Tag Archives: love

They Say Love is Really Only Skin Deep

7 Aug

Screening Phallic Fantasies in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)


When asked how deep is our love, the tendency is go hysterical with the most exaggerated metaphors. From the highest mountains to the deepest sea, there seems to be nowhere the young Conan would not go to just to prove a point. Well, the depths of his love in this case. Yet, do these hyperboles not betray something fundamental about love that borders close to the curious case of Orsino’s love (cue “if music be the food of love, play on …”). That is to say could this love be actually a love for one’s capacity to love. In other words, this love is but fundamentally narcissistic in nature. Or more radically perhaps, the other who happens to be identified as the object of one’s love is merely a macguffin that distracts one from the engine of narcissism that runs beneath every iteration of love and desire.

Not only is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo a cinematic masterpiece (though it never did fly in the box office), it is also a great site for the investigation of the narcissism fundamental in what has been quaintly called ‘love’ itself. This short piece is therefore an examination of Vertigo, paying particular attention to how both the phallic fantasies of Scotty and of the film’s interpellated spectator are fundamentally narcissistic in their registers and are predicated upon a fetishized screen. As such, this essay will first examine how the melancholic ‘love’ relationship between Scotty and Judy/Madeleine is predicated on Scotty’s phallic fantasy, before turning to a brief analysis of the film’s opening sequenceto reveal how the film is deeply aware of its complicity in the production of a spectator caught in the same phallic fantasy as Scotty.

Madeleine and Scotties’ Phallic Fantasy

When Scotty lost Madeleine to the ghost of Carlotta and had to be subsequently put through a guilt-crushing trial, it seemed almost inevitable that Scotty lapsed into “acute melancholia”.  For Freud, melancholia entails not only the “loss of a beloved object” but also a “disorder of self esteem” (204-5); a disruption of the coordinates for or the sense of self. Put simply, melancholia sees “the loss of the object … transformed into a loss of ego” (Freud 209). The loss of Madeleine as Scotty’s love-object causes him to reproach himself for his shortcoming (his acrophobia) which prevented him from saving Madeleine. In other words, losing Madeleine made Scotty more acutely aware of his impotence – pointing him perhaps closer to real conditions of his subjectivity founded upon a fantasy that masks his fundamental lack.

Scotty’s acrophobia led to his being put out of duty as an officer – as an active agent-enforcer of the paternal law – and to don a corset for his injured back, thereby becoming symbolically ‘emasculated’ in his incapacity. However, the figure of Madeleine possessed by Carlotta provides Scotty with an avenue to project/screen his phallic fantasy and in so doing, ‘recovers’ his former sense of subjective potency: It is through her that he is able to (re)imagine himself an active phallic lover who can ‘arrest’ the flux of Madeleine’s subjectivity straddling between Madeleine and Carlotta – to essentialize the interstitial body of Madeleine into an Oedipal subject with his anchoring presence. In other words, the ‘love’ relationship is really predicated upon her being the conduit for the narcissistic fantasy of his phallic agency.

In fact, this seems to fall in line with Lacan’s conception of the mirror stage in our psychosexual development insofar as our subjectivity – our ability to interact with our others – is predicated upon our narcissistic fantasy of personal potency projected onto a mirror/screen. Thus when he loses Madeleine, Scotty loses the fantasy support crucial; the screen for the projection of his phallic subjectivity, and lapses into a state of melancholia. In short, Scotty’s love for Madeleine is really a screen fantasy or a defense mechanism allowing him to bypass the lack inherent in his subjectivity – a kind of symbolic ‘short circuit’. In this sense, there is no ‘depth’ to Scotty’s love for Madeleine founded upon a narcissistic fantasy.

Vertigo and its Spectator

Apart from Judy’s flashback on the true proceedings of Gavin Elster’s murderous plot, Vertigo positions its spectator into identification with Scotty throughout its narrative. If Scotty is the bearer of the gaze throughout the film, courtesy of his assignment as a private eye for Elster, the spectator’s identification with Scotty thus allows for the projection/imagination of a similar position of phallic agency as well – as the bearer of the look. In this sense, Vertigo’s spectator is gendered male and implicated in the phallic fantasy of Scotty’s.  But it is only in doing so that Vertigo is able to expose the ‘wounds’ of the system and to reveal (even if only in this brief moment in the opening sequence) that there is nothing essential about our fantasmatic subjectivities – be it the phallic spectator or the male subject in general. In fact, this is rather perversely revealed in the film’s opening sequence: Opening with a partial face of a female subject framed within a close-up, then cutting to extreme close-ups of her mouth and of her eye, the title “Vertigo” eventually emerges from the depths of her eye –before a series of spirals follow from the abyss of the eye/“I” (see below).


What the spectator sees so far is a series of yonic signifiers alluding to the void beneath his subjectivity itself – an intolerable abyss the spectator risks falling into should he look too deep beyond the ‘screen’ of his screen-other’s subjectivity, or his for the matter. In this brief moment of self-exposure, a ‘wound’ within the cinematic screen is deliberately revealed.

In that sense, Vertigo opens with a perverse reminder to its spectator of how the screen of the cinematic experience parallels with the fantasmatic screen of our symbolic subjectivity. Put differently, both cinema (at least in Vertigo) and the paternal symbolic matrix are asylums that provide its interpellated subject with the narcissistic fantasy of personal agency in order to mask the inherent lack/impotence behind that very screen.

There is no ‘depth’ to Scotty’s love for Madeleine, just as there isn’t any for the spectator’s love for the screen which acts to affirm his phallic fantasy as a bearer of the look. I won’t dive the deepest sea to prove my love for you, but I’ll go as deep as your skin/screen allows me to.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia. trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.