Psychoanalysis and Cinema

Sarah Nechamkin

Author: Sarah Nechamkin

The Dangerous Game: The Joy of the Hunt

Thierry Kuntzel’s “The Film-Work, 2” attempts to deconstruct a film the way Freud’s dream work psychoanalyzed dreams as a series of signifiers, revealing layers of psychic understanding that lie at the subject’s core. In Kuntzel’s piece, the subject of analysis are Ernest B. Shoedsack and Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932), as well as the wider cinematic-cultural apparatus and its socio-cultural framework. Like Freud, who suggests that word-play and slips of the tongue reveal the workings of the unconscious, Kuntzel makes much of the film’s title and the multiple meanings of the word “game.” He explores the word’s dual meaning – or “duel-istic structure” – as both entertainment and prey, in both a playful context and that of hunting. While they appear unrelated in symbolic language, the nexus between the two domains reveals a fundamental truth of psychoanalysis: that pleasure and aggression are inherently intertwined.

Kuntzel discusses various ways in which the film alludes to hunting and the relations between the hunter and the hunted, both narratively and subliminally. At the beginning of the film, the men engage in a discussion on the nature of hunting, how the game seems to enjoy being hunted equally as much as the hunter enjoys the act of preying. Immediately preceding the ship-wreck, Rainsford says, “I’m a hunter and that will never change.” Of course, the precarious conditions throw that dynamic, so fundamental to Rainsford’s self-identity, literally off balance, forcing him to confront its potential futility. Cinematically, the film points to the hunter-hunted dynamic and the notion of play through the inclusion of a variety of signifiers (the bow and arrow, the hunting horn, the card game on the boat, references to poker and chess). But the image that most notably combines the two is the appearance of a centaur figure both on the door-knocker and the tapestry which decorates the staircase of the house, framed in association with Ivan. The body of the figure embodies the film’s central problematic, hinted at in its title: the relation between man and beast, civilization and savagery, man and woman, camera and subject, hunter and game. The association of the centaur with Ivan, the film’s designated “savage,” points to the projection of submissive roles onto the racialized other. Though Zaroff is “game,” he assumes the role of hunter, thereby rendering him dangerous. Not only does he murder individuals; he threatens to destroy the hegemonic social order.

How then, does this relate to the notion of the word “game” in its playful context? Though stakes are high, the violence the men engage in in this film is ultimately a game practiced for the pursuit of pleasure. Each figure is bound up in aggression, displacing their destructive impulses (part of Freud’s notion of the death drive) onto “the other,” whether it be deemed Rainsford (the stranger), Ivan (the servant and racial other), Zaroff (also the racial other), or Eve (the woman). As Kuntzel writes, Eve is excluded from the game because she is the game, or “what is at stake; she may not enter into the permutations of the hunt because she is the ultimate prey.” The hunt is both necessity and sport; rather than simply a means to an end desire, it is what creates that very desire. As Lacan describes in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, specifically when he writes of “Courtly love as anamorphosis,” the process of courting a woman is what renders her the object of desire; likewise, every object of desire attains that status from its being circled.

The subject of the camera is not immune to this status of game. In Peeping Tom, Mark says, “Whatever I photograph, I lose.” From the first scene these relations are established, with the view behind Mark’s camera showing target marks placed over the woman’s face, rendering her both the object of desire (“to be looked at,” as Mulvey says) and the subject of violence. After all, The Dangerous Game is an adventure film, its thrill relying on the safe, confined sense of danger it provokes in the viewer. In invoking these complex relations onscreen, the film both critically engages in the problematic of aggression and playfully employs it.

Sound and the Unseen in Peeping Tom

The role of sound is all too often neglected in film analysis. Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, a paradigm of film theory, focuses on the status of the illusory status of the cinematic image, while Laura Mulvey’s influential Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema defines the male gaze and the role of women as “to-be-looked-at” in dominant film narratives. However, as Kaja Silverman illustrates in The Acoustic Mirror, the female voice – and its lack – are equally influential in establishing gender relations onscreen. This is played out throughout Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), with the absence of audio in Mark’s documentaries (and the subsequent absence of the female scream for a majority of the film) standing for a sort of castration. As Silverman discusses, this literal silencing of women serves as a projection of Mark’s own castration anxiety, having been subjugated by his father’s camera and thus suffering a traumatic loss of phallic power. Audiovisual separation in cinema is itself a form of castration, producing a sense of disorientation in the viewer in its essential disjunction of sensual experience.

In the sequence in which Mark murders the actress, Powell subverts the structure of the silent woman captured in Mark’s documentaries, creating an interesting new audiovisual form of castration by way of murder. As the actress steps back, away from Mark’s tripod cum weapon, the camera cuts to a shot of her feet edging up against the suitcase. This shot helps establish the fetishistic relations of the scene, with the focus on one body part over the whole serving an inherently castratory function. The camera then cuts back to a side angle shot of Mark behind his camera, capturing him in the throws of the fetishistic male gaze. When Powell cuts back to the actress, he cuts off the top half of her face, with her lips on one edge of the screen and the tip of the tripod on the other. This part-whole dynamic further underscores the way in which Mark’s systematic murder aims to castrate women as a projection of the lack he experienced in childhood. The camera, which itself cuts shots in the effort to produce a false sense of continuity, also here cuts the woman’s face, asserting its dominance and reproducing a hegemonic narrative of female victimhood. However, as previously mentioned, the role of sound is what most significantly establishes such relations. As the actress begins to scream, the camera tilts up to her face and blurs it out before fading to black, rendering her unseen as the audio of the woman’s scream is heard. In this sequence, the pairing of the image with the absence of sound, as exemplified in Mark’s documentaries, is inverted by Powell’s camera, which pairs sound with the lack of image – rather, darkness with a mere spot of red light. This is another, albeit different, form of audiovisual castration, as the scream is presented as disconnected from the body – a lost or partial object, akin to the floating smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland that Zizek mentions in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Women’s voices in film are not merely silenced in the traditional sense; they can also be amplified at the expense of all else. In this light, it is necessary to consider a Mulveyan perspective not only on female “to-be-looked-at-ness,” but also “to-be-heard-ness.” Just as women captured in the male gaze of the camera are looked at at the expense of being seen, they can also be heard rather than listened to, their voice becoming a fetish object that stands in for the whole being in a castratory manner. The audio in this sequence immediately transitions to the sound of a female newscaster saying, “And that, darling’s, the end of the news, unless you want the football results.” The visual then cuts from the darkness to the direct gaze of Helen’s blind mother. This connection plays on the notion of female “to-be-heard-ness” and the ways in which women can be heard but not seen in society while also being seen and not heard. Helen’s mother herself cannot see, hearing the female voice and looking at the television without seeing it. Perhaps, like the viewer after the actress’ murder, she can only see the void.

In Persona, a Silent Quest for the Real

In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Elisabet’s silence is deafening. For both the viewer and Alma, her supposed caretaker, it is frustratingly disruptive. Deliberately exempting oneself from the realm of language is an affront to the symbolic order, a defiance of all that is known and understood. Beneath this symbolic structure exists only the real – a space that encompasses that which cannot be understood through language. By choosing to remain silent for most of the film, Elisabet rejects the symbolic order in an effort to come closer to the real, perhaps as a result of her encounters with representations of human horrors (the self-immolation of a man during the Vietnam War on television; a photo from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during World War II). However, as Lacan argues, this effort is ultimately futile, as the real – like Freud’s navel of the dream – is impenetrable as long as the individual clings to the notion of the self and continues to exist within the symbolic order.

Elisabet, especially, is indebted to the symbolic; as an actress, she is constantly engaged in the act of self-performance. She also uses her silence to gage some reaction from Alma With Bergman’s jarring, self-reflexive direction, as noted by Lloyd Michaels in “The Imaginary Signifier in Bergman’s Persona,” the audience is distanced from Elisabet and from the film itself; Liv Ullmann’s acting of Elisabet is exaggerated, her stark black costumes are designed for the camera’s gaze; and the mise-en-scene basks in the psycho-sexual relations between the two women through various sequences of innovative power play. One scene in which this is apparent is on the beach, when Alma tells Elisabet she found her letter and accuses her of betraying her trust. It begins with a shot of Elisabet heading down a cliff, then a close-up from the side of Elisabet looking out for Alma. She is in a thick black headband and a black turtleneck, cloaked in the perfect shadow of her hand. Right away, her “to-be-looked-at-ness” is established in the Mulveyan framework; she is inevitably a product of the cinematic imagination. She then finds Alma and sits in the foreground of the shot in a wide-brimmed hat with Alma behind her, also in all black with black sunglasses. The effect of doubling through costume and framing, as well as the sheer aesthetic relations of the shot, underscores the film’s awareness of its own cinematic quality. In this sequence, like all others, Bergman forces the viewer to confront the ways in which cinema creates imaginary signifiers in the Metzian sense. Alma says, “I see you’re reading a play,” as if to highlight this notion of theatricality and performance. While Elisabet purports to have escaped the symbolic by eschewing language, she reverts to a dependence on the imaginary signifier with her consumption of media. This is a “healthy sign,” as Alma says, because any reversion to the imaginary indicates an inclination to continue living within the understood paradigm of the symbolic order; near-total escape would render one mentally ill in societal terms. Elisabet shakes her head when Alma asks if she misses the city because for her, the cottage by the sea represents an escape from the hegemony of urban life; however, that very association – a signifier representing a signified – is symptomatic of an imaginary worldview.

It is clear that Elisabet’s attempted escape from the symbolic and subsequent search for the real has at this point disrupted her relationship with Alma in addition to disrupting the conventional cinema apparatus. When Alma begs her to talk, the camera cuts back to Elisabet from Alma’s point of view, seeing only the back of her hat as her head turns slightly to continue reading. While the hat hides her from certain angles, it also helps create a certain shadowy aesthetic for the film; Elisabet attempts to hide from the outside world, yet cannot avoid being part of its game of images. When the camera cuts back to her, she is then shown cutting the back of her back with a knife, perhaps in an act of defiance against the imaginary signifier. This echoes the various cuts and disruptions throughout the film, or syntagmas, that Michaels argues are associated with the cinematic signifier and its inevitable absence of the lost object through signification. When Alma rips off her glasses out of frustration, saying “and these glasses!” the viewer is again reminded of the very craft of the film’s mise-en-scene and the ways in which Bergman possesses the power to create hollow meaning through representative objects, like glasses, a hat, or a knife. When Alma subsequently reaches for Elisabet to fight, Elisabet is at first positioned offscreen and the camera occupies a low angle. This choice illustrates the way in which Alma, for most of the film, is constantly grasping at something that is not there – at the imaginary, at language, at the illusory kinship between the two women, based on an imagined sense of trust, intimacy, and perhaps eroticism. Only when Elisabet is threatened with boiling water does she finally speak. Though violence in the film forces Elisabet to confront the real, it also forces her to confront her reliance on the symbolic. She must come to terms with the fact that living depends on a submission to the world of language at the expense. The reality principle dictates we cannot escape the symbolic order lest we upset the force of law and contribute to our own self-destruction.


Fade to Black: The Cinematic Mirror Stage

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), Zizek makes a Lacanian argument for the illusion of cinema – that it tells you not only what to desire, but how to desire. Zizek invokes Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifer in asserting the cinema as the site of the imaginary, with the spectator falsely aligning themselves with the images portrayed onscreen. Zizek calls for the perception of reality not behind the illusion but within the illusion itself, breaking through the symbolic order through film. This philosophic framework breaks through the notion of reality, asserting that our conception of reality relies on the symbolic order. In this sense, the filmic screen acts as a sort of Lacanian mirror, providing the spectator with an idealized, cohesive version of the self. Zizek discusses this in terms of autonomous partial objects, giving examples from Mulholland Drive (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (1951) to illustrate the discrepancy between reality and the real, the part existing outside of the whole. He also discusses the Freudian concept of the divided psyche as it manifests in films like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), among other philosophical and psychoanalytic principles in relation to cinema.

What Zizek fails to address, however, is the way in which filmic tropes can shape identity, at once reflecting and sculpting our individual and collective identities. When films employ common tropes, they give us a greater sense of cohesion, providing us with the illusion of consistent selfhood. For example, filmmakers often ascribe their characters with traits associated with ‘the other,’ effectively associating antagonists with the queer. This is the reason why Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) is portrayed with traditionally feminine characteristics and is uncomfortably close with his mother. Likewise, the villain ofThe Lion King (1994), Scar, is portrayed as feminine. Both characters’ jealousy leads them to murder the films’ father figures. Another example of a common filmic trope is the damsel in distress; from King Kong (1933) to the Star Wars franchise toTaken (2008), films have repeated the time-old trope of a beautiful woman in need of a male savior to escape a dire situation. These, among countless other tropes, help provide neat parameters for human behavior. They allow us to define and identify versions of the self, aligning with certain characters to help shape our conception of our own imagos. Each time we watch a film, as Metz argues, we are experiencing a version of the mirror stage again. The cinematic screen is merely a tabula rasa onto which we project fantasies, illusions, and desires. Like Scottie in Vertigo (1958), the spectator is constantly chasing an ideal, transferring desires onto another image in the search for the completion of the whole self. (In the film, Carlotta Valdez, whose painting is included above, provides a version of the imago for Judy). When turned off, we are reminded that it is merely a blank slate, and we are forced to confront its utter nothingness, akin to the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Confronting the blank screen, according to Zizek, is a version of confronting the real – inherently traumatic for its absence of the image. 

Apocalypse Now: American Civilization and Its Discontents

The opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is quintessentially Freudian, its use of superimposition both revealing and creating meaning for the viewer from the outset. Coppola’s employment of the dissolve, superimposing images atop one another, mimics the psychic process of free association that psychoanalysis aims to bring forth. The film begins with a static shot of a Vietnam landscape, rows of palm trees accompanied by the faint sound of a helicopter approaching. The sound immediately establishes a sense of anxiety, interrupting the peaceful stasis of the palm trees. A helicopter then crosses the screen before wafts of napalm rise, signaling the onset of the film’s signature song, The Doors’ “The End.” The napalm becomes cloudier as the music builds, the anxiety-inducing helicopter noise lingering in the background. When the lyrics begin with “This is the end,” the trees immediately blow up and the camera begins panning to the right. The use of “The End” in the opening sequence – also picked up in the film’s final scene – creates a circular logic mimicking the cyclical nature of wartime violence. The fogging effect of the napalm induces a sense of ambiguity as the camera dissolves into Willard’s face, shown upside down. Right away, it is clear to the viewer that this is not a typical war film, but one marked with a concern for the psychic implications of trauma, brutality, and the military apparatus. With the landscape panning across Williard’s eyes, Coppola suggests that he is seeing the scene in his mind, reliving the primal trauma of war. In fact, the positioning of Willard, upside down and seemingly lying down, renders him a sort of analysand; he could easily be on Freud’s couch, reflecting on his past in Vietnam. The circular motion of the ceiling fan echoes that of the helicopter, as well as the overall circular logic of the film; the superimposition of the images of Willard’s face, the moving ceiling fan, and the helicopter create a visual parallel between these objects and their representational value, associating memory with fantasy. The hallucinatory, vibrantly hued images of the palm trees clouded in napalm – repeated in various forms throughout the film – reflexively underscore the ability of art and cinema to hide the grotesque nature of reality with beauty, inducing voyeuristic pleasure from images of violence. Civilization, as Freud contends in his work “Civilization and Its Discontents,” is inherently brutal, prone to worship of demagogues and systems of constraint. Freud argues that the individual’s relation to civilization and its framework is inherently fraught, becoming one major source of discontent. He argued that social structures are based upon the suppression of instincts, becoming the vehicle by which the superego emerges in the individual. The superimposition of Willard’s face and the Vietnam landscape, torn apart by the American military apparatus, produces a visual representation of this relation between the individual and civilization. Western civilization establishes a sense of collective morality that frowns upon murder, yet the American military apparatus imposes systematic murder. Therefore, American civilization acts as a collective superego, its hypocrisy inducing neurosis in the divided psyches of its citizens.

The sequence continues with the overlaying of various moving images, a patchwork only achievable through cinema. The image of the taboo calls to mind Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” which discusses the significance of totem objects in ancient cultures. Freud postulates that the totem object, held as sacred in these communities, was the site of displacement of the individual’s Oedipal desire for the mother that often resulted in the murder of the father. The camera’s then switches to Willard’s environment, panning across letters (later revealed to belong to Captain Kurtz) until it arrives at close-ups of Willard’s body and face. We then see a glass and a bottle of whiskey, superimposed with a cigarette dangling from between Willard’s fingers. The images suggest a relationship between the realities of war and Willard’s presumed current state, dependent on drugs and alcohol. The seemingly seamless juxtaposition points to deeper psychoanalytic notions of the divided psyche; here, not only does the ego battle the id, but the reality principle of the ego actually fuels more desire to fulfill the pleasure principle and satisfy the id. The pleasure principle is, of course, illusory, as it does not provide real pleasure as much as a transitory Band-Aid for the inevitable void that comes when confronting the real, as Lacanian philosophy further delves into. The final shots of the sequence are that of the gun and the ceiling fan superimposed, before the shot of Willard’s face crystallizes, half-cloaked in shadow. The gun is highly significant in a Freudian framework, as it signifies phallic power through its function of assault and murder. The gun epitomizes the paradox of civilization as a supposed beacon of morality while ultimately serving as an instrument of brutality. As the camera moves to focus on Willard and his psychic state, this is the dichotomy that looms over Coppola’s film as he continually explores the effect of society on the individual and the collective psyches of civilization.

Eve’s Bayou and the Anatomy of a Primal Scene

The scene in Eve’s Bayou (1997) in which Eve is exposed to her father’s philandering is set up as the Freudian primal scene in both content and form. Narratively, Eve sees her father Louis engaging in sexual relations with Maddie, instantly traumatized by both his infedility and the shocking violence of the sex act. The scene is repeated throughout the film, as the primal scene is repeated in the psyche, either directly or through fantasy. The cinematic language presented in the scene supports this notion with its fragmented shots mimicking the free associative nature of psychic interpretation. When Eve enters the basement, she is seen with an oversized flashlight, peaking through wooden structures and stepping past various knickknacks, almost with suspicion. Eve’s flashlight brings to mind illumination, discovery, and sight, as the primal scene is a source of a host of discomfiting realizations regarding human nature and the self; according to Freud, the child is unable to cope with the overstimulating introduction to the world of sexuality and perceives intercourse as sadistic, as he contended in his Three Essays. The heaviness of the flashlight, in addition to its phallic connotations, could suggest the weight of the impending scene that will supposedly, in the logic of the film, shape the rest of Eve’s life. At this ripe age, she is unable to handle the complexities of sexuality. When Eve drifts off to sleep, the camera shifts to a view of the bayou, the lens gliding over the water’s ripples evoking a sense of calm and sensuality. The shot is ‘the calm before the storm,’ portraying a familiar environment to Eve before it is corrupted with the stain of sexuality. Perhaps this interdiegetic shot is designed to connote Eve’s dream, a fluid stream of a naive child’s memories, recalling the wet warmth of the womb. The camera’s panning dissolve connects the bayou to Eve herself; the bayou belongs to Eve as our protagonist but also to her namesake, the matriarch of the Batiste clan. Though the narrative conflict is centered around the father, the repeated water imagery supports the notion of the matriarchal struggle for power, as the women flight to reclaim the land and the family.

Eve arises from her sleep, her expression confused before shifting to immediate shock. We are presented with the reverse-shot of Louis and Maddie, with the camera zooming in quickly to evoke Eve’s sudden panic at the sight. The camera cuts back to Eve, zooming in on her horrified face. It then cuts to a series of slowed down detail shots, illustrating the associative way in which Eve processes the scene. These shots will be repeated throughout the film as to underscore its importance for Eve’s psychic development and relation to her father. The camera shows a shot of a wine bottle as it is knocked to the ground, possibly connoting the shattering of Eve’s innocence. When Louis becomes aware of Eve’s presence, he turns toward the camera from the shadows and turns on the lightbulb, a recurrence of the flashlight image from the beginning of the scene. The light here is associated with realization for both Louis and Eve, illustrating that the damage of sight has been done. Louis’ face is positioned half in shadow, perhaps, in the camera’s subjective framework, illustrating Eve’s conflicting view of her father in the moment. This duality carries through the entire film as the primal scene is replayed and reenacted, as Eve comes closer to the decision to order her father’s murder.

The Stain of Repression: Racism and Misogyny in Pressure Point

In Hubert Cornfield’s Pressure Point (1962), the analysand’s recounting of his experience at the bar which he defiles with X’s and O’s is a telling illustration of his relations to others, particularly women and minorities. Having suffered an abusive childhood and a lifetime of repression, as Freud describes, Bobby Darin’s character projects his own anxieties toward women onto the women around him, treating them as objects which he must dominate in order to assert his own phallic power. He is threatened by the force of women, who he associates with his constraining mother. This episode helps the viewer understand that the character’s racism, like his misogyny, is a symptom of his repression, as revealed in the primal scene in which he is seen peering into the bedroom where his father taunts his mother in bed with another woman.

When Darin’s character describes his memory at the bar to Sydney Poitier’s analyst, he opens by saying it was a “nothing bar with nothing people.” Immediately, he establishes his lack of respect for others, as he displaces his own loss of joussaince, or pleasure, onto others. He constantly feels the need to assert his own superiority, culminating in his physical defilement of the foreign space. The analysand’s violent Tic-Tac-Toe game is an effort to physically mark his territory in an attempt to assert phallic power, repressing the anxiety of its absence. Just as blackness represents a stain or loss of purity, Darin’s character marks the bar with paint to displace that fear and disgust onto others.

The visuals of the scene are striking. The choice of Tic-Tac-Toe for the analysand’s graffiti is an interesting one; the simplistic cross marks cover the walls of the bar, rendering the set an Expressionistic reflection of Darin’s character’s inner turmoil and anxious rage. The marks also represent a sort of proto-Swastika, underscoring the role that the scene plays in the film’s narrative, which is to provide a backstory to help the analyst and viewer understand the roots of the character’s racism and anti-Semitism. The X’s and O’s as signifiers also recall sexual relations, with the patriarchal understanding of the phallus as the male penis and the O standing in for the absence of the phallus in the form of the vaginal opening. The bar owner’s wife is framed as the object of desire in the scene, depicted as both alluring and helpless. In one shot, she is seen through the legs of a char atop the bar, nervously anticipating his approach. Her entanglement in the chair’s legs anticipate the assault by Darin’s character, who places her between his own legs. The framing of the woman situates her as a sexual object, emphasizing her Mulveyan “to-be-looked-at-ness” in the eyes of Darin’s character, the epitome of the objectifying male spectator.

The most disturbing part of the scene, however, comes when Darin’s character paints a Tic-Tac-Toe board onto the woman’s face with lipstick, now creating an epidermal stain akin to the stain of non-whiteness. His use of lipstick, which resembles a phallic object, can be associated with a grasp on male power. He takes her instrument of beauty into his own hands, denying her phallic agency, and uses it to project onto her and render her an object of disgust. The shot is framed over the shoulder of Darin’s character, with the woman in deep focus; she is the figure being penetrated with the lipstick, and subsequently, with his actual phallus. The camera slowly zooms in to her face, revealing her frozen expression of fear. When the camera reverses positions and she then turns, the scene’s sense of violation is crystallized. The act is deeply dehumanizing and reveals the extent to which Darin acts out due to his deep-seated repression.

Spellbound: A Tale of Love and Reason

“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 in 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 love for John, or her 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 trope in Hitchock’s films for 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 proclivity toward rational analysis slowly unravels as her relationship with John develops. The scene at Brulov’s house illustrates the shifting power dynamic between John and Constance as the patient and analyst with the corrupting force of attraction. When they first enter the bedroom, Constance sits in a chair while John stands up, rendering her submissive, or in the patient status. She then stands as she psychoanalyzes Brulov, saying he is in a “complete dream stage, socially,” illustrating her analytic tendencies. She is then 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 aware of herself as an object to be seen by others – or in Laura Mulvey’s terms, her “to-be-looked-at-ness.” 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 – a reminder of the pubic hair that covers and substitutes for the absence of the penis. Desire is projected onto the hair, rendering it overvalued as the site of the phallic power itself. In this moment, Constance’s persona is stripped down to the star power of Ingrid Bergman, whose look captured the public imagination and the collective 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. It is as if the roles have been reversed and John now possesses the role of the analyst as their love renders her increasingly hysterical. When he comes to her level and kisses her, the music crescendos to signal pure romance as John says, “I can’t remember ever having kissed another woman before.” Yet she 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 unfeminine analyst, denying the force of their attraction. 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. With his prominent use of shadows and the thematics of his films, Hitchcock, like Freud, is obsessed with doubling. Ultimately, Spellbound tackles the Freudian notion of the divided self, as he discusses in “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality.” For Freud, no individual is immune to the fracturing effect of society on the human psyche; the divide between ourselves and the constraints imposed by society inevitably create divisions – the id, the ego, and the superego – and contradictions that manifest as neurotic symptoms. Constance’s divided psyche stems majorly from societal gender roles and the pressure to suppress desire. 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 in a replacement for the mother. Her tendency to push John analytically threatens him, as her knowledge renders her phallic power. This creates gender confusion and neuroses for both John and the viewer, and her phallic power must be suppressed with the madness induced by her love. This scene perfectly encapsulates the psychosexual dynamic that permeates the film, making it fit Mulvey’s definition of a patriarchial Oedipal narrative.

Scent and Sexuality: The Controversial Influence of Wilhelm Fliess on Freudian Psychoanalysis

During our discussion of Freud’s On Dreams and Interpretation of Dreams, what I found most fascinating was the note about Freud’s close relationship with Wilhelm Fliess, the German otolaryngologist who helped support his ideas on sexuality with a proposal of the connection between smell and eroticism. Fliess said that the nose, which is the only body part aside from the genitals that is made up of erectile tissue, is a sexual organ; the olfactory system is highly connected to the libido, and nasal issues can contribute to sexual repression in an analysand. Though the notion is regarded by contemporary medical professionals as pseudoscience – his ideas led to several sketchy experiments involving nasal reconstruction and the medical use of cocaine – it is understandable how the concept came about and remained de rigeur among psychoanalytic and medical circles for quite some time.

There is currently a heavy body of research supporting the link between body odor and sexual attraction. Pheromones, secreted sensual chemical factors, subconsciously trigger social responses in human beings, making them highly responsible for the mysterious process of interpersonal attraction. Scent is undoubtedly highly tied to memory, producing with it a host of psychical associations. It’s not surprising that, in our contemporary capitalistic society, there’s a whole industry surrounding body scents, designed to reproduce natural phenomena and recall memories, enhancing our pheromones in the effort to stimulate sexual attraction. While there is a significant body of research to support this effort, it’s not the research that brings customers to the perfume counter. Marketing, an inherently Freudian pursuit, capitalizes on Fliess’ seemingly radical notion of the nose-genital connection. See any Tom Ford or Dolce and Gabbana perfume ad and you’ll find an obvious parallel between scent and sexuality. Though the mechanics of Fliess’ arguments are iffy at best, his influence on Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly in his statements regarding olfaction, sexuality, and neuroses, have stood the test of time.

Secrets of a Soul and the Seeming Impossibility of the Psychoanalytic Film

Secrets of a Soul is a psychoanalytic film in the sense that it depicts the psychoanalytic process onscreen. But is a truly psychoanalytic film even possible? It seems, according to Stephen Heath, that the closer a film comes to psychoanalysis, the further it moves from the concept of a “film.” After all, a film is made up of visual images designed to convey narrative meaning, but any image that poses as reality is inherently deceptive. In a psychoanalytic framework, images, like words, are merely signifiers, imposing meanings onto actual things. So where are we to draw the line between film and psychoanalysis?

Freud famously objected to the concept of Secrets of a Soul as a psychoanalytic film, but as Barbara Creed notes in “Film and Psychoanalysis,” Freud also a Sherlock Holmes fan; this makes sense because his case studies read like the unfolding of popular mystery novels. Freud is presented with a case of a hysterical subject (often a woman) and must work through her history and psyche, like “excavating a buried city” (Elizabeth von R.) to come at some sort of conclusion – an understanding of the unconscious whose reveal can help ail her physical symptoms. I believe that a separation of the natural appeal of narrative form and the desire for psychoanalytical treatment in the shadow of Freud, as Heath distinguishes, is naive. The process by which we consume a film – even one as cryptic as Secrets of a Soul, or, say, Inception, is inherently psychoanalytical. In seemingly extending reality and time in the safe confines of a darkened theater, the medium of film allows individuals to tap into their own psyches to produce meaning from the images in front of them. It is only when humans submit to the film as pure reality that they deny those cognitive processes, but of course, everyone knows intellectually while watching a film that they are in fact engaging in a purely spectatorial experience (excluding the onset of virtual reality technology). During the film viewing process, the line between art and reality does blur; however, how much of a distinction can we make if reality itself is never fully real? Rather, reality as we know it it is a summation of the cognitive signifiers we ascribe to our worlds. It is only natural for human beings to flock to darkened theaters in the hopes of extending their own senses of reality, and in doing so, perhaps coming closer to something of a grasp on the meaning of their own lives. In psychoanalysis, this notion of meaning may be illusory, but then again, what isn’t?