De Araújo: Soft & Quiet (2022)

Beth de Araújo’s Soft & Quiet is one of the more remarkable films I’ve seen in some time – a stunning vision of how and why white women might perpetuate a patriarchal system that is aligned against them. It unfolds in a single ninety-minute shot and starts with an disarming set piece that lays out a blueprint for what is to come. First, we meet Emily, the main character, played by Stefanie Estes, as she hurries into a bathroom, takes a pregnancy test, and bursts into tears. Then, we follow Emily as she leaves the toilet, which is situated in a primary school. She glares at a Hispanic janitor who passes in the opposite direction, and who pulls the camera with her around to the front of the school, where a young boy is waiting for his mother. The camera pauses at a circumspect distance as Emily sits down with the boy, asks where his mother is, and starts reading to him from her new children’s book, at which point the Hispanic janitor returns, drags the camera with her again, trundling her cleaning equipment so loud that it drowns out Emily’s voice, prompting another glare. Finally, Emily tells her student to go inside, and chastise the janitor for mopping up while he is still at school, before this boy’s mother arrives, and tells Emily that “You’re going to make a great Mom.” From here, the film proper starts, as the camera resettles its focus on the cherry pie in Emily’s hands, which pulls her and us towards the central narrative, against an eerie, looming score.

As it turns out, Emily is heading to the inaugural meeting of the “Daughters of Aryan Unity,” a white supremacist group that she has formed in conjunction with a variety of women from her community. After taking the foil off her cherry pie, which turns out to have a swastika carved on top, she reassures the women in attendance that “we are here to support each other through this multicultural warfare,” and laments the way that they have been “brainwashed” to feel shame at the achievements of Western civilisation. It quickly becomes clear that the other women share her view that “an ethnic state is the most successful state – that’s how you regulate the markets” and that they are all anxious to reinstate their proper place in their country and community. These women don’t all know each other, and their experiences of white supremacy vary greatly, but they soon bond over this common cause, and start to make plans about what they can do to wrestle control of their lives once again.

Ever since Donald Trump was elected to President, the left has continually analysed what made him so popular in the American heartland. Many pundits came down in favour of the disenfranchised white working-class male, and while that’s certainly a part of the picture, De Araújo offers an alternative reading here. For as the prologue to Soft & Quiet suggests, white supremacy for these women stems from their anxiety about fulfilling the fantasy of what a white woman should be – and, more specifically, from an anxiety about the putative role of white motherhood as the bedrock of American society. In the same speech in which she initiates the group, Emily invokes the trauma of her infertility, which she speculates has led her to the higher calling of white supremacy. If she can’t be a white mother, she seems to reason, she can reclaim a world in which white motherhood is the driving engine of social reproduction. Later on, we learn that Emily’s brother is in jail for raping a woman (she declines a call from him during the credit sequence), making her claim to family values even more tenuous, and so making it even more urgent that she double down on her white supremacy.

As the other women introduce themselves, it becomes clear that all of them have come to white supremacy through the fantasies and anxieties of white motherhood. One of them has come to the group because she is isolated as a mother, and needs a way to commune with other women: “I spend a lot of time alone, in my own thoughts, but we’re not really supposed to live like that.” Another runs a general store, but still can’t afford to support her family: “I refuse to grow old this poor and have people tell me that we’ve got it good.” Worse, she wants to have more kids but can’t afford a larger family. Instead, she has to deal with Hispanic kids acting “rudely” in her store, in a kind of mockery of the children she can never have. Not all the women are currently thwarted in their motherhood but, paradoxically, having kids, or being able to have kids, seems to make them even more paranoid about their claims to the future. The most fertile woman, with the largest family, is also the daughter of a KKK chapter president, and a current member of the Storm front. She’s also the most cynical in using her motherhood to justify her actions: “Am I really that scary? I’m a mother of four, pregnant with my fifth.” Perhaps most eerily, the youngest woman is there simply because she wants to have a family one day, but sees no viable outlet for this ambition other than white supremacy.

For all this white supremacist rhetoric (or perhaps because of it), the group feels like the last residue of the suburban sororities of the Eisenhower era as they cling to a fantasy of the good life that no longer exists. An arcane and occult descendant of neighbourhood watch, they trace the “multicultural warfare” back to the 1960s, and the “decay of the traditional family.” This brings us to possibly the creepiest aspect of the film – the way it draws on the feel-good mode of the 1990s, which was itself often suffused with nostalgia for mythical mid-century America. In fact, I can’t recall a recent film whose tonality is so eerily disconnected from its subject matter, at least in the early scenes, which present feel-good affect as a vehicle for white supremacy, from the warm hospitality of the women, to the cosy décor of the meeting room, to the neighborly way they introduce themselves. At times, it veers towards a romcom, as when Emily comes across one of the new members en route to the meeting, and immediately offers to set her up. They’ve only just met, but already they’re bosom buddies in the battlefields of love, as Emily quizzes her on her type, and tells her she has at least seven prospective men in mind for her. As some critics have noted, the white supremacist dialogue is a bit broad at times, and almost on the nose, but that only enhances the sense that we are watching a distorted centrist comedy, a feel-good missive twisted and haunted out of time.

In other words, the first act of Soft & Quiet is like Nancy Meyers with Nazis, Wine Country with swastikas. Yet while the mise-en-scene is straight out of a feel-good film, and could almost pass for a girl-power motivation exercise, it’s perpetually unsettled by the camera work, and particularly by the unbroken take, which lasts for the entire ninety-minute running time. Typically, long takes have been associated with masculinist auteurist perfectionism, but De Araújo eschews any claims to elegance or fluidity, instead using the continuity of her shot to render her mise-en-scenes more grating and abrasive, immersing us in an intensified real time and space that is remarkably dissonant with the Meyers-like trappings. The camera becomes a suffocating gaze that polices these women’s bodies – and specifically, the proprioceptive threshold between their bodies and the rest of the world. De Araújo alternates between long ballooning trajectories and unbearably visceral close-ups, creating an incoherent spatial field that is claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, and that reflects the paradoxical project of these women – namely, to escape the present back into mid-century constrictions.

Just as the camera remains poised at the threshold between these women’s bodies and the world, the narrative remains poised at the threshold between their houses and the world. We never see any of their homes, which, like white womanhood, exist here only as a fantasy that can never be fully occupied. Instead, De Araújo’s prologue situates us in a cascade of precarious cusps between public and private space, as we move from the bathroom, to the janitor’s circuit, to Emily’s conversation with the parent. From there, the film unfolds in three discrete acts, each of which occurs in a provisional domestic space, only to show that even these home-surrogates can no longer be inhabited by the white women who drive the plot. The first of these is the church where Emily convenes the meeting, which we learn has occurred without the permission of the priest, who turns up briefly at the end of the first act and tells the women that they have to move on. The second act takes place in a supermarket, traditionally the domain of white women in America, and another sharp nexus between domestic and public space, especially as this particular store is owned by one of the white supremacists, who sees it as an extension of her house. This store is where the central crisis of the film occurs, as the women, amped up on adrenalin and alcohol, target two women of colour, Lily, played by Cissy Ly, and Maria, played by Jovita Molina. Things quickly escalate, Kim pulls out a gun, Lily and Maria are forced to buy the most expensive bottle of alcohol in stock but for a brief beat it seems like the crisis will end with Lily and Maria leaving the store.

However, the third act of the film follows the white supremacists as they track down Lily and Maria’s house, and plan a home invasion. This starts out as a way of shaming the two women, and enacting their revenge, but quickly turns into a masochistic exercise in exploring how emphatically Lily and Maria embody their own domestic fantasy, before removing them, and reinstating themselves in their place. Lily and Maria’s house thus becomes the third and most precarious domestic space in the film, as the white supremacists subliminally move from invading to inhabiting their house, as a symbolic strategy for restoring Emily’s fertility. The house itself unfolds as one fantasmatic signifier of the good life after another, starting with the hilly street that leads to it, which the white women realise, with a shock, guarantees views of a local lake, meaning that it’s effectively a lake house, a privileged fantasy of feel-good 90s cinema. Once inside, the white supremacists marvel at a kayak, a washer-drier, and a grand piano, before stealing beers from the fridge, and settling into the drunken party they were planning to have at Emily’s place. The final violation is searching for and them sequestering Lily and Maria’s passports, and so absorbing their life force as a balm to Emily’s infertility. Interestingly, back in the general store, Maria told the women that she was only a waitress, but the incongruity between her profession and her property just propels the paranoid fantasy of the white supremacists that the good life is available to everyone but white women. 

This movement from home invasion to home inhabitation peaks just as Lily and Maria arrive at the house, at which point the white women play mock homage to them as homeowners – tying them up in parodic thrones, washing their hair with mayonnaise, and force feeding them handfuls of candy, while filming the whole thing like it’s a party gag. When Maria dies from her allergy to peanuts, the invaders (or inhabiters) fall back upon their cult of white motherhood, as one of them starts crying and invoking her kids, and another insists that “I am not losing my kids for this.” Emily seems strangely unperturbed, however, as if taking a life is her right of ritualistic revenge for her own difficulty with her family, and so she spends an inordinately long time cleaning up the house, taking symbolic ownership of the good life she can never have, as the other women bundle up Lily and Maria, both of them apparently now dead, and carry them down to the car, in preparation for disposing of them in the lake.

It’s at this point, when Emily is left alone in the house, that the thesis of De Araújo’s unbroken take reaches its apex – namely, that white womanhood is a fantasy that can never be occupied, even or especially by white women. For Soft & Quiet starts by immersing us in all the feel-good signifiers of white womanhood, but can only remain in this same shot by devolving and degenerating into white supremacy, while also showing how white supremacy can emerge from the most apparently innocuous behaviours. As Emily cleans the house, she attempts, in vain, to satiate a Big Other, a masculine gaze so insatiable in its demands of white women that they can only respond by internalising it and using it to police each other. The unbroken take of Soft & Quiet embodies this slippage between Emily’s actual trajectory and the fantasmatic trajectories of white womanhood that she is supposed to inhabit. It’s not quite a POV shot from her perspective, but it’s never too far from her perspective either, like a gaze that is dissonant to, or at least separate from, her best interests, but that she can never quite disentangle herself from, so vast and all-consuming is the fantasy that it perpetuates.

De Araújo thus does something remarkable here, neither exactly presenting nor deconstructing the male gaze, but embodying the male gaze as it is internalised by white women. Accordingly, this gaze exceeds any individual man in the film, and even makes men redundant, except as gazes against which white women calibrate themselves. You might say that this is the final triumph of the male gaze – to be so internalised that it is not even recognised as such, putatively detached from the very male agency that initially produced it. The burden of white womanhood, in that sense, is to be holding-place for a male gaze that it has been forced to recognise as its own. While Emily has a boyfriend, we don’t see much of him, except as a gaze she obsessively regulates, since her anxiety that he doesn’t see her as a proper white women means that his gaze can never be adequately masculine either. When he suggests that she and her friends should hold off the home invasion, she tells him “Do not look at me like a fucking f—-t, babe” before asking him “You want to be a fairy? You want your life to look at you every day like a pussy bitch?” Even if this gaze started with men, there’s no way for Emily’s own boyfriend to quell it now, and so one of the other women intervenes by reassuring the two of them that “You guys are going to make the tallest, prettiest babies.”

This presentation of white woman as placeholders for white men culminates with the final violation of the invasion and assault – digitally raping Lily so that the police will assume the perpetrator was a man. At this point Emily, and her friends, become men and women at once, embodying a monstrous collusion of white masculinity and femininity that subliminally shifts the camera to a TERF-esque gaze. For while trans people are never mentioned in Soft & Quiet, the film offers a brilliant thesis about why TERFdom has claimed white strands of feminism in particular. The pressure to self-regulate white womanhood mean that the woman in the film have to internalise the male gaze, become more masculine than the men in their lives, which in turn produces anxieties about their femininity, which in turn necessitates internalising this male gaze, and so on ad nauseum. If white supremacy is a balm for the fantasmatic exactitudes of white women, then it can also be used as a vocabulary for this labour of both absorbing and maintaining gender differences, not unlike the way that J.K. Rowling went total TERF right when Black Lives Matter forced us to question white power more than ever before.  

Having evoked both the male gaze as internalised by white womanhood and, more implicitly, the TERF worldview that stems from it, De Araújo brings the film full circle, as the woman dump Lily and Maria into the lake they could see from their house. The view of the lake, a symbol of the good life, has to be repressed in the lake itself, the last of the many paradoxes that propel this fantasy of white womanhood. Accordingly, instead of reinstating the white supremacists in the hallowed bourgeois spaces of the good life, their crime accelerates the devolution of space itself – first, on the threshold of Lily and Maria’s property; then, in the murky car ride to the lake, accentuated by awkward ankles and decentred perspectives; and finally, as they row a boat out to the lake itself, by which time all distinction between solid and liquid has dissolved into a sticky digital murk. The last shot of the film reaches maximum opacity, lingering on the surface of the water, all but indiscernible now, for what seems like an aeon, before Lily’s face suddenly breaks through. She has survived, but the image only quickly resolves before cutting to black, never offering us a point of respite from the white supremacists, or permitting the camera to dissociate itself too far from their agenda – or from their fantasy of themselves, one of the most terrifying filmic visions I’ve seen in a long time.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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