TRIGGER WARNING. This film analysis deals partly with consent and its negative in the sexual sphere. The last thing I want to do, is to bring discomfort by claiming potentially unjustified generalisations about consent. Therefore, I want to emphasise that the content of this analysis comes from my own perspective and I am very open and willing to change or adjust parts to a more nuanced phrasing if necessary and/or desirable.
SPOILER ALERT. This film analysis contains explicit reference to content of the movie through quoting dialogues and going over the course of events, revealing the plot in as far as there is one, in order to show the uninhibited depth of these problems.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER. Márta Mészáros is a Hungarian screenwriter and film director (1931 – …). What is central to her films and documentaries, highlighted here, is the banality* of real [reality] struggles, being it alcoholism, traditional family structures, woman’s subordination, economic constraints.
*banality: by using this word, I mean the naturalised, overlooked and misrecognised status of the problematic as such.
Márta Mészáros – NINE MONTHS (Kilenc Hónap)
Watching a Hungarian film from 1975 in 2021 named Nine Months might not seem interesting to you, perhaps even alien or not very engaging. Probably you will not identify or sympathise with this woman who is necessitated to press bricks in a factory, study and raise a child out of a wedlock. What I want to exhibit here, are all the quasi-automatic actions and tendencies that enable those outcomes, being it in a Soviet or a (neo)liberal shell. What Márta Mészáros presents here is the prototype of the systemic dismissal of Woman’s very own subjectivity.
In this evaluation, I hope to expose the main premise of this statement and deconstruct this in a way that we can recognise the tendencies in our own lives today. This film is not just about a Hungarian woman in the seventies. It represents the very subjection of our own womanhood; it is universal, and it is timeless.
In my experience of the film, the main premise for Woman’s (Juli Kovács) systemic dismissal is the male (János Bodnár) sense of entitlement to appropriate all levels of their lives. This might be a quite bold or extreme statement, but it becomes obvious when we have a closer look. In my analysis, I will throw light on three domains (work, marriage, child) and discuss the (his) invasion thereof on the basis of and justified by, two criteria, namely ‘love’ and ‘consent’. I will not use any formal definition of these concepts, but I will interpret how these concepts are (indirectly) used, both from Juli’s and from János’ perspective.
Juli is a woman who works in a suburban brick factory to sustain herself, but as turns out later, also to pay her study and to sustain her child. She comes across as strong and independent somehow; just doing what needs to be done. In the very beginning, she talks about how she had this dream in which she was also pressing bricks; she woke up and she was pressing bricks again. Even though it is hard, she devotes to it without complaining as she really needs the job. János is the head of the department
and catches her eye from the very beginning. He waits for her after work, proposes to have a coffee, to walk her home, to see her later in the evening in a restaurant; all proposals she politely but decisively rejects. Then, the proposals become clear desires, with an imperative character; “I want you to have dinner with me. I’ll be waiting there for you at 7 PM. See you there,” and he leaves. The date is set, even though she repeatedly showed no interest, verbally and non-verbally. After work, he finds out where she lives and seeks her there, where she, again, uses very clear language; “I don’t want to meet you, do you understand?” provoking his reply “it’s not true, you do”. While she tries to continue to convince him of her disinterest, he tries to overrule that with his own interest, claiming he “has been waiting for her for ten years” turning into a “don’t hurt me”. Juli manages to stand her ground loud and clearly in speech and in theory (“I’m not being aggressive with you, you are”) but he somehow does not entirely understand what she is actually saying (“I don’t want to do you any harm. Please”). János does not see that he is already doing harm to her by not taking her words seriously. He does not see that the harm lies in the guilt-trip he is imposing on her, because he sees the interaction in terms of himself; he is the one who is rejected, and it is there that the damage is done.
He sees the interaction, which will be the seed for what will later be ‘the relationship’, in terms of himself and himself only under the motto of ‘you do X Y Z for me if [and only if]you love me’. This one-side conditional blackmailing is at the core of what he calls love, whereas for Juli, love is based on meeting the other’s desire and come to a common ground. His view on love consists of ‘one’ (which is obviously not the other). Her view on love consists of ‘two’ (infra*). In terms of consent, she remains pushed with her back against the wall; eventually she gives in; “all right. Wait for me. I’ll be back in a second”. The very fact that they met at the workplace, where he obviously held a superior position, is key to the doubled nature of their relationship, going from a public to a private one, where he, consequently, assumes he owns a similar position, being superior, justified to dictate her, in control of her income.
Later on, he wants her to stop working – something she does not want – claiming he is the breadwinner (which is just false and therefore blatantly dismissing the validity of her labour) stating that they don’t need her money, and that the home is in disorder when women work. This discussion is also veiled under ‘love’ because ‘he knows what is best for her’ – ‘clearly’ something she is incapable of figuring out herself. You would think that he had asked her one question, just once, about how she sees the state of affairs, but he does not. This obnoxious sense of entitlement is consistently held high. At some point, János even says “loving is giving in” to which she replies, “then I love you more than you love me, because I always give in”. For him, ‘giving in’ means that she has to do and want what he wants. The problem in this is an inherent disrespect for her as a complete human being. Their dynamic has something enslaving throughout. Jànos’ “but I –“ comes frequently after a rejection of hers, translating his understanding of himself as a priori more right, more legitimated, more entitled – more in general.
All the things that are being said and done between them in the beginning of the film are iterated later on. There seems to be an endless return of imperatives, of imposed desires, of imposed outcomes, but on different levels. What happens in that first forced date, is not a let’s-get-to-know-each-other conversation, but the order “marry me. I’ll marry you,” coming from János. The question mark and her decision-making in this matter did not get lost in translation; it just did not exist in the first place. He lays out all the formal conditions, having built a house “with a kitchen”, even a garage, basically “everything one might need,” assuming that that is what she needs. The rings are on the table. Her answer, as far as his statement invited a reply, was affirming he was crazy, giving the rings back, and throwing an abortive look at the other women in the cafeteria. He tries to convince her of his ‘love’ by invading her time (after work) and space (at work and after work). Once she ‘consents’ (being it on very insisting conditions) to it, he acts as if he is legitimated to do whatever. Juli is constantly giving in on the condition to be left alone afterwards. “Let’s walk to the hill. If you promise me to never say to me again that you’ll marry me,” being replied with a “I can’t promise that” from János. Nevertheless, they walk. He throws his arm around her. He kisses her; this does not mean that they kiss and that he initiates it. He kisses her, with Juli being a passive being with no sense of response at all. These, what could be considered as first actions of a romantic interaction or relationship, which usually precedes marriage, find no positive response when Juli takes the initiative.
First of all, one can wonder in how far Juli’s actions are a translation of her own desires or whether these signify the expected desire, where she acts upon consequently, imposed by him, given the fact that she has been rejecting him repetitively. Second of all, one can wonder to what extent János is turned off by her showing agency and a will. The moment she initiates to leave, he wants (not asks) her to stay, while rejecting her initiatives at first. Steadfastly she decides to go whatsoever, and he states he will join her, because he “wants to know where she goes, whom she meets, what she does”. This ‘subtle’ appropriation of her private (outside-him) life goes under ‘love’, to which she ‘consented’ to. ‘Growing’ in the relationship means for him being in the possession of her abouts (where, who, when). ‘Having’ this ‘public’ relation, which he desperately wants to lock in a marriage, means having a naturally justified entitlement. Later on in the film, when they are having a peaceful moment for once, János says “I thought I could stay with you for a while”, to which she replies, “I thought the same – but what will happen when I leave?” His response is then “then why did you come here” [if not for eternity]. She replies she does not know and that she wants them to get to know each other. He says that takes years. What I want to illustrate with this, is that for János, there is no process nor flux possible. Everything will go, or ‘is’ already without the process of becoming, how he has it in mind. János’ desire to marry is formal and official; for him, it means he has unlimited access to her life; her labour, her support, her body. Juli, on the contrary, just does not want to marry. She never gives an explanation; she just does not want it. He cannot have her ‘public body’, but he will have her private one.
Another iterative action János performs, is invading her private life in several ways. The first way is that he follows her to her home where he finds out that she has already a child (Pisti). This is, of course, a shame because this represents that she might ‘belong’ already to someone else. This also represents that he is not the only man in her life; the atmosphere between the son and him is one of rivalry (from his side), performing that he is both a child himself, not being able to digest someone (being her actual son) gets more caring attention than him, and at the same time supposed to be ‘the superior one,’ who knows what is best. He gets wasted when he finds out, and Juli takes care of him, being annoyed and worried at the same time. The hole breach of her privacy is of course not at the centre; what is at the centre is the János’ ego bruise. When Juli finds him drunk, the conversation goes as follows:
János: And you still sleep with him [the father]?
Juli: I don’t, we just… He’s a university teacher. I take the kid to his place sometimes. We loved each other, then I had his child. I’m happy that I kept him.
János: You lied to me.
Juli: Look, I didn’t lie to you. You lied to yourself. I don’t need to lie to you. I want to get to know you.
János: By sleeping with me?
Juli: Yes, but that’s the only [thing] important to you.
János: Is it not to you?
Juli: it is. It is important. But I don’t even know what you want from me.
János: I want to marry you.
János: I can care for the two of you.
Juli: You have nothing to do with my son. That is not why I am with you. I can care for myself and my kid. That is why I work and study.
What then follows, is a first sense of interest in her life. For some reason, this turns out to the umpteenth fight about diverging perspectives (“I want you to be my wife” vs “I want us to stay this way and I’ll let you know if I’ve changed my mind”). János becomes even more dominant by invading her house and creating a rape-like sex scene, with the similar dynamic as when they kissed for the first time. Would it be János’ action of showing interest which makes him think he owns her body? She asks “why are you using me like an animal? I am nothing to you,” while he is eating her bread and cheese, being followed by a “come here” from her side; when she undresses him and brings him the food he was previously eating to the bed. Does Juli perform these actions because she thinks she deserved to be treated like she was, and therefore, tries to compensate and anticipate by taking care of him, being an action fitting more into his traditional sense of how things should be? I cannot figure out what her desire is, nor do I know if she knows at this point what her desire is.
Later on, the envy János cherishes towards Pisti finds a way out, again veiled under ‘love’. “You never want what I want. If I want the kid to come live with us, you say it can wait. If I don’t want it, you get offended. You don’t want to take my money; you don’t want to marry me”. She says that it is only his furniture, his house and his future car are the things that matter to him, (not mentioning her body), exposing the material obsession of his objects of desire. He asks if that is a problem (instead of denying it) and that she does not love him enough. She says she’ll try. For János, ‘love’ is fixed in material means; wedding rings, the house, food, her body, whilst Juli’s perception of love is found in the non-material; shared interest, freedom, respect, honesty.
“At least they did not marry,” I found myself thinking at the end. Yet, this thought is a poor solace since she, Juli Kovacs, was “consensually forced” into this interaction, let’s call it a relationship, on the conditions of the negative; “I come if I never have to come again”. Even if he cannot have her public body locked in marriage, at least he ‘has’ her private body, and the trace is definitive. Juli is expecting. Yet, for some reason, Juli wants to make it work – one can question, and wonder, why. I question why she stays, when she is in a situation where she can leave. Is it perhaps having the option that suffices for her?
János keeps Pisti’s existence a secret from his family, so Juli decides to talk honest and proud about it before their baby arrives, against János’ will. This means also the end of their relationship; it was too much for János to be openly embarrassed because she exposed what he turned her into, being an unmarried, knocked-up single-parent with a bastard son, benefitting from his money. Of course, his family (especially his mother) deems it her own fault (“The whole town speaks about you moving in with my son after two days. You’re living together like gypsies. You’re a crafty one. Now you have a flat, a house… You’ve even got the chief engineer. Making good use of our money! Now you want to bring the child here. You persuaded János not to tell us about him. Nice planning on your part”.) Juli has not much more to tell her than “it’s your son who planned everything and I love your son”. After János chased everybody out of the place, he starts to lecture Juli with the “why can’t you just stay put for a minute,” “you’re always confronting me,” “I want what is good for you,” “who do you think you are,” and eventually “I don’t want to see you or your child again,” replied with a “good luck finding someone to live with you, who doesn’t want to work, who will only bear your children and who will be your slave,” from Juli’s side. The last power stroke János thinks he is entitled to do is forbidding her to keep his child, threatening that she’ll regret it when she does. I do not have to show much more how this appropriates her will, her agency, her body and how much this exhibits his sense of possession over all of it.
At the end of the movie, we see her (the real her) giving birth to a boy; her birth-giving labour was caught on camera and used for the purposes of this film. The power this shows is great: it is real, it is repetitive. It is male.
Now, I can only end with two concluding questions. Firstly, what is there to do if he doesn’t see the wrong he is doing, despite her infinite attempts for dialogue? The feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray writes in her book I Love to You about the relation of language/communication and love, stating that “communication, exchange between people, intersubjectivity – the privileged loci of the least alienated female identity – are thus held back from appropriation by the female gender and from reciprocity between the sexes. With no return to the self, woman/women cannot truly engage in dialogue. (…) And so, in various ways they ask: Do you love me? The question really means: What am I for you? Or who am I? or, how can I return to myself?” (p. 98) What is there to say, how is the conversation to be held, if the two parties are not acknowledged as two, and if they, in addition, do not seem to speak the same language? He speaks in terms of One, she in terms of Two (supra*).
Secondly, how are we supposed to deal with this imposed debt we are condemned to? Be it our father, our lover, our son, our partner; the Male Other – be it because of our own physical reality, having a female body, and henceforth the privilege of the ability of giving birth? To refine myself here: I do not mean to instigate that our female body is the very reason, and hence justification, of that condemnation. What I mean to clarify is that our oppression is also not only to be found in the social construct of womanhood, as Simone de Beauvoir’s timeless words chime “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (p. 293). Irigaray’s nuances this phrase accordingly: “I am born a woman, but I must still become this woman that I am by nature” (p. 107). As known, Irigaray keeps to a binary thinking (man-woman) but one can read beyond the binary with good faith. What is key in her thinking, as to most radical feminists, is the conception of the body as the starting and end point of the entire discourse. Culture cannot be rewritten, or altered, in a way beneficial for women, if the Female Body (the universal) is still represented by the female bodies (multiplicity). The culture of One (male, János) is founded upon that (their) interpretation of the female body from that perspective. There is no dialogue in that culture; as long as there is no space created for Two (multiple > one), for both parties (Juli and János), there cannot be love; only assimilation to One, implying the misrecognition of the (female) other, a direct (even though probably unconscious) entitlement, and/or a quasi-automatic reproduction of that ‘natural(ised)’ dynamic. In 1975. But also in 2021.
Author: Tessa Vanbrabant
Voice: Bryony Martin
Irigaray, Luce. I Love to You: sketch for a Felicity within History. Translated by Alison Martin. London: Routledge New York and London, 1996.
De Beauvoir, Simone, the Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Vintage Books, 2009 (1949).