Updated: Oct 10, 2022
Many years ago I saw this interesting film and wrote the following words regarding one of its character‘s psychopathology. Now I believe that these reflections can be useful in continuing to think about how death can be present and inscribe itself in the life of people affected by serious mental disorders. Two texts in particular have guided these reflections: "Jérôme or death in the life of the obsessional" by Serge Leclaire and "The Destiny of Pleasure: Alienation, Love, Passion" by Piera Aulagnier. The first article was for me a reference point for trying to understand the dynamics underlying the formation of defense mechanisms that involve the incorporation of "death" in the life of these people. The second text was, instead, fundamental in framing the problem within an imbalance of the libidinal economy, as it manifests itself in certain types of passionate relations.
From this viewpoint, Malle's film is not a love story between three characters, but a story of unilateral and turbulent passion that develops into a triangular diagram. The passionate element and complementary roles of the couples involved in this type of relationship allow us to refer to the work of Piera Aulagnier to clarify the meaning of some scenes.
The following quote "Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive" is the enigmatic and prophetic sentence uttered by the protagonist, Anna, during one of the opening scenes of the movie. It leaves the viewer with at least one final unanswered question: "why the protagonist does nothing to prevent a tragedy that she foresees from the beginning?". Piera Aulagnier’s book titled “The Destiny of Pleasure: Alienation, Love, Passion“ reveals part of the enigma and the movie, directed by Louis Malle’s expert hand, seems to be a transposition into images of the French psychoanalyst‘s theories.
The film begins by showing the luxurious and quiet bourgeois life of the "future passionate" Stephen, as if the director wants us to think that he is the true protagonist of the story. The narrative approach highly focused on this character and Anna‘s indifference could deceptively induce the viewer to think that the latter has less responsibility in determining the dramatic events that will unfold in the film. On the contrary, by a "strange algebra" of the relationship, even though Anna does very little, everything she does leaves a strong mark on the path of events. She decides when to start the relationship with Stephen via the first telephone call and when to finish it by renting the apartment that will become the dramatic scene of Martyn‘s death.
The quest for power that is explicit in controlling the situation, is configured as one of the central aspects of Anna‘s personality. It is a power that is expressed on different levels and aimed at dominating not only other people but also her own emotions. The asymmetry of power, which is a dominant feature of these passionate relationships, is reflected in the different cathexis of the two components of the couple. Stephen, the passionate person, unconsciously projects something that is vital for his existence into the passion instigator, Anna. In this way, he remains in a state of necessity, comparable to an infant in the arms of his mother. On the contrary, "damaged people" know something that others ignore. They know they can survive if they avoid an emotional investment that poses a potential destruction.
An obvious analogy between Malle‘s film and Aulagnier‘s book is represented by the presence of tragic events, both in the story of Anna, and in Mr. X, the clinical case reported by the French psychoanalyst. The first appears to have been "damaged" by the passionate suicide of her own brother; the second by a series of deaths of relatives and former partners in her childhood and adulthood. In fact, psychoanalysis teaches us to search for the "damage" in the very early object relations of the injured subject. The strong tragic background of this film transcends the death of one of the characters in the end. The emotional impact brought about by the movie scenes is due to the representation of the fragility of human condition against the ever-present risk of being exposed to the anguish of loneliness that grief triggers. As Ingrid tells Stephen in one of the final scenes: "I think there's just one person for everyone. For me, it was Martyn. For you, Anna... Poor Anna... who?" All the characters will end up without the person whom they lived for: Ingrid without her son Martyn and Stephen without Anna. She is the one who most deserves our compassion even though she apparently gets out "unscathed" from this story. Death confronts the lives of the other characters from the moment of Martyn‘s "accident". But for Anna it is as if the grief were already present beforehand in her life. For her, any new tragic event is just the empty repetition of a familiar script, written in the context of an emotional desert.
According to Piera Aulagnier, a failure in the early object relationships was experienced by the infant as rejection or abandonment of his caregiver. This event is thus carved in the lives of these subjects as an early grief or "first damage". Faced with such a dramatic experience, the baby could react by deploying psychotic or somatic defenses. In other cases, as it happens in the childhood of passion instigators, the baby replaces these defenses with mechanisms whose purpose is to avoid grief.
However, Aulagnier points out that if we would just consider children‘s reactions from conflict with parental imagos, which originate during their early life, we would get stuck in a neurotic-obsessive issue. In his article "Jérôme or death in the life of the obsessional", Serge Leclaire describes a mechanism to control the anguish of death by means of a characteristic "spatialization of time". This "freezing of the future", as Leclaire defines it, has much in common with the second mechanism described by Piera Aulagnier in the passion instigators. In both cases, the most relevant aspect is the defensive cathexis of what the subject fears most: his own death for the obsessional person and the death of the cathected object, that is to say the mourning, for the passion instigator. The latter does not react by means of psychotic defenses that deny the lost object, but by means of a continuous anticipation of the moment of separation.This allows him to cathect the future separation and the loss, as if the pursued goal was this abandonment.
It is precisely through this specific constitution of the temporal category that the passion instigator achieves the murder of his own internal mother. As for Jérôme "the die is cast". The object can‘t die anymore because it is already virtually dead. The passion instigator, identifying with the characteristics of his mother's power, is thus exempt from the need of mourning, as he has already prepared for it in advance. This is what Piera Aulagnier points out when, referring to Mr. X, she writes: death was for him only the inscription in the reality of a mourning and a death that he had already lived.
The "sleeping around" cathexes with multiple objects remain for the passion instigator as the only possibility to receive pleasure from others, without being hurt by them. Like a "fearful amoeba", his pseudopods would extend and retract in a rapid sequence of moments with objects. This rhythm remains under his strict control. This characteristic configuration of the libidinal economy, defined as a "race for cathexes", doesn‘t hide a donjuanesque search for the number of partners but a narcissistic desire for domination and power. The ephemeral time, during which the passion instigator cathects the object, does not allow him to realize that he needs to be needed. That’s why these subjects consider the idea of commitment as unbearable. Both in the case of Mr. X and for the character in Malle's film, the possibility of marriage or greater relational stability coincides with the unleashing of the most dramatic consequences.
Beyond the aspects in common with narcissistic and obsessive pathologies, two traits are imposed as more specific in the psychic conformation of passion instigators. If, according to Leclaire, the motto of the obsessional person is "live until death befalls" we can formulate the motto of the passion instigator as: "enjoy until grief befalls".
The capacity to "purify" sexual pleasure and enjoyment is a dehumanizing exercise of power over oneself and one's partner. This double dominion is expressed respectively through the lack of affective involvement in sexual intercourse and the consideration of the other as a pure instrument of pleasure. From another perspective according to Piera Aulagnier, a characteristic kind of splitting is reminiscent of the perverse structure. It allows these individuals to act out in their reified bodies all the sexual fantasies that enter their consciousness. Consequently, Anna does not feel guilt when facing the abrupt passage from the idyllic encounter with Stephen to the chilling horror of Martyn's death. From her perspective, she has no responsibility for what unfolded. She was just doing what she did and nothing more, as she was denying that part of herself. Her actions and the recognition of an unconscious causality behind them would be excluding elements from her. Everything unconscious, except the sexual pulsional representations, would be something "non-existent". Since the triangular element of the relationship has been the central axis of the story from the very beginning, Anna can’t even reproach herself for having deceived Stephen into believing that she would stay with him.
Also, the passion instigator confirms "through an intermediary person" how dangerous it would have been not to kill his own inner mother in the face of the anguish aroused by the "original damage". In other words, Anna, as a distant spectator, sees her own inner world represented through the initial death of her brother, and then Martyn.
In conclusion, Anna's anaffective glance that she gives in the scene of the final tragedy tells us that she already knew that pleasure can only be momentary. She already knew with absolute certainty that mourning is always lurking and that Eros and Thanatos, pleasure and sorrow, are always at risk of being entwined. The final embrace between Stephen's warm, sensual and panting body and Martyn's cold corpse embodies with an oxymoron this deepest anguish of the passion instigator.