2016 | 98 mins | Colour | theoretical fiction / docudrama
By Mieke Bal
Genre: Theoretical Fiction
Multi-lingual with English subtitles
This is again a combined project of feature film and exhibition pieces. On the film, see below. For the installation pieces, see Installations Reasonable Doubt
Project just finished!
My aim in this project was to present a Descartes different from the reductive clichés about him, especially in relation to Queen Kristina. This is not a biography but a series of scenes that constitute a double portrait.
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Cinema Suitcase Mieke Bal
Gustav Mahlerlaan 10
1082 PP Amsterdam
The great French philosopher René Descartes died in Stockholm, as a consequence of the insistence of young Swedish Queen Kristina that he visit her, a bit against his will. Once there, they didn’t see each other much. Although Kristina’s philosophical interest was genuine enough, he was more or less there in a decorative function, as an honorific presence to adorn Kristina’s ambitious project of creating an Academy that would put Sweden’s intellectual elite on the European map. But in the chilly palace he caught a flu that deteriorated into pneumonia, and he passed away. He left Western thought with a burden and a treasure. The burden: a misconstrued dualistic tradition that he really cannot be blamed for. In my view, he accepted the dualism of the Catholic Church, but fought against it all his life because it was not reasonable. The treasure: a decisive advance in rational thought that, precisely, did not excise the body; nor religion for that matter, as later Enlightenment thought would carry it on. The dialectical relationship between reason and a certain kind of madness was not enough recognized. Through this project I want to suggest that reason and “madness” can go very well together.
Both Kristina and Descartes caused a lot of waves during their lifetime. They both had a rather tough beginning in life. Kristina became a queen at age 5, after her father’s death on the battlefield, with a mother in desolate mourning for the rest of her life, who didn’t care much for the daughter who should have been a son. René lost his mother at age 1 and barely saw his father, who was too busy pursuing his career elsewhere. These childhood situations of orphan-like loneliness predict adult turmoil. And so it happened.
Both grew up to be brilliant, obstinate, easily angry, and capricious; ambitious and impatient with resistance. In common parlance (not diagnostically) we’d call them paranoid. The Queen was barely of age when she organised her coronation and started to think about her abdication, practically at the same time, while also pondering a change of religion that she carried out shortly after. After Descartes’ death she left Sweden for a restless life of travel that brought her to places such as Hamburg, Paris and Rome. Settling down was not her thing. She loved music but lacked the patience to listen.
Once he started showing his writings to others, the Philosopher was constantly under ecclesiastic surveillance, or thought he was (Freud: being paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t after you). He moved around, mainly to the United Provinces (now the Netherlands) refusing to leave forwarding addresses, and was considered both a great man and because glory is never enough for the fundamentally insecure, he managed to fall out with quite some friends he initially adored; a good-enough catholic yet dangerously close to heresy. He was what the French called an honnête homme – someone whose talents and skills could not be captured by isolated disciplines. From biology to philosophy, astrology and medicine, Descartes also shone as an expert in what we would now call “mental illness”, when he comforted his friend Elisabeth of Bohemia who was suffering from a bout of it. My guess is, it takes one to know one (as Eve Kossofski Sedwick wrote about homosexuality). I credit him with the “invention” (as in: making possible) of psychoanalysis.
I imagine both figures suffered from the symptoms of what we now call neurosis, specifically a “complexe d’abandon” – a tendency to reject affective bonds while constantly seeking them (Han Verhoeff on Benjamin Constant). Out of fear to be abandoned, they prefer to be the first to do the abandoning. This is what underpinned their passionate attachments to, then rejections, of others. Always craving, but feigning indifference out of fear the parental abandonment would repeat itself. And since these things tend to be reciprocal, they were seen as alternatingly attractive and repulsive. It also explains that the queen insisted so strongly on the meeting, then didn’t do much to take intellectual advantage out of Descartes’s presence. Her restlessness always already made her turn her head in other directions.
Both Kristina and René declined to marry and hung out more with people of their own gender than doing “the proper thing.” Hints of homosexual practice circulated about both. René, who had an acquaintance burned at the stake for just this, had an additional reason for fear. Kristina was notoriously fond of a woman at court called Ebba; she called her Bella. I will conflate this figure with a musical dame de compagnie, who consoles Kristina beautifully playing the cello. As I mentioned, René surrounded himself with male friends he adored, then broke up with, and depended strongly on his young male valets. One of these plays the violin as comfort to his master when he is depressed, dejected, and lonely. In short, these two major figures of the 17th century had a lot in common, while also being opposed to each other by rank, achievement, age and gender.
First, we have shot the childhood images of both Kristina and Descartes. Then, October 2014 the Descartes section set in Holland have been shot. Here on the right is a short memory sequence, without sound, of Kristina’s lonely childhood. Below is the link to the Cast & Crew page, which is rather long. It presents the three successive shoots, in the Netherlands, March-April 2015 in a castle in Poland presented as Kristina’s habitat; and Autumn 2015 in Rome, in a post-Descartes sequence of “after-effects”. First I made five installation pieces (of 30 min. each), then a feature film. A première of both was held in Kraków, on April 23, 2016.
Finally, I have edited a “making of”, a rather hilarious anthology of “unsmooth” moments in the shooting of the film. It is 14 minutes long, contains video and photographs, and is meant as an expression of my gratitude to all participants.
A series of five installation pieces can be exhibited, along with a soundscape DOUBT by Isabelle de Mullenheim. For more on the installations, content and photographs, and explanations of how they differ from the film, see Installations Reasonable Doubt
Further follow-up pages:
Kristina, when discussing the issue of love with Descartes, has a memory of her loveless childhood.
Child queen Kristina is challenged by a representative of the farmers
Little René is being taught by his sister Jeanne
Young soldier Descartes meets mathematician Isaac Beeckman
Descartes is about to give his very first writing, a treatise on music, to his friend Beeckman
Kristina, impatient when Descartes is slow to arrive, looks at a sculpture of the famous man
After Descartes’ death Kristina moves to Rome