The collapse of a rescue phantasy
Previously published in The
International Journal of psychoanalysis, 1997, 78,
975-996. A partial version of this paper was presented at the 39th
International Psychoanalytical Congress, San Francisco, August 1995.
The paper presents an interpretation of Hitchcock's
Vertigo, focusing on the way its protagonist's drama resonates with
the analyst's struggle with deep unconscious identifications, with
the impossibility of maintaining detached objectivity or
guaranteeing one's role as a reparative good object, and with the
dangers of grandiosity, omniscience, and illusory control. The
protagonist's 'countertransference love' crystallizes around a
rescue fantasy, in which he is Orpheus, striving to bring Eurydice
back from Hades; or a Knight, determined to behead an obscure Dragon
endangering Beauty. Initially these key roles are sharply
differentiated, through splitting and disavowal, which deprive the
participants from their conflictual three-dimensionality.
Eventually, however, the valiant Knight turns out to be as helpless
and lonely as his Beauty, and in the final scene - as ruthless and
lethal as the Dragon. This interpretation is compared to numerous
other views of the film offered in the literature. The survey and
comparison of the various views leads to fundamental issues in the
psychoanalytic study of art. Interpretations can be seen as
unavoidably coloured by the (counter)transference of viewers. It is
suggested that a film has no hidden true meaning, and a new
individual significance emerges in the transitional space opened up
by each viewer's encounter with the emotional universe of the film.
A defensive emphasis on the pathology of artists and their work may
alienate us from art, and blind us to to ways we could learn from
it, as persons and as analysts.
Just as, in the end, the detective is revealed to be the criminal,
the doctor-therapist, the would be analyst, herself turns out to be
an analysand. The Turn of the Screw in fact deconstructs all these
traditional oppositions; the exorcist and the possessed, the doctor
and the patient, the sickness and the cure, the symptom and the
proposed interpretation of the symptom, become here interchangeable,
or at the very least, undecidable. (Felman, 1982, p. 176)
This paper offers a psychoanalytic exploration of Alfred Hitchcock's
film, Vertigo (1958). I will start from my own view of the film,
continue with a review of the extensive literature debating it, and
conclude with a discussion of a few issues related to the way
Vertigo has been understood, and of some fundamental dilemmas in the
psychoanalytic study of art.
A personal view
John 'Scottie' Ferguson, the protagonist of Vertigo, is a detective
haunted by his human frailty: his vertigo. The way this film
activates audience involvement is a crucial aspect of its power: as
viewers, we become deeply identified with Scottie's vulnerability.
We follow him in his heroic but miscarried quest to overcome it.
Remembering - when we can - that Scottie and the other figures we
watch are actually fictional film characters, we are forced to
realize that what we are trully exploring are our own fears,
fantasies and identifications as enthralled viewers.
In the opening scene of the film, trauma occurs: we encounter
Scottie's impotence (and our own) while his colleague - attempting
to rescue him - falls from a rooftop to his death. From now on,
Scottie continuously strives to overcome the trauma, to regain
mastery, to undo his humiliation. He makes desparate efforts to
rescue himself from the chaotic fearful regression constantly
lurking behind the brittle shell of his reality. But consciously,
maybe projectively, his quest shifts to the rescue of another
person: the enchanting woman we come to know as Madeleine. When
asked by Gavin Elster - his college friend, who tells him she is his
wife - to help her, he responds by saying: 'Take her to the nearest
psychiatrist, or psychologist, or neurologist, or psychoana... '. He
is about to say 'psychoanalyst' but never completes the word. Yet
Scottie soon finds himself in the role of a psychoanalyst: searching
for Madeleine's lost memories, attempting to interpret her dreams,
seeking the integration of dissociated personality fragments,
striving to liberate Madeleine from the claws of her enigmatic
obsession and free her to live and to love.
I came to realize that Scottie's drama richly resonates with my own
experiences as a psychoanalyst. In my imagination he becomes an
analyst grappling with his unavoidable deep emotional involvement
and unconscious identifications; with the impossibility both of
maintaining detached objectivity, and of guaranteeing one's role as
a reparative good object or selfobject; with the dangers of
grandiosity, of omniscience, of illusory control. In my personal
viewing of the film - coloured, naturally, by my own psychic reality
- it is a tale of 'transference love' but also of
'countertransference love', which crystallizes around a rescue
fantasy. Rescuing Madeleine from drowning, Scottie becomes - as many
of us are, in our daydreams - Orpheus, struggling to bring Eurydice
back from Hades. He takes us along in his quest, graphically
depicted in the film as a dangerous spiral descent.
The first part of the film strongly establishes this fantasy,
accurately corresponding to its most ancient mythical portrayals.
Madeleine is Beauty, captivated and endangered by an obscure, unseen
Dragon. Whether this Dragon will turn out to be psychological
(neurotic fantasy or childhood experience), metaphysical (the spirit
of Madeleine's ancestor Carlotta Valdes, who had been ditched,
deprived of her child and driven mad) or criminal (a possibility
raised much later in the film), Scottie is willing to fight it: he
assumes the role of the Knight, determined to find the Dragon and
behead it. At this stage, as in the classical rescue legend, these
three key roles are sharply differentiated, through splitting and
disavowal, which mask any potential concordant or complementary
identifications between the figures. This defensive mythmaking
necessarily deprives the participants from their conflictual
three-dimensionality: the valiant, masterful and self-sacrificing
Knight is utterly different from lost, confused and helpless Beauty,
and could have nothing in common with the mortal enemy, the vicious
Naturally, the Knight falls in love with Beauty; the helpless object
of rescue and the romantic object of desire merge, and this
combination has an enormous impact on the protagonist, and on the
viewers identified with his vision. (We are, like Scottie, annoyed
with his friend Midge's skepticism and sarcasm towards his credulous
fascination). Scottie is also gradually able to win Madeleine's
love, in spite of her reserve and hesitation. After successfully
rescuing her from her apparent suicide attempt in the waters of San
Francisco Bay, he tells her: 'once you've saved a person's life, you
are responsible for them forever'; and then, while reassuring her
'no one possesses you' he also says 'I've got you'. Coming to
believe he has distinguished reality from fantasy in her story, and
found the clue to the fearful recurrent dream she describes ('it
will finish your dream'), as well as to the whole mystery, he is
self-assuredly approaching his ultimate victory.
But here we are confronted with the film's first cruel turnabout: at
the crucial moment Scottie is incapacitated by his acrophobia and
vertigo, cannot follow Madeleine up the bell tower's steep
staircase, and rather than fulfilling his and our fantasy wish by
rescuing her (and himself) he is confronted with a second traumatic
fall, Madeleine's fall to her death.
At this horrifying moment the first element of splitting and
disavowal in the rescue myth crumbles: we painfully come to realize
that our Knight is as helpless, lonely and desparate as his Beauty.
This is soon underlined by the guilt-enhancing pronoucement of the
investigating official, an unrelentingly harsh superego
representative, as well as by Scottie's nightmare, in which he is
now the one falling into the open grave, he is himself beheaded, it
is he who is plunging to the roof below, then into a void. We fully
experience now both the yearning to fall and the terror of falling,
combined in vertigo. Yes, 'someone out of the past, someone dead,
can enter and take possession of a living being'. Hospitalized for
his acute melancholia and guilt, Scottie appears for a while to be
swallowed by his loss, to be mentally dead, as he motionlessly
defies all rescue attempts, now directed towards him by Midge and
Eventually discharged, Scottie looks for Madeleine in the streets of
San Francisco, just as Carlotta, Madeleine's unfortunate ancestor,
reportedly looked for her lost daughter (and as Hanold looked for
Gradiva in the streets of Pompeii). He finally appears to discover
her in the person of Judy, a lonely young woman who left home after
the death of her beloved father. While our first guess may be that
this is a delusional attempt to undo Madeleine's death, Hitchcock
allows us for the first time - in a bold departure from the original
book and from the traditions of the genre - to discover the truth
which still eludes our protagonist. The flashback scene clarifies
reality, but also re-establishes the rescue myth by personalizing
the Dragon. It was Gavin Elster who killed his actual wife,
exploited dressed-up Judy as a decoy, and manipulated Scottie so
cruelly in order to use him as a witness to Madeleine's apparent
Now we realize how naive was Scottie's romanticized view of the
situation and of his role. The understanding which he had reached
had been so partial that it blinded him to the deeper truth. The
further discoveries we make later on make this realization even more
poignant and tragic. Knowing now the actual history, we are finally
allowed to be the insightful analysts, the successful detectives.
Aware of Judy's real love for Scottie, and of her moving anguish,
both established in the scene in which she writes him a confessional
farewell letter but then destroys it and decides to stay, we now
abandon our full identification with Scottie. Through the film's
conclusion we find ourselves identified with both Scottie and Judy,
and therefore in constant conflict between their points of view, and
in full awareness of the pain involved in a deep relationship
between two individuals with divergent subjectivities. Having no
longer a Knight to rely on, we become ourselves the fantasied
Knight, wishing to rescue both our vulnerable protagonists from the
emotional aftermath of Elster's vicious scheme.
The process is tantalizing. Scottie, dominated by a tenacious
Pygmalion fantasy, obsessively and fetishistically attempts now to
mold Judy into Madeleine, in spite of her reluctance and fear. Fear
of being found out, fear of being exploited once more, but also fear
of losing her identity, of being forced to maintain permanently the
elevated fantasy persona of Madeleine? Eventually, her love for
Scottie has the upper hand, and she abandons her struggle to keep
both of them in a 'real' world, in which she would be free to be
herself. She succumbs, and agrees to fully recreate Madeleine, to
disappear 'under the shadow of (his) object' in order to reach her
object. Her reappearance transformed into Madeleine is a
breathtaking moment of romantic fantasy fulfilment; Scottie feels he
has succeeded in defying death, in bringing Eurydice back from
Hades; Judy hopes to finally regain his lasting love. Yet, the
illusory brittle fictitiousness of this moment makes it uncanny,
scary and ominous.
Shortly afterwards comes Orpheus's forbidden look which will send
Eurydice back to hell. Judy - out of an unconscious urge to confess
her guilt and atone for it? because living and loving deceptively is
unbearable? or due to her longing for the persona of Madeleine,
which fulfilled her own potential? - absentmindedly wears Carlotta's
and Madeleine's necklace. Scottie, in a split second, guesses the
And now, in the heart-breaking final scene, the last Maginot line of
splitting and disavowal also falls, and with it the mythical rescue
fantasy completely collapses. Scottie comes to see the similarity
between him and Gavin Elster, the exact parallel between the two
stages of creating and recreating (as film directors do) the
fetishistic romantic object, the make-believe phantom figure of
Madeleine: 'He made you over just like I made you over'. The woman
who was his object of compassion and passion turns out to have been
the creation of another man (we are reminded of Nathaniel and
Olympia in 'The Sandman'). He now finds himself dragging Judy up the
bell tower's staircase with enraged, ruthless cruelty, almost
choking her. He may be overcoming his vertigo, but he is losing his
humanity and the meaning of his life. His identification with the
distressed woman has been transformed into sadistic and vengeful
domination. In his desperate attempt to find the truth and free
himself from a deception by a villain, he sank into a deceptive
delusion of his own, and gradually turns into the villain. John the
savior turns out, after all, to be Jack the Ripper. The Knight has
become the Dragon.
By ultimately destroying the illusory Madeleine, Scottie is also
terrifying the real Judy, his flesh and blood beloved and loving
Beauty. Their final hug arouses dim hopes of reparation, but the
sudden appearance of a nun at the bell tower makes Judy stumble to
her fall and death. As we hear the bell, we are reminded of John
Donne's lines: 'Now, this Bell tolling softly for another, saies to
me, Thou must die... No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe... And
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for
thee'. (Devotions, 1624, xvi-xvii)
A review of the literature
Perhaps the greatest weakness in the psychoanalytic studies of
literature is that they rarely acknowledge that several
interpretations may all plausibly reveal something about a work of
art. (Werman, 1979, p. 475)
Vertigo is one of the most intensely debated films in the history of
cinema (White, 1991). Although the vast literature analyzing it is
not usually written by practicing analysts, most of it deals with
psychoanalytic issues, being part of a unique trend in contemporary
academic film scholarship, strongly influenced by Freud and Lacan,
as well as by Marx, Althusser and particularly feminist thought
(Kaplan, 1990, p. 9).
A central figure within this tradition is Laura Mulvey, who opened
the debate in her 1975 paper, 'Visual pleasure and narrative
cinema'. She interprets Scottie's pursuit of Madeleine as an erotic
obsession based on castration anxiety, stating:
Scottie's voyeurism is blatant: he falls in love with a woman he
follows and spies on without speaking to. Its sadistic side is
equally blatant... Once he actually confronts her, his erotic drive
is to break her down and force her to tell by persistent cross-
questioning. Then, in the second part of the film, he re-enacts his
obsessive involvement... He reconstructs Judy as Madeleine, forces
her to conform in every detail to the actual physical appearance of
his fetish... in the repetition he does break her down and succedes
in exposing her guilt. His curiosity wins through and she is
punished (Mulvey, 1975 , p. 66).
While harshly accusatory towards Scottie, Mulvey judges Judy
severely as well: 'Her exhibitionism, her masochism, make her an
ideal passive counterpart to Scottie's active sadistic voyeurism'
A very different view of the film's dynamics was soon offered by the
interrelated works of Spoto (1976) and Wood (1977, 1989). Spoto
views the film as dealing with the attraction towards death, as well
as with 'psychic vertigo - the desire to let go, to fall, to float
through space, combined with the fear of falling' (Spoto, 1976, p.
308). He examines empathically Scottie's predicament: his increasing
lack of freedom, his identification with his idealized love object,
his panic and subsequent breakdown after he fails to rescue her from
(what he is led to perceive as) her fall, and his evolving
resemblance of Elster as he attempts to recreate Madeleine. Spoto
states: 'Tragically, no one is capable here of reaching the
fulfillment of a human involvement - neither Scottie, nor Midge, nor
Gavin Elster nor Judy' (p. 303). He suggests that the film exposes
'the ways of false love... exploitative narcissism on the one hand,
and neurotic self-annihilation on the other' (p. 329). His
concluding statement is:
The film conveys... the struggle between the constant yearning for
the ideal, and the necessity of living in a world that is far from
ideal, whose people are frail and imperfect. It is a film of uncanny
maturity and insight, and if its characters are flawed, that is,
after all, only a measure of their patent humanity, and of the
film's unsetimental yet profound compassion (Spoto, 1976, p. 337).
Wood (1977) shows how the original story of Pierre Boileau and
Thomas Narcejac, D'Entre les Morts, with its 'easy pessimism that is
as much a sentimental self-indulgence as its opposite' and
characters that are 'either helpless devitalised dupes... or the
ingeniously malignant intriguers who trap them' (p. 77), is
transformed by Hitchcock into a tragic portrayal 'of the immense
value of human relationships and their inherent incapacity of
perfect realisation' (p. 78). He analyzes the newly added figure of
Midge, 'devoid of mystery or reserve', though 'one senses... a
discrepancy between what she is and what she might be' (p. 79), and
its contrast to the figure of Madeleine, 'so much more erotic
because of its combination of grace, mysteriousness and
vulnerability', who 'becomes our dream as well as Scottie's' (p.
82). Wood (1977) traces the way in which, in the second half of the
film, our consciousness becomes split between the points of view of
Scottie and of Judy, and the pain aroused by Scottie's inability to
see the 'real' Judy due to his clinging to 'the ghost of Madeleine
that lurks within her' (p. 93). Eventually, Wood suggests,
'Scottie's vertigo is cured... by finally learning the whole truth'
(p. 94), 'yet his cure has destroyed at a blow both the reality and
the illusion of Judy/Madeleine, has made the illusion of Madeleine's
death real... Triumph and tragedy are indistinguishably fused' (p.
Returning to Vertigo with added perspective, Wood (1989) analyzes
the opening of the film (the chase and the policeman's fall) as 'the
most extreme and abrupt instance of enforced audience identification
in all of Hitchcock' (p. 380), involving the demise of the
father/superego, during its failed attempt to control the
criminal/id, with the guilty son/ego left hanging. Elster is the new
father 'outside the law', the Devil, tempting Scottie by offering
him his own wife as wandering Scottie's feminine mirror image. Wood
portrays the 'original desire' for mother's breast as an illusion,
as the mystifying root of sexuality which must remain mystified;
'"Madeleine" dies (both times) at the moments when she threatens to
become a real person' (p. 385).
Wexman's (1986) perspective is Marxist. She criticizes Mulvey's
psychoanalytic ideas, seeing them as representing 'an idealist
position, which... can obscure the workings of more culturally
specific codes within the cinematic text' (p. 36). She discusses the
commercialized eroticism of the American film industry, and the way
its demands led to controlling Kim Novak's image and to harrassing
the actress during production. She unearths 'buried references to
issues of class and race' (p. 38) in this film: 'Madeleine's
upper-class image entails its opposite: the lower-class Judy' (p.
37); Elster's nostalgia for the days men had 'freedom and power'
glorifies exploitative chauvinism and imperialism, whose victims are
personified in the Spanish Carlotta Valdes. Wexman concludes that
'Hitchcock has masked the ideological workings of racism and
xenophobia beneath a discourse of sexuality which is itself
idealized as romantic love' (p. 40).
In another challenge to Mulvey, Keane (1986) contests the view that
the camera in Vertigo allies itself exclusively with a male point of
view. While Mulvey views voyeurism as purely active and sadistic,
Keane suggests - with the help of Freud's work on scopophilia - that
Scottie also suffers in his voyeuristic position, is acted upon, is
in a way a passive character.
The Orphic allusions of Vertigo are elaborated by Brown (1986), who
notices that in the original novel the hero, Roger Flavieres,
repeatedly calls the heroine 'my little Eurydice'. The Orphic story
is doubled here, and in both rounds Scottie loses his beloved by
'looking' at her, by too zealously pursuing her secret. Through an
analysis of the sequence of scenes, Brown demonstrates how the
battles in the film are waged on two vastly different grounds, that
of the tragic hero and that of the artist-hero. As a tragic hero,
Scottie is guilty of a form of hubris that leads him to reject
ordinary, life-affirming love to seek an ideal love that is
connected from the outset with 'someone dead'. Put another way,
Scottie rejects existential reality in order to live within mythic
non-reality (p. 34).
In Brown's analysis, Scottie is also 'the third in a line of men...
who were able to exercise the power of life and death through the
sacrifice of three women - Carlotta, Madeleine Elster, and Judy
Barton' (p. 37). They are all Apollonian combatants struggling with
the female-dominated forces of the Dionysian. In this vain, and in
the context of the film's Christian symbolism, Brown interprets the
final scene as Scottie's mythic victory over death through the
sacrifice of Judy.
Burgin (1986), discussing the film viewer's experience (see Berman,
in press), relates Scottie's urges to the Oedipal rescue fantasy
toward 'fallen women' analyzed by Freud: 'A man recuing a woman from
water in a dream means that he makes her... his own mother' (Freud,
1910, p. 174).
Goodkin (1987) relates the story of Vertigo to central themes in
Proust, including the centrality of a 'Madeleine' (the pastry, in
Proust's case) as an embodiment of a central experience of reliving
the past; both works portray controlling and freezing the passage of
time by turning life into art. In both, he suggests, the world of
men is singularly unkind to the protagonists, who crave maternal
Palombo (1987), on the other hand, interprets Scottie's fainting in
Midge's apartment as revealing his 'raging fear of his dependence on
Midge and her mothering... Mother's bosom has been revealed as both
the parapet to which Ferguson clings for dear life... and as the
abyss into which he must fall when the crack-up comes' (p. 49). He
describes Scottie's quest to decipher Madeleine's dream as parallel
to a similar search in Hitchcock's earlier Spellbound, but this time
the results are demoralizing to the viewer; while frustrating our
wish for a straightforward solution, they allow - Palombo suggests -
'a much deeper investigation of the dream substrate of waking life'
(p. 52). Scottie's subsequent nightmare 'shows how closely
Madeleine's dream fit Ferguson's inner emotional state' (p. 53), and
first expresses the possibility that he is Elster's victim.
Palombo notices how the viewer's identification with Scottie is
disturbed by the flashback scene; from that point on we watch his
stuggle 'from the viewpoint of a parent, perhaps, but no longer from
that of another self' (p. 55). Contrary to many of his other films,
here 'Hitchcock declined the role of benevolent overseer, leaving
Ferguson and Judy to fight the demoralizing effects of Elster's plot
with their own limited emotional resources' (p. 61).
While Palombo discusses Scottie as dream interpreter, Rothman (1987)
appears to be the first to speak of 'his role as investigator, but
also as therapist' (p. 66). His project in the first part of the
film 'becomes a calling... on which he stakes his entire being. By
explaining everything, he... will save and win this damsel in
distress' (ibid). In analyzing the second part Rothman emphasizes
that 'no matter how violently Scottie treats Judy... his goal is to
liberate this woman's self, not suppress it. Furthermore, he is
acting out of love for this woman... [who] wishes for Scottie to
bring Madeleine back' (pp. 71-72). Rothman does not believe
Hitchcock indicts Scottie's project: 'what gives rise to Scottie's
monstrousness is his heroic refusal to let his love be lost and his
equally heroic willingness to plunge into the unknown. His failure
is a tragedy' (p. 72).
Rothman's (1987, p. 71) view of Judy as 'unfinished, uncreated' and
therefore longing to be allowed to develop into 'Madeleine', is
echoed in Poznar's (1989) interpretation: 'Scottie knows Judy can
become Madeleine, that what is most beautiful in her can only be
realized if she has the courage to accept the potential Madeleine in
her' (p. 59). Poznar's admiration of Scottie and Madeleine makes him
judge some figures - and some scholars - severely: '[Midge] is as
imperceptive and unfeeling as Elster... And no less imperceptive and
brutal are the comments of the coroner who utters the kind of
judgment on Scottie found in some critics who are as convinced as
the coroner that Scottie is the victim of an abnormal and dangerous
weakness' (p. 60). 'To renounce the Madeleine in us is to renounce
our deepest self' (p. 61).
Hollinger (1987) points out that the film works through a female
Oedipal drama, and the desire it portrays for unity with a powerful
maternal presence (Carlotta) subverts its masculine premises. She
views Scottie as striving to break off his relationship with the
Modleski (1988) returns to the question of the film's supposed male
viewpoint, and suggests that 'the male spectator is as much
"deconstructed" as constructed' by Hitchcock, due to his
'fascination with femininity which throws masculine identity into
question and crisis' (p. 87). Scottie's 'desire to merge with a
woman who in some sense doesn't exist... points to
self-annihilation' (p. 94). At the same time, his 'very effort to
cure her, which is an effort to get her to mirror man and his
desire, to see (his) reason, destroys woman's otherness' (p. 95). In
his nightmare, 'Scottie actually lives out Madeleine's
hallucination... and he dies Madeleine's death. His attempts at a
cure having failed, he himself is plunged into the "feminine" world
of psychic disintegration, madness, and death' (p. 95). Modleski
concludes that the film solicits 'a masculine bisexual
identification because of the way the male character oscillates
between ... a hypnotic and masochistic fascination with the woman's
desire and a sadistic attempt to gain control over her' (p. 99).
Brill (1988) focuses on 'the failure of Scottie to discover himself
in love', in contrast to Hitchcock's romantic films in which quests
lead 'to the creation (or recovery) through love of the
protagonists' personal and social identities' (p. 207). 'No greater
horror can occur in a Hitchcock movie than the failure or
exploitation of the instinct to love and heal, on which the recovery
of innocence ultimately depends' (p. 211). He points to the
antiredemptive meaning of the Christian images in the film, and to
its ironic 'tendency toward self-deconstruction... the incorporation
in every proposition of its contrary' (p. 214). 'The desire to
possess one's lover is closely bound... to a passion for knowing,
for formulating and fixing reality... [but] Scottie and Judy need
love, not knowledge' (p. 218).
White (1991) summarizes many authors who view Vertigo as dealing
with the impossible position into which the woman is placed, with
her unknownness and her eerie knowledge; as arousing sympathy for
her plight. 'Judy, like Scottie, may be looking for a replacement
for a lost loved one, in this case her father' (p. 915); Scottie
risks death, but it is the woman, 'his more vulnerable other, the
part of him that is umbilically tied to the mother, who dies' (p.
919). White, however, calls for an allegorical reading of the film,
emphasizing 'the non-self, the divided self, what de Man, after
Baudelaire, calls the ironic self' (p. 931). Challanging certain
feminist idealizations, she points out that 'the desire to merge
with the mother is... extraordinarily threatening to the daughter,
too' (p. 926).
Cohen (1995) describes Vertigo as transitional in Hitchcock's
abandonment of the legacy of Victorian culture, and particularly of
the Victorian notions of character and of gender complementarity,
moving towards his later 'character effacing' films. Cohen compares
the Carlotta story to novels of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, and
describes the film's reversals (constant 'spiraling back upon
itself') as 'a deconstructive insight... into the way
nineteenth-century male novelists can be said to have constructed
female subjectivity and then passed it on to filmmakers like
Hitchcock as the real thing' (p. 139).
After realizing Madeleine was 'constructed' we want Scottie to love
the 'real' Judy, which in many ways is no less a construction. Cohen
expresses 'a postmodern recognition... that experience is, by
definition, constructed and hence delusionary' (p. 141).
Gabbard's (1995) analysis of the film emphasizes the defensive side
in the objectification of women, often involved in men's sexuality.
He underlines 'the need for omnipotent, and even sadistic, control
of the love object to deal with the terror of object loss at the
core of male desire'. Contempt, he suggests, lies underneath the
surface of Scottie's symbiotic needs and idealization of women.
Gabbard relates this theme to Hitchcock's own 'lifelong struggles
with dependency, women and sadism', documented by several
Quinodoz (personal communication, 1996) applies to the film her
object relations interpretation of clinical vertigo (Quinodoz,
1990), seen as a warning system preventing the patient from being
overwhelmed by his or her split-off infantile part. In the first
part of the film, she suggests, the spectator - like Scottie - is
overwhelmed by contradictory information: 'What is real? Are the
events happening to Madeleine real? Magic? Madness? Are they
fantasies? Lies? A plot?' In the last scene, Scottie overcomes his
vertigo when he is sure of being in a realistic world, while Judy -
who was throughout the film reality-oriented, and free of vertigo -
is overwhelmed by the magic world, and by sudden (and lethal)
vertigo, when she sees the nun.
Our reading of The Turn of the Screw would thus attempt not so much
to capture the mystery's solution, but to follow, rather, the
significant path of its flight; not so much to solve or answer the
enigmatic question of the text, but to investigate its structure;
not so much to name and make explicit the ambiguity of the text, but
to understand the necessity and the rhetorical functioning of the
textual ambiguity. (Felman, 1982, p. 119)
Comparing the divergent interpretations offered to Vertigo is
intriguing (see Werman, 1979). We may notice contradictions related
to changes in zeitgeist. Mulvey's militant feminism, in which males
are mostly exploiters, contrasts with the subtler feminism of
Modleski or White, in which men and women alike are damaged by rigid
role models. Similarly, earlier interpretations taking the plot at
face value, differ from Cohen's postmodernist skepticism,
highlighting the film's deconstruction of its own narrative. Other
contrasts can be traced to the way theory is utilized: Mulvey
mobilizes Freud's work on perversions for her ideological purposes,
missing its subtleties, while Keane reads Freud much more carefully,
enriching our understanding of the film's nuances. On an additional
level, many variations in the way Vertigo is seen can be related to
(counter) transference reactions of the writers to the film, to its
protagonists, and to its creator.
My use of the atypical term (counter) transference conveys my view
that the deeper experiences of analyst and analysand are not
inherently different, in spite of their distinct roles and goals in
the analytic encounter; distinguishing transference from
countertransference may be superficial. This view originates in a
long tradition within psychoanalysis, starting with Ferenczi
(Berman, 1996) and culminating in the recent contributions of Ogden,
Mitchell, and numerous other authors, who conceptualize the analytic
situation as inherently relational or intersubjective (Berman,
1997). This development accounts for the growing realization within
clinical psychoanalysis, that the patient's transference often
involves genuine attempts to interpret the analyst's personality
(Gill, 1982; Aron, 1991), while the analyst's interpretive work is
often coloured - and potentially inspired - by countertransference (Racker,
1968; Renik, 1993).
This new frame of reference has given valuable inspiration to the
psychoanalytic exploration of literature and art (Berman, 1991,
1993a). The reader's, viewer's and listener's experience, whether
they are laymen or professional critics and scholars, can also be
conceived as combining an attempt to uncover and spell out the
work's meanings with unavoidably personal emotional reactions and
identifications. The return of subjectivity (and then
intersubjectivity) into psychoanalysis coincides with recent trends
in literary and art scholarship, such as Reader Response Criticism
and Deconstruction, both moving away from assuming 'objective'
meanings as fixed properties of works of art.
The question of Vertigo's 'real' meaning becomes pointless, if we
assume that the film acquires a unique meaning for each viewer,
influenced by her or his inner world. In other words, we are now
talking neither of a hidden true content which can be objectively
deciphered (an assumption inherent in classical versions of 'applied
analysis'), nor of interpretation as 'merely a projection' of the
viewer, but rather of a new individual significance emerging in the
unique transitional space opened up by the viewer's encounter with
the emotional universe of the film.
While in literature we may speak of an intersubjective exchange
between author and reader, mediated by the text and by the
transitional space created by reading, in arts such as theater and
film the process is more complex. 'Written drama, on its way to the
viewer, meets several readers - director, actors, designers,
musicians - each of whom develops out of his or her inner world an
interpretive understanding of the play' (Berman, 1991, p. 8). In a
parallel way, we could explore the way Hitchcock reacted to the
original story and transformed it (Wood, 1977; Spoto, 1983), or
attempt to study the impact on the film of his complex interaction
with actors James Stewart and Kim Novak, hoping to transcend the
one-sided (counter) transferential focus of Wexman (and Gabbard) on
Novak as Hitchcock's victim.
My choice to write in this context of (counter) transference also
hints at an inherent conflict between two potential reactions,
neither of which should be taken for granted. The reader's or
spectator's response may be experienced mostly as an analyst's
countertransference, when figures, work of art or artist are
primarily viewed as enigmatic, as needing to be explained, and at
the extreme end as being pathological. Alternately, the reader's or
spectator's emotional set may be closer to an analysand's
transference, when the work, its protagonists or its creator are
primarily experienced as valuable and a source of insight. These
different starting points usually lead towards opposing views.
(Counter) transference is only rarely spelled out by critics (Cohen
describes her 'wave of irritation that that necklace gave it all
away'; Cohen, 1995, pp. 140-141), but it is omnipresent. Its role
can be detected, for example, in the divergent ways in which Midge
is portrayed by various authors. When Midge paints her own face into
Carlotta Valdez's portrait, this is seen as a brave demistificatory
act by Modleski (1988, p. 90) and as 'a travesty, a degradation... a
profound blasphemy' by Poznar (1989, p. 61), who deeply identifies
with Scottie's romantic vision. Gabbard (1995) emphasizes Midge's
maternal qualities, the soothing tone of her voice, while Cohen
speaks of her as 'a male imitation... who presents herself as
Scottie's buddy and whose rule of life seems to be to keep a stiff
upper lip' (Cohen, 1995, p. 139). Hollinger (1987) describes Midge
as a spectator figure, with whom the female spectator identifies
uneasily, while White (1991, p. 926) emphasizes her actual ignorance
of Scottie's situation.
(Counter)transference also colours the way Scottie and
Judy/Madeleine are portrayed by the critics, in ways too numerous to
be listed. In her brilliant meta-analysis of the critical readings
of The Turn of the Screw, Felman (1982) demonstrates how the debate
around the story recreates many of its basic emotional themes.
Similarly, the rescue fantasy, a central motive in Vertigo, is
recreated when various scholars strive to rescue Judy from Scottie,
rescue both from Elster (who appears to be forgotten in analyses
emphasizing Scottie's pathology) or from constrictive gender roles,
rescue Judy from 'Madeleine' or vice versa, rescue Scottie from the
coroner's wrath and from other scholars, or rescue Kim Novak from
Hitchcock. (The latter instance is particularly revealing, as one
wonders: what will Beauty/Novak do when rescued from Beast/Hitchcock
- go back into playing Miss Deepfreeze in commercials, as Novak did
shortly before creating, in collaboration with Hitchcock, this role
of a lifetime?)
My own basic interpretation, outlined earlier on, was initially
formulated and presented after viewing the film and reading only
Spoto (1976) and Wood (1977). It undoubtedly expresses my own (counter)transference,
as evidenced by my life-long preoccupation with the impact of rescue
fantasies (e.g., Berman, 1988, 1993b) and their role in our work.
While Freud first spoke of rescue fantasies in 1910, it was Ferenczi
who described a parallel phenomenon in analysis, when 'the doctor
has unconsciously made himself his patient's patron or knight' (Ferenczi,
1919, p. 188). Only half a century later the word rescue fantasy was
directly applied to analysts, by Greenacre (1966, p. 760). Contrary
to Freud's oedipal focus (an underlying wish to rescue mother from
father), my own interpretation of the rescue fantasy, spelled out in
the first section of the paper, emphasizes the object of rescue as a
projected version of the rescuer's own disavowed vulnerability, and
the danger from which rescue is needed - as a split-off version of
the rescuer's aggression. The resultant interaction I describe can
be compared to a mutual transference-countertransference enactment,
of the kind which can be used therapeutically if brought to
consciousness and understood (Renik, 1993), but may also be
destructive when it remains unconscious, when its significance is
denied or rationalized away.
Reading more recently the rest of the literature on Vertigo gave me
a sense of validation, enabled me to refine several formulations,
and made me aware of problematic aspects of others. One of the
latter was my initial confidence that 'real Judy' resents the role
of 'Madeleine', and agrees to assume it anew only as a way to find
Scottie's love. My contemplation of the paradoxical nature of
'seeming' and 'being' for the protagonists of Graham Greene (Berman,
1995), helped me realize that for Hitchcock in this film, as for
Greene in The Comedians, the nature of the subject is enigmatic and
far from firm certainty. I found Cohen's comment about the viewer's
yearning to find an authentic self (Cohen, 1995, p. 139) a good
description of my initial experience.
Cohen's (1995) analysis of the major difference between the firm 'victorian'
identity of L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window and the shaky identity of
Scottie (both played by Stewart) points to the risk in equating the
two figures - and the two films - due to similarities of content
(voyeurism, rescue, disability).
While Gabbard (1995) rejects Mulvey's emphasis on castration
anxiety, offering object loss as the film's emotional core (a view
closer to my own), he shares Mulvey's tendency to pathologize the
film and its figures, adding to it a focus on Hitchcock's own
pathology. Due to this unacknowledged global (counter)transference
(artist and figures seen as sick patients), this interpretation,
similarly to Almansi's (1992), belongs to the pathographic tradition
in the psychoanalytic study of literature and art. Spitz (1985)
comments: 'Pathography... assumes that creative activity does not
represent for the artist a real "working through" of basic
conflict... This view severely limits the pathographer's capacity to
deal with aspects of creating that are relatively conflict-free...
[and] fails to deal with those aspects of the artist's intention
that arise in response to the reality of the developing work itself'
In addition, I would argue, pathography alienates us from works of
art studied, allows a defensive distancing in which work and artist
alike are 'not us'. (Hitchcock or his envoy Scottie have voyeuristic
needs; we don't). Therefore, it blinds us to the ways we could - as
psychoanalysts - truly learn from art, rather than offer it our
preconceived understanding. Of course, creative and unconventional
art has a better potential to 'become our analyst' rather than 'our
disturbed patient'. (When using these codes we should not forget how
often we 'learn from the patient', so that roles are reversed in the
clinical situation as well). The comparison of Spellbound and
Vertigo is useful here.
Spellbound (1945), while excellently crafted, is a deeply
conventional film. We cannot learn much from it, because it learned
too dutifully from us - namely, it offers a simplified version of an
analytic cure through effective dream interpretation, all 'by the
book' (those books popular in the U.S. in the 1940s, in which
psychoanalysis was glorified as a cure-all). The destructive
potential of the therapeutic encounter is split off into the demonic
(male) figure of 'the mad doctor', which leaves the idealized
version of the (female) analyst-rescuer-lover pure, effective (with
the help of an omniscient father figure) and victorious. It's great
entertainment, but a far cry from the complex emotional realities of
actual analytic practice.
Vertigo (1958) is in some ways its negative. It represents
Hitchcock's artistic maturation, a freedom to cast doubt upon
conventional wisdoms, including the power of psychoanalytic
interpretation as a method of establishing objective reality, as
well as a vehicle of rescue. Like its predecessor, interpretation
plays a major role, but - as I portrayed in the first part of this
paper - a role which is illusory. In deconstructing our rescue myth,
Hitchcock gets closer to the subtle emotional paradoxes and dilemmas
which haunt all helping professions. 'Hitchcock's apparent loss of
faith in the psychological power of the truth revealed in dreams'
actually allows him 'a much deeper investigation of the dream
substrate of waking life' (Palombo, 1987, p. 52).
Interpretation, of course, was not invented by Freud. In an
intriguing study comparing change processes in psychoanalysis and in
drama, Simon (1985) offers the following definition:
Tragedy is that art form which, by means of representation of
significant human actions... progressively analyzes and, by means of
continuous interpretation of those actions, painfully lays bare
their range of meanings and implications... The inexorable and
irreversible aspects of the tragedy are the correlates of the
process of continuous misinterpretation (Simon, 1985, p. 399).
Simon gives several examples in which inexact and unempathic
interpretations (e.g., by the chorus in Antigone, by the Fool in
King Lear) push the protagonists towards disaster. Indeed, Midge's
interpretation of Scottie's love to Madeleine can be seen as exactly
this kind of inexact unempathic interpretation, which alienates him
from her and makes him utterly lonely; while Scottie's illusory
omniscient interpretation of Madeleine's dream plays a role in the
process culminating in Judy's death.
Related questions are raised by Jacobson (1989) in his reevaluation
of Freud's and Jones's views of Hamlet. While casting doubt on the
search for the play's hidden a priori 'meaning', Jacobson points out
the preoccupation of the play with the problems and pitfalls
inherent in the mutual interpretations offered by its protagonists
to each other:
All the men and women in it do their best to understand the actions
of those with whom they are involved, as they have to. But what they
most effectively reveal to us in their attempts is - themselves...
This... is true not only for the characters in the play, but also
for each of its readers... It is because we know our understanding
to be so partial that we are bound to attend as closely as we can to
whatever is before us; and in so doing to attend also to the terms
in which we try to comprehend it (Jacobson, 1989, pp. 270-271).
So, while we will never reach a definitive interpretation of
Vertigo's meaning, this fascinating film can help us interpret
ourselves, and develop a finer understanding of our relations as
psychoanalysts with art, with our clinical work, and with ourselves.
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Department of Psychology
University of Haifa
Haifa 31905, Israel
Copyrights © Emanuel Berman 2000