Madame B | Chapter
Multiple-screen video installation, 2014
Multi-lingual with English subtitles
6. Passion and Disappointment
In proximity to the open presentation of the dilemma without solution, we imagine, another installation piece locks the visitor inside the harrowing world of romance and its wear-and-tear, of capitalism and its lures, and the disastrous course of action they set in motion together. The boredom at home continues, not helped by the useless input from the outside world. The four screens, arranged in a cube, each have an attractive and a disillusioning side. They are presented with “sound showers” focusing sound from above that allow shifting on continuous benches from one to the other and back again, entering and exiting these four strange yet familiar worlds. Clockwise, the first screen presents the routine of Emma’s affair with Rodolphe. The second screen shows Homais’ meddling with the B. couple as intrusive and futile. The third, opposing the first, shows the exasperating boredom of domestic life, exemplifying Flaubert’s famous pronouncement of support for Emma: “especially at dinner time she couldn’t take it anymore”. And dinner time it is, day after day. And opposite Homais’s meddling, the fourth screen shows Emma’s increasingly mad shopping sprees.
In the routine of the affair with Rodolphe, Emma slowly understands that the man is not interested in the long-term commitment she sees as an escape from her exasperating marriage. Moments of passion alternate with unease and dawning understanding. After receiving Rodolphe’s rejection letter, Emma faints. On this second screen, Homais, the character who, in Flaubert, is a caricature of the snob, parading the superficiality of allegedly rational knowledge, comes in to offer his platitudes to a worried Charles. Our actor Mathieu Montanier gives the character more depth, more malignancy, and a good dose of hysteria. On the third screen, on which more later, we witness the dinner conversation of the couple at home.
But first, on the second screen, we see how a worried Charles tries to take care of Emma while Homais is pontificating pseudo-medical nonsense. Homais’ hysteria becomes something to ponder, for when on the fourth screen we see Emma on her different shopping sprees, a certain madness in her is undeniable. In her increasing shopping craze, she ruins herself and her family. She incurs excessive debts when she falls for the advertisements and the implicit promise that acquiring commodities is a source of happiness.
But since this is a social issue – the lure of capitalism investing commodities with sentiment – we make this a collective madness. The shopkeepers, real estate agent, and the mother-in-law who becomes decidedly paranoid when she starts to follow Emma like an all-seeing, omniscient goddess: everyone contributes to the madness of this reversal of values. And so does Homais, the family’s primary link to the outside.
The third of these screens deserves special attention as what we can call a series of sonic images. Our example is a transmutation or “imaging” of the famous sentence: “Sa conversation était plate comme un trottoir de rue” (His conversation was flat like a side walk). This sentence is a representation of the boredom that will kill Emma. But we also wanted to make this work on the visitor, both performatively and visually. We edited the video almost exclusively with Emma’s face. That is where the boredom inscribes itself with more and more exasperation. Instead of his face we see Charles’ shoulder, blurred and dark, as if looming over Emma like a shadow.
Like the emerging contact out of two socially dubious looks in the first installation, the two figures produce the boredom that ends in horror together. As Charles drones on about relentlessly tedious subjects, it is the spectator who, seeing and feeling the horror, reads the face and, in a certain sense, allows the boredom to become visible. The image that sticks to Emma’s face as its visual counterpart is in fact the product of the sonic image. In this scene, Charles and Emma are more united than ever: by boredom, nervousness, and anxiety.
The fourth screen almost turns capitalism itself into a character. In one shopping scene, Emma enters a fantastic designer palace in Paris. Here, the emphasis is on the emotional, affective quality of the interaction between salesman and customer. Emma, slightly insecure and desirous, is affectively surrounded and reassured by a skilled salesman, who knows how to make her feel admired, beautiful, and loved – on the condition that she buy the expensive clothes. The dreamy quality emanates from the interior decoration of the shop, as well as the affectionate behaviour of the salesman.
Together, these images are confrontational. They show the unsustainability of the excitement, and the ease with which boredom sets in again. Emma’s facial expressions say it all. On the fourth screen where hardly any dialogue occurs, we give shape to these contrasts through silent confrontations. Emma’s mother-in-law looks so disapprovingly at Emma in her new clothes that Emma shouts at her to leave. The silent confrontation is rather long, and confronts the spectator with a need to take sides as well as the impossibility of doing so. And then, Charles finds the bank statements that Emma has hidden behind a painting and confronts her.
This installation offers freedom of movement within a confining space. Sitting on benches without backs, one can turn around in, but not escape, the intricacies between episodes that unfold simultaneously. And wherever one turns, the attempts at achieving happiness and their respective failures confront visitors with a profound unease. In the space itself, the four screens surround the visitor, which is confrontational. Because the visitor is confined inside the space where these lures and their disappointing counterparts are played out, reflection, immersion, and absorption are equally solicited. This does not only confront the visitor with the choices and their devastating consequences, but also with the inevitable yet pernicious (co-)operations of our social systems.
The juxtaposition and sometimes confusion of the domestic, urban, dreamy, and escapist spheres is harrowing. This is compounded by the logical consequence of a four-screen cube: while all fours screens are around us, we cannot see all four at the same time. In this sense, this piece incarnates the essential feature of installation: the limitations of seeing, integrated with the inside-ness that confines.