Filmic Lactations

Filmic Lactations

Filmic iconology outlines a theoretical and methodological field of which we are now well informed: cinema shares with painting the processes of survivals, polarisations and inversions discussed by Aby Warburg in the field of renaissance art images, and they can serve the project of a cultural history that postulates the motifs and the details arranged by films as genuine historical documents capable of highlighting the spirit of the times. 

My research is divided into several parts, the first of which, theoretical and methodological, intends to pursue this epistemological turn which, for some years now, has required filmic iconology to establish its conceptual foundations. It is no longer just a question of tracing the complexity of a figurative genealogy: with each surviving motif, the coordinates of a problem of thought are also re-launched, as anthropological, theological or philosophical principles are set in motion. It also serves as a reservoir of formulas of pathos and figurative gestures overdetermined by their social, liturgical or spiritual uses to which the moving image owes its powers, its capacity for formal invention and its historical and cultural depth.

When suggesting that latent anthropological or theological scenarios are frequently superimposed on the diegetic and formal narratives elaborated by films, my research continues towards its second, analytical part, oriented by the study of a specific motif: milk. Milk, in all its forms – stagnant, curdling, flowing or gushing – crosses the history of cinema and transcends its temporal, cultural or generic boundaries; yet, it has not really attracted the attention of exegetes. However, I argue that it allows for a formidable and arborescent variety of analyses: by motifs, by filmmakers, by problems of thought that the films, which, by summoning this liquid, are reactivated more or less consciously. 

Indeed, there is probably no more overdetermined fluid. Milk is charged with a strong symbolic content that makes it an anthropological motif that can be found in all cultures and mythologies. Christianity has given to this milky symbolism its most complete theological meaning : here, between pictorial programmes (Virgo lactans, St. Bernard’s lactation, Double intercession) and mystical devotion, milk is a sign of divine mercy and sacrifice, an intercessory vector of salvation or a source of eloquence and revelation. Thus some films, by borrowing some of their figurative solutions from Christian painting, re-launch the coordinates of essential problems that superimpose on their diegetic and narrative reasons a certain number of symbolic procedures that have not disappeared with the secularisation of modern societies. 

Milk has also produced an increased number of imaginary representations and social relations that still structure and determine social relations, sexual differentiation and the female and maternal conditions. As such, it also acts as the ideal detail for questioning the patriarchal models of the gaze, as well as the persistent misogynistic structures within contemporary societies – issues that also have an anthropological, theological and figurative genealogy, and on which cinema has founded its empire. The ultimate aim of these case studies is to bring to light the methodological principles of a new moving image analytics, understood as a symbolic stage on which the great procedures that underpin the intelligibility of the human condition are replayed.

Aurel Rotival