Desire and Disavowal in Liliana Cavani’s “German Trilogy”

  • Áine O’Healy
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


In a recent essay on the films of Liliana Cavani, Chantal Nadeau makes a brief, undocumented reference to the director’s reputation “as a radical lesbian.”1 Focusing on the contractual structure of the sado-masochist scenarios in Cavani’s work as a potential model for lesbian eroticism, this is the only essay in a substantial critical bibliography that makes an overt allusion to her sexuality. It is hardly surprising that Nadeau fails to cite any references for the reputation she invokes. Generally wary of the constraints of ideological affiliations or identity politics, Cavani would almost certainly resist being categorized as a “radical lesbian.” I note this not to discount anecdotal reports suggesting that she may be a lesbian, but rather to assert that the issue of her sexual identity, orientation, or politics is more complicated than Nadeau suggests.2 In opposition to Nadeau’s assumption that Cavani’s sexuality is readily manifest in her work, I will argue that a specifically “lesbian” signature does not manifest itself here in any direct or unequivocal way. Focusing on three of Cavani’s best known films, where we find a recurrence of “gay” and “lesbian” configurations (and, even here, the application of these terms is already problematic), I will examine the director’s complex engagement with the discourses of gender and sexuality and her provocative destabilization of identity categories. In all three films we find an array of textual displacements, substitutions, and oscillations, not unlike the type that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has associated with the apparatus of the closet.3


Gender Position Lesbian Sexuality Male Writer Ideological Affiliation Bourgeois Family 
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  1. 1.
    Chantal Nadeau, “Girls on a Wired Screen: Cavani’s Cinema and Lesbian S/M” in: Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 213.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cavani is not generally classified as a “lesbian filmmaker.” Note, for example, that Richard Dyer’s broad-ranging survey of international films containing representations of gay and/or lesbian sexuality made by gay or lesbian directors omits any mention of her name; see Richard Dyer, Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film (London: Routledge, 1990).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    Marguerite Waller, “Signifying the Holocaust” in: Feminisms in the Cinema, ed. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 206–19.Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    For a discussion of the fetishizing constructions of the wounded body of St. Sebastian in queer art and culture, see Richard A. Kaye, “Losing His Religion” in: Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities in Visual Culture, ed. Peter Horne and Reina Lewis (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 86–105.Google Scholar
  6. 17.
    Robert C. Holub, “Nietzsche and the Jewish Question,” New German Critique 66 (Fall 1995), p. 99.Google Scholar
  7. 22.
    Angela Livingstone, Lou Andreas-Salomé: Her Life and Work (Mount Kisko, NY: Moyer Bell, 1984), p. 57.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gary P. Cestaro 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Áine O’Healy

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