Writing under the pseudonym Helen Palmer for a women’s lifestyle column in January 1961, Clarice Lispector posed the rhetorical question whether women should read more. She remarked, “little would improve if women read more without seeking to read better.” This is the challenge posed by Lispector: how do we read better?
This video essay rises to the challenge with a close reading of the 1986 adaptation of her final novel, The Hour of the Star. The film faithfully adapts the story of Macabea, a poor girl struggling to make it in the big city with dreams of finding love and success. The generic narrative premise is cut off at the knees: this girl from the Northeast is tubercular, dejected, and living in absolute misery, enjoys the small pleasures of an occasional soda, has a brief affair with an abusive young man, and later dies in a hit and run accident. As the title suggests, Macabea even entertains the fantasy of becoming a movie star – a desire to be the narrative image that the film exploits in its feminist critique of film language.
Directed by Suzana Amaral, the film is often lumped into filmographies of emerging women filmmakers in Latin America after the militant phase of the New Latin American Cinema. The Hour of the Star is credited with a progressive representation of poverty; its politics lie in the expression of female interiority. The sequence of Macabea calling in sick and taking the day for herself has received the most attention, a moment of “experiencing the self” and revealing the person who had never had the luxury of taking shape before. And yet the film and the source material belie this discovery of the self and arguably point to a different way to understand this film – less an explicit representation of poverty or the revelation of “a lumpen consciousness” than an investigation into the (im)possibility of representing that consciousness within the gendered economy of filmic narration.
Reading the film for what it reveals about urban poverty or female subjectivity seems at odds with a novel that more often questions the subject of enunciation and his capacity to reveal anything about his énoncé. As Hélène Cixous has noted, nothing is stable in a novel with a narrator that can never quite disavow that he narrates. The film poses a similar question about the subject of enunciation through the lens of feminist film criticism from the period, a framework that Amaral, trained in the USA in the 1970s, brings to bear in her film adaptation. In lieu of the novel’s framing device and interjections by “Rodrigo S.M.,” the film plays with the forms of identification that continuity editing codifies. Classical cinema organizes its images so as to align the male subject with the site of enunciative agency, often at the expense of a female image confined to diegetic interiority. Amaral challenges this alignment by presenting a character that desires to be in a diegesis. The film accomplishes this by deconstructing the shot/reverse-shot editing pattern, that linchpin of continuity editing that organizes time and space in order to “produce an illusion cut to the measure of desire.” Unlike her more conventionally attractive co-worker Glória, for whom every returned glance is charged with the possibility of a sexual desire, Macabea is featured in exchanges that invite us to misread desire (as does the character).
During an early sequence in a metro station, the camera follows Macabea from behind as she approaches the edge of the platform. A concerned man in uniform stares, and Macabea turns to meet his gaze. She feels herself being seen! She is desired! And yet the policeman cautions her about standing beyond the yellow line. The libidinal and the surveillant gazes look alike. Later on, Macabea so desires to be seen romantically, and we spectators so desire narrative movement, that an exchange of glances at a coffee shop is played for comedic effect. As De Lauretis might frame it, we spectators will Macabea into the position of narrative image and figure of closure so that narrative movement can occur. The classic "meet cute": the changing shot distance indexes the increasing romantic interest. Until the blind man passes by the girl in a long shot and Macabea looks dejected. All the good ones are blind! The film, then, does not make female subjectivity visible; instead, it provides an analysis of the conditions of visibility by foregrounding how these cinematic codes work.
Even in sequences less overtly playing with the conventions of this editing pattern, the diegesis never quite coheres around Macabea. She can never be the film star she imagines. Every exchange with a male character finds continuity strained and her desire for narrative movement thwarted: from the very first exchange with a reprimanding boss, in which Macabea’s alternating close ups repeatedly jump the axis of action, to the first exchange of glances with her eventual boyfriend, which we learn is mediated by a third-party photographer taking a portrait of Olímpico de Jesús.
The only time Macabea gets to be edited in a shot/reverse-shot is after she dies. She imagines the driver bolting out of his car and running towards her arms. The film ends on a frozen image of a dolled-up Macabea. Her wish-fulfilled: she is now the star of her melodramatic film. To become an image worth seeing, or as De Lauretis puts it, to be seduced into femininity, has meant losing her life.
Returning to Lispector’s provocation: how should we read? As Cixous suggests, when we read a text, “we are either read by the text or we are in the text.” This structure roughly coincides with the voyeuristic and narcissistic processes of identification in classic feminist film theory. Amaral’s film argues alongside Cixous: in order to read, we need to get out of the text. To get out of the film text means to confront the limits of the diegesis, to confront our desire for narrative movement at the expense of narrative closure.
Of course, to confront the limits of the diegesis in the context of videographic criticism presents its own set of challenges because of the possible reproduction of the very narrative space one sets out to unpack. In this context, the video essay and statement must be read alongside the reviews, perhaps a shot-reverse-shot performed paratextually, each arguing for different ways of reading a film that is so much about what cannot be read. Perhaps to read better is to read together.
See Lucy Fischer, “Shot/Countershot: An Intertextual Approach to Women’s Cinema,” Journal of Film and Video, 41.4 (1989): 6.
Biography: Nilo Couret (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan in the Dept. of Romance Languages and Literatures. He is currently completing his book manuscript on interwar Latin American popular culture and film comedy. His research has been published in Social Idenitities, SubStance, and Mediapolis. His research interests include world cinemas and comparative film histories with particular interest in the political cinema and intellectual exchanges between filmmakers in Latin America and Africa.