A spell of forbidden sins, depravity, and redemption. In this post-festival piece, our guest writers Jade Barget and Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee (XING) reflect on the never-ending fall of a woman, responding to the exaltation and dissidence against an unjust world.
I’m gripped in a fever dream. Lucid, awake. Precarious lines dash along the circumference of my pupils. The strokes wax and wane, billowing into soft shapes that blush into powdered hues. They carry me into a lull. I’m spreadeagled, back blades pressed up against a floss-like net. Holy water douses skin. A choir of archangels and demons exalt the highest of hymns.
I’m elated. Intoxicated. Exalted.
But occasionally and more often, erratically, those fantasy lines fray. A wailing sorceress tears open the canvas, releasing a swarm of ecstatic bodies, slipping and sliding out of one another. I can almost inhale the vapourised ecstasy, but it’s been hexed by a sinister force in the air. Nothing makes much sense — soon, I realise that these abstractions morph into tiny explosions of agony and rapture.
To watch Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness is to be voluntarily strapped behind a one-way mirror, held in a concrete interrogation cell. Hiding in plain sight, the animation reveals itself as a power play — but one that’s steeped in acquiescence and surrender on the viewer’s part. At narrative’s end, onlookers languish from the eternal damnation of the fallen heroine. But little victories continue to glow defiantly, like fireflies at the crack of dawn.
The 48-year-old title is at once excessive and austere, plagued with medieval wrath and haunted by Catholic guilt. We bear witness to the decay of feudalism and the religious domination in medieval Europe. It is unanimously all-consuming, struck with graphic rape scenes and suspicious revelries. The spectatorial journey is queasy: women are shackled with martyrdom; clerical corruption chastises peasants; phantasmic delirium runs riot across the feudal chain.
I Will Be Exalted!
Almost just after the film begins, newlywed peasant Jeanne is raped by a feudal lord. She and her husband, Jean, are condemned to social exclusion and degradation. In her mental imprisonment, Jeanne traverses a non paradise — a purgatory straddled between the bastions of Catholicism and patriarchy. Her loneliness is expansive, further incriminated by the vastness of the canvas stretched beyond the screen. As a sacrificial woman, she carries the cross, in repentance for the sins of others. Above all, what makes it hard to swallow is her sheer porousness, which renders her hyper exposed and permeable to the anathema of her environment.
This is not just about a woman who falls from grace, but also her basking in abjecthood. Belladonna — as the name suggests — is made in the likeness of chaste (but soon to be carnal) Jeanne. On the contrary, belladonna is also a moniker for deadly nightshade, a highly poisonous botanical that invokes hallucinations, induces comas and in some instances, commands death. These epithets — fatality and heresy — are precisely what encase Belladonna of Sadness. What’s central to the film is the looming presence of the feminist occult, shedding light on the doctrines that sought to discipline women who were deemed to be the slightest of transgessors. The screenplay was, after all, adapted from the 1892 book, Satanism and Witchcraft written by French historian Jules Michelet. Published in the waning years of The Belle Époque, the divulging of witchcraft to the masses was a defiant exposé of Europe’s long war against the occult. Made in a similar likeness to the book, it then comes as no surprise that the animation is an attempt to illustrate how witchcraft became a saving grace for the dispossessed and exiled.
Sympathy for The Devil
In 1646 Europe, Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher experimented with mirrors and light projected on the walls of a dark monastery, creating forms resembling demons and the devil, to entertain his fellow monks. The dispositif, called magic lantern, continued to be used in occult circles to hold seances, as well as for entertainment purposes, notably in shows held in crypts in 1870s Paris. These proto-screening practices translated a fascination with representing the devil, a fascination which persisted in early cinema and until today. To paraphrase Regina M. Hansen and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock in Giving the Devil His Due: Satan and Cinema, the devil, as the prince of lies, seems to find the perfect home in film, the art of illusion. However, the appeal of Satan doesn’t only rest in the desire for filmmakers to trick audiences with special effects. The devil embodies societal and personal anxieties and desires, often mirroring contemporary understandings of morality.
Belladonna of Sadness is the tale of a never ending fall of a woman, of an always growing suffering in the face of a hostile, destructive patriarchal society. At one point, she meets a trickster, a small, cute and playful character who makes the inconsolable women laugh. To little surprise, he falls into her dress, violating her intimacy — foreboding another rape.
His identity isn’t clear, neither for Jeanne, nor for the spectator. From then on, the character returns larger and taller every time she hits despair, his phallus shape becoming sharper. The disguise doesn’t hold for long: it is Satan feeding on her sadness. To save her husband from sickness, a pact is signed: the selfless woman gives in to the devil’s demands. Her rotting flesh first, resisting to give in her soul. Yet soon enough, as she falls deeper and deeper into desperation, as her sorrow grows larger and larger; her soul is finally consumed. The devil woman has taken full flesh — the witch is realised.
Satan’s presence comes to highlight the violence and exclusions to which the protagonist is subject to. In the face of inexplicable suffering, he also comes to signify god’s absence. He embodies the only opportunity for belladonna to gain some form of strength, sexuality and autonomy — albeit at a cost. Freed from the docile, subservient and powerless status she was granted, Jeanne gains dominance yet remains under the claws of the evil, dispossessed from her body and soul, still a mortal and an eternal outcast.
Who Says Anger and Hate Are Ugly?
When Jeanne surrenders to Satan and makes hell her home, she reaches a region of blooming flowers and flocking birds. Far from the traditional burning pit, her hell is beautiful. Instead of transforming into a monstrous demon, she retains her gracious Klimt-like features. When she expresses her surprise, Satan answers: “Who says anger and hate are ugly?”
The last frame of the film is a painting by Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple from 1830. It shows a woman, Liberté, flying the tricolor French flag, symbol of the republic, during the country’s second revolution in July 1830, The Three Glorious. The Three Glorious saw the people of France rejecting a monarchy ignoring the nation’s will, resulting in the abdication of a king, the election of another one, as well as a new direction: one leading towards the sovereignty of the nation. Whilst anger, rage and hate, when unbounded, can be destructive, revolutions highlight that they can also be forces driving new forms of civil society. Less gloriously, Jeanne’s angry passions as well as her emotional sincerity highlighted the aberration and abuses of power in a world out of joint, driving her to be burnt at the stake.
While historically, anger and hate are demonised as irrational and destructive, the film proposes another lens. The uncontrollable passions in Belladonna of Sadness, instead of passive emotions visiting the weak mind, are positive and decisive. Jeanne’s hate and anger act as northstars of truth, pointing out at the betrayal and injustices present in her environment. It is those feelings, too, that drove her decision to pact with the devil — Jeanne’s first and perhaps only sovereign choice, affirming her dissident self upon the unjust world.
Belladonna of Sadness is coaxed by a spell of forbidden sins, depravity, and redemption. It rebels against austerity and asceticism, granting glory to the wretched. In a dizzying 93-minute technicolour trip, it’s unapologetically flamed with agony and delirium. At its best, it’s a psychedelic picture that lays bare the violent history of disciplining female heretics, pagan traditions and peasanthood. It’s only after the immolation of the sorceress that we, regrettably, find beauty in anger and hate.
About the Guest Authors
Jade Barget (she/her) is an independent curator based between Paris and London. She holds a specific interest in screen, moving image and performance cultures. Jade is currently curator in residence at the Cité internationale des arts, Paris.
Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee (she/her) is an interdisciplinary practitioner based between London and Singapore. Working with visual and textual interventions, her practice looks to the iterations of slow violence and the dynamic between the ‘near’ and ‘elsewhere’. She is an associate lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts and University of the Arts London.
XING is a research and curatorial platform centered on the poetics and politics of East and Southeast Asian art practices. The platform attempts to dismantle matrices concerned with the region from non-dominant perspectives. XING is run by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee and Jade Barget. Past projects include Fatal and Fallen, Bite the tongue, Nameless. echoes, spectres, hisses, and Ultraviole(t)nce.