Director: Jane Arden (UK-1972)
Group therapy amongst a group of troubled women provides the focus of this immensely difficult, unsettling and strangely captivating film. Centring on one young woman’s breakdown, The Other Side of the Underneath challenges the label ‘schizophrenia’ and suggests that the real issues are buried in society’s taboos and repressions and that only through a form of madness can proper sanity be restored. Eschewing traditional narrative cinema, this explicitly radical feminist piece summons Lacanian psychoanalysis, surreal imagery and a legacy of confrontational underground montage -exemplified by Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith- in its allusive structure and suggestions of a fracturing female psyche. The Other Side of the Underneath may recall the aesthetics of the 1960’s female-driven art cinema, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman (1964) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), but through its avant-garde strategies and techniques, the film grants Arden the indulgence of being fully focused on the theme of the divided self. Structured in two parts, the film’s minimal plot follows dream logic, looping back on itself repeatedly; forcing us to return to the enigma of the woman’s existence.
Shot on location in South Wales, the film establishes an uneasy tone right from its opening sequence where the unnamed woman is dragged unconscious from a lake and rushed to an asylum. From here on, the film plunges queasily through an alarming series of worm-holes, where jarringly discordant scenes and situations reflect the mental storms of the protagonist. Punctuated by a grating underscore of staccato cello, the film swiftly tangles into a fever dream of astonishing intensity.
Presided over by Arden’s pushy psychiatrist, the woman joins her fellow inmates within the stuffy confines of a Victorian asylum. Through a succession of tightly framed close-ups, the nameless women appear to create a hermetically sealed ‘other’ space; marked by their individual powerlessness, anger, disillusionment and frustration. Brimming with feminine symbolism, the film’s recurring motifs of bath water and mirrored surfaces infuse with fragments of her memory -illustrated in dream sequences- where each room of the asylum functions as sites of acute masochistic fantasy and psychosexual disclosure.
The second part of the film works much more subtly, sparely and implicitly. Cutting abruptly from the asylum to pastoral scenes of a free love hippy commune, Arden weaves together vérité footage and fiction, where there’s pleasure to be found in the film’s gentle evocation of the ebb and flow of the community: naked toddlers, a mother and baby, musicians, dancers or ruddy faced children at play. Here, the film serves as a metaphor for the erosion of the woman’s old identity and subsequent rebirth, as her persona converts from one of wretched spectacle to that of participant. Like the avant-garde, psycho-dramatic works of Anger and Maya Deren -in which the filmmaker seeks revelation-The Other Side of the Underneath has clear affinities with other cultures, their rituals and belief systems, exemplified in the closing sequence where the woman slips into a trance at a pagan ceremony. This final transition marks a fissure through which change can take place and a climax towards which everything has led.
On reflection, The Other Side of the Underneath is pregnant with interpretative possibility. The cultural representation of female hysteria has a long, dubious history, and as with most films about insane women, it’s difficult to decide whether the film is a feminist comment of how sexist culture drives women insane, or whether it actually embraces sexist notions of intrinsic female instability and narcissism. Furthermore, the idea that only through a form of madness can proper sanity be restored, seems at best a temporary and desperate strategy, a defence against domination, rather than a politics that looks towards women finding a viable place for themselves in culture.
Certainly, the film has the power of nightmares, but at times, the more prosaic letdown of self-indulgence. Unfortunately, due to the insistent provocation of Arden’s camera, the film soon encounters problems through its pseudo-natural construction of ‘reality,’ illustrated by ample footage of the commune that smacks of voyeurism and exploitation. Despite such limits however, Arden refuses to provide idealized images for the spectator, and viewed from a gender point of view, it could be argued that the film delivers a disturbing, highly masochistic message for women. That said, while cinematic portrayals of traumatized, de-eroticized woman remain increasingly unfamiliar to today’s audience, the film remains highly significant in its unravelling of complacent expectations.
The Other Side of the Underneath isn’t a work to love. It is a work to admire, to puzzle through and to wrestle with.
British Film Institue – DVD booklet – July 2009