It is difficult to imagine a more striking and intimate scene than the one that opens multinational filmmaker Nina Menkes‘ abstract portrait of a woman’s world, Phantom Love. Lulu, her heroine, is captured in the act of joyless sex. She lies there like an empty shell under flesh seizing her in a countdown of ins and outs. The dull, repetitive rhythms of senseless lovemaking echoes the sounds from the street that invade the room. The mysterious man is virtually faceless and remains nameless throughout of the film. He is only trespassing, and like other men who come and go as guests, transitory objects of desire or as victimizers, he is accessible only as shadows on the walls are, and mostly out of focus (Menkes delights in playing with focus). He is only a forceful penetrator in a woman’s space.
This is a satisfying antithesis to the typical, romanticized sex scene, this one with soft lighting and a woman’s hand twitching from pleasure, scrambling the sheets, as if the hand will have an orgasm but not the woman. Through densely arranged suggestions, where sex is like a mirror (another of Menkes’ favorite motifs), a reflection of self we are seeing in the other, Menkes attacks all the mythological places of female humiliation.
Israeli actress Marina Shoif’s nuanced performance as Lulu recalls the masterful gestures of silent cinema’s virtuoso players. Her face is rich with feeling, expressions allowed to fill the screen. Perhaps an homage to Louise Brooks, the original Lulu, and certainly evocative of Marlene Dietrich, whose presence is also suggested through a glimpse of Jacques Demy’s Lola, his 1961 film inspired by Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg. Caught in a crisis of identity and a family in turmoil, Lulu navigates a world where inner turbulence mirrors the unsettling landscape surrounding her. She is presented with female role models within her family, which could reflect her possible selves. Her intrusive mother, who exists as a scolding voice over the telephone, and as a nightmare, brings with her traditions of obedience and patriarchy. Lulu knows how frightening it is to think that we could become mothers, who rocked us gently but shaped us firmly, buzzing around us with fairy tales like Snow White, wherein we can be saved only by a man’s kiss. He can then either take us to a heaven of love, after winning us like a trophy, or send us straight to hell, as Orpheus did, foolishly turning his head before Eurydice made her final step into the upper world. These myths and fairy tales explicitly haunt Menkes’ film. Orpheus appears in the form of Jean Cocteau’s 1963 film, which plays conspicuously in one scene. Snow White’s iconic “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…” is re-enacted by Lulu’s mother in one of the film’s characteristically surreal set pieces.
These inherited worlds of deception and mystery with false instructions and misunderstandings through which girls need to pilot, channeling their identities through jobs and alone in bars, like rats in a maze, are lonesome and they grow their loneliness as mold or fur. A prophylactic that will inhibit any connection, even if it is desired, solitude could perpetuate itself to insanity. Of course, this fear could be justified. Lulu could also become like her sister who is at the edge of madness, another mythical place of female disgrace, associated with those who refuse to conform to social norms. Used as a weapon to control disobedience by discouraging nonconformity, it is no surprise that a society absorbed with female objectification and submissiveness, with a narrow view of proper female behavior, associates madness with women. Showing that schizophrenic confusion with discontinuous time, place, backgrounds and positions, Menkes delivers a political statement as well as a feminist one. Politics is another identity shaper, Lulu is frequently captivated by the television news, where images of the 2007 military Surge beam into her reality, anchoring her tale to a very specific time and place, when 20,000 young American soldiers were sent to Iraq to in a policy sometimes referred to as “The New Way Forward.”
Lulu is a captive of these mundane realities and Menkes, accurately and candidly, communicates a female’s journey toward transcendence in a manner of pure cinema, using a mesmerizing series of images shot in 35 mm black and white with very little dialogue. The dialogue, mumbled and almost impossible to discern, sometimes spoken in Eastern European languages (with no subtitles), leaves a strong impression that these characters’ cultural roots lie elsewhere. Menkes, who began as a dancer, is interested in letting the body speak. The immersive sound design, a disorienting mixture of atmospheric city noise, repetitive signals of Lulu’s environment, and subtle gamelan music, compliments the dreamscape she conjures with director of photography Christopher Soos. There is decomposition and decay at all levels of reality within the urban wasteland of Los Angeles’ Koreatown, where Lulu works as a croupier. The casino is a perfect representation of hell, with no natural light and no clocks, a 24/7 cacophony of human chatter and roulette wheels, a place with no final satisfaction but a sense of continuous insatiable desire (much like her sex life). Lulu repeatedly defends herself with female’s rituals, make up and a little black dress, like this obsessive care of her outside image will somehow bring some order to her insides.
Menkes surrounds these women with beasts. A massive snake, which Lulu must repeatedly pass in a hallway, certainly arouses Freudian interpretation. The presence of an octopus, black cats and a swarm of bees contribute to a mystifying atmosphere, suggesting that Lulu is on a metaphysical voyage. Menkes claims to have been inspired by her time spent with a Bedouin tribe in the Sinai, and said that cinema, for her, is like sorcery, witchcraft. Perhaps the film’s most arresting scene is also its most explicitly supernatural. A ghost, or phantom of the title, is seen levitating over a bed, and eventually explodes in a burst of light. This unforgettable image foreshadows Lulu’s transcendence, and is indicative of Menkes’ potency as a filmmaker. Blurring the lines between experimental and narrative film, Phantom Love, places Nina Menkes’ work in a category of its own, largely without peers in 21st century film. David Lynch comes to mind, the black-and-white photography, unsettling sound design employed in Eraserhead, the identity shifts of Inland Empire. And by alluding to Demy and Cocteau, Menkes would seem to be placing her work within the tradition of avant-garde world cinema.
Phantom Love ends on strange note of hope. Whether by spiritual awakening, physical death or perhaps le petit mort (sexual awaking), Lulu transcends her suffering. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate conclusion. Nina Menkes has painted a powerful portrait of a damsel in distress, and given us a new role model as well as a new female archetype.