Anna Biller on How the Gothic Gives Voice to Women’s Pleasure—and Pain

From Electric Lit:

“There are rules for contemporary literature, and I’m breaking a lot of them for a lot of people,” filmmaker Anna Biller told me by phone. Her debut novel, Bluebeard’s Castle, rejects the minimalism that recent fiction sometimes conflates with seriousness: nowhere, here, will you find the anesthetized protagonist, the dead-end job, the lukewarm relationships, or the “cool first person” tone used of late to capture the alienation of the modern subject. Instead, Biller’s book embraces excess from cover to literal cover. Its heroine Judith’s feelings are almost as enormous as the gowns she wears to breakfast and the English castle she buys on a whim with her hunky but probably evil lover. Costume balls are thrown. Daggers are wielded. And just look at that cover!

. . . .

In reviving the delicious manias of 18th-century Gothic novels and 1960s dime-store romances, Bluebeard’s Castle pays homage to genres that were often (and often pejoratively) associated with female readerships in their day. Indeed, the pleasures and perils of womanhood have always been the twin obsessions of Biller’s oeuvre. As a filmmaker, she painstakingly recreates the dreamy costumes, sets, and cinematography of bygone eras, from ‘60s Hollywood (The Love Witch) to the sexploitation movies and mags of the ‘70s (Viva). The result is a gorgeous, distinctly female gaze—but one unafraid to depict the mainstays of women’s suffering, from objectification to assault.

Even against that backdrop, Bluebeard’s Castle is Biller’s darkest work to date. Her reimagination of the French fairytale follows modern-day mystery author Judith as she falls hard for Gavin, a member of the peerage who promises her the world. But once they marry, Gavin’s charms sour, his worsening acts of cruelty seeming to channel the femicidal history of the medieval estate they call home. As Judith begins to fear for her sanity—and her life—Bluebeard’s Castle indicts a society that dares to call itself modern while violence against women remains routine.

. . . .

Chelsea Davis: The Bluebeard legend is hundreds of years old. I was curious what attracted you to using it as the blueprint for a novel set in the present.

Anna Biller: It was actually a tragedy that happened to somebody that I know who got involved with a very, very bad man. And her life ended.

I was thinking about all the research on how many women are killed by their partners today—it’s such a high number. There was a story last year about a couple that went hiking. The woman went missing and they did this big search for her. When they combed the woods for her body, they found four more bodies that they weren’t even looking for. Their killers were all their boyfriends and husbands.

Growing up, I was always really interested in fairytales, and in the connection between the Bluebeard fairytale and the modern serial killer thriller. The Bluebeard stories were originally from the point of view of the woman, and it was only maybe in the ‘60s that it shifted, especially in movies. Suddenly, the point of view is all from that of the killer—especially in the Giallo films, like those of Mario Bava, and then in Hollywood films. It became very, very sadistic, and that’s still what we have: it’s the slasher, or the thriller. They say these movies are feminist, because there’s one woman who survived at the end, but in those older movies, you didn’t have to see a bunch of your friends be brutally murdered. I don’t think that’s a happy ending.

So that’s all in the book.

CD: What you’re saying is that femicide is still the status quo, not the exception. We’d like to think of extreme violence against women as being a thing of the past, but it’s not.

AB: That’s partly why I wanted to set my book in the modern age: I don’t want people to think “Oh, this is how it was in the 1950s or the ‘40s.” That lets us off the hook.

People also think of feminine women as dated, of femininity as being out of fashion. But I see more and more young women who really want to doll themselves up. They’re not doing it for a man; usually they’re doing it for fun with their friends, or to make themselves feel good. It’s in pop culture, it’s in music video culture, it’s on TikTok, but it’s still not in recent movies or books.

CD: I wanted to ask you about feminine fantasy more broadly. You’re so committed to a traditionally feminine aesthetic in your films, and now also in this novel: the lavish clothing, the sweet food, the hunky man. And each of these pleasures is actually really fun to read about. But they also end up having a dark side—the sugar crash after the desserts, or the man who ends up being, you know, completely evil. Do you think that women’s fantasy is doomed to endanger us?

AB: No, I don’t think it’s always doomed to endanger us. But do I think the Gothic is about women being entombed within a castle that’s owned by a man, under his rules and regulations. So, the Gothic is about being imprisoned within patriarchy, and about the woman either making peace with that, or escaping it.
That’s why those old-style novel covers are so evocative—the kind of cover that I copied with my book jacket, which shows the woman fleeing from the castle. It already tells the whole story, that cover: she’s fleeing from this wealth, this security, this pleasure, this dark fantasy that’s exciting. The man means pleasure, but he also means control. Are you willing to play the role of the little perfect doll to a man, and have all the money, have all the pleasure—but also be under his control? Or do you want independence, which could also mean poverty and loneliness?

Jane Eyre is a perfect example of that. Jane can go back to the castle in the end and be with Rochester because he’s maimed and blind, and therefore, they’re equal. He doesn’t have power over her because he has to depend on her to be his eyes. But if he weren’t maimed and blind, well, she couldn’t stay there with him because he’d continue to dominate her.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG checked out the publisher of Ms. Biller’s book and discovered Verso Books.

Since PG, living a sheltered life, had never encountered Verso, he checked out the publisher’s website.

Verso Books is the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, publishing one hundred books a year.

. . . .

Brief History

“Anglo-America’s preeminent radical press.”—Harper’s

“The scale of the achievement of New Left Review and Verso, which turns forty this year, is now clear.”—Nation

“A rigorously intelligent publisher.”—Sunday Times

New Left Books was launched by New Left Review in 1970, and took as its logo the Tatlin Tower—a planned monument to the Third International. Focusing initially on translating works of European political and social theory, economics and philosophy, the list during that decade included Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin, Lucio Colletti, Henri Lefebvre, Georg Lukács, Ernest Mandel, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre and Max Weber, as well as major original works by Perry Anderson, Terry Eagleton, Tom Nairn and Raymond Williams. NLB’s list challenged established opinions both in the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective satellites, as well as providing important critical analyses of China, India and South America. The publishing house was always intended to be far broader in its reach than NLR. An early bestseller was Against Method by Paul Feyeraband.

Verso—the left-hand page—was launched as a paperback imprint at the end of the seventies. Since becoming NLB’s sole imprint, Verso has published landmark books by Tariq Ali, Benedict Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Robert Brenner, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Mike Davis, Isaac Deutscher, Paul Feyeraband, Norman Finkelstein, David Harvey, Eric Hobsbawm, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Rebecca Solnit, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Erik Olin Wright and Slavoj Žižek. New translations have included Jean Baudrillard, Régis Debray, André Gorz, Jürgen Habermas, Rigoberta Menchú, Roberto Schwarz and Paul Virilio.

The New Left Review rang a heavily-muffled memory lurking in the foggiest part of PG’s brain.

He checked Wikipedia and discovered the following:

As part of the British “New Left” a number of new journals emerged to carry commentary on matters of Marxist theory. One of these was The Reasoner, a magazine established by historians E. P. Thompson and John Saville in July 1956. A total of three quarterly issues was produced. This publication was expanded and further developed from 1957 to 1959 as The New Reasoner, with an additional ten issues being produced.

Another radical journal of the period was the Universities and Left Review, a publication established in 1957 with less of a sense of allegiance to the British communist tradition. This publication was more youth-oriented and pacifist in orientation, expressing opposition to the militaristic rhetoric of the Cold War, voicing strong opposition to the 1956 Suez War, and support for the emerging Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).


New Left Review was established in January 1960 when The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review merged their boards. The first editor-in-chief of the merged publication was Stuart Hall. The early publication’s style, featuring illustrations on the cover and in the interior layout, was more irreverent and free-flowing than later issues of the publication, which tended to be of a more somber, academic bent. Hall was succeeded as editor in 1962 by Perry Anderson.

In 1993, nineteen of the members of the editorial committee resigned, citing a loss of control over content by the Editorial Board/Committee in favour of a Shareholders’ Trust, which they argued was undemocratic.

. . . .  The journal was again relaunched in 2000 . . .

Of course, The Age of Aquarius and “Far Out!” Drug-addled aesthetes wielding Marxist theories who were going to change the world! A heady mix of flower children, Vietnam, napalm, getting high and dropping out.

PG was wondering what sort of intellectually pretentious publisher would regard a “femicide” book and its author as worthy of serious attention when she creates lurid paragraphs like the following:

“The man means pleasure, but he also means control. Are you willing to play the role of the little perfect doll to a man, and have all the money, have all the pleasure—but also be under his control? Or do you want independence, which could also mean poverty and loneliness?”

2 thoughts on “Anna Biller on How the Gothic Gives Voice to Women’s Pleasure—and Pain”

  1. I’d have to dig back into the archives – but Verso rings a bell as one of those publishers supporting the genocidal rapists of Hamas.

    If so, they should arrange a Gazan book tour for this writer.

  2. All I have to say is that virtually all of the “new Left” folk in the UK from the late 1930s up to the mid-1960s…

    … were “public school boys.” Which is to say they did not exactly share backgrounds with the proletariat (not even those who were “scholarship boys”).

    So their perspectives were at best warped.

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