WATCH: feminist experimental film "Riddles of the Sphinx" (1977) by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen
A feminist experimental film, Riddles of the Sphinx was partly inspired by Mulvey's work on feminist film theory of scopophilia and the male gaze, particularly her influential 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. As she wrote that classical Hollywood cinema favoured the male spectator and his desire to gaze at women, Mulvey and Wollen's film is "an attempt to merge modernist forms with a narrative exploring feminism and psychoanalytical theory". At the time, much of British experimental and avant-garde film was anti-narrative, and so the film is part of a movement that set out to explore and create a feminist language for cinema outside of traditional narrative norms.
In her writing on feminist film theory, Mulvey has argued that, if the dominant cinema produces pleasure through scopophilia which favours the male gaze and festishization of woman as object, then alternative versions of cinema need to construct different forms of pleasure based on psychic relations that adopt a feminist perspective. As such, the lack of exposition, concentration on the gender politics of domestic life, and the 360-degree pans which move slowly and without focus on the women characters in Riddles of the Sphinx, represent the antithesis of the cinematic pleasure seen in the dominant cinematic styles of the time. Frequently, a woman's voice is heard but not identifiable as particular character, further emphasizing "the lost discourse of woman's unconscious". Rather than using a conventional voice-over, a multitude of voices are heard, Louise and her various friends and co-workers, which according to Mulvey is intended to as "a constant return to woman, not indeed as a visual image, but as a subject of inquiry, a content which cannot be considered within the aesthetic lines laid down by traditional cinematic practice."
The film consists of 13 scenes, the majority of which are shot in long, continuous 360-degree pans of middle-class spaces occupied and encountered by the main character, Louise. Louise is dealing with a change in her lifestyle in which she must learn to negotiate domestic life and motherhood. This is occasionally interrupted by sequences of Mulvey talking to the camera, recounting the myth of Oedipus encountering the Sphinx.