by Christobel Kent
From the trembling bride to the novice nun to the widow at the graveside, a veiled woman is the object of perennial fascination. To suggest that our interest in her is anything but sexual is purest nonsense: she asserts her chastity while insinuating its opposite. When a white-clad virgin raises the layers of tulle at the altar and offers herself to her husband for a kiss, the congregation emits a collective sigh at the glimpse this scene affords into the marital bedchamber – and who has not contemplated a widow in full shoulder-length mantilla, without harbouring thoughts of what erotic violence might have brought her husband to his end?
But if the formal veil is provocative enough, the secular veil – birdcage or half-face, net, tulle or lace – that’s worn just for kicks, takes the sexual tension up another notch. Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily, the celebrated ‘coaster’ in von Sternberg’s 1932 Shanghai Express pairs her black fishnet veil with a feathered cape, an exquisite masked predator. Meanwhile Faye Dunaway’s tormented degenerate in Polanski’s Chinatown wears hers so as to conceal and seduce at once: it hides her eyes while offering her incomparable mouth. And Sandra Milo as Carla the archetypal mistress in Fellini’s 8 ½ first appears in white-veiled fox hat, prancing into her lover’s marriage with the frankest of intentions. It is the subtlest kind of bondage, a delicate tracery of bars across a woman’s caged cheekbones that suggests a quite delicious restraint and confinement, a siren plea for rescue. And if, once sprung from her pretty prison, she bites the hand that saved her, no-one can say he wasn’t warned.
Graze on my lips
And if those hills be dry
Where the pleasant fountains lie
Shakespeare, from Venus and Adonis