Alice Anderson – Freudian Tales

Alice Anderson describes her film works as ‘Freudian Tales’. She takes a Freudian motif – a girl’s

love for her father, the rivalry between mother and daughter – and inflects them in her own unique way.

Critics have found plenty of these motifs in her work, but the focus on Freud, however relevant, risks

drawing attention away from the other term in Anderson’s description: tales. Her films are not

simply illustrations or revisions of Freudian themes: they are explorations of the structure of stories

themselves, not just what stories tell us but the role of stories in our lives. Not just what stories say,

but what stories protect us from.


Fairy stories and folklore has always fascinated Anderson yet their redrafting by male writers such

as Perrault, the Grimms and Andersen troubled her. She wanted to tell their real, feminine

versions, yet curiously this did not mean a new demonisation of male characters. When her

grandmother read her as a child the tale of Bluebeard, although the murderous villain

was clearly a man, Anderson felt sure that ‘he’ was in fact female. Her grandmother, she imagined,

must have been changing the gender as an act of benevolent censorship. She knew that a murderer

could only be a woman, and this coalescence of violence and femininity is elaborated throughout

her work.


In ‘The Idiot of Evenville’, a 12 year-old girl murders most of the population of her town.

In ‘Prompt Book’, a mother teaches her daughter to throw herself from a window.

In ‘The woman who saw herself disappear’, a female child shoots a ghost, who turns

out to be her own aged self. In ‘Bluebeard’, a mother cuts the cord which links her

to her daughter, thereby killing her. In ‘The Doll’s Day’, the mother brutally casts

aside her daughter’s body, and we learn that she had no desire for this child. In work

after work, the malevolent agency is female.


This agency acts with an almost caricatured coldness, a matter-of-factness and an oddly formal violence.

These murderous women just glide through Anderson’s films, speaking their lines blankly,

moving mechanically and acting without apparent sentiment. The fact that they systematically break

kinship ties – killing those closest to them – seems to mean nothing. This is a programmed killing,

as if already scripted. The characters are mere actors and so have little choice but to obey

what the script dictates.


These features of female violence are exactly those of Anderson’s narrative technique.

Her stories are told coldly, matter-of-factly and harshly, with actors specifically instructed

to perform in a robot-like way. They are told not to inject any passion into their lines, and

to act more like automata. They thus come to resemble the dolls which occur more and more

frequently in her work. Indeed, rather than having dolls made to mirror the actors, Anderson

chooses the dolls first and then finds actors who look like the dolls.


This emphasis on form, combined with her careful edits, confronts the viewer with the question

of narrative itself. Anderson’s films are tales, with a beginning, a middle and an end – or

so it seems. The sequencing via chapter headings, as in ‘The Doll’s Day’, or via spoken narration,

as in ‘The Idiot of Evenville’, continually remind us of this dimension of film-making. However

seductive the visual texture of these works, we are being told that we are watching a story and

so have to make sense of it, put the parts into place, uncover the meaning.


This emphasis on the structure of stories is rendered all the more present by the enigmatic visual

elements and edits. A sudden image of a doll or a mirror, for example, no longer seem just

parts of an associative thread, as they might in the work of other artists, but must harbour some

connection to the story itself. The economy of Anderson’s films and the spartan dialogue only serve

to reinforce this imperative to build stories. When Bluebeard says to the mother who has just arrived

with her charge ‘Allow your son to become my companion and I’ll make you rich’, we link this not

only to the narrative of Anderson’s unfolding film but also to the whole tradition of folk-tales and

story-telling itself. Like many of the other lines, it occupies that special space of the connecting

elements in narrative. It signifies not only an instruction to the mother but a reminder to the viewer

that this is a story like all other stories.


But what do these disparate elements connect? In Anderson’s work, it is always the minimal cell of the

family. The story links them all together, to provide some basic meaning to their relations. Yet at the

same time, the fathers, mothers and daughters in Anderson’s tales seem radically disconnected.

Although the discordant position of a daughter might be expected, there is never any partnership of

mothers and fathers: on the contrary, in works like ‘The Doll’s Day’ or ‘Prompt Book’, there

seems to be an abyss between them. The dimension of story-telling and narrative seems to be the

only thing that defines a family here, the only thing that knots them together.


This emphasis on story as such invites us to look at how narratives are actually represented within

the films themselves. In ‘The woman who saw herself disappear’, a girl tells her mother the story

of how she has seen a ghost, a narrative that is situated inside another story that the narrator

is telling the viewers. The mother does not believe her story , and it is this absence of belief that

leads her to shoot the ghost, to prove that it is real. In ‘Blubeard’, the threatening figure of

Blubeard tells the visiting girl/boy about her beard and why she is disguised. It is interesting to

observe that these narratives are so often situated in the space between daughters and mothers,

as if the dimension of story and narrative could function as a way out.


Isn’t this, indeed, the function of the father in ‘The Doll’s Day’? When he appears, he tells his daughter

that he has come to rescue her, yet what does this rescue consist of if not his delivery of the elements

of a story to her: that she was not wanted, that the mother desired a boy, and so on. Whatever hostility

his words may carry, they contain explanations, as if to mimic the process by which a child

appeals to the father’s words to rescue themself from the lethal mirror relation with the mother.

Fathers tend to be demanding, insensitive and callous in Andersons’ films, yet the mothers are worse:

they are murderous.


It is no accident then that the works which Anderson has drawn using her own blood are those which

depict the face-off between mother and daughter. The two figures confront each other as if there

were no way out of a mortifying, narcissistic space, just as the daughter in ‘The Doll’s Day’ holds

her face to the mother in a mirror position beneath the white surgical sheet. This intense and endless

mirroring is explored again by Anderson in her 1999 work ‘My Mother’, featuring 20 one to

two minute narratives of a mother daughter interaction, with Anderson playing both roles.

From here to the motif of the puppet and puppeteer is a logical step, and the appeal to narrative

and story seems to offer the most rudimentary form of extraction from this face to face with the mother.


This is exactly the point at which the artificiality of narrative becomes so important. Philologists

were once fascinated with uncovering the building blocks of the folk and fairy tale, showing how the

same small set of elements was used to compose the widest range of human stories. Finding this battery

of stock figures and relations between them could only highlight the artificial nature of story construction.

And the moment this is applied to the intimate space of a family, we are moving towards a symbolic

dimension in which narratives are being used to resolve the impossibility present in a group of

relationships. This is what Freud discovered with his ‘infantile sexual theories’: stories were used by

children to make sense of what most resisted meaning (childbirth, the parents having sex etc).


The artificial is thus the sign of what is most real, most impossible, most difficult to bear. In

‘The Idiot of Evenville’, the horrifying events begin in a jigsaw puzzle, and later in a world of dolls

and toy accessories. The actual space of the narrative is a deliberately artificial one, and Anderson

reiterates this throughout her work. In ‘The Destruction of the Parents’, the last chapter of ‘The Doll’s

Day’, the daughter mutilates and destroys the mother and father dolls. It is as if the violence is so

powerful that no ‘realistic’ representation could do it justice: instead it must take place in the

artificial space created by the dolls.


The spectacle here of scratching, cutting, tearing and smashing is disturbing enough, yet we then

see their remains lying between her legs next to a pair of surgical scissors, that cannot but remind the

viewer of forceps. It is as if the process of giving birth had been reversed and it was not the daughter

who was born of her parents but vice-versa. A similar temporal inversion is present in ‘The woman

who saw herself disappear’, where we realise that the old woman in the tower is the ghost that the

young girl had shot and was hence exiled to the tower due to her guilt. We could remember here

that the first spoken words in ‘Bluebeard’ are ‘Where do you come from?’.


This question about birth and origins is, for Anderson, inseparable from that of the relation of

daughter to mother, and in ‘Blubeard’ it is materialised in the form of a cord. The mother and

daughter are attached by a piece of twine which the daughter must pull if she is in danger. Although

the mother responds the first time, when it is pulled a second time she simply cuts the cord and

departs. The result is the immediate death of the daughter, a reversal of the usual motif whereby

cutting the umbilical cord is what allows separate existence and the passage to life itself. In her

sculptural work ‘Cells’, the two figures are connected by a similar cord, each one in their own

cell-like space, trapped and hindered by the very bond that unites them.  And in ’Rapunzel’, installed

at the Chagall Museum, a vast expanse of hair cascades from a wall, less the means of escape from a

Rapunzel-like fairy tale tower than an obscene surplus, a cord that has become omnipresent and



This cord, however, is not always visual for Anderson and she often gives it an acoustic form.

One of the photo series of dolls is titled ‘Hearing my parents’ voices’, and in ‘The Doll’s Day’,

the daughter hears the mother’s breathing and is drawn to it, attached to it. Sound is the cord that

binds them here. Later, water drips into mother’s ear. When the mother throws her onto the floor,

we don’t see precisely what is happening, yet the loud and intrusive soundtrack turns noise into an

embodiment of maternal violence. The other moments of violence in this film also tend to be

marked by acoustic intrusions. Likewise, in ‘Bluebeard’, the moment when the mother cuts the

cord to her daughter is not simply indexed by sudden noise: it is as if this noise breaking the

continuity of the soundtrack is the very form of the brutal act. This is the same acoustic cord linking

daughter to mother that is broken in ‘Prompt Book’: the room that the daughter Natasha will leap

from is the room where her mother carried out her voice exercises. As the father explains,

‘My wife lost her voice when Natasha was born”.


‘The Doll’s Day’ and Anderson’s recent work are obviously preoccupied with this question of

emergence into the world. The film not only gathers the paraphernalia of childbirth, such as the

antiquated gynaecological  instruments, but actually stages symbolically the act of birth: in the mother’s

casting her daughter onto the ground and in the dolls’ presence between the daughter’s legs.

In her contemporary work ‘Cells’, womb-like structures house helpless dolls and puppets deep

inside them. Feminine enclosures here are menacing rather than sustaining. Stories, perhaps,

in their most minimal form, are the only way out.