Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's film (1977) addresses the position of women in patriarchy
through the prism of psychoanalysis. Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) draws on the critical
writings and investigations by both filmmakers into the codes of narrative
cinema, and offers an alternative formal structure through which to consider the
images and meanings of female representation in film.
The film is constructed in three sections and 13 chapters, combining Mulvey's
own to-camera readings around the myth of Oedipus's encounter with the Sphinx
with a series of very slow 360 degree panning shots encompassing different
environments, from the domestic to the professional. Louise, the narrative's
female protagonist, is represented through a fragmented use of imagery and
dialogue, in an attempt to break down the conventional narrative structures of
framing and filming used to objectify and fetishise women in mainstream cinema.
This could be seen as a formal development of the Lacanian analyses that Mulvey
had applied to the female image in film in essays such as 1975's 'Visual
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (in Screen).
Riddles of the Sphinx attempts to construct a new relationship between the
viewer and the female subject, presenting her through multiple female voices and
viewpoints. The dialogue, constructed from the different voices of Louise, her
friends and fellow workers, brings a shifting and ambiguous range of meanings to
the film, in contrast to the explanatory authority associated with a
conventional voice-over. Other voices and images from outside the film's
narrative world also question and disrupt pre-supposed meanings and symbols of
the woman within and without the screen; from the mythical enigma of the Sphinx
to the appearances of artist Mary Kelly and Mulvey herself.
As Mulvey herself subsequently put it, "What recurs overall is a constant
return to woman, not indeed as a visual image, but as a subject of inquiry, a
content which cannot be considered within the aesthetic lines laid down by
traditional cinematic practice."