Filming the Body in Crisis: Trauma, Healing and Hopefulness, by Davina Quinlivan

Elizabeth I. Watkins on a study about reparation that analyses recent works including Hunger and Waltz with Bashir

October 1, 2015
Review: Filming the Body in Crisis, by Davina Quinlivan

Can non-visual perceptions, such as touch or the physical sensations of breathing, be experienced through audio-visual representation? Through an emphasis on human experience and its representation, Davina Quinlivan calls what is invisible of the body’s interactions with the world, replicated by the privileging of the image in theories of film spectatorship, into question.

Filming the Body in Crisis focuses on narratives and images of trauma and their expression in the filmic medium, in which something that happens on the body of the character is replicated on the body of the film. In seeking to reconcile the contradictory discourse of seeing and not seeing, the reader is asked to reconsider the viewer’s experience of aspects of the body (touch and sensation) that are not immediately visible in the image but can be understood through the gestures of other characters.

Quinlivan re-examines this mapping of the body between spectator and the screened image via Melanie Klein’s thoughts on object relations theory and human trauma. In Klein’s work, the separation of the child from the mother’s body is provisional to their relationship to the world, with the child’s anxieties externalised on to other objects as fantasies of the destruction and reparation of the maternal body. Trauma and healing, then, are enmeshed in the mother’s touch – a caress or its absence, or aggression – which maps the child’s body in relation to others. As a kind of “skin”, this body is both imagined and physical. Wounds to this “skin” threaten its established corporeal integrity. The spectator that Quinlivan formulates is reminded of the fragility of this skin through the experience of viewing the film. The vulnerable foundations of a sense of self are queried, as the image of a body in crisis is interwoven with the disintegration of the film image and narrative itself.

Quinlivan examines in turn Derek Jarman’s experimental film Blue (1993), a meditation on the physical and psychological effects of Aids; Steve McQueen’s detailing of the writing of institutional violence on the body and its resistance in the 2008 drama Hunger; and, also from 2008, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, in which the viewing experience of a crisis in narrative structure represents the character’s failing memory. Each of these films, she finds, engenders a desire for reparation. Drawing on Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (2000) and Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004), Quinlivan continues her reconsideration of audio-visual media as a means of conveying human experience that she began in her 2012 book, The Place of Breath in Cinema.

As a consideration of the history of film theory and of the memories that shape each viewing subject, Filming the Body in Crisis is insightful. Yet the detail necessitated by reading for the intersections of the cinematographic articulation of the body and its sensory perceptions creates an imbalance with the cultural and political context of each film’s production, which feels uneasy. This disquiet proves useful, however, as it returns us to the book’s timely central concerns – memory, cinema as an archive of the body, and sensory perceptions in different cultural contexts of human experience in crisis – that are encountered or imagined through film.

Elizabeth I. Watkins is lecturer in history of art, University of Leeds. She is currently working on a monograph addressing the significance of colour for film theories of subjectivity, perception and sexual difference in cinema.


Filming the Body in Crisis: Trauma, Healing and Hopefulness
By Davina Quinlivan
Palgrave Macmillan, 206pp, £60.00
ISBN 9781137361363 and 1370 (e-book)
Published 30 September 2015

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