The Daughters of Fire: W. H. Khouri’s Female Gothic

Posted by Daniel Sá on May 12, 2012 in Daniel Serravalle de Sa, Guest Blog tagged with ,

As Filhas do Fogo (1978), or The Daughters of Fire, is exemplary of the Gothic’s transnational characteristics. The film portrays two young women whose stay at a colonial manor in the Brazilian countryside is afflicted by paranormal events and mysterious deaths. In the course of the narrative, they become acquainted with a mysterious family friend, an elderly lady who claims to record the voices of the dead. Soon, the female characters find themselves haunted by the ghost of one of the girls’ mothers. Whilst the dividing line between this world and the next is obscured, family secrets are revealed and the situation escalates to a nightmarish finale. Ultimately, the luxuriant Brazilian forest envelops the entire house and the remnants of the eerie life and death spectacle that occurred there. Brazilian filmmaker Walter Hugo Khouri (pronounced ‘Curry’) is no stranger to the horror genre; his previous films Estranho Encontro (1958) and O Anjo da Noite (1974) are – alongside José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe trilogy – among some the most significant Brazilian horror productions.

Lesbians and unvoiced others: from domesticity to nationhood

The situation experienced by three female characters in the film foregrounds issues of particular interest to discourses of gender, race, and nationhood. The assonance in their names (Ana, Diana, Mariana) suggests they can be seen as interrelated characters that represent different aspects of problems concerning the situation of the woman in society (fig.1). More to the point, a society that condemns women’ relationships with members of their own sex (Ana), motherhood and pregnancy as a problematic relationship with body (Diana) and a culture that determines women’ entrapment in the domestic sphere (Mariana).

(fig.1 – Ana, Diana and Mariana: tripartite female psyche)

Set in an unnamed community in the countryside of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, As Filhas do Fogo stands out from the majority of Khouri’s production, usually set in the urban environment of São Paulo city. The particularity of the location is emphasised by means of scenes that focus on the frosty climate of southern Brazil, the predominantly European heritage of its inhabitants and lines such as ‘your house looks like a little castle’, in reference to the Germanic architecture brought by the immigrants that populated the region. This representation seeks to transmit the idea of a small and secluded society, a foreign hamlet in the remote areas of Brazil still linked with its ancestral origins and mysticism. If, on one hand, the choice of scenario stresses the absence of ‘tropical’ elements, which are often identified as Brazilian national characteristics, on the other hand, it seeks to achieve the ‘transnational’ effect that Khouri appreciated, i.e. a narrative that operates in several national contexts. In this particular sense, As Filhas do Fogo combines a versatile visual composition and remoteness of location that echoes films such as Lisa e il Diavolo (Mario Bava, 1974) and The Wicker Man (Robert Hardy, 1973).

Beyond the settings, this sense of oddity is established most effectively by character’s perspective.[1] Ana (Rosina Malbouisson), who is from São Paulo, finds the region peculiar. She introduces the story by means of voiceover narration and describes the location as ‘beautiful but not welcoming’, persuading the spectator with her personal point of view. Ana is scared by local nature imagery such as dark ponds, mossy stones, and vegetation hanging from the trees. She is also frightened by the way the few local inhabitants look at her and she feels that watchful eyes, which symbolically manifest themselves in different objects, are constantly observing her. This atmosphere of foreignness and the hostile environment perceived by the character serves to introduce a discourse of fear and apprehension that is typically found in Gothic narratives (Sage and Lloyd-Smith 14).

Ana travels to Rio Grande do Sul to visit her girlfriend Diana (Paola Morra), whom her family prohibited her to see after they found compromising correspondence between the two. Such prohibition speaks of the circumstances that express disapproval of women’s sexual interaction with members of their own sex, and the issue of lesbianism appears in As Filhas do Fogo as an element that transgresses and disrupts the role conventionally assigned to women. Her family believe she is taking a seaside vacation in Florianópolis island, but she travels further south to see her lover. Ana is forced to lead a secret life in order to be able to express her sexuality because her family deem her desire unacceptable. In ‘Lesbian Gothic’ Paulina Palmer states that ‘repressed desires and anxieties are, of course, of central importance to the lesbian subject who, lacking a history and a language to articulate her sexual orientation, may feel haunted by emotions which she cannot or dare not articulate’ (119). In this text Palmer explains how the Gothic is ‘an attractive choice of genre for writers involved in lesbian representation’ (119) and demonstrates how the themes of secrecy, silence and ‘the unspeakable’ are related to lesbian existence. According to the author something can be considered unspeakable ‘because the individual lacks knowledge of it, or because the knowledge is repressed, or because, though having access to it, the individual dare not admit the fact’ (120). This sense of emotional and communicative impairment is expressed through the Gothic mode, that is, a discourse that emphasises the uncertainty, desperation and solitude of the human experience represented through characters trapped in a hostile environment. This seems to be precisely Ana’s situation: she has been feeling a strange angst, not unlike a panic disorder, but she unable to communicate it, and the vigilant eyes that she recognises in many objects act as harbingers of the events that are about to happen.

Once Ana arrives in her destiny, the narrative voice is handed over to Diana, who starts telling of her loving but remote relationship with the colonial manor that recalls the image of the dark, atmospheric, often ruined house found in so many Gothic novels (Sage xviii). Through Diana’s narration viewers gain a new perspective on the story as they watch the girls take a sauna together and then stroll around the woods. The two girls love each other and they are also united by the complicated relationships they have with their families. Diana’s father has been absent for the most part of her life and her mother passed away when she was a child. Soon viewers realise she has never quite managed to detach herself from the maternal figure, whose memory she keeps alive by recalling old stories and browsing through a family picture album. Diana’s favourite picture is one of her mother in a long dress taken when she was pregnant with her.

Birth and death are thus embodied in the figure of the mother whose memory Diana reveres, and the matter of pregnancy is surrounded by the drama of guilt and flight surrounding childbirth, and its consequences. In ‘Female Gothic’, Ellen Moers interprets Frankenstein (1818) as a metaphor for Mary Shelley’s complicated relationship with childbirth, affirming that the subject of birth is the ‘most powerful, and most feminine’ (81). In this influential feminist text Moers argues that the novel is the product of Shelley’s many abortions and the premature death of her child. Since then, the idea of a ‘Female Gothic’ has been associated with questions related to pregnancy and childbirth but also child loss, abortion, and fertility, as central issues of the female experience.

As Diana continues to indulge in her fixation on her mother’s pregnancy, she starts to get in touch with her traumas. For example, she drastically complains about taking after her father’s swarthy physical complexion, though everyone says she resembles her mother very much – not least in her sexual orientation, as it will be revealed later in the film. She also laments having not grown up in that residence and the viewers begin to regard Diana’s caring but distant affection for the house as symbolic of the issue of pregnancy and her bond with her own mother. Diana’s connection with reality gets hazier and hazier as she starts talking about the dead people in her family as if they were alive. The only person who perceives Diana as tormented and obsessed is the maid Mariana (Maria Rosa). The housekeeper warns Ana about Diana’s strange behaviour, but it is too late for them and doom is inevitable in this tale of hereditary family madness in the wilderness.

Mariana is a mixed-race woman of apparent Afro-Amerindian origins and she functions in the film as the ‘local colour’ in that all-European realm. She works as a head-servant of the manor but she often acts beyond her duties of house carer, speaking to Diana like a big sister. Although there are no explicit scenes of sexuality involving the three girls, while the maid is serving breakfast, Diana suggestively says to Ana that ‘Mariana has got incredible hands’, and they all share a laugh. But whilst Diana shows contempt for the other sex, declaring that ‘all men are vagabonds’, Mariana makes love to a rambler who seeks the house for food and work, with disastrous consequences that will cause his death. Mariana’s specific situation speaks of female oppression in a culture that determines women’s confinement in the domestic sphere. In one of her lines she declares having been born in the region, having never left it and seldom been away from the house. Mariana appears to be conformed to her situation, and perhaps for that reason she seems the least disturbed of the three. These socially sanctioned confinements have a long-standing history of representation in Gothic fiction, the ‘damsel in distressed’ locked in the tower being a prime example. The Gothic emerges here in the figure of the woman trapped within the domestic space and in the trope of the ‘house’ as a private female domain, generally portrayed as an ominous location, in which dreams of freedom are destined to fail.

As well as stressing the centrality of the female body, feminist criticism also favoured the household as a stereotypical space to discuss the issue of power. Traditionally, these critics regarded the home as a domestic prison of damsels in distress who struggled against oppressive patriarchal forces. However, such interpretation of women‘s private and quotidian experience was only early days for the feminist project. A later generation of feminist critics attacked such clear-cut divisions that separate public and private spheres because they end up reproducing binary gender hierarchies (public/male and domestic/female). More recently, critics such as Victoria Kuttainen have demonstrated how female-centred, domestic narratives can be read in terms of nationhood or ‘nationalist articulations in which the domestic sphere signals not merely a female domain, but also a figure of domestic nation-space” (3). Kuttainen presents a complex articulation between the domestic sphere and nationhood, arguing that in the profusion of everyday details (designed to produce a semblance of authenticity, verisimilitude and ‘realism’) the reader can engage in metonymic readings, which take the stress off the larger structures in which the lives of characters are caught. This interpretation relies on the viewer’s capacity to see beyond straightforward representations and detect the collective in the work of art.

But how exactly can homely stories, set in small towns be figurative of the political, civic space, and national spheres? According to Kuttainen the way out of this potential paradox is to look for implicit concerns about nationhood in these stories, as they often appear in the form of concealed reactions to dominant figurations; they rely upon many of the same tropes and characterisations that enable any other story to be read as a ‘state-of-the-nation’ narrative. Kuttainen defends that some female-centred narratives are ‘conflated with an organic kind of birthing process in which stories simply emerge out of other stories, without an overarching master-plan’ (7). The idea here is that by means of narrative fragmentation a text elicits numerous interpretations that are also encoded within the larger text. Instead of one single interpretation, a narrative would open up to reveal a multiplicity of stories that develop out of each other like offspring of a fertile, reproductive mother-narrative. Moreover, Ismail Xavier discusses some characteristics of historical allegory in film explaining why it has been a privileged mode of interpretation at particular historical moments (346). Such connections are often created through the use of an individual (a character) who stands for a larger social class or political group.[2] Recognising a national dimension in a female, domestic narrative requires the ability to perceive homologies, and recognising national allegories in such narratives require the understanding of private lives as representative of public destinies.

The point here is that Khouri’s film may also be read in terms of nationhood. In the Brazilian context, and especially because of the casting of a black actress for the role of domestic female, this type of social imprisonment arguably suggests the psychological legacy of slavery, which lingers and is an integral part of Brazilian identity. The issue of her ethnicity, which had previously appeared in Diana’s dissatisfaction with her dark looks, gains a different dimension in relation to this character, particularly because Mariana is ‘freed’ in the end. But the issue of imprisonment also suggests a historical link with the military dictatorship as an oppressive institution that was active in that specific time period. In the end, Mariana is the only character that manages to escape the manor; once Ana and Diana are dead, it is through her perspective that viewers continue to follow the narrative. It is a frosty daybreak and through Mariana eyes the viewers observe the impenetrable vegetation that has overwhelmed the entire house. The transition period represented by the indistinct light of dawn and the fact that she is now carrying the rambler’s rucksack are indications she has freed herself from the ‘castle’ and perhaps become the rambler (fig.2). In spite of this open-ended finale, the situation of domestic confinement experienced by Mariana is not in itself any less potent because it is amended before the end of the film.

(fig.2 – Mariana escapes the castle-like house)

There are at least two possible ways to understand this finale, and the distinct interpretations oscillate between conservative ideological function and radical potential. The first one suggests that Ana and Diana, who do not escape the ‘castle’, remain the tragic victims of a male-centred culture and that Mariana survives only because she has heterosexual intercourse. Although this interpretation points to a familiar conservative ending, the film allows for a variety of understandings, all symbolic but not all of them misogynist. The second interpretation points to the possibilities of resonance between the Gothic tradition and Brazilian history, articulating a coded understanding of the darker underside of the nation. The fact that the natural Brazilian environment ultimately overwhelms the colonial manor can be considered a metonym for a backlash on an oppressive institution that symbolises the installed dictatorship. In the book Horror: The Aurum Film Encyclopaedia (1985), Phil Hardy favours this particular interpretation of As Filhas do Fogo regarding the incorporation of the manor by the forest ‘as if Brazil itself had re-asserted its enduring construction of its history’ (328). The psychic division of the frightened, obsessed, and oppressed self – an association suggested by the names Ana, Diana and Mariana – no doubt represents the articulations of concerns of unvoiced females, on account of the intolerance they encounter, in a predominately male culture. But it also represents the concerns of several unvoiced others in a broader national context linked to the horrors of slavery and the dread of dictatorship. In all these cases the Gothic form persistently emerges as the most appropriate mode for dealing with controlling institutions, mechanisms of alienation and destruction, as it seems to be the case here in Khouri’s As Filhas do Fogo.

Bibliography

As Filhas do Fogo, Brazil. Editora Três/Lynx Filmes. dir. Walter Hugo Khouri, 1978. Film.

Brandão, Ranieri. “As Filhas do Fogo (1978, Walter Hugo Khouri)”. Filmologia #2. 17 December 2011 <http://www.filmologia.com.br/?page_id=1724>

Fleenor, Juliann E., ed. Female Gothic. Montreal: Eden Press, 1983. Print.

Hardy, Phil. “As Filhas do Fogo aka Daughters of Fire.” Horror (Aurum Film Encyclopaedia). London: Aurum Press, 1985. 328. Print.

Kahane, Claire. ‘The Gothic Mirror.’ The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation. Ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 334-351.

Kuttainen, Victoria. “Sweet Traps: Feminist Fantasies of Domestic Confinement on the Cusp of Postcolonial Australia.” Australian Studies, 1 (1) 2009. 1-26.

Milbank, Allison. ‘Female Gothic’. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 53-57. Print

Moers, Ellen. “Female Gothic.” The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Ed. George Levine and U.C. Knoeflmacher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. 77-87.

Palmer, Paulina. “Lesbian Gothic: Genre, Transformation, Transgression.” Gothic Studies: The Female Gothic, 6.1 (2004): 118-130. Print.

Revista Zingu! Cinema Brasileiro, Edição # 49. 18 Dezembro 2011 <http://www.revistazingu.net/edicao-49>

Sage, Victor and Allan Lloyd-Smith, eds. Modern Gothic, a Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Print.

Sage, Victor. Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. Print.

Xavier, Ismail. “Historical allegory.” A Companion to Film Theory. Ed. T. Miller and R. Stam. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1986. 333-362. Print.


[1] The division of Gothic fiction into male and female traditions is customary and usually follows the gender of the author (Milbank 54). Nonetheless, such gender division is not consistent, for example, Clara Reeve, Charlotte Dacré and Mary Shelly use point of view to write in the ‘male’ tradition; while J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Charles Maturin write in the ‘female’. Khouri’s film is an example of a male author using point of view to focus on the centrality of female characters.

[2] Xavier goes on to argue that allegorical expression is especially prevalent in times of political repression and serves as a means of offering ‘disguised comment on the present’ (354). In 1976 Brazil was under a military dictatorship that imprisoned, tortured and killed Brazilians such as journalist Vladmir Herzog and factory worker Manuel Fiel Filho.

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