International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 22, April 2005







Michael Abecassis


In Search of Lost Children in Cinema and Western Society:

On Emma Wilson's _Cinema's Missing Children_



Emma Wilson

_Cinema's Missing Children_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1903364507

208 pp.


According to a CSA poll conducted in 2000, 'Gregory's case' was, for a third of the French population, the third most important event of the 20th century (following the death of Princess Diana and the sinking of the Titanic). In October 1984, the lifeless body of a four-year-old child was found in the Vologne, a river in a peaceful village in the Vosges. This discovery resulted in a judicial enquiry which, for more than 10 years, would fascinate the media and dominate the headlines of French newspapers. We are reminded of this event every time a child is abducted or reported missing. The issue of child pornography and sex abuse has been given a higher profile by the Dutroux affair and internet paedophilic networks. Likewise, the photographs of missing children which were exhibited on milk cartons and billboards throughout the US were of a similarly traumatic nature.


As Emma Wilson notes in her 2002 book _Cinema's Missing Children_, the theme of the missing child and the attendant mourning process is not new in cinema. Rather, it has been a 'major concern in society and in the media from at least the 1960s' (157). Much earlier, Fritz Lang's _M_ (1931) dealt with the subject of a psychotic child murderer who terrorized a German city. This new contribution to the subject explores the recurrent motif of the death or loss of a child in the cinema of the last decade. Absence has become the point around which the narrative develops. There are numerous examples which can illustrate Wilson's thesis. Breillat's _A ma soeur_ (2002), which is not analysed in Wilson's study due to its recent release, ends in tragedy. One could also mention Jeunet's _La cite des enfants perdus_. Although this is a fantasy film, children are the main focus, as they are kidnapped and their dreams stolen. In the Australian award-winning film _Lantana_ (2001), the child's death occurs before the story opens and functions in a symbolic way. Likewise, in Egoyan's _The Sweet Hereafter_ (1997) a small town reacts to the tragic accident that killed a busload of schoolchildren. Most of these films have been adapted from novels in which the issue of missing children acts as a recurrent motif for the futility and meaningless of life.


Following a chronological order, Wilson looks successively at Krysztof Kieslowski's _Three Colours: Blue_ (1993), Atom Egoyan's _Exotica_ (1994), Todd Solondz's _Happiness_ (1998), Agnieszka Holland's _Olivier, Olivier_ (1992), Pedro Almodovar's _All About My Mother_ (1999), Jane Campion's _The Portrait of a Lady_ (1996), Michael Winterbottom's _Jude_ (1995), Lynne Ramsay's _Ratcatcher_ (1999), various Dogme films, among them Lars von Trier's _Kingdom_ (1994) and _Breaking the Waves_ (1996), and Nanni Moretti's _The Son's Room_ (2001). This study is supplemented with other contemporary films which corroborate the thesis that the treatment of absence and loss have increasingly become the focus for the family dynamics of characters in cinema. Drawing upon philosophy, psychology, and sociology, Wilson aims to show the stance directors take to fill up the absence, as well as how the trauma of loss, personal anxiety, and nostalgia have been overcome though not healed. She argues that despite the wish to see the mourned child alive, and for the cinematic process to revive his/her image, the loss is inescapable: 'the encounter with the Real, the loss of the child . . . cannot be recovered in memory or representation, [this constitutes] horror from which there is absolutely no recovery' (9). Guilt, the responsibility of parents facing the death of a child, visual memories, haunting phantoms of the living child, and the impossibility of expressing such experiences, are all issues explored in the book. Questions are raised such as whether films are therapeutic or if they only provide palliative images of the unrecoverable past. Wilson's literary and philosophical analysis of each film is thorough, full of finesse and sensitivity, and always illuminating, though the style adopted can sometimes be a bit too academic to appeal to a wider audience.


In _Blue_, Kieslowski uses different cinematic techniques to convey Julie's mourning process. The symbolic colour 'blue' in the trilogy, one of the three colours of the French flag, is associated with freedom, but it has a wider range of meanings. It can be said to me reminiscent of the amniotic liquid of a foetus (and this is also a recurrent metaphor in _Exotica_). For Wilson the aquatic image suggests both 'drowning and rebirth' (23), bathing and cleansing. It symbolizes a journey into the womb (a *regressus ad uterum* where mother and child are in symbiosis) or a return to a primeval state of innocence. The liminal blue associated with the indelible intrusion of music into Julie's mind has a therapeutic function as well as representing a slow slippage into memory. Music takes the place of language and becomes 'the medium of public memory . . . the means by which Julie negotiates her husband's loss and her own survival' (16). In Greek mythology, music enabled Orpheus to be reunited momentarily with the mnemonic image of Eurydice. The predicament of the character in the film -- if we adopt Blanchot's interpretation from _Le livre a venir_ [1] -- might be compared to that of Orpheus, who loses the missing object of his desire in the moment of casting a gaze toward it, simultaneously losing both the evanescent image and her own identity. _Blue_ offers no cure for loss, but only shows that it has become part of Julie's psyche, recurring in engrammatic forms.


'Exotica' is the name of a striptease club on the outskirts of Toronto, where erotic dancers perform by dancing their customers' fantasies. One of these customers is Francis, who is obsessed by a young dancer Christina. Like in the striptease, truth in _Exotica_ is gradually uncovered, linking the disparate characters together. As the film unravels, the viewer discovers that Francis is mourning the loss of his child whose phantomatic image appears as watermarked snapshots. The fascination Christina exerts on Francis, as well as erotic pleasure and the hypnotic music whose ritual intends to exorcise death and to distract from the loss, proves to be short-lasting healing. Grief and pain still remain. This is more like a journey into the sensual, the emotional, and memory, until the vanishing point where the image of the dead disappears. Central to _Exotica_ is the image of people scouring the Ontario landscape for the missing child. This conjures up the mourning process of the mind seeking the unrecoverable image of the object of desire.


In Solondz's controversial film, _Happiness_, a psychiatrist husband develops an unnatural fascination for his 11 year-old son's male classmates, fantasizes about mass murder in a park, and masturbates to teen hunk magazines. Issues such as child sexuality, paedophilia, sexual dysfunction, the discomfort of childhood, and the impact on family dynamics are all treated. For Wilson, the film, beyond its apparent sensationalism and crude pornography which push the limits of what is bearable, offers a 'renewed mode of cinematic representation and response' (42).


_Olivier, Olivier_ also concerns the need to find a substitute for a missing child. Olivier disappears without leaving any trace. Six years later he reappears in Paris, but people question whether the adolescent is indeed Olivier. The issue brings to mind the film _Le Retour de Martin Guerre_ (1982). The return of Olivier has the effect of reuniting the family, as Wilson shows, to the extent of becoming a 'wish-fulfilling image of itself' (61). The final image of the empty swing moving forward and backward in the garden is particularly striking. Although it is empty, it is still animated, giving the hallucinatory impression the lost child is present, if not in flesh and blood then at least in spirit. Cinema brings to mind 'the illusion of presence of animation, a photographic trace of lost objects and loved ones' (63).


The missing child is also the vanishing point of Almodovar's film. In _All About my Mother_ Manuela, whose son is killed by a car, embodies the sacred image of the *mater dolorosa*, the grieving Virgin Mary holding in her arms the crucified Christ. Her tears are, for Marina Warner, the image of 'a universal language of cleansing and rebirth' (quoted 67). Manuela's itinerary is a search for redemption. By searching for her son's father, she seeks her own identity as well as that of her son. Facing trauma, this ontological quest is a way of moving forward. As a substitute for her lost child and of transferring her excess of affection, Manuela ends up taking care of the pregnant nun's child, who bears the same name.


_The Portrait of a Lady_ is very different in style from Almodovar's film, but the recurrent and obsessive motive is the 'absence' and the long-lasting grief left on a surviving mother. The main protagonist, Osmond, wants to manipulate and dominate Isabel's free spirit. As Wilson explains, Osmond tries to turn Isabel into another of his statues. She becomes petrified, mortified in her marriage, trapped by social convention. Wilson shows how Campion emphasizes the aesthetic sense of the tactile and the palpable. The film is 'about a woman's mourning for her child, her exile from life (her own childhood), vitality and destiny' (89). Her transformation into a statue implies that the past and present have become fused; a sense of touch alone remains alive in the stony Isabel, whose mourning for her child is immortalized in her petrification.


The themes of nostalgia, loss of the past, and the horror of child death are central to Winterbottom's recreation of late 19th century England in _Jude_. As in _Blue_, colour has a symbolic importance. The movie begins in black and white (the colours of grief, sorrow, and loss) then moves to a grim chromatism of blue and grey. Blue is again associated with childhood and a *regressus ad originem*. As Wilson aptly notices: 'Jude offers no process of healing or comfort' -- the past is lost and its cinematic recreation reminds viewers that it is 'irrevocably missing' (106).


The Dogme school, and most particularly Danish director Lars von Trier, is the subject of the following chapter. Here, von Trier further explores his fascination with lost children and traumatised childhood. In his cult TV series _The Kingdom_, the phantoms of missing children continue to haunt the memory of the living and to threaten them until their spirits are put to rest. In 1919 the infamous Dr Kruger, one of the founders of a Copenhagen hospital ('The Kingdom'), murdered his illegitimate young daughter Mary. Decades later it is only the sick and mentally retarded who hear the ghostly voice of a girl crying. Such a film, argues Wilson, 'explores the possibility of the film as a medium of commemoration and witnessing' (137).


Nanni Moretti's _The Son's Room_ and Todd Field's _In the Bedroom_ function in similar symbolic ways, dealing with the sudden loss of a child and the subsequent disruption of the family circle. In the former, a successful psychoanalyst and his family plunge into profound trauma after their son dies in a scuba-diving accident. The film shows in detail the practical rituals surrounding Giovanni's funeral and emphasizes the sombre aspect of such a trauma. It tackles questions such as parental guilt, innocence, and ways of moving forward. Pain is not overcome, but Giovanni is kept alive and recalled via virtual images (palliative photographs of Giovanni and letters which bring him back as addressee), as well as via Arianna, Giovanni's girlfriend, who acts as a projection and substitute for the deceased.


Throughout _Cinema's Missing Children_ Wilson stresses that the loss of a child results in no real sign of reparation nor cure. Each film contemplates some ways of moving forward, of finding comfort and relief in grief, and some types of commemoration. In the case of _The Son's Room_ comfort is found in projecting one's affection onto others. As Derrida puts it: 'In this mourning work in process, in this interminable task, the ghost remains that which gives one the most to think about -- and to do'. [2] This book is a major study in an area which has grown more insistent in contemporary cinema. Each film analysis is fascinating. Combining a literary as well as a philosophical and sociological approach, Wilson gives each individual study a new dimension. Undoubtedly, this book will appeal to cinema specialists as well as cinema enthusiasts who wish to improve their knowledge of contemporary cinema.


University of Oxford, England





1. See Maurice Blanchot, _Le livre a venir_ (Paris: Gallimard, 1959).


2. Jacques Derrida, _Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International_, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 98.



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Michael Abecassis, 'In Search of Lost Children in Cinema and Western Society: On Emma Wilson's _Cinema's Missing Children_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 22, April 2005 <>.












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