Carol Morley's film about fainting fits in a girls' school is the latest in a long line of depictions of swooningby Naomi Booth / June 25, 2015 / Leave a comment
Carol Morley’s new film The Falling is a dreamy exploration of mass hysteria, depicting an outbreak of fainting at a girls’ school. Beautifully shot, the film vividly evokes the texture of its young characters’ faints, portraying the ways in which the richness of certain adolescent experiences (colours, music, erotic sensations, the intensity of friendship and its loss) can become overwhelming. Morley researched “mass psychogenic illness” as she wrote the film, discovering a strong connection between fainting and gender. She claims that “90 per cent of participants in reported epidemics are female.”
While Morley’s research reflects contemporary associations between femininity and fainting, we haven’t always thought of swooning as something that affects only women. In the literature of the medieval period, for example, knights and ladies swoon with equal regularity, and the swoon is a sign of strength of feeling (usually grief or love) rather than of a faint or hysterical heart.
In some of its earliest literary appearances, swooning is induced by childbirth. In The Life of Mary Magdalen (c 1290), a medieval hagiography, a princess is overwhelmed by birth pangs; she passes in and out of consciousness and then appears to die, along with her child. But the princess and baby are eventually awoken from long swoons by “Saint Marie,” and rise to partake of the new life offered by Christ. The Swoon of the Virgin became a popular subject in medieval art, despite the absence of any Biblical authority for the trope. Artists depicted Mary fainting and weeping at the foot of the cross, and her sympathetic swoon shows her sharing in the suffering of the Passion (and belatedly experiencing the birth pains that she is spared in Biblical accounts). These early swoons symbolise the power of maternal agony to produce new life; swoons are used to dramatise different kinds of dangerously intense experience.
In the 18th century, however, the swoon becomes connected with a different kind of femininity. The novel has a long (and lurid) history of depicting falling and fallen women. The rise of the novel coincided with the “cult of sensibility,” a cultural current that prized the demonstrations of feeling and refined sensitivity that were thought to be particularly feminine. The sentimental novel, a crucible of tears…