Ulrike Ottinger and Tabea Blumenschein’s Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1977) screens tonight at 92YTribeca.
So a grad student of psychology, a roller-skating contemporary artist, an aspiring tomboy astronaut, an oversexed Italian supermodel, a weary housewife/mother of four, a disgraced “native girl” and a foresteress/”way-out admirer of Goethe” climb aboard a pirate ship. They have all received, in their respective environs, the same radio signal, promising love, gold, and adventure at the beck and call of the mysterious Madame X (co-director Tabea Blumenschein). In writer/director Ulrike Ottinger’s words, their invitation is to join the “adventure of reality”—which appears to be a no-guys-allowed utopia floating apart from what one character terms the “straight-jacket of civilization.” As they say in coffee table books, the journey is the destination!
X herself is a blonde enigma wrapped in shimmering gold and black leather. Rather than words, she speaks in karate-chop movements and staccato salutes. She named the junk Orlando after her long-lost ex-girlfriend, killed by a carniverous jellyfish who also nabbed X’s left hand in the process. On the boat, she holds court regularly: under her unspeaking gaze, the native girl dances, the grad student analyzes, and the characters mill about in the tribal aftermath of their euphoric self-awakening.
It’s not quite as wild as it might sound, because Madame X is essentially constructed as a fairy tale. Those expecting a gritty, humorless essay film will be pleasantly surprised: Ottinger and Blumenschein paint in splashes of vivid color, warm flesh tones and icy ocean blue. It’s rooted in a period of bitter ideological debate, and so the approach is probably not for everybody. The artist character is given a brief impromptu interview as to her departure, wherein she explains: “I wish to escape from the oppression of a love that has served, in and of itself, as a distraction from the vicissitudes and discipline required of creative work. ”
Madame X’s headlong rush to get to the boat comprises its first 30 minutes; things get decidedly slower thereafter, but that’s no accident. The characters are cast in their comic-strip molds to demonstrate the difficulty, even within a “free” society—which, as you may have guessed, grows to more closely resemble a cult—of breaking them. The result is a little poignant, frequently absurd, and shot with modernist dash that’d turn Wes Anderson a lighter shade of pale.
The film’s pinnacle is the hijacking of another ship the crew finds in the ocean, chock full of glistening bourgeois Aryans who can’t help ooh-ing aah-ing over the costumes on the Orlando. Madame X doesn’t think it’s funny, and hijinks ensue. Whether her assault on their ship is driven by disgust or fear is open to debate, but it quickly ends any debate about her sadism. (One useful choice by the directors: overdubbing X’s mechanised arm movements with a decidedly male grunting sound, better suited to an action movie, suggesting that this kind of monolithic autocracy is gender-neutral.)
At 144 minutes the pace can be a little, let’s say, nautical, but Ottinger and Blumenschein clearly found joy in creating the more surreal cinematic moments from scratch. One master shot of the Orlando, towards the end of the film, confirms that the boat is remarkably close to land; whether by accident or design, it’s a witty analogue of the issues facing the characters on their spiritual journey. While the film’s style doesn’t communicate its intellectual ambitions 100%, the result is a surprisingly fun and clear-headed critique (not to be confused with a dismissal) of prescriptive feminism. You think it’s hard emancipating yourself from patriarchy? Try making a good movie on a boat!