Alba narrates a possible version of herself to Natasha, appropriating aspects of the Greek woman's life into her own. In this story, Alba is also the lover to an Arab sheik who gives her a privileged and luxurious life in unique spaces. Alba becomes pregnant, but is unable to carry the child to term; from this experience she defines herself as a failed mother. However, important at this point is to understand that in Alba's story she, like Aspasia, was only granted access to spaces of identity formation and validation via her relationship to a powerful man. These first spaces of democracy, the Agora in Athens as well as "public" space of Rome, were places where one could both formulate and reproduce his rights as a political citizen. However, the very idea of "citizen" was predicated on the exclusion of all those who were not members of the male elite. Therefore, the juxtaposition of Alba and Natasha in their private room and also these historic "public" spaces that excluded women is the first piece of visual story-telling that sets up the film to redefine the role of women, not only in terms of citizenship, but also in terms of who and how they love and how space is used to construct and reproduce their identities. Room in Rome gives women access to space and, according to Medem, their own agency to move through it (juliomedem.org). Known for his lyrical, metaphorical style, Medem is rather literal in this point. As it turns out, Alba is a mechanical engineer who is in Rome at a mobility conference to try and sell a one-person vehicle she has invented that visually embodies feminine mobility. She names the vehicle Aspasia and builds it to resemble the curves of the feminine ideal.
Mobility as a field within urban studies can be defined as both a physical and social movement through space. Although social mobility (moving between social and economic classes) and physical mobility (physical movement through space) are of two different natures, in agreement with Vincent Kaufmann, "movement in the physical sphere is mobility only if there is a change in social position" (36). While Kauffman contextualizes "motility", the way a group "takes possession and utilizes the field of possibilities with regard to movement relative to his personal aspirations and projects" (37), within roadways, lifestyles, and economic determiners, Medem chooses to define women's ability to access space and define themselves through those spaces via history and sexuality. However, rather than have the women navigate the city streets of Rome, Alba and Natasha remain moored in a single private room and the public spatial and temporal dimensions are brought inside through the paintings, as with the reproduction of Aspasia at the Agora. using a seemingly fixed geographical space to allegorize historical and cartographic and political mobility is an inversion of mobility and moorings that as a narrative and filmic device provides both the depth of the story as well as contains the fundamental problem with this film.
Progressing from ancient Greece to Renaissance Rome, the second painting of importance looms large over the bed where the women explore physical and emotional love. It is a life-sized scene of the fifteenth century architect and philosopher, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Like Alba who steals her story from Aspasia, Natasha also borrows her identity from her twin sister, a Russian tennis pro and aspiring actress. However, her knowledge of Renaissance art eventually reveals Natasha as a professor and art historian. In the scene that makes Alba question the veracity of her claims to be an actress, the camera circles around the room as Natasha explains to Alba the significance of the image over their bed. The life-sized central figure, Alberti, is looking out into the room with the Medici family standing behind him. This group represents the ideological architects of Renaissance Rome, their power reproduced through an interior space marked by the same tall arches and circles that define Rome's streets and constructed environment. In Henri Lefebvre's analysis of Rome as ancient and current capital, the philosopher describes the city as one was constructed for the reproduction of power, specifically male authority (244-45) where the circular motif of the city as "vault, arch, circle ... even the roman toga" are representative of a "spatial practice and engenders the space of power" (245). By reproducing the circular architecture of Rome via painting and the circular pans of the room, Medem harnesses the architecture of empire to create a dense metonym of power that extends beyond the women's room. Lefebvre's description of ancient Rome directly applies to Medem's visual and narrative intent:
The way citizens 'thought' their city was not as one space among others but instead as something vaster: the city constituted their representation of space as a whole, of the earth, of the world. Within the city, on the other hand, representational spaces would develop: women, servants, slaves, children--all had their own times, their own spaces. The free citizen--or political soldier--envisioned the order of the world as spatially embodied and portrayed in his city. (244)
Indeed, Medem uses that metonymic power such that what happens in the space of the room in Rome extends to the world outside. In this way, while physically "moored" in the room, what happens there should represent a potential whole.
Through both the mise-en-scene, the dialogue, and the actions of the women, the film highlights the power of maps situated in historical time and, moreover, the power of defining what those maps mean. Much like the map of the Caesar's that established the historical and performative importance of the room, the women use digital maps in order to move from stolen histories taken from available material in the room, to personal stories and moments from their lives. In a scene where the women are nearing a point of honesty about their true identities, they use Alba's laptop to share visual images of their homes. First the women and viewers are brought to a mansion on a private island far from Moscow where one version of Natasha lives with her fiance, then to Alba's actual apartment in San Sebastian that she shares with her partner and two children. In these second and third narrations of themselves, the women are honest about their situations and personal memories precisely because the images provided by the digital maps emphasize a move from historical representation to the individual context of Alba and Natasha's lives. These personal histories are motivated by the action of the camera zooming into a bird's eye view of each woman's particular home that allows Alba and Natasha to recognize the time frame of the image. Like with the map of the Caesars that led to the discussion of theatre and performance, the digital map leads to the recognition that certain spaces and times require certain performed identities. For example, Alba notices that the satellite camera had preserved a moment from the previous summer when the chairs had been left out on the deck of her apartment in northern Spain. This compels her to recount a family tragedy where one of her partner's children died, the true origin of Alba's identity as "failed mother". Through these real and invented narratives of womanhood, a consciousness and personal agency is developed that is portrayed stylistically via the vertical zoom of the camera that is similar to the zoom of the director's establishing shot at the beginning of the film. Via this parallel editing of director and protagonist, the two women are positioned to control access and perspective over their public and the private lives vis-a-vis the positioning of the satellite image. This power over their personal cartographies in a space imbibed with multiple time periods is important because, as social geographer David Harvey has commented: as empires grew, mapping becomes "an exercise in Western domination" (285). Harvey further notes that it is not only a matter of domination over space, but to the structuring of knowledge itself. Specifically in relation to the Roman Empire:
The discursive activity of "mapping space" is a fundamental prerequisite to the structuring of any kind of knowledge. All talk about "situatedness," "location" and "positionality" is meaningless without a mapping of the space in which those situations, locations, and positions occur. And this is equally true no matter whether the space being mapped is metaphorical or real. (112)
The representation of space and time via analog and digital images allows the women to create a space from where they can restructure and understand themselves privately and, consequently extend this new knowledge to feminine identity and historiography publicly. The idea that a moment of time and the power relations contained within that moment can be captured and preserved via satellite or digital map is what prompts Alba to turn the sheets from their bed into a flag, and symbolically declaring their sovereignty by placing it on their balcony between the flag of Rome and that of the European Union.
This new flag emerging from the room contains within it the history, politics, and personal experience of the two women and functions as an allegory that works against notions of sovereignty defined through nationality and cultural hegemony, especially concerning women's presence in politics and representation in history. This flag contains the multiple real and invented stories that the women told and it represents, then, a fusion of beauty, space, time, and feminine agency. The final image before the closing credits suggests that a satellite has captured for future maps of Rome the view of the hotel with this new flag and, suggestively, the formerly reluctant Natasha running towards Alba to start a new life together. More than each woman's individual life, or new life together, the flag represents the ability of these two women to reach through time, acting as doubles who can give voice to the voiceless women of the past, present, and future.
The hotel room in Rome is a metonym of the world, first as an ancient theatre, where spatial action opens a way to cathartic healing. It is also a transhistoric construction that reproduces a space where the pillars of Western Civilization (ancient Greece and Rome) came together to debate how to construct a society and what it meant to be a citizen of that society. In this way, it is a contemporary performative space where the director debates these same ideas though women's history, using a lesbian encounter in 2010 to open a space for women in the present that extends backward and forward through time. In the same way that the theatre provided for a moment of collective joy on the part of citizens in ancient Athens or Rome, Medem's films also call a certain community to work through issues of national identity through visual spectacle. What happens between the two women in bigger than themselves: it is a performance that is supposed to question discourses of power, love, and identity that once anchored its legitimacy through the very history and images present in the room. However, this power that Medem scripts for Alba and Natasha is likewise moored in the room and is therefore illusory. Despite this potential created through allegory and metonym it is in the intersection between the history of women and the representation of the women in history and in film that we begin to see the root of the problem in Room in Rome. While Medem layers historical time and place in order to question the structural paradigms that enable the women to remain as subjects, by continually reminding the viewer of his authorship, he tethers the possibilities for female agency.
Recalling the importance of Aspasia's story appropriated by Alba, there is an unproductive doubling that happens. Despite Aspasia's prominence in her own time and space, little is known about her life as a person unto herself. The historiography available is based on a collection of allusions to her in the theatre of the time. In these dramatic recreations, she was always represented as the lover of the more famous philosopher, Pericles. Although there is a common thread through all the plays that she possessed both extreme beauty and intelligence, a stronger narrative emplotment marks her life always first as a prostitute or as a manipulator of men. In short, she is a woman who was historically defined through performances that highlighted her sexuality, which is consistently narrated as a fault rather than a point of strength. While Alba and Natasha's encounter is meant to reclaim female sexuality as a way to free women from historical and political subjectivity, this does not happen in a transformative way.
The performance of Natasha Yarovenko and Elena Anaya as fictional Natasha and Alba represents a dialectic that has as its pretense finding, a "hidden destiny" capable of recuperating historical truth and freeing not only the "id" of the invented women, but of all women's movement in real space. One of the fundamental elements that Medem employs in this film--and all his films--is the notion of stripping or freeing the id, and the soul through a literal "stripping" of the body. This translates in Room in Rome into the two women spending the majority of the film completely naked. In "undressing" the woman's soul at the
same time that the film tries to re-appropriate the history and the telling of the history of Aspasia--one where female agency was always determined by female sexuality--Medem ends up reinforcing dangerous notions of power and sex in the construction of female intellectual agency and physical mobility. Moreover, the night of passion is intentionally constructed as a self-aware "performance", not only through the of the fictional "stories" each woman first invents, or that they find love over the remains of an ancient theatre, but also in the sense that their love is not only for the other woman but also explicitly for the enjoyment of the male gaze, which is always present in the room, a notion reinforced various times throughout the film.
Although the women are mostly alone the whole night, there are two men who are part of the play between Alba and Natasha. The concierge of the hotel, Max (Enrico Lo Verso), is brought into the relationship by Alba, or Aspasia, the manipulator of men, in order to entice Natasha into a lesbian encounter multiple times during the night. Although Alba makes him part of the seduction of Natasha, Max is never allowed to enter the room and participate. He does not seem to mind, though, as every time he is denied entry he exits the room, literally singing opera. The only male gaze granted direct and unwavering view of all that happens between the two women is the life-sized portrait of the philosopher Alberti, who, like Max and many former male protagonists in Medem's films, has more than a casual resemblance to the director himself. Here the similarity between both the only speaking male protagonist and the unspeaking constant male presence in the room becomes a very conscious reference to the auteur. Reinforcing this, Natasha comments to Alba that through her studies of Renaissance art and philosophy, what she appreciated most about Alberti was that he understood that "the artist must at all times know what he is representing". This must be taken as a direct reference to the writer-director himself who is letting the spectator know, via his creations, that he knows exactly what he is doing and that he retains ultimate control.
Since his first feature-length film, Vacas, in 1992, Medem has created visually poetic masterpieces, but has been unable to relinquish authorial control over the meaning. one of the reasons he does this is, I propose, a very intentional signature on his films that in the case of Room in Rome is intended not only to assert property over the message communicated through the film as object of art, but also to draw enough attention to the film as a cultural product in order to recuperate capital. In terms of the director's intentional mark on all of his films, in Basque Cinema: A Cultural and Political History (2015), Rob Stone and Maria Pilar Rodriguez address this "director as performer" aspect of Medem's filmic production describing him as a figure that embodies "auteur as performer and product" (128). Stone and Pilar Rodriguez contextualize this performance of authorship within what they define as an "elastic Basqueness," wherein directors like Medem incorporate identity politics into their films sometimes opportunistically to gain funding, or other times as "thematic and aesthetic concerns" that invite viewers, especially Basques, to meditate on the tensions that exist within linguistic and cultural identity (115). Taking the example of Tierra, Medem's intentional signature as Basque auteur creates "elasticity" around Basqueness to question how landscape and sexuality coalesce in individual identity. These questions play out through the story of Angel (Carmelo Gomez), who, like many of Medem's male actors, physically resembles the director. However, this doubling of author and protagonist does not impinge upon the fictional character's eventual self-realization, rather it creates a productive tension around masculinity, citizenship and identity. This elasticity and performance as director is of quite a different nature in Room in Rome. If indeed the message of the film is to empower women to reclaim their voice in spatial politics, it is highly ironic that the author demands to be recognized as designing the vehicle for this power. Moreover, an exploration of identity that references the director's own Basqueness in films like Tierra is very different than a recuperation of women's place in history that doubles as a recuperation of social and economic capital via the director's masculine gaze.
Recalling the map of the Caesars, Natasha, the heterosexual, only enters the relationship when she looks at the map of the Caesars and realizes that the night is a performance that she and Alba are acting out before inviting male eyes. Beyond the obvious implications of Laura Mulvey's classic study of woman as object of male gaze, it is helpful to understand geographer Don Mitchell's historic and cultural explanation of how sexuality is constructed through and by space. Following Judith Butler's definition of gender as a performance, Mitchell adds that sexuality is a process negotiated through relationships that are inherently spatial and depends on the binary of public/private: "it both depends on particular spaces for its construction and in turn produces and reproduces the spaces in which sexuality can be, and was, forged" (175). Medem tries to reconstruct gender and sexuality by breaching the binary through playing with the modes and scales of access between public and private. Nevertheless, in this regard, a second unproductive doubling happens in the production of a new space for feminine agency juxtaposed in a venue where sexuality is being sold for male fantasy and consumption.
Judith Butler's notion of "parodic repetition" is a useful tool here to critique the multiple copies and doublings of identity produced in the film--Alba as Aspasia, Natasha as her twin, the director as both Alberti and Max, the theater space as filmic space, and the lesbian encounter itself as the doubling of two women. These examples recall Butler's notion of homosexual identity as a parodic repetition of heterosexual identity, which itself is a reproduction of an imagined ideal: "gay is to straight not as a copy is to original, but rather, as copy is to copy. [This] reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of idea of the natural and the original" (43). The film also recalls this idea of copy and original in one of the final scenes when the two women, in white robes, have a conversation about their true love for each other, not face to face, but while looking at the other's reflection in a mirror. While the scene self awarely speaks to love as literal reflection of an ideal, it is unable to break out of the shared gaze to create a new paradigm for female agency or a space within the film away from the scopophilic. Therefore, although Medem certainly questions the idea of compulsory heterosexuality and women's agency in history, the film does not satisfy Butler's call for "subversive repetition", one capable of calling attention to the regulatory practices of not only notions of gender and sexuality, but also those of nationality and historical truth. In agreement with Judith Butler, Room in Rome needs to answer these questions of gender identity themselves:
To what extent do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person? To what extent is "identity" a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience? And how to the regulatory practices that govern gender also govern culturally intelligible notions of identity? (23)
Medem interrogates inherited notions of history, space, and cultural or biological imperatives, but does not diverge from scripted gender roles. In the first scenes Alba codes instantly as the "masculine" lesbian through her short hair, clothing, and her career in the traditionally masculine field of engineering. Natasha instantly codes as "feminine" through her long hair, dress, and interest in the humanities. This failure to construct "woman" outside of either the male/female binary or the masculine gaze depends entirely on the "socially instituted and maintained norms" of "coherence" and "continuity" in regards to the "person" as a sexual and gendered person (Butler 23) and maintains this binary in order to seduce both Natasha and the viewer into the room.
Although the director tries to create a transformative space for women, his inability to let go of his presence and his authorial power undermines all the potential created through the mise-en-scene and editing. By constantly reminding the viewer that the male gaze is a necessary part of the game, both as part of the seduction, and as the visible author of this romantic tryst, it runs counter to the creation of a personal identity, to the recuperation of the history of Aspasia, and it is likewise incapable of inserting women into the historical trajectory in a position other than on their backs. Indeed, historian Madeline Henry describes Aspasia as a prisoner of history, commenting "It is entirely possible that the sexualization of Aspasia's intellect, a key facet of her bios, has negatively affected the development of a feminist consciousness" (6). The women in the film are literally and physically kept from mobilizing their potential at various levels: historical, spatially, and within the fiction that Medem creates. Alba and Natasha are not allowed to act for themselves, rather their entire spatial and social agency has been constructed for and by the male gaze. This entrapment is most acute on the spatial level; Medem dooms spatial transformation by depending too heavily on the power of metonym and metaphor in the construction of the room. In the same way that Medem does not question the construction of gender enough, he also does not go far enough in questioning the set of spatial structures that segregate women. Remembering Lefebvre's analysis of Roman space, geographer Don Mitchell argues that current architecture and engineered landscapes like the suburbs, but also cities, are still "masculinist" and seek to divide men and women and reinforce the heteronormative, traditional family structure (207). In order to create something new, Medem must probe more deeply into contemporary gendered spatial constructions. In order to truly create a space for women to reclaim their roles in democratic society and define themselves for themselves, this space must be more than a metaphor. Again, in agreement with Mitchell, "... if space cannot be described and defined, if it is always, only a desire or a dream ... how can an effective politics of opposition to men's invasions be developed" (Mitchell 216). Even Medem's own invention--via Alba--is not an effective agency of female empowerment. The vehicle, Aspasia, that Alba brought to the mobility conference in Rome failed to impress speculators and will remain only a prototype. Perhaps most damaging to the film's intent, though, is recalling that this film is an attempt to recuperate capital lost on his previous film, Caotica Ana. David Harvey reminds us that "gender identities, and the bodies to which they are attached, are very much fields of profit" (222). It is not possible to create a space where women "reclaim" their status as historical subjects while selling consumers a product of woman as object.
Filmmaking yields great power and responsibility and, to repeat Alberti via Natasha, the auteur must always be conscious of what he is reproducing. However, Medem, for as vanguardist of an author as he is, he has been unable to image a space outside of traditional paradigms. Medem reproduces women's agency through both temporal constructs and visual fantasies that dictate how spatial, intellectual, gendered, and romantic boundaries are reproduced and maintained and therefore fails to build a real space for change. By emphasizing a construction of agency in relation to national spaces or notions of sovereignty, and filmed through a Freudian optic, the Basque film director can disrupt myths, but he has not been able to produce true alternatives to an identity based on mythological national ideals, this is especially true for the way in which he portrays female identity. The film's structure and mise-en-scene pose a question of how to frame an identity that can both contain and transcend gender binaries, national boundaries, and imposed historiographies. The answer Room in Rome acknowledges the potential of the female body to act as a vehicle--figuratively and literally--to question and bring about a new consciousness to notions of identity in terms of sexuality and nationality. Nevertheless, as in all of Medem's films in the tension between a cinematographic vision that yearns to bring about a transformation, and an ideological vision that keeps reproducing the same hegemonic paradigms, social and monetary capital push the balance towards the latter.
Medem waited five years after Room in Rome to release Ma Ma, starring Penelope Cruz. Despite the visual beauty of the film, the director has again chosen to follow the path of over-sentimentality and female identity and agency as defined via the corporeal (the protagonist loses a breast from cancer) and the sentimental (her love live and position as mother are central to the plot and story). Again, while the writer-director poses questions about female agency, he remains entrapped in essentialist paradigms that endanger not only the representation of women, but also the power of Medem's once formidable signature as auteur.
College of Charleston
Boyero, Carlos. "Impostura lirica, puro Medem." Elpais.com 11/10/2011.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 2008.
Dominguez-Garcia, Javier. "De Vacas a Lucia y el sexo: evasion postnacionalista en la poetica de Julio Medem." Letras Peninsulares (2003): 337-51.
"Habitacion en Roma." Julio Medem.org. N.p. 2010. Web. 10 January, 2015. [http://www.juliomedem.org/filmografia/habitacion.html].
Harvey, David. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 1996.
Henry, Madeline. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and her Biographical Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Kauffman, Vincent. Rethinking the City: Urban Dynamics and Motility. New York: Routledge. 2011.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. (1974) Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 1991.
Martin-Marquez, Susan. "Spain, Reincarnated: Julio Medem's Caotica Ana and the New Spanish Media(tion) in the World." Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century literature. 33.2 (2009): 27-51.
Medem, Julio. dir. Vacas. Prod. Sogatel/Idea, 1992.
--. dir. La ardilla roja. Prod. Sogatel/Idea. 1993.
--. dir. Tierra Prod. Sogotel, S.A./Lolafilsm/Canal + Espana, 1996.
--. dir. Amantes del circulo polar. Prod. Sogatel, 1998.
--. dir. Lucia y el sexo. Prod. Sogatel, 2001.
--. dir. Caotica Ana, Prod. Sogatel, 2007.
--. dir. Room in Rome, Prod. Sogatel, 2010.
--. dir. Ma Ma, Prod. Backup Media, 2015.
Mitchell, Donald. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Moreno, Alberto. " Que hacemos con Julio?" Elmundo.es May 10, 2010. (accessed 9/13/12).
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Screen 16.3 (1975). 6-18.
Smith, Paul Julian "Review Essay: 'Caotica Ana'" Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007-2008): 30-34.
Stone, Rob. Julio Medem. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2007.
Stone, Rob and Maria Pilar Rodriguez. Basque Cinema: A Cultural and Political History. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2015.
Richardson, Nathan E. "Animals, Machines, and Postnational Identity in Julio Medem's Vacas" Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies. 10.2 (2004): 191-204.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2016|
|Previous Article:||Memoria, olvido y reinvencion personal en Vidas de tinta, de Moises Pascual Pozas.|
|Next Article:||Memoria, justicia y "feminismo sexy": de Las trece rosas (2007) a Carta a Eva (2013).|