Girls on Fire
In 2011, the abusive partner of Argentine woman Maira Maidana soaked her in alcohol and set her alight. After fifty-nine separate surgeries, she remained severely scarred and almost unable to speak, but fully mobilised and able – finally – to articulate both her fears and her determination to survive. She united with the Argentine-based Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement that seeks to give survivors of domestic violence and other kinds of gendered oppression a voice, a movement now with an international presence.
According to a women's rights group, between 2008 and 2016 there were 2,384 femicides in Argentina alone. 1 Maidana's experience was sadly not unique, a phenomenon apparent in the title story of Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez's extraordinary 2017 collection Things We Lost in the Fire. But through fiction's fantastic possibilities, Enriquez turns the tables. Beginning with a young woman whose jealous partner sets her alight in a manner echoing what happened to Maidana and so many women like her, in Enriquez's story this is met by the retaliatory Burning Women movement, where women build activist networks to help set each other on fire as an act of subversion, rebellion, unification, and protest: we'll do it to ourselves by choice before you do it to us by force. "Men were burning their girlfriends, wives, lovers, all over the country," writes Enriquez. "That's why, when women started burning themselves for real, no one believed it at first."
Self-immolation-as-protest is not rare in visual culture. Most famously, of course, was the famous suicide footage of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese monk who set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Ngô Đình Diệm regime on 11 June 1963 on a Saigon street. This image has been appropriated, referenced, and borrowed in cinema ever since – from Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) to Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012) – demonstrating that this particular cultural reference point is both powerful and enduring.
Likewise, the image of self-immolating women has its own distinct tradition in narrative cinema. To be clear, this is nothing as simple or offensive as claiming that self-immolation is a ‘feminist' act, and when transported into fictional worlds (be they on screen or in print) the meanings of these images are complex, confronting, and often contradictory. One useful conceptual entry point may be a comparison made by members of the Young Feminist Club at Hollywood High School in 2009 who located self-immolation as an extreme point on the same spectrum of their "friends who began cutting their own bodies to escape the pain of emotional abuse."2 No one wants young girls slashing themselves so they can feel something beyond trauma, and no one wants women setting themselves on fire. But as symbolic acts in stories about women and power, the image is striking.
The vision of self-immolation as having a potent link to women, power, and trauma so memorably depicted in Enriquez's short story manifests in a range of similar yet individually unique ways across a diverse range of films. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's recent Hindi blockbuster Padmaavat (2018) reimagines the iconic story of Rani Padmini, the Indian queen who died in a Jauhar or suicidal mass self-immolation of women in the fourteenth century, enacted by women to avoid enslavement, imprisonment, or rape. The title character of Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) dies in a house fire at her own hands in a notably different cultural context as a means of escaping oppression, and the image of Sissy Spacek standing on a flaming stage on prom night is one of the most iconic images of 1970s US horror.
Notably, women filmmakers of a distinctly feminist bent have also utilised the image of self-immolating girlhood to extraordinary effect. In Ana Kokkinos's gritty Only the Brave (1994), set in Melbourne's Western suburbs, pyromaniac Vicki (Dora Kaskanis) too finds an escape from the suffocating world of abuse with a seemingly inevitable conclusion. Likewise, in Marina de Van's 2013 film Dark Touch, traumatised by years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse Niamh (Missy Keating) converts her negative energy into a tangible force. Removing those whom she perceives as active, long-term child abusers from the world through flames that take her own life as well as theirs is for Niamh as much a relief as it is a sacrifice.
Yet representations of self-immolating women in film are not always driven by such socially-minded intent. Roughly based on the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case in New Zealand that also inspired Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994), Joël Séria's French exploitation classic Don't Deliver Us From Evil (Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal, 1971) follows two adolescent girls in a romantic pact that leads to murder and suicide. Taking substantial liberties with his source material, in Séria's version Anne de Boissy (Jeanne Goupil) and Lore Fournier (Catherine Wagener) are Satan-obsessed Catholic schoolgirls who begin a romantic relationship less as part of their conscious dedication to 'evil' as simply having learned it from lesbian erotica found in the attic of their schoolhouse and spying on a sexual encounter between Sister Martha and Sister Cecile through a keyhole.
What's so curious about the film is that it doesn't – as this synopsis might suggest – hammer the supposed 'perversity' of their same-sex attraction with their commitment to evil and downward spiral into murderous debauchery. Rather, their sexual relationship is almost beside the point, a hobby rather than any central, driving commitment when compared to the thing that really unites them: these girls are flat-out thirsty for Satan. But this is no throw-up-your-goats, Anton LaVey-esque metalhead Satanism: here it's all pushbikes and floral frocks, sunshine and daisy chains replacing full moons and pentagrams. What unites these girls with their self-immolating sisters is their open derision of men, be they priests, farmhands, or would-be-rapists who happen to pass by.
The film's famous climax – like that of Carrie – takes place on a stage, the girls performing a mash-up poetry recitation of Charles Baudelaire and Jules LaForgue. Smiling nuns and parents look upon the two young women in their white gowns with admiration and pride, at first interpreting their dousing of themselves in a flammable liquid and subsequent ignition as a clever special effect, some pyrotechnic razzle-dazzle on show for their benefit. In the film's final moments, however, they realise this is not the case. Pandemonium breaks out as the screaming, distressed audience flee the auditorium while the girls are burned alive off-camera.
Driven to the act by their commitment to evil and suspicions that their murderous adventures were close to being discovered by the police, the overtly performative nature of the girls' deaths are here driven by a spectacular, symbolic, and emphatically public desire to have their ultimate unification witnessed by others. While a world apart in cultural context and ideological intent from Enriquez's Burning Women, Anne and Lore too discover their ultimate sisterhood lies within a wall of flames.
The author would like to thank Lee Gambin for introducing her to Don't Deliver Us From Evil (Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal, 1971).