Wild psychoanalysis

  • Datum 27-01-2011
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A new cinema located just at the back of the lead character’s head. "Film criticism has to give up its abundant fantasies of judgement and purity and plunge into the space between certified copy and black swan", Adrian Martin argues.

certified copy, black swan, antichrist, à l’aventure… what possible critical move could justify putting these films together? Getting out of the comfort zone can mean a gesture like this: disregarding auteur and genre, crossing the lines of mainstream, arthouse and film festival exhibition, opening your mind to the odd, subterranean zeitgeists that always flow in, around and underneath our shared culture.
In certified copy, a man (William Shimell) and a woman (Juliette Binoche) — at a weird, unannounced moment — begin a role-play game with one another. They have been strangers, but suddenly they are ‘as if’ husband and wife, arguing through all the old tensions and difficulties and unresolved business… The woman seems to initiate it — perhaps gripped by a mad, projective, emotional delirium — and the man, after a delicious split-second of absolute perplexity, clearly decides to just go along with it, perhaps for a thrill, perhaps to help her through this unfortunate moment of hallucination. But there is no exit to the game, at least not at the last frame of the movie’s open ending. This man and this woman lose themselves in the game, and the effect for the spectator is exhilarating, liberating.
These people become what they play at, what they pretend (for whatever unfathomable reason) to be. They transform, metamorphose themselves utterly. They are, in this sense, pure creatures of cinema. One can view them as the certified copy of some other couple — perhaps some frolicsome movie couple, in fact, out of a Hollywood romantic comedy, hashing out their adventure of ‘remarriage’, or out of some contemporary ‘Tuscan sun’ faux-travelogue. But the transformation, in and of itself, is radical — unsettling, mysterious, total. It suddenly shifts the whole film, kicks it onto another plateau entirely — without announcing this to us at all. The film itself metamorphoses, as few films have the courage to do.

It’s a question of a leap, an ellipse, a sudden edit — but an edit of the being, of character, of the soul itself, not over the fiddle of a cut, but right in the middle of a real time-space, mid-gesture and mid-scene. There is a scalding closeness of cinema to life in this move; as John Cale wrote in his autobiography What’s Welsh for Zen: ‘This was something close to cinema. A vicarious, unstable reality’. But the ellipse and the closeness occur not through drugs (enter the void) or violence (shutter island) or operatic trance-ecstasy (salomé, 1973); here the voyage is the daily one, the voyage of the emotions, of moods and their sudden, seizing effects.
Australian scholar-critic Lauren Bliss in Screen Machine magazine (screenmachine.tv/) relates the ellipse in certified copy to the ellipse in every real-life encounter of significance, every relationship: a line is crossed, the fantasy sets in (for good or for ill), and neither person knew exactly when or how it’s happened. Love is the intersection of two fantasies, with all the potentiality for disastrous mismatch and unalignment implied by that… But it has happened, and the adventure has to be played out, the consequences have to be faced — one way or another.
It’s a wild psychoanalysis: a psychoanalysis that plays out not in the safe, ritualised distance between the analyst and the subject on his or her couch, but in life, in a transaction in motion, in flight (in certified copy, nobody ever stops walking, driving, talking…). With an air of constant improvisation, and surprise. In a psychodrama, but a daily kind of psychodrama. when i will be loved (2004) was ahead of this curve, as is an aspect of lorna’s silence (2008), but there it’s still a matter of people lying, strategising, power games; certified copy takes the play to a different plateau, more ordinary and yet more mysterious, more compelling. Cinema is always psychodrama, or it’s nothing. Always risking, always at risk. Always putting everything into play: self, other, time, place, sense.

In antichrist, the situation can seem absurd: a husband-therapist isolates his own sick wife in a wilderness cabin to treat her? How scandalously unprofessional! — just like the psychoanalyst who hypnotises his patients/friends into mystico-erotic-levitating frenzies and then finds himself making love to them in à l’aventure. But what’s incredible about antichrist, now that the first flush of outrage over it has died away, is the type of failed psychic transaction it lays out so precisely, painstakingly and spectacularly. Failed transference: not just between therapist and patient or husband and wife, but also between the filmmaker and his subject matter: something aborts between the moment of identification-projection of the guy behind the camera into his massively depressed leading lady (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the confused, accusatory, misogynistically suspicious results formed finally on screen. Not that it is a matter of triumphantly catching the movie out in a bad ideological posture: all of us are caught, embarrassed and in the spotlight, between successful and unsuccessful transferences of emotion and investment, and all our most cherished values are tested and compromised and in that movement.
black swan is a commercial film that many people despise right now. Posturing, incoherent, strained, hysterical: yes, it is all of these things. Nothing like the red shoes (1948) or center stage (2000) or all about my mother (1999). Maybe a little too much like repulsion (1965). But (to quote the immortal Fox TV reality series My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss): why, so what, and who cares? The film possesses a compelling intensity; it’s closer to opening night (1977) than any previous high-art ballet movie. Its merry, all-in, every-which-way-but-loose level of hallucinatory madness works for it: confusion of identity, confused psychic projection, is its principal subject. Mother-monster, the internal dark double, teacher-seducer, whore-rival: the figures spin around, changing places, bouncing from one level of reality (or fantasy) to the next. The film keeps flipping the deck, courting ever less logical convolutions of ambiguity — all for the sake of shock, of incessant vertigo. It’s way beyond the cerebral machinations of an inception-style mind-game movie, and closer, in its weird way, to the unconscious as levered to the surface of mysteries of lisbon or 36 views of of pic st-loup.
black swan ties itself up, eventually, in a much-previewed, pre-visualised, hyper-choreographed finale that, in exhaustion after so much psychic flex, drains itself out to pure white in a death-impulse: it’s the only way in this overheated post-indie Hollywood context — and assuredly not the way of opening night itself, which suspended itself, scrambled all its bases, in an ultimate performative play which is among the most daring open-conclusions in all cinema.

Here we are (as in enter the void) with a new, doubtless fashionable kind of cinema that is situated just at the back of a lead character’s head (followed headlong down stark, plunging passageways like in a sped-up video game) or glued, in deliberately ugly wide-angle, right to the skin pores, face-front (inland empire). This is one pole of wild psychoanalysis in the contemporary cinematic field: inner or eyeball subjectivity put under pressure and trembling until it shatters into a thousand tiny fragments, contradictions, loops, short-circuits. certified copy is the other, minimalist pole: serene, things viewed from a distance, a two-shot world with plenty of space and locale all around — the only possible reverse-field being the mirror/camera into which the imaginary lovers stare, individually, during the twin bathroom interludes that provisionally conclude their ambiguous game.
For we spectator-critics, one pole of wild psychoanalysis is not necessarily better, more sensible or more ethical than the other; we exist, day to day, strung out between both options. Film criticism (slow or fast, it’s all the same) has to give up its abundant fantasies of judgement, discernment, purity; it has to plunge into the space between certified copy and black swan, and seriously visit all stations along the way. To do that, it will need to discard some of its hard-won habits and rituals, and open itself to first-time surprises. It will need to risk itself in its eternal becoming.

…And this is a first for me, for example: I have managed to write an entire article without mentioning a single film director’s name.

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is Associate Professor and Head of Film and Television Studies at Monash Univerity (Australia) and co-editor of Rouge (rouge.com.au). He is also a regular contributor to de Filmkrant.