Birds by Hitchcock

I have recently joined a psychoanalytic film club. We will be discussing films. I have attended the first session where we discussed Adieu Lacan (2022). It was about the analytic treatment of a woman, perhaps interesting to people who already practice clinical psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic film theory is also apparently a thing. It is interesting to apply theory of one field to another field, which can produce interesting forms of art. Although this exercise will have little clinical value. We can’t deduce understandings of individuals, their mental workings or psychopathology by studying film. But cinema and applications of theories to make sense of the characters and fantasies of their writers can be engaging and at times inspiring. I can name certain films that have inspired me, for example The Patience Stone (2012). A thought provoking film which made me want to leave the corporate work I was doing at the time and doing something rooted in meaning. However just like any art form, cinema must be interpreted and psychoanalytic theory can be used to tell, or retell a story from the perspective of a spectator. Films, sculptures, paintings need theories to be described. This is not something we do in the clinic. In the psychoanalytic session we allow analysands to speak for themselves and we encourage this exploration as psychoanalysts.

This week we had to watch Birds (1963). I don’t watch a lot of American cinema. It is important to consider the cultural contexts of where any cinema situates itself symbolically and the unsaid laws of scripting as well as the interaction of the spectators, markets, investors and audiences that determine how a film may come together. I know of these influences already for French, German and Iranian cinema as each evoke very different sensations in the spectator.

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I suspended judgement for the duration of the film, so I could enjoy this 60s American film. I say this tongue in cheek, it would make better cinema if film producers invested in getting their scripts read by a few psychoanalysts first. This is not totally out there as an idea. We have seen this done in the past. In fact the ‘In Treatment’ series (the first ones) were written with the assistance of analysts. That would correct character and dialogue scripting issues and if the analysts are lacanians we can certainly hope for more suspense! As analysts we want the subject to elaborate on their fantasies, and desire isn’t suffocated by satisfying it. I did feel slightly suffocated by Hitcock’s scripting, everything was obvious and unveiled, and the key moments in the film could have been better elaborated.

In the film the character playing the role of the mother, claims that she is “dependent” on her son who is a lawyer. He is presented as a man who is protective and looks after his mother and sister. Despite this visibly strong attachment on screen, the film shows her as a character who is very readily able to part with her son and displays an inviting attitude towards the new woman over a brief weekend encounter.

There were many complex characters in the film. The film could have reduced the complexity in the characters by developing some of the key traits further. For example it seemed that the relationship between the mother and son and entry of the new woman, Melanie into the town were significant moments in the story. But this thread was abandoned very quickly by the film. Instead the focus was given to the town being overtaken by the overwhelming number of birds. There are some parallels drawn between the entry of the birds and entry of the new woman with issues emerging both in the mother and son bond and in the town. However this wasn’t scripted and performed clearly.

It felt as though the script needed to have been massaged a few times to really bring out the key threads that the film director wanted to show. It felt as though the director literally told us the story. Some of the ideas were not followed through, and were closed up too quickly. For example, despite the brief encounter between the mother and Melanie, and the expected rivalry between the two women, she apparently develops a strongly caring attitude towards her. It is normal that people care for strangers in distress or in a crisis, but the physical boundaries of the characters weren’t consistent with their dialogues. In one scene the mother is embracing Melanie as if she is her own daughter. The level of affection between the characters was as though they all knew each other for a long time. So passing of time was not considered within the script.

Great scripts are often seen in Asghar Farhadi’s cinema, demonstrating the passing of time and duration between the lines without being explicit about it. We can fill in the holes and gaps with our own ideas. However, in Birds the script could have played a lot more on our doubts and fantasies. Another director that does this well is Quentin Tarantino, there is constantly an element of surprise in all his films. Although there is one scene in Birds where the teacher sees the gathering of the crows outside her classroom window. This was a wonderful moment in the film. Another great segment is where Melanie is sitting on a bench slowly surrounded by crows. Is she imagining all this, is she going crazy. This doubt or hallucinatory experiences are relatable for people at times of great stress.

Anyhow, in one scene the mother says to Melanie that she is highly dependent on her son. This is something that people may think of themselves in their relationships but unlikely to disclose to complete strangers, and Melanie is a stranger. We are told these things in our consulting rooms. Even in the analytic situation in treatment people may take a long time to disclose deeply personal things. Dependency is a psychological state, it is to do with unconscious identification and bonds we develop in our lifetimes when we love others. We might know we love someone, but we are unlikely to say to someone we just met some deep-seated vulnerability. People usually take that to a psychoanalyst. So I think that is a scripting issue. The film could have shown the vulnerabilities of the women by containing within the interactions and acting of the characters.

I would have liked to see the rivalry being fleshed out more between the two women. In contemporary cinema, such as in films like The Black Swan (2010) the rivalry and the hallucinatory events are shown much more clearly. If there was a link between the birds and the hostility between the mother and Melanie, then this link was not made clearly. The film could have created some doubts about the existence of the birds, are they real, are they imagined by the town people or symbolic of the inherent hostility towards what may be new or different. Such as Melanie who was unknown by the people, and shortly after there is a breakdown of the social order of the town. The structure of the town breaks down. The man fueling his car sets another man on fire and so on. The birds are like externalized hostility, it’s like the return of the real, they are taking revenge on people who would actually like to do each other harm, but they don’t. They are all sitting there in the restaurant calmly. Something is strangely calm and uncanny, and this mystery could have been developed more in the film.

There is one very interesting line said by one of the restaurant guests. She is the only one who speaks the truth, who points at Melanie and says all the bird attacks started when she entered the town. She is right, if you go back to the beginning of the film at the bird shop, the son (lawyer) accuses Melanie of playing tricks on him and apparently not having been totally honest in court once. This could be a metaphor. His own Oedipus complex playing out on screen, presenting as betrayal. Something about the relationship of the characters to the symbolic law, the two women (and what is the role of the sister?), and the law and order of the town breaking down too when she enters the town – birds – is this one of her tricks?

The man who is the lawyer, does not trust her initially, but he trusts her later when she enters his town, and all hell breaks loose. The film says nothing about the love that develops between him and her. The whole film is a metaphor. The man and woman fall in love and the town is destroyed and all the film characters are eventually destroyed too by the thing that brought them together – “love birds”. By the end, the birds enjoy feasting on people, which is a very scary idea – to be devoured by the Other, but in the real sense. Are the birds a symptom of this man’s anxiety, a phobia, or a hallucination?

In another way I could say that she destabilizes the fabric of the town, and he doesn’t know what to do with her, the woman being symbolic. His difficulties in not knowing what to do, his inner distress (unconscious) is symbolically represented by the attack of the birds, saying something about his vulnerability in the relationship with her. He is not at ease with her. He wants to buy lovebirds for his sister, and this relationship seems incestuous but in one scene even the lovebirds are left behind. This is another important moment. What does Melanie want when she enters the town? And he strangely insists on her staying for dinner… and funnily they become dinner..


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