Analysis of ‘The Lighthouse’

The Lighthouse is a 2019 psychological horror film co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, derived from a story by him and his brother, Max Eggers. It stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who play two wickies in the late 19th century. They take care of a lighthouse on an island off the coast of New England, but a storm causes them to be stranded and isolated there, and soon they end up losing their minds and trying to kill each other.

The Lighthouse is considered one of the best films of 2019, having been nominated for Best Cinematography at the 92nd Academy Awards. Unusually, it was shot in black and white, with a nearly square, 1.19:1 aspect ratio, causing the sides of the screen to be black, which adds to the intended claustrophobic feeling.

Here are some quotes:

“Should pale death, with treble dread,
Make the ocean caves our bed,
God who hear’st the surges roll
Deign to save our suppliant soul.” –Thomas Wake

“And I’m damn-well wedded to this here light, and she’s been a finer, truer, quieter wife than any alive-blooded woman.” –Thomas Wake

Ephraim Winslow: Say, why is it bad luck to kill a gull?
Thomas Wake: In ’em’s the souls of sailors what met their maker. You a prayin’ man, Winslow?
Ephraim Winslow: Not as often as I might. But I’m God-fearin’, if that’s what you’re askin’.

“And if I tells ye to yank out every single nail from every moulderin’ nail-hole and suck off every speck of rust till all them nails sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker, and then carpenter the whole light station back together from scrap, and then do it all over again, you’ll do it! And by God and by golly, you’ll do it smilin’, lad, ’cause you’ll like it. You’ll like it ’cause I says you will! Contradict me again, and I’ll dock your wages.” –Thomas Wake

“Doldrums. Doldrums. Eviler than the Devil. Boredom makes men to villains, and the water goes quick, lad, vanished. The only med’cine is drink. Keeps them sailors happy, keeps ’em agreeable, keeps ’em calm.” –Thomas Wake

Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?

Thomas Wake: Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK! Hark, Triton, hark! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury! Black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime, to choke ye, engorging your organs til’ ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more – only when he, crowned in cockle shells with slitherin’ tentacle tail and steaming beard take up his fell be-finnèd arm, his coral-tine trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and plunges right through yer gullet, bursting ye – a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now and nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the Dread Emperor himself – forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea, for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea!
Ephraim Winslow: Alright, have it your way. I like your cookin’.

“Why’d ya spill yer beans?” –Thomas Wake

Ephraim Winslow: You think yer so damned high and mighty cause yer a goddamned lighthouse keeper? Well, you ain’t a captain of no ship and you never was, you ain’t no general, you ain’t no copper, you ain’t the president, and you ain’t my father — and I’m sick of you actin’ like you is! I’m sick of your laughing, your snoring, and your goddamned farts. Your goddamned…Goddamn yer farts! You smell like piss, you smell like jism, like rotten dick, like curdled foreskin, like hot onions fucked a farmyard shit-house. And I’m sick of yer smell. I’m sick of it! I’m sick of it, you goddamned drunk. You goddamned, no-account, son-of-a-bitch-bastard liar! That’s what you are, you’re a goddamned drunken horse-shitting — short — shit liar. A liar!
Thomas Wake: Y’have a way with words, Tommy.

O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds, and melt in hot Promethean plunder, scorching eyes, with divine shames and horror… And casting them down to Davy Jones. The others, still blind, yet in it see all the divine graces and to Fiddler’s Green sent, where no man is suffered to want or toil, but is… Ancient… immutable and unchanging as the she who girdles ’round the globe. Them’s truth. You’ll be punished.” –Thomas Wake

Dominant themes in the movie involve symbolism related to various aspects of Greek myth, and to variants of the Oedipus complex, among other psychoanalytic concepts. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are seen going on a boat to the small island whose lighthouse they are to tend. The tints and shades of grey we see add to the gloomy, dismal atmosphere. Elderly Wake will be a father figure to Winslow, whether the latter wants this relationship or not.

Wake bosses Winslow around, threatening to dock his wages if he’s insubordinate. In this tension, we see not only the conflict of a symbolic father/son relationship, but also the alienation felt between workers, the contradiction of those in superior and inferior positions.

The filming in black and white reinforces the feeling of psychological splitting, or of what’s often called black-and-white thinking. As a father figure to Winslow, Wake is experienced by his ‘son’ symbolically as both the good and bad father. For not only is there the domineering aspect of Wake, but also a comradely side, that is, when the two men begin drinking together and merrily singing sea shanties.

This splitting adds nuance and complexity to the symbolically Oedipal feelings Winslow has for Wake. Sometimes the young man hates his ‘father,’ and sometimes he loves him; that is, sometimes there’s the normal Oedipus complex, and sometimes there’s the negative version of it.

Now, such is the relationship between Winslow and his symbolic father…but what of his relationship with a symbolic mother? She is expressed in a number of indirect ways. She can be seen in the sea–Thalassa, the sea-goddess (Put another way, La mer est la mère.). She can also be seen in the shrieking mermaid of whom Winslow has masturbatory fantasies. She is a variation on the Harpy-like, squawking sea-gulls, since the Harpies, half-woman, half-bird, are also like the half-woman, half-bird Sirens…and mermaids can be seen as having evolved from the Sirens. But Mother is best seen in the light of the lighthouse, a lunatic-inspiring lunar ball shining in the night–therefore, a symbol of Selene, the moon-goddess.

We see the Oedipus complex symbolized here in how Winslow craves a chance to go up to the top of the phallic lighthouse to experience up close the ecstasy-inspiring light that Wake is always enjoying, but which Wake will never permit him to enjoy. This prohibition symbolizes what Lacan called the nom du père, or the Non! du père, the father’s law against his son’s being the phallus for his mother.

Instead, Winslow has to make do with satisfying his Oedipal feelings for Mother by transferring her elsewhere, to either the mermaid he fantasizes and hallucinates about, or through masturbating to the scrimshaw mermaid he’s found hidden in a hole in the mattress of the bed he’s using, a bed formerly used by the man he’s replacing as Wake’s subordinate, a man who–according to Wake–went mad believing there’s “enchantment in the light.”

Winslow’s finding of the mermaid scrimshaw in the mattress is symbolic of the return of repressed Oedipal feelings, which resurface in unrecognizable forms (Who would consciously associate his mother with a mermaid?).

Now, just as Winslow’s symbolic father has been split into good and bad, into the pleasant and frustrating aspects of Wake’s personality, so is the symbolic mother thus split. We’ve already seen the good mother in the Oedipally-desired forms of the light of the Fresnel lens and the mermaids; but the bad mother is equally apparent in many forms, such as when Thalassa is stormy, and when she is in her Harpy-like, sea gull form.

Winslow often has to tend to the yonic cistern, stirring the slimy liquids inside it with a phallic stick. As he does this and other onerous duties, he encounters an irritating, one-eyed gull that obstructs his path or stares at him with that confrontational eye.

He is warned by Wake not to harm any of the gulls, as they apparently house the souls of dead sailors, and thus hurting or killing them will bring bad luck. The one-eyed gull isn’t only to be associated with the female Harpies, and hence only with the bad mother; its one eye also invites an association with the male Cyclops. When Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, he incurred the wrath of the Cyclops’s father, Poseidon; similarly, when Winslow kills the gull, especially in that violent, malicious way, he incurs the wrath not only of the gulls (whose Harpy association is in turn connected with the winds), but also of the sea-god.

My point is that we see both the gulls and the sea as male and female at the same time. The one-eyed gull is a female Harpy and a male Cyclops; the sea is female Thalassa and male Poseidon, or Neptune, as Wake calls him. This male/female combination, symbolic of Mother and Father, gives us Melanie Klein‘s terrifying combined parent figure, the phallic mother. For just as there’s splitting into opposites in this film, so is there a dialectical unifying of them, too.

The combined parent figure is also seen in Winslow’s hallucination–towards the end of the film, when he’s been punching Wake on the floor–that Wake is the mermaid, her thumb in Winslow’s mouth and him erotically sucking on it. Then, Winslow sees not her, but an effeminate-looking Wake looking up at him and grinning mockingly. On several occasions, Wake sees Winslow as androgynous, too, saying the boy is “pretty as a picture,” and “with eyes bright as a lady.”

This merging of opposite sexes is just one example of the merging of opposites seen in the film. The names of Wake and Winslow, with their shared Ws, as well as their shared name of Thomas (i.e., when we learn that Ephraim Winslow is really Thomas Howard), means that the two of them can be seen as doubles of each other.

This doubling of Wake and Winslow, or Thomas and Thomas, means that the line separating the two men is blurred. Each man is a metaphorical mirror of the other. Just as Winslow has a symbolically Oedipal (i.e., murderous) attitude towards Wake, so does Wake have a kind of ‘Laius complex‘ towards his symbolic son. Both men have urges to kill, or at least injure, each other.

Just as Thomas Howard, motivated by murderous urges, allowed the real Ephraim Winslow to die during their logging job in Hudson Bay, Canada; so can it very well be that Wake has killed his previous subordinate, using the ‘madness’ story to cover up his crime. This could be regardless of whether or not Winslow has hallucinated seeing the head of his predecessor in the lobster trap.

Both men project their crimes, their madness, and their vices onto each other. They accuse each other of smelling bad: Wake says Winslow “smell[s] of shit”; Winslow gripes about Wake’s frequent farting, and that the old man smells of “piss” and “jism” (a projection of Winslow’s own masturbating with the mermaid scrimshaw).

Wake uses an ax to hack up the dory Winslow was hoping to escape in, then he chases Winslow with it; afterwards, Wake claims it was Winslow who was wielding the ax. Wake judges Winslow for engaging in “self-abuse” with the scrimshaw; yet when Wake is up with the Fresnel lens at the top of the lighthouse, he’s undressed and sits in awe of his “wife,” suggesting a symbolic sexual union with “her.” His hogging of the light to himself suggests a jealous lover, the father refusing to allow his son to indulge in his Oedipal appetites.

When Winslow, or Thomas Howard, really, confesses to his criminal negligence in not saving the life of his foreman in Canada, the real Ephraim Winslow (a man whose white hair suggests a man old enough to be Howard’s father, and who bossed Howard around as Wake does, and as a father would his son, thus engendering more murderous Oedipal fantasies), Wake describes the confession as ‘spilling one’s beans,’ which invites comparison with Wake’s farting. Both men have filth that they wish to expel (recall the possibility that Wake killed Winslow’s predecessor).

So the many points of similarity between the two men suggest a fading of each man’s individuality, a merging of their identities, just as there’s a merging of seagulls with Harpies, Sirens, and mermaids, and there’s a merging of Thalassa with Poseidon, Oceanus, and Pontus (i.e., male and female sea deities). In fact, even Wake is equated with Poseidon when he curses at Winslow, invoking Neptune, for not liking his cooking, and when the old man is seen naked on the outer balcony of the lighthouse with Winslow (who hallucinates a double of himself), in a dramatic posture imitative of Neptune.

This merging of identities, this blurring of boundaries between people, is symbolized by the Chaos-like, crashing waves of the ocean, especially during the storm. Liquids, like water and alcohol, are formless: they have only the shapes of their containers. So the Chaos and formlessness of the ocean water has its parallel in the wild madness associated with liquor. Poseidon’s identity is thus merged with that of Dionysus.

To cope with their isolation and the misery that is associated with their work, Wake and Winslow indulge in the manic defence of getting drunk. The Harpy-like seagulls, getting revenge on Winslow for killing the one-eyed gull, bring on the winds and rain that ruin the men’s provisions, rather similar to how the Harpies shat on blind Phineus‘ dinner table. The two men dig up a crate of liquor, and their Dionysian revelry intensifies.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote of the difference between individuating Apollo and his opposite, Dionysus, whose wild ecstasies, ritual madness, and dismembering, mutilating Maenads destroyed all sense of individuality, returning us all to that original, formless Chaos: ‘…we might say of Apollo that in him the unshaken faith in this principum [individuationis] and the calm repose of the man wrapped up in it receive their most sublime expression; and we might call Apollo himself the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, through whose gestures and eyes all the joy and wisdom of “illusion,” together with its beauty, speak to us.

‘In the same work Schopenhauer has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception. If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication…’

‘…Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.’ (Nietzsche, pages 36-37)

Drunken Wake and Winslow, dancing and singing sea shanties, are experiencing this ecstatic madness, this “union between man and man.” Yet, as with the dialectical relationship between all opposites, the heights of heaven and pleasure are quickly coupled with the depths of hell and pain. The shift from individuated, differentiated Apollo to undifferentiated Dionysus is paralleled by the result of what Lacan called foreclosure, a repudiation of the Name of the Father and of the Symbolic Order (i.e., the Oedipal refusal to give up Mother, as we see in Winslow’s continued craving of the Fresnel lens light), that result being the madness of the undifferentiated Real Order.

Now, excessive drinking has been known to worsen mental illness; and Winslow–in his guilt over what happened to the real Winslow, stealing the dead man’s identity (a symbolic identification with the Father) and not taking responsibility for his negligence–has already been seeing things. The punitive superego, derived from the internalized objects of his parents, is driving him mad with guilt. Wake’s and Winslow’s partying will lead to Maenad-like violence soon enough.

Their drunken hugging…and near kissing…quickly shifts to homophobic fisticuffs. In this contrast, we see the symbolizing of the love/hate, Oedipal relationship between father and son. Part of the hate aspect of that relationship is the son’s fear of castration by his father; and Wake’s earlier confiscation of Winslow’s filched knife is symbolically such a castration, as is Wake’s docking of Winslow’s wages. Further unmanning of the young man is seen when, after he complains of everything he can’t stand about Wake, the old man puts him in his place by describing him as a spoiled crybaby.

Finally, Winslow turns the tables on Wake by beating him to a pulp, during which the young man hallucinates seeing the mermaid again; then he sees Cthulhu-like tentacles, symbolic of the chthonic area of Mother Earth, wrapping themselves around his neck. He hallucinates some more, seeing Wake decked out effeminately (i.e., the symbolic combined parent figure), but he keeps punching the old man. Having been called “dog” by Wake (and the real Winslow) for so long, Thomas Howard now makes Wake into his more-or-less literal dog, forcing him to be led about on a leash.

This turning of the tables, a switching of master and servant, reinforces the doubling of both Thomases. The burying of Wake alive, in the chthonic underground of Mother Earth, symbolically recalls the Cthulhu/chthonic tentacles, and is another representation of the combined parent figure.

Winslow steals Wake’s keys (more symbolic castration, but this time the ‘son’ is the perpetrator, like Cronus, and the ‘father’ is the victim, like Uranus). Wake tries to kill Winslow (like Laius trying to kill baby Oedipus by exposure), but Winslow successfully kills Wake (like Oedipus killing Laius where the three roads meet). These switches of father/son role-play once again reinforce the sense that there’s no real boundary between the two men.

Winslow finally gets to the Fresnel lens, and experiences firsthand the light of the symbolic Mother. His Oedipal fantasy has been fulfilled at last. The transgressive jouissance he enjoys, a sinful, forbidden pleasure spilling over into pain, is him seeing those eye-like, revolving circles-within-circles, the eyes of a loving mother looking back at him, returning his desire to him, and satisfying it. He puts his hand into the lens, symbolic of entering her sacred yoni.

He screams in his mad ecstasy, then falls down the spiral staircase; for no one can enjoy such excessive pleasure without suffering the consequences. For the sin of his “hot Promethean plunder,” he suffers the same fate as the naked Titan chained to a mountain. A gull tears at his innards, just as an eagle ate the liver of Prometheus.

Never mess with the sea-gods. Don’t be unnatural with Mother Nature.

Analysis of ‘Last Tango in Paris’

Last Tango in Paris is a 1972 erotic film co-written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (the other writers being Franco Arcalli and dialogue writers Agnès Varda and Jean-Louis Trintignant). It stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as two lovers sharing an apartment and having an anonymous sexual relationship.

The film is controversial for its violent sexuality, in particular for a scene in which Paul (Brando) anally rapes Jeanne (Schneider). Upon release in the US, it got an X rating from the MPAA, even with the most graphic scene cut. It was, however, universally well-received in France, and was praised by Pauline Kael and Robert Altman. Brando received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Bertolucci was nominated for Best Director.

Here are some quotes:

“Fucking GOD!!!” –Paul, with his hands over his ears at the overwhelming sound of a passing train overhead (first line)

“That’s your happiness, and my hap-penis.” –Paul, when Jeanne puts her hands on his crotch

Jeanne: I fell in love with him when I heard him playing piano.
Paul: You mean when he first got into your knickers.
Jeanne: He was a child prodigy; he was playing with both hands.
Paul: I bet he was!

“Olympia is the personification of domestic virtue: faithful, economic and racist.” –Jeanne

Jeanne: Free? I’m not free. You want to know why you don’t want to know anything about me? Because you hate women.
Paul: Oh, really?
Jeanne: What have they ever done to you?
Paul: Well, either they always pretend to know who I am, or they pretend that I don’t know who they are, and that’s very boring.

“It’s beautiful without knowing anything.” –Jeanne

“Go get the butter.” –Paul

“Family secrets? I’ll tell you about family secrets.” –Paul, to Jeanne, preparing to sodomize her

“No, you’re alone. You’re all alone. And you won’t be able to be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean that sounds like bullshit. Some romantic crap. Until you go right up into the ass of death. Right up in his ass. ‘Til you find the womb of fear.” –Paul, to Jeanne

Paul: Put your fingers up my ass. Are you deaf? Go on. I’m gonna get a pig. And I’m gonna have the pig fuck you. And I want the pig to vomit in your face. Then I want you to swallow the vomit. Are you gonna do that for me?
Jeanne: Yes! Yeah!
Paul: I want the pig to die while you’re fucking him. Then you have to go behind it. I want you to smell the dying farts of the pig. Are you gonna do all of that for me?

“A little touch of Mommy in the night. Fake Ophelia drowned in a bathtub.” –Paul, to Rosa’s corpse

“Our marriage was nothing more than a foxhole for you. And all it took for you to get out was a 35-cent razor and a tub full of water. You cheap, goddamn, fucking, godforsaken whore, I hope you rot in hell. You’re worse than the dirtiest street pig that anybody could ever find anywhere, and you know why? You know why? Because you lied. You lied to me and I trusted you. You lied and you knew you were lying. Go on, tell me you didn’t lie. Haven’t you got anything to say about that? You can think up something, can’t you? Go on, tell me something! Go on, smile, you cunt!” [crying] “Go on, tell me… tell me something sweet. Smile at me and say I just misunderstood. Go on, tell me. You pig-fucker… you goddamn, fucking, pig-fucking liar.” [sobbing] “Rosa… I’m sorry, I… I just – I can’t stand it to see these goddamn things on your face!” [peels off her fake eyelashes] “You never wore make-up… this fucking shit. I’m gonna take this off your mouth, this – this lipstick… Rosa – oh GOD! I’m sorry! I – I don’t know why you did it! I’d do it too, if I knew how… I just don’t know how… I have to… have to find a way…” –Paul, to his dead wife at her wake

Paul: You ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia, and now I’ve found you… and I love you. I want to know your name.
Jeanne: Jeanne. [she shoots him]

“I don’t know his name…” –Jeanne, in French (last line of the film)

As suggested by the two Francis Bacon portraits of a man and a woman seen during the opening credits, the theme of duality is ever-present in this film: male vs female, English vs French languages, an American (Paul) vs a Frenchwoman (Jeanne), old vs young, life vs death, knowing vs unknowing (or, as Wilfred Bion would have said, K vs -K), lies vs truth, illusion vs reality, Jeanne’s cheating on her fiancé, Thomas (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), vs Paul’s wife, Rosa (Veronica Lazar), cheating on him, and Paul’s hotel vs the apartment he and Jeanne rent for their sexual relationship.

Paul is an American widower living in Paris and mourning his wife, Rosa, who has recently committed suicide after having been discovered in an affair with a man staying in Paul’s hotel, named Marcel (played by Massimo Girotti). By chance, Paul and Jeanne find themselves renting the same apartment. As the two of them converse, they both switch back and forth between French and English. The scene climaxes (pardon the expression) with them having sex.

After that, Jeanne rushes off to find her fiancé, Thomas, a young film director with exuberant feelings about his moments of artistic inspiration, to the point of looking, to put it bluntly, foolish. As such, he makes the perfect cuckold, a sharp contrast to jaded, macho, pouting Paul.

The engaged couple kiss ecstatically, and Thomas tells her about a TV project, ‘Portrait of a Girl,’ he’s filming with her. He hasn’t told her about it yet, because he wants it to be a surprise. The cameras are rolling as they speak. She is annoyed that he’d do this without asking her consent first.

This TV film they’re making is supposed to be about her life, but how much of it really is autobiographical, and how much of it is made up, is anyone’s guess. One finds it safe to assume that Jeanne doesn’t want to reveal all that much of her personal life to the general public.

Now, whatever extent this TV film is a break from reality is nothing compared to the break from the real world that Paul wants to establish with Jeanne in the private, cut-off world of their affair in the apartment. He doesn’t want them to know each other’s names, nor are they to discuss anything true about their pasts.

Their room, as he sees it, is a sanctuary from the pain and suffering of the world outside. He’d rather the two of them have animal grunts instead of names, so in one scene he grunts like a gorilla, and she makes a high-pitched, bird-like, extended rhotic trill. Theirs is an Edenic rejection of civilization. How appropriate that they’re both nude when they make these animal sounds: they’re like Adam and Eve before eating the forbidden fruit…or at least they’re trying to be like them.

Recall that Adam and Eve didn’t have their names yet. He named her Eve only after the Fall (Genesis 3:20), and he was ‘named’ Adam only insofar as, in the original Hebrew, he was ‘adam (“man”) from the ‘adamah (the dirt, or dust, of the ground–Genesis 2:7). Theirs was a world of unknowing prior to the Fall, since the forbidden fruit was from the Tree of Knowledge. Ignorance is bliss: Paul is trying to create a paradise out of unknowing. The two naked lovers are in a Garden of Eden of their own (given his dominance over Jeanne, note the irony in my allusive choice of words). This ‘paradise’ is something Paul imagines will help him get over his grief over Rosa’s suicide.

Put another way, Paul is using Jeanne to play a role in his Edenic fantasy, just as Thomas is using her for his film fantasy. Both men get irritated if she does anything to defy their wishes to carry on acting out these fantasies: at a train station, Thomas actually throws punches at her for refusing to carry on with the film. She would be free to live her own life…but they don’t want to let her do so.

In one of her attempts at defiance of Paul’s rule that he and she never learn anything about each other, she goes through his jacket pockets to find some identification on him. Nude except for a scarf wrapped around her neck, Jeanne looks like Eve picking one of the forbidden fruits off the Tree of Knowledge (i.e., his jacket, hung up by the entrance to the bathroom, as if it were a cluster of leaves).

Since Paul is making the rules, forbidding any gaining of knowledge, he represents not only Adam, but also Yahweh. On his way to the bathroom, Paul approaches her after she’s looked through his jacket pockets, and in a way he seems like Yahweh “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). Paul enjoys her, as Adam enjoyed Eve, and he rules over her, as Yahweh did…and Adam did (Genesis 3:16).

Naturally, Jeanne resents Paul’s dominance and accuses him of hating women. She complains that she is merely his whore, though she–being a non-native English speaker–mispronounces the word as “wore.” This mispronunciation can be seen as a Freudian slip, for he and she, during their sexual unions prior to this scene, “wore” each other, as it were, each other’s bodies as clothes on their own nakedness; but this ‘wearing’ of flesh as metaphorical clothing especially applies to Paul in his ‘wearing’ of her body, his using it as a kind of commodity.

Indeed, the movie itself uses Maria Schneider as a commodity: if she isn’t nude, she is in tight blue jeans spreading her legs, or topless and arching her back in them to accentuate her ass as she does a scene masturbating. She’s the one showing off her body, not Brando (except when he moons the female emcee of a tango contest towards the end of the film). Schneider complained much of how poorly she was treated during filming, especially the “butter” scene.

Though the infamous scene of Paul sodomizing Jeanne was, of course, just simulated sex, Schneider was actually traumatized during the filming; she “was crying real tears” and complained of feeling “humiliated and…a little raped.” The scene was not originally in the script, and she would have refused to do it had she known she could.

If she’d felt “a little raped” during a scene of simulated sex, that sounds suspiciously like a PTSD flashback reaction to a memory of a real rape. For Schneider’s sake, I hope I’m wrong in speculating that about her real life history.

As unpleasant as the experience of filming that scene was for her, though, in terms of adding to the plot and symbolism of the story, I see the “butter” scene as full of meaning. As I said above, Paul is using Jeanne to help him, in the form of his anonymous Edenic fantasy, to process his grieving over Rosa’s suicide. Paul has absolutely no right at all to use Jeanne in this way, but he does anyway.

He weeps like a baby over Rosa’s death. This infant-like weeping is significant, for in Rosa, her mother, and Jeanne, I suspect Paul is doing a transference onto them of his Oedipal feelings for his own mother. His macho, sexist exterior is a reaction formation, a false self hiding the dependent baby within. Normally, we think of a transference happening between a patient and his or her therapist (i.e., feelings of childhood relationships transferred onto the analyst), and Paul is, in a way, using Jeanne to be his therapist; but transference can be achieved between any two people.

He lives with Rosa’s mother (played by Maria Michi) in his “flophouse” hotel, and just as he isn’t particularly nice to Jeanne, so is he abrasive with Rosa’s mother and was, I suspect, to Rosa herself (Could his nastiness have driven her into Marcel’s arms, then to her death? It seems that way.).

His bad attitude toward women is probably rooted in his relationship with his mother; object relations theory explains how our early childhood relationships with our parents and primary caregivers are like blueprints for how our relationships with people will be later in life. When Paul speaks to Jeanne of his mother, he says that she was, on the one hand, a drunk, and he implies that she was promiscuous (implying, in turn, his own Oedipal jealousy–he remembers her having been “arrested nude”); and on the other hand, he says she was “poetic,” and she inspired a love of nature in him. Such a dual attitude suggests a psychological splitting of her into the ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad mother.’

So Paul’s frustrations with the ‘bad mother’ end up being transferred onto Jeanne, Rosa’s mother, and probably Rosa herself when she was alive. He certainly treats Rosa’s corpse like a bad mother when he tearfully rants at her, calling her every four-letter name imaginable, then sobs like a baby.

To deal with all of his frustration, Paul must project it, as a baby would onto his mother when, for example, she doesn’t provide the breast for him. A baby pushes his negative feelings onto his mother, making her contain them, then return them to him in a detoxified form. Bion‘s theory of containment uses a masculine symbol (implying a phallus) for the baby’s contained feelings of agitation, and a feminine symbol (implying a yoni) for his mother as a container. Hence, the sex act is a perfect symbol for this notion of containing and detoxifying agitating emotional experiences. (See here for a more thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Unfortunately for Jeanne, though, her anus is the symbolic container, not her vagina; so the sodomy represents negative containment. This kind of containment does not lead to the soothing, detoxifying kind that is supposed to happen for a baby whose mother has a capacity for reverie, or for a psychotic patient whose psychotherapist is playing the soothing, maternal role. Rather, it leads to a nameless dread, the trauma Jeanne is experiencing. As I said above, Paul is using Jeanne as a kind of therapist on whom he can thrust all of his pain, but she cannot be expected to play such a role.

As he is sodomizing her, he has her repeat his reflections on “family secrets,” which sound suspiciously like traumatizing experiences he had as a child because of his family, and maybe his church, too. He reflects on the social lie that the family is “a holy institution meant to breed virtue in savages,” that the “holy family” is a “church of good citizens,” but really, “the children are tortured until they tell their first lie,” ” the world is broken by repression,” and “freedom is assassinated by egotism.” So this so-called “holy family” is really just “you…fucking…family.” When he comes, he grunts, “Oh, God…Jesus,” implying the hypocrisies not only of the bourgeois, church-going family, but also the myth of the Church’s Holy Family. Outside, the phallic overhead train is seen flying by.

This linking of the hypocrisies of the family of “virtue” with those of the “church of good citizens” seems to shed light on the meaning of his condemnation of “fucking God,” both at the beginning of the film, with the thundering noise of the phallic overhead train, and in his refusal to allow Rosa’s mother to have any priests at Rosa’s funeral.

I believe we should take literally Paul’s references to “fucking God” and “you fucking family”: this isn’t just gratuitous swearing. There’s the phoney virtue of the Father-God of the sanctimonious Church, some of whose priests (“Fathers”) rape children and go unpunished (Did this happen to Paul as a boy, hence his anal rape of Jeanne to have her contain his trauma…or did one of his parents sexually abuse him?).

Then there’s the “fucking god” of Greek myth, Zeus, or Jupiter (Dieus-pater), the sky-father god who hurled thunderbolts as noisy as that overhead train that seems to fly by–in the sky, as it were. Zeus, who also ravished nymphs and pretty maidens, seems to resemble Paul’s “whore-fucker” father…and he seems to resemble Paul himself. The sky-father isn’t the God of the Church, but the rapist Zeus.

Belief in God is often seen as a transference of feelings for one’s father onto the heavenly deity. Along with the love one feels for, and the need one has for security from, the father-God, also comes the sense of the god’s authoritarian dominance, rooted in the authority of one’s father.

Recall how Paul describes his father as “tough,” a “whore-fucker,” and “super-masculine,” all of which sound like projections of his macho self, but which could also be him identifying with his father. He claims that he may not have been telling Jeanne the truth about his past, but even his lying can have included unconscious, Freudian-slip confessions of truth…if he even is lying.

Added to all of this is the surprising civility he shows to Marcel: shouldn’t he be throwing punches at the man who seduced his wife? Marcel is older than Paul, though actor Girotti was older than Brando by only six years. Brando was about 48 when making this film, but Paul–in his truthful revealing of himself to Jeanne at the end of the story–says he’s 45, allowing for a greater age difference between him and Marcel, who could be even older than Girotti, and therefore older than Paul by several more years.

My point in mentioning these age differences is that, if Paul has transferred his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Rosa, then he easily could have also done such a transference from his father onto Marcel. The fear of his “tough,” “super-masculine,” and (symbolically) castrating father (who bullied him into milking a cow and getting cow-shit on his nice shoes before taking a girl to a basketball game) has been transferred, however unconsciously, onto Marcel, thus preventing Paul from fighting the older man…and as we know, Paul is easily provoked to violence.

Paul punches a door, in what looks like a childish temper tantrum, in response to Rosa’s mother asking why Rosa killed herself (her mother didn’t know she’d had an affair with Marcel, hence Paul’s anger). He grabs, throws around, and slaps a man for not wanting to sleep with an old prostitute, one who knew Rosa and is desperate for the money; Paul shouts at the would-be john, calling him a “faggot.” But he won’t fight Marcel.

Paul is far more upset about Rosa’s suicide than her adultery. My interpretation, that he has transferred his Oedipal feelings from his parents onto Rosa and Marcel, can explain this: unconscious fear of his father, transferred onto Marcel, inhibits and restrains his anger at the adultery; unconscious fear of abandonment by his mother, transferred onto Rosa, explains how Paul not only mourns, but has fallen to pieces, over her suicide.

He enters the room where her body is being kept, and he makes two Shakespearian allusions: “a little touch of Mommy in the night,” and Rosa is a “fake Ophelia drowned in a bathtub,” surrounded in flowers. Rosa’s mother has arranged this gaudy presentation of her body, heavily made up, and Paul is disgusted at the over-the-top display. Henry V, in the Bard’s play, is a paternal figure going about the camp, concerned with the morale of his army, who are about to fight the French the next morning; Paul’s allusion, of course, is sheer sarcasm. Ophelia’s suicide, provoked by her mad boyfriend, Hamlet, is like Rosa’s suicide, provoked by her mad husband.

Paul lets out a long, four-letter rant at his wife’s corpse. He sobs like a baby frustrated with its mother for denying it what it needs (and recall that he’s transferred his feelings for his mother onto Rosa). His hostile attitude toward Rosa is like a baby going through what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, in which Mother is seen as all bad. Then, weeping even more profusely, Paul apologizes to Rosa and lets his body fall onto hers; he’s like a baby going through the depressive position and wanting reparation with the mother it has hated. This scene seems to show Paul finally processing his grief with a degree of success, unlike his attempts to have Jeanne contain his pain.

Because he feels he has largely processed his grief and exorcized his demons, Paul no longer needs his anonymous sexual Garden of Eden with Jeanne, and so he not only stops using the apartment, but he also removes all the furniture there, all without telling her. She finds the abandoned room and sobs in frustration and desolation.

There has never really been a connection between the two, outside of the sex. In an earlier scene, Paul leaves the apartment, shutting the door in her face, and not even saying goodbye to her. He hasn’t wanted to know her name, nor have her know his, because he hasn’t wanted them to know each other at all, beyond physically. This unknowing has been his definition of Eden: not eating of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, what Bion called -K. Ignorance is bliss, as I said above.

The K-link is a link between subject and object, or between the self and other; it has its origin in the mother/infant relationship, developed through the container/contained exchange of emotional experiences as described above. But Paul doesn’t want to grow in K with Jeanne; accordingly, when she describes her sexual experiences, she notices that he never listens to her. He orders her around, with never a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ when he wants her to get the butter or the manicure scissors.

There’s no mutuality in their relationship, so there’s no growth in K as shared, exchanged knowledge of emotional experiences between two people. Even though he has her stick her fingers up his ass, this is no equalizing reversal of his having sodomized her, for it is he who’s wanted it, not her. He isn’t containing her pain, as he’s had her contain his during the anal rape.

Just before she puts her fingers up his ass, we hear him rationalizing his alienating of her by saying that we’re “all alone.” Only going “right up into the ass of death,” looking death straight in the face, to “find the womb of fear” (his words sound like an expression of his facing his infantile Oedipal trauma), will we “be free of that feeling of being alone.”

Jeanne tells Thomas about the apartment and tells him on the phone there that they should consider it as their new home when they’re married. He arrives and looks around; she mentions a room too small for a bed, but one in which a baby could sleep. This leads to a discussion of baby names.

Both of them would name their future son or daughter after communist revolutionaries: Fidel or Rosa [!], the latter being not as well-known, but also “not bad,” in Thomas’s opinion. Here we see the hypocrisy of the bourgeois liberal, posing as progressives, masquerading in the trappings of radical chic. One might think, for example, of a critic of Cuba who still wears a Che Guevara T-shirt: the unsuccessful revolutionary is “not bad,” whereas the successful one is considered bad.

We can see this hypocrisy earlier in the film, in Jeanne’s judgement of her nurse Olympia as “racist,” on the one hand, but also in her love and admiration for her late father, the colonel in Algeria who died in 1958 (of whom she forbids Paul to speak disrespectfully), presumably killed in battle during the Algerian fight for independence from France (which included such Marxist revolutionaries as Frantz Fanon), ending in an Algerian victory in 1962, ten years before this story.

A true progressive leftist would condemn her father’s defence of imperialism and colonialism, but Jeanne has loved her father “like a god” (she even wears his uniform and points his phallic pistol in a scene in her home, an act of identification with him), an interesting point to be made in connection with the ‘fucking gods’ in Paul’s life, as discussed above. Her love of “the colonel,” thinking he looked handsome in his uniform, is no less an Oedipal fixation than is Paul’s towards his parents and their transferences, Rosa and Marcel, as well as Rosa’s mother and even Jeanne herself.

Jeanne’s mother is no less racist than that “personification of domestic virtue,” Olympia (who notes that their old dog, Mustapha, could recognize an Arab by his smell, as well as tell the difference between the rich and the poor): her mother calls the Berbers “a strong race, but as servants–disastrous,” a typical bourgeois imperialist attitude. Jeanne has no more words of criticism for her mother than for her father, yet she would name her son after Castro.

Ever wanting to capture Jeanne in his world of filmic fantasy, Thomas imagines getting shots of her dancing about the apartment, her arms spread out like an airplane’s wings…but the vivacity he sees in her eyes perhaps raises his suspicions that she’s been seeing another man–in this very apartment? (Recall all those times previously, when she’s had to rush off after filming.) As a result, he wants to find another apartment for them. He says goodbye and shakes her hand, as if they were mere business partners, or friends, rather than lovers.

I suspect she has seen suspicion in his eyes, raising her fears. These fears, combined with how badly Paul has treated her, strengthen her resolution: she must break it off with Paul. He, of course, won’t have that: she is a mere possession in his eyes, and she isn’t allowed to live her own life without him.

Not only does he want to start the relationship all over again, he also wants them to know each other. They’ve left the Garden of Eden that was their rented apartment, and now he’d have them eat of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. Jeanne is not impressed with what he tells her of his dull life. Paradise is lost. Paul’s quest for knowledge (K), like that of Adam and Eve, as well as of Oedipus, will destroy him.

Paul and Jeanne go into a place where a tango competition is almost finished. He says that the tango is a rite. The stylized movements of the dancers certainly give off that ceremonial effect: they are precise and graceful, but their Apollonian discipline and precision look artificial.

Paul and Jeanne, however, are Dionysian drunks at their table, drinking champagne and whiskey and making a toast to a “life in the country,” which Jeanne finds distasteful. Earlier, Thomas filmed her at her country home with Olympia, and so the idea of a life in the country with Paul suggests an intrusion by him into her world.

Paul decides they should join the dancers, and their drunken clumsiness among the tangoing couples is a scandal to see. Since the tango symbolizes the sexual union of a man and a woman (hence, the film’s title), Paul’s and Jeanne’s Dionysian tumbling exposes the artificiality of the sexual relationship as symbolized by the precise, Apollonian tango dancing. She wants to break it off with him, yet she grins as she goes piggyback on his shoulders onto the dance floor.

They sit again at a dark area on the other side of the dance floor. Paul makes another Shakespearian allusion: “If music be the food of love, play on,” originally said by Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, in his sadness over his unrequited love for the lady Olivia. In fact, the play’s central theme is unrequited love, which is exactly Paul’s predicament at the moment.

Lacan once provocatively said that there’s no relation between the sexes: love is an illusion; it doesn’t last (Will Jeanne’s and Thomas’s love last?). Indeed, for all the hype surrounding this film as an X-rated, erotic film, there isn’t all that much sex in it–how symbolic of the lack of a relationship between the sexes. There’s Paul’s and Jeanne’s first fuck when they meet in the apartment, there’s Schneider showing off her nakedness several times, there’s the profanity, the butter scene, Jeanne’s fingers up Paul’s ass after he bathes her, and there’s the hand job she gives him during the tango competition. In a film over two hours long, that’s about it: little more than morsels of porn.

She runs out onto the streets, and he chases her. At one point, just before she reaches her apartment building, he’s ahead of her, but he steps out of her way, reminding us of when Brando stepped out of Vivien Leigh‘s way towards the end of A Streetcar Named Desire (then Kowalski, it’s strongly implied in the 1951 film version, rapes Blanche). Paul races after Jeanne into her apartment, fighting his way inside as she tries to close the door on him, his forcing his way in being symbolic of raping her.

Inside her apartment, he puts on the cap that’s part of her father’s old uniform. She, standing in front of a drawer that holds her father’s old pistol, frowns at the sight of Paul in the hat. He may have transferred his Oedipal feelings onto Rosa and Jeanne, but Jeanne would never transfer her love of her father onto Paul. His mock saluting feels like more disrespect to her father.

He wants to know her name. As with Adam, the day of gaining knowledge is also the day Paul will die (Genesis 2:17). No sooner does she say, “Jeanne,” than she also pulls the trigger and puts a bullet into his gut.

This wound is his experience of negative containment. His gut is the yonic container, the bullet her ejaculated pain, now contained in him, and he’ll feel that nameless dread for these last few seconds of his life as he staggers out onto the balcony. She’s returned to him what he gave her in the anal rape.

She holds the phallic pistol dangling at waist level, just by her crotch. She is thus the phallic woman, gaining the strength and power she needs to liberate herself from this dominant man. The gun also symbolically makes her what Klein called the terrifying combined parent figure, the mother with a phallus (recall Paul’s words, “the womb of fear”).

Camille Paglia sees the mother “as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement” (Paglia, Preface, page xiii). Paul has tried, but ultimately failed, to escape the ghost of his mother through his “super-masculine” bravado. How fitting that Paul would be killed by Jeanne, on whom he’s transferred his feelings for his mother.

On the balcony, he sticks the gum he’s been chewing on the balustrade; one last projection of his. Next, we see him lying dead out there…in a fetal position. I told you that, behind his macho façade, he was a baby.

She must get her story straight for the police. Conveniently for her, he never got around to telling her his name, so that won’t slip out when she’s telling them she doesn’t know him at all.

But in a larger sense, is she really free of male dominance? Will the mostly (if not all) male police accept her story? And what of her marriage to Thomas, who never wants to stop filming her? Recall how he hit her when she refused to carry on with his filmic fantasies, a direct parallel with Paul’s Edenic use of the rented apartment to disavow all knowledge of the outside world.

“When something’s finished, it begins again”…doesn’t it?

Analysis of ‘In Bruges’

In Bruges is a 2008 British/American black comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

As the film’s title indicates, the story is set in Bruges, Belgium, where two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson, respectively), are sent by their boss, Harry (Fiennes), on a ‘vacation’ of sorts, until Ken is given instructions by Harry to buy a gun there and kill Ray for accidentally killing a boy while doing a job.

The film earned Farrell the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, while Gleeson was nominated in the same category. McDonagh won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines] Ray: After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through. “Get the fuck out of London, youse dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was. [pause] It’s in Belgium.

“Bruges is a shithole.” –Ray

“I like it here.” –Ken, to himself, at the top of the tower and overlooking the city

Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?
Ray: Yeah… yeah, it’s rubbish.
Overweight Man: It is? The guide book says it’s a must-see.
Ray: Well you lot ain’t going up there.
Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?
Ray: I mean, it’s all winding stairs. I’m not being funny.
Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?
Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? Youse a bunch of fuckin’ elephants.
[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around but quickly grows tired]
Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!
[the overweight women calm down the overweight man]
Overweight Woman #2: [to Ray] You know you’re just the rudest man. The rudest man!
Ken: [coming back from the tower] What’s all that about? [Ray shrugs] They’re not going up there. [to overweight family] Hey, guys. I wouldn’t go up there. It’s really narrow.
Overweight Woman #2: Screw you, motherfucker!
Ray: Americans, isn’t it?

“What are they doing over there? They’re filming something. They’re filming midgets!” –Ray

Canadian Guy: I don’t care if this is the smoking section, all right? She directed it right in my face, man! I don’t wanna die just because of your fucking arrogance!
Ray: [thinking the tourist is American] Uh huh, is that what the Vietnamese used to say?

[beating the Canadian guy, whom he believes to be American] “That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!” –Ray

Ken: You from the States?
Jimmy: Yeah. But don’t hold it against me.
Ken: I’ll try not to…Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.

Jimmy: There’s gonna be a war, man. I can see it. There’s gonna be a war between the blacks and between the whites. You ain’t even gonna need a uniform no more. This ain’t gonna be a war where you pick your side. Your side’s already picked for you.
Ray: And I know whose side I’m fighting on. I’m fighting with the blacks. The whites are gonna get their heads kicked in!
Jimmy: You don’t decide this shit, man.
Ray: Well, who are the half-castes gonna fight with?
Jimmy: The blacks, man. That’s obvious.
Ray: What about the Pakistanis?
Jimmy: The blacks.
Ray: What about…Think of a hard one. What about the Vietnamese?
Jimmy: The blacks!
Ray: Well, I’m definitely fighting with the blacks if they’ve got the Vietnamese. [pause] So, hang on. Would all of the white midgets in the world be fighting against all the black midgets in the world?
Jimmy: Yeah.
Ray: That would make a good film!
Jimmy: You don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off of black midgets, man.

Ken: [looking at a surreal Bosch painting] It’s Judgment Day, you know?
Ray: No. What’s that then?
Ken: Well, it’s, you know, the final day on Earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they’ve committed and that.
Ray: Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that.
Ken: Yeah. And what’s the other place?
Ray: Purgatory.
Ken: Purgatory…what’s that?
Ray: Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham. [pause] Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?

Ken: And at the same time, at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.
Ray: Who was that?
Ken: This fellow Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. But he came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.

“The little boy…” –priest, after having been shot by Ray

“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, and all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?” –Harry, to Ken on the phone in the hotel

“I know I’m awake, but I feel like I’m in a dream.” –Ken, pretending Ray has said it

“Do you know what that is? Yeah, I know you know it’s a train. Do you know what train? Well, it’s a train that Ray just got on, and he’s alive and he’s well, and he doesn’t know where he’s going and neither do I. So if you need to do your worst, do your worst. You’ve got the address of the hotel. I’ll be here waiting. Because I’ve got to quite like Bruges, now. It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.” –Ken, at the train station, on the phone with Harry

Natalie: [Harry gets angry and is destroying the phone; his wife approaches him, saying:] Harry. Harry! It’s an inanimate fucking object!
Harry: [to wife] You’re an inanimate fuckin’ object!

“When I phoned you yesterday, did I ask you, ‘Ken, will you do me a favour and become Ray’s psychiatrist, please?’ No. What I think I asked you was, ‘Could you go blow his fucking head off for me?'” –Harry, to Ken

“You’ve got to stick to your principles.” –Harry, before shooting himself in the head

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” –Ray, last lines

Central themes in this film are sin, grace, and, legalism, or the demand to measure up to moral standards, the failure to do so resulting in punishment (e.g., death). Added to these themes is the dialectical relationship between sin, grace, and legalism.

More dialectics are seen in how Bruges, a quaint, “fairy-tale” kind of town, full of old churches, can be seen to embrace elements of both heaven and hell. Frequent references are made to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch on such subjects as hell and the Last Judgement.

Ray’s one hit job is to shoot a priest in the confessional. Ironically, Ray gives his confession before killing his confessor. After putting bullets through the chest of the priest, who is staggering out of the confession box, Ray hears him say, “The little boy…” before dropping down dead. Once on the floor, the priest no longer is obscuring Ray’s vision: one of his bullets has grazed a boy’s forehead.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which conveys the image of “missing the mark.” The irony in Ray’s sin is in his hitting the mark all too well. One of the bullets has gone right through the priest’s body, then flies past and hits the boy. In grazing his forehead, it has ‘missed the mark’ (i.e., not gone through the middle of his head), but hit him well enough to kill him. In killing the innocent, Ray has sinned.

This missing the mark vs. hitting it all too well should also be understood dialectically, for it symbolizes the dialectical relationship, discussed above, between sin and theological legalism, the strident demand to fulfill lofty moral standards. Recall that in ancient Greek tragedy, hamartia also means ‘tragic flaw,’ which in Harry’s case refers to his proud insistence that killing a child, even accidentally, is punishable only by death…even if he were to commit the sin himself.

Sins of all shapes and sizes are committed in quaint, churchy, fairy-tale Bruges. These sins range from the mildest (rudeness, four-letter words, etc.) to the harshest (murder and suicide), and everything in between (anger, fighting, racism, tactlessness towards dwarfs, drug use and trafficking, soliciting prostitutes, theft, etc.).

Ray, guilty of most of these sins, finds Bruges to be a “shithole,” even to the point of imagining an eternity in the town to be the very definition of hell, as he muses at the end of the film. It’s only natural that he’d think that way: all those churches have been reminding him of his sins.

St. Paul, in Romans, chapter seven, wrote of how the Mosaic Law inevitably leads to sin, since no one can reasonably be expected to follow the Torah to the letter all the time. This excess adherence to the Law, or hitting the mark all too well, inevitably leads to missing the mark, as described above when Ray has literally hit the mark by killing the priest, and has metaphorically missed the mark by killing the boy in the church, the bullet grazing his forehead.

As I’ve stated in many posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and its coiled body is a circular continuum between those opposites. Excessive adherence to legalism, or hitting the mark too well, is the serpent’s biting head, which shifts over to the bitten tail of missing the mark, sinning, accidentally killing a boy, or a dwarf, leading to suicidal ideation, if not committing it, the unforgivable sin of despair.

Ray and Ken go to the Belfry of Bruges, the top of which gives a beautiful, heavenly view of the town. Ray isn’t interested, so Ken goes up alone. Three obese American tourists ask Ray about the building; but he advises them not to try going in and up the narrow, steep staircase, bluntly saying they’re too fat to fit inside. The man among the three is infuriated, and he pathetically swings punches at Ray, who of course can easily dodge them; then the man quickly tires. In his anger at Ray’s rudeness, he has missed the mark.

Now, going up those stairs reminds me of Milton‘s words: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 432-433) While it is unfair to judge the overweight by claiming that their obesity is merely because of indulgence in the deadly sin of gluttony (there is the factor of a genetic predisposition to obesity, or overeating could be a manic defence against facing one’s unhappiness), we can see the obesity of these three tourists, unable to climb that staircase “that out of hell leads up to light,” in terms of the movie’s theme of sin.

Later, Ray notices some people making a film, and one of the actors is a dwarf. Ray is fascinated, almost fixated, on the dwarf. He imagines that, because of the difficulties dwarfs face in life, that they must have a high suicide rate; he cites Hervé Villechaize as an example.

The dwarf, Jimmy (played by Jordan Prentice), as can clearly be seen by the end of the movie, is a double of the boy Ray has accidentally killed. He has transferred his guilt feelings towards the boy onto Jimmy, by on the one hand suggesting a concern that Jimmy might one day kill himself (Ray would try to stop Jimmy from dying, since he cannot bring back the boy he killed), and on the other hand annoying him by tactlessly dwelling on the subject with him and making him self-conscious (i.e., going from hurting the boy by killing him, to hurting a dwarf by reminding him of his condition). By discussing suicide with Jimmy, Ray is also projecting his own suicide ideation onto him.

Among those on the movie set, someone else has caught Ray’s eye, a young Belgian woman, Chloë (played by Clémence Poésy), whom he finds attractive. Since she sells drugs and robs tourists sometimes with her ex-boyfriend, Eirik (played by Jérémie Renier), she is a fellow sinner, so Ray can feel all the more comfortable with her. Iniquity loves company.

The very nature of having a job as a hitman is inherently alienating; and as I’ve discussed many times before, the mafia can be seen as symbolic of capitalists. Harry, Ray’s and Ken’s mob boss, wants the latter to kill the former, thus reinforcing their sense of worker alienation; but Chloë’s entrance into his life can be a cure to his estrangement from society…and to his suicidal ideation. (While we’re on the subject of Harry representing the evils of capitalism, there’s a deleted scene in which we learn the reason for him wanting Ray to kill the priest: he was opposed to a housing project Harry was working on, so killing him would help the business go through unobstructed.)

Being judgemental of others typically leads to more sin, as we see in the restaurant scene, when Ray gets into a fight with two Canadians over Chloë’s smoking, then Ray mistakes the Canadians for Americans by collectively judging the latter nationality for the killing of Vietnamese…and John Lennon.

Unless one becomes as little children, one shall never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3. Children are the innocent, the angelic, and therefore inviolable, as Harry sees them. This in part is surely why the only time in the film that we see the bad-tempered mob boss actually smiling is at his children at home.

Jimmy, though a double of the boy Ray killed (see above), doesn’t share children’s innocence the way he shares their short stature, as is revealed in his bizarre, racist prediction of a war between blacks and whites…in which, of course, all people of colour, including Asians and even those partly white, are lumped together with “the blacks.” In his physical association with children (especially in that schoolboy uniform we see him in towards the end of the film), and in his not-so-innocent attitude, we see another dialectical unity between sin and grace.

As unapologetically uncouth as Ray is, he is tearfully remorseful over his killing, however accidental, of the boy in the church. Here we see a dialectical relationship between penitence and impenitence, and thus between sin and grace once again, since it is penitence that leads the sinner to grace. To “sin boldly,” as Luther advised, is to admit to oneself how badly one needs the redemption of Christ.

In this connection, we can see Ken as a Christ figure. First, Ken defies Harry’s order to kill Ray, thus repudiating his boss’s legalism (‘capital punishment’ for Ray, as Harry would see it, but murder to everyone else, hence we see dialectics in Harry’s ‘illegal legalism,’ if you will). Ken doesn’t go through with shooting Ray, just as the latter is about to shoot himself, then gets upset at the sight of the gun in the former’s hand! Ken then takes away Ray’s gun, and later puts Ray on a train to leave Bruges so Harry can’t find him; for Ken wants Ray to have a chance at redemption, to try to live a good life.

As Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

When Harry arrives in Bruges, he argues with Ken over whether Ray should be forgiven. One is reminded of Portia‘s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained…” Ken is prepared to be shot and killed by Harry; at the top of the belfry, Ken won’t pick up a gun and try to stop Harry from killing him. He’s shot twice by Harry, in the leg and in the neck, but he isn’t killed…Harry hasn’t hit the mark he wanted to (he also compares Ken to Robert Powell in his portrayal of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth). Harry begins helping Ken down the staircase.

When Harry is tipped off by Eirik as to where Ray is (just outside with Chloë), Harry runs out of the belfry. Ken limps his way back up that difficult, narrow staircase, reminding me of the flagellation of bleeding Christ in His passion, when He wears the crown of thorns and struggles to carry His cross during the Stations (in particular, 2, 3, 7, and 9). Ken returns to the top and lets himself fall off the edge, so he can warn Ray in time about Harry. Like Christ, Ken dies so a sinner can live.

Harry chases Ray back to his hotel, which is co-owned by a pregnant woman named Marie (played by Thekla Reuten). She refuses to step aside and let Harry run up the stairs and shoot Ray in his room. We should note that the story is set near Christmas: in an earlier scene, Marie is seen decorating a tree.

Since it is taboo for Harry to harm a child, he cannot force his way past Marie. Here we see more Christian symbolism: she is like Mary, pregnant with the Christ-child, soon to give birth to the Saviour who will redeem us from the harshness of religious legalism. Even a “cunt” like Harry won’t brutalize a pregnant woman. (In keeping with Marie’s association with the Virgin, we never see the father of the unborn baby.)

Ray escapes the hotel by jumping onto a boat going down the nearby canal. Harry runs out, sees Ray on the boat, and fires, hitting Ray just below his heart. Harry has hit the mark all too well…but Ray isn’t dead.

He gets off the boat and staggers over to the film set, where a dream sequence is being filmed using costuming inspired by imagery from Bosch’s paintings of hell and the Last Judgement. Recall Ken’s remark about Bruges being like a dream, claiming that Ray said it; recall also Hamlet‘s words, “To die, to sleep;–/To sleep, perchance to dream,” when the Dane is contemplating suicide.

Harry follows Ray to the film set, and fires a few more bullets in Ray’s back. Ray echoes the priest’s words, “The little boy,” only he’s looking at Jimmy in that schoolboy uniform…with his head blown to pieces from one of the dumdums that ‘dumdum’ Harry got from Yuri (played by Eric Godon).

Because Jimmy’s head has been blown apart, Harry doesn’t know that he’s accidentally killed a dwarf instead of a little boy. When Ray killed the boy in the church, the bullet grazed his head: Ray almost missed the mark; actually and ironically, he missed missing the mark. Harry’s shot has hit the mark all too well–if only he’d missed it! Again, we see the dialectics of sin and innocence.

Harry’s moral legalism about killing kids is his undoing, his tragic flaw, his hamartia, his missing of the mark by hitting it all too well. He can never forgive himself for what seems to be the killing of a boy, and so he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger before Ray can get a chance to tell him he’s killed a dwarf…actually, one lacking in innocence, as we’ve seen above.

Harry’s rash judgement of himself is illustrative of the cruel nature of the moralistic superego, which gives us all a merciless inner critic. Kleinians consider the superego to be a split-off part of the ego, with a projected death instinct as well as a life instinct. If not modified and integrated with the rest of the personality, the superego can grow from being very severe to being associated with extreme disturbance and even psychosis. Such pathology can be seen in Harry, who imagines his morality to be superior in wanting child-killers to be killed, even those who don’t mean to kill children…but he’s also OK with killing priests who oppose his business interests.

As Ray is carried off on a stretcher, he imagines Bruges to be the very definition of hell (all those Bosch-costumed actors do nothing to dissuade him from such a conclusion). Yet he also sees Chloë and Marie, two angelic figures that should remind him of how Bruges is actually the dialectic dream of the “sleep of death,” a marriage of heaven and hell. Like “in-betweeny” Purgatory.

He ought to have Marie pray for him now, at the hour of his death.

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.

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.

Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

In his book, Learning From Experience, Bion explains: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

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.

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.

Analysis of “Midsommar”

Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. It stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter. It is considered one of the best horror films of 2019, with its unconventional way of disturbing and unsettling the audience.

Normally, a horror film thrives on the use of darkness to evoke the creepy mood. With this film, most of the horrors occur in broad daylight, as the film’s title suggests. Much of the film actually has a sad tone–unusual again for a film full of sunny skies–since the story is essentially about the slow but sure breakup of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

The disturbing aspect of this breakup, though, is how it’s actually being manipulated and aggravated by a pagan cult. It’s equally obvious that Pelle (Blomgren) is drawing Dani Ardor (Pugh) away from Christian Hughes (Reynor) as it is that Maja (played by Isabelle Grill) is drawing Christian away from Dani; but I suspect the cult has been orchestrating this breakup to a far greater extent than is assumed by the average viewer of the film.

Here are some quotes:

[in Swedish] “This high my fire. No higher. No hotter!” –Siv

“He’s my good friend and I like him, but…Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” –Pelle, talking to Dani about Christian

“He draws, and we, the Elders, interpret. You see Yosh, Ruben is unclouded by normal cognition. It makes him open, for the source.” –Arne

“Ruben was – a product of inbreeding. All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding.” –Arne

“I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” –Christian, of Maja

[in Swedish] “I can feel it! I feel the baby!” –Maja, right after having sex with Christian

“Christian?” [snaps fingers twice] “Christian… Hi. Hello! There you are! Listen: You can’t speak. You can’t move.” [smiles] “All right?” [smiles] “Good.” –Ulla

**********

Siv: On this, the day of our deity of reciprocity, we gather to give special thanks to our treasured Sun. As an offering for our Father, we will today surrender nine *human* lives. As Hårga takes, so Hårga also gives. Thus, for every newblood sacrificed, we will dedicate one of our own. That is: four newbloods, four from Hårga, and one to be chosen by the Queen. Nine in all, to die, and be reborn, in the great Cycle.

Stev: The four newbloods, have already been supplied. As for our end, we have two already dedicated…And two who have volunteered. Ingemar and Ulf. [they step forward] You have brought outside offerings, thus volunteering your own bodies. You will today be joined in harmony with Everything. And to Pelle, who has brought new blood, and our new May Queen, you will today be honored for your unclouded intuition. And so, for our ninth offering. It is traditional that our fair Queen shall choose, between a preselected newblood, and a specially ordained Hårgan.

**********

The shifting of the seasons, from the dead of winter to the sunny skies of midsummer is important in terms of symbolism. It represents the dialectical relationship between opposites, one of unity in duality, as seen in the gradual transition from one opposite extreme to the other. We shift from the death and cold of winter to the renewed life and warmth of summer. As observed in my analysis of A Christmas Carol, we see here a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’…only here, the seasons are reversed.

What should be noted here is that, just as there’s a shift from the winter’s death and cold to summer’s life and warmth, so is there a shift from the life and warmth…well, relatively speaking, of course…of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship, to the death and absolute cold of the relationship’s official end in summer–to say nothing of Christian’s winter life and midsummer death. Here again we see the unity of opposites.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, most of the killing (and discovery of it) happens under sunny skies (except for the murder of Josh [Harper]); while the dark moments deal mostly with Dani’s fears or realizations of abandonment (her sister’s suicide/murder of their parents, more a tragic than horrific moment; Dani’s drug trip experience in the dark bathroom, with her hallucinating the sight of her dead sister in the mirror; her dream of her ‘friends’ driving out of the commune at night and leaving her there).

Her sister Terri suffers from bipolar disorder, the cycles of excitement and depression being symbolically paralleled here with the bright highs of summer and the black lows of winter; so it’s fitting to start with both the extreme cold and dark night of winter, along with the extreme depths of Terri’s worst depressive episode ever. In Terri’s scary email to Dani, she types, “everything’s black.”

Dani is already extremely vulnerable emotionally, her anxiety being such that Christian finds it hard to cope. She takes Ativan to soothe her anxieties, and she’s afraid that all her emotional baggage is pushing Christian away; whereas if he were a decent boyfriend, he’d be much more compassionate than he is.

Of course, Christian’s friends are hardly inspiring of compassion for Dani. Mark (Poulter), a particularly insensitive ass, bluntly tells Christian that he should dump her. Then, there’s Pelle…

Right from the film’s beginning, we see Pelle–the Swede who’s inviting the group to his commune’s midsummer celebrations, and who is the only one who’s happy, even excited, to have Dani tag along–sitting with Christian, Josh, and Mark, when they’re telling Christian he should break up with Dani. Pelle doesn’t say much about the souring relationship at the time (except mentioning the beautiful Swedish women Christian will meet in Hälsingland–i.e., Maja), but given what we know of his motives by the end of the movie, we now can see that it’s obvious his mind is turning already.

Knowing the pagan commune’s use of spells, I speculate that Pelle, right from the beginning, may have been using magic (i.e., the pictures he draws, including the one of Dani) not only to accelerate the couple’s breakup, but also even to drive Terri to the murder/suicide, orphaning Dani so he can ’empathize’ with her, bring her into the cult…and finally have her.

The worst of Dani’s fears of abandonment are realized when she learns that Terri has wiped out their entire family by flooding the house with carbon monoxide while their parents are sleeping. The premeditative nature of this killing, how Terri must have planned it, is almost like a human sacrifice (!). Dani is all alone in the world…except for her doing-the-bare-minimum boyfriend.

But with the onset of winter comes the birth of the sun god; that is, the sun is farthest away from the northern hemisphere, and it will be coming back, slowly but surely, until midsummer, when it’s at its closest. This slow return symbolizes the slow return of hope for Dani, who, though still traumatized, is little by little learning to put her life back together, if in the dubious form of joining a cult.

Christian’s aloofness isn’t helping, though. When he originally intends to go to Sweden with Pelle, Josh, and Mark, he hopes to blow off Dani and have fun in bed with beautiful Swedish girls. It’s only after seeing Dani sob (in an extended scene from the director’s cut, deleted from the theatrical release) that he reluctantly invites her along, lying that he’s meant her ‘last second invitation’ as a “romantic” surprise.

His inviting of Dani has made things awkward for the two of them, as well as for Mark and Josh (though Pelle, of course, is thrilled she’s coming). She can feel the annoyance of the former three men, who–apart from Josh’s work on his thesis–have been hoping for a buddy trip, chasing skirt. This awkwardness is indicative of the alienation in modern society, which will be sharply contrasted with the communal closeness felt among the pagan cult in Hårga…a closeness that will feel too close.

Indeed, part of the cult’s manipulation of its visitors will be a dividing of the four of them through triangulation, and this divisiveness is already beginning because of Pelle’s influence. We often see him drawing: for her birthday, he gives her a drawing of her wearing a wreath; I’m convinced that these drawings are spells, Pelle’s visualizations of such things as her as the next May Queen…which, indeed, is what she’s fated to become.

There’s a dialectical relationship between this growing alienation among the four visitors and the all-too-close bond Dani is developing with the cult, which actually is enmeshment. Similarly, the coming together of her and Pelle, the coming together of Christian and Maja, and the slow breakup of him and Dani, are also dialectically related–more unions of opposites.

To develop this theme further, it’s interesting how the visitor who has been traumatized by a murder/suicide in her family is the only one to be able to adapt to the death cult ways of the commune. The one who has viewed death with the greatest horror is also the one who becomes most accepting of it at the end. What’s more, it’s interesting how, of the four visitors, it’s Josh–the only African-American among a cast of people of European descent–who is by far the most passionate about learning about Scandinavian pagan traditions.

[NOTE: please don’t misinterpret my meaning here. I’m not trying to say that it’s somehow ‘odd’ or ‘out of place’ for a black person to be interested in European culture. Far from it! We should all, regardless of ‘race’ or colour, be encouraged to learn about cultures outside of those of our ethnic background. For indeed, many blacks have been famous for not only loving, but also excelling, at presenting various aspects of ‘white’ culture. A few examples, off the top of my head, include Jessye Norman in opera, Wynton Marsalis when interpreting Haydn, and Paul Robeson playing Othello and singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”]

My only point in speaking of Josh’s thesis in terms of the ethnic difference between him and Scandinavia is to give another example of this film’s theme of the unity of opposites: in terms of ethnic and cultural background, Josh, of the four visitors, is furthest away from Nordic tradition, yet he’s nearest to it in his emotional investment. It’s not about whether African-Americans ‘should or shouldn’t’ be interested in European culture (Why shouldn’t they be interested?); it’s that, technically speaking, he is passionate about it, making him, in this sense, more Nordic than Dani, Christian, and Mark could ever be; and in this we see a sameness in difference…as there should be a unity and harmony between all cultures, including those (actually or only seemingly) most dissimilar. I’m not prescribing what cultures one is ‘supposed’ to be interested in; I’m only exploring theme.

In contrast to Josh’s love of all things Scandinavian, white Christian, who also wants to do his thesis on the Hårga, is totally half-assed in his interest in the culture; worse, he is leeching off of Josh’s passion, justifiably angering him. In fact, Josh’s fascination goes so far as to have among his research books one involving the Nazi use of the Uthark (seen in an extended version of the scene of the car ride into Hälsingland)! Pelle claims that Josh carries the book around only to annoy him, but one would think that Josh himself would be annoyed to have it around. Once again, opposites attract.

Yet another example of the union of opposites is in Christian’s attitude towards Dani. He’s a bad boyfriend, to be sure, but not completely bad. He’s conflicted about her: part of him wants to end the relationship, but part of him wants to hang onto it. He expresses fears of regretting dumping her, and then not being able to get her back. He’s emotionally distant, yet tries…however clumsily…to be considerate. This ‘to be or not to be’ her boyfriend is thus another paradoxical unity of opposites.

Even when he is offered Maja for mating, he asks to watch the sex ritual instead of participate in it (in another deleted extension, that of his scene with Siv). And after he comes inside Maja, he runs out of the building naked, full of fear and remorse. He’d still be with Dani, yet not be with her.

When the visitors arrive in the Hårga community, pretty diegetic music is heard playing on flutes as they walk through a huge, yellow circular entrance designed like the sun. It’s a quaint, charming scene, and the people living here seem sweet. The charm is superficial, though, since we’ll see soon enough what will happen to Mark, Josh, and Christian, as well as to UK visitors, Simon and Connie.

One can debate whether or not ancient Norse pagans actually committed any or all of the shocking acts seen in the film (senicide, blood eagles, skinning of human flesh, and human sacrifices); but staying within the framework of the story of the film, we need to wonder about a community in the modern world doing things they know that no one outside would ever accept.

Such extreme acts, deemed understandable only in a pre-scientific world–where human sacrifice, rather than such things as modern agricultural practices, is believed to ward off bad luck and ensure good harvests–when combined with the pagan cult’s superficial charm, can only mean that the Hårga commune is collectively sociopathic and narcissistic. They fancy their ways to be superior to those of the modern scientific world; they arrogantly think they have the right and duty to manipulate and end human lives. Yet, on first meeting them, we find them so charming and sweet.

Again, we see here a meeting of opposites: so sweet, kind, and gentle, yet so cruel and merciless. This is a collectively narcissistic community. Membership (enmeshment, actually) has its privileges (e.g., being the May Queen, a kind of golden child), but being outside of the inner circle only brings death. Horrors happen under sunny skies.

Normally, when we think of sexual predation, we think of lecherous men prowling after pretty, nubile young women. Indeed, Mark–who’s such a jackass, he can’t even refrain from engaging in locker-room talk in Dani’s presence…so inept around women, and probably a virgin–is all eager about chasing Swedish women. But when one of the Hårga women (Inga, played by Julia Ragnarsson) shows an interest in him as a mate, he gets scared, not just because he’s such a dork, but because he can sense the predation.

Maja, of course, is especially predatory, what with the spells she uses on Christian (the runic charm she puts under his bed, and her pubic hair in his food), and the unsettling way her eyes are always on him. This sex role reversal is another union of opposites: men chase women, but women hunt after men. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Simon and Connie cannot hide their shock at the senicide, so when they say they want to leave immediately, not only is their murder necessary to silence them and protect the cult from the police; it’s also revenge for the narcissistic injury the cult feels after Simon and Connie make them lose face by his calling the senicide “fucked!”

Mark’s pissing on the ancestral tree, another loss of face for the cult, is more narcissistic injury requiring his death, as is Josh’s forbidden taking of photos of the cult’s holy book. The visitors have no respect for the commune’s traditions, so they must die.

That tense scene of the four visitors sitting together at the dinner table exemplifies another union of opposites, that of social alienation vs. enmeshment. Resentment builds between Dani and Christian when she says she can imagine him leaving without telling her (as Simon has done to Connie) because of a “miscommunication.” Mutual resentment builds between Christian and Josh over the former leeching off the latter’s thesis. Mark fears being murdered because of his pissing on the tree. All four feel alone, divided from each other…and yet they’re surrounded by a commune of people so together, they all share one will.

…and Dani, quite soon, will be part of that one will.

As part of his slow seduction of her, Pelle comforts Dani, after her shock at the senicide (which reminds her far too much of Terri’s murder/suicide–the death of their aged parents), by mentioning his own parents…who died in a fire (!). We must remember this fiery death in light of the sacrifice at the end of the film, a ritual murder Pelle fully, willingly participates in. He would tell her of his parents’ death to have her believe he empathizes with her, that he would hold her in a way Christian never will…yet Pelle is using her pain to lure her in; and as I speculated above, he may have used a spell to kill her family.

Pelle is the central villain of the movie. He has used his slick charm to engineer all the major events of the story. His plan from the beginning has been to break up Dani and Christian so he can have her, and so his sister Maja can have Christian. Maja has liked him ever since Pelle sent her a cellphone picture of him back when Pelle and the four were still in the States. The human sacrifice, killing Pelle’s “American friends,” was planned from the start, too. Pelle has the charm and sweetness Christian lacks, but Christian is the central victim, and Pelle is the central victimizer. Opposites, here of good and bad, are united again.

Dani’s aloneness–no family, an emotionally uncommitted boyfriend, and Josh and Mark, who resent her tagging along–makes her a perfect choice to join the pagan cult. She has no one else, but the people of Hårga are happy to have her. She dialectically shifts from being the social reject to being all lovingly accepted as May Queen–note the love-bombing she gets when she wins the Maypole dance. Note especially the passionate kiss Pelle gives her; having been drugged, she calls out “Mom?” when seeing a hallucination of her mother among the love-bombers, the only one who isn’t happy for her…but they are all her family now. She can leave behind her painful old world.

On many occasions, I’ve used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail represent the meeting, extreme opposites on a circular continuum that in turn is represented by the snake’s coiled body, where every intermediate point between the extremes is. Dani is shifting from the bitten tail of loneliness to the biting head of inclusion in the cult. Christian, on the other hand, has been slipping from the head of acceptance among his buddies, along the length of the serpent’s coiled body towards the tail as his friends are killed, to the bitten tail of being the new outcast, where Dani was, now that she has been crowned May Queen, and is loved by the cult, while he just stands by alone and watches.

Christian is the lonely, vulnerable one now. The cult doesn’t even want him to marry Maja: they just want his sperm to impregnate her. The combination of this fact with the cult’s accepting of Dani, the only survivor of the visitors being female (Ingemar was hoping to mate with Connie, but her sticking with Simon has sealed her fate.), makes me believe this cult must be matrilineal. Males are more expendable here than females (just as we know that in the patriarchal family, the sexes are reversed in this regard). Hence, seven out of the nine sacrificial victims are male; in fact, strictly speaking, the only ones burned alive are male (Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf), for the other victims (including Connie and the elderly woman who jumped from the cliff) were already killed long before.

This is an upside-down world (recall that upside-down shot during the car ride to Hälsingland), where sex roles are often reversed, moments of emotional dark occur during sunny brightness, and extreme opposites are intermingled. The only solution to social alienation that the movie offers is total enmeshment in a cult. This enmeshment is perfectly symbolized by Reuben, the deformed ‘oracle’ who is a result of inbreeding. A healthy society is a balance of closeness with independence: not too close, yet not so apart as to result in alienation. Dani is going from one extreme to the other.

As for Christian’s ‘moment of truth’ with Maja, we cannot afford to be so naïve to think that, just because he gets to enjoy her, that this means he’s really enjoying her. He has always been reluctant about it; part of him, even if just a small part, still wants to be with Dani. The only reason he has sex with Maja is that he’s being manipulated into it. Men’s greatest weakness by far is lust.

Drugged with aphrodisiacs and psychedelics that, frankly admitted by Ulla, will break down his defences, Christian enters the room where the fertility ritual is to take place. Maja is lying naked and beautiful in a bed of flowers, surrounded by naked older women who sing a hypnotic tune in B major, with two sets of three harmonies (which, if I’m hearing them correctly, are based on triads of I vi[a first inversion 6th chord] I, I II[major] I); an eerie instrumental variation of the tune is heard earlier in the film whenever Maja is working her love magic on Christian.

This scene perfectly exemplifies erotic horror, one of the best fusions of the sexy and the scary that I’ve ever encountered. Maja is so tempting, so exciting…and yet, so terrifying for those very reasons. (Now we can understand why Mark changes his mind about Inga, the Hårga girl he’s been so attracted to–the one intelligent thought he has anywhere in the film.) Maja is luring Christian into a trap. She takes the femme fatale to a whole new level. Omne animal triste post coitum. And this fusion of pleasure and terror is yet another union of opposites.

Such books as Frazer‘s Golden Bough, Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths, and Hyam Maccoby‘s Sacred Executioner discuss ancient pagan rites of human sacrifice, later distorted into myths, which included orgiastic fertility rites. (I briefly discussed these in Part V of this post.) This is exactly what we’re seeing happening to Christian: he has a fuck, then he goes up in flames.

Now, we wouldn’t hesitate to describe as sexual assault a man giving a woman alcohol and drugs, then taking advantage of her while she’s wasted; but is that not exactly what’s being done to Christian? He has been thoroughly manipulated and drugged into having sex with Maja, and he has clearly demonstrated reluctance. During the sex, his agape eyes show no sign of pleasure: he’s all in a state of doped-up shock. Let’s dispense with the sexual double standards, look at what’s happened to him with an open mind, and take the following point seriously.

There should be no surprise that naked Christian runs out of the building disoriented and scared: what has happened to him can be seen as a kind of rape. It doesn’t matter that he orgasmed inside Maja; when women are raped, they sometimes orgasm–coming doesn’t make these women any less rape victims. The only reason we assume Christian ‘wanted it, so it isn’t rape’ (a particularly cruel thing to say to female rape victims just because they’re dressed provocatively) is because we stereotype men as lechers, and society assumes that sex is something only men do to other people, especially to women, instead of something done to them, especially when done by women to them.

When I say the above, I’m not trying to claim any kind of solidarity with woman-hating MRAs. I only bring this up, once again, to explore the theme of an upside-down world in which opposites are unified. Normally, we think of male sexual predation on women; here, the sexes are reversed.

Christian’s running outside, frontally nude and totally exposed to anyone looking, underscores his vulnerability. Ascendant Dani was emotionally vulnerable; falling Christian is now physically vulnerable (especially when he is drugged into mute paralysis). He has given up his usefulness to the cult in impregnating Maja. In the language of narcissism, he has gone from idealized to devalued…and he’ll soon be discarded.

At the end of Dani’s initiation as May Queen, the women accompanying her take her to a place within earshot of the sex rite. The empathic chanting of the women surrounding Maja and Christian make the rite especially audible to Dani. This must be deliberate. One of the women supposedly tries to dissuade Dani from going over and seeing what’s going on, but this ‘dissuasion’ is clearly reverse psychology: the women want her to see Christian ‘cheating’ on her; they let her walk over there.

Throughout the film, Maja’s moves on Christian have been public and therefore easily made known to Dani. Her suspicions have been growing the whole time; before she looks through the keyhole and sees her boyfriend fucking Maja, she’s already 99% certain that her suspicions have been correct. You can see it on her frowning face as she approaches the building.

After seeing the betrayal, she runs into the sleeping area, bawling in a jealous rage and feeling the triggering of her trauma of abandonment. The other women follow her. As Dani is bawling, the other women face her, and in the collective form of a symbolic mirror, they empathically reflect her bawling and pain back to her. This ritualistic empathizing, however, shouldn’t be mistaken with real empathy, or with Bion‘s psychotherapeutic notion of containment; the women aren’t properly soothing her. They are manipulating Dani, channeling her jealousy and pain, validating it so she’ll have a motive strong enough to betray Christian as a sacrificial victim, which of course she does.

Midsummer is the highest point at which the sun god rises, before his descent and death in fall and winter. Such gods as Balder were killed in midsummer, as Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf will be. Capital punishment has been deemed by many to be the secular equivalent of human sacrifice, and such ceremonial murder is also correlated with social hierarchy, a ladder that narcissists like to ascend. Christian is being executed for the crime of unfaithfulness (as Dani sees it). Being discarded by the cult, he is also the scapegoat, dressed in a bearskin, just as May Queen Dani is the golden child, adorned in a dress of flowers.

Dani has relived the trauma of Terri’s murder/suicide in viewing the ättestupa, and now she’ll have to relive it again by watching the burning building, with a front row seat, so to speak. (Ingemar’s and Ulf’s volunteering as sacrificial victims makes this into a kind of murder/suicide, too.) Her surname, Ardor, means ‘burning passion,’ which is appropriate, for watching the burning yellow building, shaped like the capital A of her surname, is like her looking in a mirror. It’s an agonizing passion for her to watch at first, but it’s ultimately cathartic–hence, her smile at the end.

The ’empathic’ wailing of Pelle, Maja, and all the others in the cult should now be seen for what it really is: not only is it fake, but also psychopathic. This commune is a case of group insanity. Narcissists are deficient in empathy, but they can fake it; what’s more, they kid themselves into thinking their empathy is real–hence, the cult’s wailing, meant to assuage their guilt.

So, what will become of Dani? Has she finally found the love and belonging she has so craved her whole life? It may seem so for now, but our feelings change with the seasons. Given time, that smile of hers will change into a frown, just as the sun, at its height, will wane as fall and winter come. It’s only a matter of time before she grows disillusioned with this death cult.

She has been idealized; she may, in time, be devalued and discarded, just as Christian has been. She, too, may slide from the ouroboros’ biting head (idealization), along the length of its coiled body (devaluing), down to its bitten tail (discarding). Four years ago, she and Christian were in love; that love faded away. She will mate with Pelle…the summer of their love may fade away into another winter of emotional distance.

After Pelle has fathered a few children by her, and she in her anxieties wants to get out of the cult, she won’t be able to…not alive, anyway. She is in a trap. She has exchanged alienation and loneliness with enmeshment. Pelle’s parents died in a fire…Christian has died in a fire…will Dani, too, die in a fire, one midsummer’s day…or midwinter’s night?