Friday, 10 July 2009

Blood on the Side

Viv Chadder explores what we can learn about representations of madness from Robert Rossen's film Lilith.

I am concerned here with the last film of Robert Rossen,
Lilith (1964). This is an enigmatic and intriguing film with an impressive cast, that goes to the edge of defying analysis. At first glance it would appear to be a response to the anti-psychiatry movement, at least, it departs markedly from earlier films such as The Snake Pit (1948) in their clear condemnation of the brutality of the state asylum system. Gender politics appears confined to the observation that ‘insanity always appears more sinister in a woman than in a man’.

The plot appears to defy logic at times and to depend on the improbability of an unqualified and vulnerable young man (Vincent Bruce) being employed in a plush private asylum as occupational therapist. Residents appear free to come and go at will, causing some almost inexplicable change of scene, though there is some minimal rationale for an abrupt change of scene to a jousting tournament, where the by now infatuated hero gets to crown his Lady Queen of Love and beauty. Not the first daring exploit from within her thrall, Lilith clearly feeds on his obedience and willingness to interpret and fulfil her demands at whatever cost to others’ lives and his own sanity. This mythical creature is ruler of her universe peopled by gods who weep at her disobedience. Her will is to leave the mark of her desire on every living thing. Our hero seeks to protect her in her quest to fulfil this aim, whether it be another woman, small boys, a colleague. HERE Rossen clearly risks much to be true to the novelist Salamanca’s ideas (upon which the film is based). Vincent wrenches a fairy doll from its place in the collection of Lilith’s trophies. He installs it in an aquarium of fishes, submerged in a watery grave. We share in a lecture delivered by the asylum physician to an enrapt group of staff. The psychotic spins the asymmetrical fractured web of the mad spider. The sufferers experience immense catastrophe due to their superior spirits and sensibilities. All of us, he says, are involved in ‘rapture’, in its fullest meaning of course. Vincent is congratulated on his success in achieving the transference with Lilith, staff seemingly oblivious to the manifest impropriety of the relationship that entails, and in denial concerning his admission of willingness to succumb to her seduction.

Both novel and film are heavily laden with Freudian clues, but this is no oedipal space. Jung’s anima might assist us? I am tempted to follow Mladen Dolar’s suggestion that psychoanalysis enables us to identify and encircle the space where meaning collapses. Our first view of the horrors of psychosis comes in the tour of the asylum to introduce Vincent. A woman, catatonic, sits on the floor draped over her bed in a lascivious pose? Finally it is Lilith we see through the mesh-covered viewing window. A woman we have witnessed to be expressive, animated, full of joy and passion, cunning, duplicitous, mercurial (shape-shifting), carelessly demanding the servitude of her knight of Poplar Lodge, greedy for conquests and pleasure. Careless of the lives of others , vulnerable only to psychosis at the previous death of her brother from her incestuous desires. Finally we see this dangerous weaving woman once trapped in her loom by her hair, a vacant, motionless, catatonic void. Her kingdom in ruins depredated, her loom in pieces, her vitality and creativity, her duplicitous viewpoint voided, an object of the gaze, ‘her’ language annulled, a vanished woman, no longer capable of transformation, frozen and remote.

This film has little to share with the past, more with the future. To retreat to a more specific context, I discovered that the film was shot at Chestnut Lodge Maryland, where Salamanca had worked after World War 2, and which was presided over by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. The improbable freedom of the patients, the emphasis on the transference, impose new meaning on this film with this association. So we should look to I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, rather than absorb this text in a spurious undiscoverable history.

Rossen would appear to refuse the more melodramatic representations of the mad. There is emotional but little physical violence. I do not ignore the suicide of the young man whose gift Lilith appears to refuse. He falls on his sword. The event is denied us, but its emotional power is not. We are left with the medieval trappings of Salamanca’s novel, and little hint of Macdonald’s Lilith. Her visions or her hallucinations, we do not share. Vincent orders her blood on the side with her whisky. We share just her POV through steel mesh, with a predatory hand clutching it, and look out over the splendid grounds of Poplar/Chestnut Lodge, Rockville/Stonemont, Maryland, grounds which rarely yield to the ‘threatening’, but normally remind us of the affluent, rather than the refuge of our world’s catastrophes. Touched, only on the inside with a hint of gothic shadow, as we are touched by the mark of Lilith and her rebellion against the dead hand of the joyless and undesiring. Depleted as well of the violence of Frieda Reichmann’s patients but intricate and sensitive in its depiction of the emotional dangers of the work, espousing a neo Romantic view of the work of the therapist Rossen’s film seems to be a testimony to the temptations suffered by the masochist to betray the weak to satisfy the greed of the Lady and to enjoy her favours.

Doubtless overshadowed by the publication of Joanne Greeberg’s book,
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, in the same year I believe this film to be an unostentatious testimony to the work of Frieda Fromm Reichmann, without the spectacular cure, and dwelling scarcely at all on the traumatic symptoms of the patient eschewing also overt deployment of the myth of Lilith. Rossen and Salamanca (they co-scripted the film) are clearly as fascinated as Vincent Bruce by the captivating lure of the patient.

Mladen Dolar, ‘I Shall be with You on Your Wedding-Night: Lacan and the Uncanny’, October, 58 (Fall) 1991
(Photo credit: PlingPlong. Permissions.)

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