Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.32

Paula James, Ovid's Myth of Pygmalion on Screen: in Pursuit of the Perfect Woman. Continuum studies in classical reception.   London; New York:  Continuum, 2011.  Pp. x, 231.  ISBN 9781441184665.  $120.00.  


Reviewed by Rosemary Barrow, University of Roehampton (r.barrow@roehampton.ac.uk)

Table of Contents

Ovid’s Myth of Pygmalion on Screen explores the reception of a classical myth in contemporary screen culture. Citing Bloom’s work on gender and animation, James notes that the very nature of cinema is Pygmalionesque: moving pictures inevitably bring life to the inanimate.1 She selects a wide range of British and North America films and television series, including canonical movies as well as diverse examples “from cult series to curios in the history of cinema” (34). Throughout the book major themes of patriarchy, sexuality, identity and metamorphoses emerge, while issues surrounding the major question of classical reception remain firmly at the forefront of this study.

James notes that the purpose of reception study is not only to shed light on the receptions themselves, but to look back at the original text through fresh eyes. Accordingly, chapter one begins with an analysis of the Pygmalion episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This episode echoes other transformations throughout the poem, notably those that explore the change from stone to flesh and vice versa. Pygmalion’s choice to create a perfect woman in ivory is motivated by the vices of the real women of Cyprus, the Propoetides, who are themselves turned into stone after they prostituted themselves publically. James returns to the Propoetides a number of times: she suggests that, although marginalized in Ovid’s text, their presence is apparent in the many popular refashionings of the myth. Pointing out that their transformation into stone acts as a precursor to the reverse metamorphoses of Pygmalion’s sculpture, James looks beneath the perfection of the statue for something of her “tarnished sisters” (14). In an intriguing reading of Burne-Jones’s nineteenth-century Pygmalion series of paintings, James identifies the Propoetides as a sculptural group in the background of the artist’s studio and proposes that they may have served as original models for the statue of the virginal young woman that he ultimately sculpts.

Chapter two focuses on Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. Hitchcock himself is linked with Pygmalion in his “manufacturing and manipulating of the female image” (39). Actress Kim Novak described the way that her appearance and behaviour on screen and off was firmly under the control of the director. The plot of Vertigo is the sinister transformation of a woman (played by Novak) from working-class and flawed Judy to elite and perfect Madeleine. The process of Judy’s metamorphosis through the change in her clothing, hairstyle and bearing recalls the way that the sculptor fashions a polished statue from raw material. The chapter ends with a discussion of three lesser-known films – Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Stolen Faces (1952), and Obsession (1976) – all of which echo themes of female transformation, illusion, deception and desire. Each screen text is discussed with enthusiasm, and the reader is given just the right balance between plot description of the more recherché choices of little known films and reception analysis of each of them.

A much lighter tone is taken in chapter three where the Pygmalion myth is represented as comedy. Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1912), in which a Cockney girl becomes a lady, recasts the myth in terms of class dynamics. Made into a musical in 1964 as My Fair Lady, the narrative proved inspiration for a host of “make over” movies. We see both transformation and reformation from prostitute to lover in Pretty Woman (1990), housewife to student in Educating Rita (1983) nerd to prom queen in She’s All That (1999) and police office to beauty contestant in Miss Congeniality (2000). Here real women become better versions of themselves (much like the Propoetides who, James suggests, may have formed the model for Pygmalion’s ivory woman in both Burne-Jones’ and Ovid’s versions of the myth), but the male manipulation of this female metamorphosis must surely cause confusion or loss of identity. Nevertheless, James argues that in the comic “make- over” movie the transformed heroine always maintains something of herself.

The divine nature of the statue’s metamorphosis is recalled in chapter four whose subject is films where a Venus statue comes to life. James chooses One Touch of Venus (1948) and Goddess of Love (1988), both based on the same Victorian novel, to explore the theme. In these films the goddess is accidentally animated by a love-struck mortal man, but when she comes to life he realizes that he does not desire her after all. Faced with an immortal feminine ideal, the films’ heroes instead choose imperfect, but real and mortal, women; the conflict between real and ideal femininity is manipulated for comic effect. .

When Venus comes to life she does so without artifice, and this is something that the cyborgs, robots and dolls in chapters five to eight do as well. Their straightforwardness offers acute contrast with the normal constructedness of social identity. In science fiction fantasy, the female robot, originating in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), is usually cast as destructive femme fatale, but James is more interested in idiosyncratic screen examples which can be connected more closely with Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion story. In Four Sided Triangle (1953) a woman is electro-magnetically cloned, but, not being in love with her inventor, she asks for the right to die. Here James asks what Pygmalion would have done had his statue not been designed to love her creator.

Chapter six focuses on April, the robot girlfriend in season five of the popular American TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Constructed by Warren, the computer nerd, as the perfect girlfriend, April is designed to give her boyfriend complete devotion, but, after falling for a real girl, Warren tells Buffy that his robot “was exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t want her” (141). Not wanting his creativity to be admired, Pygmalion emphasises the importance of his identity as lover rather than artist. Likewise, the Pygmalionesque Warren (and the other filmic creators of electronic women discussed in chapter five) keep their genius inventions secret. James argues that the April episode is more than an exploration of the potential dangers of getting what you wish for: it also develops various storylines in the series that will become the focus of future episodes, in particular, Warren’s construction of a replica of Buffy (the Buffybot), for the vampire Spike. An incidental villain in season two, Spike proved so popular with Buffy fans that by season six he had become the heroine’s lover. He too rejects his robot girlfriend for a brief but intense relationship with the real Buffy. James finds a parallel in the method of using recurring themes in Buffy in Ovid’s technique of repeating motifs to unite the different myths in the Metamorphoses.

Chapter seven looks at Splice (2010), a French-Canadian sci-fi horror, in which two scientists create a genetically engineered hybrid girl, and SIMONE (2002) where a filmmaker has a virtual actress created from a computer programme. The book ends with Lars and the Real Girl (2007), an American-Canadian comedy- drama about the relationship between a shy young man and a blow up doll. Written by female writer Nancy Oliver, the screenplay manages to turn what is a potentially unsavoury subject into a gentle story of acceptance, compassion and personal growth. Although Lars orders his doll, Bianca, from an adult website, he has no sexual contact with her, and the film explores how the local community’s acceptance of Bianca as Lars’s girlfriend allows him to finally interact socially. At the end of the film Bianca dies and Lars is able to tentatively begin a real relationship with a co- worker. While Bianca stands for the constructed woman, transformation in the film is centred in Lars who learns to enjoy what it is to be human. Placing the film within a larger reception framework, James cites a paper by Bazzoli2 that identifies individual parallels between Ovid’s Pygmalion episode and the film, and explores larger joint themes of the development of human personality and society through divine affecting change. In the conclusion James quotes the delightful lines from Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman (1941), in which Alan Mowbray as Sir William Hamilton, noted collector of antiquities and husband of Emma, explains why he favours his sculpture collection: “When I’m alone and rather tired, think what it means to me to have my statues with me, to know that they’ll always be lovely, never grow old and never walk out with sailors.” (p.177) But even here, like James’ selection of film and TV heroes who fell in love with marble, electronic, or plastic women, Hamilton would have preferred to have a real wife (had she not run away with Admiral Nelson).

James offers an explanation of why created women can never compare favourably with the real thing. In the introduction, she discusses the tragic story of Myrrha: immediately following the Pygmalion episode in Ovid’s text is the myth of Myrrha, the statue’s great-granddaughter, who incestuously falls in love with her own father. While the ivory statue is silent, James points out that Myrrha delivers a vivid monologue echoing Pygmalion’s desire for his sculpture. The modern successors of the silent statue all speak, but, as James ponders, can patriarchally manufactured women really articulate true female voices? Probably not.

Both Pygmalion and Myrrha harbour unnatural passions. In Ovid, Myrrha is rejected by her father and turned into tree, but Pygmalion seems to suffer no punishment. Nevertheless, in James’s choice of contemporary receptions we see the drawbacks of falling in love with a man-made creation, and ultimately the “perfect woman” is rejected in favour of her flawed but real sister.

Drawing on an impressive range of scholarship, James generously acknowledges the work of others as well as forming her own conclusions surrounding the ultimate inadequacies of the created feminine ideal.. The book explores the ongoing fascination with Ovid’s Pygmalion story, explains why it still has powerful resonances today and, furthermore, suggests how its new reworkings can illuminate readings of Ovid’s Metamorphoses itself.


Notes:


1.   Bloom, M. E., “Pygmalionesque Delusions and Illusions of Movement: Animation from Hoffmann to Truffaut”, Comparative Literature, Fall (December) 2000, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 291-320.
2.   Bazzoli, M., "The Metamorphoses of the Pygmalion Myth: A Narrative Critique of Lars and the Real Girl", 2009, AllAcademic Incorporated.

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