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Female Hysteria?: A Question of Silence Film Review

by Maria Siciliano//

The courtroom was filled with an uproarious chorus of laughter by every woman in attendance. 

This is how the film by Marleen Gorris, A Question of Silence, closes with no further explanation. In this highly controversial 1980s film, I was truly struck by the feminist critique that the director posits on society. She positions female hysteria, a major component of the study of feminist theory, as the proposed reasoning behind the characters’ undoing and thereby cause of the murder in the film, which demonstrates the misogynistic, patriarchal society that the women are fed up with. 

The film opens with a female psychiatrist being assigned to the case of three women who did not previously know each other until they came together to murder a male store owner after being accused of shoplifting. The psychiatrist, Janine, is to determine whether these women are sane or crazy, with hysteria being the only plausible reasoning behind this heinous act. Janine then interviews each of the women: a housewife who won’t speak, a waitress mistreated at a café, and a secretary at a male-run office. After each woman tells their story, while never confessing, Janine comes to realize that the women are in fact, completely sane. They are simply tired of the treatment of women in society. And, so is Janine, who finds herself in a sexist relationship. She comes to identify with the women by the end of the film. 

The last scene in the film takes place in the courtroom. Janine presents her findings and gives the opinion that the women are sane, reminding the court that the boutique owner was male. The prosecutors try to sway her, and eventually suggest that the outcome would have still been the same if the store owner were female. All four of the women begin to laugh, and then the courtroom is filled with uproarious laughter from the female witnesses. The women exit the courtroom and the film closes. 

I thought the film was a truly thought-provoking take on feminist criticism. By using hysteria, the very reason behind much of the female subversion in history, to critique this patriarchal society, Gorris allowed the women’s situations to speak for themselves. In reality, three women who did not know each other, coming together to kill a male store owner, has grounds for being seen as crazy. But considering the treatment that these women receive on a day-to-day basis in a sexist, misogynistic, and classist society, the murder might be based in reason. The laughter that fills the courtroom, when the men simply don’t get it, is the feminist critique in and of itself. After being silenced and not heard, all the women can do is laugh.