Dutch auteur Marleen Gorris’ film Gebroken spiegels (1984) is a film of dual narratives. The majority of the film follows the lives of a group of sex workers employed at a rather posh brothel while the subplot of the film focuses on the crimes of a serial killer who abducts women off the street and holds them captive, starving them. Inevitably these two threads converge at the climax of the film though without any concrete resolutions. The concept connecting these two threads is, quite simply, the systematic commodification of women in Western patriarchal culture.
The sex workers in Gebroken spiegels consent to their profession due only to circumstances beyond their immediate control. Some of these women have children, some do not have parents, but all of them have, in the past, been exploited and discarded by men in some way. With the agency left available to them, these women turn to sex work in order to assert and preserve their economic autonomy. Gorris treats sex work bluntly, yet compassionately. As one of the women says in the film “prostitution isn’t any more dangerous than being a house wife”.
Sex work in Gebroken spiegels is depicted as nothing more than a job of physical labor and social performance that is not at all dissimilar to the traditional role of housewife. When a group of rowdy students descend upon the brothel, Gorris treats the viewer to a montage of spent condoms, dirty towels, bored looks, sweaty brows, and joyful young men. Sex is rendered not as some erotic ritual or romantic rite, but as a process as commonplace as working an assembly line. The female experience, in so far as it is communicated by the close-ups in this montage, is one of monotony that juxtaposes the unbridled exuberance and confidence of the male participants.
And, as in any workplace, the real objects of value are the friendships formed between co-workers. The implied romantic relationship that is slowly blossoming between Diane (Lineke Rijxman) and Dora (Henriëtte Tol) is the chief focus of the film in this area. Their relationship begins as student and mentor before growing into a deeper camaraderie as Diane is accepted into the fold. These women may argue with one another but ultimately they are united by their experiences both before and during their work in the sex industry. The brothel is, in a seemingly paradoxical fashion, a hub for this unconventional community. When that space is violated by violence, the community shatters.
Despite all of the scenes of sex work in Gorris’ film she manages to avoid the masculine gaze at every turn. Gebroken spiegels defies the conventions of this brand of story by denying the viewer the spectacle of female exploitation within the sphere of sex work. The masculine gaze is represented only in the desaturated world of the serial killer whose polaroids of his victims are the single token of this masculinist tradition. Gorris implies that to see women as disposable objects like her serial killer does is to effectively destroy a woman in the social and political sense. The killer is subplot as reflexive counterpoint to the true ambitions of the film.
Gebroken spiegels exists as the aesthetic and conceptual meeting ground between Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s female centric chamber dramas and Bertrand Bonello’s House Of Tolerance (2011). Yet Gebroken spiegels was written and directed by a woman which gives the film a unique and an authentic pedigree. As an allegory for a woman’s experience in society and a direct commentary on sex work as well as the nature of the masculine gaze, Gebroken spiegels exists in a class all of its own. Gebroken spiegels is a vital expression of feminist anger that must be seen and seen again.