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5.3 (Auto)Biography?! My-Story of the Other

5.3.1 On both sides of the lens

In Ophuls’s film, though the plot development is led by the voiceover of the female protagonist, the camera moves along with the eyes, whether authentic or imaginary, of the male protagonist. From the first scene of the film, Ophuls starts to construct a male look on the screen by arranging the lens to focus on the man’s face to describe his expression when receiving a letter from an unknown woman. Then he continuously inserts shots of the man – many close-ups included – to depict his feelings and emotions when reading the letter within the whole narrative. The story presented by Ophuls is about how a man reads a letter from an unknown woman. As Silverman states, “she springs to life as an embodied voice-over …however … her voice exists only in and through his consciousness”29. While the male protagonist is reading a beautiful love tragedy written by a woman claiming to be a victim of love, Ophuls cannot help looking at her body through the camera lens, enjoying her sacrificed love with his commiserative tears, and then sculpting her to be the perfect woman whom he wants and needs. Nevertheless, though he indulges in the idea of perfect love, he does not forget to make a moral and religious judgment about the married woman who has an illicit affair by hinting at an indirect relation between her unchaste status and her son’s death. Thus, though the body of the film concerns the story of the woman, it would appear that her story is really a story of and for the


Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema

man.30 The so-called “I” in the voiceover is the narrator in name only, because she is the Other to the director, undeniably. As a man, Ophuls tells the story with a voice of “I” – the woman, however, identifies with “you” – the man reading the letter. Though he constructs the film into an autobiographical narrative form, he actually describes a her-story, furthermore, a story of the Other.

In contrast to Ophuls who identifies himself with the man reading the letter, Xu Jinglei identifies herself with the woman writing it. In Xu’s film, the voiceover of the female protagonist, Jiang, is heard continually throughout the whole film narrative, as compared with that in Ophuls’ version, which emerges intermittently at certain points to introduce the narrative chapters. In other words, the images are designed to illustrate Jiang’s confession. Except for the beginning and the end of the film, the man never appears without the woman. That is to say, he is present only in Jiang’s memory. Some may argue that even so, Jiang’s memory itself represented on the screen is probably generated by the man’s imagination. While this is possible generally, it is not tenable in this case, because Xu’s cinematography has not given the man, the “you” in the woman’s voice, any power to look, or to be an active subject. Even in the first scene when the woman (either her voice or image) has not yet entered the narrative, the lens does not endow him with subjectivity. He first appears within an establishing shot, and then comes towards the lens with extreme backlighting. When he is talking with his chamberlain or reading the letter, the camera is mobilised to capture everything around him such as the yard, the lamp, the noodles, the stove and the letters, but it never focuses on his face. Throughout the film, the camera deliberately ignores his look. The specific techniques that the director employs are to:


Tania Modleski argues the existence of woman’s film in Hollywood through analysing Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman in the essay “Time and Desire in the Woman’s Film”, in Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: BFI Publish, 1987), 326. My summary.

1. portray him within a full shot or establishing shot; 2. portray him from side or back views;

3. focus on some props when he is the only person in the frame; 4. position him in the foreground out of focus;

5. position him in poor light or shadow.

Conversely, Xu repeatedly portrays Jiang’s look, whether she is alone or with the man. Each time she appears in the scene, the lens first captures her eyes and then the view they see. (Figure 5-3-1 is the depiction of Jiang’s looking when she is a teenage girl, young woman and mature woman respectively.) The images of the man are totally subordinate to her look. The first time we see his face is the moment Jiang is looking at him. Without her look (as in the scene I mentioned above), he is only a silhouette. He is a being that exists only in her narrative, an object created by her look. When her voice and views permeate the entire filmic space, she occupies the positions of both narrator and gazer.

Figure 5-3-1

What is more, Jiang not only acts as an agent of the gaze, she acts as the surrogate of all perception. The camera gives only her opportunities to express her feeling, emotion and thought. When the lovers are present together in the frame, the woman occupies the centre of visual interest in most situations, even those in which she is not the person moving. The picture depicting the encounter between the man and Jiang’s new lover is one of the typical cases (Figure 5-3-2). The moving elements

in the frame are two men who are talking with each other, but the emphasis is on the woman who is static and silent. Sitting in the foreground and highlight area, her pose and expression controls the tone of the frame. The dialogue between the men is not important any more. What we can feel through the lens is what the woman is feeling. Furthermore, Jiang even acts as the surrogate for all the perception in the sexual scene between the lovers. In the depiction of their first sexual encounter, the man is portrayed either from the back or being sheltered from the woman’s body (Figure 5-3- 3). Through depriving his expression of ardour, the sexual scene becomes “an extension of Jiang’s girlish emotion”31 rather than a depiction of sexual pleasure.

Figure 5-3-2


Figure 5-3-3

In this sense, Xu’s Letter from an Unknown Woman is a filmic narrative that is all about a woman. Nonetheless, Xu projects herself into the woman physically and spiritually. Firstly, Xu performs the female protagonist in person on the screen. Though the female role was created by Zweig, Xu does not conceal her own autographical nature through the performance. To show her intellectual beauty (that is how Chinese audience recognise her), she changes Jiang’s occupation from a sales girl into a college student in her twenties, and from a prostitute into a mistress after she gives birth to a baby. In every act and move, Xu performs herself as well as Jiang. At the same time, Xu moves the location where the story happens from Vienna to Beijing, the city where she was born and grew up. Technically, it is wise for a director to film a story within a familiar cultural background. The images of old Beijing satisfy Xu’s nostalgic mood. The spiritual slogan of the film “I love you, what

business is that of yours?”32

is likely to be the love motto of Xu. In her explanation in an interview, she states:

“It is no business of yours”, that is, I do not need to get anything from you. If I want you to give me something, it means that I can get the happiness only from your goodness to me, and I thereby place myself in a passive situation.33

What she states is exactly her personal view on love as an independent woman: she says in another interview that “contemporary women only concern about the feeling of themselves in love”34. I cannot help associating it with the reported love story between her and Wang Shuo35 (1958-), though she has never acknowledged this.

Thus the film can be seen as a story of Xu herself, and she preserves every element beautifully with great care. According to Freud, a person may love, in narcissistic manner, the following:

1. what he is himself (actually himself); 2. what he once was;

3. what he would like to be;


Xu Jinglei states it as her motto of love when talking about her film Letter from an Unknown Woman. The sentence is from a poem written by a famous German writer and polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). German original: Wenn ich dich lieb habe, was geht's dich an?


Web article, “Xu Jinglei: I Love You, What Business Is That of Yours (徐静蕾:我爱你但与你无 关)”, Shenzhen dushibao, May 15, 2006, accessed Aug. 18, 2009,

http://lady.people.com.cn/GB/1090/4371410.html. Chinese original:




Web article, “Xu Jinglei: Love Is an Eternal Theme (徐静蕾:情感主题无国界爱情是人类永恒的

话题)”, Xinwenchenbao, accessed Sept. 5, 2009, http://www.xujinglei.org/letter/s03.htm. Chinese original:



Wang Shuo is a Chinese writer and cultural icon. Though neither of Xu nor Wang has admitted it in public, their love story has already been a well-known secret spread widely on internet, such as the following websites:

http://society.news.mop.com/pic/xglt/2008/0321/083222791.shtml; http://xa.focus.cn/news/2007-04-06/299384_2.html;

4. someone who was once part of himself.36

Thus, the woman is always elegant. Xu omits the visual depiction of Jiang’s experience of pregnancy and bearing, which could have destroyed her gorgeous appearance in front of the camera. When she is pouring out this experience, what we see on the screen is the beautiful scenery of the village in Sichuang. Xu creates an aestheticist visual world for the sake of her own narcissism.

As the director and the main performer at the same time, Xu Jinglei is the woman on both sides of the lens. When Jiang is gazing at the lens through which Xu is gazing at her, two Xu Jingleis – being in front of and behind the camera respectively – meet each other and merge. Unlike Li Yu who gazes at the female roles as the Other, Xu identifies herself with her role. Therefore, though both Dam Street

and Letter from an Unknown Woman are women’s stories directed by women, the subjectivities embodied are very different. In contrast to Li’s her-story, Xu is telling a story all about “I”, that is, a my-story.