Women’s Day: The War is Never Over – Transcendental Darklands of Lydia Lunch and Louise Bourque

by Ejla Kovačević

At the recent French premiere of the documentary film The War is Never Over (2019, dir. Beth B), iconic No wave queen Lydia Lunch – whose tumultuous life and career are the subject of the film – described her constant struggle with childhood trauma as the creative force behind her long-lasting career as an artist, which now stretches over four decades. Memories of a broken home, incestuous father and violent sexual relationship are obsessively revisited in all of the art forms she touches – be it music, writing, spoken word or cinema. From her first band The Teenage Jesus and Jerks – whose legendary abrasive cacophony marked the beginning of No wave – to the carnal garage blues of her latest music project Big Sexy Noise, Lunch’s gloomy, expressionist lyrics intelligently juggle between the personal and political, turning the internal war with a raging drunk father and obnoxious lovers into a rant against greedy patriarchal capitalism.

Beth B + Lydia Lunch

Unapologetic, loud and raw, Lydia’s sheer presence emanates a truly powerful, authentic beatnik-punk spirit rarely seen these days, one which probably comes as foreign, if not utterly dreadful and shocking, to the present-day snowflake generation.

The same war seems to be leading Louise Bourque, a French-Canadian experimental filmmaker whose name will probably only resonate with a few ardent festivalgoers and avant-garde specialists. Known for her highly stylized hand-made films, Bourque, in a fashion similar to Lunch, presents her childhood memories as a rather messy, disturbing and overall eerie place to visit. In three of her films – L’éclat du mal (2005), Fissures (1999), and Imprint (1997) – the same home footage taken by her father in the 1950s is obsessively scrutinized, copied and subjected to a myriad of abrasive mechanical and chemical interventions, leaving the original footage and its protagonists almost unrecognizable.

L’éclat du mal (2005) by Louise Bourque

What seemed to be an idyllic family reunion, Bourque transforms into a grim horror-movie, dropping the spectator into a sort of limbic space in the endless loop, together with a few macabre silhouettes resembling dead souls, whose faces occasionally flash in their clarity.

This – on the one hand subtle and poetic, and on the other brutal and compulsive – nature of the images and sounds (i.e. the repetitive screeches of a copy machine in Imprint) in many ways mimics the innerworkings of a mind corrupted by trauma. The images of the traumatic event are permanently sealed in the subconscious, patiently idling, quietly pulsating, until some random event, image, sound or word triggers them and makes them burst out in unexpected, terrifying clarity.

In L’éclat du mal, the auteur makes this subconscious presence and the struggle with childhood trauma rather evident, chanting in a ghastly voice-over: In my dream there is a war going on. I’m running and carrying myself as a little girl. It’s Christmas time and I’m looking for my family. The sense of loss, fear and confusion Bourque accentuates with creeping low frequency drones, paired with mercilessly bleached and decayed images in slow motion, recreate a truly sinister nightmare. However, her highly sensual and elegant approach to the horrific is that key, additional layer that give her films a certain ethereal aura, one that echoes the seductive beauty of  19th century gothic romanticism.

Imprint (1997) by Louise Bourque

Unlike traditional auteurs of found-footage cinema that make use of commercial images to serve the critique of society’s pathologies (i.e. Guy Debord, Matthias Müller, Martin Arnold, Yves-Marie Mahé, to name just a few), Bourque – in feminist tradition – turns to her personal archive to offer a more sober reflection of society’s highly romanticized building block. In this sense, unlikely feminist comrades Lydia Lunch and Louise Bourque, , courageously confront their traumas to create highly creative and powerful art pieces that transcend the strictly-personal sphere. The eternal struggle to reach the light keeps them going.  The war is never over, and that is good.

Ejla Kovačević is a Croatian film critic, currently residing in Paris where she’s interning at filmmakers’ cooperative Light Cone. She’s been a long-time collaborator of International Experimental Film and Video Festival – 25 FPS and an active member of film labs community  dedicated to the promotion and preservation of analog film practices. As a member of Zagreb-based filmlab Klubvizija she organized numerous workshops and projections, continuously sharing her passion for photochemical experiments that never cease to surprise her. 

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