Moonlight (2016) is a film about transference. It follows a three-act structure, focusing on three different stages of a man’s life. The structure allows for the protagonist to be treated as three separate characters – with distinct names and identities for each phase – while also presenting the viewer with the ability to track his behavior as a psychoanalyst would, by examining the present in light of the past. Barry Jenkins’ treatment of the film’s final scene lends itself to a Freudian lens of analysis in its portrayal of the influence of childhood on adult life, especially as it concerns relationships. In a moment of vulnerability that seems to break down his hyper-masculine facade, Black admits to Kevin that he hasn’t touched or been touched by anyone since their tryst on the beach. Black’s revelation is shocking to Kevin and to the viewer precisely due to the fact of transference love that Freud articulates: “Transference-love is characterized by certain features which ensure it a special position…it is lacking to a high degree in a regard for reality, is less sensible, less concerned about consequences and more blind in its valuation of the loved person than we are prepared to admit in the case of normal love. We should not forget, however, that these departures from the norm constitute precisely what is essential about being in love.” Since our conceptions of relationships derive from our relationships to our mothers and fathers, all love is effectively transference love – an effort to reconstruct the power dynamic latent in infantile-parental relations.
Chiron’s libidinal investment in Kevin as a love interest is a transference of his relationship with Juan as a child. Both assume hyper-masculine presentations, yet offer Chiron a sense of guidance, whether teaching him how to swim or how to kiss. Juan himself serves as a replacement for Chiron’s absent father, and in a sense also his drug-addicted mother. While Chiron may have found love in the figure of Kevin as a teenager, the social structure mandates that he move on in his adulthood as Black, finding another object of desire on which to displace that libidinal investment. Black’s vulnerability comes from his resistance to transference, the guiding principle of interpersonal love. In repressing his sexuality, Black has clung to the past and reconstructed it phantasmatically, refusing to reproduce the intimate moment with Kevin for fear of tainting its memory. For Chiron, the only way to salvage the memory and its associated emotions is to reunite with Kevin, yet he is proven incorrect when he meets with Kevin and realizes that he has transferred his love to a woman.
Black and Kevin share an intimate moment but never kiss onscreen. This is a defiance of the norm for classical Hollywood cinema, in which films often conclude with a kiss between the protagonist and their love interest, offering an artificial sense of a satisfying resolution. The absence of the kiss in Moonlight is a mode of presenting the void of Black’s desire, the result of his attempt to conquer transference. While he may expect the reunion with Kevin to bring him back to the moment on the beach, binding them in intimacy again, he is confronted with reality: that love is often not sustainable, and that transference is required for the satisfaction of libidinous desires. Black’s repression is a result of his internalization of society’s rigid attitudes toward homosexuality and race that manifests as his superego. It is this repression and naive desire to conquer transference that prevents Black from finding love and intimacy again, rather than the mere absence of Kevin. Black’s inability to enact transference love can be seen in conjunction with his near silence throughout the film. Like Elisabet in Persona (1966), Little/Black/Chiron attempts to reject the symbolic order by avoiding language. He attempts to resolve the fundamental disconnect between his desires (id) and the environment in which he is raised, where his sexual desires are taboo and his race marks him an other to greater American society, by distancing himself from the Symbolic in an attempt to arrive at the Real. But of course, clutching onto an object of desire and eschewing language does not allow one to arrive at the Real; Chiron only becomes more alienated, as he is unable to physically and emotionally act out his drives.
The film concludes with a shot of young Black as Little facing the ocean, bathed in blue moonlight. The shot is a visual allusion to the play that the film is based on called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It connects the notion of blackness and blueness – of childhood and adulthood, and of the sorrow that results from being systematically marginalized in America (“the blues of being black”). Most importantly, the shot connects Black and his intimacy gap to his state not only as Chiron on the beach with Kevin, but as Little on the beach with Juan, learning how to love another man and cope with the ambivalence at the core of the transferential relationship. When Little looks back toward the camera, it is as if he is looking forward at his life; the shot suggests a circularity to Little/Chiron/Black’s life, rooted in nonlinear memory rather than forward progress. As in the scene I discussed in Eve’s Bayou (1997), the backdrop of water recalls connotations of birth and the womb; the imagery permeates the film, connecting Chiron to his primal state even as he ages and changes his name and appearance. The film’s ambiguous ending, rare for an American production, unlocks more questions than answers. Little’s stare at the ocean evokes the impenetrable nature of the Real and the role of film as an imaginary signifier. As Nietzsche said, “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” The more Little stares at the ocean seeking answers, the more he is confronted by his own projections rather than any clear sense of meaning. This parallels the ambiguity of the film itself, which challenges the viewer’s expectations and forces them to face their own biases. The ending begs the viewer to reflect upon the various phases of our protagonist’s life and the multiple identities he takes on, suggesting that they are chained together in fundamental ways. Yet rather than a resolution or an eternal truth, the film offers only images, fragments of memory that continue to challenge and provoke thought long after the credits roll. Is a true psychoanalytic film possible? Moonlight comes pretty close.