Story of I

By Kimberley Cooper

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In Western culture, although I think it may be changing, there is still a horror and fear of female sexuality and feminine subjectivity. Woman is caught in the double bind of having to identify with what must be rejected in order to be: her mother. And, because of this, she never knows herself. Jo Ann Kaplan's short film Story of I, for me, is a testament to a feminine netherworld, the words from Story of O that Kaplan speaks in Story of I resounding long after memory of the film has faded: 'Where are you? Nowhere. Who are you? No-one.' Poetically ambiguous, this film seems utterly significant because somehow, through its pleasures, agonies and sadness, it is a rare philosophical reflection on feminine ''being and nothingness.''

Story of I renders the blossoming of what Freud coined the "polymorphously perverse" pleasures of sexuality and its intricate and dangerously erotic relationship to death. For the filmmaker the story is about loss, "It is a story about loss of innocence and a loss of mortality. It is about the loss of one’s most sentient being, the most true and sentient aspect of oneself and to that extent it is not a young person’s film. It is not seen from a young person’s perspective." However, I would venture, and it is my own interpretation, to suggest that some more archaic loss is inscribed in the Story of I.

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In an interview with the film maker she told me that there is no hidden theoretical agenda to her film. Rather, she had simply felt compelled to present her own collection of erotic, pornographic and anatomical images and texts. The decision to use Georges Bataille’s surreal novella, The Story of the Eye, as the context in which to present the images, apart from its obvious erotic appeal, was largely because its conventional narrative offered a favourable structure. The whole thing, she then decided, would be framed by a woman reading Bataille’s text in the bath in a stark white bathroom, the images representing the invoked fantasy.

The woman in the bath is played by two women: one dark, lithe, androgynous and young, shot in crisp black and white – the other older, fair, more womanly. Action-matched editing mean that there is a disturbing sense that the woman in the bath appears to be one person some of the time and distinctly two at others. The action cuts between this ‘woman’ reading, washing or reacting subtly to the text she is reading, and the images she is imagining. The two different women who play the ‘woman’ in the bath have a strange kind of narcissistic existence: one is the mirror opposite of the other, each is the ideal of the other. In this sense, this fantasy outside the fantasy of Bataille’s text is itself reminiscent of a primal narcissistic love, where the crucial emptiness caused by separation of the infant from the mother is upheld and healed by an imaginary love, that of an ideal self.

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Bataille’s text is told from the point of view of a male narrator and follows the sexual awakening of himself and two young girls, Simone and Marcelle. Simone and Marcelle fall into a similar narcissistic relationship to the women in the bath, one dark and the other fair, one sexually voracious without bounds or rules, the other innocent then corrupted and guilt-ridden. The narrator to some extent acts as a participating observer whose separateness somehow acts to consolidate the narcissistic union the two girls represent. The narrator describes how he and Simone visit Marcelle at the asylum in which she is incarcerated, and how the two girls ’stood face to face across the raging storm, one dark, the other fair, each of them masturbating, their bodies rigid and their eyes locked in a gaze of uncontrolled joy.’  

The sexual adventures the story describe depict an ‘excessive’ desire for sexual pleasure that literally spills over from the body to become invested in objects such as eggs and eyes. The boundaries between inside and outside are blurred in a sensuality which, while the lack of control produces pleasure, also induces the terrible anxiety of losing one’s self. Orgasm is a ‘little death’. This unbearable anxiety causes Marcelle to take her own life. Her death marks the dissolution of a perfect narcissistic union, and the experience of loss opens up a consciousness of mortality. Eroticism, which from the beginning of the film is edged with death, becomes much more markedly so. Where sexuality and ‘being’ had oceanically flowed without boundaries, now a boundary itself, that between life and death, being and non-being, becomes the erotic and meaningful moment. Only what is ‘debauched, soiled and filthy’ – that which re-iterates the border between life and death – is desired.

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At the end of Kaplan’s version of Bataille’s story, Simone can only find satisfaction through the symbolic incorporation of Marcelle, in this case the literal incorporation of Marcelle’s eye into her vagina. The body of Simone becomes the graveyard of some primordially mourned-for ideal self, and the void of that loss is filled with sadness and horror.

The Story of I, however, while based on Bataille’s story, is really a story of pictures, and it is these pictures that provide the most important dimension to the melancholy eroticism this film expounds. The film begins with two images that provide a metaphorical foundation: an eye with a vagina superimposed on its pupil, and a red rose blooming profusely, at its centre female genitalia. I/eye and my sex/sexuality is what this film is about. Shot in crisp 16mm black and white or grainy colour super 8, the woman/women in the bath exists in a bare white void, the shiny reflective surfaces of the taps and her rituals of cleansing are juxtaposed with the ‘pornographic’ nature of her sexual fantasies. Kaplan chose seven chronological extracts from Bataille’s text to illustrate her collection of pictures - most of which she re-made herself to a greater or lesser fidelity to the originals. The beginning of the story, dealing with the narrator’s first experience of a woman’s ‘dark rosy flesh’, is illustrated by various pictures associated with the first realisation of a woman’s ‘lack’ and the erotic danger associated with it: a picture of the crotch of a cancan dancer; a man looking at a woman’s groin dressed only in knickers; the widely spread legs of a woman; an anatomical drawing of a vagina. When the narrator and Simone visit Marcelle in the asylum we see, through a crystal ball, stormy seas crashing against the shore and, behind craggy rocks, the superimposed etching of a looming castle with high barred windows lit by an eerie feminine moon. As in a horror movie or a bad dream, a frightening, dangerous atmosphere is created with howling winds and cats screeching, and as the woman in the bath tells the story we see: a man’s naked body framed by a bathroom mirror, a man coming, and erotic paintings of women as if seen through a peephole. And when Simone falls from her bike in orgasm when riding away from Marcelle, a woman shot in black and white is seen with one perfect red stream of blood coming down her chin.

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The essentially innocent but Dyonisian nature of Bataille’s characters’ sexuality, with its inherent erotics of mortality, is illustrated by images such as an18th century engraving of giant phalluses and vaginas surrounded by jubilant angels and putti as well as sequences from porn films. A beautiful reproduction of a Salvador Dali photograph of a woman’s voluptuous torso leaning against a column, her belly covered in profusely blooming red roses dripping blood, captures the delicate balance between life and death that the female body represents. When Marcelle dies, anatomical drawings, with their implicit yet inexplicable eroticism, become more prolific, with images such as the famous photograph of a nude Marilyn Monroe being followed by the image of a disembowelled 19th century female autopsy model whose face likewise wears an expression of orgasmic serenity. The result is affective with a tension between eroticism and death that is tinged with sadness.  

At the end of the film the image of a sad blue eye imposed on a vagina is intercut with the now frigidly still body of the woman in the bath, and the last image is that of the same red rose the film began with, now locked in the crystal ball of imagination, frozen under falling snow. I/eye and my sex/sexuality is locked away.  

What struck me when I first saw this film is how it seemed to trace a feminine ‘pre-history’, as a dream displaces and condenses past traumas, forbidden pleasures and secret fears. Jo Ann Kaplan weaves together and re-inscribes texts and images, already with their own cultural significance, with a woman’s voice. While it may be hackneyed to have recourse to psychoanalysis these days, it seems to me that one can read the blossoming but subsequent stifling of feminine sexuality and subjectivity in this beautiful pastiche. Desire (love) for an other is always, and fundamentally, for that of an ideal self glimpsed first in the mirror of the mother. Heterosexual man finds this again symbolically as "woman". For woman, destined always to be an object of desire and never to have an object of desire, the path to mature sexuality and subjectivity is precarious. It is the image of an ecstatically sad sculpture of a woman saint toward the end of Story of I, that encapsulates the mysterious erotics of grief that seem to characterise feminine ‘being’. It is, perhaps, the loss of ideal self, of mother, of an ideal love that is never so fully lost but rather locked deep inside, that I feel is inscribed in Story of I. In a strange and inexplicable way it seems that this love can only be found again in the intensity of sadness.  


Story of I is distributed by London Electronic Arts. Jo Ann Kaplan is currently working on a short film, An Anatomy of Melancholy, for the Channel Four/Arts Council of England Animate programme.