chapter  2
20 Pages

Landscapes of Desire: Women and Ireland in Twentieth- Century Film

Irish cinema is not a national cinema in any conventional sense. Irish fi lmmaking has developed in a context where strong expectations of the appropriate content and style of fi lms set in Ireland have been set by British and American predecessors. Perforce, much Irish fi lmmaking has internalized a sense of Ireland as primarily location; romantic, comic or tragic, but strange. The representation of land, gender and their interrelation has been crucial to Ireland’s reception and reinvention of that constructed location. According to Dudley Andrew, “when it comes to cinema, Ireland makes an exemplary world stage, providing unexpected access to occluded aspects of globalization.”1 Both Luke Gibbons and Fidelma Farley have argued over the years for the relevance of Jameson’s concept of postcolonial national allegory to an understanding of Irish cinema.2 My concern here is to complement and complicate that analysis with a reading of Irish fi lm’s development in terms of the metaphoric gendering of Ireland, the eroticization of landscape and the fusion of melodrama and history in contemporary fi lms set in Ireland. What follows, then, is not a comprehensive survey of the cinematic representation of Ireland. Rather it is an attempt to map its recurrent preoccupations and their evolution in the twentieth century. The feminist critique of Irish culture that emerged in the last three decades has largely understood itself as a demythologizing critique. This demythologizing process had two contrary, but not always incompatible, trends within it. The fi rst countered the myth of “Mother Ireland” with the “reality” of women‘s lived experiences, through historical and social research, realist narrative and the assertion of an aesthetic of authenticity. The second major trend in this process concentrated on destabilizing myth from within, through parody, revision and reappropriation of the fi gures, forms and representations of women and could be described as postmodernist. These two trends within feminist critique of Irish culture can be usefully mapped onto similar trends within cultural criticism of Ireland’s cinematic representation. The fi rst corresponds to the once pervasive and still powerful resentment of such representation of Ireland as “untrue,” the second to the more recent attempts to analyze the recurrent forms of constructing Ireland in cinema. Both feminist analysis of Irish culture at large and analysis of

fi lms set in Ireland have focused with an extraordinary intensity on the unstable metaphoric relation of Irish land to Irish identity, a preoccupation they share with a large body of Irish writing and fi lmmaking. According to Luke Gibbons, “Landscape has tended to play a leading role in Irish cinema, often upstaging both the main characters and narrative themes in the construction of Ireland on the screen.”3 While this usurpation has often threatened to swamp both narrative and character in fatalistic atavism, Gibbons insists that landscape in the Irish context is neither the opposite of meaning or history nor merely inscribed with them, but is productive of political signifi cance and of disruptions in the naturalizing conventions of its representation. Gibbons‘s emphasis on the instability of oppositions between nature and culture, landscape and history is very much at odds with feminist criticism‘s analysis of the systematic fi xing of just such an opposition through and as sexual opposition. “If the dominant discourse works to naturalise nationalist ideologies and culture, the feminine discourse works to denaturalise it, producing a space that must be fi lled, a problem of identity and position in the text.”4