The Aesthetics and Politics of Gender in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s The Capsule

by Zina Giannopoulou Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 27 minutes (6696 words)

The Capsule (photo source, Haos Films)

In a way, in all the films I do, this idea of observing life as biology—or geography or ethnography—is something I'm very interested in.

-Athina Rachel Tsangari, Interview

1. Introduction

Athina Rachel Tsangari (b. 1966, Athens, Greece) is a leading figure in the contemporary Greek film scene, not only as a director, but also as a producer, screenwriter, projection designer, and actor. She participates in festivals and actively promotes her films. In 1997, she co-founded the production company Haos Films in Austin, Texas, which upon relocating to Greece, a little over twenty years ago, has produced many Greek films, such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinetta (2005), Kynodontas/Dogtooth (2009), and Alpeis/Alps (2011). Tsangari is a representative auteur of the so-called Greek Weird Wave, a moniker given to films produced since the 2000s which thematize oppression and alienation and are aesthetically characterized by narrative opacity, slow tempo montage, and minimal camera movement. Staged as claustrophobic stories of familial violence, these films are commonly read as allegories of the Greek economic crisis, of a breakdown in the Greek patriarchal family, or both. 1

Tsangari’s films tend to be formally eclectic stories of young women as they transition from adolescence into adulthood. In Attenberg (2010), for example, the main character becomes an adult having cremated her father and experimented with sex, while in Chevalier (2015), the first movie in recent Greek filmography to discuss masculinity as a sociocultural product and performance, the focus is on the male subject and its often comically rendered anxieties about being “male enough.” Positioned between these two feature films is the medium-length film, The Capsule (2012), “a Greek Gothic mystery” on which Tsangari collaborated with the Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska. The Capsule is an intermedial project encompassing fashion, installation, performance, and animation film, a generic hybridity also evident in The Slow Business of Going (2000) and Attenberg. 2 Tsangari offered two versions of The Capsule, both commissioned by the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, a non-profit organization interested in creating dialogues between fashion objects and their receptions in various artistic media. The first version was a window installation in June 2012 at Barney’s in Midtown Manhattan, where two simultaneous but separate projections and a triangular-mirrored lattice transformed a commercial space into a stereoscopic narrative of female figures moving in an unidentifiable environment (Lepastier 2012: 87), and the second version was the film discussed in this essay. Tsangari knew that her cinematic “novella” would be a marketing hurdle but found the elliptical storytelling liberating and reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy. 3

2. The Body: Foucault, Butler, and performative aesthetics

What is essential in all power is that ultimately its point of application is always the body.

Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France 1973-1974

The premise of the film is the initiation of six young women into a series of rituals taught by a mistress of ceremonies (Ariane Labed), a pale vampire who resides in a mansion and teaches the young women who arrive there how to take goats on walks, dance and sing to the sound of pop music, sleep with a quail egg between their teeth, and confess their secret desires. She has been living in the mansion “since always and forever” and will teach her guests anticipation, fear, pleasure, rage, boredom, desire, thievery, power, jealousy, and, last of all, “to lack.” The life cycle of her guests who do not know that they are women is four days. The mistress, too, was once a woman, but now she is the “origin” of the “replicas” that are the young women whom she asks to relieve her of the infinite cycle of being a living dead. 4  Over time, the viewer realizes that the purpose of the rituals is to help the women gain adulthood by becoming female subjects, and the strongest woman among them will be the new mistress. The film ends with a sort of duel between the mistress and her chosen replacement during which the former kills the latter with a bite on the neck, whereupon she reaffirms her power and receives the next group of female initiates.

The film puts the female body on display—its functions, clothes, shoes, diet, even its organs—and under strict discipline. Michel Foucault’s account of disciplinary power provides an apt interpretative framework for the film’s disciplinary regime. Foucault expounded his views on disciplinary power in Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1976). A historically specific technology that emerged in the early eighteenth century, discipline operates through the body by means of techniques which aim to make it both docile and useful. Bodies of prisoners, soldiers, workers, and schoolchildren were subjected to various kinds of discipline to become useful for mass production and easier to control. Whereas sovereign power uses physical violence, disciplinary power reconstructs the body through scrupulous training so that it may acquire new kinds of gestures, habits, and skills. Individuals literally incorporate the objectives of power, making them part of their own aims, actions, and habits.

Disciplinary power produces four kinds of individuality: cellular individuality is achieved by distributing bodies in an enclosed space (in the film, that space is the mansion); organic individuality comes to be from exerting control over bodily activities (in the film, controlled bodily activities take up the bulk of the narrative); genetic individuality emerges from subjecting the body to the demands for progress towards an optimal end (in the film, the optimal end is the acquisition of female subjectivity and the assumption of power by the strongest woman); and combinatory individuality derives from what Foucault calls “the composition of forces,” the articulation of relations among bodies to obtain a level of efficiency greater than that realized by the sum of these bodies’ activities (in the film, the women’s combined efforts are designed to make them female subjects and the best of them a leader). Disciplinary power maintains itself in three ways: hierarchical observation makes individuals visible and their behavior controllable; normalizing judgments render “abnormal” behaviors “normal” through punishments; and the examination of the “normalizing gaze,” a sort of panopticon, produces disciplinary knowledge by objectification via observation (Figure 1). In the film, all three mechanisms of disciplinary power are used in the confession scene, which I examine in detail below.

Fig. 1 The Capsule’s panopticon

Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power also explores the possibility of limiting or subverting it: relations of power always entail relations of resistance and points of recalcitrance which reveal the contingency of power structures and their limits. The seeds of the subversion of power are sown in the body, the locus of freedom and resistance (Foucault 1990: 157 and 1980: 56). On this issue, Foucault has influenced feminist theorists, especially Judith Butler (1993 and 1990), who has appropriated and extended his thinking on the relationship between gender and power for the formation of gendered subjects. Butler, too, sees gender identity as a constructed and regulatory ideal. Individuals perform gender by repeating normative behaviors so that gender emerges as a performative rather than a natural or foundational category. Because of her emphasis on the attempts of the patriarchy to circumscribe and contour the materiality of sex (1993: xxiii), Butler is especially important for understanding the film’s use of fashion.

Foucault’s freedom from power structures becomes for Butler an issue of agency, which leads her to ask a question crucial to this essay: “if gender is constructed through relations of power and, specifically, normative constraints that not only produce but also regulate various bodily beings, how might agency be derived from this notion of gender as the effect of productive constraints?” (Butler 1993: ix). The paradox, as Butler herself acknowledges, is that the subject who would resist these norms is itself produced by them. This paradox need not be a vicious circle, however, so long as critical agency is immanent to the power structure and not an opposition from without. Using Foucault and Butler as an interpretative frame for The Capsule adds a political dimension to the study of the Greek Weird Wave that helps us, not so much to advance a “radical queer sensibility” that confronts nationalism and patriarchy with “a queer refusal to signify” (Psaras 2016: 26-7), as to explore ways in which this particular genre of recent Greek filmography both constructs and subverts from within disciplinary regimes of gender construction. 5

Lastly, performative aesthetics, an interpretative approach often applied to the Greek Weird Wave, is productively linked to disciplinary power and the performance of gender. Drawing on Erika Fischer-Lichte’s notion of the “aesthetics of the performative,” which prizes liveness and physicality, Afroditi Nikolaidou finds an “excessive performative element” in many films of the Greek Weird Wave, which she associates with their promotion in festivals as art projects and transmedia events. These films use a bodily-centered narration that relies on repetition, corporeality, and the performance of games, re-enactments, and rituals (2014: 22). Similarly, Anna Poupou emphasizes Tsangari’s performative aesthetics, especially in relation to modernist stylistics and narrative tropes (2014). And, of course, The Capsule’s intermediality, especially its use of fashion and animation, and Gothic narrative tropes add more layers to its dizzyingly elaborate worldmaking.

Armed with these methodological approaches and using the film’s title as an expository device, I organize the essay in three main sections, each titled after a dictionary definition of “capsule” and exploring a key narrative and thematic element of the film: space and time, fashion, and the confession scene. Foucault, Butler, and performative aesthetics inform my analysis but do not exhaust it. Cinematic narration is also vital to my reading of the exquisite “weirdness” of The Capsule, which embeds its construction of gender in a closed spatiotemporal world of disciplinary power, one which, nevertheless, carves small aesthetic (fashion) and thematic (the confession scene) openings to a gestural beyond.    

3. Capsule as “closed receptacle”: space and time

Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to life or death; she is an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter.

-Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction

For Foucault, disciplinary spaces tend to be enclosures, such as prisons, secondary schools, and monasteries, “protected places of disciplinary monotony” (1995: 141). The Capsule was shot in three days in the School of Fine Arts of Hydra, one of the few Gothic buildings in Greece. Tsangari preserves the claustrophobia, fragmentation, disorientation, and even unreality of this Gothic space by showing walled-in and sparsely furnished chambers, corridors, and liminal spaces, such as the main entrance and some windows. 6 The oppressive atmosphere of this strange “family” of six young women and a matriarch is highlighted by the use of a shallow-focus cinematography, which creates flat or planimetric compositions (Wölfflin 1950: 15), while the use of a deep-focus cinematography conveys a sense of entrapment by placing characters in empty rooms or against walls. Insular spaces feature prominently in Tsangari’s work, and she refers to them as “capsules of some sort … a spaceship, a summer house, a prison cell, a tunnel, a bank, a box office, an elevator” (Marsh 2016). The capsular inside is set off from an equally capsular outside that consists of a narrow path leading from the mansion to the sea (Figure 2). Although the inside/outside spatial bifurcation suggests that something unpredictable may come inside from outside, it is effectively reduced to a claustrophobic inside and an oneiric outside bereft of landmarks and people, and edited reflexively with slow-motions and photographic stills. 7 This syntagmatic articulation of space is complemented by the paradigmatic placement of one capsular space (the mansion) inside another (the island), a mise-en-abîme that creates a zero-degree orientation in space.

Fig. 2 Women with goats on a stroll

Another spatial mise-en-abîme is provided by the capsular spaces inside the mansion from which the young women emerge into (cinematic) being: a cluttered pile of wooden chairs, a wooden slab, a blanketed bed, a mouth, a head, and the mansion’s wooden door. These items serve as womb-like objects, generative matrixes of women. 8 The main material of these capsular wombs is wood, which alludes to the Greek hyle, the timber or wood “that has already been cut from trees, instrumentalized and instrumentalizable” (Butler 1993: 7). Matter thus serves both as a principle of creation and as pre-formed and functional substance. Even the non-wooden womb-capsules of the mansion have instrumental value: beds are used for sleep, mouths for eating and talking, heads for thinking. Tsangari also depicts the female body as an assemblage of capsules. A miniature woman emerges from another woman’s open mouth, and bodily parts are manipulated with the use of animation so as to appear like receptacles: a woman has her torso cut open and her entrails spill out; another woman’s face is removed like a mask to reveal a woman inside the hollow skull; and women’s heads are attached to parts of mythical or real animals, creating hybrid creatures by a mixture of animation with photographic images, a technique that evokes the mutability of different creatures and their possible transmutations into one another in Gothic monsters (Figure 3). Waliszewska’s paintings are full of emblems of human mortality, such as flayed flesh, exposed organs, and faces with visible skull bones, or morbid inner states, such as pain and despair, but in The Capsule, animation makes us watch death wreak physical and psychological havoc.

Fig. 3 The mistress is feeding female hybrids

Gothic temporality creates another enclosure by fusing the past with the present and showing that they interrupt, contextualize, and perspectivize each other. The past is dark and traumatic, it “chokes the present, prevents progress and the march toward personal or social enlightenment” (Spooner 2006: 18). A tension between the old and the new, between normative and counter-normative structures, creates a sense of threat and foreboding, a feeling of being at the mercy of tyrannical or monstrous characters. One such character is the revenant in the form of ghosts, vampires, and zombies—liminal figures, like the vampiric mistress, whom Kristeva calls the “abject,” neither subject nor object, but “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite,” entities which one cannot escape (1982: 4). 9 The living dead is a macabre trope ubiquitous in Waliszewska’s oeuvre. For rural communities of the Baltic and Slavic regions, the boundary between the real and the supernatural is porous, and thus, according to the medieval historian Lukasz Kozak, upiórs, the Slavic figures of the living dead are treated as real people with their microhistories, traumas, and persecutions (Gingeras & Sielewicz 2022: 21-22). The emphasis on the reality of the living dead aligns the mistress with her guests as women bearing real traumas and histories of social oppression. The mistress, however, is also different from the others: as a vampire, she transcends time, at once hailing from the past, subsisting in the present, and extending into the future; as instructor, she is hierarchically superior to her students; as gendered subject, she is conscious of having been a woman; and as the deathless origin of mortal replicas, she has godlike agency: she performatively constructs gender because she has herself been “subjected to gender, but subjectivated by gender, [and as such she] neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within and as the matrix of gender relations themselves” (Butler 1993: xvi). The mistress is the vampiric matrix of gender, a symbolic or archetypical “mother” who births women, gives them four days, the average length of menses in a woman’s lifespan, to become female subjects, and kills them.

The ever-renewed cycle of the women’s life is aligned with female consciousness. In her 1979 essay, “Women’s Time,” Kristeva argues that female subjectivity is divided between cyclical time (repetition, gestation, the biological clock) and monumental time (eternity, myths of resurrection, the cult of maternity). 10 These “feminine” temporalities run counter to “masculine” time, which is linear, progressive, and constantly rupturing, an “anguished” time that rests on its own stumbling block, death. In The Capsule, the intrusion of the past into the present illustrates Kristeva’s cyclical time, whereas the use of intercut images of sea waves and of the sun rising and setting evokes the monumental time of eternal natural phenomena. These feminine temporalities are contrasted with the timetable, evoked in scenes where women open and close window shutters to control the sunlight while others run across the frame, presumably doing household work. For Foucault, the timetable is a form of disciplinary power, and Tsangari uses her visual timetable to suggest external inevitabilities—the execution of chores and the girls’ appointed death. Feminine time envelops the masculine time of the linear progression of the women’s life since the film ends with the arrival of a new group of women. This narrative loop illustrates a resistance to narrativity and narrativization in favor of spectacle and the image that is woman, or, in Laura Mulvey’s terms, the woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.” It also reminds us that in the Greek Weird Wave “narrativity is always already caught up in an unpredictable vicious circle of self-production and self-mutation” (Psaras 2016: 71). The Capsule is a self-produced and self-mutating spatiotemporal enclosure, a laboratory of women populated by a godlike origin and her human replicas.

4. Capsule as “shell for packaging something”: fashion

Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?

-Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs

The transformation of the woman into spectacle comes easy to cinema, and fashion seems the natural vehicle for woman’s iconic or imagistic representation. Like fashion, women have been seen as commodities, objects circulated by men to reproduce a male-centered society and susceptible to processes of fetishization, display, profit, and loss. 11 As Fredric Jameson says, “by its transformation into a commodity a thing, of whatever type, has been reduced to a means for its own consumption. It no longer has any qualitative value in itself but only insofar as it can be ‘used’” (1979: 132). Thus in the film, fashion joins matter in positing women as “things to be used,” and its “fashioned” women become doubly commodified, creatures “bound” by clothes and objects to be seen. 12 Since The Capsule was conceived as a cinematic story about fashion items, or as Tsangari puts it, “sculptural clothes,” looking at these clothes as aesthetic products and as narrative elements will allow us to see how their idiolects both create and rupture the film’s totalizing construction of gender. Out of the eight pieces on display, four are emblems of power worn only by the mistress (an organza dress, a headpiece, a gold collar, and a pair of wood shoes), three are worn by all the women (a black dress with a white collar, flat black shoes, and lingerie), and one piece is worn by no one (a black cape).

The organza dress was created by the Canadian-based Chinese designer Ying Gao as a specimen of parametric fashion, a type of cloth-designing influenced by parametric architecture and combining technology (such as 3D printing and wearable electronics), art, and clothing. A fusion of fabric and electronic devices, this photosensitive dress is itself an intertextual artwork for it belongs to the series “Playtime,” inspired by Jacques Tati’s 1967 titular film. When light flashes on its surface, the dress becomes “visually unfocused, and when one attempts to capture an image of it using a photo or video camera, [it] transforms and fragments; it deconstructs and becomes vague and unfocused. Sensors and motors concealed within the garment, as well as custom software running on a microcontroller, create the system that analyzes the movement of light and the movement of bodies in space, establishing an interactive dialogue between the garment and the camera” (Gao 2018). The dress appears onscreen when the mistress and the young women meet for the first time. The women are shown walking down a dark corridor carrying flashlights. As soon as they reach the mistress, their lights illuminate the dress, and it starts writhing, while she remains completely still (Figure 4).

Fig. 4 The lit organza dress

Here film marries fashion as “the performance of the filmic image is invested with the performance of the vested subject, and vice versa, suggesting that the practices of film and fashion encapsulate each other” (Mademli 2017: 59). Borrowing from Marc Augé’s concept of “non-place,” I see the mistress at this inaugural moment of power as a “non-subject” of power. According to Augé, if a place is “an assembly of elements coexisting in a certain order,” and a space is “the animation of these places by the motion of a moving body,” then “a ‘non-place’ alludes to a sort of negative equality of place, an absence of the place from itself, caused by the name it has been given” (Augé 1992: 80; emphasis added). Analogously, a “non-subject” of power is an entity “vested” with a nominal or functional power but lacking the concreteness and fixity of a real subject of power. This reading of the mistress foregrounds her vampiric hovering between human and thing, an ontological indeterminacy enhanced by Gao’s dress since the mistress “comes to life” as functionally powerful when lit by the women’s flashlights, yet no sooner has she been visually animated than she shimmies and appears like a blur. If, according to Foucault, power operates in the constitution of the very materiality of the subject, in the principle which simultaneously forms and regulates the “subject” of subjectivation, power here lies with the students whose lights form and regulate the dress as the material basis of the mistress’ (non) power.

Three other items are worn only by the mistress and, together with the dress, fashion her body from head to toe: a black silk plisé headpiece by Sandra Backlund that sits just below the eyes and looks like a cross between a veil, a crown, and a hat; a gold platted collar by Marc Jacobs is the mistress’ most coveted possession; and a pair of sapele wood shoes by Cat Potter. Each item is an artistic “shell” that packages a body part—the head, the neck, and the feet—but does so in a comical way. The collar is chunky, the headpiece oversized and gives the impression of an abnormally elongated head with obstructed eyes, and the shoes are molded in the shape of feet on the inside but with an abstract and blocky form on the outside. The overall effect is grotesque, an aesthetic category that for Foucault, in his lectures on the Abnormal, shows that “a discourse or individual has effects of power that their intrinsic qualities should prevent them from having” (2003: 11). The comic distortions and corporeal excesses produced by these items expose the mistress’ power as oversized and ridiculous, thereby creating a space for a parodic critique of power and its source. 13 Another garment, a black cape with a three-dimensional body shape on its back that is shown inflated and moving midair, radicalizes this critique by mimicking an animated human body in the absence of an actual human body.

By contrast, the demure black dresses are co-designed by Tsangari and are accompanied by flat black shoes. The black dresses are cinematically and socially inflected. Hydra is associated with Michael Cacoyannis’ film, A Girl in Black (To koritsi me ta mavra, 1957), which received international acclaim. In an interview, Tsangari mentions the film as her source of inspiration for The Capsule, adding, “The first image I started with was these women in black. All women in Greece eventually become women in black because they lose someone. It's something that’s part of your visual landscape growing up. Mourning” (Tsangari 2016). As the emblem of Greek womanhood, the black dress is worn by all the young women in the film, even by the mistress. All of them are women-in-mourning, either as “living dead” or as predestined to die. As soon as the young women are born, they are shown being draped in their black dresses, and the death of the last two women is visually represented by their black dresses lying on beds, like empty carcasses. The black dresses with their white collars also allude to school uniforms worn in Greek public schools until 1982, a social custom echoing Foucauldian biopower as productive and normalizing of bodies so that they may serve relations of dominance and subordination.

Power relations are most conspicuously inscribed in the body in the dance sequence where all the women wear similar corset-like lingerie, stockings, and high heels, the quintessentially patriarchal image of controlled femininity.  14 The young women sit across from each other in two groups of three, and the mistress stands in the space between them, in front of a piano, paces back and forth, and sings the lyrics of A Horse with No Name by America (Figure 5). 15

Fig. 5 The dance scene

At first the students sit still, keeping their eyes on the mistress, an expression of incomprehension and curiosity on their faces. Eventually they start mouthing the lyrics and moving their feet as if trying out their limbs. As soon as the first student stands up and takes a few steps, another starts moving her arms, and soon all but one stand up and start dancing. Their movements are exaggerated and awkward, resembling those of children learning how to sing and dance for the first time or, perhaps, the movements of animals, a common theme in Tsangari (see Attenberg) and in the Greek Weird Wave in general. In Attenberg, animality is seen as an alternative to human language that invests the subject with “freedom and jouissance” (Galt 2017: 17). This may also be the case with the dancing women in The Capsule, although here animals and humans are equally subjected to systems of power, be they goats on a leash taken out for a walk or women obeying their matriarch. However, a clear sign of resistance to this forced bodily discipline is provided by the single woman who refuses to stand up even as one of her peers is pulling her by the leg. Bodily obedience is not unexceptional, rebellion is possible.

5. Capsule as thematic “condensation”: the confession scene

There is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability.

-Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter

The confession scene distills the film’s preoccupations with gender, performance, and power. Foucault sees confession as a means of control and domination, a technology that ultimately dehumanizes, depoliticizes, and perhaps even erases the self. In Discipline and Punish, the process of torture and interrogation appears as a micro-war between the juridical apparatus and the incorrigible criminalized subject, while in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, the confession establishes a nexus of “legitimate knowledge and an economy of manifold pleasures” (1978: 66), and thereby strengthens the normalizing power of the system. By means of confession the system extracts data in pursuit of domination, a process that culminates in the reproduction of a truth via the spectacle of the scaffold.

The Capsule combines the privacy of the confession with the public spectacle of the physical reenactments of the confessed acts, and it embeds both in a performative space. The mistress is shown sitting in a chair. She wears a black sleeveless dress (a nod to the sexy black dress), her gold collar and wooden shoes, and has thimbles on all her fingers. 16 The young women in their black uniforms, white collars, and flat shoes are lined up in front of her (Figure 6).

Fig. 6 The confession lineup

Each time the mistress brings her thimbles together, one of the women moves up to the mistress, kneels in front of her, and confesses a desire or deed, whereupon she is gesturally or quietly asked to perform a physical act, at the end of which the woman exits the frame. The women speak in French, Greek, German, Turkish, and English, a linguistic pluralism that suggests the scene’s universal methods of female subjectivation. The following table shows the women’s desires and actions and their respective physical enactments.

DESIRES & DEEDS

PHYSICAL ENACTMENTS

W1: “I want to put broken shards of glass in Isolda’s shoes.”

The mistress ties together the woman’s legs with her ribbon, and she walks in small steps out of the frame.

W2: “I stole twelve eggs and ate them all.”

The mistress motions the woman to perform a somersault. When she does, her underwear is exposed, and she crawls out of the room.

W3: “I’d like to wear your gold collar just for a little while.”

The mistress puts the woman’s ribbon across her mouth, around her head, and ties it over her eyes.

W4: “I want to kill them all. I want to stay here alone with you.”

The mistress puts one of her thimbles on the woman’s thumb, kisses her softly on the lips, and motions her to stand behind her. At the end of the sequence, the woman is shown with blood on her lower lip.

W5: “Last night I saw Sofia trying to climb the tree to jump over the wall.”

The mistress whispers something, the woman turns around and walks on her knees out of the room.

W6: “I waited until Clemence fell asleep and then I touched her knee.”

The mistress divides the woman’s long hair into two strands and binds them together over her eyes. The woman walks blindly out of the room.

All six desires and deeds manifest the mistress’ “lessons” on rage, thievery, desire, power, jealousy, boredom, anticipation, pleasure, and the physical enactments either materialize those lessons (both bleeding feet and tied legs hinder walking; climbing a tree and jumping over a wall are as arduous as walking on one’s knees), show the futility of power-transfer (the ribbon renders the woman blind and mute, both traditionally female predicaments; being kissed by a vampire is a prelude to being bitten by a vampire), or regulate desire by humiliating the greedy woman or canceling vision as catalyst of sexual desire. The physical enactments are disciplinary techniques which aim to inscribe the norms of gender-production in the body. Just as with Foucault’s criminal deeds and their punishments, so here the body “has produced and reproduced the truth [of the crime],” and the reproductions afford “a spectacle not of measure, but of imbalance and excess; in this liturgy of punishment, there must be an emphatic affirmation of power and of its intrinsic superiority” (Foucault 1995: 47, 49).

Imbalance and excess are central to the confession scene, theatricalizing power by imprinting its disciplinary effects on bodies that are bent, tied, turned upside down, cut, and deprived of one or more senses. The scene constructs femaleness by restricting physical mobility, speech, and sensory perception. The women learn to be women under the compulsion of the regulatory apparatus of gender-formation that is the mistress. By performing the letter of the law (confession), they materialize the spirit of the law (physical enactment). Materialization is thus “a kind of citationality, the acquisition of a gendered being through the citing of power, a citing that establishes an originary complicity with power in the formation of the “I” (Butler 1993: xxiii). 17 Yet even in this oppressive regime of bodily power, the women’s affectless performances, together with the absence of sound and Tsangari’s use of extreme slow-motion that flirts with photographic stillness, make the scene comical and undermine power’s serious intent. By exaggerating the system’s ritualistic rigidity, the scene’s reflexive devices create a distance between viewer and spectacle, thereby inviting reflection and critique.

6. Conclusion

The Capsule depicts a totalizing disciplinary system of gender formation that is “weird” enough to forge sites of alienation and resistance both within the diegetic world and in the viewer. The film’s brilliance consists in using common tropes of femaleness, such as womb-like formations, female temporalities, dancing in lingerie, fashion, women subsisting on a prescribed diet, observing a timetable, going for walks with other women, and being obedient and submissive, in ways that tweak without ever breaking the overall capsular structure that holds these tropes together. In a film where power is omnipresent and suffocating, it is easy to miss the little rebellions of its mostly tame young women, but doing so would also miss Tsangari’s admirably honest aim of showing both the endurance of patriarchal modes of female oppression and the small acts of female resistance to them. The capsule may not break, but it is certainly cracked.

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Notes

  1. For the major tendencies of Greek cinema in the 2000s see, for example, Papanikolaou 2021: 1-26, Papadimitriou 2014, and Chalkou 2012
  2. In her study of the woman’s film of the 1940s, Mary Ann Doane (1987) remarks on the genre’s intertextuality, such as its link with gothic and horror film.
  3. See her video interview given to Flix (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xwy75q).
  4. The idea of replicas also appears in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, released one year earlier than The Capsule.
  5. For a biopolitical reading of the Greek Weird Wave in which forms of metonymic narration, such as cinematic montage and assemblage, produce meaning see Papanikolaou 2021.
  6. For Gothic elements and their use in cinema see most recently Rein 2023.
  7. Poupou characterizes the film’s diegetic space as “imaginary, a dreamlike, unreal space” (2014: 66), but I think that this describes best only the space outside the mansion. The absence of a functional outside is evident also in Attenberg, where the filmic space of Aspra Spitia is depicted as an enclosed world with no outside intervention.
  8. Birth from the head, for example, recalls Athena’s birth from Zeus’ head.
  9. From this point of view, the scene where the mistress feeds hybrid-women (half-human, half-snake) may be read as one composite creature feeding other composite creatures in the “factory” of female-production that is the mansion and The Capsule.
  10. Walldén 2017: 29-30 sees the film’s double temporality first from the point of view of the students as ritualistic moving from their entrance into the Capsule to their death, and then from the point of view of the viewer and the teacher as circular repetition.
  11. For women as commodities see, among others, Irigaray 1985.
  12. The name of the non-profit organization which commissioned The Capsule, DESTE, is the second person plural imperative of the Greek verbs “to see” and “to bind.”
  13. From the point of view of Deleuze’s anatomy of the sadomasochistic relationship in his 1967 work, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, the masochist performatively parodies the letter of the contract and pushes its operation to the limit, thereby showing the inherent injustice that is its outcome. Masochistic humoring or mockery exposes power’s lust for excess, but it may also indicate the masochist’s complicity with the established logics. The young women parodically submit to the mistress’ law, but their submission colludes with and perpetuates the law.
  14. From the point of view of Deleuze’s anatomy of the sadomasochistic relationship in his 1967 work, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, the masochist performatively parodies the letter of the contract and pushes its operation to the limit, thereby showing the inherent injustice that is its outcome. Masochistic humoring or mockery exposes power’s lust for excess, but it may also indicate the masochist’s complicity with the established logics. The young women parodically submit to the mistress’ law, but their submission colludes with and perpetuates the law.
  15. Poupou writes that in Attenberg “every sequence is based on confrontation, exchange or compromise between two characters, usually framed in a two-shot where the persons look at each other” (2014: 57).
  16. The thimble protects the finger from needle pricks when hand-sewing or doing embroidery. Does this suggest that the mistress has sewn the girls’ garments in the film’s diegesis?
  17. The best example of citational complicity with power is the case of W4: her desire to kill everyone is the mistress’ ultimate aim, and she receives a thimble and a kiss, both signs of the mistress’ intimacy and affection.

The Aesthetics and Politics of Gender in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s The Capsule

Zina Giannopoulou is an Associate Professor of Classics and an Affiliate of European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She has published extensively on comparative classicisms, Plato, and the intersection between literature/film and philosophy. She is currently finishing a monograph on adaptations of Plato’s allegory of the Cave in twentieth-century literature and film.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Essays   feminism   greek cinema   greek weird wave   surrealism