Rear Window Film & Psychoanalysis

Film and Psychoanalysis: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.)

This essay will try to give an overview of two interpretations of Rear Window, both of which focus on the gaze and voyeurism of the movie, and both of which can be situated (to a greater or lesser extent) within a psychoanalytic context. Mulvey’s interpretation is explicitly inspired by psychoanalysis and feminism, while Žižek’s interpretation has to be situated in a Lacanian context and is an attempt to come to terms with the “Hitchcockian Blot” – the uncanny moment in a Hitchcock movie.

The Voyeurism of Rear Window.

It is a commonplace to say that Rear Window deals with curiosity and the need to pry into the lives of others. Jeff’s curiosity begins harmlessly enough, but gradually, this innocent curiosity turns to semi-professional spying. For example, he starts to use a photographic tele-lens and binoculars from his job as photographer. At this point, it also becomes obvious that being curious is Jeff’s job. His nurse Stella and his fiancée Lisa feel very uncomfortable and accuse him of being an immoral voyeur, a Peeping Tom. Moreover, they do not believe his story about Thorwald. Stella calls him a “window shopper”, someone who “should have [his] eyes put out with red hot pokers.” After Lisa starts spying too, she says they are “two of the most frightening ghouls [she has] ever met”. The other characters in the movie indeed present Jeff as a typical voyeur:
“The voyeur is presented as a ‘diseased’, often paranoid, violent individual who violates the norms of everyday life. Films validate these depictions of the voyeur by having persons in power (family members, editors, supervisors, the police) articulate how and why the voyeur is a sick or deviant person and why his or her gaze is inappropriate.” (Denzin 1995: 3)
They analyze Jeff’s obsessive gaze as inappropriate and immoral. However, very soon they cannot escape becoming Peeping Toms themselves.

Firstly, Jeff’s voyeurism gives him an insight in his own future choices with regard to his relation with Lisa. The different windows represent images of Jeff or Lisa or both. The windows are held up as mirrors, and the people inside could become, or already are, their doppelgängers. For example, in Mr and Mrs Thorwald, Jeff sees a man who is stuck with an invalid and nagging wife. In the case of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship, Jeff is the invalid, and Lisa is the nagging wife. Indeed, Lisa wants Jeff to commit himself to her through a marriage. Lisa and Jeff are reflected in Miss Lonelyhearts and the lonely composer. Miss Torso displays a similar exhibitionism as Lisa. In the future, they could be the newlyweds, or the sterile childless couple whose only joy in life is their little dog.

Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic and feminist interpretation.

This analysis of Rear Window can be complemented by, for example, Laura Mulvey’s interpretation of the traditional Hollywood narrative film. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, an article written in 1973, and published in Screen in 1975, Mulvey adopts a radical critique of contemporary cinematic discourse by using psychoanalytic and feminist discourse to analyse “the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Mulvey 1989: 14) Her article revealed classic Hollywood film as an expression of the patriarchal ideology, basically establishing the woman in an inferior position subjected to the male gaze. An ideal case in point in Laura Mulvey’s analysis is the so-called voyeur’s film – like Rear Window – which mostly “deploys an investigative narrative structure, often presupposing a male hero ‘in search of the truth about an event that has already happened, or is about to come to completion’.” (Denzin 1995: 8) The action in such a film is usually defined from the male point of view. Moreover, the woman is often the object of investigation (as in most films noir). At the same time, the woman can function as the dangerous femme fatale or as an obedient wife or girlfriend: “Within this framework, the voyeur’s film […] probes the secrets of female sexuality and male desire within patterns of submission and dominance”. (Denzin 1995: 8) Mulvey argues that Hollywood film is profoundly phallocentric, the woman being the danger, which the man at once desires and denies.

Central in Mulvey’s article is the concept of ‘scopophilia’, or the pleasure in looking, which cinema offers. Looking itself becomes a source of pleasure. Scopophilia was originally linked by Freud to the component instincts of sexuality, which he associated with taking other people as objects to be subjected to someone’s controlling gaze. In its most extreme form, the pleasure of looking becomes a perversion “producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (Mulvey 1989: 17). This of course aptly describes Jeff in Rear Window.

Mulvey also links the experience of watching a film to this, arguing that film often produces a similar kind of separation, and plays on the same voyeuristic fantasies as, for example the child’s. The spectator’s position is, in essence, one of “repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” (Mulvey 1989: 17). This situation arises by taking the other as object of sexual stimulation. In contrast with this, the pleasure of looking can also be related to Lacan’s mirror stage. Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage denotes the constitutive moment when the child recognizes its own image in the mirror and identifies with an image of itself, resulting in the articulation of its subjectivity (which is of course not based on the ‘real’ self, but on an image of the self). Analogous to this is the identification of the ego with the objects or subjects on screen. Contrary to the first scopophilic position, this position arises through narcissism, and is the result of the identification with the image seen (in a mirror/on screen), and is a function of the ego libido

In the traditional movie, the woman has been displayed as an (erotic) object for both the other (male) characters within the movie and the (male) spectators in the audience. At the same time, a male/active versus female/passive dichotomy is at work controlling the narrative sequence. The man both holds control of the action, and of the gaze (character and spectator): “As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” (Mulvey 1989: 20) The importance of the look “of the spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment (connoting male fantasy) and […] of the spectator fascinated with the image of his like set in an illusion of natural space


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