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Colin Brookes sees perspectives representational and moral in Hanif Kureishi’s oblique study of love.
Much attention has been paid to making the appropriate distinctions between realities and representations (legitimate or otherwise), and to what constitutes either. Examples include Plato’s interest in clarifying relations between mere worldly imitations and their corresponding actualities in transcendent forms. Via Aristotle, this distinction continued in various ways to influence artistic practice and aesthetic theory for millennia. This film plays with the difference.
In contrast, there are strands of Islamic teaching that forbid representation altogether. Making no such restrictions, Rudolf Arnheim asserted that “representation never produces a replica of the object but its structural equivalent in a given medium.” (Art and Visual Perception, 1956, p.162.) Decades later, in his Art and Representation (1997), John Willats sought to deal comprehensively with the many features of representational systems. We come to see the world not as it is, because we can’t – rather, we come to see the world as it is represented to us via our personal biological apparatus and in relation to the representations provided by various media (see Richard Wollheim, Art and its Objects, 1980). ‘Semiotics’ involves the analysis of cultural myths and signs; the distinctions between various forms, their signifiers, signifieds and referents. Film and TV studies have their own technical language and ‘grammar’ for analysing meanings. Its contributors examine concepts such as ‘mediation’, ‘transparency’ (inescapable invisibility) and ‘instantaneity’ (including the ‘somehow co-natural’ character of the photographic image with its referent: cf Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, 1984, p.76).
The move toward increasingly high levels of resolution in screen media seems inexorable and ubiquitous, given refinements in digital technology, its use in HD TV, and soon, in a revised version of 3D, apparently. If we wish to maintain and clarify distinctions between these representations and the ‘realities’ they evoke, then we need to pay continued attention. The greater the detail – the more life-like the image becomes – the easier it is to conflate the representation with that represented. But the relationships between the two are intriguing, and how a specific film makes particular use of representational ideas and procedures can provide a point from which to pursue an analysis of significant ideas in the film. Firstly though, a synopsis of this film’s narrative.
Venus (2006) opens with an establishing shot of a seashore that cuts to an easel painting, also of the seashore, in the lead character’s flat; and then to the lead himself, Maurice (Peter O’Toole). The film deals with a complex, barely credible relationship between Maurice – an aptly thespian Lothario, hovering on decrepitude, as well as it happens, death – and an irrepressible, post-adolescent, provocative, monosyllabic, yet occasionally eloquent nubile young Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) – daughter of the niece of Maurice’s similarly-ageing fellow thespian, Ian (Leslie Phillips). Jessie has been charged by her mother with the task of caring for Ian – a role for which she has no enthusiasm.
Notwithstanding the discrepancies in age, condition and attitude, Maurice is ridiculously lustful and amorous. This is the source of an awkward although playful tension between him and his erstwhile ‘Venus’, Jessie. As a consequence of his ‘interest’ in her future career, he arranges a life-modelling session, hoping, as a member of the class, to “appreciate the beauty of her form.” To alleviate her obvious discomfort – she is and feels ‘naked’ – Maurice is required to remove himself from the class. Not to be thwarted, he contrives precariously to peep through the glass above the door, only to fall, burst through it and cause mayhem for the class. Subsequently, in a purported effort to relieve Ian of the difficult company of his ‘carer’, Maurice takes her first to the theatre and then to the National Gallery to show her Velasquez’ Toilet of Venus, and perhaps provide insight into his ‘worthy’ aesthetic motives.
The peculiar relationship between Jessie and Maurice evolves in a fraught but reciprocally sympathetic way. He is enchanted by her and she is strangely intrigued by him. Although prostate treatment makes him impotent (as well as somewhat incontinent) he still can take a “theoretical interest” in Jessie – for which mere theoreticalness she “thank[s] Christ!” Because of it, Maurice’s increasing yet doomed “forwardness” as Jessie puts it, is tolerated, strictly on her terms, albeit somewhat mitigated by his ingenuous pursuit of pleasure, his charm and his tenderness – all of which seems inspired by his talent and reputation as an actor.
The familiarity between Jessie and Maurice having been established, she persuades him to allow her and her boyfriend to use his flat for a liaison. Maurice unhappily accedes, but later finds the arrangement intolerable. An altercation occurs and the couple rush out, leaving Maurice’s front door insecure. He is subsequently the victim of a burglary. Jessie later returns, discovers what has happened, and feeling guilt, if not compassion, agrees to care for him. Toward the end of the film, despite his now very weak condition after the robbery, with the help of Jessie, Maurice returns to the seaside where he used to live and where the film opened. Supported by her, he paddles gingerly at the water’s edge. Moments later, resting against the breakwater and leaning on Jessie, he dies.
At his wake, Jessie meets Maurice’s wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave). Their conversation is empathetic and kindly. In her memory, Jessie returns to Maurice’s empty flat, where the painting of the seashore is the focus of her attention and ours. The film closes with Jessie returning to her role as model for the life-class. On the first occasion she was ‘naked’: now she disrobes confidently – she is ‘nude’. She assumes the pose of Velazquez’ Venus, this image of her then dissolving into the picture itself, an easel being replaced by the goddess’s mirror, and cupid replacing a student.
Representation and Imitation
Like a hall of mirrors, this film is a study in representation. The shifts in representational modes within this motion picture include between: an ‘actual seashore’; a painted depiction of it; a theatrical production and ‘real’ reaction to it; the Velazquez painting of Venus, with reference to another, classical Venus; the process of film-making, and black and white, still photography. The real seashore and its painted version are complementary depictions: the painting has a static permanence, the seashore is constantly changing; both exist outside the film, but both are also illusions on the screen. During an intense discussion where Jessie’s face is dramatically side-lit, the audience seems to be invited to speculate on the uncanny resemblance to the face in Ingres’ La Grand Odalisque – alluding to an actual painting not depicted in the film, and a disconcerting reference to a female slave of a harem.
Such contrasts and relationships between ‘real life’ and artifice are used to weave the narrative. A visit to the theatre planned for Maurice and Ian is changed due to Ian’s falling asleep in the flat, and Jessie takes his place. Jessie’s reaction to the performance and Maurice’s interest in her reaction stress the contrast with ‘live’ performance, audience reaction, and response to that reaction. A device with a similar kind of reflexive feature is the film-making sequence, wherein Maurice as an actor in a costume drama is watched by Jessie: as character; as celebrity actor resting between takes; and as ‘plain’ Maurice.
Velazquez’ Venus (in the National Gallery in London) appears in the film – another painting, but here representing a mythical rather than a real subject (eg a seashore). These contrasting kinds of pictorial imitation relate to states of mind in which to contemplate and respond to the human form, and they’re present in Maurice’s mind simultaneously: for him it is as though Plato’s ‘Venus Celestial’ and his ‘Venus Vulgar’ fuse into one (cf Kenneth Clarke, The Nude, p.64), or perhaps that this classical dichotomy is suspect anyway. Jessie’s conception of Venus shifts disconcertingly from one view to the other until the final moments of the film. As one example, following the incapacitating effect the robbery has on Maurice, Jessie elects to display to him her “beautiful” breasts – another intentionally generous, if inept, intimate moment.
The proximity of death for Ian and Maurice is touchingly emphasised through references – they visit a local church where plaques bear the names of ‘actual’ actors, some very familiar to many: Boris Karloff, Lawrence Harvey, Richard Beckinsdale. Here the ‘real’ lends an authenticity to the impending death of the fictitious actor Maurice, played by the actual actor Peter O’Toole. The Media Studies term intertextuality is used to refer to this phenomenon, whereby recollections of elements outside the confines of a particular work affect audience’s perceptions of it. Among other such elements that may come to mind for this film are remembered similarly lecherous characters acted by Peter O’Toole, as well as O’Toole’s actual (or merely publicised) reputation; and Vanessa Redgrave’s capacity for playing intense, earnest, yet calmly reflective women. Finally, the black and white newspaper photograph taken at the height of his acting career and accompanying Maurice’s obituary, within the colour film, alludes to a different representational realm, whose static, monochromatic form helps to emphasise the past. Maurice was ‘there then’ and is also ‘here now’ – but he is dead.
Other enigmas seem to linger. In particular, what does Maurice represent for Jessie, and what does she represent for him? Jessie seems overwhelmed by the ambiguity of the developing relationship. The prospect of the aged Maurice as lover, even of her as his Venus, is out of the question. However, she is attracted, perhaps, to what he was and is as a ‘celebrity’, as well as sympathetic to the inappropriateness of his obsessive, lustful, yet tender attentions. His deserved celebrity as an actor is evident, for example, when he recites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to A Summer Day’ in front of the (closed) bathroom door while Jessie bathes. He performs the lines so well that Jessie is enchanted and aesthetically engaged.
For Maurice, regretful that his energetic amorousness is past, Jessie represents the beauty of vigorous youth – for him as unattainable as celestial Venus. By paddling with the help of Jessie on the seashore, he comes into sensuous contact with the sea, a universally emblematic, elementary source of life; of course, Venus was herself born out of the sea. With the closing dissolve, Jessie, now an accomplished model, takes up the pose in the Velazquez painting and ‘becomes’ Venus. Thus life becomes art, or rather the representation of life becomes represented art – itself a representation.
Some Moral Perspectives
Having sampled something of the shifts in representational modes and their relationships to the ‘realities’ portrayed, let’s consider the interactions of the main characters to see some underlying features of the characters’ moral perspectives.
We’ll begin by contrasting Maurice’s unpretentious and blatant lust with Ian’s intention to elevate Jessie’s taste and educate her with literature and music. While possibly pretentious, at least Ian seems to have Jessie’s welfare in mind: he isn’t hoping to use her for his own ends at the expense of hers. On the other hand, Maurice would “have her” if he could – even treat her as a means only. To this extent at least, he is an amoral egoist, although he does claim to have tried only to give pleasure in his life and in his profession. Perhaps the energy that would have gone into physical intimacy, no longer feasible, is redirected into ‘theoretical’ intimacy, and is thus transmuted into acts of generosity and tenderness verging on Platonic affection.
Jessie finds this ambiguity difficult: an intimate relationship with Maurice is unthinkable – the prospect may appear revolting, probably a matter of biologically-based aversion – a reaction, rather than an ethical consideration. She and her boyfriend abuse his hospitality and generosity, and so use him for their ends. On other occasions Jessie seems to see things from his point of view, more or less, and sympathise with his predicament as an aging, impotent would-be seducer, conflating lust with love. Although flattered by his attention – with being his ‘Venus’ – she strives to take control, almost assuming the role of counsellor. Jessie may here be seen to be adopting a moral orientation of ‘care’ as opposed to that of ‘justice’. There is evidence to suggest that the former is more frequently associated with women, and the latter with men.
Valerie seems to share her perspective. Despite her husband’s philandering, we see Valerie portrayed as accepting, perhaps resigned. When she speaks with Jessie at Maurice’s wake, no judgement is apparent – just gentle curiosity and concern for her well-being, through an offer of temporary accommodation, for instance. This perspective can be contrasted with Ian’s or Jessie’s boyfriend’s: both are judgemental. For Ian, Maurice’s motivation regarding Jessie is categorically wrong; and in a confrontation, the boyfriend admonishes Maurice: “You, are a dirty old man.”
Overall, the characters rarely appear to reflect on the moral dilemmas they face, if at all. If they do, it’s very indirectly – and that’s putting it generously. Rather, they manage emotionally, intuitively, with what they have been able to absorb, as best they can, albeit inadequately – as though the vast ethical literature hardly exits for them as anything but a vague, barely-discernible trace on the horizon.
Was this a decision of the writer, director or actors; or was moral thinking and discussion something which they simply thought unimportant? (After all, Hanif Kureishi studied Philosophy at King’s College, London.) If it was a decision, then are we to think that the film is deliberately a sad reflection on what our culture has been able to equip its citizens with morally? Or alternatively, as an indication that despite this lack there is such a thing as natural virtue upon which we can rely to enable people to act well? If not a decision, then we could believe that the absence of any reference to the considerable body of ethical thought that would clarify the dilemmas faced by the characters was a missed opportunity. Perhaps since it’s a popular film, any explicit moral philosophy would simply put people off; they want to be entertained, and the film has to make a profit. On the other hand we need film to engage with issues explicitly. Why not use characters engaged unequivocally in moral discourse, even as role models? Other responses are possible, of course, but any further consideration would take us into the role of film in society; for instance, whether films should reflect the world as it is or the world as it ‘ought’ to be – imitation of the real, or of the ideal? This takes us back to where we began – talking about representation and imitation and citing Aristotle’s considerable influence in aesthetics.
It seems fitting then to end with some features of this influence as they relate to Venus. In terms of imitation (imitation of ‘essences’, for Stolnitz in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art Criticism, 1960, p.120) the universal is significant, ie what “such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do” as Aristotle says in Poetics, ch.8). Alluding to structure of a plot, what occurs is “to be the consequence, necessary or probable of the antecedents…” there being a “great difference between a thing happening propter hoc [‘because of’] and post hoc [‘after’].” (Poetics, ch.10.) Whilst the characters portrayed in the film are highly individual, nevertheless, if not quite ‘universal’ they are clearly ‘kinds’, and there is an inevitability about what occurs – it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. Yet to seem authentic, given their characters, their particular background histories, the circumstances and contexts of their meetings, the characters in a film or other story behaving as they do needs to appear highly probable, if not inevitable. In this film the writing, direction and editing, let alone the acting, work effectively and wittily to this end.
© Colin Brookes 2009
During a career teaching Art and as a university lecturer in Art and Education, Colin Brookes drew upon Aesthetics, Philosophy of Mind and Ethics. His M.Phil. concerned the relevance of Aesthetics to Content in Art Education. Retirement means time for more intensive thinking about these areas of philosophy.
• Venus, 2006, Dir: Roger Michell, Writer: Hanif Kureishi.