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Essay: Abstract Space – The Void in Vertigo’s Paintings

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays
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  • Published: 28 October 2015*
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There can be no discussion of Hitchcock’s distinctive filmic language and meticulous mise-en-scene without a discussion of his paintings. It is through the image of Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdes that Hitchcock identifies, projects, and explores our deepest anxieties about scopophilia, voyeurism, exploitation, and reality, and in the process, exposes the dark aspects of our characters that are often repressed. That concept of multiple identities is the essence of Hitchcock’s cinema and the essence of the film. Paintings in Vertigo make sense of and illuminate the moth-to-flame relationships Scottie has with the multiple, yet singular identities of Madeleine, Judy, and Carlotta, and in the process, erode the line between certainty and doubt. Hitchcock’s paintings explore the often obsessive and exploitative nature of its characters, and explain how the paintings themselves occupy, and force the characters to occupy, the void between reality and illusion.
As in Rebecca, the painting of Carlotta perpetually hovers over Vertigo’s narrative, and is given the potential to create a void within and to fracture a traditional narrative. The dead Carlotta, in the questionably stable mind of Scottie and Elster, shows a strong visual resemblance to the living Madeline, as if she was a reincarnation of the dead woman. In a narrative focalized through a heavily masculine lens, the painting represents an unattainable object of desire, a coming alive of a false fantasy, and a cause of deep anxiety for the men of the film (Mulvey, 841). The spectator’s understanding that the painting is simply material is continuously threatened as the role that the painting plays appears tangible; Carlotta’s illusionary power is exploited to threaten the living woman’s and the men’s subjectivity, but also to terrify them, entice them, and to hurt them, in a way, that only a true character could. On one hand the painting that summons the dead, that represents the presence of the past in the present has no living referent and does not actually exist. But it also does exist within the realm of the living and the dead, rupturing a general reality and created a vertiginous rift into nothingness. On a narrative scale, the painting doesn’t answer a mystery or give hints about the direction of the narrative, but in its use of a repertoire of cinematic concepts (double/uncanny, the living to double the dead etc.) confuses spectators and postpones the solving of the mystery.
Scottie’s love for the image of Madeline is a fiction situated in reality and a duplicitous sign of a world that does not exist. Elster stages the introduction of Madeline, or a live double, within the painterly setting of a restaurant: a tableau vivant (Gunning, 32) In the blood red restaurant, Madeleine walks through a doorway (or metaphorical picture frame) and freezes in profile, with a stunning likeness to a painting. In that moment, Scottie begins to fall in love with a fetishized image of Madeleine as a painting, which makes it easier for him to associate a visual connection between Madeline and a painting of a dead woman. The images of the film purport this by emphasizing the similarities between Carlotta and Madeleine, strengthening the mystification or intrigue in her objectification. And when Scottie rediscovers Madeline as Judy, he sees Carlotta in the image of yet another woman. Judy’s individuality, at this point, is so far removed from the source material (Carlotta) that Scottie has no qualms about manipulating her back into Madeline and Carlotta’s visage, transforming her into a picture. His idealized memory, but not love, becomes the fulcrum of ignorance and illusion, and comes to represent the multiple fiction and lies of Scottie’s reality.
Similarly, Hitchcock’s cinematic representation of Madeline’s eroticism and objectification echo the film’s exploration of reality versus illusion. Hitchcock presents Madeleine as both an erotic, physical presence and as an objectified two-dimensional figure, an enigmatically composed painting. As mentioned earlier, the first time Scottie truly sees Madeleine is when he notes the two dimensionality of her silhouette ‘ the result of her posing statuesquely against the deep red of the restaurant background with an illuminating backlight and multiple inner framing. And in all of Madeleine’s visits to the museum, Hitchcock confronts her with Carlotta’s painting, having her look at it as if she were looking in a mirror, then proceeds to frame her with the pillars of the doorway, from which Scottie admires her, ultimately presenting Madeleine as if she were sitting within a picture frame. To further conflate Novak’s image with a lifeless piece of art, the camera zooms in on Madeleine’s bouquet of flowers, then subsequently on the bouquet that Carlotta holds in the painting, then on Madeline’s vortex of a hairstyle followed by Carlotta’s, until the women slowly start to merge into one figure. Through cinematographic objectification, the living woman becomes a becomes a painting, something that’s pleasant to look at, and therefore, ultimately resists humanization.
As with the female protagonists, paintings act as a representation of Scottie’s fragmented reality. Scottie, looking on Madeleine fondly, stands between two paintings which frame him: one of a dignified man in a white wig, the other of a child. The implication that he too is split into multiple identities is clear. One could argue that in following Madeleine, Scottie works solely as a detective, as an adult given a task to be carried out with a certain professional distance, but once he actively begins to equate Madeline with Carlotta, he becomes a child, at the mercy of his impulses and instincts which drive his curiosity and attraction. There’s also the slightly misogynistic suggestion that Madeleine is the cause of his instability, and that the cryptic appearances of the female protagonist will cause an even more troubling deconstruction of the identity of the male, another break from reality.
Midge, Scottie’s confidant, represents in the narrative and philosophical sense ‘reality’ for Scottie, but in presenting herself as Carlotta’s painting, she effectively threatens both her and his sense of reality. Midge acts as a point of psychological for Scottie within the narrative. She criticizes him when he tells her about Madeleine as Carlotta’s reincarnate, and earlier assists Scottie in his plan for gradually alleviating his acrophobia, catching him when he collapses with an attack of vertigo. With her modest clothing, awareness of truth, and continued support, Midge equilibrates Scottie and is therefore coded as normal and real, while everything which falls outside of their small, shared sphere is labeled absurd. The idea of reality vs. appearance is further explored in Richard Gilmore’s Hitchcock and Philosophy. Reality, as truth, is devoid of artificiality. It is a higher plane of consciousness with no obvious similarities to the world we live in, while appearance is plagued with familiar affectations (Gilmore, 493). The male gaze is appearance, in that it is both familiar and illusionary in its pervasiveness. Laura Mulvey notes in her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that the gaze not only ‘projects its phantasy onto the female figure’ but is made possible by the ‘structuring of the film around a main [male] figure with whom the spectator can identify (Mulvey, 841-842).’ It acts in opposition to a hidden, barren reality which divests us of superficiality, and is responsible for the sexual objectification of Madeline and Judy and the manipulation of spectator understanding, as everything is understood in relation to the male character. Conversely, Midge can be read as philosophical reality, as she is not and cannot be subjected to the male gaze; she exists, albeit uncomfortably, outside of its sphere of influence. Midge does not posses the mystery and veiled sexuality to seduce Scottie, though she would very much like to, because she’s not manipulated by his consistently hyper-sexual lens; Scottie’s point-of-view shots of Midge are pointedly asexual. Devoid of illusionary mystique, Midge assumes the barren and sere nature of reality, which enables her to be effectively avoided, ignored, but still needed by Scottie as he sinks deeper into his obsession with Madeleine. So when Midge paints herself in Carlotta Valdez’ idealized visage, she effectively severs Scottie’s ties to narrative and philosophical reality. She who has typically been his moral and psychological anchor and the voice of reasonable consciousness is now physically forcing herself into the painting that exists as a representation of his illusion, desire, and irrationality. That conflict between established reality and illusion repels him and opens the way for Scottie to invest fully and emotionally in Madeleine’s illusion.
Following Scottie’s rejection of Midge and Madeleine’s ‘suicide,’ his hallucinatory dream, a fusion of cinema, graphic, and painterly animation, raises a deeply disturbing idea that runs as an undercurrent throughout the whole film: that even in death, Carlotta, and by extension Madeleine, is still deeply alluring. Carlotta is positioned, as she has been, in scenes of reality within Scottie’s dreamscape; she’s present in the reimagined scene of communication between Scottie and Elster following Madeleine’s suicide and trial. The way Carlotta looks at Scottie, even as she’s being gripped by Elster, is not malicious; on the contrary, as the flashing red, used throughout the film as a way to designate Scottie’s fantasies, implies, there’s an unsubtle longing present. The undertones of cinematic necrophilia in Carlotta and Madeleine’s artistic objectification illustrates a potentially sexual fascination that Scottie, and us as spectators who identify with him, have with phantom images. It questions to what extent Scottie’s longing for Madeline can be considered a mediation of the poles of reality and illusion, existence and death, and as an attempt to revive long lost and therefore unattainable persons.
Vertigo’s paintings, and its images that border on paintings, disjoint both the characters and the narrative from reality and pull them into abstract space. They are actors within the film, expressing anxiety and creating tension; they are mediators between Vertigo’s realms of reality and illusion; and as images of pure visuality, they create a mystique, representative of Hitchcock’s films, that is both compelling and lasting.

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