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From Door Frame to Freeze Frame: Femmes Ante Portas

Presentation. CUNY Graduate Center, New York, Framed: Delimiting the Film Image, A Cinema Studies Group interdisciplinary graduate conference, April 2008. Revised & edited, December 2020.

Keywords: femme fatale, icon, gaze, frame, portal, Hollywood, animus/anima, archetypal image, post-Jungian analysis, moving image, myth.

Author: © Milana Vujkov

The idea for this paper came mostly from a discourse I did not follow since I wrote Fallen Women in Hollywood Melodrama 1930s-1950s, as part of a Melodrama studies module, during my MA History of Film and Visual Media studies. The Hollywood femme fatale type had long interested me, as appearing in films or literary fiction, or indeed the comic book format, since childhood, really. These types of characters always held a certain fascination for me, they seemed to possess a boldness for life, combined with a secret knowledge of the truth of things, and were, at least in my eyes, much more interesting and intriguing than any male heroes of the story. Perhaps because I could fully immerse myself in identification with them in my own imaginal space.

Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929, Germany)

Dangerous, witty, sexual, most of the time they seemed to know exactly what they wanted, and although their goals were mainly seductive and mercenary in nature, and not particularly morally admirable in a conventional way, they still had a strength of conviction I felt was lacking in their male partners. Of course, they were always, conveniently, breathtakingly beautiful.

During the years I became casually, although increasingly, interested in the mechanism of my identification with these cinematic ego-ideals, and ways in which my admiration for these characters affected my notion of desirable feminine attributes and behaviour. The established (early) feminist perspective proposes that what I was offered through the fixed images of these women was ‘an identification with the active point of view’, 1 that of the male hero, or male author of the narrative, and that my gaze was a transgender male gaze, while the object of my interest was a two-dimensional male fantasy figure.

Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930, Germany/USA)

This could have answered the question of why I was so fascinated with the glamour of these Hollywood femmes and attractiveness they held for the men in the stories. However, it did not satisfy my curiosity as to why my identification with these alluring and slightly shady ladies gave me a very real sense of active female empowerment, rather than just the pleasure of sexual contest feeding a classical Freudian investment of energy, and displacement that generally stagnates into female narcissism,2 and the dubious thrills of the proverbial ‘power behind the throne’.

Since I will be analysing the film texts using Jungian textual analysis, rooted in the intuitive and emotional response of the interpreter3 rather that the substantially more popular Freudian analytical discourse – my renewed instinctive response to the images of Hollywood femme fatales that I was about to review for the purposes of this paper was as relevant as the actual analysis of the film text.

Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939, USA)

Well aware that for centuries women have certainly and dominantly tended to ‘internalise men’s images of them, making them their own4 and thus succumbing to the pressure of patriarchal society’s ‘persistently promoted pre-verbal symbols5 I was eager to see if I was as brain-washed as I was supposed to have been as a young girl. I wondered if my renewed intuitive viewing of some archival footage would produce an entirely different effect, being that I was now actively and consciously aware of the mechanism and the gender politics behind constructing of the said narratives.

The first thing I have noticed in viewing the selected film texts is that all of them had, in one way or another, a dominant femme fatale as plot device, to be looked at, while the actual diegetic gaze of these women, however, seemed to be an active, even aggressive one. Men, and the audience gazed at them, for sure – but they, most definitely, seemed to gaze back.

Veronica Lake in The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942, USA)

Very frequently the femme fatales were introduced to the story in a ‘frame within a frame’ – a favourite visual device were the architectural lines of doorways, archways, corridors, windows, mirrors, windshields, and sometimes, if their characters were performers – they appeared, limb-by-limb, from behind drawn curtains. Framed, icon-like, at entrances and exits, gazing back at the hero, and therefore, the audience, they seemed to be in perpetual defiance of male dominance, as a challenge to imposed authority. Almost always a reverse-shot was employed, as well, and the spectator was given the opportunity to witness the femmes point-of-view (however falsely constructed it might have been).

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944, USA)

When I applied the Jungian method of amplification, primarily responding to my emotions in encountering the image-as-symbol of a powerful female figure fixed in her posture and gaze at a portal, I began connecting it to my personal value system and history, with all the variety of associations that this experience brings. My first impression was of the icon as used in Christian mythology, particularly of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which I am a part of – an icon as bearer of religious significance and bestowed with the power of deity. And, as St. Basil the Great pointed out (conveniently for the purposes of my argument) – the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the archetype.6

The doors, entrances and corridors, inevitably, brought upon associations of female mysteries, the hidden female reproductive organs, the vagina, as well as the vagina dentata, barriers, protection, as well as openness and invitation – but also the Gates of Heaven, Gates of Hell, Pandora’s box, closing and opening of portals as the underlying rhythm of the Universe, and amusingly enough – saloon doors of Western lore, the moment when the arch-villain gunslinger appears and the real challenge to the hero begins.

Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946, USA)

The chiaroscuro element of positioning a beautiful women at the point where darkness and light meet, whether she is entering from the light into the darkness of the room, or emerging from the darkness into the light, brings upon the associations not only of bringing unconscious elements of the psyche into consciousness, but also of seductive monsters guarding the gates of a sacred place, and therefore, the archetype of the Sphinx, as well.

In analysing these associations, I decided that they were, although subjectively coloured in nature, in synch with the actual logic of the characters in the diegesis of the analysed film texts, and this further led me to formulate several lines of enquiry.

Firstly, could these iconic images be active within their static nature, just as the icons in Christian iconography are bestowed with divine power simply by representing the divine being? Could they be fixed images that are in turn animated by the sheer power of representing an archetype, by being, therefore, archetypal images, rather than merely objectified for the indulgence in scopophilic fetishism of the cinema audience, the cut-out icons that bring upon the ‘freezing of the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation’, as Laura Mulvey has coined it,7 conjuring a sense of flatness positioned to titillate, rather than bring verisimilitude to the screen8?

Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shaghai (Orson Welles, 1947, USA/France)

Even more to the point, icons in old Christian tradition, and therefore, in our collective unconsciousness, as opposed to their contemporary connotations in the vernacular, have not only the two visible dimensions, but also, most importantly, a third – the divine aspect that ‘activates’ them, brings them into life.

I was left with the inevitable question, of course: what archetype in our collective minds do these women represent, exactly? What archetype was I subliminally honouring by being so inspired by these texts?

At this point I’m arguing not so much for the conscious intention of the filmmakers to purposefully create screen goddesses, rather for the subversive affect these emerging deities might have had on the female viewer. As Sandra Kemp argued, a change of perspective applying the facilities of active imagination opens up the possibility of ‘redefining the art-object as a temporal matter, a becoming-object rather than a being-object’ 9 which clears the path for countless new opportunities of reinterpreting already familiar and traditionally over-analysed texts.

Jane Greer in Out Of The Past (Jaques Tourneur, 1947, USA)

This, in turn, led me to the second phase of the process of amplification, which is made within the symbolic text, where clusters of images endowed with archetypical energies can be found, and their symbolism uncovered by their unifying emotional power.10 Undoubtedly, the archetype that these women seemed to be vessels for was the dark lady, the negative anima, the witch and the demoness, an evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction and downfall,11 the shadow aspect of Eve, the primordial mother Lilith, the arch-female herself, and one of the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture.

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953, USA)

Nevertheless, during the last millennium of monotheistic patriarchy, witches were burned at the stake, and however two-dimensional this Manichaean screen depiction of women might seem to us today, the novelty is that in the 20th century, and especially in the cinema, the femme fatale seemed to be not-so-secretly, quite openly, almost paganly, venerated. She was a fascinating creature to depict, especially through the vehicle of a star. Hollywood is a town built on glamour, and it would be useful to mention at this point – on Judeo-Christian mythology, as well.

And although the anima is presented by Jung as a contrasexual archetype in men, a projection of an aspect of the psyche that has characteristics of the feminine, and is unexpressed and unacknowledged consciously – its counterpart being the animus, in women, an archetypal image has an universalising potential for all humans. However, it is shaped and coloured by the culture of its time in order to communicate through its language and signifying systems.12

And so it is through the cultural unconsciousness, as the site of collision of psychic energies originating from the collective unconsciousness and the contradictions of oppressive social formations13 that these generic images are born, and quite often due to the very nature of their origins embody desires and fears not yet consciously felt in society.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958, USA)

In other words, these archetypal images of the mythological destructive, but (hence) active feminine archetype predicted the future yet to come. They certainly prophesised an increasing feeling of collective ambivalence towards the full power and authority of the feminine, as well as, Weher has noted,14 revealing the intensity of our conditioning in viewing the symbols of female authority in society. 

In understanding the transformation of the original cinematic Hollywood femme fatale into a new hybrid form of the femme fatale as action figure, ‘freeze framed‘ at will for the contemplation of the home-cinema viewer, we need to keep in mind that whatever happens to the images that are the vehicles by which archetypes find expression – the archetypes themselves are never destroyed. They surface again in another form.15

Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967, USA)

The gender progressive 1920s, with the birth of talkies, and cinema as we know it, brought to the fore two femme fatale archetypes, the androgyne, distant Garbo, on the one hand, and the voluptuous, sassy Mae West, on the other, the perfect combinations of the cinematic animus and the anima, followed by an array of flapper gold-diggers, the ‘tarts with hearts’ and wise-cracking working girls. A femme fatale would lead the men astray in order to have her fun, and only lost in the game of love if they fell in love. The 1930s, pre-Code, were even more sophisticated in the presentation of strong female characters, but it seemed that the femmes gained too much too soon, only losing out if they were carried away by their ambition and power drive. In the late 1930s and the 1940s, the post-Code, World War II era, the femme fatale became the villainess, not a real woman, but a doppelganger, as Haskell argued, a magnet that draws off the impurities of other women and disinfects them16 – the form with which we most associate the type in cinema today. This portrayal of women as predators, brought upon no doubt by the usurped collective shadow of the War, also coincided with women taking up men’s jobs en masse due to the very real labour shortage.

Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974, USA)

The reactionary and curiously sexually repressed 1950s brought back home the traumatised hero, urging the femmes to leave behind their hard-won freedom and the working place, and retreat to a domestic bliss of gadgets and ennui. This, in turn, inevitably brought upon a significant decline in the femme fatales as leads, unless in an overtly parodied form- the ‘real deal’ would only occasionally pop up as a minor character. However, the power of the archetype they represented would usually form a hidden narrative, as in the case of ‘fallen women’ in Hollywood melodrama of the time.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the true advent of feminism, and as a collective patriarchal reaction to it, the fatales ironically almost disappeared from the screen, and were only in full force as a possible partner in crime to the angst-ridden male protagonists, as in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), or in subgenre, where they could breathe more easily, as with Pam Grier, in a series of her blaxploitation films.

In the late 1970s, with the growing popularity of the horror genre, we witnessed the curious capacities of the emerging Final Girl character, a term coined by Carol Clover. The last character standing in the showdown with the maniacal (and often strangely feminised) male psychotic murderer at large – as Clover argues, her ‘triumph depended on her assumption of the gaze’. Her adopted masculinity was, however, the key to her success, and that was the discomfort for the feminist viewer, labelling her ‘an agreed upon fiction’, a vehicle for a male viewer’s own sadomasochistic fantasies.17

Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981, USA)

Nevertheless, we cannot deny the importance of this new type of heroine for the female audience. The Final Girl not only outsmarted, but also out-gazed her assailant.18

In the meantime, something was furiously boiling underneath the surface – as mentioned above, an archetype cannot disappear – it can only be suppressed, pushed underground, and appear with more brute force next time around. The 1980s and early 1990s brought upon the most hard-nosed, self-possessed, devious, and most importantly, unapologetic femme fatale archetypes we have ever seen on screen thus far. Villainesses with a happy ending, like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Jennifer Tilly in Bound (Wachowskis, 1996, USA)

Finally, somewhere in the fusion of the 1980s’ new hard-core femme fatale, the antagonist that thrives, and the Final Girl, the heroine that survives, the new, masculinised, yet highly feminine and sexualised action figure of the femme fatale appeared, as seen in the likes of Nikita, The Bride, Lara Croft and so many female super-heroines of the fantasy-adventure and neo-noir genres. Thus, bringing us full circle to the femme fatale androgyny of the early 1920s, the animus and anima intertwined (or perhaps to gender fluidity, as defined in some segments of social theory in the 21st century). The phallocentric 20th century cinema seems to have, with some irony, paid subliminal animus homage to women’s lib.

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Volume 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004, USA)

Bursting out from the constraints of their ‘frame within a frame’, or ‘icon mantelpiece’ in the cinema of yore, this dynamic femme fatale, or more precisely, and in-line with our post-Jungian theme – the archetypal image of the active feminine principle – is now fully animated, a staple of narrative power dynamics in contemporary Hollywood cinema, and firmly rooted in the minds and hearts of the spectacle film-goer. A fresh form of an icon to venerate, emulate, and inevitably, transform.


Caughie, John & Kuhn, Annete (ed.). The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader In Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1995)

Durgnat, Raymond, Eros in the Cinema (London: Calder and Boyars Ltd, 1966)

Hauke, Christopher & Alister, Ian (ed.) Jung & Film: Post-Jungian Takes on the Moving Image (London: Routledge, 2005)

Haskell, Molly, From Reverence To Rape: The Treatment Of Women In The Movies (Chicago & London: The University Of Chicago Press, 1987)

Izod, John, Myth, Mind and Screen: Understanding The Heroes Of Our Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Jung, Carl G., Man and His Symbols, (London: Arkana, 1990)

Kaplan, Ann (ed.), Women in Film Noir, (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1989)

Katz, Ephraim, The Macmillan International Film Encyclopaedia, (London: Macmillan, 2001)

Mayne, Judith, Cinema and Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1995)

Papadoupoulos, Renos K. (ed.) The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications (London: Routledge, 2006)

Thorman, Sue (ed.), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005)

Internet Source: www. wikipedia.org


Blue Angel (Joseph Von Sterneberg, 1930, Germany/USA)

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981, USA)

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967, USA)

Bound (Wachowski Brothers, 1996, USA)

Cabaret, (Bob Fosse, 1972, USA)

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958, USA)

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974, USA)

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944, USA)

Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987, USA)

Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974, USA)

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999, UK/USA)

Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002, USA)

Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming,1939, USA)

Kill Bill I & II (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004, USA)

LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997, USA)

La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990, France)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001, UK/USA)

Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005, USA)

Moulin Rouge, (Baz Luhrmann, 2001, Australia/USA)

Murder My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944, USA)

Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953, USA)

Out Of The Past (Jaques Tourneur, 1947, USA)

Pandora’s Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst,1929, Germany)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994, USA)

The English Patient, (Anthony Mingnella, 1996, UK/USA)

The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler,1942, USA)

The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990, USA)

The Hot Spot, (Dennis Hopper, 1990, USA)

The Lady From Shaghai (Orson Welles, 1947, USA/France)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946, USA)

Touch of Evil  (Orson Welles, 1958, USA)

1 Laura Mulvey, Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Kong Vidor’s ‘Duel In The Sun’; (Framework 16-16-17, summer 1981); (ed) Sue Thorman, Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p.124.

2 Molly Haskell, From Reverence To Rape: The Treatment Of Women In The Movies (Chicago & London: The University Of Chicago Press, 1987), p.383.

3 John Izod, Myth, Mind and Screen: Understanding The Heroes Of Our Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) p.8.

4 Izod, 2001, p.66.

5 Demaris Wehr, Jung and Feminism: Liberating Archetypes (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987: p.123-4, citing Emma Jung, Anima and Animus: Two Essays, 1957: p.20, Izod, 2001, p.48.

6 Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit 18:45: ‘The honour paid to the image passes to the prototype‘ Icon/Wikipedia.

7 Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema, (Screen: Visual and Other Pleasures, Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1975); Sue Thorman (ed), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p.63

8 Thorman (ed), 2005, p. 63: Mulvey, 1975.

9 Sandra Kemp, Reading Difficulties, Patrick Campbell (ed.) Analysing Performance: a Critical Reader (Manchester; Manchester University Press, 1996, p.155),  Izod, 2001, p.29.

10 Izod, 2001, p.28.

11 Janey Place, Women in Film Noir; Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir (London: BFI Publishing, 1989), p.35.

12 Izod, 2001, p.47.

13 Rushing, Janice Hocker and Thomas S. Frentz, Integrating Ideology and Archetype in Rhetorical Criticism, Quarterly Journal of Speech: 1991, p.391), Izod, 2001, p.50.

14 Izod, 2001: Weher, 1987, p.24.

15 Izod, 2001, p.150

16 Haskell, 1987, p.60.

17 Carol J. Clover, Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, J. Donald (ed.) Fantasy and the Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 1989), Thornham (ed.), 2005, p.242.

18 Thornham (ed.), 2005: Colver, 1989, p.245.

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