24 May 2019

A woman, her suitors and a murder. In her film “The Coquette” artist Rosa Aiello plays with stereotypical gender roles and power relations.

By Daniel Urban

An encounter between a woman and a man, perhaps a date: The two talk animatedly after a dinner. To be more precise: The man, Bertrand, entertains the woman, Yvonne; more or less monologizing while she seems anxious to visibly agree with him. Suddenly the doorbell rings and Yvonne receives an opulent bouquet of flowers. Just about audible are the words “It’s really not the best time”. The attention of another suitor? A little later she brings the date with Bertrand to a friendly close: She will be getting up very early the next morning.

Yvonne and Betrand’s next meeting that Rosa Aiello shows us in her film “The Coquette”, offers a perhaps slightly deeper insight into the relationship between the two: Yvonne talks about her dysfunctional relationship to her mother, with whom she has not exchanged a word since her youth. The personal recollection solely serves Bertrand as the launchpad for a mini-lecture on C. G. Jung’s “mother complex”, which then morphs very quickly into a discussion of the morbidity of modern art. This time Yvonne seems far less delighted by the man and avoids any attempts to establish physical contact. The doorbell rings again.

Dialogue sequences are disturbed by loud S-Bahn noises

The good 24-minute-long video piece “The Coquette” (2018) by Rosa Aiello (born 1987) is an adaptation of the short story of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, which first came out in 1975 in the German edition “Kleine Geschichten für Weiberfeinde” and did not appear in the original English as “Little Tales of Misogyny” for another two years. “The Coquette” describes in very terse words the acquaintanceship between Yvonne and Bertrand, which typically for the renowned author, ends in a murder.

Rosa Aiello, The Coquette (Still), © Rosa Aiello

Rosa Aiello, The Coquette, The Prude (production still), 2018, image courtesy of the artist, Image via www.gallerieswest.ca

THE COQUETTE

Teaser for Rosa Aiello’s video work

Yvonne soon becomes tired of her gallant, but despite incisive attempts she does not succeed in ending the relationship, even whenshe tells him straight to his face: “I actually really don’t like you.” To use the words of Highsmith: “Unaccustomed as he was to the truth, expecting falsehood from a pretty woman, he took her words as turn-abouts, and continued to dance attendance.”

Rosa Aiello stages the short story formally as a balancing act between soap opera and experimental short film. Thus, the image is at times divided qua split screen and suddenly combined with archive material, and repeatedly dialog sequences are rendered unintelligible by loud S-Bahn noises, with at the same time latent over-acting by the protagonists and kitschy music as a soundtrack. This ambiguity crops up regularly in Aiello’s piece: For example, “The Coquette” kicks off with a cheesy cover version of the Bob Dylan song “To Make You Feel My Love” by former Westlife singer Shane Filian.

I actually really don’t like you.

Yvonne in “The Coquette”
Rosa Aiello, The Coquette (Still), © Rosa Aiello

The songwhich describes unconditional, albeit unrequited love. In “The Coquette” it has an almost threatening quality not dissimilar to the innate aggression of a stalker. Such ambiguity also runs like a red thread through Patricia Highsmith’s short stories, and even the title toys with the reader’s expectations. In her volume of short stories women are not presented as angelic beings, as morally upright holy Mary’s. Rather, Highsmith focuses on the very essence of misogyny itself: Women do not become victims by dint of their actions, but simply by virtue of being women.

Rosa Aiello, The Coquette (Still), © Rosa Aiello

We can also experience the power of a title in Rosa Aiello’s piece: “The Coquette” categorizes the figure of Yvonne from the very first scene onwards in keeping with a cliched view of women and thus reproducing the narrow perspective of the male figures. Yvonne’s actual behavior does not by any means correspond to that view. The properties attributed to her from the outside alone determine the actions of the individual. For, is she really so coquette? How could we define that? What if the film were called “The Shy One” or “The Undecided”? In other words, it is the outside perspective that determines if someone is coquette not the person herself.

After 35 years the film is displayed for the first time

After a conversation with the artist, in the second part of our Double Feature we will be screening Bill Gunn’s “Personal Problems” from1980. The film is based on the radio series of the same name created by Afro-American writer Ishmael Reed, which relied on improvised texts, and which Reed devised and realized together with actor Walter Cotton and radio host Steve Cannon.

Rosa Aiello, The Coquette (Still), © Rosa Aiello

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems (Still), Courtesy Kino Lorber, Image via mfah.com

“Personal Problems” was meant to be a kind of “black meta soap opera”, as Steve Cannon put it: “We were dissatisfied with the kind of stuff that was coming out of Hollywood, that Blaxploitation, Super Fly and that kind of bullshit. We wanted to do something ... more authentic and more realistic in terms of middle-class black people.” Director Bill Gunn – whom Spike Lee terms “one of the most under-appreciated filmmakers of his time” then turned the project into a two-part TV movie with a total length of a good 2 ¾ hours, in which all those involved in the radio production took part again.

What the film offers is an unpretentious insight into the lived reality of Afro-American New Yorkers in 1980s Harlem. The camera, managed by architecture photographer Robert Polidori (who was at the time at the very beginning of his career) accompanies the protagonists through their everyday lives, to parties and get-togethers with friends. The focus is on the relationship between Johnny Mae and her husband, her affairs, her daily job, and all the other mix-ups life brings with it.

We wanted to do some­thing ... more authen­tic and more realis­tic in terms of middle-class black people.

Steve Cannon

What is so impressive is the improvised acting, authentic in the best sense of the word, and otherwise only to be seen with such intensity in the oeuvre of US Indie filmmaker John Cassavetes. The film was shot using the then brand-new technology of the videocam and was originally offered to TV station PBS – which turned it down, leading to the movie not being seen for a long time. It was not until last year that production company Kino Lorber digitized “Personal Problems” so that now, after over 35 years, it could be shown to a larger audience for the first time.