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Culture: Look back on Nymphomania: Black Snake Moan
Friday, 22 June 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
Black Snake Moan is possibly the most complicated film that I have ever seen- in that my reactions to it are complicated. The film itself plays upon sexual and racial stererotypes- a black man chains up a young white nymphomaniac, whose nymphomania was caused we learn because of previous sexual abuse, and attempts to teach her not to be a slut. The relationship between the white girl played by Christina Ricci and her jailor played by Samuel Jackson is the centre of the film and critics agree that they are both excellent performances- both of them portray the characters they embody with a wonderful relaxed accuracy. Ricci writhing in sexual desire in the midst of the field- Jackson reprising his biblical anger so notable in Pulp Fiction but adding to it a bluesy strain- both capture the essense of the script. Nothing can be said against their portraits- but what ultimately is the story trying to tell us and should we be happy with its message.

I want to issue a disclaimer before I start reviewing though- Mark Kermode on his Radio 5 program and others have suggested that the film draws on exploitation films of the 1970s and earlier- I have to admit to not having seen those films. Furthermore the iconography may refer backwards and forwards to places in American history I don't understand- some of which I am sure I have missed- so I apologise in advance.

This is a difficult film because it tackles subjects which are in themselves very difficult. Freud called female sexuality the dark continent and other male writers have seemed to fear feminine sexuality more than embrace it. To see a nymphomaniac on screen, especially as perfectly acted by Ricci, emphasizes the way that female sexuality could be perceived as irrational- her reactions are so animalistic- grunts and orgiastic moans- like as Jackson's character Lazarus tells her a bitch on heat, that she seems to merit the treatment he gives her, to chain her up, like as she says a dog.

Another way of reading the film is to see Rae, Ricci's character, as a child. At one point she claims to be an adult- and its pretty clear that physically she is. But mentally its also pretty clear that she isn't- Jackson becomes to her a surrogate father, stern and fierce and sometimes indulgent. She doesn't really have a mother through the film- indeed her mother tells her that she wishes that Rae had been aborted, her only tie is to a boyfriend, a boyfriend who has his own problems with panic attacks and who during the majority of the film is out in Iraq taking part in American operations there. To describe a woman alternately as an animal or a child is difficult though- particularly for anyone with a consciousness of sexism down the ages and the way that those ways of talking about women and female sexuality have been the bars of the prison in which women have been trapped since time immemorial.

Disquieting images therefore run through the film- but ultimately these images are translated into something else. The key thing in this is that Rae does become an adult and a human being through the film- she becomes someone who grows up through the film- it isn't a complete process but there are moments when you see that someone is in there- the music of the blues brings out the person inside as she dances to it and plays it herself. But there is something more than that- she attempts to relate to her mother again, she attempts to describe her condition to her boyfriend, attempts to find a solution with a pastor and eventually she marries the man she loves.

It is also worth noticing that it is not only Rae but her boyfriend and husband Ronnie that is also 'fucked up'- she is the only one who can rescue him from his panic attacks. There is a sense that you get that the episode with Jackson is part of a process of growth for Rae- definitely I know from personal experience with friends that sometimes a crisis is what solidifies a general trend. With Rae the image of the chain that bound her to the radiator in her days of captivity becomes a motif for her resistance to the darknesses flowing out of the recesses of her mind- because of that she is able to stabilise herself and stabilise Ronnie- she imparts strength to him.

Ultimately what the film reflects on is the way that one can choose the life one leads. When Lazarus releases Rae from the chain that is actually what he says to her- when he first has her under this control he tells her that her options are to be a bitch on heat or a human being. Mental illness is hard but one of the things that this movie develops is the fact that the only way to escape it sometimes is through choosing against it- indeed therapy often focuses on that choosing not to feel something or choosing to label things as occasional thoughts instead of integral parts of experience. Rae's problems weren't caused by her (child abuse, attempted rape and violence have something to do with them)- but only she can defeat them, only she can supply the inward strength to shun the feelings that she gets- in that way the myth of female irrationality referred to above is disproved- however irrational Rae might be to begin with by the end of the film the rational part of her is in control. Indeed she is able because of her strength- to help her husband discover his rationality and overcome a little his own panic attacks.

This is a troubling film- there is no way around the fact that a barely dressed white woman being chained up by a black man is a difficult image politically- but its also a film about damaged human beings. When you look beyond the imagery which is disturbing and we are right to be disturbed about- there is a very interesting truth about the way that one deals with upset and disturbance within one's own life- defeating mental illness is a battle that goes on day by day, minute by minute in some people's lives and its a battle that is purely internal- through Rae we can see that- we can see her choose to live a happier life.

(Incidentally there is an interesting interview with the director on Salon, its worth reading.)