by VALIE EXPORT
VALIE EXPORT, born Waltraud Lehner, in Human Females draws her inspiration from past works, while at the same time developing her own language, without being afraid to experiment. The focus is on women in all their possible aspects.
Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown
What does a film like Human Females actually tell us? Its director has immediately shown clear intentions. Contemporary artist, photographer, feminist icon and – since the late 1960s – also film director with a name – written strictly in capital letters – taken from a cigarette brand, VALIE EXPORT, born Waltraud Lehner, has always enjoyed playing with the seventh art, without being afraid to experiment with new languages. This was the case with her debut feature Splitscreen – Solipsismus (1968), and it is also the case with all her works to come. Central to her filmography (especially to her films shot after the mid-1970s) is the figure of the woman. Particularly emblematic in this regard is the interesting Human Females (original title: Menschenfrauen), made in 1979, in which the other half of the sky is staged in all its possible aspects, in no less than four love stories in a particular ensemble movie.
And so, in a seemingly endless carousel, we see the stories of Petra (Christiane von Aster), Elisabeth (Renée Felden), Gertrud (Maria Martina) and Anna (Susanne Widl) told in pictures. What will they have in common? Simple: the same great love, playboy Franz (Klaus Wildbolz), a man who has never really grown up and who, despite being married to Anna, is constantly looking for new affairs, unable to feel fulfilled in any monogamous relationship. So many words of love, so many touching sentences, for so many women, then. But where will it lead?
VALIE EXPORT in this important film draws heavily on past works (it is impossible not to think, for instance, of François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women or Marco Ferreri’s Bye Bye Monkey, made respectively two years and a few months before Human Females) while at the same time developing her own language.
The personalities of the protagonists are thus portrayed on the screen not only through their love affairs and personal stories, but also – and this is one of the most interesting aspects – thanks to a copious use of flashbacks through black-and-white footage, all in the shades of blue, all often shown as images inside old televisions, in which, in addition to their past experiences, we are also shown their most frightening nightmares, from Elisabeth’s desire to have her own room, to Franz’s gift of a bag full of excrement for his wife Anna.
VALIE EXPORT, for its part, cannot get enough of such experimental inserts, which, when combined with successful editing experiments in which male voices overlap female voices, split screens emphasising the parallels between men and women, and skilfully concatenated scenes observing hopeless marital crises with detachment and resigned cynicism, make Human Females both narrative and anti-narrative at the same time, as an attempt by the director to come as close as possible to a main stream cinema.
Love relationships aside, the main theme of this film is a shouted, angry denunciation of the unfair conditions to which women are all too often subjected: from not having the right to care for their children – while at the same time continuing their studies – in case of divorce, to the difficulties of carrying pregnancies on their own, from mortifications by employers (the character of Gertrud, who, incidentally, has the surname of the director herself, Lehner, is particularly emblematic in this regard), to “common” acts of violence, as we are shown in a scene at night in the middle of Stephansplatz.
And yet, despite the dramatic character of this work, what most characterises a film like Human Females is, above all, a light and amused irony that makes the work so similar to the films of John Waters and which, thanks in particular to the song Bananen Zitronen (Bananas Lemons), which serves as a counterpoint to the scenes, obtains that welcome touch of lightness that (almost) never goes amiss.
That, therefore, the approach to Human Females is not particularly easy is certain. Mainly because it’ s precisely the particular style that VALIE EXPORT wanted to give it that makes the work excessively fragmentary. And yet one cannot fail to acknowledge the undisputed historical importance of this film, so similar and yet so different from most of the films of the 1970s that told us stories about women and, above all, so pleasantly irreverent as only the works of the Linz artist could be.
Original title: Menschenfrauen
Directed by: VALIE EXPORT
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 1979
Running time: 113’
Genre: romance, drama, experimental
Cast: Renée Felden, Maria Martina, Susanne Widl, Klaus Wildbolz, Christiane von Aster, Peter Janisch, Gerd Weger, Lukas Resetarits, Franz Schuh, Hilde Pilz, Kurt Kautek
Screenplay: Peter Weibel, VALIE EXPORT
Cinematography: Wolfgang Dickmann, Karl Kases
Produced by: Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Satel Fernseh-und Filmproduktionsges. GmbH, VALIE EXPORT