Translated from thai by Jit Phokaew
A big snake slithered in the middle of a narrow corridor which Lulu had to pass through. Its gigantic body reflected the neon light, making its skin glitter. She paused for a while, staring at the big snake slithering slowly. She moved towards the snake. Suddenly, when she was going to walk past it, the image is paused for a while, maybe for 3-5 seconds. We saw the back of a woman in black dress, her feet pausing in the air, and the snake!
The black-and-white images which appear repeatedly and in a rhythm, the haunting sound effects, the editing which is hostile to the story (if there is a story)—all of these are in the latest film of Nina Menkes, an American female director. Most of her films are not widely distributed. Most of them are shown in film festivals and arthouse theatres. Most of them were made with low budget, star her own sister, and were shot in distant locations, such as in Israel or India. Her films don’t focus on chronological order or on telling stories.
PHANTOM LOVE is more like a record of nightmares than a lucid story. The story in this film is like a small wire used to connect fragments of dreams. The story is about Lulu, a woman who worked in a dark casino full of Chinese customers. She lived in a dark house, which looked very much like a hotel room. Her lover did nothing except having sex with her and staying on top of her. She had a cat, and spent her free time watching news about Iraqi war. She had a mad sister who had wounds on her face and lived with two black dogs. Their mother did nothing except calling Lulu to complain to her about Lulu’s sister and keeping on attacking Lulu in Lulu’s dream.
Big and small fragments in this film seems to be shot with no connection to one another, before these fragments are put together to create repeated rhythm in the film. In the earlier part of the film, we see same events occurring in repeated rhythm—having sex, filing nails, watching TV, going to work. We see her “self” and her repeated chores, but we can’t put these scenes into a chronological order, can’t predict anything, or can’t understand their details. All of these scenes are punctuated by images of animals. Some of them are parts of the story; some of them appear out of nowhere. A big snake, an octopus, a cat, bees—all of them seem to signify something and create a strange and inexplicable rhythm.
The story moved forward. Lulu went to visit her sister who had some strange wounds. Her sister lived in a dirty house. Her wounds might be the result of her allergy to some drugs or maybe she was physically abused. Maybe her wounds appeared out of nowhere. Her sister just kept crying and saying that their mother tried to make her commit suicide.
Their mother appeared in a dark room. Her high shrieking voice asked the magic mirror who was the fairest of them all. Then she appeared in Lulu’s dream as an attacker–once she tried to rape Lulu, then she tried to kill Lulu.
The film creates alienation towards both the characters and the audience in a very interesting way. Generally, alienation towards the audience may be accomplished by making the audience being aware that they are watching a film. Bertolt Brecht, a German author and dramatist, did this thing. (The example of this kind of awareness is when a character turned to talk to the audience and rewound a scene in Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES). Some films create alienation towards the characters by using the frame to oppress the characters as if they are just objects amidst landscape. But all of these things usually appear very smoothly in a film with well-told story.
But in PHANTOM LOVE, the film creates alienation among many dimensions—the characters, the audience, the characters’ minds, and the film itself. The film makes the characters alienated to their surroundings, and then makes many places in the film seem to be unconnected to each other. In one scene, a character sat in a place which looked like a house, but when the camera cut away to another corner of the room, that corner looked very much like a corner of a luxurious hotel room. In one scene we saw a character sleep in a room, but wake up in another room. We see a Caucasian character work in a Chinese dress in a casino full of Asians. We see Lulu walk only in passageways which look like tubes or caves. Her sister’s house seems to be in the USA, but the location outside looks like India. When Lulu crossed the bridge (which also looks like a tube or a cave), Indian people appeared suddenly, making Lulu look like an alien in India. One of the most important scenes in this film also happens in a tube-like passageway. It’s when her sister held a lamp and walked out of a dark corridor before she merged her body with Lulu.
All of these things appear in no chronological order. There’s no scene indicating that the characters travel to other places or giving enough background to the place of the characters. (The characters are given nearly no background and no motivation in the film. All of this information is unnecessary.)
Of course, all of these things are connected to the strange appearances of many kinds of animals. I have heard that Nina Menkes believes that human spirits are connected to animals, and each kind of animal is a symbol of power inside a human being. Lulu had an agile cat. Her sister had big loyal dogs. Whenever Lulu had sex, images of an octopus appeared. The octopus looked frightening and charming at the same time. Her mother usually appeared with bees (such as in the scene which the mother stood in front of a mirror with bees flying around). In the only one flashback scene in the film, we see Lulu’s father threw a fish bowl to the floor. This fish may symbolize Lulu’s family life. After the fish bowl broke, her mother became the bees, her sister became the dogs, Lulu became the cat.
If we connect the animals to the characters (as if the characters can transform themselves into animals), we may discover that the wounds on her sister’s face might be caused by the stinging of the bees. These bees kept on annoying, like their mother who kept on calling Lulu repeatedly. (In some scenes Lulu had hung up the telephone, but we could still hear it ringing continuously.) And while the bees could attack Lulu’s sister, the mother was so afraid of Coco (Lulu’s cat) that she screamed out loud when she saw Coco enter her room.
We rarely see male characters in this film. They exist without appearance. Lulu’s father appears only in the scene of the breaking of the fish bowl. Lulu’s lover appears in the form of his back, which kept on moving up and down while Lulu’s face indicated extreme boredom. Then her lover hit her. Male characters in this film seem to have only two functions—having sex and assaulting women. Maybe we can say that the love between men and women is a form of “Phantom Love” or “Wicked Love”. When we look at the roles of men in this film, this film seems to look like a feminist film which talks about oppressed women who have to stand boring chores, boring activities (filing nails), boring service (Lulu’s casino job) and being a sex object. Women seem to be in a completely disadvantage position.
But wicked love in this film is not about that, but it’s about the love between women themselves. This film talks about the relationships between three women—mother and her two daughters. But their relationships are wicked. They hate one another.
The hatred between sisters is not obvious. We can see only the cold compassion Lulu had towards her sister. But in one scene we see that her sister merged with Lulu and became one woman. They seem to be two divided minds of a woman. One is weak; the other is cold-hearted. They are abused, not by men, but by a woman—their own mother.
Maternal love is a kind of love which only women can possess. Maternal love gives an honor to women. Many people say that maternal love is caused by instinct, but filial love is a duty. But in this film maternal love (particularly towards a daughter) usually comes with envy–envy of daughters as competitors, envy of their younger ages, especially when the daughter becomes a woman and the mother gets old (which leads to the question who is the fairest of them all). We never see the direct reaction between mother and daughters in this film, but we can guess about it from Lulu’s dream and from her sister’s talk and can understand how negatively their mother influenced them. In the scene which the mother tried to kill Lulu in her dream, Lulu fought back by using the reflection of a mirror to make her mother see the motherhood and the ugliness inside herself before the mother fled away.
Therefore, we can say that animals in this film may signify only femininity. They signify not only the characters, but also the situations facing the characters, including the big snake on the floor and the butterfly on a lamp which appeared after Lulu’s last dream about being cleansed in the Ganges river.
Apart from the animals, this film is also full of haunting noises and TV news about Iraqi war. Every TV in this film seems to show only this news. In one scene, Lulu was watching the TV news, and when she pushed her remote control, we heard an explosion in the news, as if Lulu’s life was destroyed in the explosion. Other noises include the telephone noise and the haunting soundtrack. In one of the most important scenes, we see someone running and trying to evade bombs between a narrow passage between buildings. The shape of this passage looks very much like the corridor with the snake and the bridge with Indians. The state of someone walking in a narrow passage full of dangers (snake, bombs, strangers, or even the river) may signify the oppression of the main character which is the female sex.
However, there are two interesting scenes in this film. One is when Lulu found a crystal ball on the floor. The other is when she dreamt that she was floating along the Ganges river. The first scene leads to the scene in which she dreamt that she exploded into pieces. The other scene leads to the scene in which her naked body evaporated into white light. These scenes seem to indicate cleansing and getting away from the state of oppression. This can only be achieved by getting rid of femininity.
This film may remind someone of David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, films by Maya Deren, or films of Michelangelo Antonioni which analyze emptiness inside human beings. But that doesn’t make Nina Menkes’ film inferior to or being the reproduction of other films. Menkes has absorbed and created her own unique world, the haunting world which is the realm of women, the world in which films don’t have only narrative function, but can also go much farther than that to be something which can capture indescribable mirage. Menkes’ films can create this kind of images, bind them together by using the seam between each film frame, and present something which is beyond the power of literature.