“Humanised life. I had humanised life too much… Yesterday, however, I lost my human constitution for hours and hours.”
These are some of the first words that G.H – the protagonist of Clarice Lispector’s 1964 novel The Passion According to G.H – calls upon to try and articulate an encounter in her maid’s room with an insect that ruptures any semblance of stable selfhood she has assembled up until that point.
Whether we look to David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly, the ‘big bug’ horrors that dominated American screens throughout the 1950s or to the glistening maggots falling into the dancers’ hair in Dario Argento’s colour-drenched nightmare Suspiria, encounters with insects have long been employed in genre films to instil fear and revulsion in viewers. Though, it is the cockroach that has maintained its ability to provoke a special kind of discomfort from audiences.
Most recently, in her debut film Saint Maud, Rose Glass selects a cockroach as a recurring presence that scuttles around and eventually speaks to the protagonist, Maud (Morfydd Clark). Nancy, as we discover the cockroach is named in the credits, initially garnered attention for the fact that she was a real insect that had to be trained and directed, rather than a mere CGI approximation: a brilliant feat in and of itself. Less consideration however has been given to the ways in which Glass’s debut – intentionally or otherwise – upends the common narratives associated with cockroaches in a way that few, other than Lispector, have.
In a recent interview Glass lists “insects”, along with bodies and brains, as her central visual “preoccupations”. For much of Saint Maud, insects are one of Maud’s only preoccupations too. The cockroach is often her sole company, not unlike our other protagonist, G.H, in her almost empty Rio apartment.
Our relationship with this insect has been a complex one for centuries. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History adds cockroaches to his inventory of “disgusting’ creatures” but also details how, once crushed, the “greasy” substance inside “beaten… with oil of roses” can heal various afflictions. The troubling conflict between disgust and the desire to know more about them is clearly present here. According to entomologists at California State University, the cockroach is, without a doubt, the most universally and anciently abhorred insect, but it is also one of the most imperishable. As such, it operates as a useful, and sometimes questionable, symbolic shorthand in a great deal of genre films.
The cockroach generally works as the ultimate representation of the vile, unwelcome infester of homes and, in body horrors like Creepshow in which they burst from the mouth and stomach of a corpse, the human body itself. Because cockroaches thrive on exploiting the opportunities that humans create, it is also the case that, in the words of the naturalist Jeff Lockwood, “we loathe that which we foster”. It cannot be ignored either that, due to its position in the Western cultural imagination, the cockroach is frequently bound up in racist associations with marginalised minority groups. Indeed, the cockroach as a racist trope has been exploited as recently as the 2000s in They Nest in which the invasion of a mutated flesh-eating bug is explicitly connected with the African trade ships that transport them to America. Subtle.
However, the most iconic, literary cockroach narrative, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which a salesman named Gregor finds himself inexplicably transformed into a massive insect (most often depicted in illustrations as a roach) has cemented one especially insistent understanding of this ancient bug. Lying in bed, Gregor repeatedly thinks and even instructs himself that “he had better not for the life of him lose consciousness”. This nebulous thing – consciousness – is the one thing that designates his distinctly human constitution, even as his physical form morphs and shifts. To lose this would be the most despicable change of all. Yet, this loss of human consciousness is exactly what the image of the cockroach threatens us with. As a result, the cockroach on screen tends to express not just a general fear of the abject, but of a profound loss of human identity, or selfhood.
Among the many delayed film projects of 2020 also resides A Paixão Segundo G.H, the first ever adaptation of the strange novel we started with, to be directed by Luiz Fernando Carvalho.
Outside of Brazil, Carvalho is probably best known for his sprawling, baroque epic Lavoura Arcaica translated as To the Left of the Father. Set against striking rural landscapes and dominated by themes of religion and incestuous desire, Lavoura Arcaica is also adapted from a major Brazilian novel of the same name. Carvalho’s new vision for Lispector’s text was set to be released at the very end of 2020, to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. Since December last year though, all has been quiet from both the main actress Maria Fernanda Cândido who will be playing G.H and the director himself on any specifics. The news around a release date for The Passion According to G.H therefore remains inconclusive and elusive in appropriate ‘Lispectorian’ style.
Carvalho did however make a few revealing comments to one Sao Paulo publication in which he describes Brazil as being in the midst of a double crisis, one “political” and one “sanitary”, and explained that he will not release the film anywhere until all Brazilian citizens are vaccinated. If Jair Bolsonaro’s belief in the vaccine’s ability to turn his population into crocodiles and Carvalho’s steely resolve both persist then, it could be some time before the adaptation graces our screens.
Clarice Lispector’s cultish text set in the same year as the start of Brazil’s military dictatorship follows roughly a day in the life of a woman known simply as G.H, an affluent sculptress from Rio de Janeiro. G.H’s narration traces and retraces her shifting conception of selfhood pre and post a run-in with an enormous, slow moving and, she guesses, “very old” cockroach. This encounter with a thing so ancient that it ‘walked slowly across’ the world when the world was still “practically naked”, a thing so hardy it can “freeze”, “thaw out” and “keep going” and a thing that represents a “degree of living so originary” that it borders on “inanimate”, is what forces G.H to “confront” this same kind of “primary life” within herself too. More accurately, it is what forces her to abandon the notion of her ‘self’ altogether.
Let us not mince Lispector’s words though. G.H’s crisis of identity, or her awakening (depending on your level of optimism and open-mindedness) occurs when she decides to crush and consume part of the cockroach. How Carvalho will attempt to render this turning point on screen, whether he will lean into the novel in all its grotesque and mesmerising detail, or opt for a safer, impressionistic retelling remains to be seen.
From Metamorphosis to low budget films like Guillermo Del Torro’s Mimic in which a colony of the aptly named, mutated ‘Judas breed’ cockroaches threaten to overtake human life in Manhattan, cockroaches are often utilised to represent the fear of losing humanity, either as a collective whole or within an individual. Other than in WALL-E which puts a more positive spin on the cockroach’s ability to outlive humanity, you would be hard pushed to find a film, or any text, that deviates from the largely negative ‘cockroach narrative’. This is far from the case in The Passion According to G.H though.
For Lispector, the true horror for humans, and for women in particular, lies in the relentless formation of selfhood that we use to differentiate ourselves from animals. Embracing the cockroach as a glorious form of “primary life”, far removed from the bondage of 20th century consciousness, is what allows for a basic feeling of liberation to emerge within G.H. She reveals that, up until the moment when she aligns herself with the cockroach, she hadn’t realised “the great construction project that living was”. Here, selfhood is expressed in industrialised, mechanistic terms with “construction” calling to mind not the vague, postmodern “construct”, but a literal construction site: dusty and exhausting. G.H recalls how each day she had relied upon some “ready-made person idea and mounting myself inside it” to get by. Once again, we see human identity articulated as something necessary and expected, but nevertheless cumbersome and clunky: a beaten up, rusty vehicle to cart yourself around in.
In this way, although our screens and pages are still dominated by a negative conception of cockroaches working as shorthand for the horrifying disintegration of humanity, by including the cockroach in a film deeply invested in interrogating human identity and hubris, Glass poses the potential for an alternative.
When Maud first notices the cockroach residing with her in the run-down bedsit, a possibility hangs momentarily in the air. Throughout the film, Maud has been hellbent on brutally carving out an identity for herself built on self-sacrifice and religious flagellation on the one hand, and an unwieldy sense of superiority on the other. Coming face to face with a representation of the pre-human world, and by that token, the pre-religious world, offers a glimpse of what joys true self-abandon could bring.
It is telling though that when the cockroach does finally speak to Maud, it is Maud’s own voice that comes out. Here Glass chooses to use Morfydd Clark’s voice, speaking in her original Welsh tongue, manipulated to sound deeper. At this point it becomes clear that self-abandon will not be Maud’s saving grace. Her exhausting and distinctly human sense of self is so strong that it not only overwhelms her, but the lives surrounding her, even burrowing its way into the cockroach’s form. Creepshow in reverse.
By rejecting the assumption that selfhood and human consciousness are inherently desirable and by refusing to venerate the tiresome project that self-construction often becomes for women, a cockroach scuttling across the floor offers, for Glass just as it does for Lispector, a tantalising hint of another way of living, even if Maud ultimately refuses.
by Colette Webber
Colette is an Oxford English grad who likes good films and crap telly. You can find her rewatching Paris Texas or The Wicker Man for the 100th time, crying over Harrison Ford in Witness, doing some bits for Screen25, shouting to her nonexistent followers on Letterboxd, or not using her Twitter.