Representation and Resistance in Secrets of a Soul

Stephen Heath’s essay “Psychoanalysis and Cinema” concerns itself largely with one of the fundamental questions begged by the conjunction of the two terms: is cinema capable of representing, reproducing, or mimicking consciousness in a way amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation? At the outset of the essay, as with the early stages of the two praxes in question, opinion is more or less divided into two camps: those who see psychoanalytic potential in the medium (Heath cites Lou Andreas-Salomé admitting that “cinematic technique is the only one which allows a rapid succession of images approximating to our own imaginative activity” (Heath 26)), and those who believe any such resemblance to be fallacious, even threatening to the very sanctity of the psychoanalytic practice (numbered perhaps most notably among them, one Sigmund Freud). Chief among the concerns of this latter camp is, at least as contextualized by Heath, the fundamental insufficiency of cinematic representation itself: “The frame of vision – ‘reality,’ the reality that cinema shows, puts before our eyes – is troubled by what it excludes as its very condition and which thereby remains over as… the troubling blind spot… Lacan’s object a” (Heath 31). This being by nature excluded from representation, all cinema, psychoanalytic or otherwise, might well be deemed moot, or at the least, fallacious. Hence Freud’s steadfast rejection of the Secrets of a Soul project: why subject his brainchild, revolutionary and already misunderstood, to the degradation and even bastardization which a soi-disant “psychoanalytic film” would necessarily entail?
Some authors take a markedly different approach to the question of cinematic representation. Virginia Woolf, for instance, posits whether there may be something within cinema that in fact transcends representation as contemporary viewers had come to understand it. Heath paraphrases her discussion of the medium in the context of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: “what counts… is not the film’s stated emotions, the effects of its represented visual world; [but rather] the experience – the fear itself [as opposed to its representation]… Woolf moves from figuration, likeness, to some ‘residue of visual emotion,’ some ‘accidental,’ ‘unintentional’ thing that sticks on the screen, radically obscene” (Heath 31). This brings us to a discussion of Secrets of a Soul, as informed by Heath’s summary of this divide in discourse. What most strikes me about its representation of psychoanalysis is its ending, in which, having identified and articulated the trauma underlying his hysteria, the film’s protagonist returns home to his wife and her cousin Hans, apparently cured of all murderous impulses or even hard feelings towards either party. On first watch, the suddenness and totality of the protagonist’s turnaround can’t help but read as something of a deus ex machina, perhaps even something of a propaganda piece for psychoanalysis as a medical practice. Our protagonist’s gleefully professing “I have a lot to apologize for!” as he embraces his wife and her would-be lover (would-be, granted, only in the extrapolation of an innocuous but nonetheless significant childhood memory) does open something of a gap in the film’s consistency of representation, lending some validity to Freud’s concern. This in turn, however, raises the question of whether this insufficiency of representation might not be exactly what the filmmakers sought to utilize in their cinematic depiction of psychoanalysis: by ignoring what might be perceived as a narrative inconsistency, they draw attention away from the film qua representation, encouraging the viewer to look at it awry, to seek out that within it which resists symbolization. Therein lies, potentially, the genius of Secrets of a Soul – the film is more than rich with classically, borderline satirically psychoanalytic imagery, though the psychoanalyst, the embodiment of interpretation in the film, never articulates its innumerable phallic symbols or birth allegories as such. It is accordingly left to the viewer to understand that within the film which resists representation, that which underlies the weblike network of images and relations symbolized by the dream sequence, putting, to some extent, the viewer in the place of the psychoanalyst, rather than simply dictating – representing – the praxis itself.