“Women make the best psychoanalysts – until they fall in love.” So says Dr. Alexander Brulov in Spellbound (1945), when Constance Petersen and John Ballantyne stay at his house for the night. The statement hovers over the entire succeeding scene, which uses staging to illustrate the paradigm between Constance’s sense of reason and her love for John – a masculine/feminine dichotomy. As a psychoanalyst among male colleagues, Constance is portrayed as cold and calculating from the film’s outset; not only does she reject her colleagues’ come-ons, but she is seen wearing glasses, a filmic trope that represents a women with a threatening level of knowledge and power (see Miriam Haynes in Strangers on a Train (1951), whose murder culminates in the shattering of her spectacles). Constance’s tendency toward rational analysis slowly unravels as her relationship with John develops. The scene at Brulov’s house illustrates the shifting power dynamic between John, the patient, and Constance, his analyst, when the corrupting force of attraction is introduced. When they first enter the bedroom, Constance sits in a chair while John stands up, establishing her in a relatively submissive role more associated with patient than analyst. She then stands as she psychoanalyzes Brulov, saying he is in a “complete dream stage, socially,” reaffirming her analytic role. Constance is subsequently seen brushing her hair in the mirror, however, revealing her awareness of her appearance and sense of self as seen by the other. The shot could allude to Constance’s mirror stage as described by Lacan, in which she becomes fully awakened to the illusory entity of the self. Or perhaps, reading the shot in Laura Mulvey’s framework, it is a moment of Constance’s awareness of her “to-be-looked-at-ness” as an object of desire. In a sense, she is projecting herself within the male gaze, as Mulvey describes in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” She feminizes her appearance not only for John, but for the presumably male heterosexual viewer, offering herself as the object of desire to appease the spectator’s implicit fetishistic scopophilia. Female hair is a common fetish as described by Freud and reiterated by Mulvey, as it is psychically associated with the pubic hair that covers the absence of the penis and becomes a substitution for the phallus itself. Desire is projected onto the hair, rendering it overvalued. In this moment, Constance’s persona is stripped down to the star power of Ingrid Bergman, whose look captured the public imagination and the cinematic male gaze.
John steps behind her into the mirror, a reminder that her role exists in relation to him; she is not the film’s protagonist, but his analyst and his lover simultaneously. The following shot underscores this notion by placing Constance in the foreground below John, her back toward the camera, and John in deep focus looming over her. The cinematic relations in this shot suggest that the roles have been reversed, with John now possessing the role of the analyst. It encapsulates the relations between them throughout the film, with Constance becoming increasingly hysterical as she is absorbed by her love for John. When he comes to her level and kisses her, the music crescendos to signal romance, with John saying, “I can’t remember ever having kissed another woman before.” Yet Constance blocks his next kiss, saying, “It isn’t ethical. I’m here as your doctor.” Now, Constance moves to deep focus and John’s back is to the camera – a near reversal of the shot before their kiss. By denying his kiss, Constance reasserts her power as the analyst, denying her attraction and thus appearing cold and unfeminine. In this position, John says, “Don’t worry, doctor, I’m gonna sleep on the couch.” Constance insists that the patient occupies the bed while the doctor sits on the couch, “fully dressed.” While she asserts the patient/analyst dynamic here, there is also a hint of instability in her words, as the bed is both the site of the patient and the lover. Constance requires restraint to maintain her persona, yet the professional power dynamic easily teeters into a psychosexual one. The music immediately shifts and John goes into an episode of paranoia with the site of the blanket, when Constance aggressively questions him in an effort to psychoanalyze him. John is bothered, saying “I’m sick of your double talk,” which itself has the double meaning of referring to both her professional strategy and her role as both his analyst and lover. When Constance pushes him to remember he merely passes out, overwhelmed by her dominance. The music quickly changes back to the romantic tune and she cradles his head, saying “Oh, darling.” She assumes the feminine role of the mother, catering to John’s Oedipus Complex as described by Freud in “Femininity.” Just as all lovers must, she nurtures John as a replacement for the mother, a transferential love. Her tendency to psychoanalyze John threatens him, as her knowledge renders her phallic power, and he is thus reduced to the object being “looked” at. This creates gender confusion and neuroses for both John and the viewer; Constance’s phallic power must be suppressed with the hysteria associated with romantic love. This scene perfectly captures the psychosexual dynamic that permeates Spellbound, making it fit Mulvey’s definition of a patriarchal Oedipal narrative.