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Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)


Main image of Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)
16 mm, colour, 99 mins
Written, Produced and Directed byLaura Mulvey; Peter Wollen
Production CompanyLaura Mulvey-Peter Wollen
PhotographyLouis Castelli
SoundLarry Sider

Cast: Debra Dolnansky (herself/Penthesilea); Michael Thomas; Jan Creighton; Jim Goode; Lisa Kephart; Peter Wollen

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A film in five sequences on the iconography of the woman of as warrior.

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Penthesilea, the first of six films made by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, traverses thousands of years to look at the image of the Amazonian woman in myth. It asks, among other questions, is the Amazonian woman a rare strong female image or is she a figure derived from male phantasy? The film explores the complexities of such questions, but does not seek any concrete answers.

Penthesilea is divided into five discrete sections. Peter Wollen describes the nature of this structure when he talks to camera (operated by Laura Mulvey) in the second. This is the one moment when intensions are addressed relatively directly. Wollen, reading a text, explains that films are usually edited to create an illusionary world in which viewers can immerse themselves. He and Mulvey, in contrast, "wanted to call this imaginary world into question," and the camera here reflects this intention. As he reads his text, the camera begins to draw away from him but, intriguingly, the volume of his speech remains the same. (Camera and reader increasingly act independently too.) This simple effect draws sharp attention to the fact that the camera does not assume the ears and eyes of a real person that we identify with - if that were the case, the volume would decrease. This is but one of several simple but imaginative deconstructive devices employed by the directors to encourage the viewer to question the 'illusionary world' of film and thus become more actively involved in their discussion of myth and the Amazonian woman.

The film begins with a theatrical mime version of Penthesilea, originally created by German writer and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. Wollen explains that this drew on the ancient story of the Amazonian Queen but that Kleist altered it to fit in with his own personal attitudes towards women. Later, we see a woman reading the words of a feminist over the images of a silent film about the women's suffrage movement. These two sections present male and female versions of the myth but also show how, paradoxically, new and old images exist in a form of dialogue. We understand the past through the present but the present is created out of what happened in the past. The filmmakers acknowledge that their own exploration of the myth adds another layer to this process by filming, in the last section, four monitors all showing previous sequences from the film.

William Fowler

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Video Clips
1. Calling the imaginary world into question (4:12)
2. Wonder Woman - the Amazon princess (2:46)
3. What 80 million women want (4:00)
Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)
Mulvey, Laura (1941-)
Wollen, Peter (1938-)