How can one evoke a current topic by using archival images? This is precisely what Hélène Bellenger’s series Les Corps dociles [The Docile Bodies] has achieved. In the age of the Weinstein affair and #MeToo, mournfully comical faces portrayed by the young photographer acquire an aura of embarrassment. It was while conducting extensive research work in the archives of the Toulouse Cinémathèque, as part of the 1+2 Factory residency, that Hélène Bellenger developed her project about archetypal constructions of female representation in the cinema of 1920–1950.
Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich…We can all conjure up the glamorous figures and the fiendish gaze of these goddesses of the silver screen. But behind the special effects, there is the backstage: the male gaze, technical constraints, business issues…Bellenger shows us how these images have contributed to the popularization and entrenchment of a specific female stereotype—that of a woman who is unfailingly beautiful and docile—in contemporary visual culture.
The Bold and the Beautiful
The 1920s–1950s constitute the heyday of the American star system and a watershed in the representation of the female body. The explosive rise of the Hollywood cinema in the 1930s made it possible to produce more films and make them more widely available. These films ushered a new visual culture and, along with it, a standardized and idealized image of woman.
Captured against a white background, we see bright-colored reels with evocative titles: Les Bonnes Femmes, Belle de Jour, Foolish Wives, Story of Women… The sober quality of the images contrasts with the triviality of misogynous titles. By analyzing the semantic and visual field of films in the history of cinema, Hélène Bellenger attempts to deconstruct the archetype of feminine glamor by highlighting the absurd, grotesque character of the canons of beauty. This is how she discovered that, because the orthochromatic film used in the early days of cinema had limited spectrum sensitivity, actresses were obliged to apply outrageous makeup in order to accentuate their facial expressions. “Following the makeup charts of the time, distributed by Max Factor, I reapplied the colors to these sad clowns, also referred to as vamps,” explains the artist. Blue eyelids, purple lips, green cheeks—Bellanger brings back to the surface the makeup imperceptible on the screen to create unsettling, clownish portraits.
Woman as object
The photographer, however, takes the relationship between body and technique further. The fantasy of the objectified woman is pushed to the limit through the creation of decorative objects. Although women might be at the center of the intrigue in some early films, they are objects no less: objects of desire or lust, ornamental objects. Objectification reinforces the commercial argument to win over producers and pack movie theaters.
Being a conscientious artist-iconographer, Hélène Bellenger collected and scanned images from the journal Cinémonde dating from the 1920s to 1950s, in order to produce wallpapers and charts with incredible motifs. Creating something between a ballet of legs and a parade of lips, the artist magnifies the logic of standardization. By subverting everyday, familiar objects she accentuates the absurd dimension of female stereotypes and invites us to challenge the cultural bases of our collective imagination.
This series will be on display in April during the upcoming edition of the Circulation(s) Festival at the Centquatre in Paris.
By Coline Olsina