The Sticking Place

Taboo or not taboo

by Richard Roud

Niki de St Phalle, the sculptor, and Peter Whitehead, documentary film director (Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, Wholly Communion) have just completed a film which, when released, is bound to be extremely controversial. In no way an orthodox rendering of Women’s Lib views (indeed, it may be deemed heretical), Daddy none the less tackles many aspects of the problem, and comes down hard against, not only Daddy, but the whole concept of the Oedipal family.

It’s a fiction film; or maybe auto-biographical? Daddy begins with Daddy’s death, and the return of his daughter Agnes (played by Niki de St Phalle) to the family chateau. During her brief stay, all the various aspects of her relationship with her late father (played by Rainer von Diez) are evoked in a series of fantasies and flashbacks.

But the rôle of Agnes is played not only by Mile de St Phalle; she is ‘doubled’ as it were by Gwynne Mary, who plays Agnes as a child of five, and by Mia Martin, who portrays Agnes at the age of 15. A resolution of a sort is achieved, and when Agnes’s fiancé (also played by von Diez, doubling as father and fiance) arrives, it is a very different Agnes that he finds from the one who arrived at the beginning of the film.

St Phalle and Whitehead were in London for the screening of the first print, hot from the lab, and afterwards I got them to answer a few questions.

ROUD: This film is a new departure for you, Peter. The first time you’ve worked with someone else, and the first time you’ve left behind that documentary or semi-documentary field which you’ve made very much your thing.

WHITEHEAD: I’m not sure, I like the expression ‘semi-documentary;’ it’s a good definition of my work. But I think Daddy is a semi-documentary too. I see all my films as a kind of exploration. The first film I ever made I shot through a microscope and I still use the camera as a kind of microscope. I used it in Daddy to discover things in Niki that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Daddy started out as a documentary about Niki, her life, her work, herself. We began with the idea of a five-minute cartoon film; then we decided to make a 50-minute kind of pop-art movie, using her sculptures and paintings. It was only later that we started to deal with the meanings behind her work, and we ended up with what I like to call a documentary-fantasy.

ROUD: What’s amazing to me is that there’s no feeling of two people at work here: there’s been a fusion in the making, or before the making, of the film, which makes it hard to tell who’s responsible for what. If it’s a documentary-fantasy, whose fantasy is it, and who’s being documented?

WHITEHEAD: It’s the interface between our two fantasies.

ST PHALLE: Well, I think Peter did start out to do a psychoanalysis of my work; what interested him was that I was always absent from my work, that I wasn’t the Nana – where was she, who was she? Nobody had ever looked at my work from this point of view and it was a very harrowing experience, like jumping into the East River and hoping I could swim to the shore. And the things that he chose, out of all the stories from my childhood, the drawings, the games, was a game I played with my father – ‘blindfolding Daddy.’ In a way, identified with and chose the myths which were closest to his own.

WHITEHEAD: We do have similar fantasies about power, sex, and games, and the similarities were the things we could realise on film together. Otherwise I’d have been exerting power, or she would.

ROUD: What is the film about, for you, Peter ?

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WHITEHEAD: Sexual politics and repression. The problems of the Electra complex in one person’s life – in terms of games played, solutions found and ultimately work made. We hear all the time about the Oedipus complex; we know that all little boy are in love with their daddies…

ROUD: Their mothers!

WHITEHEAD: Sorry, their mummies. But we hear very little about little girls being in love with their daddies. It’s a taboo subject, because we have a male-orientated society. Anyway, the film really is about a woman’s means of revenging herself on her father’s omnipotence – in reality and in fantasy.

ROUD: In the first version of the film there were three women: Niki, her mother Clarisse, and herself as a little girl. But then, in the final version of the film, a fourth was added – Mia. an adolescent of 15, whom Niki said she’d fought off seeing or portraying, but who made her realise that her father might not have been this evil leering monster who had tried to rape her; perhaps she had tried to seduce him.

WHITEHEAD: What we were dealing with is what had happened to the libidinous energy that had been repressed in an act of self-castration. The Electra female represses herself because of her sexual attraction to her father. This libidinous energy had found its release in Niki’s work; but as a person she was out of touch with it. And the process of psychotherapy, of making the film, was an excuse for me to explore the various games she played in order to protect herself from admitting that she was a sexy female who wanted to be laid.

I was trying to get back to the original little girl who had been crushed, either by money society, education or marriage. All the Nanas are sexy women as seen by a little girl. That’s why they’re so huge: big satisfied women, but not Niki. The film was the search for, and discovery of, her innate sexuality. And this is symbolised in the film by our producing Mia Martin, who plays the sexual girl.

Then there was the identification with the mother – the whore, the one who did screw as opposed to Niki, the one who didn’t. The Nana was always the other one, it was always the other girl who did the screwing. And the only way to get her to admit that she could enjoy it was to go back to that moment when the door closed and to open it again. That was why we went back psychoanalytically to the point when daddy did, or did not, rape her. All the forces of the libido (which have alwavs been signified in her work by the monster), had been repressed; we went back to the point where she could say, I was once a very sexy little girl and I still am. And so, dressed in a man’s suit, she lays Mia. The two become one: all the girls in the film are the split-off archetypal parts of one person, just as Daddy is all men and every man is daddy.

The only justification for putting it all on film. of course, is because one hopes that it will be of use to others. It is arrogant to assume that anything you do is personal or individual. The most private things arc certainly the most universal. We’ve made a very private kind of revelation – the kind normally made in a book.

This is one thing about the film which might be difficult for a lot of people to take: you can read novels that are autobiographical or semi-auto-biographical; you can read all kinds of details about sexual fantasies, and no one bats an eye. But when one sees a person on the screen, saying it, doing it, it looks exhibitionist. Nobody says that Genet is an exhibitionist; they say how fantastic it is that he locks himself and reveals himself. Well, we locked ourselves up in a room and we revealed ourselves.

ROUD: Niki, how do you see the film now that it’s finished?

ST PHALLE: I see it as not only a personal exploration of two people’s myths, but also as what my personal ambiguity/sexual trip/man-woman relationships were all about – which is power, much more than sex or marriage.

OK, so I had babies too, but in the latter part of the film it becomes clear that power fantasies are what women want to share with men. I’ve had fascinating relationships with men: I’ve collaborated with them and loved them; but it has also been a rivalry trip. I had to admit it in the end, you know, this rage at my father being able to go to brothels and buy women: why couldn’t I buy men?

The film is totally anti-family, not only anti-father; everybody suffers from this family situation. The daughter suffers, the mother suffers, and it doesn’t look like too much fun for daddy either.

Making the film resolved some of my personal problems; I feel now that I am both man and woman, and that I can love both men and women. The other thing I wanted to say was about the incest taboo… about the little girl, who raped whom ? This is an event in my life that I just couldn’t piece together – I’d been to psychiatrists, had my nervous breakdown. Did he do it to me or did I do it to him? It now seems to me completely irrelevant; I’ve accepted the fact that children are sexual beings, and this is what I want to bring out in my new work. All these taboos only serve to support the family, to support the power structure, and this is what gets us all into such hot water later on.

Whitehead Freud

ROUD: Now that the film is finished, can you tell me what effect having made it has had on you?

WHITEHEAD: I see the film very much as a bridge from what I have been doing to what I hope to do. Niki has totally liberated me from needing to bother about external reality. This film was a bridge from the external to the internal. Now, my future films will start from internal situations. I will be able to make what I always wanted to and never could: a totally personal documentary film. My films were semi-documentary neither one thing nor the other. I now know that the way into really expressing myself is to abandon all preoccupation with myself, only then will I will be able really to express myself.

ROUD: What about you, Niki, what effect has making the film had on you?

ST PHALLE: It’s changed me enormously; I’m much more relaxed. I’ve always tried to avoid certain personal issues. I’ve been more interested in symbols. Although I had a direct line into my unconscious, and expressed that in my work, I haven’t been in contact with the rational side of my brain. I must have cut that off deliberately. I’m not afraid of people any more, or of situations. I think I’ve come to terms with one of my basic preoccupations, my ambivaience about my femininity and masculinity: I now feel I’m both.

WHITEHEAD: That goes for me, too.

ST PHALLE: And so being clear about this, I can just relax and enjoy life. So the film has been very therapeutic. Now I’m going to make sculptures about children; having got through to this, having realised the moment when I got oppressed, when I didn’t want to become a woman. I was eleven and I told my mother, I’m not going to spend my life like you counting the linen, and was slapped for it – that was the moment I switched off, and in a way I stayed at that age. Now I want to get back, and do those sculptures about that age group. Children are really much more repressed than women, Jews or blacks.

Some people may think that Peter must have a terrible hang-up to make a film like this. I don’t think Peter likes men very much; he really is fascinated by women and the irrational mind; he wants to get in touch with his feminine side.

ROUD: Are you saying that the feminine mind is necessarily irrational?

ST PHALLE: No, but it can be. Women have easier access to it because of our role in society. I think that Peter’s more feminine than masculine, and maybe I’m slightly more masculine than feminine. That’s why there was this fusion of myths: the Oedipal myth is his, just as the Electra is mine.

So, this is not just a film about Niki de St Phalle. The structure of the film is Peter’s, and the film is also about Rainer, Clarisse, Mia and Gwynne. That’s why the film is rather rich, because it contains these people and the structure has made them exist within it, with their own problems and interests.

When we did the credits, we put ‘a film by Peter Whitehead and Niki de St Phalle,’ with Peter first, because we felt it was more his film. He’s come to terms with his femininity, just as I’ve come to terms with my masculinity. In exploring another person, with myths and problems similar to his, he discovered his own identity.

ROUD: So that makes him a lesbian?

ST PHALLE: And me a queer. And it seems to be working out very well.

The Guardian, 16 April 1973

© Richard Roud/The Guardian
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders

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