Spellbound and the Female Gaze

The inevitable questions raised by Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” are, of course, those of the female spectator and female protagonist. Her writing presupposes (in the case of the latter, not altogether wrongly so insofar as she is critiquing, by and large, mainstream Hollywood cinema) a male spectator and a male protagonist, the latter of which the former identifies with via the ego. This is coupled with a scopophilic pleasure derived by the viewer (presumed to be a heterosexual male or, as Mulvey touches on in her follow-up essay addressing the potential insufficiencies of “Visual Pleasure,” “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946),” engaging at the least in a heterosexual male pattern of viewing, deriving pleasure from the image of woman) via object-cathexis of the leading woman in a given film. This frequently parallels a similar relationship between protagonist, as stand-in for the ego within the diegesis of the film, and woman, who operates as love interest or at the least source of titillation for the protagonist. Based on Mulvey’s argument, a follow-up argument addressing the relationship between viewer and female protagonist might thus suggest that the viewer engages simultaneously in ego identification and object-choice with the female protagonist, and accordingly, that the film, as governed by the aesthetic hegemony of Hollywood norms, bestows upon the hypothetical female protagonist the requisite material for the viewer to engage in each of these processes: the narrative investment and the phallic endowment requisite for ego identification, and the scopophilic image requisite for object-cathexis. This structure theoretically confirms to Mulvey’s claim that, “According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” (Mulvey 4), insofar as the male figure is not necessarily subject to the sexual objectification that the woman undergoes in the male-fronted film.

Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) offers a case study for applying Mulvey’s theories to a female-fronted film (it’s not without note that Hitchcock is himself among the filmmakers Mulvey cites in her article). Up until the point of John Ballentine’s introduction, the film seems to conform to this model: narratively speaking, it invites the viewer to identify with Dr. Petersen in that (barring, importantly, the card-playing scene in the film’s opening) the spectator is more or less confined to her point of view. This does not, however, preclude her visual objectification: we see Dr. Petersen first as the very image of phallic authority – brow furrowed with determination under her glasses as she scribbles on some papers on her desk, a lit cigarette furnishing her free hand – but over the course of this first scene (and, moreover, the film at large), we are slowly granted cinematic access to view Dr. Petersen in the light with which we’re used to viewing (gazing upon) cinema starlettes of Bergman’s ilk. The camera punches ever inwards on Dr. Petersen over the course of this first scene, walking a fine line between the cinematic codes associated with masculine and feminine representation, crucially denying us the soft-focus close-up we might expect to see. To this extent, this extrapolation of Mulvey’s model holds up; both libidinal identification with and object-choice of Bergman/Petersen are invited by the film. However, the film goes onto to push back against the rules prescribed by Mulvey upon the introduction of John Ballentine. Here we find a complete reversal of the cinematic language of boy-meets-girl (canonically speaking, even the word order of the phrase reinforces the active role of male in this process). Our first image of Ballentine is an eyeline match – through blinds, underscoring the perspective – from Petersen’s own point of view. The camera is, moreover, far less shy of indulging in close-ups of Ballentine than it is with Petersen; one occurs within the first couple shots of his introduction. The best example of this reversal is, however, their actual introduction; we watch from Petersen’s point of view as he walks toward her table, gradually filling the frame, then cutting back to Petersen, whose jaw, like the viewer’s, has dropped. If anyone is bearer of the gaze here, it’s her; the viewer is invited not only to revel in the scopophilic pleasure Dr. Petersen is clearly enjoying here, but to participate in it directly as well. Spellbound unquestionably puts the male figure to the test of sexual objectification, though the question stands as to how well it bears the burden.


(Above: Dr. Petersen as the image par excellence of the dangers of the female gaze, Spellbound, 1:35:28.)