2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: The Inexpressible ‘House of Psychotic Women’ by Kier-La Janisse


(Image: Silver Ferox Design)

“Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as a bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.” – Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema”

At the heart of Kier-La Janisse’s 2012 book, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, is the open wound. Part memoir, part criticism and part theory, the book explores the mutilated self. Broken, neurotic and riddled with self-doubt, Janisse tackles her relationship with the screen by way of her own life, revealing through practice the impossible division between the open wound and the reflective self. Art meets criticism to form an essay on women’s relationship to the screen and a particular archetype of the neurotic and psychotic woman. What happens when the representation you relate to most happens to be the most damaged and broken version of yourself?

In her now iconic essay, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey presents the idea of deconstruction as a feminist tool. Imagining a narrative cinema removed from the structures of patriarchy seems untenable. What would this cinema look like? How would you tell a story without falling back on the archetypes defined by an unequal society? Does the nature of storytelling only serve to uphold a masculine point of view? In comes deconstruction: a process that relies not on the building but unravelling of ideas. Employing a variety of techniques that fragment and question the image, deconstruction tells by way of tearing apart. This becomes the primary rhetoric of House of Psychotic Women.

As a woman writing about film, finding your voice often feels defensive. Your point of view and perspective doesn’t feel drawn from the default cloth of relatability. What seems to be taken as a given by the majority of writers doesn’t quite ring true. Your feelings and desires are rarely offered on the screen — and to write about them often feels like an indecent exposure, a sort of exhibitionist exercise that not only opens you up to unwanted advances, but also exposes yourself as the other. That aching feeling of being an imposter hangs heavy, and as hard as it can be to face the outside world, it feels worse to face inward. Your desire to stifle your own voice and to think “objectively” while hiding what you really mean under the guise of what goes unsaid (a silent agreement with yourself that not talking about something can be as good as damning it) can often be so overwhelming that you want to pack up and never write again.

That complex, aching feeling runs through House of Psychotic Women as Janisse ebbs and flows between personal and critical, exploring through form the overwhelming need to break out. Trying to make sense of your response to cinema, specifically the endless string of neurotic and damaged women of genre, feels a herculean task. Genre has often been propped up against the enemy of feminist liberation, a damaging course. Then why do some women relate to it so deeply?

Rape in cinema, which Janisse describes culturally as “worse than death,” lies at the heart of many of the films she explores. The book opens up with a pretty in-depth discussion of The Entity (1979), which Janisse relates to her own mother’s rape and her own subsequent relationship of growing up surrounded by violence. The book also takes on the too often maligned rape-revenge film writing, celebrating the genre and those that are especially creative with their fantasy-revenges as being representative of an unwinnable battle. Janisse also writes about rape within Ms. 45 (1981) saying, “This gives the film a sense of sadness and regret not always encountered in the standard rape-revenge films, which are more centred on how the male assailants have ruined their victim’s lives, and how the women contribute to the ruination of their own lives.” The many layers of the conflictive dialogue around the reception and representation of rape onscreen are wrapped together in a mess of lived experiences, wish-fulfillment and cold reality; the representation of rape deconstructed by way of personal collage and embattled emotions.

Janisse’s style does not come up with easy answers. The journey is rooted in an explosive need for expression and the confusion of reckoning with the self in relation to your craft. Criticism is both the subject and the tool of the book, as she searches for answers about her own story by way of films like Ms. 45 (1981), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Antichrist (2009). These films often serve as a vehicle towards intimacy. Through shared trauma with the women on screen exists the power of catharsis, a deep sense of belonging. These films inspire the sort of self-destructive feelings we crave, whether we know better or not. Like Janisse, I crave the film that will make me want to lie down on the sidewalk after it’s finished, even though I dread it as well.

Currently looking to adapt the book into a fictional TV series, Janisse will present House of Psychotic Women as a project at the Frontières Market at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. While still shrouded in an uncertain future, the series holds incredible promise, and would be a groundbreaking venture for female-driven criticism. As technology and opportunities shift and grow, the nature of criticism itself has begun to change. While there exists a long history of criticism towards fiction in the cinema going all the way back to 1920s Russia, a potential series would represent an integral shift in thinking about where the line of criticism begins and art ends.

Writing about these desires and experiences seems impossible through traditional film criticism. It seems impossible to explore them in the way that someone like James Agee explored the politics of the American screen, or even how Mulvey employed theory as a root towards a feminist screen. People resonate with House of Psychotic Women, in part, because many of us relate to the same kinds of films that Janisse does with no language or form to express it. Kier-La Janisse’s life and experiences are her own, and that incredible personal revelation (which certainly didn’t come easy as the guarded walls of self-doubt remained up) has an incredible air of liberation

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.