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Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Sitting here in this overly air conditioned conference room has caused me to daydream about Martinique. Why there, particularly? Not so sure. I remember it as the setting of Rue Cases-Negres, a film that's stayed with me for years after initially watching it while in college as part of a Film & Social Change course. In the film-

José is a young boy who wins a partial scholarship to attend high school in Fort-de-France, the capital. His grandmother accompanies him there, working as a laundrywoman for the rich white ruling class to pay for costs. José deals with pressure around him, especially with his professor. When he writes an essay on the lives of poor blacks, he is accused of plagiarism. José runs away from school, back to his small shack in the city. His professor goes to his house and tells José that he was wrongly accused, offering an apology. Later, he returns to Black Shack Alley after his grandmother has a heart attack. This happened while she was returning home from a trip to a local clothesmaker to repair José's suit. Even as his grandmother dies, José is launched into a future he can not control.

This midday reverie, which has got me plugging in all sorts of combinations into Vayama's flight search feature for cheap airfares to the Islands, could be the effect of recently reading "House of Flowers" in Truman Capote's short story collection. I have fond memories of reading his namesake play in high school and falling in love with the setting. I even entered the Drama Festival that year in the Production Design category with a presentation on the play (we won first place!). I became briefly obsessed with the West Indies, a region I hadn't had much introduction to. Today, I began to reexamine my connection to this story.

Revisiting the tale as a 27 year old proved to be a powerful literary journey, and relating to it having gone through newer, more profound, experiences with men, various reflections on freedom, a strong core of female friendship and, for better or worse, a wide distance from a healthy and consistent nuclear family life, I've found myself married to the material, to its essence- not just to an idealized aesthetic and literary techniques. It all started when I decided "House of Flowers" could be a myth in Clarissa Pinkola-Estes's collection Women Who Run with the Wolves. Or maybe it's the antithesis of Pinkola-Estes's examples. I can't decide. I warn you, with a kind spoiler alert- major spoilers ahead!.

Ottilie's freedom initiates our story, most notably in terms of youth and sexuality. One can argue that her promiscuous profession would imply otherwise. It can be naive, and disrespectful too, to regard prostitution as a liberating condition, but contrasted with her eventual marriage, she is not confined or controlled (We can revisit this state as captivity later in my analysis). After meeting her knight in shining armor, Royal, at a cock fight, Ottilie is swept away not just off her feet, but away from the hustle and bustle of Port-au Prince, reatreating to Royal's rural haven, the House of Flowers. At this crux is where we find lots of meat to chew on! With her quasi-evil "mother-in-law" living under the same roof, embittering her relationship with Royal and testing her patience, Ottilie unknowingly loses herself. She becomes nostalgic for the bordello days, but is ultimately silent and tolerant until Royal's Grandmother becomes too hot to handle- not in a Billy Wilder - Marilyn Monroe way so much as a Lucifer sort of way. Ottilie ditches the passiveness, challenges the heat by beating her vicious fire with a more cunning fire. Haunted by the Grandmother, but perhaps ultimately reacting to her finding herself captive, Ottilie becomes a bit looney and Royal is not very loyal in response. He puts her in her place, as the 50s would say (yes, the entire decade), and she ends up teary eyed and tied to a tree. That isn't a euphemism or a deliberate use of alliteration I decided to implement, she is literally tied to a tree in the middle of the night! Her past resurfaces and confronts her in the form of her two best friends Baby and Rosita. Even after they've both spiritually, emotionally and physically saved her and beg her to return, Ottilie still opts for her new life. When hearing her husband return, concerned and treating us with a glimmer of that sweet Royal we, and Ottilie, fell in love with at the cock fight, Ottilie also sheds light upon the reader about how she plans to proceed - choosing love and shrewdness. But is choosing love over liberty shrewd?

I guess my interpretation is not necessarily something the modern feminist would cosign on. Then again, what is the modern feminist? Should we take the side of Baby and Rosita who try to knock sense into her, convincing her she is being mistreated by Royal and doing damage to her more sacred element, or defend our protagonist's decision? I'll be your Johnnie Cochran, Ottilie...

Royal becomes lazy at the onset of their relationship because Ottilie is not in her natural element. She is adapting to her new environ and the inability to be comfortable, having now become the housewife, the cook, the gardener, handicaps her and makes her the subject of abuse from all angles, not to mention neglect from the man she loves. She's too preoccupied to be the (dare I use the word fierce? OK, I will) fierce woman she should be to keep Royal in check. However, returning to the good life at the bordello, for me, symbolizes a denial to grow up, rejecting the route to take life's tough lessons and confront them in a wiley way. Capote, our god for this world, does announce and introduce everything with "she should have been the happiest girl in Port-au-Prince", so we know that this ostensibly free life is really one where she is spiritually imprisoned and discontent. Her love is suffering because life is inevitably suffering, and I believe Ottilie is now more able than ever to get in touch with her sacred element since she has defeated Grandmother. I find her lunacy to actually be a form of healing. You know what it is?! It's actually a dual exorcism- of Grandmother's spirit and of her innermost fears. Her tortured feelings, so long suppressed finally surface. Why does Royal freak out and tie his lady love to a tree after Grandmother's dies and Ottilie experiences delusions of her haunting presence? For the same reason that a man can't successfully love a woman if he's got mommy issues, a good old fashioned Oedipal complex. Royal ultimately loves Ottilie. You hear the pace of his step quicken as he comes to her rescue, and you see her sassy inner fire sparked at the thought of This will give him a good scare. Sounds about right to me.

Their house of flowers is the ideal dwelling for their rudimentary union, for growth and regeneration.

Above synopsis for Rue Cases-Negres snagged from Wikipedia.

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I'm an LA transplant now living in Brooklyn. I develop film projects by day, write at night, and have a dangerous predilection for vintage Robinson Golluber scarves- this blog serves as a tiny window to everything else I do when I'm not satisfying those first three passions. I'm trying to blog more and tweet less @annabelleqv. What about you?


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