“MADAME”— A Personal Documentary


A Personal Documentary

Amos Lassen

Stephane Riethauser’s “Madame” is personal documentary in which he introduces us to his 90-year-old grandmother Caroline. The film explores the development of personal and gender identity in a patriarchal environment. 

Based on private archive footage, the film introduces us  to a strong and extravagant female figure who was the most successful businesswoman in Switzerland at a time when women stayed in the kitchen and at home and did not have the right to vote. She was independent and knew how to stand on her own in front of all the men around her. Her grandson who was raised to be the heir to the family business. He is a conservative alpha male and homophobe who suddenly comes out of the closet. Two people from the same family challenge the taboos of gender and sexuality.

Riethauser gives usan extremely honest and unflinching portrait of an aspect of his past.Caroline, the director’s grandmother (and muse) is an elderly woman who is anything but resigned. She seems to a controlled and bourgeois individual with a surprising strength of character. 

The film shows us the close and, at times, difficult relationship between the director and his grandmother who is a model of courage and determination. The direct and wholly sincere dialogue which establishes itself between these two beings, who veer between hypersensitivity and self-control, is explored 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 and his grandmother (“Madame”) and slides and photographs of the family. 

Riethauser uses this film to give meaning to a particular aspect of his past which isn’t always linear or glorious. His current status as a director and spokesperson for the LGBT cause comes out of the suffering he has had to endure in the past. He felt obliged for a very long time to conform to a patriarchal, bourgeois version of society dominated by alpha males— a standardized version of “masculinity” which is both gruesome and ludicrous. Men, as described by the director’s father, should “have balls”, be courageous, fight for their family and their country.

Through his film, Riethauser not only paints a picture of the strong bond he shared with his grandmother but crucially, he also explores the patriarchal and bourgeois society within which genders must be interpreted and performed by being extremely careful not to upset the status quo. 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 self-annihilate. In ways such as this, the clichés surrounding gender are revealed. The director converses with the affluent, grandiose and complicated character of his grandmother, but he also voices his own inner dialogue, looking for traces of the “self” hidden beneath the hiding that he had to do as a result of a past governed by bourgeois respectability. 

Riethauser’s examination of his past and of his family is sincere and filled with humor. The power of this documentary is in the balance between intimacy and meticulousness, between the humor and the tragedy that is inherent to a reality based on appearances. He tells us at the beginning of the movie that the medium of film lets him express all those things that he was unable to say about love and sex during his childhood and adolescence. It’s his best way for taking a dispassionate and ironic look at how things used to be and gives him a liberated voice to a past that was dominated by “things unsaid”.The story of the relationship between the director and his grandmother relationship is the main crux of this documentary.

His grandmother, the matriarch of the family, was always a major influence in his life right from an early age.  She was a fiercely independent self-made woman who finally escaped the tyranny of her father who pushed her into marriage at 16 and that of her thug of a first husband.  Now 94 years old, she openly discusses her bad luck with men and with not a sign of bitterness.

The director looks back at all his personal turmoils of accepting his sexuality in a family environment where he was encouraged to be an alpha male in every sense of the world.  He uses this film to remind himself of how rough that  journey  was and  how after he finally accepts it himself, he can share the news with his family, and in particular, his grandmother.

The film is not just a cathartic journey for Riethauser, who as well as becoming a filmmaker is also a lawyer and gay activist, but also a glimpse into the remarkable relationship he shared with his grandmother. 

Riethauser’s facility with language makes us see sex roles in new ways: “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.”