“Concerning ourselves,” Nietzsche wrote, speaking of those who engage in intellectual pursuits, “we are not seekers of knowledge.” But this statement has ramifications far beyond the blazer-with-elbow-patches-wearing crowd. Most of us, at one time or another, actively avoid and deny our true natures.
We’re little kids, fingers in our ears, saying, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”
This struggle—against fate, against nature—is a narrative arc as old as Sophocles, and has been well-represented on film. It constitutes the bread and butter—or should we say the whiskey and soda?—of film noir. But this battle generally remains a masculine privilege. Two noirish horror films directed by Jacques Tourneur—1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie—move this battle into the feminine realm. In each, the story raises issues of androgyny and race.
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Camille Paglia, in her Sexual Personae, expands upon the Nietzschean conceit of art (and life) as a conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. For Paglia, Apollo is form, culture, and the masculine, Dionysos amorphousness, nature and the feminine. Her framework will help us understand and elucidate the themes of Tourneur’s films.
I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People each present radical variations on the femme fatale role. Cat People gives us a femme fatale/good girl hybrid in the titular “cat person,” Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon). Half woman, half feline, Irena personifies base, Dionysian impulses. Nevertheless, Irena defies the stereotypical femme fatale profile. She seeks to preserve the male, not destroy him. Believing she will transform and lash out at her husband (Kent Smith) in the throes of passion, Irena refuses to consummate her marriage. Chastity, Paglia observes, is an Apollonian attribute. Irena’s represents a new, contained femme fatale: by failing to fulfill the supreme wifely duty, she looks after her husband’s best interests.
While the male/female conflict inherent to noir is still (however unconventionally) in play in Cat People, Zombie proffers an apparently post-noir universe, one in which the femme fatale has allegedly been neutralized. Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), a Dionysian man-eater who slept with her husband’s brother, fell into catatonia. As the placid, languorous, “zombie,” Jessica fills the requirements for Paglia’s Apollonian beautiful boy, “dreamy, remote, autistic, lost in a world of androgynous self-completion.” (121) Paglia writes that the beautiful boy “dreams but neither thinks nor feels.” But the beautiful boy is still a “destroyer, triumphing over his admirers.” (149) Jessica still annihilates; husband and brother continue to squabble over her. Paglia warns: “When the beautiful boy leaves the world of contemplation for the realm of action, the result is chaos and crime.” (122) When the living characters try to revive Jessica, the results are similarly disastrous.
Both films also pit the contained femme fatale against another, less complicated woman; femaleness battles against an Apollonian super-femininity. In Zombie the nurse hired to care for Jessica, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), is all Apollonian strength and efficiency. Her starched white uniform is her Apollonian armor; she measures drinks consumed with mathematical precision. As a nurse, she also functions as virginal handmaiden, a very Apollonian persona. In Cat People, the Apollonian woman is Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), a “gal Friday” type who follows Oliver around like a faithful puppy. Paglia associates athleticism with Apollonian femininity; Alice swims and has a lithe frame. In each film, the Apollonian female emerges as the more appropriate mate for the male protagonist. Constant, Apollonian fidelity trumps unruly Dionysian passion. Alice explains when she defines love: “No self-torture and no doubt. It’s enduring and it’s everlasting.” Here we have Apollonian love, diametrically opposed to tumultuous noir love. As trained viewers, we should root for the “good girl,” but our vulnerable, modified femme fatales give us pause.
I Walked with a Zombie
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The films’ visual grammars echo the theme of tension between Apollonian control and Dionysian release. In Zombie, Betsy the nurse is frequently associated with horizontal lines. Venetian blinds and thin rattan screens cast shadows across her body; later, a thin rattan screen achieves the same effect. Like a kind of stratigraphy, these lines represent pure Apollonian classification; they signify an attempt to sort things out, to make sense of them. This has a perfect congruity with Ann’s role as she seeks out the truth behind Jessica’s condition. In Cat People, vertical lines often frame Irena, the feline heroine. A grand staircase with impressive railings and tall windows surrounded by narrow curtains dominate the mise-en-scene. These lines function as complex signifiers: they suggest the Appollonian suppression of her true nation, but they also recall the panther’s cage that magnetically attracts her. They cite the pull of the unavoidable Dionysian element.
In each film, questions of race and essentialism highlight and complicate the duel between Dionysos and Apollo in the female body. In one scene in Zombie, Jessica’s mother-in-law (played, in an interesting metatextual commentary on Apollonian/Dionysian tension, by a young actress, Edith Barrett, in aging makeup) tells a young child: “How do you ever expect to get to heaven with one foot in the voodoo houmfort and the other in the church?” The film itself straddles this same line on multiple levels. Jessica’s very body is a battleground between white rational and black mystical culture; there are conflicting explanations (a fever or voodoo) of her catatonic state. Much as Jessica’s zombification represents an attempt to curtail her chthonian sexuality, the denial of the link between white and black institutions attempts to repudiate Dionysian forces in the white world. This repudiation tries to dampen the memory of slavery, which with its bondage and chains, connotes sadomasochistic perversion. These connotations are further emphasized by the name of the island, Saint Sebastian, the early Christian martyr killed by a quiver full of arrows. The attempts at suppression prove that slutty Jessica is not the only one with dirty hands.
Essentialism represents the causes of Dionysian perversion in Cat People. Irena’s feline fluctuation is an inherent trait of her race, a characteristic peculiar to a subset of Serbs. This anomaly also has a link to chthonian mysticism; we learn that many of the cat people were slain by King John because they hung on to their tribal rites and refuse to practice Christianity. Here again, Apollonian rationalism tries to deny and suppress Dionysian mysteries; Irena’s husband thinks she’s crazy and her lecherous analyst (Tom Conway) believes he can cure her of her “delusions.” The racial undertones of the cat people syndrome put an interesting twist on the femme fatale phenomenon; here the phrase “the girl can’t help it” acquires new meaning.
So are our heroines what Nietzsche neglected to term “deniers of knowledge?” “Suppressors of knowledge” proves a more accurate term. Irena seeks to repress the truth of her body; Jessica has repression thrust upon her. But the real suppressers here are the men, who contrive or desire to curtail Dionysian feminine nature and—far more dangerous still!—female sexuality. While women have been granted the privilege of entering the ring, they still don’t get a fair fight.