Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Janelle Domek brings us Peggy Ahwesh’s psychological horror short Nocturne (1998), a film that redefines gender roles in horror while investigating the nature of life, sex, and death.
In this pastiche non-linear horror film, Peggy Ahwesh deconstructs the violent nature of life, sex, and death through the story of a woman who murders her lover and is kept awake at night, haunted by his likeness. Ahwesh, often praised as a bricoleur, intersperses nature imagery and reflective voice-over between sections of narrative storytelling. Through this combination of narrative and found-footage, Nocturne becomes a study of gender and genre as the female protagonist (played by Anne Kugler) struggles to come to terms with her situation.
Ahwesh’s work has been widely shown both in New York City, where her work is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and around the world. She “came of age in the 1970’s with feminism, punk and amateur Super 8 movie making,” and has said “Formats, points of view, political positions and life styles inspired by these areas of investigation remain relevant to me and linger with a trace on everything I do” (Brooklyn Museum). Her focus on women and cultural experience is clearly seen in Nocturne.
Throughout the film, Ahwesh creates visual intrigue by using grainy 16 mm film and found footage clips, giving the film a documentary-like vibe that often goes hand in hand with horror. In between shots of the main character struggling to drag her lover’s corpse across the lawn, inserts of hands and feet give life to the images of death. Ahwesh’s ability to humanize murder and make death a part of every-day action is perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of the film. The found footage images and voice-over only add to this feeling—in one segment, we watch a spider capture and prepare its next meal as a man’s voice ominously states, “Beneath the beauty of nature’s world is one single truth: Life must take life in the interest of life itself.”
As we watch the main character manipulate her lover’s corpse, rolling him into an informal grave, it is impossible not to recognize the connection between woman and spider that has been made so many times before in horror. However, Ahwesh introduces the metaphor not as a symbol of evil temptress, but rather as a symbol of strength and longevity—of the ability to continue living despite the dire circumstances of life. The voice-over directly references this claim in saying, “the insect, in a frightening tour de force of adaptability, proved conclusively that he could endure where man would ultimately fail.” This revised symbolism is just one of the ways Ahwesh reconceptualizes horror tropes to put women in a position of power.
Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film take place during the main character’s introspective sleepless nights. A haunting image of her dead lover visits her bedroom, stirring up memories of love, vulnerability, and violence. As we watch the couple wrestle on the bed in a physical representation of emotional power play, the main character says, “I came to know that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference…and that the only true opposite of fantasy is pain.” We later watch her get violently whipped by her lover in a dream sequence in which they make love immediately afterwards. While straddling him, she slits his throat, killing him for a second time. This major role reversal of woman as slasher is another example of how Ahwesh reimagines the horror genre, putting the female protagonist in a position of power. By murdering her abusive lover, the protagonist frees herself of the passionate tension between love and hate and allows herself a chance at survival. Rather than killing for the sake of death and destruction, she kills for emotional liberation.
Natural imagery extends far beyond the image of the spider from the first segment of the film, and is often seen as a symbol of the question of morality. Found footage is used to carry this theme between each segment of the film, oscillating between images reminiscent of freedom versus claustrophobia. Ahwesh seems to imply that just as nature frees one from the constraints of the human experience (e.g. morality), it forces one to live by the laws of survival and instinct. In an acknowledgement of the contradictions presented by this theme, Ahwesh concludes the film with a quote about libertine impulses: “If we admit that all women should submit to our desires, surely we ought also to allow them to fully satisfy their own….Have no other curb than your tastes, no other laws than those of your own desires, no more morality than that of Nature herself.” Not only is this context important for understanding the natural symbolism seen throughout the film, but for understanding the purpose of Ahwesh’s role reversals. Our main character kills for power and liberation just as men are able to abandon morality in favor of visceral, sexual experiences. After hearing this mantra, the protagonist thrusts a knife into her stomach. She awakens from her dream state in a natural landscape, finally free from the boundaries of human existence.
Watch Nocturne here.
Author: Janelle Domek studies Animation and Digital Cinema at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media. She is currently the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets.