Far from being a feisty embodiment of female empowerment, Briseis in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy seems more of a victim in a Stockholm syndrome-type relationship. LucindaE traces how the ancient ‘war prize’ story has been transformed into a consensual romantic arrangement to please contemporary audiences
I love a tacky epic, with hackneyed script, cardboard characters, absurd costumes, anomalies and general nonsense. When I finally got round to seeing the 2004 film Troy by Wolfgang Petersen I expected to enjoy it, reputed as it is to have all these features.
Sometimes I did laugh out loud. Still, I didn’t really enjoy it, mainly due to the disingenuously exploitative attitude towards rape and Stockholm syndrome that the filmmakers exhibit in their depiction of the relationship between the characters of Briseis and Achilles.
In the Iliad, Briseis is a princess of Lyrnessus, a neighbouring city of Troy. When the Greeks sack the city, Achilles, the seemingly invincible Greek warrior, kills her husband and brothers and is awarded her as his ‘war prize’ and slave, a visible token of his prestige.
Most critics were dismissive of this attempt to retell the sacking of Troy, but some praised it. Christopher S Morrisey in his article ‘Pomo Homer: A Review of the Troy Movie’ states it has “…the same noble goal as Homer…to appropriate and rewrite old character.”
Ruby Blondell in her article, ‘Third Cheerleader from the Left…’ sees the role of “the feisty Briseis” as empowered, in opposition to that of the “helpless victim Helen”.
Meanwhile, outside academia, many women continue to be enchanted by the ‘romantic’ relationship between the Briseis character as played by Rose Byrne and Achilles as played by Brad Pitt (who allegedly spent six months body building to approximate the physique of a Greek god). Numerous fan fiction sites attempt to fill out the details of the romance depicted in the film.
Dissenting voices about the ‘romantic’ nature of that relationship are few. I have come across fewer than 10 online reviews by women who – like me – thought it abusive.
I feel that the film is open to the charges of a romanticised depiction of Stockholm syndrome and of titillating the audience with the hint of rape between captor and captive.
The Briseis of Homer is a shadowy character; we learn little of her save that when she is taken away by Agamemnon she walks behind his men “reluctant, every step”, that when she returns to Achilles she mourns Patrocles as “always kind” and that Achilles claims to love her.
As far as the Iliad is concerned, Briseis’ opinion on Achilles’ taking her as a ‘war prize’ – having first killed her father, husband and brothers – is regarded as being of no more consequence than that of a horse Achilles might have taken from another king. He has either raped her or the nominal consent she might have given means nothing under the circumstances. If she is reluctant to leave him, it may be a case of ‘better the devil you know’ more than anything else.
‘War prizes’ contributed to a noble warrior’s status; Briseis is a visible sign of Achilles’ power. It is the humiliation of losing these visible signs of his ‘honour’ that Achilles reacts to as much as a sense of personal loss.
Had the filmmakers depicted the original relationship between Achilles and Briseis, and shown a Briseis who seems content to be with her rapist, the murderer of her husband and family, it would have probably caused an outcry; they needed to avoid that.
However, it seems to me that the filmmakers exploited the idea of the love affair between ‘captor and captive’ or a ‘potential rapist and victim’ to excite its audience, confident that the majority would find it acceptable providing it was done with sufficient ‘taste’ and apparently genuflecting to feminist sensibilities.
Accordingly, the scenes where Achilles is shown as a potential rapist, apparently naked and jeering before his captive, are juxtaposed with ones in which he is portrayed as Briseis’ rescuer from gang-rape at the hands of Agamemnon’s soldiers (while the relationship between him and Briseis is depicted as being based on consensual sex and romantic love).
I find this highly disingenuous: the filmmakers seem to express a moral outrage at the notion of rape whilst playing with it in the Achilles/Briseis love affair to titillate their audience.
The mutual emotional dependence of these two characters comes out of a situation where the unequal distribution of power between the man and the woman is taken to extremes. As Briseis’ fear and hatred gradually turn into passionate attraction and emotional surrender, and her tormentor softens towards her, this is surely in line with the development of a Stockholm syndrome-type relationship. Achilles’ treatment of Briseis shows a finely balanced combination of the kindness and abuse that has been suggested to be the basis for the development of that condition, where an unaccountable empathy for the captor develops in the captive. Throughout the film, their relationship is defined by a series of power plays on his part that seem to have escaped most critics’ notice.
At first the filmmakers keep the audience in suspense about the nature of Achilles’ intentions – as he does his captive. Will he take advantage of her? He seems nasty enough…
He is first informed of Briseis’ capture by one of his lieutenants who leeringly remarks: “We thought she might amuse you.” Achilles responds with a look that seems to be a combination of the standard ‘arrogant, mean and moody’ and ‘inscrutable’ looks that form two out of the three expressions that Brad Pitt (normally a good actor) utilises for this role (the third being a ‘learning to feel’ look which involves much wrinkling of the forehead).
He goes in to wash, removing his toga/denim mini skirt and insensitively stripping naked in front of the priestess Briseis. He gives her no reassurance beyond asking her name. A verbal skirmish follows, during which she upbraids him for the murder of the priests and he throws some water at her. Finally, he moves towards her – still apparently naked, the camera only showing the actor from the waist up – before finally asking, “Are you afraid, girl?”
One wonders why he finds it necessary to ask.
It may be that the scriptwriter intends this to be the first indication of tenderness shown by Achilles towards anyone except Patrocles. At the beginning of the film, he is shown roughly pushing aside one of the gorgeous women (slaves, previous war prizes?) with whom he has enjoyed a threesome, and taunting a small boy with the fact that no one will remember him, presumably to show his general lack of human feeling.
His query can also be interpreted as an ostensible sympathy that is a form of power play.
For sure, it adds to the tension. Achilles is Briseis’ potential rapist, of course she is afraid. She gives an ambiguous answer showing spirit: “Should I be?” Some mutual staring follows to indicate the first stages of falling in love.
Then he finally reassures his captive that he is not a rapist. He struts off to a war council uttering one of the most absurd phrases of the film: “You do not need to fear me, girl. That is more than can be said for anyone else in Troy.”
Then Achilles is shown as defending his captive from Agamemnon, who looks like a superannuated Hell’s Angel, and his equally unpleasant troops. When Briseis is taken by Agamemnon, Achilles springs to her defence, but she insists she will not have any men “dying for her”.
Either through extra-sensory perception or careless editing, Achilles just happens to come upon Briseis as she is on the point of being gang raped by Agamemnon’s men. He carries the fainting maiden off to his hut.
He is now all solicitousness, trying to bathe her wounds. He could easily order one of his women slaves to do this; surely, another women’s care at such a time would be comforting? Clearly, Achilles doesn’t wish for such an intrusion.
Briseis resists, abusing him some more. Given his egotism, this might have been enjoyable was it not been the obvious prelude to her surrender.
He warns her that they should take advantage of the moment and (presumably) strips again, for when we next see him he is naked again.
Then, Briseis follows the example of her forerunner in the 1962 film The Fury of Achilles and, breaking the first law of feminine self-defence, threatens him with a knife.
That a prize warrior could be taken by surprise in this manner is absurd.
It is more believably evidence of manipulation on his part. Achilles lets his captive think that she is in charge – knowing that he can easily get the knife from her before she does any damage – the better to assert his own power over her. He has discounted the knife as a threat, but knows it to be a basis for a form of bonding between them.
Choosing the moment, he rolls on top of her with all the delicacy of a tup mounting an ewe, and she surrenders to his virile charms.
After this, they are shown gazing at each other, apparently besotted. I cringed as Briseis asked in a little-girl voice, “Am I still your captive?” This seems to be a masochistic form of flirting; his ego gratified at having been where no man has been before, of course Achilles can assure her, “You’re my guest.” She is starting to be tamed, now.
This idyll is brief. Physical abuse of the captive by the captor follows.
When Achilles blames his lieutenant for Patrocles’ death, he does some leg exercises on his neck and when Briseis tries to stop him, he reaches backward to squeeze her neck in turn and flings her to the ground.
After weeping over Hector’s corpse, Achilles parts with it and with Briseis too, giving her the bracelet and a half-hearted apology: “If I hurt you, it wasn’t what I intended.”
We never learn what he did intend…
We see no more of Briseis until the fall of Troy when she kills Agamemnon who corners her at the temple altar. Achilles strikes down Agamemnon’s men and then proceeds to die for Briseis himself as Paris shoots him, first in the heel and then in the chest.
The farewell between the lovers left me unmoved (and I am notorious for bawling at sad endings to films), probably because of the ugly undertones to their relationship.
Naturally, Achilles tells her to escape. Briseis sobs and gasps, “No…” He goes cross- eyed, and looks as though he has had one too many and is worried that he might be sick on her. His last words, “You brought me peace…after a lifetime of war,” are arguably the second most absurd the film.
What, I wondered, did the filmmakers intend Briseis to be feeling for Achilles at that moment? Love and hate combined? Is she meant to have forgotten Hector and only feel sorrow at her preserver’s death?
Far from showing female agency, Briseis acts throughout like any stock Mills and Boon heroine. These are routinely feisty and resistant before their inevitable surrender to the dominant male, the pattern she follows.
After falling for her captor, Briseis loses any ‘agency’ she may have had. Her espousal of the ‘female’ values of peace and faith in the gods is depicted as ineffectual against male violence, while her emotional involvement with Achilles is masochistic and self-destructive.
Perhaps Briseis can be seen as allowing Achilles to get in touch with his ‘sensitive side’. He does show flashes of sensitivity, but their relationship enables him to get even more in touch with his sadistic qualities. Certainly it permits the filmmakers to titillate an audience with the development of a love affair between potential rapist and victim whilst affirming a depiction of female ’empowerment’.