Archives for posts with tag: genre: psychological portraiture


“…Parfois, on me traitait comme si j’étais un chien, guili-guili sur le ventre et sous leurs doigts, je devenais une poupée, un enfant poupée, un poupon qu’on met tout nu dans la baignoire pour le laver avec les mains de toutes ces dames, de tous ces messieurs, et le mettre au dodo dans un p’tit berceau comme un bébé qui rit quand on le touche…”

Jean-Paul Sartre, L’enfance d’un chef (The Childhood of a Leader, 1939)

Childhood is intended as a time of innocence. A period of one’s life that is free from worry, anxiety, and trepidation about the life yet to come. It is where life is lived in the present, and parents’ love is a shield from the corrosive realities of the indifferent world. In Brady Corbet’s astonishingly capable and self-assured hands however, childhood becomes something else entirely. It is a nasty, brutish thing, cold and dark and utterly lacking in warmth. It is here that the origins of the depraved depths of human cruelty are pried apart; it is here that evil begins.

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As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…“What’s happened to me?” he thought. It was no dream.

– Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)

The concept of “the other self”, or the doppelgänger, has fascinated art, literature, and mythology for centuries. Conceptually, it can be rooted into a schizophrenic manifestation of self-idealisation; that is, the ‘improved’ version of oneself. One’s better half, as it were, can be more confident, more accomplished, and more self-assured. In contrast, while desired attributes are realised, it is often the case that one’s fundamental morality and sense of self is inverted in the double; the doppelgänger is often amoral if not outrightly wicked, and usually possess some desire to essentially erase the original, or even subsume the original entirely. Variations on the evil twin trace back to the mediaeval epic Beowulf, who faces a host of monsters which figuratively reflect and distort Beowulf’s own personal attributes. Moreover, the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron made use of doppelgänger imagery to conceptualise the internal struggles of the self, while Poe’s own grotesque short story “William Wilson” tells the tale of a man plagued throughout his life by a sinister shadow of himself. Indeed, the projection of one’s hidden and often malevolent qualities onto another being are endless throughout literature – the perpetual Jekyll/Hyde conundrum – and is a theme revisited often.

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The work of Stefan Zweig enjoyed a welcome renaissance in 2013 after years of neglect in Western art. A prolific artist, Zweig became something of a Dostoevsky figure for early twentieth century writing in Europe – not because of length, but because of acute psychological insight and harrowing themes of passion and obsession within the societal confines of pre- and post-war mores. Writing in the milieu of fin de siècle Vienna, it is small wonder that he was acquainted with Freud and Schnitzler, and it is not difficult to imagine that conversations of psychological repression and expression, mania,  and suffering featured prominently. As a result, Zweig’s work was focussed on the psychological deconstruction of human emotion and fallibility and the universality of such feelings. Two of his works, Journey into the Past (Widerstand der Wirklichkeit) and Maria Stuart were adapted into A Promise and MARY Queen of Scots respectively, and although they may seem superficially dissimilar, their respective filmmakers take veritable cues from Zweig’s oeuvre in remaining true to the verisimilitude of his psychological acuity.

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The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

– Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)

The opening scenes of Michael are deceivingly unremarkable. The title character returns home from a day at work where he is an insurance salesman. He proceeds through the exercises of home life (groceries, dinner, the washing-up), and then proceeds to the basement where behind a bolted door is a 10-year old boy. The implications are painfully clear, but the focus of the film is not on the acts themselves, but the strange and grotesquely domestic arrangement of Michael and the boy, Wolfgang. It is this collection of moments of banal domesticity interleaved with spates of horror in succession which comprise an astutely observed character study, both chillingly disturbing and darkly comic at times.

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With you this world is joyous, and with you that world is joyous;
in this world dwell not without me, and to that world depart not without me.

– Rumi, “278”

In considering common threads which unite the great characters in fiction, from Raskolnikov to Emma Bovary to Mearsault, it is clear that anomie is at the root of it. From its origins in labour theory, Émile Durkheim’s “social disorder”  has come to encompass a very specific facet of psychological anguish, one which results from a veritable wedge between the consciousness of the individual and the collective norms of society. The anomic individual wanders as a spectre in an unfamiliar land, disengaged from the world around him/her, in a quest to attain some sort of meaning or identity. For Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), this apathetic wasteland is Oslo, appropriately grey, muted, and indifferent. His journey through a single day and night in the capital, surrounded by ghosts of his past and premonitions of his future, speaks not only as an elegy to a misspent youth of addiction, but to a sense of self irrevocably and paradoxically woven with the destructive forces which sustain it.

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But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!

– Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)

The setting for Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles is described thusly: “The kitchen in the now abandoned farmhouse of JOHN WRIGHT, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order — unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table — other signs of incompleted work.” In only a single sentence,  an atmosphere of tension is drawn, grey and encompassing, like a lattice of dust settled upon forgotten words. Wreckers occupies a similar space, in which mockingly bucolic wallpaper absorbs every aborted word and averted glance. Dawn (Claire Foy) and David’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) house is a silent observer as the subtle tension broils and escalates, resolving into a restless ambiguity in which no character is absolved.

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Watching We Need to Talk About Kevin is akin to watching a series of Francis Bacon paintings in motion – the one(s) in particular that sprang to mind were the triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944): maligned figures on a splash of turbulent red, each more grotesque than the last. Ramsay makes equal use of the colour red that manages to be both symbolic and unsettling, without straying into heavy-handedness. Red becomes a spectre, haunting particular moments of Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) life, as a reminder of the past and a veritable omen of the future. Red: the colour of love, and the colour of rage, both of which emerge as prominent themes; “there will be blood”, so to speak. Ramsay sways us between dreamlike surrealism and domestic horror that is entirely untarnished by traditional ‘supernatural’ gimmick. The horror of Kevin is that it is real, and is played out with the gravitas of the best of the Greek tragedies.

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