Lilith is the last film by writer-director Robert Rossen, a Communist party member who eventually named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 after suffering two years on the blacklist. And so, it’s tempting to read this mental-institution drama as some kind of political allegory, especially considering Jean Seberg’s radical politics and subsequent travails with the FBI, and Warren Beatty’s future as a countercultural icon (not to mention his glamorization of communism in Reds ).
But the punishment the film metes out to its naïve protagonist for his eager but misguided desire to “help people more directly” suggests disillusionment with politics of all kinds. It’s infused instead with a sense of futility, ending with the authoritarian caretakers of the sanitarium maintaining the status quo in which little hope is held out for anyone being cured, and with the audience duped by the film’s surface social critique which is ultimately a mirage.
Based on a novel by J. R. Salamanca, Lilith tells the story of Vincent (Beatty), a Korean War veteran who works as an occupational therapist at a sanitarium. There he falls under the spell of a charismatic schizophrenic, Lilith (Seberg), who inhabits a fanciful universe wherein angels speak to her in a made-up language and she has a god’s prerogatives. In the opening titles sequence and an awkward expository scene with the institution’s doctors, Lilith is likened to a deranged spider, whose chaotic web, spun without design or purpose, nonetheless retains its ability to ensnare. Despite this setup, the film labors to make her behavior predictable or explicable. “She wants to leave the mark of her desire on every living creature,” Lilith says of herself, “If she were Caesar, she’d do it with a sword. If she were a poet, she’d do it with words. But she’s Lilith, so she has to do it with her body.”
All the heavy-handedness is a pity, because it undercuts Seberg’s performance, which invests Lilith with a more provocative complexity. Lilith’s seductive self-involvement, irresistible to fellow patients and doctors alike, and her childish eagerness to please are inseparable from her seething malevolence at the world’s fundamental intractability. The film devotes a fair amount of time to studying Seberg’s face, whose every expression seems made up of contradictory impulses. In her shifts among those impulses, you can see how Lilith’s volatility makes her so compelling to her many lovers, including a frosty lesbian patient (Anne Meachum), the effete Stephen (Peter Fonda), and Vincent, who, as her therapist, abets her nymphomania.
Despite such potentially lurid subject matter, however, the film’s not out to exploit insanity for sensationalistic thrills. Rather, it seems almost to dramatize psychologist R. D. Laing’s influential ideas about schizophrenia, first put forward in 1960. He saw schizophrenia as a desperate attempt at personal authenticity and a reasonable response to the corrosive effects of modern society, arguing that therapists should not challenge the schizophrenic’s delusions, but indulge them and try to empathize with them.
This is certainly the approach Vincent is encouraged to take with Lilith, so that as the lack of boundaries in their relationship becomes more appalling, Vincent’s bosses can’t praise him enough. He begins to question whether Lilith’s world, full of spontaneous whimsy, unfettered id, and unqualified emotional indulgence, isn’t preferable to the “normal” world, depicted as shallow and corrupt, particularly in a scene where Vincent visits the home of an old girlfriend, now married to a boorish cretin (played memorably by a young Gene Hackman). After liquoring herself up, she makes herself available to Vincent, providing a dreary counterpoint to Lilith’s more fanciful wantonness.
As Vincent vacillates between his disillusionment with everyday life and excitement over the alternative Lilith offers, Beatty captures his ambivalence perfectly. As Lilith draws Vincent in, you can see both the pleasure he takes in her flattery and the confidence it gives him. Even as he agonizes to his supervisors over his ethical quandaries, he condones her manipulations of fellow patients. Eventually, he loses his qualms and begins sleeping with her, arranging special field trips to afford himself opportunities.
This likely sounds sleazy and unsympathetic, and it is, kind of, but Beatty is able to rescue some of our emotional involvement with his character through sheer brooding charisma. Laing warned that therapists should be prepared to acknowledge their own “psychotic potential,” which Beatty reveals adeptly here, despite occasionally clumsy dialogue (as when he calls Lilith “a dirty bitch”). Laconic almost to the point of somnambulism, he seems always slightly removed from his own actions, as if he is studying himself, trying to validate his own responses.
The film’s episodic structure carries us along quickly, without trying to explain too much, allowing events to flow with a dreamlike inevitability that, unlike Lilith, feels convincing because it hasn’t been overly dissected. All this makes the tidy explanations at film’s end harder to stomach. When we suddenly learn their pathologies are specific to their family histories, what looked like a far-reaching critique of contemporary society suddenly looks banal. The characters become objects of pity, and we can exempt ourselves from any scrutiny.
Despite such limits, however, Lilith is pregnant with interpretive possibility. The cultural depiction of female madness has a long, dubious history, and as with most films about insane women, it’s difficult to decide whether the film is a proto-feminist indictment of how a sexist culture drives women insane, or whether it actually embraces sexist notions of inherent female instability and narcissism. Does it proscribe female desire or strive to represent its revolutionary potential? At the beginning of the film, Vincent’s boss asks, “Somehow insanity seems a lot less sinister to watch in a man than in a woman, doesn’t it?” His question invites us to contemplate what is so threatening about female madness—its subversiveness and intimations of voracious female sexual desire—and why. Can one can hear echoes of Helêne Cixous’s reason-defying “laugh of the medusa” subverting phallocentrism in Lilith’s crazy cackle, or merely a parody of same? That both seem plausible is testimony to the film’s enduring relevance.