On Jean Rouch's film, The Punishment

Jean Rouch's film, The Punishment, seems often to be given as a feminist film sympathetic to the sexual harassment women experience on the street. I propose it is something else entirely.

At the end of this analysis is a link to an excellent piece on sexual harassment, by Coco Fusco, the relevance of which extends beyond art schools. She begins with her account of the director, Jean Rouch, sexually accosting her when she was looking for a film job.

I came across Coco Fusco's article after watching Rouch's 1952 film The Punishment. The movie had troubled me, while viewing it, as the plot, dialogue and denouement struck me as out of sync with the feminist sentiments that seem typically presumed of and attributed to it, even running counter the usual interpretation.

The Punishment concerns a senior high school student, Nadine, who receives a day's suspension for not paying attention in class, and uses this free day to wander Paris. She ends in spending her time with first a youngish male stranger, then a male of student age who is a friend, and, third, an older male who is a stranger. The first young man presses upon her for some friendly conversation in a park and she concedes. When she talks about wanting grand adventure, he makes it clear the kind of adventure he is pursuing has to do with a sexual interest in her. She declines, and so they instead spend time together wandering in a companionable manner, after which she bizarrely presses for him to run off with her, to escape the mundane, to do it without any plan, without money, to hop a train and go. He tells her there must be a plan and money, even for adventure, and they part. Nadine then runs into a young man she knows, who is also of high school age, and she tells him that she has learned that morning that "crazy love" doesn't exist. From Africa, he tells her he will probably have to return as he hasn't found placement in a high school that year. She presses him to take her along. Going to Africa would be an adventure for her, getting away from everyday existence. There is no hint of a romantic attachment in this story, and the young man simply tells her how impossible it would be and that she wouldn't like it. Once again, Nadine is disappointed and she parts from her friend after touring a museum. The third man she meets is an older scientist who approaches her when she is looking through books for sale at a street market. Again, Nadine says she is looking for an adventure. The scientist offers to give her a ride in his car to where she wants to go, questioning her all the while, in the interest of science, stating this is an experiment. Nadine has suggested they go to the Eiffel Tower, which has surprised the man that she would choose this for her adventure. This plan fails as it's crowded with tourists, so they end up at the man's home, for tea. During the course of their conversations, Nadine tells the man she has learned "crazy love" doesn't exist and eventually inquires what he'd say if she asked him to run away with her. Time and time again, she has resisted the idea that money is a prerequisite for the kind of adventures she desires, and that the reality wouldn't be what she imagines. She resists being told that she doesn't need new horizons in unfamiliar places, that adventure can be had in daily life where she is. This older man, who she has already immaturely mocked for being bald, and for the way he speaks, tells her that her invitation couldn't possibly be serious, that she is already growing bored with him. In the meanwhile, Nadine has let her hair down out of the tidy constraint of her scarf. Rouch's camera passes over their bodies as they sit in opposing chairs, their knees a couple of inches from one another. I felt, with the languor of Rouch's camera work, he was giving the impression that the girl's experiment is seeking a sexual advance that will not happen, and the scientist even alludes to this, and tells her she is indiscreet when she asks what kind of woman usually attracts him, her curiosity stirred by a woman they met at his building's entrance who she could tell knew the man. As the scientist predicted, Nadine is so bored, or tired, that she falls asleep even while he tells her she is not really interested in him. He says he will drive her home. The film's conclusion shows her wandering the street at night, window shopping. She is now no longer open to speaking with any man who approaches her, and many do, attempting to strike up a conversation. We have finally gotten around to the kind of behavior that women experience daily, being typically unable to pursue a solo outing without not just being approached but, more often, encountering a kind of outright, bullying, hostile harassment that doesn't occur in the film--and this is important, that this kind of harassment doesn't occur in the film. Nadine tersely, impatiently rebuffs every man, and also the attentions of one woman.

Thus, the film is described as a woman coping with street harassment.

The Punishment is nouvelle vague cinema and gives the impression, at least, of a good deal of improvisational dialogue--but just how improvisational is it, I don't know, and even if there is improvisation, as opposed to dialogue being scripted, parameters would have been given, a guide. There was a plan. This plan and what it was intended to convey confused me. Throughout the film I was thinking of the man behind the story, and his motives, when I should have been thinking of Nadine, which meant to me that Nadine didn't depict the real stresses and experience of the proposed young woman. Nadine, less than being a character, is an idea. The sense of improvisation to the dialogue aims to create a flesh-and-blood character but it is a false veneer.

Nadine's adventures had opened with the narration, poorly translated from French to subtitle English, "For the first time, here is the path of adventure, where we look for something mysterious. It is the passage we read in books. The old path that was blocked, that the prince, exhausted, couldn't find the entrance. We can find it at the lost hour of the morning, when we forgot that it was going to be 11 o'clock, noon."

However poorly translated, we get the gist.

Some viewers see Rouch, the ethnographer, by means of the girl, knowingly, wisely revealing to every man, with her invitation to run away, and their immediate objections, how they are not free. With her asking each to run away with her, she is also seen as resisting victimization, which is an interpretation that looks upon Nadine as self-empowering. But her African friend did not victimize her and still she asked to run away with him, to have him take her with him to Africa.

Another viewer states that, crossing into adulthood, Nadine discovers that men "mistake their oppressive sense of entitlement and sexual interests for adventure and philosophy". Perhaps so. I mean, this happens in real life, but I don't believe this is what Rouch is intending to communicate. The older man doesn't sexually approach Nadine. As far as entitlement, Nadine does, in fact, confront the scientist as being privileged in his profession, he doesn't have to labor in work he doesn't enjoy because of a want of resources and opportunity, which is an interesting bit of conversation to which I'll return later.

After Nadine has fallen asleep in the armchair, the man says he will drive her home, back to her parents. There then immediately follows this curious bit of narration:

"Ah Justine, puny creature, do you think men are naïve enough to give charity to little girls like you? Without asking for the interest of their money? This man is too good, to act the way he did. If I was him, I wouldn’t have let you leave my place without you pleasuring me."

The young woman's name is Nadine, but the narrator calls her Justine. Certainly, this is intended to reference the Marquis de Sade's Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, in which a woman holds steadfast to innocence, refusing to be corrupted in her morals in any way, while enduring relentless abuses. Therese, a destitute individual, relates to a Madame de Lorsagne the tale of Justine's woes, which have a companion story of Justine's sister, Juliette, who not only succumbs to vice but takes pleasure in it and is enriched by it. As it turns out, Therese is, of course, Justine, and Madame de Lorsagne is revealed to be her sister, the sinner Juliette. Madame de Lorsagne, rather than having been punished for a life of vice, rose in status to a position from which, living in considerable comfort, she could eventually do good, whereas Therese's existence had been utterly wretched and left her with nothing. In a privileged position to rescue Therese, De Lorsagne does so, but it doesn't save her. Therese/Justine consequently falls into a depression, is struck by lightning and killed.

The name of the film, The Punishment , fits with the continual abuse of Justine's innocence and confounding naivete. But is Nadine being punished for being a woman, unable to have a solitary walk without enduring harassment? I wondered, feeling Rouch throughout the film, presiding over it, what in the world he was intending to communicate with Nadine, who craves adventure. Two strangers approached her and presumed upon her for conversation. The first one eventually clarified he was interested in her sexually, but that wasn't going to happen so they just wandered around talking. The older man applied no sexual pressure at all. The second man was a friend who was himself in disappointing straits and was only confused by Nadine wanting to go to Africa with him.

What is actually happening in the film? It seems instead that Nadine, who has said she takes no happiness in anything, is disinterested in anything around her, who finds no door to adventure in her surroundings, or the people she comes across in her daily life, is possibly the person who Rouch is making the object of criticism. One could argue that, at the end of the day, the criticism is reserved for Nadine in her rebuffing all who approach her to chat her up. Toward film's end, the only living thing that Nadine approaches is a cat that she pets then releases. Contrary what the film appears to be saying (or is taken for granted as saying), it seemed to me that Nadine was instead criticized for not finding adventure in daily life and the chance encounters that accompany it, even if those who initiate those encounters have sexual motivations. Just as Justine/Therese is rescued by her sister who took things as they came, didn't fight the tide, instead took advantage of vice and rose in status and comfort, whereas Justine/Therese was only debased, fell into depression and was struck by lightning, which is the ultimate punishment, it seems that Nadine's punishment is her withdrawal from encounters initiated by these others, becoming hostile, and only stooping to pet the cat.

What happened to Coco Fusco? Rouch was in his 60s. She was 22. He was supposed to take her to a restaurant to meet a producer. He instead took her to his house in the countryside. He stripped to his thong to grill steak for their dinner and told her to hunt for berries. He said he wanted to act out his dreams with her. She refused to participate. On the ride back, he called her naive, manhandled her, and finally ripped her shirt. After the ripping of her shirt, at a traffic light, she fled the car.

Though the film, The Punishment, may be described as a woman's troubles with having to navigate harassment on the street, I instead think that may be what a sensitive viewer wants to see, what they want to want and expect Rouch's story to be, when Rouch may have been saying something quite different, which makes more explicable his behavior with Coco Fusco. As far as he was perhaps concerned, Coco was unreasonably denying herself the pleasure of an adventure with him (and, as with the narrator of The Punishment, he may have considered her naive to think she could expect a man's charity without having to pay sexual favors in return).

We can then look back on Nadine's conversation with the scientist on his privileged status and see it in the appropriate light, in context of De Sade's Justine. The scientist had told Nadine that after the age of thirty all people are in jobs they like, unless they are absolute failures. Nadine countered that's not so, that he was speaking from a position of privilege, and that some people, like the older female janitor in her building, and workers at an auto plant, haven't had the opportunities that would avail them the ability to pursue employment they'd enjoy, at which they wouldn't be miserable. The scientist had absolutely resisted Nadine's views, and we can now realize that, with this as well, Rouch's sympathies were instead likely with the scientist, who stated he understood what Nadine was saying but that his observation was still true regardless. Rouch simply saw Nadine, who doesn't like anything, as enjoying misery. Rather than the film aiming to make us experience and abhor the kind of misogynistic harassment women typically face, the onus is placed on Nadine as perceiving opportunities for adventure with her fellow human beings as unwanted harassment.

Approx 2300 words or 4 and 1/2 pages single-spaced. 18 minutes read at 130 wpm.

Please now read Coco Fusco's, How the Art World, and Art Schools, Are Ripe for Sexual Abuse.


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