Returning to Riddles

Grant, Catherine. 2019. Returning to Riddles. In: Lucy Reynolds, ed. Women Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image: Contexts and Practices. London: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781784537005 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

Reflecting on the 1977 film Riddles of the Sphinx in 2013, Laura Mulvey explains how she and Peter Wollen imagined it as a ‘theory film’. In this essay, I will consider this idea of the ‘theory film’ to explore the ways in which Mulvey and Wollen use film as a form of learning. Their formal experimentation and fragmented structure allows for the proposal of theoretical and political questions through both form and content. The process of learning through questioning starts with the figure of the Sphinx, whose questions blend with those posed by other characters; questions that ring out through the film, questions around feminism, women’s role in society, and the gendered nature of the unconscious. These questions are posed as part of the film’s narrative as well as being asked to us, the viewers.

Made in the wake of second-wave feminist activism and theorising, as well as the development of a ‘counter-cinema’, Riddles of the Sphinx remains a rich resource for continuing questions about feminist politics, communities and artistic practice in the present day. The structure of the film invites the viewer into a series of relationships that challenge conventional notions of cinematic viewing, and foregrounds relationships between women. In the longest and most famous section of the film, centred on the character Louise, the questions of the Sphinx are layered with the experiences of Louise as a mother, wife, daughter, friend, lover, worker and feminist. To explore how these layered, temporally disruptive relationships continue beyond the film’s reception in 1977, I will compare Riddles of the Sphinx with a collaborative video made by Mulvey and the younger filmmaker Emma Hedditch in 2007. This could also be seen as a ‘theory film’, as the piece unpacks Mulvey’s famous manifesto-essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Across the decades, the image of Mulvey reading to camera is brought back to life, this time filmed by a woman who is of a similar age to Mulvey in 1977. Rather than seeing Riddles of the Sphinx as relegated to history, I argue that this ‘theory film’ invites the viewer to take part in a questioning that continues in the present. The fact that so many of the questions posed in the film remain unanswered, questions of how to activate feminist politics in both life and art, can be seen as a reason to return to Riddles, to take up its questions today.

Item Type:

Book Section


feminism, feminist film, experimental film, feminist art history, Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Emma Hedditch, re-enactment

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


22 August 2019Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

29 Sep 2017 15:52

Last Modified:

11 Jun 2021 18:35


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