Essay: In This Life’s Body

Melbourne on Film: Cinema That Defines Our City, Black Inc, 2022

‘Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,’ wrote Susan Sontag, not long after she’d first been diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.’

Sontag’s famous metaphor was partially ironic, among the few figurative indulgences she yielded to in Illness as Metaphor (1978). In later work she described this introduction as her ‘mock exorcism of the seductiveness of metaphorical thinking’.  Demon expelled, Sontag remained the arch critic expounding on the language of illness, refusing the temptation not only of metaphor but also of confessing to readers the subjective experience from which her study emerged.

In This Life’s Body (1984) is also a missive from ‘that other place’, made when filmmaker Corinne Cantrill was afflicted by an illness she doesn’t name, originating in her womb, that doctors insisted required invasive surgery. Unlike Sontag’s steadfast commitment to critical objectivity, Cantrill’s visit to what Sontag called ‘the night-side of life’ saw Australia’s grande dame of avant-garde cinema take a stylistic detour.

This autobiographical essay film, a cinematic künstlerroman, remains an outlier in Cantrill’s sizeable body of work – all made in collaboration with her husband, Arthur (who also shares co-directing credit for In This Life’s Body, though she later said it was her individual creation) – which largely eschews mainstream cinema’s narrative cornerstones of plot and character. Moreover, it directly contradicts the Cantrills’ self-declared war on humanism, storytelling and the tyranny of content over form.

‘Our films have no story because all the stories have been told and retold, on the grey pages of literature until they are meaningless,’ the Cantrills wrote in their ‘Cinema Manifesto’, published in 1971, which prefaced the first edition of their journal Cantrills Filmnotes. Ardently devoted to celluloid’s materiality, they wanted to create ‘films which defy analysis, which present a surface so clean, so hard, that it defies the dissector’s blade’.

When faced with the surgeon’s scalpel, however, Cantrill’s central act of defiance is to return to the origin story of self-narrativisation: the family triangle. This psychoanalytic premise is an odd one for filmmakers who had, in that same manifesto, declared that ‘Marx and Freud are dead’, in an outright rejection of the depth models of hermeneutics then dominating film studies and, more broadly, what they called ‘the morgue of the Universities’.

Suspecting that her physical malady may in fact stem from some psychical injury, the filmmaker returns to the photographic evidence of her existence. Can trauma’s traces be glimpsed in a portrait of the artist as a fat baby, wide-eyed and grinning at the unseen parent behind the camera?

‘My mother tells me that I was an unwanted child,’ Cantrill says in her lyrical voiceover. ‘She probably meant unplanned, but she always said unwanted.’

The full essay appears in the collection Melbourne on Film: Cinema That Defines Our City, a collection celebrating the Melbourne International Film Festival’s 70th anniversary, out now from Black Inc.