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
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.