A Difficult Relationship
Swiss director Stéphane Riethauser’s first full-length film, “Madame” is an honest and unflinching portrait of an aspect of his past in desperate need of reconstruction. The title refers to Caroline, the director’s grandmother (and muse), an elderly woman who is anything but resigned. She is a seemingly controlled and bourgeois individual with a surprising strength of character.
We see the close and often difficult relationship between the director and his grandmother who is an undisputed model of courage and determination. The direct and wholly sincere dialogue which establishes itself between these two people is seen through the rich family archives: short films shot in super 8 (filmed by the director’s father, but also by the filmmaker himself when we was just a small boy), footage of Riethauser questioning his grandmother and slides and photographs of the family as well as through visual testimonies of the director’s past.
Riethauser uses his film to give meaning to an aspect of his past which isn’t always linear. His current status as a director and spokesperson for the LGBT cause seen through out the suffering he has had to deal with in the past. He has felt obliged for a very long time to conform to a patriarchal, bourgeois version of society dominated by alpha males. The most important thing, it seems, is to “appear” to conform physically and mentally to a standardized version of “masculinity” which is both ridiculous and extremely arduous. Men, as described by the director’s father, should “be courageous, fight for their family and their country. Yet, today we are taught that gender roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed.
Riethauser not only paints a picture of the strong bond he shared with his grandmother but he also explores the patriarchal and bourgeois society within which genders must be interpreted and performed by following enforced instructions. The young Stéphane ended up creating his own alter ego called “Riton”, a façade of pure arrogance and machismo behind which he could hide and disappear. By doing this, the clichés surrounding gender are revealed. The director converses with the affluent, grandiose and complicated character of his grandmother, but he also uses his own inner dialogue, looking for traces of the “self” that lies hidden beneath the way he behaves as a result of a past governed by bourgeois respectability.
The power of this documentary is in the balance between intimacy and meticulousness, between the humor and the tragedy that is found in a reality based only on appearances. Film permits Reithauser to express all those things that he was unable to say about love and sex during his childhood and adolescence. He takes a dispassionate and ironic look at how things once were, and, for this reason, we get a liberated voice to a past that is dominated by “things unsaid”.
Madame is Caroline, a ninety-year old self-made woman who´s countered and overcome sexism all her life with wit and with humor. Stéphane is a victim of homophobia. when he tries to overcome that which he´s internalized, he finds his grandmother externalizing it for and onto him. The sufferings of grandmother and grandson both come out from sexism. However, as the film moves forward and he comes to accept his homosexuality, she becomes part of the problem.
The documentary is beautifully structured and narrated, as it examines the sexism in society, founded on homophobia, and so encompassing that it makes Stéphane turn against himself and against nature.
Madame and her grandson are both very charismatic and together with the narration, the structure, the editing, the music, and the attempts to understand oneself and each other makes this both a glorious and timely film. “Madame” goes way beyond a standard autobiography to look at the stifling of human desires that can take place even in the most comfortable setting.
Granted, Riethauser grew up in an affluent Geneva family and where, as the firstborn son, he was pampered and adored by his attractive parents. This adoration came at a price, though and he felt pressure to grow up into an exaggeratedly masculine alpha male, something he was clearly not destined to be or do. We shows us sex roles anew: “a conception of women as mystical, helpless, and revered; men as controlling, aggressive and entitled, with shame and hate the fate of anyone who dares to move beyond the constructs.” We enter the milieu in which he grew up, and his first-person narration adds to the slow awakening and eventual withdrawal from that environment. At the same time, a parallel story about his grandmother Caroline comes forth and we see her concealing pain beneath her rough exterior without a trace of self-pity. Like her grandson, she was punished for wanting something other than what proper Swiss father figures decreed was what was expected of her. Riethauser has a stronger than usual awareness of male privilege, and his empathy for his grandmother is moving. For her part, she encourages him to lead the fullest life he can.
The film traces the director’s his life journey to become a liberated man and gay activist in his forties. He beautifully exposes the repression he was lucky and young enough to escape.