Laura Mulvey, in spite of all her other great writing, will always be known for her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” a manifesto of sorts that moved film theory toward a psychoanalytic framework and declared that women in Hollywood Cinema were coded with “to-be-looked-at-ness,” an object of pleasure for male protagonists and male viewers. Riddles of the Sphinx, a 1977 avant-garde work she co-wrote and co-directed with then-husband Peter Wollen, an excellent scholar in his own right, has been called a companion piece of sorts to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” attempting to break free from all cinematic conventions and create a new filmic language that can fight the patriarchy and de-code the “to-be-looked-at-ness.”
In the latter goal in particular, the film succeeds. The film is structured like a book, beginning with a hand flipping through a book before a Table of Contents appear on the screen naming the film’s seven chapters, the fourth of which hosts the bulk of the film, following the life of Louise, a working woman who struggles to find proper accommodation in the work place and to find care for her young daughter. Prior to that, Mulvey herself talks to the camera about the Oedipal Myth, positioning the Sphinx as a symbol of female resistance, as it literally was outside the gates of the city, isolated from society. Everyone knows the story of Oedipus, and it has pervaded our culture and film studies, but the story of the Sphinx is lesser-known, and certainly less influential, making it a good starting point for feminist filmic resistance.
When the “story” gets going, each scene is preceded with a title card that begins and ends mid-sentence and contextualizes what is about to be shown, further emphasizing the film’s bookish structure. In each scene, the camera slowly pans in a circle, and several scenes go by before we see the face of Louise. When we finally do, the camera never stops for it. At work, she is overshadowed by the drab, nearly monochromatic workplace. When she shops, the camera maintains distance, eager to avoid pigeonholing women into the role of consumers, or to code her too heavily. Much later, in the film’s penultimate chapter, acrobats perform until they begin to morph into two- and three-color blobs, as if literally being stripped of any kind of spectacle and “to-be-looked-at-ness” they may be providing.
But despite some strong scenes, thought-provoking moments, and occasionally thrilling technique, Riddles of the Sphinx ultimately relies on language to make its points. A narrator asks “is exploitation outside the home better than oppression within it?” and other such questions, and although Mulvey’s philosophy and questions are important, the images and sounds alone could not raise them. The voiceover is an anchor, explicating intended subtext as if afraid it would not be understood otherwise. At times it often would not, so if the film is supposed to provide a counter to patriarchal codes instilled in the filmic language, it works instead as a search for an escape, each chapter offering different possibilities, albeit underexplored or not fully realized. The third chapter, for example, after Mulvey explains her use of the Sphinx, is low-grade footage of Egypt that is redundant with what came before but would surely not be successful on its own, and the last chapter, a look at the solving of a toy maze, receives no explanation but desperately needs one.
Certainly, for the kind of radical reinvention that Mulvey and Wollen intended, an audience would lack a frame of reference to decode the function of the images, so language would be a necessary guide. But while the myth of the Sphinx is well-delivered, giving us a lens through which to interpret both story and image, the voiceovers are not, as they could just as well replace the images. The “Acrobats” chapter clearly depicts a countering of the language Mulvey argues is so heavily imbued in the cinema, but much of the rest of the film is less successful. For a film with such a bold mission statement, it isn’t good that the rhetoric overpowers the filmmaking.