of the Afternoon
This famous image from the avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon shows its auteur and star, Maya Deren, inside a house, at the window, the leaves of off-screen trees reflected lyrically in the glass; she looks out, wistfully or longingly, her hands on the pane.
This image has metamorphosed many times in cinema history – into Anna Karina at a futuristic motel window, poetry book in hand, in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965); into Annette Benning and Robert Downey Jr behind the transparent doors of their padded asylum cells in Neil Jordan's In Dreams (1999); into Caroline Dulcey, lost and tormented in her gleaming, white apartment, in Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999).
Whatever its mutation, the image's meaning is essentially the same: it is a vivid, dreamy, terrifying picture of a woman's domestic confinement.
Meshes of the Afternoon comes from that branch of the American avant-garde more interested in storytelling than abstraction – or at least, a special kind of storytelling, the Surrealist journey of a figure through an ever-changing dreamscape.
Deren, working from her own dream-images and shooting in her own home, made an intuitive leap that has given the film its lasting resonance: her vision of Los Angeles links this experimental, mytho-poetic impulse with an atmosphere that is proto-film noir in its use of architecture and interior design, not to mention its atmosphere of dread and menace.
This was the first film to make the indelible link between a woman's Gothic experience of coming fatally unglued – splintered into multiple personalities, plagued by visions, slipping between alternate realities – and the sunny spaces of a daytime home environment, its every tiny but determining facet magnified, from the slope of the lounge-room staircase to the bread knife on the kitchen table.
In Deren's vision, it is the terrain of the domestic everyday that lays the meshes that ensnare, complicate and traumatise a woman's life. Just as, more generally within the contemporaneous Female Gothic tradition on which the film draws, "the home, besides representing that combination of safe haven and prison that marriage can be for a woman, takes on the fearful qualities of a potentially uncontrollable sexuality". (1)
Among the many arts in which Deren involved herself, dance was prominent. Her extraordinary body language in Meshes marries choreography to the rituals of daily life, another heady combination that was to influence women's art and cinema for decades to come.
Deren also used her movements as a way to trigger montage, to suggest rhythmic forms and create pictorial shapes: in this terrifying flux of dream-projections, she is the only anchor.
The emblematic heroine of Meshes travels – but, as the last shot reveals, she has probably not even moved from her lounge chair. Nonetheless, what she imagines, in her feverish stasis, manages to destroy her; this is the tale of a death-drive, of a dream that kills.
MORE Deren: In the Mirror of Maya Deren
© Adrian Martin June 2003
1. Annette Kuhn, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 653, 1988, p. 186-7.