Monday, April 06, 2009

LLGFF: Ulrike Ottinger

Still from Madame X - an Absolute RulerThe festival capped off its mini-retrospective of Ulrike Ottinger with the premiere of Prater, her documentary on Vienna's famed amusement park, not her queerest work but one that encompasses many of her themes, both in terms of content and form: the sharp observation, playfulness, and fascination with exoticism, among others.

I found the film beautiful and also bewildering in parts, which may sum up my response to Ottinger's work as a whole. Her imagination sometimes leaves the viewer behind. Prater is in some ways the most straightforward of films, a documentary looking at an amusement park that serves as both pointer to the future and past, one which has pushed technology throughout its history but is also supremely kitsch, offering the comfort of nostalgia.

Ottinger, of course, has deeper concerns and her selection of attractions, including dancing monkey figures and rictus-grinning magicians, is telling. Within the long film are many stand-alone scenes, including one she described in the panel discussion as a "short film on machismo", an extraordinary sequence in which a group of young men unleashes a torrent of violence in pursuit of pleasure, egging each other on to ridiculous heights as they compete in a game.

The festival showed three of Ottinger's earlier works, Madame X - an Absolute Ruler, Johanna d'arc of Mongolia and The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press, illustrating her views on gender, sexuality and power relations.

Madame X, I was surprised to learn, was quite controversial on its release in 1977, with some feminists expressing outrage at its depiction of a group of women offering themselves in servility to the "absolute ruler", Madame X. Seeing it for the first time, I actually found the film quite mild and, indeed, chaste in its depiction of lesbian sexuality. But the suggestion of S/M was considered outrageous at the time, as was Bildnis einer Trinkerin, for its depiction of the sexual underworld of Berlin in 1979. A pity this latter wasn't up for re-consideration on its 30th anniversary.

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