Dee O’Donoghue assesses Medicated Milk. Áine Stapleton’s re-telling of the life of Lucia Joyce, daughter of celebrated Irish writer James Joyce.
As Dublin celebrated another Bloomsday on the 16th of June honouring the revered literary giant, a silenced, counter-narrative was being heard in the IFI – that of Joyce’s mysterious daughter, Lucia. Little is still known about Lucia Joyce yet her limited biography points to a controversial, untameable figure, who scholars agree was a clear muse for her father’s work. What is accepted is that Lucia, born in Trieste in 1907 and showed great promise in becoming a dance artist, had her own artistic ambitions abruptly halted in the cutting-edge world of modern dance, yet the exact circumstances remain shrouded in mystery. She was to spend 50 years of her life in a mental asylum, forgotten and erased, owing to the Joyce estate destroying or closely guarding documents, making them unavailable to scholars; any scholastic enquiry met with forthright resistance for attempting to penetrate the sovereignty of Joyce’s work.
Lucia’s biography is not an isolated one when history comes to silencing the creative, female voice – women with ‘high-spirited’ intellect – forced to live in the murky shadows of more respected, literary men (Zelda Fitzgerald was also committed to specialist clinics). While Joyce has cemented his name as one of the greatest literary figures, and his work celebrated annually and globally, Lucia has had her true legacy distorted to protect the myth of the literary hero, a literary hero whose work was hugely influenced by his creative daughter but has inherited no more than an image of a violently deranged woman who was in need of continual confinement – thanks to her own family.
Despite such sparse historic documentation, the mysterious Lucia still ignites a continued interest to unearth a more lucid portrait of her life, her true legacy and her status within the Joyce family. Michael Hastings’ 2004 West End play, ‘Calico’, navigated Lucia’s life and relationships through her mental illness. In Ireland, a 2013 RTÉ Radio documentary, ‘Lucia Joyce – Diving and Falling’ by Leanne O’Donnell, explored the extraordinary backdrop to Lucia’s confinement as the family were at the heart of literary Paris and most recently, Annabel Abbs’, ‘The Joyce Girl’, released this year, delves into circumstances in which the dancer was locked away so brutally for half a decade.
Continuing the artistic quest for answers, it was such creative, female silencing that motivated Irish dancer and filmmaker Áine Stapleton, to take up the mantle and attempt to unearth the unsolvable mystery behind the shrouded Lucia, in Medicated Milk. As with researchers before her, Stapleton was severely obstructed by the lack of recorded documents and therefore much of her film is informed by the American scholar Carol Loeb Schloss’ controversial biography ‘To Dance in the Wake’. Scholss’ biography challenged the customary madwoman figure and after studying 50 unpublished notes used by Joyce to pen ‘Finnegans Wake’, delineates how Joyce loved his creative, independent daughter and they shared a deep creative bond.
Drawing from the biography, Stapleton, whose own narrative mirrors Lucia’s and is interwoven into the film, proffers a unique interpretation of Lucia’s story, through experimental dance and music, to reclaim Lucia from the margins of literary history and give her the voice and image she has been historically denied. Also refuting the long-considered, institutionalised image of Lucia but rather, a creative genius in her own right, Stapleton, in conjunction with director José Miguel Jiménez and supported with an evocative score by Somadrone, fuses dazzling dance sequences, radiant underwater cinematography and graphic scenes of nudity and animal butchery to create a distinctive, yet unflinching interpretation on the loss, trauma and marginalization suffered by both Lucia and the director herself.
Stapleton became immersed in her Lucia mission by discovering Joyce himself three years ago, through her collaboration with the band Fathers of Western Thought, who were devising a musical interpretation of his work. Stapleton’s agenda soon shifted from Joyce’s writings to his daughter, a life publicly framed by mental illness and psychiatric care. Through Stapleton’s research, it soon became apparent that Lucia’s mental illness overshadowed her entire life, a mental illness that was concealing a fuller picture. It was this cover-up and a shared personal experience that motivated Stapleton to drive forward, to give Lucia a narrative and to give voice to the thoughts and expressions from Lucia’s own words.
Fuelled by frustration and ambition, Stapleton acquired copies of Lucia’s few, existing letters from the University of Texas, undertook trips to various locations in France and Ireland and visited the mental asylum in Northampton to shoot scenes for the film. Collectively, existing documentation and Stapleton’s own tireless research result in a brave, provocative and deeply sensual experimental piece, which pays deep tribute to the voiceless daughter of a literary genius.
While Schoss and now Stapleton’s controversial interpretations of the life of Lucia and her relationship with James Joyce are not unheard of amongst Joyce aficionados, such interpretations are rarely explored. And what becomes more compelling about Medicated Milk, is that Áine Stapleton succeeds in giving a voice to a woman from the past through a shared experience with a woman from the future, through the medium that has suppressed women for centuries, the creative arts.
Whether Medicated Milk results in an enraged or an infuriated reaction for its challenging theories and experimental expression, the film has given voice to two silenced female voices, females whose voices might otherwise have not been heard. A must-see.
Medicated Milk screened on Thursday, 16th June 2016 at the IFI as part of Irish Focus, a focus on new Irish film and filmmakers.