Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 11, 2015

The Girl King; Aferim

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

“The Girl King” is now the third film I have seen this year dealing with transgender issues (the others were Tangerine and The Danish Girl) and by far the most interesting even though it is by no means perfect. Available now on Vimeo for a modest fee, it tells the story of Queen Christina of Sweden who ruled from 1632 until 1654.

Christina, played by Malin Buska, is the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus who was allied with other Protestant monarchs in a thirty-year war against the Catholics that like Syria today was a combination of geopolitics and class struggle. The Protestants tended to reflect the class aspirations of an emerging bourgeoisie while the Catholics stood for feudalism. Neil Faulkner, the author of “A Marxist History of the World” and a member of John Rees’s CounterFire tendency, describes it:

A religious war therefore turned into a geopolitical conflict. The transformative potential of the Reformation was deflected by princely leadership and dissolved into a conventional military struggle between rival states.

Without a son, King Gustavus decided that Christina would be entitled to all the rights and privileges of a man and even stipulated that she would be called the King after assuming the throne. Whether this explains her sexual orientation is an open question.

As is the case today, it would be a mistake to see the principals in this struggle in a simplistic manner. If Sweden was a state committed to Lutheran values, Queen Christina seemed like the last person on earth willing to carry them out. She was not only willing to defy sexual norms; she was also seduced by the writings of Rene Descartes whose radical subjectivism represented a threat to the established order. Ironically, it was the Catholic powers that tolerated his philosophy much more than the Protestants who ostensibly represented the challenge to feudal orthodoxy—particularly the dominance of religion over science.

After encountering his writings, Queen Christina began corresponding with the French philosopher as a fan, much like a grad student writing to Zizek. Of course, given her sexual orientation, it is obvious that it was his brains rather than his private parts that interested her.

Played by Patrick Bauchau, a veteran Belgian actor and the son of philosopher Henry Bauchau who fought in the French Resistance, Rene Descartes moves to Sweden to become Christina’s tutor. Arguably, it is the most important partnership between a monarch and a philosopher since Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great.

In one of the most riveting scenes in the film, Christina invites the newly arrived philosopher to demonstrate to her retinue his most important discovery—the site of emotions in the human anatomy. Descartes then removes a sheet from a corpse that is displayed before them, takes a scalpel and saw to remove the top of the skull, and reveals the secret source of emotions: the pineal gland. One of the dour Lutherans in attendance can take no more and storms out yelling “sacrilege”.

This offense could not compare to what would soon follow. Christina has invited her lady-in-waiting and bedmate, the Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), into the library she has assembled from the greatest books of Europe. She is proudest of an immense manuscript of black magic written by a monk who supposedly wrote it in one evening under Satan’s direction. Christina opens the book, strips to her waist, presses Erika’s back against the book’s open pages and begins to kiss her. When the doors swing open and a member of the court spots the two women in flagrante delicto, Christina makes no effort to explain what is going on. She is the King after all—or Queen?

The film shows Descartes being poisoned by a Lutheran priest but there is no proof that this happened. Some historians believe that the real cause was living in a cold climate and contracting pneumonia. There is no doubt, however, about the hostility that Christina’s court felt toward him.

Eventually they decided that she had to go as well. Pressures mounted to the point when abdication was the best move for her. She converted to Catholicism and relocated to Rome where she continued as a patron of the arts, the sciences and Enlightenment values. Her contribution to Catholic institutions was considered so important that she is one of only three women buried in the Vatican.

My recommendation is to have a bit of patience with “The Girl King” since there are some artistic choices made by Mika Kaurismaki, the brother of the far better known Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, that are somewhat off-putting. The film is in English and the actors are directed to appear like our contemporaries rather than as archaic players in a costume drama. That might make sense but more questionable was screenwriter Michel Bouchard’s decision to use outright anachronisms in the dialog. For example, characters say things like “you must be kidding”. It takes a while to get used to that style.

Despite the pleasure I got from Kaurismaki’s film and the incentive it gives me to follow up on a research project about Queen Christina and 17th century history, I could not help but wonder what Sally Potter would have done with this material. If you’ve seen her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”, a novel about an androgynous member of Queen Elizabeth’s court, you’ll know that it was made to order for director Sally Potter. Even if Kaurismaki was much too literal in his handling of the story, you will appreciate his effort. Given the fear and hatred that so many powerful men today have today about sexual identity, it is salutary to see how the right of a woman to act like a man was uncontested in Lutheran-dominated Sweden. Of course, it helps to be the most powerful person in that society. It might also help if class rule was a thing of the past, so that everybody can enjoy what Huey Long once said:

Every man a king, so there would be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life, who would not be dependent upon the whims and caprices and ipsi dixit of the financial martyrs for a living.

Opening at Lincoln Plaza in NY and the Laemmle in Los Angeles on January 22nd, “Aferim!” is Romania’s official entry for the 2016 Academy Awards. Directed by Radu Jude, it is a commentary on contemporary Romania even though it is set in 1835 Wallachia, a state that would eventually be part of the modern state that is still going through post-Soviet agonies. Indeed, just about all of Romania’s very talented filmmakers are consumed with the question of how they lived under Ceausescu and how his overthrow has failed to bring them the economic well-being and freedom they had hoped for. As director Radu Jude put it in an interview with CineEurope: “I truly believe what Johan Huizinga said: ‘We analyse every age for the sake of the promises it contains for the next age.’”

“Aferim” is a vernacular term meaning something like “Bravo” that is heard from its characters throughout the film. It is obviously related to the Turkish word “aferin” that is part of the term “aferin sana” that means “good for you” and that my wife often says to me after I tell her I have been published in some high-toned journal.

It is used with irony in Jude’s film since everything is marked by degradation of the most appalling nature. It is the story of a father and son who are seen riding across a desolate plain on horseback in their search for a runaway slave. The father, named Constandin (Teodor Corban), is a constable and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) an unpaid assistant. The story evokes a John Ford western except in this instance the posse is wicked and the runaway slave, a Roma named Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), is their better. In fact, the higher up you are on the social ladder in feudal Wallachia, the closer you are to savagery.

As Constandin and Ionita wend their way through one Roma village after another, they make sure to bully and threaten those they regard as less than human. They always refer to the Roma as “crows” and make sure to call the boyar—a feudal landowner—as “bright master”. In case Ionita slips up on the hierarchy, his father is sure to remind him that this is the way things are in their world and not likely to change.

The film has a grim sense of humor as Constandin hurls colorful invective at everyone who gets in his way, either beneath him socially or on his own level. In a memorable scene, father and son run into a carriage driven by a Turk somewhat higher up than them on the totem pole. When Constandin sees him coming, he says under his breath “Curse them Turks”. When the Turk asks him for directions to a Wallachian town, Constandin sends him off in the opposite direction. But before the Turk leaves, he gives the men a gift in gratitude for the wrong directions, some halvah. After the carriage departs, Constandin confides to his son: “I sent the fool the other way”. Ionita’s response: “Aferim, father!” Constandin’s final words as the carriage heads off:

I hate the Ottomans. The filthiest nation on earth. And he talked to me like I was shit. Said he was afraid of our haiduks [brigands who operated in Ottoman controlled territories in Eastern Europe]. I hope our Romanian boys catch him and tan his skin. You can tell from their talk that they’s nothin’ but beasts. We work like morons for them and the boyars.

That little speech does more to explain feudal Romania than any ten scholarly articles.

The stunning conclusion of this powerful film is set in the manor of boyar Iordache Cîndescu (Alexandru Dabija) who is intent on punishing the runaway slave for having cuckolded him. Suffice it to say that the punishment is gruesome and only made possible in the same way that it was in the Deep South in the pre-Civil War era. And in the same way that modern-day racism and capitalist dysfunctionality are related to life in that period, it would be fair to conclude that director Radu Jude sees Romania today in the same terms.

I urge you to see this very important film and to at least consult the press notes whether or not you are not in NY or LA to see it as it contains such interesting insights. Historian Constanta Vintila-Ghitulescu states:

The Romanian society is so concerned with women’s honor and reputation, that it allows husbands who are cheated on to punish the poor lover caught in the act with their wife. Revenge included tarring and feathering, exposing the naked man in public places, whipping or even castration, especially when the lover belonged to an inferior social category. And gypsies belonged in the lowest social class. Attached to their masters by slavery, gypsies seem no different from the animals on the noblemen’s or church domain. At the time, “gypsy” is synonymous with “slavery,” and the word “roma” does not even exist yet, it will only be introduced in the 20th century.

Abolishing slavery is a very new idea and only timidly advocated for, because slave owners have important functions in the political life. Preaching freedom for these poor beings, in the name of humanity, starts from the Church, through the voice of a few enlightened ecclesiastics at the beginning of the 19th century, but the time for freedom has not come yet. It is only with the active implication of young intellectuals around the 1848 movement that the public opinion will be shaped in favor of freeing the gypsy slaves. It took more than a decade to translate this process into legal form: in 1856, “The Law for the Emancipation of All Gypsies in Wallachia” is passed.

1 Comment »

  1. […] older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by […]

    Pingback by Mama Africa | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 21, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

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