How to resist becoming mesmerized by the elegance of walking women? In particular, in an urban environment, the city takes shape through the pathway created by females’ gait. Moving statues, they have always triggered our attention and desire. French director Eric Rohmer is one of the heralds of a lady’s charm, depicting very diverse women from one film to another and even within the same film. As a member of the Nouvelle Vague cinematographic movement (1959–1960), Rohmer perceives the sensuality of a woman less on her physical assets than a male’s ability to reveal her secretive charms (Sellier, 2008). Bearing this in mind, the cult of male desires greatly impacted youngsters’ imagination of that time by altering their idea of sensuality. In the last film of the six Morals’ tales, Love in the Afternoon (1972), each actress virtually parades on the street. In this urban environment, the main character Frédéric imagines that he possesses every woman who passes by him on the street thanks to his magical amulet. A ‘childish thought’ as Frédéric puts it, due to the amulet reference of his childhood readings. The fantastic object represents the desire to gain all women’s admiration and consent. Thus, admiration entails mixed feelings: amazement versus possession. Burgeoning spring is conducive to these kinds of thoughts; females are like bees or butterflies, moving around but never being caught, probably because this is not the purpose. In this specific scene of Love in the Afternoon, women are defined by their mood, namely ‘indifferent, in a rush, wavering, busy and escorted women etc.’ How can we explain the sensuality derived from the observation of ladies on the streets? What kind of feelings does this observation entail?
DESIRE OF LOOKING
Woman’s beauty has often been compared to statues (Chambers, 2008). This may be illuminated by the attempt of artists to circumscribe woman’s beauty and to fix it. Yet woman’s beauty is moveable, changing according to space and people’s discourses. The desire is strengthened from the impossibility of touching. This creates an illusion: a gap between the ideas and the subject of vision. The latter cannot be grasped; the beauty is not fully tangible since it escapes the viewer’s understanding. The limitations of rationality are unable to provide explanations (Brooks, 1991). The unreachable aspect of woman’s beauty thereby vivifies desire. The visual investigation of reality is doomed to failure, as the object of reality remains volatile. When there is an attempt to describe with ‘realism’ a visual, an ‘aporia’ occurs; the situation where confusion results from a reflection or a problem: here, the understanding of woman’s beauty.
How to grasp the beauty of the woman, not in terms of physical power, but rather how to understand why we are all moved by a woman’s charm? There is consensus on who is a beautiful woman, yet it’s the irrevocable detail, which is going to move a specific person depending on one’s own subjective preferences (Bataille, 1986). The common obstinacy of people looking at women may be explained by this unsolvable mystery. The impossibility of describing the totality of woman’s beauty leads to eroticism (Bataille, 1986), resulting in a deconstruction of the sight. Instead of describing the totality (the body), the observer turns his attention upon details such as fashion accessories (Brooks, 1991). Focusing on a specific aspect of a person may be the origin of fetishism. As the desire is intimately related to the visual, object fixation helps us to better understand the building of desire. Conversely, to preconceived ideas that erotic attachment to an object is a mere ‘perversion’, this practice is part and parcel of an aesthetic composition (Brooks, 1991). Numerous literary examples reflect the urge to grasp a woman’s (Brooks, 1991) beauty. For instance, the poetry of the sixteenth century gave birth to the Blason type of poem, praising a specific anatomic feature of a female’s body. This exercise in style illustrates the sensuality of a woman’s beauty while stressing the limitations of the sight, thus advocating the power of art as a way to compensate for human disability. French authors of the nineteenth century (Nerval, Gautier and Flaubert) used to address fetishism as a sign of everything, which is ‘remote, strange and inaccessible’: an artistic vision shifting the common object into a focused object (Chambers, 2008). The underlying reason of a woman’s observation is determined as the quest for truth(Brooks, 1991).
When looking back to Love in the Afternoon, Frédéric has trouble understanding his wife, thus sharing his fears with her becomes difficult. Observing other women is a way of looking back at past memories, a retrospective approach which explains why he chose the charm of his wife among all beauties. However, I regret that most sight interactions are seen via a binary image: the ‘passive’ versus the ‘active’. The former refers to the object of sight and the latter to the subject of sight. Women are often seen as ‘passive females’ while men are said to be ‘active’ since the man is projecting his fantasy on the woman’s character (Mulvey, 2009). Freud stresses the distinction between genders, yet female and male characteristics are not only permanent but also floating (Butler, 1990). In Rohmer’s movie, Frédéric cannot concentrate at his work office, lost in daydreaming reflections and observations. While women are busy in their ordinary life, using the streets as transition places, they seem more active than Frédéric who takes refuge in a café, trying to hide his momentary procrastination. At the beginning of the movie, Frédéric explained that he used to stroll down the streets to get inspiration for his work, yet walking is not the only way to be creative. Sitting at a table also leads to imagination, precisely why Frédéric wishes that he has a flirtatious power over women. Seduction is often seen as a power relationship, yet in Rohmer’s movie, women are confident of their charm. Reciprocity is restored and nobody knows who starts and who ends the performative play of the self. This is no longer a matter of gender or agency dichotomy. Sight is, therefore, the most appropriate to offer ‘complete reciprocity’ between strangers (Simmel, 1997) since it enables unknown people to create a mute interaction with each other.
THE CITY: GOING BEYOND THE SIGHT
Visual overload, constant noises and unpredictable mobility can easily make the city overwhelming and puzzling. To cope with this sensorial confusion and to control the sensuous effects of urban environments, individuals become aware of their surroundings and street passengers (Borer, 2013). People have to both protect themselves against invasive stimuli while adapting to the urban landscape (Simmel, 1971). This is illustrated by diverse attitudes such as ‘reservation, rationality, consciousness and blasé attitude’ (Simmel, 1971).
To sum up, the sensual act of observing women stems from beauty derived from its performative aspect, based on mobility. The urban landscape appears as the perfect background to enhance this characteristic. Attempting to explain the reasons behind the desire aroused from a specific beauty is doomed to failure. This frustration was the advent of fetishism and the praise of woman’s beauty through specific attention. From this common tacit agreement, people please each other. However, we came up with the idea that strangers’ sensuality pertains to the fleetingness of the city. From a mutual secretive dialogue between two individuals, we note that beauty is also provided by the perception of another person. Therefore, beauty is enacted through people’s thoughts and attention. Sight is not the only sense to contribute to the enhancement of sensuality. Other senses operate within the city’s life, namely hearing and smelling. Though urban experience studies are insightful, they do not take into account the imaginative perspective of individuals in their wandering of the city. Imagination plays a decisive role in the adornment of woman’s beauty. Effects deriving from these pleasant observations are not feelings per se, but more states: such as a dreamy mind-set and aesthetic pleasures.
From this reflection, I question myself about the relevance of the current sensuality flourishing in urban environments. People are increasingly glued to their mobile phones, listening to music, reading, or talking. Yet, observation derives from curiosity, awareness and availability. Whether people prefer to optimize their transport time or whether they have become more insecure, new technologies bring to light new ways to think about sensuality, and I wonder about the emerging ways to seduce, and how it is performed in city life.
- Bataille, G. (1986). Eroticism: Death & sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
- Benjamin, W., Eiland, H., MacLaughlin, K., & Tiedemann, R. (1999). The arcades project. Cambridge: MA: Belknap Press.
- Borer, M. (2013). Being in the City: The Sociology of Urban Experiences. Sociology Compass .
- Brooks, P. (1991). The body in the field of vision. Paragrah , 14 (1), 46-67.
- Chambers, R. (2008). Heightening the Lowly (Baudelaire: “Je n’ai pas oublié . . .” and “A une passante”). Nineteenth Century French Studies , 37 (1-2), 42-51.
- Mulvey, L. (2009). Visual and other pleasures. Houdmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Sellier, G. (2008). Masculine singular: French New Wave cinema . Durham: Duke University Press.