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Spellbound (1945) and Freud

There is a Latin epigram that goes: Quidquid luce fuit, tenebris agit, in English: what has taken place in the light continues in the dark. The reverse seems also true, though thousands of other epigrams also warn of the illusions that darkness elicits, the insidious workings that can so easily escape our beclouded vision. The riddle cannot be better illustrated through an even more insoluble enigma- that of dreaming. Nietzsche, in 1886, discovered that a man who acquired the ability to fly in his dream related this gravity-defying “upwardness” to an uplifted happiness he felt in his waking moments. From then on that man’s notion of happiness had been dramatically altered- whatever feeling that failed to evoke that peculiar upwardness would seem to him too heavy and, on a superior note, too “earthly.”

The entrance of Sigmund Freud, in his audacious quest of unlocking the age-old mysteries of dream, effected a startling change in the psychological study of the subject. His seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, introduces dream-interpretation as a viable means of curing the patients of their neuroses. This “talking cure” predicates on the unconscious as conducive to the visions we experience in our sleep. The method has its flaws, an obvious one being that the attempt at making conscious of the unconscious seems in itself a self-defeating antinomy- at what level of unconsciousness should the unconscious ultimately strive for?

Freud wasn’t heedless of the confusion to which his theory of the unconscious contributed, and throughout his life he’d retracted his views multiple times. In the early 20th century, however, when the surrealists, citing Freud as the forefather of their movement, began experimenting with automatism, a pictorial method that relies on the dictates of one’s impulse, it became clear of how absurd this exploration of the unconscious would bring about if done in extremis.

This link, though contentious, between Freud and Surrealism made Salvador Dali (himself always a detached member of the movement anyway) a worthy collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock’s Freud-fixated Spellbound (1945), responsible for the design and conception of an elusively beautiful dream sequence, reduced to two minutes from its twenty minutes original length by producer David O Selznick. This is the scene where the two psychoanalysts, one of them Ingrid Bergman’s stout-hearted Dr. Peterson, attempt to have Gregory Peck’s amnesiac John Ballantyne recount the exact details of his dream. The rudimentary reading of the patient’s dream seems disappointingly platitudinous. It is at best a “cipher method,” the most elementary kind of dream interpretation that involves with very basic decoding of signs. The procedure is ludicrously facile: one just simply connects the dots and the result will be arrived at in no time. Therefore it wouldn’t be too surprising when the possible psychic connotation of an eye- in Ballantyne’s dream there are a dozen of eyes dangling from the ceiling, and a man with an oversized scissor is cutting through one of them- goes blithely unnoticed by the two supposedly experienced professionals. In Freud’s thesis of the uncanny, the loss of an eye is associated with a fear of castration. The patient’s dream appears to be far more complicated than was pronounced to be.

Spellbound provides an inadequate primer of Freud’s theory. The attitude it displays towards the practice of psychoanalysis is what Freud had been frequently at fault, and thereby warned of: arbitrariness. In Interpretation of Dreams he opposes the notion that a definite connection can invariably be made between the dream-content and reality:

 “[…] it would be wrong to assume that such a connection between the dream-content and reality will be easily obvious from a comparison between the two. On the contrary, the connection must be carefully sought, and in quite a number of cases it may for a long while elude discovery.

Elsewhere, Freud admits to the limitations of his method. Apparently not every dream yields a persuasive answer:

“Every dream has at least one point at which it is unfathomable; a central point, as it were, connecting it with the unknown.”

One is often told that a good professional in his field would be one that embraces the unknown, instead of exhausting his exhaustible reservoir of what he knows. There is an ingenious twist near the end of the film when Dr. Peterson realises that there’s a fault in her initial reading of Ballantyne’s dream, and the real culprit of the mysterious crime dwells not in a faraway place, or solely in Ballantyne’s imagination, but just one floor above her room. This time the doctor needn’t do much analysing as the villain himself promptly confesses his crime, and corners her with a pointed gun.

Hitchcock, infamous with his penchant of complex psychic phenomenon between human relations and of human mind, had made and would be making better examples of such than Spellbound. The characterization, however, may be one of the few aspects that really yield a psychological edge, especially Bergman’s character, whose persistence and perseverance veer dangerously towards an unwavering allegiance to hard-and-fast rules. One wonders if Spellbound would do better justice to Freud if the focus were on the nuanced portrayals of the characters, instead of tossing off flippantly the numerous complexes as though they were the labels readily affixed to vials of poison.


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