Eve Sussman's film Rape of the Sabine Women is an operatic vehicle set in five locations - the first two segments shot at Pergamon Museum and Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, with its stylized treatment of austerely dressed men parading within the high-design decor, has the appearance of a Gucci commercial; these are followed by scenes shot in the Athens meat market, then, a modernist summer house, and finally the Herodion Theatre in Athens, where all the sophistication of the former scenes collapse, and the denouement, driven by the film's title, takes place.
The theme is taken from the story of the founding of ancient Rome, where the men of Rome steal the women from the neighbouring Sabine tribe - here rape has the connotation of a kidnapping or an abduction, as represented in many of the renaissance paintings, originating from the Latin word rapere from which rapt or rapture is derived.
Her earlier film 89 Seconds at Alcázar, was an enactment of Velasquez' Las Meninas, in which she synthesizes a past and future from the moment depicted in the painting. Just as in that work the artist paints himself into the picture looking directly at us, Sussman offers us a surveillance gaze that implicates the viewer. In Rape of the Sabine Women, often the camera seems to capture the actors in unguarded moments and frequently the crew intrudes upon the film-set, crashing through the fantasy world Ms. Sussman so painstakingly creates.
I asked Eve Sussman about her cinematic interest in breaking down the fourth wall.
"I was interested in the play between what was filmic fiction and what was the reality was, with the makers of the film being in the film. And yes every now again the fourth wall breaks down and you see the crew, you hear the camera go by the frame. You are reflected."
In the scene set in Nikos Valsamakis' 1961 iconic modernist summerhouse, we see stylish men and women who allegorically represent civilization at the height of Rome, flirting and conversing in front of the camera, but there is a tension in the dynamic between the sexes, which ostensibly leads to a fight scene in the last act.
"It was as if we were surveilling an extended family or a group dynamic in this affluent summer house. It was all about letting the actors improvise for 2 or 3 hours and watching them. We never really called action, or said cut, and they never really knew when the camera was rolling or not."
She explains the film's plot, "these women are stolen and the men who steal them, turn on each other. Love triangles develop...And everything falls apart, the architecture, the fashion, the hairdos, all the accoutrement of 20th century better living through design, dissolves into nothing. It was all about letting the actors improvise and create those relationships; and it was between real life and fiction - watching them unfold in front of you and filming it"
Jonathan Bepler, who also worked on Matthew Barney's Cremaster films, collaborated on the music. Bepler creates a wonderful accompaniment with the sound of knives and a coughing choir that builds threateningly to sync with the tension of the film and the final fight scene, in which all sound is turned abruptly, violently off.
Having come in at the end of the film, which was on rotation at the gallery, just as the fight or "rape" scene was unfolding, I found the action evolving in slow motion instead to be eroticized and sensual, where men grab and tussle and the women's clothes get ripped in an orgiastic mélange of bodies down the steps of the Greek amphitheater, and which as voyeurs we witness, becoming invited participants to the theatrical staging before us.
Eve Sussman says, "the fact that you could have that reading is also really interesting - I never spoon-feed the audience everything - it's not TV, people can develop their own readings of it, even if you have watched it out of order, it still works. That confusion is very interesting. You would think of it as a contradiction."
The scene, she explains is "a decrescendo, the denouement of everything that has happened before it; the build up and heyday of Rome; these women becoming trophy brides, the beautiful houses, clothes and hairdos - and it all falls apart. To me it is more about the allegory of 'be careful of what you wish for', dust-to-dust idea. And if you watch it from the beginning it is clear. But if you come in towards the end you may get the reading that you had but both those readings are interesting."
There is a more reality-based rape scene that takes place in a butcher shop with painterly carcasses of hares hanging on the walls. Sussman decided to include this in keeping with the modern more violent meaning of the word. "Because the modern meaning is violent and sexual we felt that we had to address that, and that's why that scene is in there," she states.
Sussman's cinematography, with its often formalized compositions brings to mind the rigid framing techniques of Peter Greenaway's films, another director who has worked with light and the filmic adaptations of painting, and indeed, Sussman's own background in photography inclines her towards composing her shots with beautiful precision; sometimes all the action is set in the lower third of the frame, pushing elements to the edges of the film.
Ms. Sussman said that though she had taken Renaissance and Dutch still-life paintings for inspirations, she had also researched media and films from the 60s, "Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones at Altamont and old LIFE magazines. "It wasn't only about trying to replicate paintings," she clarifies, "it was about trying to look at that idea of the iconic period in western history where gender roles were very clear, where there was this great shift in architecture and fashion, and it was also the first time where we started to be sold a lifestyle. In 50s and 60s in Europe and America, where there were these lifestyle magazines, there was the beginning of the idea that you could be sold the concept of better living through design - that you can design the perfect future."
Deducing this theme of unfulfillment, I ask the film-maker if her work was about unconsummated desire. "Yes it's part of human nature - you can look at any point of history but certainly in modern times it is something we grapple with: How do we make the next best thing happen? Who is going to be controlling, what the latest technology is. The power wars in the world are about who controls the oil and water. It's all about desire for that power. You've nailed it when you say its about unconsummated desire, a lot of my projects address that, but through very different ideas, a very different look and a very different way of film-making."
Her next film, White on White, with footage from Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut's office and referencing another painter, Kasimir Malevich, is based on a futuristic film noir set, and I ask Sussman if would carry a similar trajectory.
"In certain aspects it is a very different project and has a different look, primarily shot in grainy b&w - film as well as video, in central Asia, and post Soviet architecture. But it does again address the idea for the quest for the perfect future. Idea of transcendence through trying to control the future." She sums it up: "Again," she says, "be careful what you wish for."
Eve Sussman's film Rape of the Sabine Women (2007) can be viewed at Haunch of Venison, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, 20th Floor, from 16 September - 30 October
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