Identity and Desire: The Search for Emotional Realism in Cinema

In doing research for another project, it became necessary for me to find various depictions of certain emotions—particularly jealousy, obsession and desire, particularly in female characters. Because I’m shooting a short film, most of my research involved watching films. It may sound like fun, except when you consider that the majority of movies dealing with this topic almost inevitably involve women attacking each other over dresses or vamps in sex-crazed thrillers. I wanted my own interpretations to concentrate on the emotional complexity of relationships, so focusing on the shrieking and hair pulling was out of the question. And so I was concerned that I was never going to find something remotely subtle.

I’ll admit part of my own desire to pursue this project involves my quest to take certain themes from the classical Hollywood era and ’50s melodramas and turn them on their head. While directors such as Douglas Sirk may have been commenting on the candy coated nature of their artifice, they still were involved in creating said artifice. As movies continue to entrench and comment on our everyday perspectives of the world, as online videos offer digitized versions of reality, artifice seeks to override reality. The Chief Operating Officers (COOs) and producers will say that a fantasized version of truth is more interesting than truth itself. It’s true, say, if you have to hear a lawyer stumble through precedents instead of giving a dramatic speech for justice. But somehow the events that transpire in our everyday lives become twisted for the most fantastical of fictions. Real life situations and relationships provide more than enough tension to fuel characters without throwing theatrics in.

At the core of all good films are strong relationships. Not just characters but people. It’s said the best writers and artists draw from observation, and then dress it up to expose certain facets of emotion. It’s true—drawing from real life experiences provides endless opportunities for storyline. But there needed to be something that I could use as a filmic precedent. Not only for style, but for character development on a visual narrative.

Ironically, one of the better depictions I came across is from the classical Hollywood period. Shot in glorious Academy-ratio Technicolor, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) forefronts the emotional travails of a woman who will do anything to spend some alone time with her husband. Starring Gene Tierney and directed by John M. Stahl, it’s an interesting choice for Hollywood during World War II—a mix of noir and melodrama. There were probably many women at home missing their husbands and boyfriends, many who felt they might do anything to spend some alone time with them. While few of them may have taken the extremes of Tierney’s Ellen, it is likely that they could relate to her—even if they would never admit to it out loud.

The film has plenty of ingredients to titillate the audience—a love triangle, murder, and psychotic instability. Of these, the latter is the most interesting. The film does little to hide the fact that Ellen’s behavior is ingrained in her being, that she has never quite been “right”. Her mother adopted Ellen’s cousin Ruth when she was young. Ellen has always felt jealousy toward Ruth, feeling that Ruth received all the attention. She believes Ruth has stolen the love of her mother, and is now trying to seduce her husband. Ellen’s method of acting out is unquestionably psychotic, something that is confirmed through the film’s exposition. Despite these cloying facts, however, there is something bubbling underneath. While one could never justify Ellen’s behavior, there is reason behind the madness. It’s evident that her new husband does not love her, ignoring her needs and desire to be alone with him.

From the outset of their relationship, it’s obvious that she is obsessed with him—aggressively, to the point that he has little choice but to agree to her marriage proposal. After that, she just wants to spend time alone with him. But she never gets to. He’s dedicated to his writing, his ill brother and the struggles of Ellen’s family, but ignores his wife. There’s little wonder that she gets jealous. Her behavior is both selfish and, to a degree, understandable. She is well rounded, a character with identifiable goals that will do anything to achieve them. It’s not that she must get what she wants, but rather that she does not want anyone else to have what she feels she deserves.

With jealousy and obsession, emotions develop based on the attributes of others. A certain question of identity arises. If you attempt to define yourself not by what you do or possess, but by someone else’s life—then are you really living your life? Simply, who are you? Continuing on chronologically with this study is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1960). Film scholars have debated the intentions of this movie for decades, trying to determine whether the two main characters, Alma and Elisabeth, are the same person or if they simply identify their wants and needs with the other’s life.

Throughout the majority of the film, Alma speaks to Elisabeth but receives little response. She confesses her darkest secrets and questions the life she has lived and the direction it’s taking. Despite Elisabeth not talking, Alma believes her to be sympathetic and begins to desire not only the lifestyle of this actress but the way in which she can seemingly transcend her problems. Alma’s personality begins to merge with Elisabeth’s, and like the actress who cannot separate her self from her role the nurse cannot remove her self from her patient. By extending on that transference, Alma’s confessions to Elisabeth establish Elisabeth as a therapist and Alma as the patient.

Stylistically, Bergman uses several framing and editing techniques that merge the bodies and faces of the women: a split screen shot of one half of each woman’s face; a sensual melding of the women in an embrace; a shift in focus from one woman in the foreground to the other watching in the background; and a measured use of shot-reverse shot to show both woman as two sides of a similar coin. The stylistic techniques underline Alma’s association with Elisabeth, her desire for Elisabeth, and her ultimate aggression at being rejected by and identified as Elisabeth.

Punctuating the split screen shot, the merging of the women’s faces, is Alma’s declaratory line: “I’m not Elisabeth Vogler. You are Elisabeth Vogler.” It is a realization that Alma’s care for this actress, her jealousy of Elisabeth and the regret of life she has thrown away, is reflected in Alma’s own personal history that has been confessed throughout the film. Alma’s regret forces the transference of her feelings and identity onto that of a woman who is in danger of throwing it all away.

Continuing on this surrealist bent is Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). The titular object has two meanings. First, it refers to the woman that consumes and confuses Mathieu’s life. Conchita plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse with his affections. She is reluctant to his wooing, and when she does succumb, she only gives in a little so that she can take more away. She is in total control, overly manipulative—but then so is Mathieu.

In his obsessive quest to be with her, Mathieu treats Conchita as an object, a physical treasure that he must possess. He attempts to buy her from her mother, have her deported only to seek her out and buy her a house. At one point he watches her participate in a sexual farce, leaving in disgust only to return to her moments later. He calls her a terrorist, someone who has hijacked his emotions. If that’s the case, then he has Stockholm syndrome. Only by changing his rigid, archaic views on the world can he possess her. And he never realizes that it is she who has captured him.

The two actresses that portray Conchita throughout the film help represent the bifurcate nature of this relationship. The use two actresses not only represent the two sides of Conchita’s persona, the virgin and the temptress, but also the divergent nature of desire. Jealousy is literally a two-sided coin, the frigid intellectual whose mind Mathieu desires and the voluptuous seductress who lures him with her sensuality. Despite the proclivities of both, he never obtains physical pleasure with either and dooms himself to mental torment.

This continual pursuit of an unachievable goal is the second object of desire referenced in the title. Mathieu’s initial interest does not lie beyond bedding Conchita. She starts off by attempting to negotiate security for herself and her mother. As time goes on, Mathieu simply wants to possess Conchita any way possible. He will buy her, own her, keep her locked in a cage—but he despite his passion does not seem to truly love her. She seems to want to drive him crazy, to make him jealous, to see an outburst of this desire. It’s questionable whether she does this to test his loyalty to and love for her, or rather if this is simply another one of her games. Ultimately he cannot resist. Despite how much he tries, despite the lengths he goes to reject her he, cannot live without her.

In a way, Mathieu enjoys this erotic duel, he enjoys trying to possess her—it possesses him. Obsessive desire and jealousy have consumed his being. By the end of the movie it is what drives and defines him. Like the fly in the water, the mouse in the trap and the terrorists’ attacks, it seems pursuit only ends in misfortune. After all this bubbling drama it is inevitable that violence of some kind will erupt.

Black Swan (2010) takes this obsessive jealousy and transposes it into the world of ballet. Natalie Portman’s Nina desires to be the lead in a new presentation of Swan Lake, but her stiff, puritan lifestyle does not allow her to engage the darker side of the character. A new ballerina, Lily, has meanwhile caught the attention of her libidinous director. Does Lily simply represent Nina’s repressed desires, or is she in fact her doppelganger? The film delves into the issues of jealousy and dual identity hinted at in its ballet centerpiece, and in a way comes across as a horror movie play on Persona. Nina is undoubtedly jealous of the attention Lily receives from their lecherous director; affections Nina herself may enjoy but chooses to turn away. The uninhibited personalities depicted by these two are a necessary element for Nina to succeed in her role and break out from under her mother’s domineering shadow.

Nina’s desire to become the Black Swan forces her to lose herself in the role. Initially, this is necessary in order to play the part; but by the end of the film she has actually melded into the fantasy of the performance. Stylistically, director Aronofsky uses several shots where the movements of Nina and Lily seem to emerge from the edge of the frame. They don’t enter into the frame, but spin, twist, roll and slink from its edge to its center. The editing likewise seems to almost rip the audience out of scenes, fracturing the continuity and illusion of reality—or fantasy—that the characters inhabit. These techniques reinforce Nina’s psychological imbalance; she is an unreliable narrator unsure of what is going on. Her jealousy and desire are an internal struggle. She literally tears herself apart in order to fulfill her obsession.

The manifestation of jealousy and desire is subtle. Jealousy involves a bubbling emotion, a blurring between love and hate, a realization and resentment of desire. It develops over time, and if set off, the act of aggression may just as likely be one of attachment and ardor. It involves issues of need, identity and purpose. Like the individuals depicted in these four features, it is not easily defined. And that may be the most important facet of this project, because in real life, not movie life, it is our selves and the personas of those around us who—whether we like it or not—determine who we are.

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