Analysis of ‘A Cure for Wellness’

A Cure for Wellness is a 2016 psychological horror film written for the screen by Justin Haythe and directed by Gore Verbinski, based on a story they wrote together. It stars Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth.

Haythe and Verbinski were inspired by Thomas Mann‘s novel, The Magic Mountain, which also features a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. This inspiration in turn suggests the influence of Nietzsche‘s having spent many summers in Switzerland, often hiking in the Alps, in the hopes that the climate and fresh air would be therapeutic for his ill health.

The film got mixed-to-negative reviews because of its perceived-to-be excessive length, and its ending, which some deemed disappointing–though its visuals and performances were generally praised. Perhaps if one thought of it less as a horror film, and more as a drama with thought-provoking, philosophical themes, one would see more value in it, as I hope to demonstrate. Indeed, there seems to be the potential for the film to become a cult classic.

Furthermore, though this film came out in 2016/2017, a reconsideration of it (as of this post’s 2020 publication) would be timely, given the current coronavirus outbreak. The American response to the crisis has been markedly inferior to that of China and Cuba: on the one hand, not enough is being done in terms of helping the overworked, underfunded health services; and on the other hand, too much fear-mongering seems to be going on in the media, often motivated by governments with authoritarian agendas. The film deals with similar issues: the capitalist world cares too little about the sick, while Dr. Volmer (Isaacs), director of the sanitarium in which the story is set, seems overly solicitous of patients’ health…and for not-so-noble reasons.

This analysis is dedicated, and with a shout-out to, my Facebook friend, Gunnar Angeles, who, as a fan of the film, has been eager to have me write something up on it. I hope you like it, Gunnar.

Here are some quotes:

“There is a sickness inside us. Rising like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats. It’s there in every one of you seated around the table. We deny its existence until one day the body rebels against the mind and screams out, ‘I am not a well man.’ No doubt you will think only of the merger. That unclean melding of two equally diseased institutions. But the truth cannot be ignored. For only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure. I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again. Sincerely, Roland E. Pembroke.” –Lockhart (DeHaan), reading Pembroke’s letter while sitting at a boardroom table

“Dad? Dad!” –9-year-old Lockhart (Douglas Hamilton), on seeing his father jump off a bridge

“You ever have a twelve inch black dick in your ass? Prison, Mr. Lockhart.” –Hollis

“No-one ever leaves.” –Hannah von Reichmerl (Goth)

Pembroke (Harry Groener): Is that why you came all this way? Ambition? Then you have it worse than any of us.
Lockhart: What’s that?
Pembroke: The sickness. Your father saw the truth long before the rest of us. The pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things…[submerging into the pool water]

“There’s something in the water. There’s something in the fucking water!” –Lockhart

Hannah: You made me believe I could leave here one day.
Lockhart: Why would anybody wanna leave?” [brainwashed, and grinning with dentures]

“I’m not a patient!” –Lockhart (repeated line)

Volmer (Isaacs): For the human physiology, the effect of the water can be quite toxic…unless, of course, it is properly filtered. The baron devised the process, using the bodies of peasants that belonged to his land. He managed to distill the water to its life-giving essence. Of course, he paid a terrible price for his ingenuity. His only mistake was to use subjects who were unwilling. Luckily, times have changed. The last two hundred years have been the most productive in human history. Man rid himself of God, of hierarchy, of everything that gave him meaning, until he was left worshipping the empty altar of his own ambition. That is why they come, men like you. You’re quite right, Mr. Lockhart: no one ever leaves. What you fail to understand is that no one wants to.

Pembroke[brainwashed] I’ve never felt better.

[last lines]
Hollis (Lisa Banes): [as Lockhart begins cycling away with Hannah] Are you insane?
Lockhart[last line of the film; with a crazed grin on his face] Actually… I’m feeling much better now![Lockhart continues biking into the night]

The film’s paradoxical title already introduces a theme before the story has even begun: the dialectical relationship between illness and health. (Recall Dr. Volmer’s words: “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure.”) Put another way, sometimes those who would harm us the worst are those who claim to be most concerned for our health.

The protagonist, a young American businessman named Lockhart, is aptly named, for his name sounds like a pun on ‘locked heart.’ Indeed, the trauma he suffered as a child, watching his father commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, when combined with his experience of the cutthroat world of capitalism, has closed his heart from enjoying close relationships with other people. His ‘locked heart’ will be opened soon enough, though, when he meets Hannah.

The board of directors of his company want him to go to the Swiss Alps to find and bring back a fellow executive, an elderly man named Pembroke, who is desperately needed by the company to help sign a merger and deal with a criminal investigation of malfeasance–something that’s Lockhart’s fault, but something they plan to make Pembroke take responsibility for.

The only half-decent relationship Lockhart has with anybody is with his mother, and even this relationship is tenuous. She makes a figurine of a ballerina who “doesn’t know she’s dreaming,” and gives it to him. Just before his trip to Switzerland, his mother dies, something he recalls in a long dream during, ironically, the one good, long sleep he’s had in ages.

His giving of the ballerina figurine to Hannah is symbolic of his love of his mother transferred onto the girl. His growing relationship with Hannah–from his having a beer with her in a pub, to her giving the now “awake” figurine back to him (a return of that love, which in turn breaks him out of his mad acceptance of the “cure” that Volmer has, through gaslighting, manipulated him into taking on)–unlocks his heart and makes him want to rescue her from her rapist father.

The true cure to illness has always been, and always will be, loving relationships…but back to the beginning of the story.

Pembroke is staying in a large sanitarium, a castle-like building with a strange history, as Lockhart’s driver there tells him. A baron who lived there several centuries ago, in order to preserve a “pure” bloodline, wanted to marry his sister. She was infertile, and so he tried to create a kind of medicine to cure her. His experiments involved killing off local peasants by using their bodies to filter out toxins from water in a local aquifer, water that otherwise has life-extending properties; the peasants grew so enraged at him, after finding all the poorly-hidden corpses, that they rose up against him. They cut out the baby from the woman’s now-fertile womb, they threw it in the aquifer (though it survived!), they burned the woman at the stake, and they burned the baron’s castle to the ground.

Already in this story of incest among nobility do we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health. Throughout history, from ancient Egypt to the Habsburgs and later, royalty has rationalized inbreeding among them to preserve a ‘pure bloodline.’ Yet everyone knows, as all of these royals should have, that inbreeding results in birth defects, producing the opposite of a perceived ‘pure bloodline,’–instead of getting the healthiest, ‘noblest’ offspring, one gets the least healthy of them.

Pembroke has written a letter to the New York company, saying he won’t return because his aspiration to be ‘cured’ renders insignificant his aspiration for more wealth. This wish to find a ‘cure’ to what ails him is like a religious experience; indeed, one interpretation of the health centre is that it’s a metaphor for a religious cult. Recall Jesus’ words: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31)

That no one who enters the sanatarium ever leaves should give us pause about this ‘paradise.’ Recall the sign over the entrance to Dante‘s hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” (Canto III, line 9) This hope is a hope of leaving the world of suffering, the hope of getting well. There’s no exit, Sartre‘s hell of other people, where one’s self-concept is trapped in the opinions of others. The ‘ill people’ in the sanitarium can never see themselves as well if Volmer doesn’t say they’re well, and so, they can never leave. In this relationship between heaven and hell, this dialectical unity of opposites, we also see the unity between sickness and wellness.

Accordingly, Pembroke never gets better, nor does anyone else in the sanatarium. People there drink lots and lots of water, but they become…dehydrated, more unity in opposites. The aquifer water, toxic to humans, nonetheless causes the eels swimming in it to extend their lives–dialectical unity of life and death. Anyone who has read enough of my posts knows by now know that I use water, with its dialectically flowing waves, to symbolize a nirvana-like state, a kind of heavenly eternal life. But bliss is only one aspect of this ineffable state of being, and this film presents water in its blissful and traumatizing aspects, heaven and hell, health and sickness, eternal life and death.

This two-sided nature of Ultimate Reality is something I’ve noted in the ocean in my Moby-Dick analysis, as it’s been noted in Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, in Lacan‘s Real Order, and in primordial Chaos as I’ve interpreted it here.

So the sanatarium is a Spenserian bower of bliss for the elderly patients: they seem to enjoy a blissful life of having their ‘ailments’ cured, they amuse themselves on the front lawn by playing badminton and cricket, by doing t’ai chi, or by doing crosswords, as Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie) does. None, except her and Lockhart, suspect that something insidiously evil is going on.

The fact that most of the patients, except special-case Hannah, are elderly is interesting. They are all senior citizens; she is mentally even younger than her physical, teen years. Their naïve, uncritical acceptance of the ‘cure,’ as well as hers suggests a dialectical relationship between her being so young and their being so old, something aptly expressed in Shakespeare’s As You Like it:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Act II, Scene vii, lines 163-166)

So, the gullibility of the elderly patients is a dialectical match for the sweet innocence of Hannah, who we eventually learn is Dr. Volmer’s daughter. He is in fact a kind of father figure to all the patients of the sanatorium; he takes on a paternalistic attitude to Lockhart, too. He rarely gets angry from Lockhart’s rebelliousness, but the doctor typically shows a subtle condescension to him, in his insistence that Lockhart, the identified patient who’s always acting up, isn’t well.

Hannah hates being holed up in Volmer’s ‘castle,’ as evinced by her constant frowning and pouting, like an annoyed little girl. When Lockhart challenges her always only doing what she’s “supposed to do,” she finally gets the courage to rebel; so her riding with Lockhart on her bicycle down the mountain is like her experiencing adolescent willfulness.

Rebelling against her father–who, as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “should be as a god” to her–is like Nietzsche saying, “God is dead!” Thus begins Hannah’s down-going.

This rebellious adolescent phase is intensified when she and Lockhart enter a pub patronized by a gang of antisocial teens. She has her first beer and dances to music on a jukebox while one of the boys dirty dances with her, hoping to do the obvious with her.

Prior to this dancing, she goes into the girls’ washroom. The girls of the gang ask her for a tampon; she seems a “freak” to them for not responding. She doesn’t even seem to know what a tampon is, implying that she hasn’t had her first period yet. We eventually learn that the distilled liquid in the small blue bottles lengthens one’s life by slowing the aging process…hence her infantilized state, both physical and mental.

She does, towards the end of the film, finally have her period, while standing in the swimming pool, her blood attracting a swarm of eels. She’s terrified by all the blood, and she goes to get help from Volmer. Her fearful ignorance of menstruation reminds us of Carrie, whom I described in my analysis of the novel as a psychological baby in a teen’s body. Hannah, too, is such a baby, and Volmer is like a secular Margaret White to her–overprotecting, domineering, emotionally abusive.

Volmer’s ending of a fight between Lockhart and the boy who’s been trying to seduce Hannah in the pub shows the doctor’s authoritarian dominance; for everyone in the pub, including those nasty teens, is intimidated by him, just as the naughtiest son often is by his father. This is how we should think of the sanatorium’s director: as a domineering father whose religious-cult-like authority must never be defied or challenged.

Lockhart’s continued defiance, however, constantly gets him in trouble with Volmer, causing him at one point to have one of his upper front teeth pulled out in an agonizing way reminding us of that scene with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

This tooth-pulling also reminds us of Trelkovsky’s predicament in The Tenant. In my analysis of that movie, I associated the loss of his tooth with castration, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis is symbolic of any bodily mutilation, or of lack, giving rise to desire.

Lack as the cause of desire leads to what the eels can be seen to symbolize, especially since they swim around in that water, that ‘healing’ water I associate with nirvanic bliss, or the eternal life of heaven. The water is life-extending for the eels, but toxic to humans; so the advantage it gives the eels is a human lack covetously desired by Volmer. Since the water is dialectically both immortalizing (as it were) and killing, the eels swimming in it can be seen to represent this destructive, hellish aspect; for theirs is an immortality denied to us.

The eels, as I see them, are symbolic castrated phalluses. This phallic association is especially apparent when one considers scenes with them in which erotic elements are juxtaposed (Consider also how young Freud did research attempting to find the location of male eels’ sexual organs!). When Lockhart is in the tank and sees the giant eels swimming around him, a man supposed to be supervising him has a sexual encounter with a nurse who bares her breasts while he masturbates; she also feeds him drops of that life-extending fluid. In another scene, Lockhart dreams of naked Hannah in a bathtub with eels slithering around her body.

The castrated phallus symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire, which in turn causes suffering and perpetuates samsara, the negation of nirvana. In this sense we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health, between heaven and hell. Though Nietzsche spent all those years in the 1880s in the health-affirming Alps, by 1889 he still had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

Since the long-living eels swimming in the aquifer water are crucial for Volmer in proving its life-extending properties–prompting him to filter it with human bodies to create the fluid for this “mad immortal man” who “on honeydew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” last two lines)–we see that his “cure for wellness” involves a regression from an ill state (or just a seemingly ill one) to an even worse one. The human filters regress from ‘illness’ to death.

We see many manifestations of regression in this film. The elderly patients regress to a dependent state similar to childhood (see the Shakespeare quote above). We see in infantilized Hannah a regression from her physical teen years to her being mentally like a little girl (recall the reference to Carrie above).

Elsewhere, we see in all those CEOs in the sanatarium taking “an enforced vacation” a regression from modern-day capitalism to–symbolically speaking–feudalism, since we learn that Volmer is actually the baron of two hundred years ago (whose family, the Von Reichmerls, were the owners of the land on the mountain where the sanatarium is), kept alive all this time with the fluid.

Under feudalism, serfs (e.g., peasant farmers, etc.) worked for their feudal lord on his land in exchange for his protection. Everyone knew his place, and no one questioned this class system. The absolutism of the Church and of kings and queens thrived under this system until such revolutions as those in France overthrew the feudal lords and monarchies and replaced them with a new set of class masters, the bourgeoisie. In this film, however, the revolutionary change of masters has regressed…gone backward.

Capitalism is an economic system desperately needing to be overthrown, but feudalism (even in the symbolic sense that I’m describing it in this film) is no improvement. What’s worse, not only are these aged ex-capitalist human filters working–as it were–for their feudal master, the baron who calls himself Volmer, by letting him kill them in their filtering of the aquifer water, the now-purified of which is his “milk of paradise,” so to speak; but they are letting him do this in all willingness. His sanatarium, his “stately pleasure-dome” (Coleridge, line 2) is also like a feudal Brave New World, and his water is the soma his patients all get high on. People enjoy their oppression too much to revolt.

He has them drink his water, which dehydrates them, makes their teeth fall out, and ultimately kills them. The patients’ bodies filter the toxins in the aquifer water, distilling it so he can drink only its healthier aspects, his liquid of (potential) immortality. This exchange of drunken liquids is symbolic of the narcissist’s manipulative use of projective and introjective identification. The abuser’s bad parts are projected out onto his victims; he keeps only the good parts. He doesn’t merely imagine that his victims embody his vices: he manipulates them to internalize his bad projections and to manifest them in real life, as symbolized by Volmer’s patients drinking his water. They believe the lie that he is selling, his ‘cure.’

Remember Pembroke’s words to Lockhart as the former is in the pool? He says, “It’s our fluids that must be purified.” Pembroke seems spiritually enlightened early on in the film, in the letter he’s written to the company; but these words of his in the pool remind us of those spoken by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove: “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” The cure for wellness is madness, as we see in Volmer’s near driving of Lockhart mad with the cure.

Just as there is a disproportionately large number of narcissists and psychopaths in the capitalist class, so were there far too many of them among feudal lords, monarchies, and ancient slave-masters. Royals’ and nobles’ tendency towards inbreeding reflects narcissism both in their arrogant wish to maintain a ‘pure bloodline’ (i.e., not ‘contaminating’ it with the blood of the ‘inferior’ classes), and in their belief that indulging in incest was a privilege permissible only to them. After all, Uranus procreated with his mother Gaea, Cronus slept with his older sister, Rhea, to bear the Olympian gods, and Zeus married his older sister, Hera. The kings of heaven could commit incest, so why not allow the kings of earth to do so, too?

For narcissists like Volmer, man is something to be overcome. Volmer will teach us the superman.

The baron’s wish to commit procreative incest with both his sister and his daughter, Hannah (who he notes, with delight, even looks like her mother), reflects his narcissistic wish to procreate with a lover as close to being himself as possible. He’d procreate asexually, if he could.

The removal of his false face to reveal his ugly burns symbolizes the contrast between the narcissistic False Self and the True Self. His claim that he’s done all for Hannah’s sake is, of course, a lie and reaction formation: he’s done everything for himself (just as the abusive parent who imposes Munchausen Syndrome by proxy on her child), for she is just a metaphorical mirror of his narcissistic self. His love for her is just Narcissus pining away at his reflection in the pond, his ideal-I.

The baron ties Hannah’s arms to the upper bedposts, then tears her top open, exposing her breasts. As she struggles to get free, he speaks of how her mother, his sister, “was also somewhat resistant” to have sex with him “at first,” then “she grew to like it,” a typical rapist’s rationalization. That he must have also tied up his sister before raping her is a safe assumption.

Lockhart helps rescue her, then she returns the favour when the baron almost kills him. By cracking her father’s skull open with a shovel, Hannah is being the phallic woman, demonstrating her newfound strength, as contrasted with all of his symbolically castrated patients. Lockhart burns the building down, one of many examples in this film suggesting Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, as expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There are many examples of the eternal recurrence implied in the film; I’ll give a few examples.

At the beginning of the film, we hear that “Delaware” is “dead,” but then Lockhart says it’s “resurrected.” One of his parents died, then the other does. The patients were literal children decades ago, now they’re experiencing a “second childishness.” The baron killed off his peasants to make the “cure,” and now he is killing off a new, capitalist kind of ‘peasant.’ He committed incestuous rape with his sister, and now he at least attempts to do so again with Hannah. His castle was burned down centuries ago; it’s burned down again.

Pembroke writes a letter describing his ‘religious experience,’ and not wanting to return to New York; Lockhart writes a similar letter, if less willingly. Lockhart has gotten away from his New York bosses early into the film; he gets away from them again at the end of the film. He and Hannah ride on their bike down the mountain in the middle of the film; they do so again at the end.

Also, the baron renounced God so he could marry his sister, much to the dismay of the Church; Lockhart and Hannah, in killing him and burning down the sanatarium, have renounced Volmer, the God of the “cure” so they can be free of him, much to the dismay of his staff and the rest of his ‘cult.’ As Lockhart rides down the mountain with Hannah, grinning his grin of dentures, he can proclaim, “Volmer is dead.” The narcissism of man is something to be overcome.

Thus begins Lockhart’s down-going.

Toxic Families and the Coronavirus

Toxic families by definition do not love the designated victims of their clan. That’s because, deep down, underneath their many surface shows of love, they don’t really love anyone within the clan. People in the toxic family are liked and disliked; they aren’t loved, because true love is unconditional.

To give an example of the truth of the above observation, I’ll discuss the non-reaction of my elder siblings, my brothers R. and F., and my sister J., to how I may have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. No attempt has been made by any of them or their families, as of this writing, to contact me and ask if my wife and I are OK. No attempt has been made to my knowledge, anyway, and if they wanted to know, they’d ask me in a pretty upfront way; there’d be no need of subterfuge.

Now, granted, I have to be fair about this. I have made no attempt to contact any of them and see if they’re OK, either. But my reasons for not contacting them are far weightier than theirs are for not contacting me. I, to be perfectly frank, feel no affection for them, nor do I pretend to, as they (golden child J. in particular) pretend to for me.

Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, my three elder siblings bullied me, belittled me, shouted four-letter verbal abuse at me (usually over relatively trivial things I’d done to annoy them, or just for the sheer fun of making my life miserable), and worst of all, they believed every invidious lie our late, probably narcissistic mother told them about me (and about other, unfavoured family members). I’ve covered all these issues in minute detail, with many examples, in these blog posts, among others, in case, Dear Reader, you aren’t convinced that I’m justified in not feeling any love for them.

I went NO CONTACT with them, because matters really got so extreme that I found any form of communication with them, for any reason, to be utterly intolerable. No contact really means no contact, even during a pandemic. Though they’re undoubtedly mad at me for my refusal to talk to our mother just before she died (as well as for the YouTube video–me, under my original name, reciting an old Philip Larkin poem–that R. shamed me for making), four years have passed since then, and surely they’ve calmed down about that by now.

One of their rationales for treating me like dirt for all those years is that I “don’t care about anybody” but myself. I’m sure they see their view about me reconfirmed in my not contacting them about the current pandemic.

What’s being implied in this judgement of me is that they are so much more caring about other people, including me. Now, I’ll be charitable and assume that, in light of this health crisis, R. is concerned about the well-being of his family, as F. presumably is about his family, and J. is about her two sons; just as I’ll assume they’re concerned about each other’s families. All well and fine.

But these are all cases of them liking each other because they’re all the favoured members of the family (i.e., it’s conditional love). I doubt that R., F., and J. care much–beyond paying lip service–about the health of our cousins, L., S., and G. They didn’t do anything to help S. with his mental illness, that’s for sure. (Check the above links for the story about that, to see what I mean.)

As for me, I worry not only about my wife’s health and that of her family, but also about the health of my child students, many of whom don’t seem to be taking the crisis seriously enough (as opposed to their ever-worrying parents)…and we all live in East Asia, just next door, so to speak, to China, not far away in Ontario!

I also worry about Americans with their poor healthcare system, as well as Europeans and the limitations of their own healthcare systems. In both parts of the world, profits are prioritized over saving lives. Worse than that, the US is keeping sanctions on countries like Iran and Venezuela during this pandemic. That’s real selfishness (and cruelty), way beyond mine and even that of my toxic family.

But to get back to them, my point about R., F., and J. is that, if they’re so much more caring than I am, they should be demonstrating that caring by at least trying to contact my wife and me. If they’re going to judge me (and I’m sure they are judging my silence!), they’ve got to judge themselves by the same standards. I did (see above).

Now don’t get me wrong, Dear Reader: I’m in no way angry about R., F., and J. not asking if I’m OK. On the contrary, I’m really happy they’ve been silent! A phone call from them, or an email, a letter, a FB message, a comment here on my blog, or on Twitter, etc., would trigger my trauma in the worst way. So let them stay silent…please!

I only bring up this silence of theirs to make a point: it reconfirms what I’ve always known about them: they never really loved me.

So they shouldn’t be at all surprised at my lack of love for them.

This is not the first time this family has failed to show a sense of solidarity. I’ve complained in many of the above-linked posts about our mother saying that neither she nor the rest of the family wanted me to make a visit when J.’s husband was terminally ill with cancer (because the Asperger Syndrome Mom fabricated about me makes me “different”…”tactless and insensitive”); and none of the family showed any interest in helping our cousin S. get any psychiatric help. (See why I haven’t asked if the family is keeping safe from the coronavirus, and why they haven’t asked if I’m OK?)

And they fancy themselves to be so close as a family. They fancy themselves so much more evolved, so much wiser, so morally superior, so much more mature, and so much stronger than I am.

I have no illusions about my own moral strengths (few) and my moral weaknesses (many). It’s high time, however, that they lifted away the veil of illusions about theirs.

But this is the nature of the toxic family: to pretend in public that they’re loving, while they bully and demean their victims behind the scenes. The abusers refuse to admit to the darkness inside themselves, but project it onto the family scapegoats (like me).

Why should we, their victims, show them a courtesy they have never shown us, and never will?

Analysis of “The Tenant”

The Tenant (Le locataire) is a 1976 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski, starring him, and written by him and Gérard Brach. It is the third film of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy,’ after Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The Tenant is based on Roland Topor‘s novel, Le locataire chimérique (The Chimerical Tenant).

Though generally considered a good film, this last one of the trilogy is the weakest, since Polanski–I’m sorry to say–is nowhere near as good an actor as he is a director, and the scenes of Trelkovsky (Polanski) dressed as a woman have an absurdity that detracts from the tension. Melvyn Douglas, Isabelle Adjani, and Shelley Winters all have supporting roles in the film.

Here are some quotes:

Trelkovsky: These days, relationships with neighbours can be…quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean?
Stella’s Friend: No, no I don’t. I mind my own business.

Stella: Why don’t you take your tie off? You look like you’re choking to death.
Trelkovsky: I found a tooth in my apartment. It was in a hole.

“If you cut off my head, what would I say…Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me?” –Trelkovsky

[talking to himself after opening a box and taking out a pair of shoes] “Oh! My! Where did you find these? They are beautiful! A size 68? I had *no* idea!” –Trelkovsky

[while looking at himself in the mirror] “Beautiful. Adorable. Goddess. Divine. Divine! I think I’m pregnant.” –Trelkovsky, in women’s clothes

[to child] “Filthy little brat!” [slaps child] –Trelkovsky

“I am not Simone Choule!” –Trelkovsky

Trelkovsky is a foreigner and French citizen renting an apartment in Paris. His growing sense of social isolation in the apartment is something Polanski, a French-Polish Jew, must have identified with, hence his decision to play the role himself. Trelkovsky’s feeling of being trapped and persecuted by the others in the apartment building–a theme seen, obviously, in the other two ‘Apartment’ films–would have echoed Polanski’s childhood experiences in the Kraków Ghetto during the Nazi persecutions.

Trelkovsky is a polite, mild-mannered fellow asking about a room for rent in an apartment building owned by M. Zy (Douglas). Neither the concierge (Winters) nor Zy is particularly friendly to Trelkovsky, which should be an ill omen to him, but he wants to rent the room all the same. His predecessor, a tenant named Simone Choule, has thrown herself out of the apartment window for no apparent reason, another ill omen that he doesn’t think of as much as he should.

He is curious enough about her, however, to visit her in the hospital; for while she is severely injured, she isn’t dead…yet. In fact, he finds her in her hospital bed, her head all wrapped up in bandages, making her look like a mummy. Her ‘mummification,’ as it were, is significant in that Trelkovsky later learns that she is something of an Egyptologist.

He approaches her bed with another visitor, Stella (Adjani), who is in tears over Choule’s inexplicable suicide attempt. Choule is also missing one of her upper front teeth, a lack symbolically associated with castration, as we’ll see later. On seeing Trelkovsky, Choule lets out a hoarse, almost masculine-sounding yell. The significance of this will be seen at the end of the film.

Another dimension of the problems Trelkovsky must face is representative of the power imbalance between landlord and tenant, respectively, the owner of private property vs. the one needing to rent that property to have a place to live. The landlord, Zy, exercises that power over Trelkovsky by always complaining about the noise he makes, whether actual or imagined noise, as well as his apparent bringing of a woman into his apartment (when actually, it’s been Trelkovsky in women’s clothes).

So, there are the power imbalances of locals vs. a foreigner, a landlord vs. his tenants, and finally, perpetrators vs. victims of emotional abuse…all interrelated imbalances, as we’ll soon see.

Other interrelationships should be noted between all three of the ‘Apartment’ films. All three involve an individual in an apartment who feels isolated, in some sense, from other people. All three involve the protagonist growing paranoid. To what extent this paranoia is internally or externally caused, however, varies between the three movies.

In Repulsion, Carol’s psychosis is internal, the result of traumas that affected her long before the story begins; it is strongly implied that her father raped her when she was a child. In Rosemary’s Baby, the title character really is a victim of persecution by Satanists, though it seems to everyone, Satanist or not, that she’s going mad. In The Tenant, however, Trelkovsky’s madness is partly the result of his neighbours’ and landlord’s bullying and complaining, partly his own hallucinated experience.

Just as Carol in Repulsion fears her body being once again violated by a man, and just as Rosemary really is raped by Satan and impregnated with the Antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby, Trelkovsky feels his own body is being violated, taken over, and lessened…reduced.

There’s a dialectical relationship between life and death in The Tenant. Choule doesn’t die right away in the hospital, but she’s in a coma, and even when awake, she’s experiencing a kind of living death. After she dies, she is resurrected, so to speak, in Trelkovsky, gradually emerging in his consciousness as she takes over his body, compelling him to wear a wig, makeup, and her black, flowery dress.

Trelkovsky attends her funeral service in a church, where a priest speaks of how Choule will be with Christ in heaven (an odd thing to say about a suicide); but then, he speaks of the stench and filth of her rotting corpse, scaring Trelkovsky out of the church.

Here is what the priest says: “Simone Choule, the Lord has taken thee to His bosom, just as the shepherd brings in his sheep at the close of day. What could be more natural, of greater consolation? Is it not our fondest hope that we shall one day rejoin the flock of holy ones? Hope of eternal life, the true life, shorn of all worldly cares, face to face in eternal blessedness with Almighty God, who through His servant, our Lord Jesus Christ, died for us on the Cross, who deigns not to look down upon us poor mortal creatures, full of love, infinitely merciful, the sick, the suffering, the dying.” Very kind words, and consoling.

But then, he says this: “The icy tomb. Thou shalt return to the dust from whence thou came and only thy bones remain. The worms shall consume thine eyes, thy lips, thy mouth. They shall enter into thine ears, they shall enter into thy nostrils. Thy body shall putrefy unto its innermost recesses and shall give off a noisome stench. Yea, Christ has ascended into heaven and joined the host of angels on high. But not for creatures like you, full of the basest vice, yearning only for carnal satisfaction. How dare you pester me and mock at me to my very face? What audacity! What are you doing here in my temple? The graveyard is where you belong. Thou shalt stink like some putrefied corpse lying on the wayside. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt never enter into my kingdom.”

Has Trelkovsky hallucinated this last part of the priest’s words? In any case, we can see the dialectical relationship between life and death in the afterlife, for here is where the two meet.

Speaking of the afterlife, there’s Choule’s interest in ancient Egypt, where mummification was practiced out of a belief in its supposed efficacy in preserving the body for its new life after death. The bandaging of her head, and of Trelkovsky’s whole body at the end of the film, making them both look like mummies, reinforces this idea of life in death, since Choule’s life is repeated in Trelkovsky…then his life will recur, one assumes, over and over again in an endless cycle.

Mummification as a preserving of the body is also a defence against the loss of body parts, the protecting of the integrity of the body as a totality. Along with the loss of Choule’s tooth (and later, the loss of one of Trelkovsky’s teeth, in the same, upper front area) is his discovery, twice, of a tooth in a wall in his apartment.

Recall the cracks in the walls that trouble Carol so much in Repulsion, and how in my analysis of the film, I interpreted the cracks as symbolic of tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim. Trelkovsky’s toothed wall, consistent with my interpretation of walls in the ‘Apartment’ films as in this sense vaginal, can be seen as Choule’s vagina dentata, symbolically castrating him so he will be a she. (Recall also how, in Rosemary’s Baby, the wall separating the Woodhouses’ apartment and that of the Satanic Castevets is so thin that Rosemary can hear much of what is happening on the other side; and they can sneak into her apartment through the secret passageway. She can feel the danger of her neighbours as being much too close to her.) Walls in the Apartment Trilogy are oppressive, invasive.

So there is a sublation between the dialectical contradictions of life and death in The Tenant, as there is between male and female. There’s also a sublation of the contradiction of having and losing body parts: symbolic mummification, the preoccupation with ancient Egypt, is part of that sublation. Trelkovsky’s wearing of a wig and makeup is an attempted adding to his body, an attempt to reverse the losing of body parts. (Recall how he, in drag for the first time, imagines he’s pregnant.)

He is preoccupied with how all his intact body parts are an expression of his identity. He is his body. If he loses an arm, a tooth, his head, his stomach, his kidneys, or his intestines, are they still a part of him, or are they something separate? Do these dismemberments make him less of who he is? He says to Stella, “A tooth is a part of ourselves, isn’t it? Like a…bit of our personality.” As I said above, his transformation into Choule is a symbolic castration (small wonder he can’t have sex with Stella!). This is a Lacanian lack–giving rise to desire, the unattainable objet petit a, the wish to have the symbolic phallus, to be it–which causes him so much pain, it drives Trelkovsky mad.

His identity, understood as his body being an intact, unified totality, is opposed to the feeling of one’s body as fragmented, the way an infant feels his or her body to be prior to experiencing the mirror stage, which introduces the Imaginary Order. His ability to enjoy human company–as seen when he socializes with his coworkers (in his housewarming party, etc.), with Stella, and when he consoles Georges Badar (Rufus) after telling him that his beloved Simone is dead–indicates his full participation in the Symbolic Order of language, social custom, etc.

But Trelkovsky’s growing alienation in his apartment, combined with his feeling that he’s losing his body, that it is being taken over by Simone Choule, is his experience of the Real, a traumatic world of no differentiation, no way to express his pain in words. A hallucination of hieroglyphics in the shared toilet room mocks this inability of his to express his feelings with signifiers.

In the Real, as Trelkovsky is experiencing it, there is no differentiation between life and death, nor between male and female, nor between having and lacking. This inability to make sense of his world is what’s driving him mad. This lack of differentiation extends to the increasing frequency of his hallucinations, no distinction between fantasy and reality.

Zy and the neighbours complain that he is making too much noise (even if he isn’t), that his presence is encroaching, impinging on their personal space; when if anything, they are encroaching on his. His room is broken into, some of his possessions stolen, but neither Zy nor the neighbours take note of the intrusion, only of his apparent intrusion on their ears.

He isn’t the only one persecuted: a lady, Madame Gaderian (Lila Kedrova), and her disabled daughter (Eva Ionesco) are being bullied by the neighbours, falsely accused of causing trouble and scapegoated as much as he is. One crabby woman, Mme. Dioz (Jo Van Fleet), wants him to join in signing a petition against the Gaderians, but he refuses. This refusal to join the gang of bullying neighbours will cost him, as he’ll see soon enough.

He has been noticing strange goings-on in the shared toilet room: he’ll see one neighbour or another just standing there motionless, doing nothing, as if in a trance, a state of living death. Each of these people–facing his direction as he watches each of them with binoculars from his apartment window–is like a mirror reflection of himself; since he’s experiencing such a living death himself. He’ll even go into the toilet room one night, look back at his own apartment window, and see himself looking back at him with the binoculars, then see ‘mummified’ Choule, without the tooth, his future identity!

So, there’s no differentiation between self and other for him, either. This can happen when experiencing emotional abuse, since the abuser(s) see the victim(s) as extensions of themselves rather than as individuals in their own right. And the victim’s trauma of no differentiation, the inability to verbalize the disorienting, painful experience, is the essence of the Real.

A few friends of his give him some kind of emotional support. A loud, aggressive male coworker, Scope (Bernard Fresson), is one of Trelkovsky’s friends at the housewarming party. Scope is so annoyed with a neighbour (Claude Piéplu) complaining about the noise, he tries to inspire Trelkovsky to “counterattack” by deliberately playing a record of loud marching music with a piercingly high-pitched horn part to annoy his own neighbours. When a neighbour complains, Scope refuses to turn his music down. Such an assertion of one’s own existence is beyond Trelkovsky’s meek, unassuming nature; he won’t press beyond his own self, so he lets others press into his world.

Another source of emotional support is Stella; her friendship with Simone should be foreshadowing as to Trelkovsky’s own fate. His growing mental instability leads him to hallucinate, while staying in her apartment, that an elderly male visitor knocking on her door is M. Zy, causing Trelkovsky to believe she is a false friend, in on the plot to persecute him. He does a “counterattack” of his own, vandalizing and ransacking her apartment in revenge (and with particularly bad acting by Polanski, I’m sorry to say).

So there’s impingement of others on his world, and vice versa (this latter often imagined as a form of gaslighting, in the form of the neighbours’ and landlord’s complaints). This is a mirroring of the self and other, a blurred line of distinction between them. This reciprocal impingement is symbolic of how the foreigner is seen as encroaching on the locals of a country (as Nazi Germany perceived the Jews and Roma to be doing), the latter then really encroaching on the former. This same reciprocally impinging relationship can be seen between landlord and tenant, in the former’s raising of the rent, for example, and in the latter’s breaking of the rules of the apartment.

Just as Rosemary‘s apartment is evil (with her Satanist neighbours), and as Carol‘s apartment is evil (her being left alone in it, with only her rape trauma to keep her company), so is Trelkovsky’s apartment evil (with Choule’s ghost haunting it, so it would seem, and slowly coming to possess his body, her being his body’s ‘tenant’). This notion of an evil building, causing the dweller to go mad, would inspire Stanley Kubrick‘s version of The Shining.

But what does Trelkovsky’s evil apartment symbolize? Consider his threefold victimhood as a foreigner living in France, as a tenant living in Zy’s building, and as a man living in…Simone Choule’s body? Consider the interrelationship of these three forms of victimhood. In all three cases, he dwells in something that ought to be his, but isn’t.

As a proletarian internationalist, I don’t believe people are illegal. I don’t believe in countries, which are really just social and political constructs: I’m a Canadian living in East Asia–I’m a foreigner myself, technically, but I consider myself a citizen of the world. The locals here occasionally treat me as if an oddity, but I can’t really complain; Latin Americans caged by ICE and separated from their children for being ‘illegal’ have had it much worse, because…MAGA!

In the classless, stateless, and money-less society I regard as ideal (if you don’t like the word ‘communist,’ call it ‘pancakes‘ instead–there, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?), it wouldn’t matter what part of the world one was born in; contribute to society here, and you can live here. Similarly, without private property, there’d be no landlords, so no need to pay rent (especially Zy’s exorbitant demand of 5,000 francs premium, then 600 a month), for your home is, just that–yours, for as long as you decide to live there; there’d be no need to fear being kicked out onto the streets, as has happened way too often recently in the US, for example. And no capitalism means no more alienation of one’s species-essence, as symbolized in the film by Trelkovsky’s losing of his body to Choule.

Emotional abuse forces one to play a societal role, to assume an identity, one alien to oneself. The family scapegoat is brainwashed into believing he or she is the embodiment of everything wrong in the family–an idea every bit as absurd as it is unfair, untrue, and hurtful. Trelkovsky’s forced assuming of Choule’s identity, through projective and introjective identification, symbolizes this brainwashing. His effeminate behaviour in that dress and wig looks absurd (especially with Polanski’s acting!), but in a way, the absurdity is appropriate, given the silly communication style (i.e., emotional dysregulation) that sufferers of C-PTSD (like me) often have. Trapped in that apartment, Trelkovsky is experiencing small but repeated traumas from which he cannot escape, a problem typically resulting in C-PTSD.

His hallucinations get worse. He imagines Mme Dioz choking him. He, in drag, sees his decapitated head (more symbolic castration) kicked like a football up to the height of his apartment window; he looks down from there and sees the victimization of Mme. Gaderian and her daughter, the latter of whom looks up and points at him while wearing a mask of his face, thus passing the scapegoating onto him; then he blocks his door and window with furniture to keep the approaching victimizers out, but he sees a hand trying to get in through the window, so he uses a knife to hack at the hand and keep it out. When an elderly driver, with her husband, accidentally hits Trelkovsky as he steps out onto the street, he hallucinates that they’re Zy and Dioz, so he tries to choke her.

This last incident occurs after Trelkovsky’s failed attempt to procure a gun in a pub, angering the staff. This attempted acquisition is him trying to regain his symbolic phallus after losing it from Choule’s takeover of his body.

He can’t even escape his world of emotional abuse through suicide: in Choule’s clothes, he jumps from the window twice, breaking through the pane of glass below as she did, recreating that hole of jagged glass that symbolizes another castrating and castrated vagina dentata. The repeated jump, just like the cyclical repetition of Trelkovsky transforming into Choule, represents what Freud called a “compulsion to repeat” traumatic experiences.

Zy, Dioz, the concierge, et al seem to want to help him as he crawls back up to his apartment for his second fall, but he hallucinates that they’re all practically demonic…or is their attempt at helpfulness the deception? Emotional abuse and gaslighting can be that confusing for the victim.

In the final scene, he’s wrapped up in bandages on the hospital bed, looking like a mummy and lacking a tooth. Under those bandages, would Trelkovsky or Choule be seen? It would seem to be the latter, for he and Stella come to visit, exactly like at the beginning of the film, thus starting the cycle of doom all over again.

That hoarse yell is heard again. There are no words, because this is a trauma that cannot be verbalized, the trauma of the Real. Injured Trelkovsky sees himself standing with Stella, all healthy and normal, the ideal-I of a metaphorical mirror reflection, so he’s alienated from himself; but he knows he cannot stop the cycle of doom from being perpetually repeated. He will lose that body he sees looking back at him; he will lose himself, again and again and again, like a decaying, rotting, foul-smelling corpse, living an eternal death.

Narcissistic Baiting

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Supply is food to a narcissist, even if it’s negative supply. All that matters to a narc is the attention that he or she is getting. That ability to stir things up, to push people’s emotional buttons, gives the narc the high that he or she craves, the power trip that feeds his or her otherwise starving, impoverished ego.

This coveted supply, which must be provided constantly, is what pushes a narcissist to engage in baiting (verb definitions 11 and 12 here), that is, putting on the charm, then cutting you down; or provoking negative emotional responses from victims, then gaslighting by feigning no malicious intent whenever he or she is called out for engaging in this slimy behaviour.

I knew a guy at work in the English cram school where I used to teach, from 1996 to 2006. I’ll call him Z. He’d start off all charming, but then throw smart-ass remarks at me as soon as I said something he didn’t dig. Z. used to engage in this kind of baiting and switching all the time, and not only with me, but also with almost everyone else who had the bad luck of entering a conversation with him. He fancies himself an “incisive,” daring truth-teller, yet he fails to admit to his most obvious faults: Z. is an overt narcissist and a misanthrope; hence, he’s a hypocrite.

He would provoke, and provoke, and provoke people until they finally got fed up with him; and when they showed their anger, he’d pretend he meant no ill will by his bitingly sarcastic comments and needling. He’d make it look as though we’d ‘walked into’ receiving those comments, yet he’d never admit to having walked into receiving our wrath. I blew up at him with especial fury one afternoon in the office, and predictably, he did his usual denial routine. We all have to take responsibility for the bad things we say, but the narc never does. Pathetic.

Now, there are unskilled hunters of narcissistic supply like Z., then there are much more skilled ones, as my late mother was. As I’ve explained so many times before, and in so many different ways, she subjected me to emotional abuse my whole life. She also indulged in a lot of baiting.

Though she probably engaged in baiting with my older brothers, R. and F., and with my older sister, J., to at least some extent, I doubt that she did it to them anywhere close as much as she did it with me, the designated family scapegoat, or identified patient. My siblings would have learned the pantomime, so to speak, that I failed to learn, and they learned it from an early age: never displease Mother! On top of that, J. especially, as the golden child, would have learned the effectiveness of what Dr. Ramani calls ‘narcissistic fluffing’: sucking up to, kissing the ass of, the narcissist as a strategic form of self-defence against Mom’s dreaded narcissistic rage.

But as I said, I never learned the pantomime of carefully walking the minefield of Mom’s capricious way of reacting emotionally, nor was I supposed to learn it; for no matter how hard I tried to be a good son, I’d always be the scapegoat in her eyes, for thus was I determined to be by her. And so was I determined to be in the eyes of her flying monkeys, R., F., and J., who enabled her scapegoating of me, out of a cowardly and selfish wish to avoid her wrath themselves.

Anyway, let me now give you a number of examples of my late narc mother engaging in the bait and switch tactic of getting supply from me and avoiding responsibility for having driven me crazy.

One early example I recall, and which I wrote about in a previous post, was when I was a little kid back in the late 1970s. Mom would come home from shopping with a big paper bag in her hands. She’d get my attention with a look of wide-eyed excitement, making a whooshing sound between her lips. This is how she’d get my hopes up, making me think she’d bought me a super-cool new toy or something. Then she’d remove the item from the bag.

It would be a pair of pants.

Why would a little kid get excited about a new pair of pants? Showing gratitude to one’s mother for having bought something one needs is fine and appropriate, but showing excitement? It’s safe to assume that she was getting my hopes up and disappointing me for her own personal entertainment; what’s more, she could use my look of disappointment as a pretext for emotionally abusing me later, as ‘punishment’ for my ‘ingratitude,’ which caused her narcissistic injury.

All those times when she, around the late 1970s and early 80s, was prating on about ‘my autism’ (which I would eventually learn she’d lied about–<<scroll down to part 3 in the link), speaking in such extreme, even melodramatic terms about it (The shrinks would have locked me away in an asylum and thrown away the key! Would I even make a good garbageman?…as long as I was happy! It was a miracle from God that I turned out OK!) that her narrative was extremely improbable, these were also, in all probability, motivated by a wish to bait me. After all, she presented this narrative in a feel-good, by-the-grace-of-God, ‘What joyous news!’ way, with a big Cheshire-cat grin on her face, to make me think this was a good thing, rather than just gaslighting.

Years later, she’d push my buttons in other ways. As I mentioned in this blog post, she once said, with a sparkle in her eyes as though she was enjoying it, that J. claimed I fill my shelves with books only to look impressive…and my resentment would be shifted onto J., rather than onto the real source…Mom. I shouldn’t shoot the messenger, apparently.

There was one occasion, back in the mid-1990s, when I was about 24 and in the reserve Canadian army, having just returned home after a tasking, and Mom did one of her many things to upset me. We, the RHLI troops, were in our unit (the John Weir Foote VC Armoury in Hamilton, Ontario) cleaning our rifles (if I remember correctly), and she–instead of just waiting for me to return to our apartment–decided to surprise me by showing up, in the flesh, in front of all the other troops to say ‘Hello,’ with a great big sweet mommy grin, in advance!

Now, I’m not trying to promote a macho attitude of keeping a man’s mother as far away from him as possible, but her presenting herself to me like that, in front of all my peers, meant that I was going to be the butt of endless ‘mama’s boy’ jokes! As a sensitive young man already rattled by years of bullying in and outside the family, I wasn’t going to find that kind of razzing and teasing easy to take.

At the time, I’d assumed Mom was just making a social faux pas, meaning well but embarrassing me unintentionally; but now that I know of her pathologies (how she had done this kind of thing to me way too many times for it to have all been accidental), I have every reason to believe she’d done that on purpose. Who doesn’t know of the he-man mentality of army grunts?

She would behave similarly if she needed me to help her with some kind of errand, for example, to move something, and I had no time to change out of my military uniform and into my civilian clothes. I’d be in the home of some stranger’s family, all in green garb and feeling extremely self-conscious, and she’d make sure to say something like, “He wants you always to address him as Private.” This would be said in an ‘innocent’ attitude of levity, of course, but she must have known how it made me feel.

Other provocations of hers, as I’ve discussed previously, included grabbing me by the ear and leading me out of the room (on a few occasions when I was a teen, and once when I was in my late 20s!). Her worst provocations, however–those that pushed me to question the conventional narrative that, despite her flaws, she loved me and only wanted what was best for me–were her insistence that I have Asperger Syndrome (AS), despite having no authority to make such judgements (and narcs love to pretend they’re smarter and know more than they actually do), and that ‘my AS’ gave her legitimate reason to reject my wish to make a visit. See Part VII of this post for the full story.

As of the time of these provocations, the mid-2000s, I’d been living in East Asia for almost ten years, and I’d made only three visits to Canada. Any reasonable, loving mother would have been thrilled to get yet another visit from her son; but Mom decided she didn’t want me around (claiming I’m ‘tactless and insensitive’ because of ‘my AS’), and she claimed that J. didn’t want me around, either (to see her terminally ill husband, who was really agitated about his soon-to-come death, and easily made upset by any inappropriate remark; but apparently, I’m the only one in the family to make such inappropriate remarks). Mom crossed over the line this time: I explicitly told her so in an ensuing email, but it didn’t seem to matter to her.

More provocations would come in the 2010s, all the way to her death in 2016. I’ve discussed these all here (scroll down to parts 4, 5, and 6), so there’s no point in repeating it. Suffice it to say, she must have enjoyed baiting me the whole time, pretending she was just trying to be helpful, but actually knowing right where to jab me, like a skilled surgeon, scalpel in hand.

Her lies about my mentally-ill cousin, S. (discussed here–scroll down to Lies #1-7), are a case in point. Since I’d been giving her the cold shoulder during the 2010s, she was obviously feeling narcissistic injury over it; and instead of just admitting to herself that her previous lies and other provocations–which I’d told her in my emails were upsetting me–had caused me to be so icy with her, she must have been feeling vengeful instead of wanting reconciliation with me.

She knew I’d been worried about S. and wanted him to get psychiatric help (though she’d adamantly refused even to try to talk to his mother about it, nor did she rally the family to get him that help), so she used my worries to lure me into a conversation on that subject…not out of a wish to help him, of course, but just as a way to get a rise out of me, to give her some attention and narcissistic supply. Though I was a bit skeptical of her motives, I still fell for it. More fool me.

When her lies had become obvious (i.e., her claim that my aunt had claimed I’d recently sent her a series of “over-the-top” emails [which I’d never sent to my aunt, though I had done so to my ever-provoking Mom, thus inspiring this lie about my aunt…see Lie # 4 here), I stopped all communication with her. Still, she kept pressing and pressing me to reply, just as she’d pressed and pressed me about AS in the 2000s, even after I’d repeatedly told her to stop bringing it up.

Finally, not able to take the pressure any more (now she was pushing me to make another visit to Canada, even offering to pay for my airplane tickets!), I bluntly told her in an email reply that I didn’t want to visit her, or to talk to her by phone or by email, because she was such a liar. Predictably, she pretended she knew nothing of what I meant by lying, and got all the flying monkeys of the family on her side. After her death, I’ve since gone NO CONTACT with the rest of them, needless to say.

So, you see here examples of how narcissists can bait you for their own personal entertainment, then play dumb when you call them out on it. Always remember: the only way to win against them is never to play their games.

Analysis of “Repulsion”

Repulsion is a 1965 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski and written by him, Gérard Brach, and David Stone (these latter two having written the screenplay). It is the first of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ of films, the second being Rosemary’s Baby and the third being The Tenant. Repulsion is considered one of his best films.

It stars Catherine Deneuve as Carol Ledoux, a socially withdrawn Belgian living in London with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is suffering from the effects of psychological trauma, the cause of which is never explicitly stated, though one finds it safe to assume that she’s been raped, in all likelihood during her childhood, the abuser having been her father.

Because of this trauma, she feels a repulsion towards men, especially those with a sexual or romantic interest in her. When Helen leaves with her boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), on a vacation to Italy, Carol–all alone in her apartment–spirals into madness.

Here are some quotes:

Mrs. Rendlesham: Have you fallen asleep?
Carol: Oh, I’m sorry.
Mrs. Rendlesham: I think you must be in love or something.

“We must get this crack mended.” –Carol

Carol: I’m having dinner with my sister.
Colin: Is she a good cook?
Carol: I never even thought about it.
Colin: Well, at least it can’t be any worse than fish and chips.
Carol: I think we are having rabbit.
Colin: Rabbit? Oh. I thought they’d all been killed off.
Carol: No. She has a friend.
Colin: A rabbit?
Carol: No, I think the friend has rabbits.
Colin: Poor bunny.

“Just the sound of his voice makes my flesh creep! Money! Money! Money! That’s all he ever thinks about.” –Helen, after hanging up the phone with the landlord

“I better go and see what that old bitch wants. Now, you go back to work. I’ll talk to you later. And, Carol, do something about your hair.” –Madame Denise

“I wish I could find the proper words to say. They just keep going around and around in my head. I just – I want to be – to be with you – all the time.” –Colin

“There’s no need to be alone, you know. Poor little girl. All by herself. All shaking like a little frightened animal.” –landlord, to Carol

[Convent bells heard ringing] “I could be a very good friend to you, you know. You look after me and you can forget about the rent. Come on. Come on. Just a little kiss between us. Huh? Come on.” –landlord, to Carol

Carol works as a manicurist for a beauty salon. Added to this, she’s very pretty (with the young Deneuve playing her, beauty is unavoidable). When we consider her repulsion towards men’s sexual advances, we might wonder why she makes no attempt to spoil her looks through, for example, intentionally gaining weight (though her hair is a bit disheveled at times); we also might ask why she has chosen to work in a place that would be a daily reminder to her of the pressure put on women to be beautiful.

Perhaps part of the answer to this riddle is in how many rape victims carry in their minds the badge of ‘sex object’ or ‘slut‘ as part of their trauma; such labels can accompany the compulsion to repeat the traumatizing states as part of an attempt to process the pain. So her staying beautiful can perhaps be seen as a moderate position on the trauma continuum, at the more extreme of which some rape victims would engage in promiscuous sex.

On the other hand, the decision to have a job helping other women to be beautiful could be part of an attempt to project her ‘sex object’ status onto other women. Furthermore, her manicures (which include cutting fingernails) could represent an unconscious wish to castrate symbolically phallic fingers, a point that should be obvious in the scene when she injures a woman’s hand (here at 57:20).

She often has a dazed, far away look in her eyes, almost as if she were in a catatonic stupor. Such dissociation is common with trauma victims: these people are typically living in their heads rather than in the physical moment, either going over traumatic memories, again and again, in an attempt to process them, or they’re trying to find a mental escape from the pain.

The woman she’s serving at the beginning of the film assumes she’s daydreaming because she’s in love: oh, how wildly off the mark our assumptions can be! As for Colin (John Fraser), the man Carol is ‘dating,’ she completely forgets a date with him, and she would do anything to get rid of him. (After he kisses her, she’s so grossed out that she rushes into her apartment and frantically brushes her teeth.) Carol can’t even stand Helen’s boyfriend Michael. She hates the sight of his toothbrush in her glass in the bathroom (symbolic of a phallus inside a yoni), so she throws it in the garbage. The sound of him and her sister making love in the other room is intolerable to Carol. She will, however, find a use for (Michael’s?) phallic razor…

The three of them plan to have rabbit for dinner, but Michael and Helen decide instead to go out to eat. Later, we see the unsightly remains of the hairless, uncooked animal. It can remind one of a rape victim, in a way: a sweet, innocent living thing uncovered and ruined, all for the satisfaction of one’s appetite; then, once discarded after no longer serving any use, we see the remains. Small wonder Carol carries the rabbit’s head in her purse later in the movie. She can identify with its victimization.

She can’t stand being bothered by people, especially men, but she feels a strong attachment to, a need for the company of, her sister, who isn’t always particularly nice to her. Everybody needs at least one person to relate to, a kind of metaphorical mirror reflecting a face back to oneself, reminding us that we exist. Carol’s sister provides this for her, to anchor her in the real world.

But when Helen and Michael leave for Italy…

For such an emotionally fragile girl, even a mere week or two of being alone in her apartment can feel like an eternity; it can feel like total abandonment.

For Carol, Helen is thus a transference of their mother, who when available is what Melanie Klein called the ‘good mother.’ The unavailable mother, as transferred onto and symbolized by Helen on her trip to Italy with Michael, is the frustrating ‘bad mother.’ And if Carol’s older sister has become her replacement mother, then Helen’s boyfriend has become Carol’s replacement father, again, a Kleinian ‘bad father,’ which is all the easier to see, given Carol’s feelings towards her actual father, as seen in that family photo, with her as a child staring at him in a kind of fixated hostility.

The feeling of abandonment she feels from her ‘mother’ and ‘father’ leaving her for Italy puts Carol in the paranoid-schizoid position, where objects (i.e., other people as represented in one’s mind) are split up into absolute good and bad (and she is experiencing only the bad here), and where she feels extreme persecutory anxiety, the threat of being raped again…even though now it’s all in her head.

She stays in her apartment for an extended time, missing work for three days and worrying her boss. She’s been seeing cracks in the walls of the apartment, including shocking hallucinations of them. These cracks symbolize two things: first, they represent tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim; second, they represent what Wilfred Bion called beta elements, or external sensory stimuli that assail the brain and must be processed, through alpha function, in order to become normal thoughts, or alpha elements (see here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts). Carol rejects these excitations as intolerable intrusions into her mental life, and so the accumulated beta elements form a beta screen, as symbolized by the walls.

This constant rejecting of Knowledge, of new experience (beta elements, Bion’s K), this building up of walls around herself (the beta screen), is–needless to say–unhealthy. For as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a dialectical unity of self and other. Just as Carol is rejecting other people, so is she ejecting–splitting off–parts of herself.

Bion wrote (<<pages 47-48 here) of how the constant ejection of beta elements, building a beta screen from them, and the splitting-off of parts of one’s own personality–the bad internal objects–leads to the creation of bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts of the self.

Whenever Carol hallucinates of cracks in the walls, of men suddenly appearing in her apartment, of men raping her, and of men’s groping hands coming out of the walls and grabbing her, these are all examples of her bizarre objects. These hallucinations are manifestations of what Fairbairn called the return of bad objects (<<<see Part 5). On the first occasion of her hallucinating of a man’s presence in her apartment, it’s in the mirror reflection, a clear sign of a bizarre object projected from inside her.

Colin seems like a nice enough man; there’s nothing in his manner to suggest that his interest in Carol is merely lecherous. His two teasing male friends in the local pub note that he must be in love. What is it about Carol that could possibly make Colin fall in love with her, apart from her beauty? There are many other beauties the handsome young man could fall for…why this icy cold, rejecting androphobe? Could he be sensing her inner pain? Could he be empathizing with her, even without knowing what’s happened to her (i.e., the presumed child sexual abuse)? Does her pain make her all the more beautiful to him?

Even inside her apartment, she doesn’t feel safe. A woman speaks abusively to her on the telephone, driving her to cut the landline cord with the straight razor. Indeed, that razor will give her a special power, making her a kind of phallic woman, as we’ll see below.

Colin, unable to bear her rejections anymore, goes to her apartment and rings the doorbell. She gasps audibly at the thought of him entering; he, now knowing someone’s at home but won’t open the door, rams into it and breaks it open. It doesn’t matter that he’s really a nice guy; it doesn’t matter how many times he says he’s sorry. His breaking open the door and entering the room, where those cracked walls are–those torn vaginal walls–is a symbolic rape, triggering her traumas.

With an old lady neighbour outside, watching them from down the hall like a personified superego, neither of them can do much. His closing the door is like a disregarding of the morality of the superego; this allows Carol, holding a phallic candlestick, to sneak up behind him and club him to death with it.

She disposes of his body in a bathtub that she’s previously filled to the brim with water, having absent-mindedly left it (the full tub is a symbolic yoni filled with symbolic semen she’s neglected for what by now should be obvious reasons); then she barricades the door in an attempt to keep more potential rapists (real and imagined) out, to keep out those agitating beta elements.

At various points during the film, she looks out the window and sees either nuns in a convent tossing a ball about, or she sees a trio of elderly male buskers walking on the sidewalk together and playing music. Her noting these harmless, male- or female-only groups seems to suggest her preferred way for society to be: a peaceful sexual apartheid, a Herland for women, and a Himland for men.

Because Helen has been late with the rent, the landlord (Patrick Wymark) has been a nag about it. He rings the doorbell and has to fight his way past Carol’s barricade to get in. This forcible entry is another symbolic rape. Add to this the fact that the building is his private property, and as I’ve said above, the walls of her apartment are symbolically her vaginal walls, we can see what a threatening presence he is to her, as the man with all the power, intruding on her private world, her ‘privates.’

He is shocked at the mess he sees in her place, which is legally his place. The uncooked rabbit, that symbolic rape victim, arouses his disgust in particular, though not his empathy. He’s happy to get the rent at last, but he’d be willing to forget about it in exchange for a sexual favour from the pretty girl.

He’s chosen the wrong woman to make moves on. She has that phallic razor hidden in her hand; and while he’d like to give her a phallic entry, she ends up doing a phallic entry (symbolically speaking) on him, by first cutting the back of his neck with the razor, then slashing at him, over and over again, until she’s killed him.

Bion’s theory of containment, normally applied either to the soothing of a baby or the treatment of a psychotic, can also have a negative version, allied to K (Bion, pages 95-99), the refusal to grow in Knowledge through human relationships, as is happening with Carol, leading not to soothing or a therapeutic cure, but instead to a nameless dread. Bion used the feminine symbol for the container and a masculine one for the contained, implying, respectively, yonic and phallic symbolism.

This sexual symbolism for the negative container/contained relationship is perfectly expressed in Carol’s PTSD reaction to having been raped. The trauma of her agitating beta elements must be ejected, especially when a man is trying to have his way with her, a man who–as her landlord–has all the more power over her. It’s only natural that she’d want ‘to rape him back,’ so to speak, by digging that phallic blade into his skin, making ‘yonic’ wounds in it. She wants to reverse the negative container/contained relationship and make a man feel a pain men have made women feel over the millennia.

(In this connection, it’s ironic that one of the creators of this story, presumably made sensitive to women’s victimization, would twelve years after making this film be charged with sexually assaulting a minor in the US; he then left the country and has never returned, out of a fear of facing deportation and imprisonment, for having plea bargained with an admission of statutory rape.)

Carol’s lashing out at and killing Colin and the landlord, of course, has given her no catharsis, for her bad internal object (her presumed rapist father) remains, haunting her mind like a ghost. Her continued hallucinations of hands grabbing at her from walls, and of men raping her, are the PTSD reliving of her trauma, a pain that, outside of psychotherapy, will never go away.

In her psychotic state, Carol acts in ways that, apart from their absurdity, would seem to be feminist parodies of a wife’s household duties. She is seen ‘ironing’ a shirt, but the cord isn’t plugged in, a Freudian parapraxis suggesting an unconscious defiance of the traditional roles of the patriarchal family. Soon after, she puts on lipstick, but sloppily, and then she just goes to bed, rather than going out and being sociable; again, this implies an unconscious refusal to be pretty for men’s pleasure.

Earlier in the film, Michael has noted that something’s wrong with her, and he tells Helen that Carol should see a doctor. Helen, averse to the social stigma of mental illness being associated with her family, is offended at Michael’s suggestion. When the couple return to her flat, and she sees the state that Carol has left the place in (not to mention the two bodies), hyperventilating Helen must now realize that she should have listened to her boyfriend.

Trauma must be confronted; it cannot be remedied through the usual defence mechanisms of repression or splitting. When repressed, trauma resurfaces in new and unrecognized forms; for Carol, the trauma of having been raped by, presumably, her father, resurfaces as a general androphobia. When bad internalized objects are split off and projected outwards, they can return as bizarre objects, as we see in Carol’s hallucinations of rapists and groping hands.

We don’t heal trauma by trying to erase it from our minds; we heal it by facing it, by feeling it, then telling the inner child in us that what happened to us was not our fault. It was the fault of the perpetrator…100% his fault.

Whenever anyone–Carol’s boss, for example–asks her what’s wrong, she cannot put her trauma into words. All she can do is sit and stare, as she does when a little girl in that old family photo, her staring at her presumed rapist father. It was all his fault…yet she cannot come out and just say it, when talking about her trauma is crucial to curing it. She can only relive it in her mind, and feel repulsion at any male reminder of what happened to her.

“The Pack (a Promise of Forever),” a Poem by a Friend

A friend of mine, a poet named Jason Morton whose writing can be found here, wrote this poem, which I’d like to look at now. The italics are mine, to separate his writing from mine:

The pack ( a promise of forever )

The rising dawn catches sunlight in your eyes,
Like a placid river with rough currents disguised,
Shadows of forever a eternity is what I offer,
Follow me, the path is clear,
Clean in streams of consciousness,
Will you rise with me?
Will you fight for me?
Will you live for me?
Will you die for me?
Loyalty means everything,
I live and die for my pack,
Mother and father, brothers and sisters,
None will ever defeat us!
When the world ends,
Eternity will still be here,
I will be your Guardian,
And protect you from heavens ego and hells fiery cold

abandonment,
And if all time should die,
And we no longer even exist as souls,
Our memory will leave an indentation upon
The vast emptiness where once loyalty was key.

We see here the promise of religion, in particular the Christian one. A promise of eternal life is made in exchange for loyalty to the Church. It could also be seen as the promise of a narcissistic family, promising their eternal ‘love’ in exchange for loyalty to the narcissistic group, or even such a promise of any group of people engaging in groupthink, such as the feeling of security and belonging in what Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).

With “the rising dawn” comes the light of goodness seen in someone’s eyes, a goodness seen to be useful to the cult (for all of the above-mentioned groups–Church, toxic family, radical political organization, or any other ISA–can be seen as different kinds of cults). That good light is outwardly peaceful, “a placid river,” yet obscuring potentially aggressive tendencies, “rough currents.”

The offerer of “shadows of forever” would present himself as identical in principle to the one offered “a eternity” (<<this a is intentional–more on this later), the cult being “streams” presenting themselves as a kind of mirror to the “placid river.” This false equating is a manipulative trick meant to lure one into the cult. This call to join the cult is akin to what Althusser called ‘hailing’ someone, making him subject, however unconsciously, to an ideology, to make him conform to the system.

The offerer would die for the pack, and so should the one offered entry into the group. “Mother and father” sound like the Mother of God and God the Father; “brothers and sisters” thus can be monks and nuns. All of these people could also just be members of a toxic family, or members of some other collective engaging in groupthink, the leaders and the followers being of both sexes.

There’s a promise of eternal life and glory: “None will ever defeat us!”; yet in the backs of our minds we know nothing is permanent–even the offerer knows this (“if all time should die/And we no longer even exist as souls”).

The offerer seems to be Jesus, calling Himself “your Guardian,” and saying He’ll “protect you from heavens ego,” that is, the self-righteous vanity of God the Father, as Jesus would die for our sins, instead of God just forgiving us without need of the quasi-pagan sacrifice. Note how “heavens” has no apostrophe to indicate a possessive; this suggests a dual meaning, the possessive joined with the plural, for there are many heavens (just as there are many hells, hence the deliberate lack of an apostrophe there, too), depending on which definition of it your religion or ideology uses.

“Clean in streams of consciousness” sounds like the free flow of thought, as though joining the in-group will allow someone freedom of thought. The deliberate “a eternity,” however, apart from suggesting how inarticulate and uneducated the offerer is, also evokes–in its choppy, disjointed sound–the lack of a flow, a breaking-off from the endless movement of eternity, giving away the offerer’s lie. Eternity won’t always be here, and the offerer knows it.

But when we die, it won’t matter (sarcasm); for there will be “an indentation upon/The vast emptiness where once loyalty was key.” Loyalty to an ideology, be it religion, family, or government, is vanity. Our existence is an indentation on emptiness, for we never really mattered as individuals; we only mattered in our helping to perpetuate the ideology.

Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, to paraphrase Matthew. An ironic warning coming from a flock of sheep, isn’t it?

Don’t join the pack.

Analysis of “Él”

Él is a 1953 Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel and based on the novel, Pensamientos, by Mercedes Pinto. Él is ‘him’ in Spanish; in the US, though, the title of the film is This Strange Passion.

The film stars Arturo de Córdova as the insanely jealous Francisco Galván de Montemayor, a wealthy, middle-aged bourgeois who falls in love with young Gloria Vilalta (Delia Garcés), steals her away from her fiancé, Raul Conde (Luis Beristáin), and marries her, only to be paranoid that other men are trying to seduce her and steal her from him.

The film begins in church during a foot-washing ceremony, at which both Francisco and Gloria are present. Francisco watches as Padre Velasco (Carlos Martinez Baena) washes and kisses the feet of a fair-haired boy. Francisco’s eyes wander over to the high-heel-clad feet of Gloria, and his eyes move up to see her pretty face, one expressing discomfort at his gaze.

His gaze at her feet and/or at her high heels, as seen here and in later scenes, suggests that he has a foot fetish. (He is seen putting her shoes away in a hotel during their honeymoon; at dinner at home in a later scene, he looks at her feet under the table. Soon after both instances of contemplating her feet/shoes, he flies into wild jealous rages.)

A Catholic foot-washing ceremony is meant to be a humble imitation of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:14-17). Francisco’s fetishizing of Gloria’s feet, however, doesn’t inspire him to be her humble servant; instead, his fetishizing leads to his possessiveness. He treats her feet, and therefore all of her, as a commodity to be jealously guarded, just as a traditional patriarchal husband invidiously watches over his wife.

The source of his foot fetish can be found when connected with another preoccupation of his: his wish to reclaim land and property once owned by his grandfather–land, where feet and shoes come into contact. This land was his family’s land, and he wants it back. His jealous possessiveness of Gloria can thus be linked to his jealous possessiveness of his family’s land and property; and in this way, she can be linked symbolically to his family.

Right after being upset with his lawyer for not being helpful enough in his suit to reclaim his land, prudish Francisco gets upset with his servant, Pablo (Manuel Dondé), for being involved in an indiscreet sexual encounter with a pretty young maid in Francisco’s employ, Martha, whom he demands that Pablo dismiss immediately. The quick juxtaposition of these two sources of Francisco’s frustration suggest a close connection between them in his unconscious: the possession of his family’s land and property; and the sexual possession of one of his female employees. Combine these with his wish to have Gloria all to himself, and you might be able to guess where I’m going with this.

When he calms down, he lies on his bed and looks up at a picture of the Virgin Mary. He tells Pablo to straighten it. She, as the Mother of God, is his maternal ideal, and he’d never want her looking bad in any way. The juxtaposition of this with what immediately preceded also links it symbolically with those earlier concerns.

We never learn anything substantial about Francisco’s family apart from his grandfather’s land and property. All we know is that Francisco is obsessed with getting his hands on it, as he wants to get his hands on Gloria. People (even family) and things are just possessions to him; nobody but he can have them. He wants them so badly that he’s willing to take them from others…but how dare they try to take them from him!

He sees Gloria at the church again, and appropriately, we hear the fugue section of J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor playing on the organ. The word fugue literally comes from Latin words meaning “to flee” (fugere) and “to chase” (fugare). So we have a fitting soundtrack–with counterpoint following after, or chasing, the original, fleeing melody–for Francisco’s chasing after fleeing Gloria.

When he learns that Raul, an engineer, is engaged to Gloria, Francisco immediately begins scheming to take her from his friend. He invites the couple to a dinner party at his home, with such guests as the padre, a kind of good father substitute for Francisco. Raul and Gloria will come with her mother, who will insist on coming; Francisco says he’ll court the mother, Doña Esperanza Vilalta (played by Aurora Walker; the English subtitles of my DVD actually say, “make love with the mother”). After marrying Gloria, he’ll have her mother as both his mother-in-law and as his symbolic good mother, too, as we’ll see later.

At the dinner table, Francisco speaks of his idea of falling in love. To him, this passion is “nurtured from infancy” [!]; as the years go by, one grows up and sees many women pass by, but that one woman destined to be his will be found, and his love will shoot straight at her like an arrow. She must be his, willing or no.

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

Up until Francisco’s taking of her away from Raul, the latter man has had no moustache, as Francisco has (and a moustache is often seen as a symbol of manliness). Raul seems to have given her up without much of a fight…which is rather odd. Now, no longer having her, Raul has a moustache, and he continues to have one throughout the film, as do all the men Francisco is afraid will take her away from him. Now-moustachioed Raul is seen at a construction site, the machines and vehicles working on the land.

Buñuel’s films typically have surrealist elements, which means there’s a sense of the unconscious mind influencing the visuals and the story. One unconscious association humanity’s had in its mind for centuries is the notion that the land is our Mother Earth. The unconscious represses any desires deemed forbidden, but those desires are never eliminated–they reappear in new forms, though.

Raul and his construction workers, digging into the earth with their shovels, trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, are symbolically penetrating Gaea…they “make love with the mother.” He, with his moustache now, looks more like a man, a father.

Francisco, so much older than Gloria, has chosen a woman so much younger out of a reaction formation against choosing a woman of, say, her mother’s age, an age I suspect he’d unconsciously much prefer. His paranoia of other men taking Gloria away from him is really him projecting his own guilt over having taken her away from Raul.

When he takes her by train to Guanajuato for their honeymoon, Francisco is already demonstrating his possessiveness, that of her and of the land he wants back. They look over the city where his family’s property is; he says he likes looking at it from on high. It’s as if doing so makes him feel superior to it and the people living there. He wouldn’t humbly serve the land, as Jesus would humbly wash the feet of those walking on it: he’d subjugate and dominate it, even if he no longer has any legal right to it. He’d similarly possess Gloria.

As all of his fits of jealous rage go on, Gloria is desperate for help. Since Francisco has a spotless reputation (a narcissistic False Self all too often believed by enablers to be the true one), no one believes her when she complains of his abuse. Not even her own mother believes her.

Indeed, while he unjustly accuses Gloria of being a “tramp,” he has a pleasant relationship with her mother. The two women are split objects in his mind: the former is a bad object, the latter, a good object. Similarly are the men in Francisco’s life split into absolute good and bad objects–the padre is good, and all the young men (Raul, Ricardo [played by Rafael Banquelis], the lawyer Gloria dances with), with their moustaches and slicked back, black hair, are bad objects.

When Gloria tries to get help from the padre, not only is he as unsympathetic to her plight as her mother is, he also reveals an eye-opening secret about Francisco: prior to his marriage to Gloria, he has never had sexual relations with a woman.

She is shocked to hear this: surely a man of his age–handsome, wealthy, and charming (if only superficially so, which should be enough for him to get laid)–has lain with a woman at least a few times! Her mother, at that dinner table before he seduces Gloria, has said it should be easy for him to find a woman; her mother can’t imagine a single girl resisting him. (Now, imagining her mother thinking so highly of him is a wish-fulfillment. So much of this story is really just a dramatization of Francisco’s unconscious.) What could have been stopping him from having sex for all of these years?

As noted above, he has said, at the dinner table before seducing Gloria, that his love is something that has been “nurtured from infancy.” His love is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unfulfillable object-cause of his desire. Now, what is that object-cause?

This desire, having been “nurtured from infancy,” is something Lacan traced back to the mother’s breast, a Kleinian part-object. In other words, Francisco’s “strange passion” is derived from an unresolved, but repressed, Oedipus complex.

Dear Reader, if you’ve read enough of my analyses, you’re probably getting sick and tired of me harping on about all that Freudian hooey; but consider when Buñuel made this film–in the early 50s, when notions of a man unconsciously having a thing for his mother was still in vogue, so this kind of interpretation, as dated as it is now, is nonetheless appropriate for a film of the time. Besides, I do believe I’ve provided a reasonable amount of evidence so far…and more evidence, especially persuasive evidence–I believe–will be revealed towards the end of the movie.

So to recap, Gloria and her mother respectively represent transferences of the bad mother and good mother, these being internal objects in Francisco’s mind; and the padre is a transference of the good father internal object, while every moustachioed young man that Francisco is jealous of represents his bad father internal object.

I suspect that the reason of Francisco’s seeing Gloria, as love at first sight, is that she physically resembles his mother when she was a young woman. Gloria’s mother would resemble his mother as an older woman, and all those young men with moustaches and slicked-back hair resemble his father as a young man. This will make more sense when we come to the end of the film.

What’s curious is that, during the entirety of his marriage to Gloria, he never gets her pregnant. In fact, one suspects they’ve never once had sex. Part of his sexual prudishness seems to be sexual dysfunction. Small wonder he shoots her with a pistol full of blanks: the gun is an obvious phallic symbol whose ejaculations are ineffectual. He is sexually inadequate, and he knows it: he cannot be the Lacanian phallus for his symbolic mother. This is why he’s so paranoid that she’s seeing other men, the symbolic bad fathers of his psyche. That whacking of the stick against the posts of the handrail on the stairs fittingly suggests the symbolism of a guilty teenage boy’s masturbating; the only way he can have sex is with himself.

I consider the Oedipus complex to be the root of his problems because, as Don Carveth argues, it is a universal narcissistic trauma. Francisco wants to have Mother (in the symbolic, transferred forms of Gloria and her mother) all to himself: he wants her as a narcissistic mirror reflecting his entire world all back to himself, because he wants everything to be about him.

This narcissism is important in how it links with his bourgeois wish to reclaim his grandfather’s old land and property. The bourgeoisie are narcissistic by nature, imagining themselves entitled to all the land, property, and means of production they steal and hog to themselves, never sharing it with the global proletariat. Even when his lawyers tell him he has no way to prove he has a legal right to that land, Francisco throws temper tantrums and childishly fancies he has documentary proof that he actually lacks.

Many people mistake capitalism as being, in its essence, about markets. To be sure, the market is extremely important as a generator of profits for the accumulation of capital, but capitalism’s essence is about ownership of private property–factories, office buildings, apartment buildings, farmland, foreign lands gained by imperialist conquest…land. Just as Francisco’s possessiveness of Gloria and his grandfather’s old properties and land are interrelated, so are the capitalist’s possessiveness of private property and the patriarchal husband’s jealous clinging to his wife interrelated. And the psychological root of this jealous possessiveness is the child’s narcissistic Oedipal relationship with his or her desired parent, whom he or she doesn’t wish to share.

If we follow the symbolism of the film as I’ve interpreted it, we can see all three of these strands–ownership of land, possessiveness of one’s wife, and the narcissistic Oedipal relationship with the mother–played out in the scene when Francisco takes Gloria up to the belfry and they look down on the people walking in the streets of the city. Just as he has earlier expressed his contempt for the common “morons” one sees in the cinema or at the race track, he, from the belfry, looks down on those people below as if he were God judging them from the heavens. She calls him “self-centred,” which of course the narcissistic man is.

He thinks it’s “marvellous” to be up with Gloria in the belfry, where we see a huge bell and its clapper above their heads. A comparison I’ve made elsewhere, in my analysis of Belle de Jour (another Buñuel film), is that a bell symbolizes the vagina, and the clapper the hymen. So his ideal is to be above human mediocrity, with his wife as immaculate a virgin as Mary. As I said above, the Madonna is his maternal ideal, and he wants Gloria to embody this ideal; hence, she must be as chaste as he, and he must jealously guard her virtue from other men. She would be the perfect symbolic mother of his repressed, narcissistic Oedipal fantasies, and he would be lord over her life and over the land, which is our Mother Earth. Hence the connection between capitalism, the traditional patriarchal family, and narcissistic, Oedipally-minded child.

So afraid is Francisco of his wife getting any phallus other than his own, he attempts one night to infibulate her. If he succeeds, though, he won’t be able to penetrate her any better than any other man will. This would prove his sexual impotence, since if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want even the possibility of another man having her.

She wakes and screams, and it is only natural that she leaves him the next day, running off with Raul. In a panic, Francisco goes after her. He has several hallucinations, each increasing in intensity: he imagines a maid laughing at him; he thinks he sees Raul on a street corner buying a newspaper; he sees Gloria in a car putting on lipstick; and he thinks he sees her and Raul entering the church of the film’s beginning.

He goes in and finds them at their pew; but when he’s about to confront them, the young man and woman are actually two different people. Then, after hearing the cough of an old man walking behind him, Francisco imagines all the churchgoers laughing at him…even the altar boy and the padre!

This last man, who hitherto has been Francisco’s chaste, paternal ideal, is now no better than all the ‘bad fathers.’ With neither symbolic parent to be his ideal parental imago (i.e., both have traumatically disappointed him), and with his grandiose self (his narcissistic False Self exposed as such) abased and humiliated, the structure of his bipolar self has been destroyed, he undergoes psychological fragmentation, and he goes mad. He attacks the priest, is subdued by the churchgoers, and will be taken away…eventually to be put in a monastery.

Raul and Gloria, now married and with a fair-haired son of about 8-10 years old (who looks rather like the boy whose feet the padre washes at the film’s beginning), visit the monastery years later and ask about Francisco. We learn that their boy’s name is also Francisco! Why would Gloria want to name her son after a man who has caused her so much suffering? Why would Raul, who loves her in a way her former husband has never ben able to, be so insensitive to her as to want to name the boy after her former tormentor?

To me, the only logical answer to why the boy has this name is to regard the whole story as a particularly subtle use of surrealism on Buñuel’s part. As I see it, this boy is the real Francisco (and his resemblance to the boy whose feet are washed by the priest at the film’s beginning suggests a narcissistic wish-fulfillment to have his symbolic good father be subservient to him), and the older version of him is an unconscious wish-fulfillment, a dream of him having the age, manly moustache, and financial success necessary to win his mother away from his father.

The head monk asks them if the boy is their son, to which Raul gives no answer. The Wikipedia article for Él interprets his silence as implying that he may not be the father: I dispute this, for I see no reason to think Gloria has had the boy by any other man, especially by impotent Francisco. Raul’s silence probably comes from the tension he must feel from his son’s still-unresolved Oedipal attachment to Gloria (normally, a boy of his age should be going through the latency period).

(With regards to her name, I’ll mention in passing that, with the entrance of Iocaste in Stravinsky‘s 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the men’s chorus sing “Gloria, gloria, gloria!” at the end of Act One.)

Finally, we see old Francisco as a monk, after the family has left the monastery. He no longer has his moustache: he’s lost his manliness, a symbolic castration. In giving up his symbolic mother, Gloria, and adhering to the nom, or Non! du père, Francisco is now the personification of the moralistic superego. He must remain chaste for the rest of his life.

Will he be happy doing so? He claims he’s found true peace, but the frown on his face gives us doubts. Repressed desires always resurface in one form or another. His zig-zagging walk down that path to the dark doorway, an implied inability to stay on ‘the straight path,’ reinforces our doubts.

Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

Joker is a 2019 supervillain origin story film directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Though based on the DC comic book character, this film takes many liberties with the story material by creating a background for the Joker that has hitherto been kept deliberately mysterious.

The notion of him starting out as a failed comedian comes from Batman: The Killing Joke, but other elements come from two Martin Scorsese films starring Robert De NiroTaxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This origin story nonetheless can be reconciled with the comic book canon somewhat in that, given how the story is told from the Joker’s point of view, and given his psychotic penchant for mixing fantasy with reality, he is an unreliable narrator; so it hardly matters if events in the movie contradict those of the comic books.

Phoenix’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar. For her plaintive, brooding cello soundtrack, Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Best Original Score. The film itself has also been praised (with nominations for such Oscar categories as Best Picture and Best Director), in spite of such controversies as the baseless fear that its sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-ill loner, who shoots people, would inspire incel murders. Actually, the film–despite Phillips’s denial of having intended any political message–is clearly presenting a drama of class war.

II: Quotes

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” –Arthur Fleck/Joker

[written in notebook] “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” –Arthur

[written in notebook] “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” –Arthur

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” –Arthur, to his therapist

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” –Arthur

“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug, ‘Dad,’ maybe just a bit of common fucking decency!” –Arthur, to Thomas Wayne

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.” –Arthur

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy…but now I realize…it’s a fucking comedy.” –Arthur, to his mother before killing her

“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” –Arthur, to Murray Franklin

Murray Franklin: Okay, I- I think …I might understand it. You…did this to start a movement? To become a-a symbol?
Joker: Come on, Mur-ray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Murray: Alright. So that’s it, you’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men?
Joker: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [the crowd boos and jeers] (growing frustrated) Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys?! If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me! But these guys… What, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?!
Franklin: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne?
Joker: Yes, I do! Have you seen what it’s like out there, Mur-ray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!!

You’re awful, Murray.” –Arthur, coldly

Joker: How about another joke, Mur-ray?
Franklin: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Joker: What do you get…
Franklin: I don’t think so.
Joker: …When you cross…
Franklin: I think we’re done here now, that’s it.
Joker: …A mentally-ill loner with a SOCIETY THAT ABANDONS HIM AND TREATS HIM LIKE TRASH?!?!
Murray Franklin: Call the police, Gene!
Joker: I’ll tell you what you get!
Franklin: Call the police.
JokerYOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!! [pulls out his gun and shoots Murray in the head, instantly killing him]

[Joker, in a police car, is laughing and chuckling at the chaos being spread to Gotham City]
Cop 1: Stop laughing, you freak. This isn’t funny.
Cop 2: Yeah, the whole fucking city’s on fire because of what you did.
Joker: I know… Isn’t it beautiful?

[Arthur is laughing loudly during a psychiatric examination at Arkham Asylum. He soon settles down, but still laughs]
Psychiatrist: What’s so funny?
Arthur[laughing and chuckling some more] I was just thinking…just thinking of a joke. [shot of a young Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents as the camera pulls back and Arthur’s laughter is heard]
Psychiatrist: You wanna tell it to me?
Arthur[softly whispers] You wouldn’t get it.

III: Mirrors

The story is set in 1981, as the film’s use of the old Warner Bros. logo of the time suggests. We hear the news on the radio describing a garbagemen’s strike in Gotham City, resulting in pileups of garbage bags all over town. Just as M.A.S.H., set during the Korean War, was meant as an allegory of the Vietnam War, so can Joker, set in early 80s Gotham, be seen as an allegory for our neoliberal time (in fact, because of the general strike in France, garbage is piling up there, too). The earlier time in which the film is set is a mirror to our present time.

Already we see, in this garbagemen’s strike, an indication of class war: if the workers’ demands would simply be respected, the mess would be cleaned up. The filth in the city, and the fears of it leading to the spread of disease, shows how little the rich care about the poor. The pileup of filth is a mirror to the political and economic corruption of our world.

We see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror. He puts his fingers in his mouth, stretching it upwards and downwards to make smiles and a frown (and remember that a ‘smile is just a frown turned upside-down’).

What’s established in this scene are two themes: the psychoanalytic symbolism of mirrors, and the dialectical relationship of opposites. These themes can also be fused in the form of the self-other dialectic, in which we can see the self in the other, and vice versa. One thing mirrors its opposite.

Fleck’s mirror is Lacan‘s mirror: the man looking in the reflection is Arthur’s real, socially awkward self; the reflection is his ideal-I, the successful comedian he wishes he could be. In his attempts to be that great comedian, to smile and make others smile and laugh, he finds himself constantly failing…hence, frowning.

The idealized image in the mirror is a lie, for the very formation of an ego–as opposed to the awkward, fragmented self one really is, lacking a clear definition between oneself and the outside world of other people–is also a lie. Hence, Arthur is alienated from the ‘self’ he sees in the mirror; that ‘self’ is really someone other than himself.

Similarly, he idealizes other people, such as Murray Franklin (De Niro) on the TV, whom Fleck sees not only as his idol as a comedian, but also as a kind of father figure, since he doesn’t know his real father. Seeing Murray’s face on the TV is thus like looking into a metaphorical mirror for Arthur.

Indeed, there are a number of such metaphorical mirrors, or idealizations of other people seen as reflections of one’s narcissistic self. Apart from Murray, these ideals include Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy; his idealization of her is Oedipal), Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen, Wayne is idealized by both Flecks, who imagine the billionaire to be Arthur’s father), and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whose finger gunshot to her head is imitated…mirrored, by Arthur. Charlie Chaplin, the comic tramp that penniless [!] Arthur sees mirrored on the silver screen, is another ideal.

Those are the idealized reflections, but then there’s the real Arthur looking at the literal or symbolic mirror reflection. The real Arthur is coming apart; he is experiencing psychological fragmentation, and a narcissistic False Self, as dysfunctional as that may be, is an effective defence against fragmentation. Hence, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker.

IV: Opposites Attract

The Clown Prince of Crime (a perpetrator of it), as we see in this film, starts out as a victim of crime: he’s beaten up by the kids who’ve stolen and broken his sign over his face; he’s docked pay for the sign, whose theft and breaking weren’t his fault…not that his boss, agent Hoyt Vaughn, wants to listen (this is tantamount to wage theft); and he’s assaulted by the three Wayne employees on the train, making him snap and kill them.

The dialectical unity of opposites is best symbolized in Arthur’s involuntary laughing, a result of pseudobulbar affect. His pained laugh, which he–in his embarrassment–desperately tries to control, looks like a cross between laughing and weeping; the sad aspect is especially apparent when we see it typically happening whenever something bad happens to him. Smile, though your heart is aching…

All Arthur has ever wanted is recognition, an acknowledgement that he exists. To make a kid laugh on the bus, such a happiness is the mirrored reflection of a smile Arthur’s own wounded inner child yearns to be able to do, but for real, for a change.

Lacan said, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that is, we feel desire in terms of other people. We desire what we imagine others desire, and we desire recognition from other people. Arthur imagines that, in making others laugh, he’s fulfilling their desires; and in doing so, he’s fulfilling his own desires by getting people’s recognition. Once again, we see the self defined in terms of the other.

While watching the Murray Franklin Show on TV with his mother, Arthur fantasizes that he’s sitting with the studio audience. This scene establishes the fact that not all we see and hear in this film is really happening. In fact, a lot more of it could be fantasy. Could all of it be fantasy?

Even if all of it is, the themes of class war and of alienation–social, worker, and inner alienation–are real enough to deserve examination. People like Arthur Fleck have existed and continue to exist; their problems of loneliness, mental illness, and exploitation by the ruling class countervail the Joker’s ‘fake’ origin story so many times over that the Arthur Fleck story might as well be 100% true.

I will argue that the Joker is Arthur’s False Self, his narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation; on the other hand, the Joker (the only version of him that is ‘real’ to us, i.e., that we have seen in the comic books and in previous movies) could be imagining Arthur as a fake version of his past self in order to win people’s sympathy. Which version of him is real, and which is fantasy? Here we see how the opposites of fantasy and reality attract, as do those of the self and the other.

Arthur fantasizes that Murray would give up all his fame and wealth just to have Arthur for a son. As an aspiring comedian, Arthur wishes to identify with his idol, Murray, just as any son, upon the dissolution of his Oedipus complex, identifies with his father.

V: Comparisons With Other Films

Some interesting comparisons can be made between films in that De Niro is playing Murray; he also played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Arthur is both the fantasizing, failed comedian counterpart of Pupkin and the journal-writing psychotic counterpart of Bickle. Similarly, Murray is the TV show host equivalent of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy. In this use of De Niro, we see a further identification of Arthur with his TV-mirror reflection and father figure, Murray Franklin.

And since Arthur is an unreliable narrator, who may have killed fewer people than we see him kill (Does he kill Murray, or is that scene as much a fantasy as is his scene sitting with the studio audience? And what about the excessive number of shots fired from his gun on the three yuppies on and off the train?), Joker could be seen as the proletarian version of American Psycho. And this leads to an interesting inter-film coincidence: Christian Bale played both Patrick Bateman and Batman, the latter of whom would “complete” Heath Ledger’s Joker!

Fleck’s mother always calls him “Happy,” imagining that “he’d always been such a happy little boy”; but his ‘happiness,’ linked with his involuntary laughing and his failed attempts at comedy, is just a reaction formation against dealing with his profound sadness, a form of manic defence against depression. In this, we see the unity between the opposites of happiness and sadness, as when he–taking care of his mother–has seen his life as a tragedy, then–smothering her with the pillow in the hospital–sees his life as a comedy.

VI: The Love Gun

Randall, a clown colleague of Arthur’s, gives him a gun for his protection against any future attacks from punks like the teens at the film’s beginning. This pistol is a symbol of the Lacanian phallus, which is itself symbolic of the thing we lack, and therefore desire. Arthur’s lack, as mentioned above, is a feeling that he doesn’t exist (Lacan’s manque à être), which shifts into symbolic castration (manque á avoir, ‘lack of having’), the powerlessness he feels as a poor, struggling clown/comedian.

It’s around when he gets the gun that he begins to fantasize and obsess about Sophie. He dances in his living room holding the gun, imagining he’s talking to her and that she’s impressed with his dancing. His erotic pelvic moves emphasize the phallic nature of the gun, and when he accidentally shoots a hole in the wall, and his mother complains about the noise, it’s as if she’s caught her boy masturbating. Apologizing to her, he feels ashamed. Later, when he fantasizes about Sophie at his door, and she asks him about his having followed her, and hopes he’d “come in and rob” her in her apartment (obvious sexual symbolism), he playfully mentions the gun he has…more sexual and phallic symbolism.

When he performs for the hospital kids and the gun falls out of his pocket and onto the floor, we see another symbolic castration, his loss of power (he gets fired, and thus can no longer be the ‘happy’ clown he imagines his mom wants him to be…”to spread joy and laughter”). Ironically, it’s his dancing about that causes the gun to fall out. Actually, Arthur has missed his calling: he should be a dancer, not a comedian. Dancing is natural for him: he doesn’t even seem to need lessons.

He regains his power when killing the three men on the train with that ejaculating, phallic gun (a comparison I made in my Taxi Driver analysis, too). He escapes to a public washroom and does another of his therapeutic dances. Using the gun to kill his tormentors, projecting his pain onto them, is therapeutic and empowering, as is his dancing, perhaps the purest art form of all, since it involves the direct, instinctive movements of the body to express oneself (‘express,’ to press outward, to project outside what has been bottled up inside, to take what’s in the self and put it in the other).

VII: Thomas Wayne

Unlike the kind Thomas Wayne of Batman Begins, this one is an unsympathetic, Trumpish sort. Accordingly, his attitude towards the angry poor is offensive and condescending–he calls them “clowns,” yet he hypocritically claims that, if elected mayor of Gotham, he’ll help the poor, even though really doing so would be against his class interests as a billionaire.

Yet aptly-named Penny imagines Wayne will save Gotham, as many poor Americans believe their incumbent–who has cut (or at least proposed to cut) food stamps, taxes for the rich, and funding for healthcare and education, yet has also sought to boost military spending into the billions–actually cares for them. She idealizes Wayne, just as Arthur has idealized images of Murray, Sophie, and Wayne in his head, mirror images that don’t reflect the truth.

There’s more fantasizing when Arthur imagines Sophie at his door asking about his having followed her (something no woman in her right mind would be happy about); then he imagines himself dating her, with her enjoying his disastrous standup comedy routine, and her with him in the hospital with his mother. One wonders: have the fantasies increased now that he isn’t getting his medication? Is the rest of the movie especially unreliable?

This leads back to the discussion of class war: the cuts in funding that cause Arthur to lose both his therapy sessions and his medication. Problems like these underscore how a movie set in 1981 (before Reagan had really begun to force ‘small government,’ and ‘free market‘ capitalism on the US) is actually a parable for our much worse times. The cops accuse the Joker of causing the social unrest at the end of the film, instead of taking responsibility for protecting the capitalist system that has really caused the unrest.

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

But what is the thing that makes Arthur totally lose it? Not so much these problems mentioned above, not even Murray humiliating him on TV, but that archaic, narcissistic trauma that–in all of its variations–is universal: his love/hate relationship with his parents.

Heinz Kohut‘s theory of the bipolar self posits that we all get our sense of self, as children going through primary narcissism, through the grandiose self on one side (which says, “I’m great, and I need you, Mom and Dad, to mirror my greatness back to me!”) and the idealized parental imago on the other (a mental internalization of one’s ‘godlike’ parents that says, “You, Mom and Dad, are the greatest, and I get my greatness from your love!”). Lacking this validation, a person is in danger of either pathological narcissism or fragmenting into a psychotic break with reality.

Such fragmenting, with only a narcissistic False Self as a defence against it, is exactly what’s happening to Arthur. When his mother plants the seed in his head that his rolling-stone papa is billionaire Thomas Wayne, he naturally wants to idealize the man as much as she does.

When Arthur meets young Bruce, the two facing each other with the gate of class difference separating them, I suspect that Arthur is fantasizing about touching the boy’s face and curling it up into a smile. No child would tolerate a stranger touching him like that without at least some resistance, especially a rich child raised to believe that the lower classes are ‘inferior.’

Arthur’s wish to make Bruce smile, as with the boy laughing and facing him on the bus, represents his own wish to smile by having happiness mirrored back to him. It’s his wish for recognition, just as he’d have Thomas acknowledge him as his son.

But as always, his wishes keep getting frustrated. In the public washroom with Thomas Wayne, Arthur sees both of them in the mirror reflection, himself juxtaposed with his idealized father, another kind of ideal-I. Not only does Wayne, however, deny that he’s his father, in an even more devastating blow, he claims that Penny adopted Arthur.

Arthur claims that Thomas resembles him (“Look at us,” he says. “I think you are.”): is this a fact, or is it wish-fulfillment? Thomas’s denial of paternity could easily be part of a cover-up to avoid publicizing a scandalous adultery with a former employee, complete with documents forged by the unscrupulous Dr. Benjamin Stoner. On the other hand, especially with regards to Arthur’s unreliable point of view presenting the story, we must also consider how far-fetched it is to believe that he and Bruce Wayne are half-brothers.

Arthur’s visit to Arkham State Hospital seems to confirm his worst fears: his mother’s medical documents seem to confirm that Penny adopted him as a child. What’s worse–and this seems to be real–he reads of her having allowed her then-boyfriend to abuse him when a boy. The physical abuse little Arthur suffered included blows to the head that must have caused his pseudobulbar affect; the ex-boyfriend also chained him to a radiator and left him deprived of food.

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

Those who prefer leaving the Joker’s past a mystery, leaving it “multiple choice,” seem to be reinforcing, intentionally or not, the idea that criminal psychopaths are just “fucking crazies,” as Detective Mills calls them in Se7en. I prefer to go with the trauma model of mental disorders, and I believe that Arthur’s reading of his mother’s medical records has triggered repressed childhood memories, forgotten traumas. People aren’t just ‘born crazy,’ they are made to be mentally ill.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself, explains how, in a general sense, one becomes evil rather than is innately so: “If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life-destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.” (Fromm, page 162, his emphasis)

Worse than having triggered the memory of Arthur’s repressed childhood traumas, regardless of whether or not the medical documents have been faked, the seed of doubt has been planted in his head: is Penny not his biological mother? Are both of his parents unknown? Did both parents abandon him when he was a child? Does nobody love him?

He has experienced traumatic disappointments on both poles of his personality (in Kohut’s sense): his grandiose self has been shattered with humiliations and rejections, and his parental idealizations have proven false to him.

He’s had a bad day.

Only transforming into the Joker will keep him from falling apart.

With both parents having abandoned and betrayed him, Arthur will perceive them as only bad internal objects in his mind. This is Melanie Klein‘s notion of the bad mother and bad father, causing him to experience what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, a splitting of internalized objects into absolute good and bad, and a paranoid fear that the bad objects will harm him. (Click here for a more thorough elucidation of psychoanalytic concepts.) There are no good objects for Arthur…only bad ones. Now, he will feel an urge to kill his parents, both biological and symbolic.

X: Metamorphosis

After smothering Penny (whose very name he hates) in the hospital, Arthur returns home; having learned (or, as I suspect, fantasized in his narcissistic imagination, leading to a fantasy of murderous revenge) that Murray wants him as a guest on the TV show, Arthur is seen looking in a mirror as he dyes his hair green. This is him constructing his False Self as the Joker, looking at his ideal-I in the Lacanian mirror and striving to live up to that ideal.

Murdering Randall helps further cement Arthur’s new identity as the Joker, so his transformation is complete. Hearing the music from, thankfully, only the largely instrumental section of Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll” (speaking of sickos…and Glitter will get no royalties for the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack, so don’t worry about that), we see Arthur enter the elevator and leave his apartment all decked out in Joker garb and clown makeup.

In several scenes, we’ve seen sad Arthur climb that interminably high staircase up to his apartment as the evening sun is going down. I’m reminded of a passage from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Now as the Joker, though, he joyfully dances his way down the stairs. Instead of struggling his way up in search of heaven, he’s dancing down to hell.

Two cops chase him into a train filled with his followers, the anti-Wayne protestors in clown masks. These people, who regard him as a hero for killing the three Wayne employees, are each a mirror reflection of him, giving him the recognition he’s always craved. To help him escape from the cops, he even steals and dons a clown mask to mix in better with the crowded protestors, and to cause a fight among them to stop the cops from being able to continue their pursuit. His wearing of the mask reinforces the false nature of his Joker persona; he’s making himself mirror his fans.

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

As I said above, I believe his appearance on the Murray Franklin Show is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as his first appearance in the studio audience. (At the very least, the producers of the show would have cut to commercial and gotten rid of him as soon as he began flaking out on live TV, long before he’d have had a chance to take out his gun.) In the first fantasy, Murray is Arthur’s symbolic good father, a transference from his unknown father onto Murray; in the second fantasy, Murray is the symbolic bad father who, like bad mother Penny, must be killed.

Note how, during his rant on the show, the Joker complains of how we must suffer and “take it like good little boys.” This sounds like a child suffering from an abusive father, authority figure…or Penny’s abusive ex-boyfriend, another substitute father for little Arthur. In his fantasy, he kills symbolic father Murray and gives a long kiss to the elderly woman sex therapist, Dr. Sally, who could be considered a symbolic mother transference (recall how he says he loves Dr. Sally). How Oedipal.

I’m guessing he fantasizes about killing Murray while actually still in his apartment, where he’s similarly fantasized about shooting himself, this suicide ideation being a recurring idea throughout the film. In imagining he’s shot Murray, he’s really shot that mirror image of his idealized self, his identification with the idealized parental imago that he now hates, and has replaced with his new ideal-I…the Joker. So this is yet another example of the self mirrored in the other, and vice versa.

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

He is delighted to see all the rioting and violence on the streets of Gotham, all those people in clown masks hating Wayne and the other rich of the city. Their anger mirrors his own, even though he insists he’s apolitical: recall his words to Murray, “I don’t believe in anything,” echoing the nihilism of the Germans in The Big Lebowski. Arthur finally has the recognition he’s craved; the rioters want what he wants–chaos and destruction. Accordingly, he does another dance, this time for his fans on the police car. He puts his fingers in his bloody mouth, pulls them upward, and unlike his frowning before the mirror at the beginning of the film, this time he makes a genuine, if gory, grin.

Now, we can sympathize with the anger of these people and their wish to destroy the current, corrupt social order. Revolution cannot, however, end with only violence; one must build a new world after the destruction of the old, and return to stability. The Joker and his clowns don’t want to rebuild.

It’s interesting how the Trotskyist Left Voice largely praises Joker for its insurrectionary message, while this Marxist-Leninist blog is critical of the film for its stopping at the violence and chaos. These two strands of socialism respectively advocate either violent, permanent, worldwide revolution, or the building up of socialism, be that building-up in several countries, or even just in one, if continued revolutions elsewhere aren’t possible for the time being.

Though the Joker imagines that a life of chaos is the only one for him, and that his current, laughing madman self is the real him, remember what I said above: his Joker persona is a narcissistic False Self that keeps him from psychologically falling apart. A rebuilding of society, on socialist principles, would restore the cut funding to social services, giving Arthur back his psychotherapy and medication. Socialism would also work to end the alienation he suffers.

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

It’s interesting how both Arthur and Bruce have lost their parents by the end of the film (be they Arthur’s actual or imagined parents), and in the loss of both people’s parents, both a supervillain and a superhero are being born. In this we see a mirroring of the Joker and Batman, of the one completing the other, the self-other dialectic…there’s a bit of one person in the other, and vice versa.

The one scene in the film not ‘narrated’ by Arthur (i.e., he isn’t in this one scene) is when Joe Chill shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne. Arthur, in Arkham, laughs about that moment, presumably having read about the murders in the newspapers and imagining a private joke. In contrast to the first scene of him laughing/weeping during a therapy session (also, just to reinforce the parallels, with a black female therapist [as was fantasized Sophie, in a way, a therapist for him], but now we’re in a white room instead of the dark room of the beginning), this time he’s really enjoying the laugh.

His therapist may not get the joke, but I think I do: he, in having inspired the clown protestors, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Bruce’s parents; because Chill, in the clown mask, is a metaphorical mirror of Arthur. This makes Arthur like young Jack Napier of the 1989 Batman film, to note yet another interesting coincidence between films. Traumatized Arthur knows young, traumatized Bruce will want revenge on him, just as he’s wanted revenge on the whole world.

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

It would be interesting to see a sequel to Joker, with Batman–the bourgeois superhero par excellence (Tony Stark ranking a close second)–fighting the permanently revolutionary Joker. What a complex, morally and politically ambiguous story that would be, where such dialectical opposites as hero and villain intermingle, as do the self and the other, happiness and sadness, and bourgeois and proletarian heroism and criminality.

If I, in my flight of ideas, have left you confused, should I explain further?

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.

Projection and Gaslighting

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

In this post, I’m not going to be talking about the kind of projection most people usually think about, which involves imagining that other people have one’s own good or bad personality traits. The kind of projection I’ll be discussing, what Melanie Klein called projective identification, is, however, just as commonly practiced between people; in fact, it’s the most primal form of pre-verbal communication and interaction between people, starting with the mother/infant relationship, as Wilfred Bion noted in his theory of container/contained.

Projective identification involves actually pushing out those personality traits, emotions, etc., and imposing them on other people, actually manipulating others into manifesting the behaviour associated with one’s own personality traits, emotions, etc. Emotional abusers, those who practice gaslighting, use projective identification to an especially great extent.

My late mother was never formally diagnosed with NPD, but as I’ve discussed in many blog posts, I have every reason to believe she had pathological levels of narcissistic traits, even to the point of malignant narcissism. As many narcissists do, she cleverly hid her disorder behind a mask of altruism, all the while bad-mouthing and triangulating anybody she either disliked, envied, or felt in some sense threatened by.

One way she kept her pathologies hidden and unknown to the world, even to us in the family, was by projecting her faults onto other people, in the Kleinian form I described above. She projected her narcissistic self-absorption onto me, calling it “autism,” from the old definition it had a century ago (i.e., Bleuler‘s notions of excessive social withdrawal, admiration of oneself, etc.). Since I was an impressionable child at the time, I naïvely and uncritically accepted the label, and found myself acting accordingly. My acceptance of it was a case of introjective identification.

This is what narcissists and emotional abusers do: as self-psychology originator Heinz Kohut pointed out in his book, The Analysis of the Self (pages 176-177 and footnote of page 185), narcissists vertically split off and disavow everything they hate about themselves (along with horizontal splitting, through repression), everything about them that reminds them of how flawed they are, and they find a suitable victim to project those faults onto. They use gaslighting and denial to trick the victim into believing he or she has the victimizers’ faults, and the victim so thoroughly believes he is the flawed one that he displays and manifests those very faults; thus, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My mother and her flying monkeys, my elder siblings, all projected their faults onto me from when I was too young to suspect their true motives. Their projections–in the form of my mother’s gaslighting and lies about me being “autistic,” and in my siblings’ almost daily insults, verbal abuse, bullying, and making fun of me–instilled in my pre-teen/adolescent mind that I was so flawed, I behaved in the very awkward, inappropriate ways associated with such flaws, thus ‘confirming’ their judgements of me.

But my awkwardness was based on false beliefs about myself, not on reality.

I’ll give a few examples of my family’s projections. My eldest brother, R., back when I was a teen and he was in his early/mid 20s, would sometimes hear me talking too loudly (a natural thing overexcited teens will do); and instead of just telling me to lower my voice–a reaction that a young man of his age should have been mature enough to give–he felt it was necessary on such occasions to say, “Can you be an ass quietly?” It never occurred to the egotist that he was the one being an ass.

On other occasions back then, he would call me a “wimp.” Recall how I explained in other posts–his young-adult meanness towards me was really based on his anger towards our dad (from back when he was a teen), on whom he was too much of a coward to release that anger. Any young adult jerk can take out his anger on a pre-teen/adolescent, designated as the family’s emotional punching bag. R. was projecting his own weakness onto me (in fact, when he as a teen was having his problems with Dad, he was so weak about it that he dropped out of school and ran away from home; whereas when I was a teen and being emotionally abused by up to five people, I was strong, stuck it out, and stayed home until finishing university, then I left home as a young adult); and he was gaslighting me into thinking I, a kid at the time, was the weakling.

My older sister, J., the family’s number one golden child (my two older brothers, R. and F., being somewhere in between golden and lost/invisible children), was fond of pointing out how “rude” I often am (which, to be fair to her, I must confess has more than some truth to it), though she had no qualms about being rude to me if she wanted to (the same goes for my mother, who also liked to complain about my rudeness). J. would, for example, be talking to me, and if I interrupted–which, granted, I shouldn’t have done–she’d snap “I’m talking!” at the top of her lungs. On another occasion, when I was 14 and too preoccupied with a high school bully to remember to thank her (about 19-20 years old at the time) for a ride to school, she–feeling narcissistic rage at the time, no doubt–screamed at me for being “ungrateful.” Wow, J., what graciousness you have.

Then, recall how in this post she barked at me to remember to say goodbye to our grandfather at our grandmother’s funeral about thirty years ago. She then rationalized her bitchiness by lecturing to me about how “rude” it is not to say goodbye to the funeral guests (my crime was daydreaming when all the goodbyes were being said: dissociation is a common C-PTSD trait, an escape from the pain). When I angrily tried to stick up for myself, she shouted four-letter words at me to silence me. What graciousness, J.! Again, she was projecting her personality problems onto me; and our mother’s biased defence of her attitude was just more gaslighting.

I’ve also mentioned elsewhere how my older brother F. used to harangue me about ‘not caring about anyone but myself,’ when it was his bullying of me, as well as that of R. and J., and Mom’s gaslighting of me with the autism lie (not to mention all the bullying I’d suffered at school as a kid), that had alienated me from society so much that it should have been no surprise at all that I grew so aloof from others and their needs. F.’s brute stupidity blinded him from the obvious consequences of his and others’ actions.

What’s more, I knew of several occasions when J. and Mom complained of him and his wife being ‘cheap,’ or in some other sense detached from the family (one example involved his family habitually arriving late at family get-togethers). Now, to be fair to F., this complaining was probably motivated, to at least a large extent, by J.’s and Mom’s narcissistic judging and competing to be the family member ‘most worthy of love and respect’; but given what I know of how mean F. is capable of being (if only to me), it’s far from impossible to believe that J.’s and Mom’s gripes had at least some substance. And if that’s true, surely to a fair extent, then his complaining of my ‘uncaring’ nature is partially projection, too.

All of them taking their little bites out of me over the years allowed them to shed hateful parts of themselves, or at least fool themselves into thinking they’d done so. This shedding, this projective identification, was a major factor helping them to build self-confidence (even if based on a narcissistic false self), raise families, and function in society in ways that it’s been much harder for me to do.

Research on the long-term deleterious psychological effects of bullying on its victims (developing social anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, etc.) shows that it is a serious problem in our society that must be addressed. Bullies and emotional abusers are stealing victims’ happiness, their self-esteem, and their very ability to live.

So, what can we do to repair ourselves? If you can’t afford a therapist, you could consider free online therapy. I recommend such forms of self-care as ASMR, EMDR therapy, meditation, self-compassion, and repeating lots and lots of affirmations to offset all the vicious lies your abusers made you believe about yourself.

Yes, lies. That’s what projective identification and gaslighting are all about. Everything nasty they said, or are saying, about you was and is only a reflection of themselves, not of you. They were and are telling you about their faults; when they say these faults are yours, they’re lying.

Now, there’s also no doubt that the abusers really believe the lies they tell you. This doesn’t mean they’re merely mistaken in their judgements: it means they’re lying to themselves as well as to you. Their false belief doesn’t mean they’re lying less (i.e., that they’re being delusional); it means they’re lying more, for recall that narcissists have a false self they want to present to the world.

My family fancied themselves as all confident, polite, considerate, and thoughtful of others. They loved to flatter themselves in this regard, in their private thoughts, if not always openly in public. (J., for example, once bragged to me of being a follower of “the religion of human relationships,” during the very same years she alienated me from her with an endless stream of condescending, snarky, know-it-all remarks.) In reality, my siblings were in an exclusive social club, jealously competing for our late mother’s love and approval while believing, uncritically, all of her denigrating comments about our cousins, our father, and–of course–me.

So what you must do, Dear Reader, is aggressively work to counteract all the brainwashing your abusers subjected you to. Take the time every day to remember every compliment you’ve heard other people give you, remind yourself of good, loving moments in your life (dig deep into your brain and search for those long-forgotten moments…find them!), and make lists of everything you’re good at. This, over time, can gradually boost your self-esteem.

Those good moments, those good words–for far too long trivialized and invalidated in your mind by your inner critic–must be revived. They not only have every right to all the attention that you’ve unfortunately given your negative thoughts and memories, all those mean things your abusers said and did to you…they have so much more of a right to that attention. The mean words you heard were lies, projections; if you believed all that nonsense, why not give it a try to believe the good words, regardless of whether you think they were valid, or if you think they seemed not to be?

We need to reprogram our brains to stop just uncritically accepting every negative opinion we hear (each one just a projection), getting emotionally invested in it, believing it, and using confirmation bias to find ‘proof’ of it in our everyday problems and mistakes, thus reinforcing the negativity. Instead we must take those nasty comments and say to ourselves, “That’s just his or her opinion. I don’t have to believe it.” Don’t be emotionally invested in it.

Instead (and this will be difficult, given all the abuse we’ve endured over the years), we must magnify the positive words we hear from others (embrace those good projections!), get emotionally invested in them (feel good about them!) so we can believe they’re true, then find proof in our daily successes of the truth of those compliments. We must do this healing work every day without fail, over and over again, so that eventually we can turn things around and finally start to like ourselves.

If thinking straight ‘happy thoughts’ seems too unrealistic to you at the moment (yes, abuse does weigh us down that much!), you can start with Kati Morton‘s “bridge statements,” which start with small but realistic compliments and slowly work your way up. You can combine that with starting your day with several diaphragmatic breaths and at least 10-15 minutes of meditating, among other suggestions I shared in this blog post. Remember that this is a long process that will achieve results only gradually. Breaking free from the past isn’t at all easy; but it isn’t impossible, either.

Whatever you do, don’t believe your abusers’ lies and projections. Those people are sellers of falsehoods. To put it crudely and bluntly, your abusers are full of shit; and if they’re full of shit about you, then you must be so much better of a person than they say you are.

Analysis of “Punch-Drunk Love”

Punch-Drunk Love is a 2002 romantic black comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. It features the delightfully idiosyncratic music of Jon Brion and the bright, colourful, abstract visual sequences of artist Jeremy Blake. It is Mark Kermode‘s favourite Anderson film.

Barry Egan (Sandler, in an actually superb performance) is a lonely man with social anxiety and anger issues who becomes a victim of a phone sex extortion racket headed by Dean Trumbell (Hoffman); then he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Watson), who gives him a strength and courage he’s never had before, and he fights back against the extortionists.

Here are some quotes:

Barry: You’re a bad person. You have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick!

Dean Trumbell: No no, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP![Simultaneously]

Barry: You have no right to take people’s trust. [Simultaneously]

Dean TrumbellSHUT UP! Will You- SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Now! Are you threatening me, dick?!

Barry: Why don’t you–? You go fuck yourself!

**********

“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the Hell from you.” –Barry, to Dean

“I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say “That’s that”, Mattress Man.” –Barry, to Dean

**********

Dean Trumbell: NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, PERVERT!

Barry: DIDN’T I WARN YOU?!

Dean Trumbell: That’s that.

**********

“Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And, and I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?” –Barry

“So, here we go.” –Lena, to Barry [last line]

Barry owns a small business selling such novelty items as themed toilet plungers. At the beginning of the film, he’s all alone in his office talking on the telephone with someone working for Healthy Choice about a frequent flyer promotion; later that morning, we’ll see him talking with a client on the phone. (Remember landlines? This film uses phone calls as a recurring motif; it’s a symbol of social alienation, since people communicate this way, but they’re far away from each other–they’re connected, yet they aren’t.)

After his chat with the Healthy Choice guy, Barry steps outside, sees a dramatic car crash (the vehicle smashing and rolling over on the street), then another vehicle is driven to the sidewalk by his place of business, and a harmonium is dropped off there. He takes the instrument into his office, and from time to time we will see him play single-note melodies on it.

The harmonium, a pump organ, vaguely makes one think of a church organ. Since the nervous man’s playing of the instrument in his quiet solitude gives him some peace, we can see its having been given to him as an act of divine grace, which leads me to my next point.

We can see the arrival of Lena into his life, her deliberate leaving of her car with him by his place of business as an excuse to meet him, as also being an act of divine grace, for her love of him saves him from his social anxiety and loneliness, and gives him the strength to fight back against his persecutors. She is thus a kind of female Christ.

Among his persecutors are his seven bitchy sisters. They bully, insult, and emotionally abuse him at every opportunity they are given. When he can’t take it anymore and blows up, they pretend that his problems are exclusively his, and that they share no responsibility at all in provoking him.

I know from personal experience what Barry Egan is going through. An emotionally abusive family, typically headed by one or two parents with narcissistic or other Cluster B personality traits, tend to have golden children (Egan’s sisters, it would seem), invisible children, and scapegoats (Egan himself). The narcissistic parents either connive at or encourage the bullying of the scapegoat, using his or her faults as an excuse to justify the bullying.

The bullying can come in the form of mobbing or in slight digs at the victim, repeated over and over again. This is what Barry’s sisters do to him: swearing at him needlessly; mocking him for saying a perfectly normal word like “chat”; calling him “Gay Boy”; nagging him about and pressuring him into attending a birthday party of one of their sisters; and calling him a “fucking retard” when he finally blows up and breaks windows at the party.

Putting up with sibling bullies is like experiencing Chinese water torture. Each insult, each put-down, each criticism, every one bit of nagging all by itself can be endured; but put them all together, one after the other in rapid succession…drip, drip, drip…and one can’t help but go crazy sooner or later.

This kind of suffering is what Barry has had to endure from his non-empathic sisters; and when he reacts, they pretend to be surprised, when it should be obvious to them that their non-stop provocations are setting off an emotional ticking time bomb.

Barry knows he needs help. He asks Walter the dentist (a husband of one of his sisters, he’s played by Robert Smigel) if he knows any psychotherapists–that’s how desperate Barry is. That his sisters would know about his asking for psychiatric help, and about his breaking down and crying in front of the dentist–these are just more reasons for them to criticize him, instead of showing him some compassion.

He wants to escape. He learns of a promotion to gain thousands of frequent flyer miles if he buys enough pudding from Healthy Choice foods (This is a plot point inspired by David Phillips.). Flying in airplanes…flying in the sky…being in heaven…

This wish to be up in the sky, symbolic of heaven, dovetails with the ‘church’ harmonium and the entrance of Lena into his life. These three strands are full of Christian symbolism, that divine grace Barry has been craving, to have someone take him out of his world of suffering and give him peace and salvation. Lena’s love will give him the strength to go on living.

You see, it is she who approaches him, not the other way around, as is done with traditional sex roles. Thus she is a refreshing feminist change from the usual social requirement that the male always make the first moves.

Also, her approaching him, rather than vice versa, can be seen to symbolize divine grace in that she, as representative of Christ, is coming to him, who is representative of the sinner, rather than the repentant sinner searching for God. Similarly, the harmonium, symbolic of a church organ, is dropped off before him, as if it were a free gift. And the offer of frequent flyer miles, acquired through the buying of packages of cheap pudding, is rather like a free ticket to heaven.

Now, Barry is a sinner…of sorts. Besides his explosive temper tantrums, he has also made use of a phone sex service, though he doesn’t have any lustful thoughts at all as he chats with the lasciviously-tongued woman on the other end of the phone.

As of the phone-sex chat, he hasn’t yet dated and fallen in love with Lena, so he’s using the chat not for prurient purposes, but just to relieve his loneliness. As WRD Fairbairn pointed out, we all are object-seeking in our libido–not seeking of sex objects, not satisfying libido through pleasure-seeking (which Fairbairn considered a failure of object-relationships), but objects as in people with whom to have relationships, friendships, and love. No, just because Barry has called up a phone sex line, it doesn’t make him the “pervert” his four assailants and Dean Trumbell (Hoffman) call him.

Again, his chatting with Anna, the phone-sex girl, is another instance of his alienation, for he wishes to connect with someone (ostensibly in a sexual manner), but without seeing the person face to face; this represents the conflict between wanting to have object relationships and wanting to be separated from people. Hence, the film’s recurring telephone call motif.

Barry is terrified of meeting Lena and of the two of them getting to know each other, because his personality has been so split apart. Having a relationship with her would be what Fairbairn, in the endo-psychic structure he devised to replace Freud‘s id/ego/superego, called the Central Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s ego…Barry in the film) connected with the Ideal Object (Lena).

Instead, Barry’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s id) tries to connect with the Exciting Object (Anna, the phone-sex girl), and his Anti-libidinal Ego (a bit like Freud’s superego) has to endure the Rejecting Object (his sisters, Dean, and Anna’s four thuggish brothers, who attack and rob Barry). Lena is his cure, his salvation, the one who will help him re-integrate his fragmented self.

Let’s consider her name. Lena has various meanings: “light,” “sunlight,” “moonlight,” “generous,” “kind,” “she who allures,” etc. It is interesting in this connection to remember Jeremy Blake’s video art sequences, with their colourful brightness, their images suggesting, if not explicitly evoking, sunlit horizons of dusk or dawn, starry moonlit nights, rainbows, etc. Lena is the light; she is the way, the truth, and the life, for Barry. Accordingly, Lena often appears surrounded in bright light, and she is typically associated in various ways with light.

Her surname Leonard means “lion’s strength.” She as a female Christ can be related to C.S. Lewis‘s Aslan, the Lion of Judah. She saves Barry and gives him his strength.

Now, when I say she saves him as a female Christ, I don’t mean that she saves him so much in the orthodox Christian sense of her ‘dying for Barry’s sins.’ (Only that scene in which the four brothers smash into Barry’s car, and she has blood dripping from her head–suggestive of Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns–associates her with the orthodox Christ.) I’d say that Lena is more of a Gnostic Christ, saving Barry by giving him gnosis, or a knowledge of his inner divine spark. With this enlightenment, he gains the strength to face his bullies.

He knows her by getting to know her during their dinner date. He knows her in the Biblical sense in her hotel room in Hawaii, their island paradise…the heaven he’s flown to on his first-ever airplane flight. And he knows her in Wilfred Bion‘s sense of gaining knowledge (K) through interpersonal communication, a soothing of his anxieties by her containing of them, etc. (Click here for more information on Bion’s and other psychoanalytical concepts.)

Recall this exchange of lines when they are on the bed in the hotel:

Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.

Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.

[pause]

Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.

He expresses his love for her with, bizarrely, aggressive and violent language. She speaks of her love for him in a similarly graphic way, though not quite as extreme in its violence. This is her containing his inner rage, which he’s projected onto her, the way a baby might project its agitation onto its mother, who would then contain it and return it to the baby in a tolerable form. Lena is, through her capacity for reverie, playing the role of mother, soothing his rage and returning his feelings to him–he being in the role of infant–in a pacified form.

This kind of soothing and acceptance is what he has needed his whole life: not to be called a “fucking retard” for getting angry, but to have his rage contained, soothed, and forgiven, like Christ forgiving us for our sins. Accordingly, Barry confesses having busted up the restaurant bathroom, apologizes, and she accepts him all the same. He later apologizes for having left her in the hospital, and for his using the phone sex service, which has led to her injury.

He says “sorry” a lot in the film. He repents; she forgives.

Her loving him as he is, with all of his faults, gives him the self-love and strength he needs to face his troubles. He thus grows in Bion’s K, or in Christ’s gnosis…whichever metaphor you prefer.

Emily Watson is a British actress, and she makes no effort to hide her accent with an American one in her portrayal of Lena; so this means that Lena is an angel of the land of the Angles, another association of her with heaven. Her job involves her often going by airplane, so she flies in heaven like an angel.

Barry has seven sisters, their nastiness to him (indicative of such things as pride and anger) associating them with the seven deadly sins, as well as the seven days of the Creation, this being a creation not by the Biblical God, but by the Demiurge, whom the Gnostic Christians deemed evil for having created the physical world, which engenders sinful desires.

Barry’s other persecutors–those four blond young men who assault and steal from him–may not be his brothers, but they are brothers all the same, so with them we can extend the association, if only symbolically, of his bullying problems with his sisters. Barry shows no sexual interest with the phone sex girl, so the brothers’ calling him a “pervert” is a projection of their own sinfulness, of lust; thus we see here more of an association of sin with siblings, his and the four brothers.

Conflict and sin among siblings is a recurring theme throughout Genesis: between Cain and Abel; between Shem and Japheth, on the one side, and Ham, who shamed their father, Noah, on the other; between Esau and Jacob; Lot’s daughters, the sisters who got him drunk, then seduced him to get them pregnant; and Joseph’s envious brothers, who had him sold into slavery. Brothers and sisters are wicked in this film, where a sinful, fleshly, Demiurge-created, Old Testament-like world can be redeemed only through the light of gnosis, of spiritual knowledge.

Elsewhere, some people have made connections between Barry and Superman, though I find their linking of the two characters to be mostly tenuous, at best. A better link with a strongman would be between Barry and Popeye, if only through the use of the song, “He Needs Me,” originally sung by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye needs her, just as he needs his spinach to be strong. Barry needs Lena, just as he needs to redeem his Healthy Choice products (with green on the cover designs, a colour better associated with spinach than with…Kryptonite?) to join her on airplane flights.

The only legitimate link I can find between this film and Superman is at the end, when Lena, dressed in red, stands behind seated Barry, always in that blue suit, and puts her arms around him, making herself into his ‘Superman cape.’ But even this moment must be seen in its proper context. Barry alone isn’t Superman; he is brave and strong only with her there. He needs her, as Popeye needs Olive Oyl. Furthermore, in that scene, Barry is playing the harmonium, as if playing a church hymn. He is Lena’s Church; her love for him is like Christ’s love for His Church.

Superman may need Lois Lane’s love, and he’d be heartbroken if she died, but he doesn’t need her to give him his powers. Lena, however, does give Barry his strength; this is why a comparison of her to a Gnostic Christ makes so much more sense. She, Lena the light, gives him the enlightenment, the gnosis, that he needs.

She gives him the punch he needs to face his abusers. Her love makes him drunk with joy; she is his sacramental wine, as it were, so his Church is a midway point between Gnosticism and Catholic orthodoxy. Her blood, on her head from that car collision, is his wine, pushing him, in his drunken love, to punch the first of the brothers, and beat and threaten the others.

She is the grace, with the harmonium and the frequent flyer miles (which he must redeem, as Christ redeems the faithful Christian believer), that comes to him, lifts him out of his despair, strengthens him, and saves him.