Representations of the Feminine in the Greek Crossover Films of Michael Cacoyannis and Jules Dassin

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    "Paradise" is also the subject of Cacoyannis' film, Stella (1955). Stella is a melodrama set in a taverna aptly called "Paradise," starring Melina Mercouri and George Foundas. Stella is a nightclub singer who so cherishes her freedom that she refuses to

Melina Mercouri
relinquish it even to marry Miltos, the man she loves. The thought of having to fulfill society's expectations of her as a "wife" is too much for Stella, and she rejects Miltos on their wedding day, by avoiding the wedding and instead having an affair with a young delivery boy. Miltos, a celebrated soccer player who is himself desired by many women in the film, cannot understand his rejection, and in his fury to possess her, murders her. His damaged ego is avenged by her death at the crossroads when he stabs her with a knife. The melodramatic conventions, handed down by the classics are all in place in the film. A traditional narrative structure is used, complete with exposition, climax, and denoument. Stella can be said to embody the harmartia, or tragic flaw, because she refuses to define herself by the social standards of the town. The tragic ending, where Mercouri's face is shown in a tight close-up, as she dies in her lover's arms, is also both a convention of the intimate death scene in classical literature, as well as a trope of the modern film melodrama. The confrontation at the crossroads draws on traditions as different as the classical Greek tragedy and the American Western (Shannan-Peckham and Michelakis, 74). Within these conventions, the message is clear: unwed women pose a threat to the patriarchical tradition and must be eliminated by the end of the film. The scene is also eerily similar to the death of the young widow in Zorba the Greek . It is full of contradiction: Why does he kill her if he loves her? Does she want to die? Why doesn't the community step in?

    In Stella, though there is no Western tourist present in the diegesis, there are many opportunities for the Western viewer to fetishize Greece, as in Zorba. "Paradise" is the place where we see Stella singing, dancing, and seducing the patrons. Where the American stereotype of women in the 1950s was quiet, submissive, asexual, and domestic, Stella is loud, defiant, controlling, and sexual. In exoticizing Greece, she represents the antithesis of the 1950s American woman, while at the same time upholding long-held beliefs about women's fate, from classical literature. Ultimately, she is punished for her lifestyle, a recognition that these two divergent aspects of female sexuality cannot be reconciled. What's more, the feminized characters and places in the film not only accept their fate willingly, but have been assimilated into believing their narrative situations. Far from resisting them, as a superficial reading of the film would suggest, Stella invites these male and foreign gazes.

    In his influential study, Ways of Seeing (1962), John Berger discusses the conventions of depicting the female body in Western art. His thesis is that women watch themselves being looked at by men, and this not only determines their relationships with them, but also the relationship between women and their own self-image. There is a power relationship involved in the act of gazing at women. The impulse for women to turn herself into an object to be consumed by the gaze gives men an active social role, and women a passive one. But, according to Berger, by using women as symbols of vanity, an artist can rid himself of any moralizing criticism: "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her. You put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the women whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure." (Berger, 51) This theory has been applied to film by Laura Mulvey in her ground-breaking article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1974): "Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" (Mulvey, 23). One of the prominent features of Stella's bedroom, as with Ilia and Madame Hortence, is the large wooden vanity, complete with a huge mirror for gazing at herself. This is the place where Stella's tragic narcissism shows through.

    In Stella, there are many places where Stella is the object of the male gaze. Through the "three looks" of the cinema and classical editing styles, she is the object of gaze of the male director, the male protagonist, and ultimately, the male spectator. She enjoys these gazes, offering herself to be looked at by the taverna's patrons, her many lovers, and by the film viewer. In line with Berger's comments, she also enjoys gazing at herself -- her room is plastered with photographs of herself, with ideal images of herself in the form of Hollywood pin-ups (she herself, discusses the color of her hair in an intertextual moment referring to the photo of Jean Harlow as a red-head), and there is even a poster hanging just below her window which advertises her own show. Perhaps the most intriguing scene where Stella seeks out the gaze is the opening, where she performs in the taverna. The person holding the spotlight is a bit incompetent, and as she sings for the crowd, she constantly chases the light, in order to be seen. She is outraged about the performance, which puts a kink in her own vain fantasy.

    Not surprisingly, the theme of vanity re-appears in Jules Dassin's Never on Sunday (1959). In the film, Mercouri plays the role of Ilia, a happy Greek prostitute who becomes the object of study for American journalist Homer Thrace (played by Dassin.) Ilia is the typical musical heroine, able to blur the reality of the story with the film's musical numbers. In this sense, she is the female equivalent to Zorba. Fun-loving, unintellectual, and pleasure-bound, Ilia rejects the classical world in favor of a debased modern existence. Homer, on a quest to find "the purity that was Greece," is frustrated by Ilia's care-free lifestyle, "You are a Greek... you should be logical... Aristotle was the father of logic." He then tries to re-educate Ilia with the "high culture" of the Western canon. They listen to Bach instead of Bouzouki music, read books instead of dancing, and remain celibate. "According to Homer's study plan, in order to achieve ideal Greekness, Ilia must replace her naive carnality with reason, judgement, critical thought, and introspection -- qualities that he considers the legacy of the ancient Greeks to Western culture" (Tsitsopoulou, 7). When Ilia recites her favorite Greek tragedy, Euripides' Medea, to a group of men who are also her customers, she changes the ending to make it "nicer." In Ilia's version, Medea simply pretended to have killed her children to win her husband back, and at the end, "they all went to the seashore together." In the end, Homer admits that more than educate Ilia, what he really wants is to sleep with her. His Pygmalion complex confirmed, he gives up his quest to save her, and joins the taverna full of men in watching Ilia dance, sing, and drink ouzo.

   Ancient Greece represents the narrative binary which is embodied by the male character, that of intellect and logic. Modern Greece, on the other hand, is the sensual, Dionysian escape from history, and represented by Ilia. While I do not deny the importance of films like Never on Sunday to the history of Greek cinema, nor do I reject the films on an artistic basis, I do feel that the glimpses given to American audiences by the Greek films of the 1950s and 60s need to be understood within a complex cultural and gendered framework. The ideologies presented by these films are responsible for constructing foreign notions about Greece's glorious past and present, as well as continuing very old stereotypes about women. These caricatures support the modern perception of Greece as a welcoming tourist resort. In 1950s and 60s popular Greek cinema, audiences got two stereotypes for the price of one: one reinforces ideas about women and female sexuality which have already been imagined in the classical ideal, the other exoticizes Greece for its "third worldist" attributes, as an all-work-and-no-play retreat where women are bold and sexual, and the landscape provides all the pleasures of the body. Both Greek women and land are penetrable- a Dionysian escape for the Western virtual tourist. What's worse, in all of these representations, Greece is a willing participant in her fetishization. This is where a bookish Englishman can start a tree-mining outfit, fall in love with an ill-fated widow, and find the cure for his writer's block. It is where American journalist Homer Thrace comes to find the answer to the eternal question about "the fall of ancient Greece," and instead falls for leading lady Melina Mercouri, a prostitute, with a good heart. In Greece, you will find Stella singing at the "Paradise" bar. She is eternally available for romance, but not marriage.

    As evidenced by the success of contemporary films like For Your Eyes Only (1981), Mediterraneo (1991), and Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), the stereotypes of the happy whore, the tragic widow, and the threatening spinster are slow to die. Film tourists like the idea of sexually available women, especially when they are tethered to a narrative about the modern Greek state. With the realities of the sex slave trade at the northern border of Greece, it is perhaps a more dangerous time than ever to define Greek women in these narrow ways on the screen. Luckily, in the year 2002, there are many female directors emerging from Greece and the Greek diaspora, who have been trained in formal film programs around the world (Olga Malea, for one.) It will be interesting to see the kinds of films produced by these women, who have just begun to articulate the deep histories of the people and places that embody a wide spectrum of what can be called "Greekness."

April Kallas Householder is a film teacher and graduate student in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Maryland. She is currently working on a documentary film about the Greek freedom fighter, Laskarina Bouboulina.                                     


    1 See Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration. New York: Routledge, 1990. In his introduction, Bhabha defines the nation as a set of margins which inscribe a particular imaginary space. The minority status of anyone or anything outside of that space "is a much more substantial intervention into those justifications of modernity -- progress, homogeneity, cultural organicism, the deep nation, the long past -- that rationalize the authoritarian, 'normalizing' tendencies within cultures in the name of the national interest... The ambivalent antagonistic perspective of nation as narration will establish the cultural boundaries of the nation so that they may be acknowledged as 'containing' thresholds of meaning that must be crossed, erased, and translated in the process of cultural production."(p. 4)

    2 A term taken from George Seferis, to describe the "rule of tourism": "I am no great admirer of touristokratia tarnishing our age..." From "All Things Are Full of Gods," trans. Peter Bien. The Charioteer: An Annual Review of Modern Greek Culture. No. 27, 1985.

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