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Freedom through Re-introjection: 
Harry, he's here to help -
A Kleinian Perspective
Dr Candy Aubry





HARRY, HE’S HERE TO HELP
(HARRY, UN AMI QUI VOUS VEUT DU BIEN)
Director : Dominik Moll
Distributor : Boomerang Pictures

Film Review Essay

Freedom through Re-introjection: 
'Harry, he's here to help' -
A Kleinian Perspective

Dr Candy Aubry

Candy Aubrey is a candidate of the Geneva section of the Swiss
Psychoanalytical Society, currently working in private practice. She was
trained as a child psychiatrist and is currently involved in teaching
medical students at the Geneva medical school. Her most recent publication
is: Comments on metaphors of listening (Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review. In press).

A modified version of this paper was presented at the European Psychoanalysis and Film Festival in London, November, 2001. We are very grateful to Dr Aubry for allowing us to reproduce her paper here.
Please do not reproduce it in whole or in part without requesting her written permission.

 

Melanie Klein's descriptions of primitive defences have been brought to life in this remarkable french film written by Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand and directed by Dominik Moll. Winner of 4 Cesar Awards in 2001, it is a mystery thriller in the Hitchcockian tradition but with what seems to be a very ambiguous moral message. It is also more if you care to take a closer look. In fact it would be more correct to say, if you care to take a step back (and assume an analytical stance). Primitive defences like projective identification are like that. Move too close and you get swallowed up without realising what is happening to you, but move too far away and you won’t have a clue what’s going on. In a very subtle, yet at the same time terrifying way, we are shown how  the defence mechanisms of splitting and projective identification can drain the personality of much instinctual energy, restricting sexual and agressive drives and with them, many creative elements. It shows how one may be ready to compromise and accept this situation rather than face the sometimes overwhelming anxiety involved in recuperating these elements which are felt to be much too threatening by the ego. Despite the very down to earth, realistic beginning of the film where external reality dominates, we slowly enter, without realising it at first, into a more surreal world, the inner world of Michel, the main character of the film. Slowly and eerily, fantasy becomes reality but the audience like Michel, is at first naif, unaware of what is happening.

 

Michel is a french teacher. He has an attractive, understanding wife, Claire, and they are the parents of three small girls. They are worn out by the small but innumerable problems of everyday life. Michel is a “ nice guy ”, a man of compromise who tries to accomodate everyone in order to avoid conflict. A young man with much patience. Or is he ? What is the price he has paid for his “ normal/neurotic ” appearance ? Suddenly, Harry appears on the scene. Harry is travelling with his fiancée, Plum, (“ bébé ”), and they invite themselves for a visit. In fact Michel has no recollection at all of Harry, but Harry seems to know and remember an awful lot of things about Michel. He recounts that Michel was reputed to be a great lover and he also tells of how Michel used to write for the school newspaper. Harry remembers every story and poem. He even knows one of the poems off by heart and he recites this to Michel and his wife one evening. It is about a long knife covered by a “ skin of darkness ”. Michel had  forgotten the poem, forgotten those seemingly exciting and productive times, but suddenly his wife and we in the audience discover a new and surprising side to Michel. A side previously unknown and so different to what we do know, that it is slightly disconcerting. 

 

Now the rest of the film’s manifest content can be seen as a thriller involving a psychopathic Harry, with a homosexual fixation on Michel, who decides to go on a killing spree in order to “ help ” or control Michel. However, a psychoanalytic interpretation reveals the allegorical nature of the film. From the beginning, Harry can be seen as an unconscious force. Indeed he even has another name, Dick. He is Tom, Dick and Harry, everyone and no-one at the same time. When Harry explains that he always swallows a raw egg after making love in order to maintain his virility, it may also be that he does so in order to regenerate himself, in order to exist and take on the “ appearance ” of Harry. In fact, he only exists through others. He has come to life, taken on a human form and there is no stopping him now. Michel would like to continue as before, often repeating “ it doesn’t concern me ” or “ it’s none of my business ”, but it’s too late.  Wilfred Bion, in his paper “ The imaginary twin ”, speaks of “ personification of split-off parts ” and Harry  may be seen to represent all the destructive, split-off parts of Michel which have come back to claim their territory with a vengeance. The fact that it involves  splitting and not repression is important to highlight. Michel has not just “ forgotten ” Harry. In high-school, Harry had lost a tooth in a scramble with Michel in a football match, the tooth ending up in  Michel’s forehead. Everyone remembers it except Michel. It doesn’t come back to him. He really has no idea. His replies to Harry consist of “ that’s absurd ” or “ I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying ”. His poem and stories ring a bell though, even if they seem to have been written by someone else. Only once split-off parts are recognized, even if just a little, in the form of Harry, can repressed content, the poem and the short stories, appear. However, the relationship between the defence mechanisms of splitting and repression may be even more complex. Melanie Klein examined this relationship and concluded that if splitting and projective identification have been particularly violent in the early stages, if there has been difficulty in establishing the depressive position, subsequent repression may reproduce the violence of these first processes. “ In other words, the extent to which the various parts of the mind remain “ porous ” in relation to one another is determined largely by the strength or weakness of the early schizoid mechanisms ” (Klein, 1952).

  

So Michel slowly starts to recognize parts of himself. His creativity as well as other useful narcissistic elements seem to have been taken hostage as it were with the rest of the split-off parts, leaving a rather masochistic, unexciting  though kindly person behind.  But how to recuperate what is good  without being taken over and dominated by what is frightening and crazy ?  Michel has deep, unfilled holes in his garden. These are like the “ holes ” in his ego. Holes which need to be filled if he is to  feel whole. But the fact that these “ holes ” exist, means that he must have needed to empty them at some stage of his development, to split-off and “ lose ” through projective identification whatever was filling them for fear that he would be invaded by it. The only problem is that a good deal of his creativity was also lost. Melanie Klein stressed the importance of normal splitting for healthy development. The young child loves and hates its objects at the same time but the ego is too immature at this stage to be able to tolerate ambivalence. Klein wrote that the infant resorts to splitting of objects in order to keep love and hate apart so as not to be overwhelmed by anxiety (Klein, 1958). This splitting is associated with projective identification right from the start and may lead to a weakening of the ego as it too becomes victim to the same splitting process.

 

Michel’s unconscious desires and fantasies slowly emerge and Harry acts on them. “ Uncanny ” events, much as Freud described in his article of the same name (Freud, 1919), begin to take place. When Harry shows his intense dislike of Michels’  parents and then causes the “ accident ” which kills them, this may be seen as the splitting-off of bad parts and their projection into external objects. These objects then become identified with the projected parts and become persecutory objects which must be eliminated. He disposes of  Michel’s brother in much the same way. Now Michel stopped writing and apparently changed somewhere during his adolescence. He was writing a collection of short stories concerning gibbons that had propellers transplanted onto their heads in order to carry out useful household tasks. However they slowly get out of control and that is where he stops. Later, just after his parents’ deaths, Michel has a dream where one of these bizarre creatures attacks him while he is sitting in his father’s dental office. Is it his father ? Does it represent a “ bizarre object ” as described by Bion, which intensifies feelings of  persecution ? Was an earlier infantile split reactivated and further deepened in adolescence ? During the turbulent times of his adolescence, did Michel try to run away from the dangers he felt growing inside him ?  In any case, Michel is in a state of panic in his nightmare. Despite this regressive content, this dream may show that some measure of integration has now taken place. As Jean-Michel Quinodoz states in his article “ Dreams that turn over a page ”, an increased capacity for symbolic representation may indicate whether the movement concerned is one of integration or of regression and it is following this dream, and much encouragement from Harry,  that Michel feels the desire to write again.   However, his first efforts are without sucess.

 

The tension builds and Michel (and the audience) feel more and more confused. Reality and fantasy seem no longer to be separated. As Freud says of Jensen’s “ Gradiva ”, “ it is not only our hero who has evidently lost his balance; we too have lost our bearings… ” (Freud, 1907).  Harry feigns his own death knowing that only if Michel feels less threatened by him will he be able to regain his creative capacities. At that very moment Michel is able to start writing again. However, he is surprised to see Harry back a short time later. Plum is the next victim. Michel who had thought nothing of her previously has suddenly been unexplainably attracted by her. Plum is a superficial but touching caricature of a “ babe ”, following Harry around dutifully, satisfying his every need. At one stage she dares to express her desire to have children, when she repeats what Claire has been telling her about motherhood, but Harry makes it quite clear she will never have children. She is doomed to remain a “woman-babe-child ”, a sexual object. Plum in fact seems to represent another split-off and previously unrecognized part of Michel, his sexuality which is now slowly awakening. It is when, unquestioningly, he helps Harry to drag her body down the stairs, that we know that Michel and Harry are one and the same, sharing similar fantasies, narcissistic prolongations of eachother.     

 

The question now becomes, is Michel’s house, the home he has built for himself all these years, strong enough to withstand the assimilation, the filling-in of those empty holes ? Will re-introjection of these split-off parts of his personality lead to overwhelming persecutory anxiety and confusion  or will his ego be able to withstand this coming together? Herbert Rosenfeld (1987), states that there is a danger that abrupt attempts at assimilation of split-off parts of the personality may not only cause acute anxiety but even disintegration. This is Michel’s fear. Even though Michel is not overtly psychotic, re-introjection of these split-off, fragmented parts is a violent process. This is what makes this film so interesting and didactic. It shows all the violent and danger-ridden aspects of these early mechanisms which are part of normal early development. The psychotic individual resorts to these primitive defences nearly exclusively throughout his existence. Although quantitatively speaking the more neurotic individual makes much less use of such defence mechanisms, qualitatively, the associated fears and anxiety may be felt in much the same way.

 

At the culminating point of the film, everything comes together so to speak. Michel and Harry seem to be locked together for one brief moment and Michel must make a snap-decision about the way he will go. Which part of his personality will dominate? Will he let Harry do everything as he proposes, let him take over once and for all, give himself up to the omnipotent, narcissistic part of his personality ? Will he recognize Harry’s madness for what it is or will he be dragged into Harry’s mad world, to be trapped in a “ folie à deux ” ?  Can he take the good without the bad or will he be lost forever? In the end, Michel looks at his split-off partner in the face, recognizes Harry as being part of himself but does not allow him to dominate him. He makes his choice. He is handed a knife and one recalls the knife of his poem, the knife that had been put away, but this time Michel decides that the time is ripe to use it.

 

Is Michel in a state of denial and omnipotence?  If we consider all that has taken place as being based in reality, we would come to this conclusion. But if we interpret all these events as having taken place in Michel’s unconscious  world, we can say that he has integrated the different facets of his personality and so feels stronger for it. Harry and Plum have filled in his empty spaces, become part of him, buried but not gone. Reduction of splitting  has led to modification of his internal objects. He can now use the good, creative elements they have brought him without risking domination by them.  His internal world no longer frightens him. Finally, Michel is able to express the useful, creative and ego-enriching elements that Harry and Plum have brought him, symbolized by his keeping the car, but most importantly by his being able to write again. The title of his new story involves eggs, again something Harry was closely associated with. Eggs may also symbolize birth, a rebirth in Michel’s case, much as the flowers his daughters give him the day after, symbolizing rebirth in the form of spring. Michel is now able to share his productions with his wife who appreciates them. He does not feel anxiety or guilt about what has happened. Many incredible and frightening things have taken place but in the final scene when all the family is driving back home from the holidays, one is surprised by a feeling of relief. Just like when one wakes up from a bad dream… 

 

Acknowledgement : I would like to thank Jean Michel Aubry for his stimulating comments in our post-film discussion.

 

Dr Candy Aubry
5, rue Albert-Gos
1206, Geneva, Switzerland
jaubry@worldcom.ch 

 

REFERENCES

BION, W.R. (1957). Differentiation of the psychotic from the non-psychotic personnality. Int. J. Psychoanal., 38: 266-75 ; reprinted in Second Thoughts : Selected Papers on psychoanalysis.  London : Heinemann, 1967.

 

_________ (1967). The imaginary twin. In Second Thoughts : Selected Papers on psychoanalysis. London : Heinemann, 1967.

 

FREUD, S. (1907).  Delusions and dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva. SE 9 : 7-94. London : Hogarth Press, 1959.

 

__________(1919). The uncanny. SE 17 : 217-253. London : Hogarth Press, 1959.

 

KLEIN, M. (1952). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In Developments in psychoanalysis. London : Hogarth Press, 1952.

 

_________(1958). On the development of mental functioning. Int. J. Psychoanal., 39:    84-90.

 

QUINODOZ, JM. (1999).  “ Dreams that turn over a page ”. Integration dreams with paradoxical regressive content. Int. J. Psychoanal., 80 : 225-238.

 

ROSENFELD, H. (1987). Impasse and Interpretation. London : Tavistock Publications, 1987.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2001 Dr Candy Aubry.

 

 


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