September 29, 2008

Dario Argento – theoretical analysis

Filed under: CMM4106 Psycho & Cinema,ECU MInT — steve @ 8:11 pm

Follows is a “theoretical essay” on three films by Dario Argento for CMM4106 Psychology, Psychoanalysis & Cinema, Assessment 2.

The form of the essay contains long paragraphs – not the style I would normally use in written content, however my initial draft essay containe brief paragraphs and my tutor asked for lengthy, more detailed discussion of the topic in my paragraphs – hence the following aimed to address that need: 


Dario Argento is an Italian auteur known for his investigatory thrillers and slash-horror genre movies. Argento’s film directing debuted in 1970 and throughout the decade of 1970 to 1979 he wrote and directed six feature length movies. It was during that decade Laura Mulvey, referencing the works of psychologists Sigmund Freud and Jaques Lacan, wrote her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” published in the journal ‘Screen’ in 1975. Mulvey’s article, concerning the oppression of women in the film narrative, was explored further in Madan Sarup’s (1992) book on Lacan, specifically with regard to Lacanian psychoanalytical film theory of the spectator’s identification with the film narrative. Identification with the narrative had also been resolved through the psychological use of archetypal symbols, or pre-existent thought forms from a collective unconscious (Rothgeb, 2007), particularly through the hero archetype, which had more than often been represented by the male protagonist in film narratives. Archetypes could also be found in the film’s mise en scène, that being everything that makes up the film scene; the use of archetypes as such viewed as providing the spectator with additional meaning and clues in the film’s plot. While archetypal symbols, often based on animal forms (Jung, von Franz, Henderson, Jacobi, & Jaffe, 1964), had traditions dating back thousands of years and while time and culture influenced their symbolic natures the immediacy of meaning that such symbols could convey indicated they could be a valuable tool for the auteur to use to embellish their narrative. Additionally, the spectator’s immersion in the film narrative, that being the total acceptance of and identification with the narrative and characters, could also be enhanced by the film’s score by acting as a secondary source of psychological stimulation to that of the visual images the film portrayed; thus heightening the feelings of apprehension and suspense.  Hence, through the study of three of Argento’s 1970′s narratives: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970); ‘Deep Red’ (1975); and, ‘Suspiria’ (1977), it will be shown that Argento, through the use of film psychology, archetypal symbolism and the film score, was able to create and manipulate the spectator’s sensations of intrigue, suspense and immersion in his investigatory style thrillers. The following discussion will explore Argento’s use of film psychology, archetypal symbolism and the film score respectively.

It could be seen that Argento, when viewed in terms of Lacanian film psychology, deliberately played upon the spectator’s established patriarchal views that the protagonist hero or the antagonist anti-hero would be male. However that should not be viewed as support of Boetticher’s statement (cited in Mulvey, ¶ 13) “In herself the woman has not the slightest importance” as Argento, in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), ‘Deep Red’ (1975) and ‘Suspiria’ (1977), clearly made the female, whether as antagonist, protagonist or both, a pivotal character in his film plots. For example, during scene 1 of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, Argento could be seen to be toying with the spectator’s preconceived notions, if any, of scopophilic fetishism, that being a sexual pleasure derived from the act of looking at a particular part or parts of the human anatomy: as the camera followed the young woman along the street it fell upon her exposed knees and we heard the sound of a photo being taken while an overlay of a camera’s range finder was placed on screen. It was therefore assumed that the point of view (POV) of the character taking the photo was that of a male as: “The male subject is defined in his capacity to look (i.e. as a voyeur) and the female subject in terms of her capacity to attract the male gaze” (Sarup, 1992, p. 158). As we were to discover through Argento’s use of suture, that being the editing of the signifying, or preceding shot, with those of the signified, or following shot, such that “each image is defined from those that surround it” (Sarup, 1992, p. 156) the character who had taken the photos was the narrative’s antagonist. We therefore, very early in the narrative, were provided with an implication that the antagonist was male. As the plot unfolded we were presented with additional scenes that implied that the antagonist was male: at the beginning of scene 3 when Sam witnessed a struggle between Monica, the antagonist, and her husband, we as the spectator, through Sam’s eyes or POV, assumed it was Monica’s husband who had attacked Monica with the knife and that Monica was the victim of an attempted murder; in scene 10 where the female victim had her underwear ripped off by the antagonist in what could be described as a psychosexual drive or “human phantasies involving activities that produce pleasure beyond satisfaction of any physiological need” (Sarup, 1992, p. 15) we again assumed that the killer was male; and, finally, at the end of scene 21 when we again witnessed a struggle between Monica and her husband and he was left holding the knife before he, as a result of the ensuing struggle with the police detectives, fell out the window to the pavement several floors below and we heard his confession to the murders, at the beginning of scene 22, with his dying breath. With Monica’s husband’s confession we were satisfied that the killer had been identified and the plot had been resolved, yet, as we discovered in scene 23, the killer was actually Monica and we further witnessed that fact in scene 24 when she attempted to kill Sam while trapped under a rather fierce and dangerous looking piece of sculptural artwork. Consequently Argento, by playing upon the spectator’s preconceived ideals of male fetishism and identification with a patriarchal male antagonist manipulated the spectator’s identification of the killer in the film’s narrative; thus cumulating in the intriguing and climactic suspense of Sam’s predicament trapped and at the mercy of the killer in Monica in the next to penultimate scene. With that playing on the spectator’s patriarchal views identified, we will now explore further examples of Argento’s manipulation of the spectator’s identification with the male hero and antagonist in ‘Deep Red’ and ‘Suspiria’.

In ‘Deep Red’ (1975), through a similar manner to ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), Argento again teased the spectator with visual clues that indicated that the antagonist was male. From the close-up of the “man’s” shoes during the murder of Helga at the end of scene 2, through to Marc’s apparent identification of Carlo as the killer in scene 15, the spectator was perhaps once again satisfied that the plot had been resolved when Carlo, after escaping from the police, was gruesomely killed. However Carlo was not the killer, certainly not Helga’s killer in any case, rather he was protecting his mother who had murdered Helga; ultimately resolved for the spectator at the conclusion of the movie in scene 15. While ‘Deep Red’, like ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, played upon the spectator’s view that the antagonist would be male, in ‘Suspiria’ (1997) Argento played upon established film psychological conventions that the protagonist hero would be male; such that the female “stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other” (Mulvey, 1975, ¶ 2). In scene 18 of ‘Suspiria’, after her friend Sarah had ‘mysteriously’ disappeared, a concerned and worried Suzie arranged to meet with Frank, a psychiatrist who had treated Sarah as his patient three years before. Frank surely then, as the young positive male figure, was to come to Suzie’s aid in her time of need: why else would Argento have depicted such a seemingly intelligent, handsome and well dressed young man into the plot? Did we expect Frank, through Argento’s use of the power evoking low camera angle shot of him, to play the archetypal role of the hero as “the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist” (Mulvey, ¶ 15)? It certainly appeared so; however Frank surprisingly palmed Suzie off quickly to the elderly Professor Millias who did not reflect the mythological hero archetype but more the wise old man as “The hero is guided by the wise old man” (Boeree, 2006, ¶ 45). Therefore, there was to be no male hero archetype as Suzie was the heroine of Argento’s narrative and not simply the archetypal maiden in need of rescue: it was she who overcame the obstacles placed before her to defeat the mythological representation of evil; however, through Argento’s manipulation of the spectator’s ideals of the male as the hero archetype, we did not realise that was the intent until scene 24 during the final suspenseful conclusion to the movie. Thus, by playing upon film psychoanalytical patriarchal ideals, Argento was able to provide twists and turns for the spectator in his plots that made for an intriguing journey through those narratives towards the suspenseful revealing of the antagonist’s identity, in the case of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and ‘Deep Red’, and the hero’s identity in the case of “Suspiria”. As we have also now just touched upon Argento’s use of the hero and anti-hero archetypes in his narratives it is now worthwhile to explore Argento’s use of archetypal animal symbolism with regard to the unfolding of his plots.

As outlined in the opening paragraph, archetypal symbolism can convey additional meaning and provide additional clues for the spectator in the film’s plot. In ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and ‘Suspiria’ (1977) Argento used symbolic animal archetypes to provide clues to the spectator as to the true nature of the antagonists in his narratives. The use of those archetypal animal symbols provided an intriguing view of the plot as, while those symbols were readily identified, their true meaning and relevance were not always immediately obvious until the outcome of the movie had been resolved. In ‘Deep Red’, for example, Argento provided us with two animal archetypal forms: the butterfly and the mynah bird. Although the spectator was provided with an explanation of the characteristics of those two animals it was, nonetheless, left up to the spectator to decipher their relevance to the plot. We were informed in scene 1 by the character Professor Giordani that butterflies were telepathic and that they would come for miles in response to another butterfly’s telepathic cry for help. As butterflies can be representative of both the female and homosexuality (Gagliardi, 1997a, ¶ 4) and we heard Carlo call himself a “faggot” in scene 5, while we discovered the killer was Carlo’s mother in scene 15, we were able to conclude that the butterfly symbolism referred to Carlo and his mother: thus explaining how the killer always seemed to telepathically know Marc’s movements in his investigation toward identifying the killer; and, why Carlo was able to come to the aid of his mother by tracking down Marc and Gianna in scene 15 as they got closer to unravelling the mystery of the killer’s identity. However, the plot thickened when we were to take into account the reference to the mynah bird in scene 7, at Amanda Righetti’s house, where we heard that mynah birds “don’t just cheep – they imitate”. In the opening credits of “Deep Red” we were presented with a brief scene of silhouettes on a wall of one person being stabbed by another; we then saw a knife drop to the floor and then the legs of a young child standing by the knife. That scene, later replayed from a different POV in scene 15, showed Carlo’s mother stabbing her husband in the back: the husband, having fallen to the ground and pulled the knife from his back, dropped the knife in front of the young Carlo who then picked the knife up and looked at it with an unnatural fascination and delight. Combining those two related scenes and its depiction in the image on the wall of the haunted house in scene 12, plus the copied drawing of the same image by the young girl in scene 15, we were able to conclude from the mynah bird symbolism that Carlo, by imitating his mother, was one of the plot’s killers. That view was substantiated by scene 13 where we heard piano key sounds as Giordani’s teeth were smashed against the mantelpiece and table edge: a reference to scene 5 where Marc explained why he became a pianist: “my psychiatrist would say that it’s because I hated my father, because when I banged the keys I’m really smashing his teeth in”. As Carlo was also a pianist, we could therefore conclude that Carlo was actually Professor Giordani’s killer, not Carlo’s mother. Hence, it could be inferred from the symbolism that both Carlo and his mother where the antagonists in Deep Red’s plot: certainly an intriguing twist to the outcome of the narrative; a plot that left the spectator wondering. For additional exploration of Argento’s use of animal symbolism, we will now briefly look at ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and ‘Suspiria’.

As a further example of Argento’s use of archetypal symbolism, in scene 2 of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), when Sam visited the ‘Wilkinson Foundation’, our attention was twice drawn to a ginger cat amongst the stuffed birds; immediately evoking the idiom “cat amongst the pigeons” or that “disturbance and … trouble” (UsingEnglish.com, 2008) was looming. However, it can be shown that Argento’s use of the cat archetype had a far more descriptive relevance to the film’s plot: cats have been associated with women in some cultures (Werness, 2004, p. 73) and to “female malice” (Tressider, 2005, p. 89) whilst, unknown to the spectator at that point, the movie’s antagonist was a ginger haired female.  The nomenclature of cat “the Greek word catus means sharp, or cunning” (Aberdeen Bestiary, 1995a, ¶ 3) also described the antagonist’s use of sharp knives and her cunning ability to hide her identity. So it could be argued that, through the use of archetypal symbolism, Argento, by including the ginger cat in the mise en scène, had afforded the spectator a detailed description of the film’s antagonist. We could also see a similar use of the bat as an archetypal symbol in ‘Suspiria’ (1977): we learnt in scene 18 from Professor Millias that a witches’ coven deprived of its leader was harmless; explaining Suzie’s symbolic killing of the bat in scene 20 as a reference to her future killing of the head witch in the final scene. When Suzie killed the head witch the other witches started dying in response, as if the coven was now disintegrating, symbolised by the building itself collapsing: an archetypal reference to the bat “… they cling to each other and hang together from one place … and if the last lets go, the whole group disintegrate” (Aberdeen Bestiary, 1995b, ¶ 3). Therefore, Argento, through archetypal animal symbolism, provided intriguing clues and additional meaning to his narratives, thereby granting the alert spectator greater understanding of the plot. As to how Argento additionally manipulated the spectator’s sensation of suspense and immersion in the narrative will be explored through reference to Argento’s use of the film score.

  Argento’s choice of film scores, to create additional suspense and a sense of immersion for the spectator, in each of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and ‘Suspiria’ (1977) shared a common theme: an almost child-like quality that could be viewed as being designed to enable the psychological placement of the spectator into the imaginary world that Argento had created. The recurring vocalisations in the sound tracks consisted of simple “la la la’s” which could be regarded as being without language: that lack of language can be seen as immersing the spectator into Lacan’s child-like “mirror phase” (Sarup, 1992, p. 110), prior to the symbolic phase structured around the function of language (Sarup, p. 111). Such a placement in the mirror phase by Argento can therefore viewed as enabling the spectator to truly identify with the characters in his movies, “with the image representing ‘what we would like to be’” (Sarup, p. 103): that identification being a vital aspect for the spectator’s ultimate immersion. As Jung et al. described a child’s psychic growth as a “preconscious, or animal level of existence” (1964, p. 126) we can also see how alarming that child-like nature can be through the trickster archetype, which has “the mentality of an infant … he is cruel, cynical, and unfeeling … the form of an animal” (Jung et al. p. 112). This perhaps explains why Argento’s use of the child-like “la, la, la” soundtracks were so particularly disturbing; how the repeated use of those child-like motifs, representing the forewarning of impending terror, were extremely effective in raising the spectator’s feelings of apprehension and suspense. In ‘Suspiria’, however, it was not only the spectator who experienced the chilling, haunting sounds of the film’s score as the soundtrack was also played on the set, thereby enabling the cast to experience the same sense of terror that Argento was aiming to achieve in his film (Argento, n.d., ¶ 5-6, Ferguson, 2000). Consequently it was identified that Argento used Suspiria’s score in three ways: firstly, to immerse the spectator in Lacan’s child-like mirror phase; secondly, as disturbingly repetitive child-like motifs to heighten the spectator’s feelings of suspense; and thirdly, by creating a frightening atmosphere for the film’s cast in order to get the most from their performances for the spectator’s ultimate benefit.

In conclusion, we have seen how Argento, through his use of film psychology, archetypal symbolism and film score, was able to create and manipulate the spectator’s sensations of intrigue, suspense and immersion in his investigatory style thrillers. Through discussion of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and ‘Suspiria’ (1977), it was shown that Argento: created intrigue and suspense by manipulating the spectator’s patriarchal views of the male antagonist and protagonist; created additional intrigue by using archetypal symbolism for plot clues; and, developed immersion and additional suspense through his use of the film score. As the preceding discussion only concentrated on three psychological aspects of Argento’s films, namely Lacanian patriarchal film psychology, archetypal symbolism and film score, psychoanalytical exploration of this auteur’s use of POV, suture and colour is highly encouraged and recommended.


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