Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia

04/18/2010

West Germany / 1989 / French, German, Russian & Mongolian

Directed by Ulrike Ottinger

With Delphine Seyrig, Xu Re Huar, Inés Sastre

Still from 'Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia'On an elegant and old-fashioned Trans-Siberian Railway car, we are introduced to a diverse set of passengers. There are a glamorous Broadway star (the improbably-named Fanny Ziegfeld) and her compartment-mate, a dowdy and effete German schoolteacher named Frau Mueller-Vohwinkle; there is the art collector from England, Lady Windermere, who is a font of knowledge on Mongolia and the world in general; and there is Mickey Katz, an obese Jewish tenor and patron of Siberian shaman. In these cloistered and highly stylized surroundings, this strange collection of people gets to know one another on their long journey.

In the second class car, crowded in with Russian soldiers and fur-clad Mongolians is a teenaged backpacker named Giovanna, unsure of her destination but intent on losing her self, her notions of identity, in a far off and strange place. Lady Windermere plucks the girl from this rough-and-tumble mode of travel and takes her back to her compartment, a chinoiserie of beautiful artifacts and stories, to take a bath and change clothes. The two of them adjourn to the ornate dining car, and the other passengers watch in astonishment as Mickey verbosely orders an elaborate meal that is an epic and inedible feat of taxidermy, centred by a large, stuffed swan. He regales everyone with an Al Jolson song, Fanny sings her latest hit, and the Kalinka Sisters, a glitzy vocal and instrumental girl group straight out of some American G.I. canteen in Berlin, perform.

On the second leg of the voyage, on a Chinese train that dives southward from the Russian Far East down into the wide expanses of Mongolia, the journey is stopped abruptly by a team of female warriors on horseback who have made a pile of sand on the track. The leader, a powerful Mongolian princess named Ulan Iga, requests that the women tourists in the first class car disembark, and she politely kidnaps them, riding off accompanied by her coterie. And so the collector, the Broadway star, the schoolteacher, the backpacker, and the three singing sisters are brought back to the camp, a collection of yurts far out on the steppe, far from any roads or trains.

When the women first meet the Princess, Lady Windermere warns them that they must offer a gift, and they comply. As the Westerners observe, and indeed participate in, elaborate and stately rituals that seem archaic and yet very much alive, they also grow accustomed to the pace and mood of life in the encampment. Things proceed languidly, and quite convivially for most of the characters. The only one in the group to commit any cultural faux pas is the somewhat clueless schoolteacher, and even she is forgiven despite embarrassment. For hostages, they are not at all eager to leave. Giovanna abandons the romantic undertones of her friendship with Lady Windermere, and gets very close to the Princess, becoming her disciple and learning the ins and outs of warrior life. The women are treated devotedly as guests, and experience the rites of everyday life, the slaughter of sheep, the Princess’ negotiations with a  neighboring kingdom, and finally, the complex and beautiful Summer ritual.

Still from 'Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia'Many of the details and choices found in the film are beguiling and inscrutable, but in a broad, representational sense, it is not difficult to delineate the arising and convergence of themes, particularly those that connect with Ottinger’s work as a whole. And though this film can clearly be thought of as existing in two parts – the initial half taking place on the train (marked by Western modernization and self-conscious artifice, and filmed in a studio in Germany) and the second taking place on the steppes (comprised of the enactment of old traditions, and shot very much on location) – it is not so much the difference between these two parts, but rather their points of confluence, that form the discursive hybridity contained therein. It is mainly the ways in which the Western characters, strange representatives of a far off and enigmatic world, interact and are incorporated into their new surroundings that contribute to the exposition of themes and analysis.

With Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia Ottinger presents a transitional film, one that falls somewhere between a circus-like allegorical work like her Freak Orlando (1982) and the deep observational style of her documentary Taiga (1992). It is an examination of travel and how we experience the Other. The Western women act as the subalterns in this case, silent but actively participating in the rituals, and not as the alternately bemused and dispassionate observers that they were within the confines of the train. Interestingly though, Ottinger has Delphine Seyrig’s character, Lady Windermere, interpret for the other characters, translating things in European terms. However, she acts more as a conduit between the two worlds, a collision of their differing forms of communication, than as a modifying contextualizer. She represents an anthropological, exploratory instinct that already knows the answers even before setting out into the field, intellectually and materially well-appointed. Her function is to bring things into the realms of the verbal while her companions on the journey, Giovanna in particular, with little prior preparation (Frau Mueller-Vohwinkle, the schoolteacher, consistently turns to her guidebook but wonders at its authenticity) engage with what they encounter on a sensual, preverbal level.

Much has been made of the film’s seeming subversion of classic racial dichotomies and the very importance of race in the visual regime of the cinema. While some critics say that it accomplishes this within its cultural juxtapositions, others argue that it in fact reinforces these qualities by emphasizing the ‘other’-ness of the Asian characters while treating their customs and culture with a degree of spectacle not normally found in ethnographic filmmaking. This may be an unusual case of the negating argument (that is to say, the latter comment) being too close to the surface, the vindicating reading being set deep into the characterization of culture clash found in the film, which dispenses with many of the signifiers that usually accompany that theme. Yes, there is a degree of exhibition going on, particularly in the depiction of Mongolian customs. But these things are shown in meticulous and long-form documentary segments that are woven into the story. One might argue that the rituals are already a form of display, the revelation that the filmmaker provides being her placement of the characters in the midst of all this, respectful but unsure of its meaning.

As it happens Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia’s gentle inclusiveness and its attention to details largely inform its representation of the latter, Mongolian, half. Ottinger integrates multiple themes of alterity – ones inherent in the submerged eroticism between the different pairs of women and in the intentionally inverted dynamic between colonizer and colonized – into the narrative, not for the sake of comparison, but for using them as pertinent threads in her complex interpretation of the subjectivity of observation and the porous nature of modernity. It is a lesbian narrative and a postcolonial one, a mythic tale and a series of real-life observations; it is all of these things and none of them – a piece greater than its parts and yet altogether at a remove from them, in a world of its own.

The inversion that occurs (the Westerners take on a submissive role, the relationship between Ulan and Giovanna puts control very much with the Princess) is not a simple one because each of the characters themselves are not fixed within a single boundary; they are mutable in their traversal of cultural parameters, and as the story is revealed, move fluidly in fluctuating degrees of modernity. Even the scenes filmed in Mongolia contain varying amounts of artifice, at times comparable to that of the first part, their differences not as stark as it may seem at first. In her article entitled Sign in the Void, Homay King writes that the film “seems to insist simultaneously on the signifying distance of what it shows, and on its phenomenological reality.” In this sense it is playing a trick, while never being content to settle one one mode or one level of representation, always leaving multiple doors open at once.

Still from 'Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia'This should, by all rights, be a landmark film for queer cinema, for latter-day surrealist art, and simply as a turning point in the career of an endlessly fascinating director. Its ethnographic elements place it with the best and most effecting films in that area of documentation. And yet it remains hidden away from a wide audience, perhaps due in part to its challenging, cross-genre vision. Ottinger re-imagines classic tropes such as the Western fascination with the idea of fierce and independent Amazons, or the band of intrepid outsiders penetrating an untamed landscape, putting these time-honored images in an entirely unfamiliar place, one that appears after colonization and the sweep of artistic modernism. They become vehicles for a feminist fable that exchanges conquering for learning, forcibly demanding that the Westerners shut up and observe. And they love it; they fall in love. The nomadic life is, for them, liberating. In one way, the audience is brought into a bizarre territory that seems rife with possibilities, while at the same time surrounded by a presumably little-seen cultural and geographical setting. (Evidently Ottinger was one of the first Western filmmakers to be allowed to work within Mongolia). The feeling of wonderment and discovery is transcendent of so many of the cinematic trappings.

Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, in its resistance to a single and unified vision of the old world and the new, provides a vigorous and spiritual image of cultural learning. The polyglot conversations in the film, spoken by varied characters who each seem to be from different countries, reflect a complex definition of modernizing pluralism, one that recognizes the issues that it brings with it while at the same time celebrating its problematic beauty. Utopian but void of naïveté, it takes a conscious step away from reality in order to properly observe it and make some sense, albeit subjective, of human history.

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One Response to “Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia”

  1. M.A. Hales said

    Sounds like an amazing film!

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