Blog Directory CineVerse: In love with an illusion

In love with an illusion

Monday, August 24, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Note: This is part five of a seven-part article on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”; part six will post tomorrow.

In "Vertigo," Scottie starts to fall in love with an image, and proceeds to worship Madeleine as a distinguished work of art. He reinforces this obsession when he tries to transform Judy into his everlasting model of the dead Madeleine, a stimulus he needs to regain his desire. Scottie is given a second chance in Judy to recreate his Madeleine. In this, he rejects Judy—who wants to be loved for herself—to seek an ideal love that is totally connected to an image, and a dead image at that. Because Scottie is more intent on loving an effigy than a person, he has this image stripped from him at the film's conclusion.

Judy lacks a strong personal identity, though she can play the part of Madeleine to artistic perfection. In fact, her desire to please Scottie and resemble his artistic ideal is ultimately her downfall--she wears the necklace of Carlotta and is discovered. This is a reflection of Scottie's excessive aspiration, to make art mirror life exactly and to control that image, though this fascination ultimately becomes his tragedy. He must bring Judy back to the tower--the "scene of the crime"--to relive the death of Madeleine, and in so doing seals her fate and his own. Though she is always depicted as non-resistant, even overtly subservient to Scottie, Judy does respond to his affection. In the climactic scene when she is dragged to the top of the tower, her legs appear rigid and lifeless, as if she were already dead.

It has been argued, however, that Scottie's obsession is driven not by a subconscious necrophilia for this "dead" image, but rather by the fetishistic phenomenon of Pygmalionism, which occurs when a person is sexually stimulated by a picture or statue. These fixations are supposedly evoked through psychological imprinting at the height of sexual drive. Scottie surrenders to this attachment almost as masochistically as Judy submits to him.

The fact that Judy fails to entice him points to this implied fetishistic need for the image of the "dead" Madeleine as a catalyst to feel desire. This fetish could, furthermore, be masking a subconscious phobia of women.

Moreover, this self-destructive fixation could represent Scottie's readiness to embrace, through a romantic-erotic surrender, an alternative "death" to the real thing and to the burden of becoming his own self. Whatever explanation one gives credence to, it cannot be disputed that Judy is a self destructive and tragic figure--one who is so pathetically desperate for love that she will take it even through an illusory facade. As one critic posits, she is herself a victim of a vertigo of sorts, in which she accepts the psychological death of herself via the submittance of her body in the form of Madeleine to Scottie.

We can see Madeleine as Scottie's idealized artistic concept in examples throughout the film, as if she were romantic art personified: frequent profiles, lush wardrobe displays, flowers, visits to the church cemetery and art gallery, her resemblance to ''Portrait of Carlotta," etcetera. Even her abstracted, statuesque gaze and the non-diegetic music associated with her character (Bernard Herrmann's Spanish arrangement and tingling violin pieces) conjure up references to Wagnerian lushness and classical art.

Similarly, the mask-like visage of the anonymous woman of the film's title sequence echoes the artistic-feminist thematic inferences of the film. With her stony features and static expression, Hitchcock has taken a living, sexual female and turned her into a cold, dead object of art, like Madeleine. The camera depicting only half of her face, zooms in on the lips, then the eyes (which dart left and right, suggesting fear and disorientation), and ultimately a single, glassy eye that pulls us into a black void where geometrical shapes and surreal patterns emerge.

Tomorrow: Part 6—A symbiotic relationship

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