Friday, May 23, 2014

Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier, 2013)

In a recent article film critic Matt Zoller Seitz advises wannabe film critics, among other things, to study history and psychology. I was reminded of his advice while watching Nymphomaniac, and especially I was wondering in which way psychology, and psychoanalysis in particular, has influenced filmmaking and film criticism. Indeed, a lot of movies these days seem to have been bathed in psychoanalysis − Spider, The Machinist and Black Swan are just the first examples coming to my mind. That's something even a layman on the subject like me can easily recognize, since, as anthropologist Henrietta L. Moore points out in her book A Passion for Difference: Essays in Anthropology and Gender,

"Psychoanalysis has entered popular culture [...]. Not very much may be known about psychoanalytic theory, but a whole series of popular experiences  like motivation in crime novels and television dramas  has been profoundly influenced by theories of causation and personality development based on a version of psychoanalytic thought."

The topic deserves greater attention than my limited knowledge allows. Indeed, the book Psychoanalysis and Cinema by film theorist Christian Metz seems to be an essential reference point. I will concentrate just on these two aspects: How much the common practice among certain filmmakers of venturing into Freudian territory has contributed to flatten out film characters and plots, and to what extent Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac can be considered a critical response to this approach?

Let's start from the beginning: The publication of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams in year 1900 is usually considered a landmark in the foundation of psychoanalysis. The first attempts to interpret art in a psychoanalytic light date back not much later: Freud himself provided re-readings of some literary works, for example Whilelm Jensen's Gradiva (1907) and Shakespeare's King Lear (1913). But the first attempt to interpret a film from a psychoanalytic perspective was made by psychologist and writer Otto Rank, who in 1914 wrote the essay "The Doppelgänger" about the theme of the double in the 1913 film Der Student von Prag.

Since the early days of psychoanalysis, retrospectively analyzing artworks from a psychoanalytic viewpoint has somewhat become a widespread practice, and in some occasions it has helped uncover deeper layers of meaning within an author's work. But psychoanalysis has deeply changed not only the way we interpret art, but art production as well. Today, in an age when psychoanalytic theories are organized in a coherent, systematic corpus, and words like "Freudian slip" or "phallic symbol" have entered our daily vocabulary, authors can consciously draw on psychoanalysis (or a popularized version of it) for artistic purposes with the confident certainty that a large portion of the audience will be able to pick up the clues. And of course, the fact that psychoanalysis has become an artistic device like many others is something that has irreversibly altered once more critical analysis. We cannot ignore the fact that on the market there even exist handbooks on the subject. Here's a passage from the introduction of William Indick's Psychology for Screenwriters:

"The fruitful world of psychoanalytic and mythological theory provides a boundless supply of ideas for character and plot. [...] If you feel that your script lacks a strong or engaging sense of conflict, then the different interpretations of psychological conflict in this book may give you the inspiration you need."

Let's consider Black Swan again (and do not read the following if you haven't seen the movie). When I saw it a couple of years ago, I thought it was a nearly perfect movie: Organic in all its parts, beautifully staged and with a grandiose finale, it also featured a protagonist with a psychological dysfunction that served as plausible motivation for the protagonist's actions. What I didn't immediately realize, though, is that this perfectly cohesive characterization didn't add to, but rather subtracted from the film's complexity. In fact, director Darren Aronofsky makes extensive and informed use of psychoanalysis in the film, to the point that, as we approach an analysis of it, we realize that it's not really a matter of using psychoanalysis to make meaning emerge, but simply to recognize how the director has exploited it in the creative process. So that when we describe the insane relationship between Nina and her controlling mother, or discuss the protagonist's possible schizophrenia, we are not giving a psychoanalytic interpretation but simply illustrating the mechanisms driving the plot  an activity that is worth doing, but has nothing to do with psychoanalysis and everything to do with narrative techniques and character design. Psychoanalysis can no longer be naïvely used as an interpretive tool once we acknowledge that it has become an integral part of an author's creative palette.

Maybe Alfred Hitchcock committed the original sin: According to what he stated in his famous interview with François Truffaut, with Spellbound (1945) he intended to make the "first picture on psychoanalysis". But if Hitchcock's foray into Freudian territory was a pioneering experiment in a one-of-a-kind career (he later brought this technique to perfection with Psycho), in my opinion the exploitation of psychoanalysis in more recent movies has become a sort of fashionable device, in most cases causing the movie to lose depth instead of acquire. All we are left to do is to follow the breadcrumbs left by the filmmaker to let us unveil the schema he or she has carefully arranged for us. There's no magic in this process, for the film itself supply us with the instructions for use. In the case of Black Swan, Nina's schizophrenic disorder is revealed, for example, in a moment when she meets her evil Doppelgänger  a scene that is as fascinating in its realization as it is literal-minded in its symbolism. Mirror scenes also abound, an obvious choice if one wants to depict a fragmented personality. But I suppose it's time now to talk about Nymphomaniac.

Among other things, Von Trier's two-part film can be viewed as a long, verbose psychoanalytic session. The director makes no mystery about it: We don't have to ruminate much to recognize Joe's therapist in the erudite, analytical-minded Seligman. As Joe delivers her confessions about her hectic sexual life, she receives an almost immediate interpretation from Seligman. When Joe tells about "lubricating" at her father's deathbed, Seligman quietly observes that it's quite normal to have sexual reactions following a great emotional shock. Here, like in many other scenes, we are not free to fantasize about Joe's motivations for what she does, since our conjectures are frustrated by Seligman's convincing, reassuring interpretation. For that matter, the film's title already contains the diagnosis of the protagonist's disorder.

This frame device constitutes a tyrannical point of view that at times even ends up as irritating. Joe herself complains in more than one occasion about Seligman's non-judgmental, frigid approach, as if she was asking not so much for an explanation of her actions as for a firm condemnation of them  she apparently desired a confessor, but found a therapist instead. This excess of interpretation has the effect of thwarting any moral objection we viewers might raise to Joe's behavior, encouraging us to concentrate upon her developmental path instead of censuring her supposed misconduct. We are asked to enjoy Joe's tales and empathize with her, any attempt on our part to feel morally superior failing miserably amidst Seligman's deluge of words.

As I have explained earlier, I generally find the use of psychoanalysis as storytelling device more often than not an efficient way to disguise as complex characterization what is essentially a paint-by-numbers formula. That's why Seligman's character in Nymphomaniac seems to me particularly interesting: His presence in the story exposes and ridicules this trend. In fact, Von Trier's approach is to toy with symbols, so dear to psychoanalysis, like in the openly ludicrous scene where Joe has a vision about levitating in the presence of (no less) Messalina and the Whore of Babylon, or when she recognizes the shape of a handgun in a Rorschach-like tea stain on the wall. Free association technique gets a dose of irony as well: Note how easily Seligman's discourse jumps from seduction to fly fishing, from S&M practices to mountain climbing. On hearing his disquisition about Prusik climbing knots, Joe bitingly remarks: "That was your weakest digression yet". All psychoanalytic paraphernalia having been neutralized, we are induced to follow Joe's sexual odyssey without any comfortable categorization to rely on. When we approach the film, we expect to find exactly what the title promises: a character with a nymphomaniac disorder. But as we leave the theater, Joe concretizes for what she really is: neither a typified individual nor a clinical case, but a flesh-and-blood human being.

On the other hand, what Von Trier seems trying to tell us is that knowing the origin of a psychological problem does not necessarily lead to its solution. This is particularly the case if the patient doesn't want to be cured because he or she likes to be that way. All we can do with Joe is accept her for what she his, because she is not going to change. In this sense Nymphomaniac can be regarded as one of the most elaborate and devastating attack ever launched against psychotherapy (well, Antichrist was another diabolical one too) and the irreverence of the film's last scene leaves no room for doubts about the inefficacy of Seligman's treatment. Did we expect Von Trier to have mitigated his provocative vein? Accept it or not, presumably he's not gonna change anytime soon.

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