Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Vertigo: The Gaze

For me Hitchcock's Vertigo contains one of the most extraordinary examinations of obsessive desire associated with the male gaze. The texture of Hitchcock's film itself has a strange, powerful and sensual quality, implicating us almost physically in Scottie's vertiginous and ultimately hopeless desire, which is expressed at first through an erotic desire for a ideal fantasised woman and then through an obsession with the abyssal absence of the Other. The quality of the first erotic desire is almost traditional, and is certaintly familiar. There is a woman with both a polished and glowing surface, who shines ecstatically with great beauty, but who also posseses a dark and troubling depth. She is a woman haunted and possessed by an atavistic female double. The woman being desired (Madeleine) is mysterious, unknowable, and troubled.

Camille Paglia has written some extremely perceptive things on precisely this aspect of the film:

"Some of my favorite moments in that film are simply when James Stewart is looking, just looking, staring. That includes the first time he actually sees Madeleine, when of course the whole thing is a show put on to dupe him. He's sitting in that fancy San Francisco restaurant as Kim Novak floats by in this magnificent floor-length cape and opera gown. I'm so transfixed when she arrives: It's this long, slow pan as she comes into the restaurant and moves by him. He just sits and stares, and it's the fascinated staring of all men -- all heterosexual men but even gay men -- through history as they watch a beautiful woman walk into a room. I mean it's absolutely primal to me; it's that kind of deep, mythological emotion, the kind of awed emotion that almost can't be is something mysterious about femaleness -- coming from the facts of woman's physical nature, the endless mysteries of the shadowy womb, and the power of procreation that even she doesn't understand. Part of what I got from Hitchcock is his vision of woman's un-knowability, her un-reachability, her enormous beauty -- the glamorous artifice with which she cloaks herself but ultimately her incredible, natural sexual power."

But to me the film really appears to subvert this traditional erotic desire, simply because Scottie is being misled. His gaze, his desire, his obsession, is for something that cannot be reached simply because it does not exist. Madeleine is not real, she is a fabrication designed to seduce him and use him. He is duped within the game of 'power and freedom'. He is, in the words of Chris Marker, 'time's fool of love'. His desire ultimately leads his gaze towards not the surface abyss of the mysterious and unknowable woman, but the terrifying abyss of the Other itself.

"The abyss Scottie is finally able to look into is the very abyss of the hole in the Other (the symbolic order), concealed by the fascinating presence of the fantasy object. We have this same experience every time we look into the eyes of another person and feel the depth of his gaze."
—Slavoj Zizek, from Looking Awry

Is this what finally drives Scottie mad? There are certaintly indications that it is. In the hallucinatory dream sequence the final image before Scottie wakes up is the silhouette of a hollow figure that falls from the tower. The figure falling from the tower has become a dark hole, hollow and unreflective.

The fantasy figure of Madeleine that occludes this truth from Scottie's gaze has disappeared, which leaves him with the problem of how to confront the terrifying vertigo of the abyssal hole in the world that the Other signifies. His answer is to try to put the fantasy object back in its place, to try and cover over the abyss before it's too late. Judy is his second chance. But fatally Judy too (the prosaic woman who merely resembles Madeleine) is merely another of Scottie's fantasies, another lie, which in his frantic and almost necrophiliac desire to resurrect Madeleine, he misses.


  1. Reading this only now, but excellent interpretation - thanks!