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Marie-poupée (1976): life-like dolls and fetishism

Marie-poupée (1976), dir. by Joël Séria, is a problematic, subversive French psychosexual drama with horror undertones, tackling the lurid, uncomfortable subject of fetishism and sexual repression. A seemingly ordinary mundane situation takes an uncanny, subtly disturbing turn as the naive, delusional young woman with a doll-like appearance falls pray to dark impulses associated with male fantasies. The archetype of the virginal ingénue is taken to sinister extremes in this gripping depiction of an emotionally stunted lifelike doll with a limited view of sexuality, who is only just starting to feel physical cravings.

The two male figures in Marie’s life are the cold, passionless, eccentric doll collector, who deprives her of actual intimacy and a predatory man driven by his carnal desires, who ends up raping her. The doll shop owner’s odd obsession with dolls and his treatment of the girl as a fragile porcelain doll is a condemnation of objectification and its ‘othering’ process. Marie is overly sweet, but with a dose of unhealthy submissiveness, a simplistic discourse, and a weirdness in her psychological make-up that goes beyond quirkiness. Without implying absolution for the fetishistic freakiness of the main male character or guilt for the mental state of the young woman who has the psychological configuration of a child, the story seems to promote the law of attraction- the protagonist presents herself like a doll (this extends well beyond fashion style as there’s nothing wrong with kawaii style)- and is in a relationship with a man who is obsessed with dolls and is fascinated with her solely due to her resemblance with an inanimate toy.

Their outlandish marital situation starts off as a fairy tale from her point of view: she is surrounded by beautiful things and dollhouse decor, she is spoilt and offered attention. Too unaware to perceive the peculiarity of their relationship dynamic, it all seems fine to her until it doesn’t, as she starts feeling something is off, without being able to tell what that is. The couple plays games, which would sound endearing if they weren’t creepy and one-sided, with her being an object of affection admired and taken care of in a state of detachment, thus being denied sensual touch. Whether it’s due to seeing her as pure and innocent and thus being influenced by the Madonna-whore complex or due to the particular nature of his paraphilic fantasy, her husband wants to possess her like an object, a doll, without indulging his sexual desires; there is no consummation. His physical touch during bathing scenes is clinical and cold. Naturally, her sexuality is awakened and she starts having physical cravings, inevitably seeking warmth and satisfaction in another man’s presence.

Ultimately, we can ponder about the message behind this artsy, cinematic exaggeration and the strange core dynamic: perhaps the young woman’s odd behaviour alludes to the idea of female self-objectification, the feminist take on the dangers of female passivity and lack of agency, which can lead one to turn into a pretty, calcified shell without a voice, trapped in the confines of a claustrophobic, dysfunctional marital situation. On a similar note, perhaps it’s an accusation of the idealisation of childish behaviour, of the appeal of virginity, the fetishisation of sexual innocence, of the docile, pristine girl archetype, of inexperience, and the idea of “purity”. Marie doesn’t seem to assume the embodiment of a doll and mimicry of overly sweet, childish behaviour in order to please. Her childish demeanour, emotional impairment, and little depth of character are a product of a tragic event from her past, therefore a feminist reading of her behaviour as a warning for women performing for the male gaze might be reaching beyond the scope of the film. Perhaps it is indirectly more judgmental of the concern with establishing an image of perfection or latching onto innocence – one’s identity, rather than persona.

Male sexual repression is another theme in the story, but the form it takes in the main relationship dynamic and the way it plays out doesn’t seem to be compatible with reality in the sense of making a statement on a wider issue, as this type of paraphilia is not often encountered and the sexual elements don’t seep through in an obvious way. Perhaps the point is using this mental disorder to illustrate the effects of and condemn the tendency for objectification. And yet, separating this aspect from the context of sexual acts makes it less relatable and subversive, and more of a case study of particularly mentally damaged people. To paint a different picture, we also have another male character who briefly exemplifies a more common side to the dangers of objectification and dehumanisation, this time overtly sexual, in the image of a man who ends up physically abusing her. On another note, the film also makes reference to female sexual awakening and the necessity to explore sexuality, to harness and access its power, drifting away from innocence, towards a full life. Perhaps this is less obvious, as it wasn’t done in a cliché way by blessing the protagonist with a transcendental sexual experience that elevates her consciousness, but it was a motivating factor leading her to escape her limiting domestic condition, her half life, despite her tragic demise. This extends beyond sexuality, as Marie didn’t experience other real types of intimacy and connection either: her conversations with her husband and the people around her lack depth. The end was not a punishment. As echoed through the words at the end, “she died from being a doll”. The message could be one encouraging action: it’s better to be truly alive or die trying rather than being dead whilst alive.

Whilst the film’s subject matter might seem sinister, the way in which it’s depicted on screen is quite subtle, and the pleasant, soft, diaphanous aesthetic contributes to its pretty disguise, as it all looks like a beautiful silky pastel dream. If this film was a Tumblr blog, it would be your typical soft angelcore / pastel princess dollhouse aesthetic blog. It matches the vibe with its pretty interior design, soft pastel lace & silk fashion, and subtle strangeness with a touch of horror.


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