‘A place calling itself Rome’: Coriolanus, military masculinities and a feminist aesthetic curiosity
This post originally appeared at the International Feminist Journal of Politics blog on 20 September 2016, accompanying my article ‘”Ancient Volscian border dispute flares”: representations of militarism, masculinity and the Balkans in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus‘ (International Feminist Journal of Politics 18:3 (2016): 429-48).
In the first duel between the two feuding generals who serve as protagonist and antagonist in Ralph Fiennes’s cinema adaptation of Coriolanus, a bloodied Roman commander in grey-green digital camouflage uniform, bulked out by tactical pouches, radio equipment and the personal paraphernalia of US forces’ urban combat in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, confronts the leader of the barbarian Volscians, a bearded paramilitary in plain green fatigues whose irregularly dressed and lightly equipped forces resemble countless still and moving images of fighters from a very different yet equally ‘post-Cold-War’ conflict, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The contest between Coriolanus, the Roman war hero who turns away from political acclaim to fight alongside the very barbarians against whom he won his battle honours, and Aufidius, the Volscian leader who moves from admired adversary to counterpart to the agent of Coriolanus’ death, is a historical rivalry from the early stages of Rome’s wars with the Volsci in the 5th–4th centuries BC, adapted into a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and understood by Fiennes (both director and star of this 2012 adaptation) as a narrative that purports to reveal timeless truths about men and war.
The materiality of the film’s production design, on the other hand, could hardly be more time-bound: not only are the identities of each army and polity conveyed through resemblance to forces from a different newsworthy war, but Fiennes and his production team visualise the competition between the two men through directly opposing two military masculinities, the combat soldier of the post-9/11 War on Terror (representing a state that US liberals have been likening to Rome since its founding days) against the paramilitary of post-Yugoslav ethnopolitical conflict, as pictured in news photography including Ron Haviv’s famous ‘Blood and Honey’ series.The choice to make the film on location in Serbia and Montenegro meant that ruined post-Yugoslav locations in Belgrade, Pančevo and Kotor add verisimilitude for any viewer who remembers news images from the Yugoslav wars, as sites supposed to have been devastated by the Roman–Volscian conflict – even though the destroyed hotel where Coriolanus and Aufidius fight their first duel is none other than the (now refurbished) Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade, which owes its ruins not to either side in an ethnopolitical conflict but to a NATO air strike during the Kosovo War in 1999.
Archival news footage from (on almost every occasion) the Yugoslav wars (one early riot scene contains a clip from a protest in South-East Asia; none of it comes from the war in Iraq) further localises the action in not so much the material Western Balkans but the imagined space of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ into which one of the two most prominent Western discourses about the wars transformed the Yugoslav region.
The blurring of ‘found footage’ and scenes staged and designed in resemblance to it sees, in one exposition sequence, Gerard Butler’s Aufidius and three other Volscians cheering and waving rifles as they drive into conquered or liberated territory, above the rolling headline which gave my International Feminist Journal of Politics article the first part of its title: ‘“Ancient Volscian Border Dispute Flares”’. The caption does not give us the ‘ethnic’; alongside these images juxtaposed with concepts of ancientness and territory, it does not need to.
With the built environment and the thematics of exposition situating the film’s imaginary space so much more within (a certain Western construction of) the Yugoslav wars than within any post-9/11 conflict – and with a Serbian costume designer, Bojana Nikitović, and the Serbian actors portraying several supporting military characters contributing their own awareness of the aesthetics of the Yugoslav wars – the chief means of distinguishing the Romans and Volscians becomes the aesthetic differences in the embodied military masculinities of each side.
Indeed, the psychological narrative of Coriolanus’ rivalry with and admiration of Aufidius – which will end in Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome – is visualised through the transformation of Coriolanus’ and Fiennes’s own militarised body into a persona that several UK film reviewers independently likened to ‘a Balkan warlord’.
Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands, after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome, thus becomes simultaneously the resolution of the tragedy, the blade finding (as Fiennes explains in his director’s commentary) ‘its place of penetration’, and Fiennes’s imagination of a ‘weird ancient tribal blood rite of embrace and sadness’ (the hero slain by his dualistic rival yet again?) – a homoerotics given thematic unity by the enactment of ‘ancientness’, killing and tribalism in a ‘Balkan’ setting.
Coriolanus, the film, reached nowhere near as many viewers on release in 2012 as blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises or The Hunger Games; however, like both those films in different ways, the aesthetics of its design depend on the evocation of resemblance to (and sometimes direct incorporation of) images from recent conflicts to incorporate narratives about the nature of war and violence in the present or recent past into the texture of a speculative setting.
Such evocation in Coriolanus primarily occurs through the conjunction of material space and the costumed, performing body. Much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not therefore be contained at all in the elements of audiovisual narrative, such as dialogue and story, with which researchers accustomed to written texts who study popular culture may be most comfortable. Similarly, much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not be perceptible at all without applying a ‘feminist curiosity’ (to quote Cynthia Enloe) and a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ (Cynthia Weber), to start perceiving how its constructions of war and violence are constituted by ideas about gender, masculinities, desire and the body.
The combination – what we might call a feminist aesthetic curiosity – could reveal much about the continuum between representation and imagination, mimesis and speculation, through which creators, spectators and even military institutions produce and contest ideas about violence, gender and war.