Image of movie Mademoiselle Kenopsia

Emptiness, Doubled

10 Oct 2023

Emptiness, Doubled

by Laura Staab

Spending time with two films as the summer sun became a thing of the past, I kept returning to questions of emptiness: abstraction, castration, decapitation, and so on. Call it a hangover from half a decade of reading feminist theories of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the films embraces emptiness, while the other enjoys an aversion to it.


kenós, ‘empty’ + -opsis, ‘sight’       

Imagine being introduced to a woman who shows no sign of having lived before the present moment. Inevitably, the meeting is meagre: person on one side, wraith on the other. Yes, she works, keeping watch over a sprawling but sparse building. Yes, she exists, in as much as she breathes, perceives, and even philosophises – but all without hint of a peopled past.

Abstraction has fallen out of fashion. We want so much to believe in a world, to be right for it and to be there for it, that to abscond from it can be seen as a reckless betrayal. Art can be a hypothetical space, however. Working according to a contrarian maxim of always negate, Denis Côté often forsakes the world in his films – but to make the heart fond of it again, to find it again. When asked about the sequestered confines of one of his films, Que ta joie demeure (2014), he replied, ‘Going out becomes a dream.’ Going back to zero, MADEMOISELLE KENOPSIA (2023) begins to dream of a world from there.

INTERLUDE FOR AN ANXIOUS LOGOPHILE:kenopsia’ is not a word we ought to know, but a neologism belonging to an amateur dictionary of ‘obscure sorrows’. It has a ring of history to it (those Grecian components), yet it was thought up only eleven years ago and appears in no established dictionary. Similar to a woman without a world, then, ‘kenopsia’ is a fledgling thing: it has met very few fingertips and even fewer tongues.

Côté does not make much use of the word beyond the title, even if the provisional, online definition – ‘the haunting quality of seeing a location typically full of people in a state of emptiness or abandonment’ – does describe the affect of the film well. Speaking in interviews, he calls the unearthly woman in the film not Mademoiselle Kenopsia but the Guardian of Spaces instead. No one calls you by any name when you work in isolation, I suppose. Innocent of a world, do you bear any gender by which you may be known as mademoiselle?

When the world has been withheld for long enough (long enough that some of us start having conversations with ourselves), Côté lets it leak back in. And each droplet of encounter is erotic after a drought. When another woman intrudes on the surveilled spaces of the film to opine about how beautiful it is to move and to smoke, doing both with beguiling ease, the Guardian of Spaces gets drunk on these new gestures and feelings that come from elsewhere. She falls asleep on the job and gets going with dreaming about the world outside.

In the beginning: a wisp of a woman who watches over emptied spaces. In the end: much more. As that vital woman says sensuously of cigarette smoke, the newly born dreamer, too, ‘stirs up space’ and ‘unfolds the light’.


kenós, ‘empty’ + phobía, ‘fear’       

When the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt painted his Judith, a widow who (as apocrypha has it) charmed and then beheaded a commander called Holofernes, in 1901 and again in 1909, he left out the sword that sliced through the neck, and there is no trace of gore. Caravaggio and Gentileschi include the phallic weapon and the rufous ribbons of blood it draws, but Klimt finds his pleasures elsewhere. Regarding Judith not in the act but in the aftermath of violence, his first Judith pushes Holofernes’ limp head to one side, and his second renders it little but a démodé handbag among more alluring decorative swirls. Art historians often use the term horror vacui, fear of emptiness, to describe Klimt’s maximalist paintings; he submerges the castrating threat of femmes fatales in veils, golds, and other apotropaic shields. I know it isn’t very trendy to be into Klimt (too kitsch), but something about this flagrant fetishism enchants me nonetheless.

Raúl Ruiz’s biographical drama Klimt (2006) circles around doubles – the suspicion that one version of a woman might be real, and another version might be fake. Funny, really, that two cuts of the film exist: the director’s cut (129 minutes) and the producer’s cut (93 minutes). I know, I know – that two cuts of the film exist and circulate is not necessarily such a surprise. But it tickles me even so to think of them as a joke, as a way for Ruiz and Gilbert Adair, the screenwriter, to add further lookalikes to a film already full of them.

Is one cut real? Is one cut fake? I can picture a cinephile who would obsess over the two variants, playing a game of spot the difference that is in fact an exercise in searching for lack. Chasing the shorter cut into the shadows for dishonourable deficiencies, he would then – and only then – be able to celebrate the longer cut as authentic, complete, and all the rest. If not a tale as old as time, then it is at least a tale as old as fin-de-siècle Vienna (not just where Klimt did his work, but where Freud – thinker of the unheimlich, fetishism and castration – also began his).

I sympathise with my straw man. Given the spoils of two, I tend also to compare-and-contrast. I did it with Klimt the artist and Klimt the film after watching the producer’s cut. Klimt was accused of presenting unclear ideas through unclear forms, for instance, and Klimt was charged with much the same. But all this weighing up and fussing over – how boring it is! and what a trap! Klimt and Ruiz embrace the unknown and seize on it as a chance to play.

Out there, somewhere, there are thirty-six minutes more of KLIMT for me to enjoy. Yet maybe it is more fun to blindfold myself to their precise form, to envision the excess in my mind’s eye instead. Profusions of wildflowers, Klimt’s numerous women – I imagine each frame with more bunches and bodies than could ever fit physically into any one place. Aesthetic and historical perspective collapse under gilded shower and diaphanous wave – and we are back where we started. Art can be a hypothetical space. 



For the first time the VIENNALE hosts a YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE. A group of young, international film critics are working under the editorial and organisational guidance of author and film critic Patrick Holzapfel on a number of texts dealing with the programme of this year's festival. This initiative is related to our commitment regarding the perception and discussion of film criticism in its permanent state of crisis.