The Gold Diggers
English Title: The Gold Diggers
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: BFI/Channel 4
Director: Sally Potter
Cinematographer: Babette Mangolte
Editor: Sally Potter
Runtime: 86 minutes
The Gold Diggers is a challenging and existential inquiry whose spiralling narrative is partially set against the Icelandic tundra. Ruby and Celeste undertake the quest to solve a riddle that takes them on a metaphysical journey referencing the history of cinema that mocks and rejects female performers as well as spectators. Ruby and Celeste confront and resist the patriarchy which pervades each intersecting layer of the film: women are silenced, excluded, oppressed, traumatized, and victimized by the institutionalization of male power and, as a result, have internalized misogyny. Although Ruby and Celeste are hampered by male bosses, ‘experts,’ audience members, dance partners, and a silent mob of men following them, together, the female characters flee their oppressors, escaping via horseback to an awaiting boat being repaired by a female welder.
The Gold Diggers, Sally Potter’s first 35mm feature film, explores ‘the connections between gold, money and women…looking at childhood and memory and seeing the history of cinema itself as our collective memory of how we see ourselves and how we as women are seen’ (Potter 1984; 2009, 9). In depicting women within the patriarchal world that oppresses, rejects and circulates women as objects whose worth is determined by their outward appearances, the film launches its female protagonists on a quest to resolve the riddle spoken at the outset of the film, first by Ruby (Julie Christie), then by Celeste (Colette Laffont):
‘I am born in a beam of light/I move continuously yet I’m still/I’m larger than life/Yet do not breathe/Only in the darkness am I visible/You can see me but never touch me/I can speak to you but never hear you/You know me intimately, and I/know you not at all/We are strangers, and yet/You take me inside of you/What am I?’
Ruby and Celeste investigate how cinema and capitalism – systems of production that have systematically excluded women – have effaced women’s histories/the history of women from the dominant patriarchal culture’s narrative. In Celeste’s words, ‘I was born a genius. That is a fact. I knew what was what, right from the start. Then it was taken away. I am concerned with redressing the balance. Are you reconciled with your own history? Do you know what it is?’ For Ruby: ‘I remember very little. Because I’ve been kept in the dark. Those were the conditions. The necessary conditions for my existence’ – as a woman and as a film icon, thus (re)incarnating, (re)appropriating and subverting Christie’s image as ‘the accepted representation of femininity in the cinema…glamour and blondness and beauty’ (Potter 1984; 2009, 17). Ruby’s traumatic working through and recovery of her repressed early memories – represented by her childhood self digging in the dirt – is collapsed with her onstage performance, allowing for her return to the maternal body and psyche.
The film explores female loss – of self, identity, history, memory, ability (Lansly’s Tap Dancer forgets her well-rehearsed steps when objectified by the collective gaze of the male audience) – and the (im)possibility of recuperating what has been ‘taken’ from women: subjecthood, subjectivity, pleasure. In the opening song, ‘Seeing Red’, written and sung by Potter herself, male interruption of female jouissance is incessant and violent: ‘Went to the pictures for a break/Thought I’d put my feet up…/But then, a man with a gun came in through the door,/And when he killed her, I couldn’t take it anymore/Please, please, please give me back my pleasure’. ‘“Seeing Red” sets up the classical role of women in film and shows how inadequately it fulfils the needs of the female spectator...Potter…intends to provide…pleasure for the female spectator that does not involve the death of the woman (à la Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960) or her submission to the will of the hero or the demands of the narrative’ (Fowler 2008: 47–48). Although The Gold Diggers was poorly received – labelled ‘pure torture’ when reviewed in The New York Times – it remains one of the most important documents of women’s cinema, as it enacts ‘a female gest which overcomes the history of men’ (Deleuze 1989:196).
Author of this review: Marcelline Block
Peer reviewer: Marcelline Block