I´m a huge fan of this film and of Hitchcock in particular wich is why you may see a lot of his work featured in this blog. I thought Vertigo was a great way to start.
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 Dragon.
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 the doctors.
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 suicide.
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 truth.
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’ (ibid).
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. 95).
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 support.
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 maternal.
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 biographical episodes.
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’ (pp. 51-52).
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.
ALMANSI, R.J. (1992). Alfred Hitchcock’s disappearing women: a study in scopophilia and object loss. Int. Rev. Psychoanal., 19:81-90.
ARON, L. (1991). The patient’s experience of the analyst’s subjectivity. Psychoanal. Dialogues, 1:29-51.
BERMAN, E. (1988). Communal upbringing in the kibbutz: The allure and risks of psychoanalytic utopianism. Psychoan. Study Child, 43:319- 335.
———- (1991). Psychoanalysis and theater: imaginary twins? Assaph: Studies in the Theater, 7:1-19.
———- (1993a). Introduction to Essential Papers on Literature and Psychoanalysis, ed. E. Berman. New York: New York Univ. Press.
———- (1993b). Psychoanalysis, rescue and utopia. Utopian Studies, 4:44-56.
———- (1995). Review of R. Pierloot, “Psychoanalytic Patterns in the Work of Graham Greene”. Int. J. Psychoanal., 76: 865-867.
———- (1996). The Ferenczi renaissance. Psychoanal. Dialogues, 6: 391-411.
———- (1997). Relational psychoanalysis: A historical background. Amer. J. Psychother., in press.
———- (in press). The film viewer: From dreamer to dream interpreter. Psychoanal. Inquiry.
BRILL, L. (1988). The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
BROWN, R.S. (1986). Vertigo as orphic tragedy. Literature Film Quart., 14:32-43.
COHEN, P.M. (1995). Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism.
Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.
FELMAN, S. (1982). Turning the screw of interpretation. In Literature and Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
FERENCZI, S. (1919). On the technique of psychoanalysis. In Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of psychoanalysis. New York: Brunner-Mazel, 1980, pp. 177-189.
FREUD, S. (1910). A special type of object choice made by men. S.E., 11.
GABBARD, G.O. (1995). Vertigo: female objectification, male desire, and object loss. Presented at 39th International Psychoanalytical Congress, San Francisco.
GILL, M.M. (1982). Analysis of Transference. New York: Int. Univ. Press.
GOODKIN, R.E. (1987). Film and fiction: Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Proust’s ‘Vertigo’. Modern Language Notes, 102:1171-1181.
GREENACRE, P. (1966). Emotional Growth. New York: Int. Univ. Press.
HOLLINGER, K. (1987). The look, narrativity, and the female spectator in Vertigo. J. Film & Video, 39:18-27.
JACOBSON, D. (1989). Hamlet’s other selves. Int. Rev. Psychoanal., 16: 265-272.
KAPLAN, E.N., ed. (1990). Psychoanalysis and Cinema. New York & London: Routledge.
KEANE, M. (1986). A closer look at scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock, and Vertigo. In A Hitchcock Reader, ed. M. Deutelbaum & L. Poague. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Univ. Press, pp. 231-248..
MODLESKI, T. (1988). The Women who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. London: Methuen.
MULVEY, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16:6- 18. Reprinted in Feminism and Film Theory, ed. C. Penley. New York: Routeledge, 1988, pp. 57-68.
PALOMBO, S.R. (1987). Hitchcock’s Vertigo: the dream function in film. In Images in Our Souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis, and Cinema, ed., J.H. Smith & W. Kerrigan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, pp. 44-63.
POZNAR, W. (1989). Orpheus descending: love in Vertigo. Literature Film Quart., 17:59-65.
QUINODOZ, D. (1990). Vertigo and object relationship. Int. J. Psychoanal., 71:53-63.
RACKER, H. (1968). Transference and countertransference. London: Maresfield, 1982.
RENIK, O. (1993). Countertransference enactment and the psychoanalytic process. In Psychic Structure and Psychic Change, ed. M. Horowitz, O.F. Kernberg & E.M. Weinschel. Madison, Conn.: Int. Univ. Press, pp. 135-158.
ROTHMAN, W. (1987). Vertigo: the unknown woman in Hitchcock. In Images in Our Souls, op. cit., pp. 64-81.
SIMON, B. (1985). ‘With cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement’: or, what thickens the plot in psychoanalysis and tragedy? In Psychoanalysis: The Vital Issues, v. II, ed. J. Gedo & G. Pollock. New York: Int. Univ. Press.
SPITZ, E.H. (1985). Art and Psyche: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press..
SPOTO, D. (1976). The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Hopkinsom & Blake. (Revised edition: Doubleday, 1992).
——– (1983). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Ballentine.
WERMAN, D. (1979). Methodological problems in the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature: a review of studies on Sophocles’ Antigone. J. Am. Psychoan. Assoc., 27:451-478.
WEXMAN, V. W. (1986). The critic as consumer: Film study at the university, Vertigo, and the film canon. Film Quart., 39:32-41.
WHITE, S. (1991). Allegory and referentiality: Vertigo and feminist criticism. Modern Language Notes, 106:910-932.
WOOD, R. (1977). Hitchcock’s Films. South Brunswick: Barnes.
——- (1989). Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Department of Psychology
University of Haifa
Haifa 31905, Israel