This is a reblog of a film review originally from Cinedyke. This film was made more than 30 years ago but still has incredible impact as a feminist work….you can view this film online via:
A Question of Silence
[De Stilte Rond Christine M.] (1982) dir: Marleen Gorris, 92 mins, Netherlands. Language: Dutch with English subtitles.
Short review: A criminal psychiatrist (Cox Habbema) investigates three women – total strangers – who have spontaneously joined together and brutally murdered the male owner of a clothes shop in an seemingly unprovoked attack. A provocative feminist work exploring themes of violence, justice, and madness/rationality under patriarchy.
Long review: Three ordinary women – Christine (Edda Barends) – a mother and housewife, Anna ( Henriëtte Tol )- a secretary, and Annie (Nelly Fridja) – a waitress – are shopping in a women’s clothing store. When Christine is caught shoplifting by the male owner of the store (Dolf de Vries), the three women – without exchanging words – join together to attack and eventually kill him. Afterwards they go back to their own lives. They show no remorse even after they are arrested.
Dr. Janine van den Bos, a criminal psychiatrist, is assigned to assess the women in order to determine if they have the sanity to stand trial. The assumption by the lawyers, and by Dr. van den Bos herself at first, being that the women must be insane. She visits them in prison. Christine seems to have become catatonic, refusing to speak to her at all. As the interviews with the other women progress, Dr. van den Bos realises that they are both keeping other sorts of silence: Annie talks too much, but about nothing important, and avoids answering questions directly; Ann has intelligent conversation with the psychiatrist, but is evasive, tells lies, and plays psychological games with her. All of the women refuse to tell her their motive for committing murder, and none of them explain the thought process which led them to join together for the attack.
All she can deduce from her conversations with the women (and the pictures that Christine draws) is that all are unfulfilled in their lives, and that this is due to their specific experiences as women. At the beginning of the film, and in flashbacks later on, we see that Christine is trapped in domestic drudgery and almost invisible to her husband; that Ann suffers constant sexist remarks/harassment at work and is isolated after getting divorced and her daughter moving away to get married; and that Annie is practically running the company she works for but getting no credit for her work because she is a woman. As Dr. van der Bos works on the case, she begins to notice that despite thinking of herself as being a respected professional in an equal marriage, she is constantly being belittled, watched, interrupted, ignored, used, and put upon by men, including her husband and colleagues.
Most of the film’s action is set in small rooms that isolate the women – both in the prison (surprisingly different to British prisons) and in their flats – there are several shots of lone women staring out of windows. Even the shopping precinct where the clothes shop is situated is concrete, dark, and oppressive (contrasted with the bright interior of the shop itself). The soundtrack is very typical of the era and rather dated, but the synthesiser music adds a suitably oppressive feel.
The psychiatrist comes to the conclusion that the women are sane, but that the crime can only be understood in the context of their experience as women in a sexist society. This film has been criticised (mostly by men) for justifying the murder as a response to oppression. However, the film is much more complicated that that. Dr. van den Bos argues that the women are sane (and therefore should stand trial and be held responsible for the crime). The three murderers are treated as amoral rather than justified. They are not presented as being victims of abuse or rape, in extreme poverty, or any other desperate situation; the murdered shop owner is not the most obvious oppressive figure in any of the women’s lives. The murder seems to be cathartic to the women, giving them a taste of power, and a sense of unity, but they continue to be oppressed – they just exchange experiencing everyday sexism to the oppressive control of prison. There is dark comedy in the film – and it does give the female viewer a slight thrill that women with the roles of housewives, waitresses, and secretaries, treated as servile by men, might not be as safe as men think. However the murder is brutal and unprovoked, and no justifications are presented by the women, so the film can not be seen as condoning the crime.
Interesting comparisons can be made between the attitude of the police and courts to the women in the film, the way that female violence is dealt with in real life, especially by the media – I’ve seen all of the following tropes used when the rare occasions of women committing extreme acts of violence are discussed. In the film the murder is spoken of in sensational terms by various officials, and described as the most vicious killing that the authorities have dealt with – obviously temporarily overlooking the extreme violence that some male murderers do to women, or the indeed the violence of war. The three women are labelled insane even before and despite their psychiatric assessment, and this seems like the only explanation for female violence that the authorities will accept. The court refuses to consider the women’s specific experiences and their circumstances as women, which could lead to a motive for the crime – in fact the women seem to be met with willful incomprehension.
One reason for the women’s silence seems to be because they know from everyday experience that they will not be listened to anyway. For the courts to attempt to understand their circumstances and motives, the authorities would have to admit that women are oppressed, so this cannot happen. The silence can also be seen as showing that the women have found connection beyond man-made language (the women do not speak during the attack and sometimes seem to have an uncanny bond with each other), and that the very concepts of sanity/rationality and insanity/irrationality are patriarchal constructs which do not explain women’s psychological state in a meaningful way. I won’t attempt to describe the ending of the film, but it certainly leads to these conclusions.
A Question of Silence is a deliberately provocative film. It is unflinching in its exploration of complicated feminist themes – while the film certainly comes from a particular feminist stance, it is not didactic, and its conclusions have been interpreted various ways. It is a powerful and darkly humorous work.