Visions of the Unconscious: An Analysis of “Juliet of the Spirits”

Did Sigmund Freud realize the impact he would have when he first proposed the idea of the unconscious mind as a reservoir for a person’s dreams, memories and thoughts that may be too violent or too sexually explicit for the conscious mind to handle?  When he wrote about the animalistic id battling the angelic superego on the battlefield of the literal ego, one wonders if he knew that he was going to spark a new way of pondering the human psyche, a way that would not only influence science but the arts as well.  Surrealism was one such impact, and from this art movement came the idea of displaying a person’s memories, dreams and hallucinations through images and sounds in cinema.  Filmmakers took the high art concept of irrational juxtaposing of various elements to evoke the functions of the mind and tamed it to portray their characters’ psyche so the audience could better understand the person they were watching.

Controlled surrealism is seen in Federico Fellini’s story about a woman caught between two worlds in Juliet of the Spirits.  The protagonist Giulietta never developed a strong self-identity, moving from her nuclear family into the arms of her first love without really working out who she was, and thus her ego is underdeveloped and her superego has the most control.  So when the world she knows comes apart around her, her ego finds itself besieged by the polar opposites of the id and the superego in an attempt for her mind to create a strong enough self-identity to allow her to be independent.  The battle between the opposites is seen in visual representations of both the Catholic Church controlled superego and the doctrine of erotic love for the id.  The manifestations of these “spirits” either in the diegesis — the world as depicted in the film — or inserted within as separate non-diegetic sequences illustrate this internal battle.  The surrealism-inspired aspects of editing and mise-en-scene serve to help the spectator understand the psyche of the protagonist as she comes to grip with the true nature of love and her own heart.

Academically acknowledged is Fellini’s love affair with symbolism.  Juliet of the Spirits is ripe with recurring motifs, but the main thing to note is how the repetition of said symbols is used stylistically to infer the nature of the diegesis as the protagonist experiences it.  The symbols, most often visual, form an iconography from which can be read Fellini’s central theme of the piece.  In this movie, the visual iconography found in the manipulations of editing and mise-en-scene has a surrealistic flavor as it reveals the unconscious.

The styles feel surreal because they exist within Giulietta’s world without an explainable external source.  This apparently false existence tells the spectator the spirits are psychologically motivated.  People appear and disappear into thin air without explanation; a sunny beach turns into a green drab from one shot to the next.  At times, there is no continuity for editing or mise-en-scene.  When there is no external source for this discontinuity, there must be an internal one, and this can be seen in the two stylistic elements.  Manipulations of mise-en-scene are designed to manifest the two warring sides of her unconscious along with the one aspect of her psyche that has been hidden for a long time, her true identity.  Manipulations of editing essentially show aspects of her memory and other psychological states.

Editing was engineered to defy continuity with the insert of apparently non-diegetic images and scenes.  These non-diegetic elements either have a reference made on screen to tell the viewer such an interruption is a memory or have no reference made but their constant appearance at particular moments supports the idea of an internal state visualized.  Two non-diegetic scenes follow after Giulietta has said something to indicate their true existence as memories.  Each scene deals strongly with her grandfather in some way and each has distorted mise-en-scene.  The first scene deals with a circus memory where her grandfather met the ballerina for the first time.  The second scene deals with her memory of performing in a school pageant about a Christian martyr, which her grandfather disrupts as unhealthy.

These two memories are linked together not only by their editing but also by their mise-en-scene.  Both scenes have a greenish haze in the background and very little detail to fill the frame and catch the eye.  The audience for both the circus and the pageant are impassive, motionless and dressed in white.  For the pageant, the nuns all line up in solid black rows in the beginning and then form two lines to close in around the grandfather leading young Giulietta away at the end of the scene.  For the circus, two lines of black clad men on stage are extended further out by two lines of black horses in the beginning while two lines of black dancing men diagonal in to young Giulietta watching from behind a fence in a graphic match with the nuns.

These two events had the same effect on Giulietta as she was growing up.  In both instances, her grandfather did something the rest of her family considered irrepressible, and she naturally adopted this view as the truth so that later she could not understand the aspect of love her grandfather and the ballerina shared.  She had a one-sided development of her concept of love and her place in the world because of a confinement to the Church’s teachings of love God first and find his love in the bonds of holy matrimony.

These two memories serve this interpretation of her development, but their distorted mise-en-scene also say something about the nature of memory.  She does not remember the events clearly.  The audience for both are cut from the same mold and not given any life as if stereotypes.  The atmosphere of both is clouded with a green haze, and there are no details, only solid colors and simple shapes.  She was very young when these things happened and cannot remember them correctly; thus, Fellini is saying her idea of love and herself are based on false images, memories that are not true to life.  The graphic matches suggest her memory of these events have been influenced by the Church.  She remembers things the way others want her to and not the way they truly were.  She sees her grandfather the way others want her to, and she sees love the way others want her to.

With the Church telling her what to remember and think, it is interesting to compare her memories to inserts with no diegetic introduction that herald the emergence of a new psychological state.  At the beach, Giulietta appears to doze and there is a cut to a man pulling a rope from the sea.  He gives the rope to her when she appears, saying “The rest is up to you.”  Various other shots of a barge full of warriors and a flat skiff of horses, through their similar characteristics, give the audience an idea of what Giulietta is pulling ashore.  The entire scene is awash in a green haze, darker than the aforementioned memories and much murkier, and each shot has very sparse details on all grounds of the frame.

The image of Giulietta physically pulling these boats unto shore creates the sensation that somewhere in her mind she is unconsciously bringing up long buried thoughts and emotions which will be necessary for her transformation.  Adding to this impression is how they are awash in green which links them to the Church controlled memories adds by hinting how these long buried states were buried by the Church’s teachings.  In this scene, the barge does not land.  It is not until the final climax, just before the spirits physically invade her house that the barge, still awash in green haze, lands.  Only then, after the truth about Giorgio is known, can the falsehood of the Church’s teachings be faced.  The barge can only then fully emerge from the Church’s banishment.

In contrast to the murky hidden barge is her grandfather’s plane that appears briefly in an insert during the invasion of the spirits while he is heard saying “I can’t get down, I can’t land.  It’s your fault, Giulietta.”  The plane is clearly seen against a white sky.  For a long time, Giulietta has not been able to understand her grandfather, to truly accept what he stood for against the Church.  Descending from a white sky, the truth he represents is descending from something outside of the Church’s green control.  He cannot land because she is not ready yet to receive the truth, so the plane is seen suspended in air.  His plane, the truth, cannot land amidst the struggle going on below him, so he is shown separately in an isolating shot.

The struggle going on inside Giulietta is mostly shown through manipulations of the diegesis’ mise-en-scene.  The battle in the unconscious manifests as visual hallucinations to make her conscious mind aware of the battle and to take psychological action through physical means to effect a change in her mind and her life.  The hallucinations are elements of which only Giulietta is aware juxtaposed with real diegetic elements.  Each hallucination either corresponds to the Church’s teachings on love or to the erotic teachings she has received from Susy and Iris, who are the same person on screen and in her head as they are teaching her the same thing: “love for all.”  The hallucinations progress from being separate representations of the two sides to a combined clutter during the climatic invasion.

The two conflicting sides are shown separately at first, with each side manifesting in situations where Giulietta’s subjective state might be more receptive of them.  When the Bhishma is discussing how Giulietta can win back her husband, there are shots of Iris and the circus horse in the room.  They are representations of erotic love and match what the Bhishma is saying on a psychological level.  These juxtapositions show the viewer what Giulietta is thinking during this lesson.  Interestingly, Iris, while also being Susy, is also the ballerina.  Seeing the ballerina and the circus horse as erotic love hallucinations suggests how the Church has controlled her interpretation of her grandfather’s affair.  The Church taught her that her grandfather’s love was pure lust and thus wrong, so her idea of lust conjures up these related images.  This idea turns up later when she later “sees” Eve and the snake coiled suggestively together, the very symbol of Catholic eroticism.  Yet the fact that she does hallucinate erotic love images suggests she is starting to break away from the Church’s doctrine; she just needs more experience to totally break away.

The Church seems reluctant to let her get away as it manifests in the image of Giulietta’s childhood friend Laura, who committed suicide because of a lost love.  The image of the martyred Laura appears burning in the flames by itself in the mirror of Susy’s bed when Giulietta prepares to have sex with Susy’s godson.  Her dialogue asking Giulietta what she is doing signifies her existence as a manifestation of her superego.  Laura here is her conscience, the morality which was created by the Church’s idea of love.  She is still married to Giorgio, and although he as been unfaithful, she unconsciously cannot because she has this morality.  However, Laura would have her go further than simply staying away from adultery.  Laura appears by herself in an insert later, just prior to the invasion, as a ghostly image floating in a lily-pad pool, and tells Giulietta to do what she did, die for love.  While her mind is probably not telling her to commit physical suicide, there is the feeling her superego would have her shut herself off from the world psychologically, to fall into depression like Laura fell into the river.  Her superego may not want her to be an adulterer, but it also does not want her to be happy without her marriage bond to Giorgio.  This is something Giulietta cannot consciously accept or that would be the end of the movie.  That there is an invasion, that the two sides come together to surround her, shows she wants something more than either side alone can give.

The spirits of both sides begin to combine during the garden party, but they are shown in isolating shots, never together in the same frame.  They are bubbling to her conscious mind without an external source of stimulation because her mind is more confused over what to do about Giorgio.  She is letting her defenses down, and the two sides seize the opportunity to begin the onslaught of images from the nuns lined in rows to Iris disguised as Venus, all intermixed with the party-goers, as if they too were invited.  Eye-line matches and point of view style camera movements tells us she can see them, and she seems able to stop them at this point by simply focusing enough to tell them to go away.  When Giorgio leaves she can no longer control them.  She tries to tell them to leave during the onslaught, and they seem to, for a second, only to return with more confusion.  Her conscious can no longer hide; action must be taken.

The onslaught begins with relatively open shots, depicting her house as empty after her husband’s departure to reflect how empty she feels now after the only love she ever knew has gone.  In this empty state, the manifestations appear.  Nuns in black congregate under white stairs.  Two fascists march stolidly outside the windows.  Then images of erotic love meet the images of Church love and are placed on frame as to give the impression of their actually melding into one idea.  The godson in white stands directly in front of the black nuns and their color alone separates them.  José sits in the right of the frame and seemingly from him extends a line of nuns.  Their positioning adds to the confusion.  Obviously, they are two separate things as their representations throughout the movie have suggested, but being positioned so as to appear the same brings into question which one is better.  If they are the same in some degree, why would one be better than the other?

The confusion becomes more intense for Giulietta as the mise-en-scene becomes more cluttered with images commingling and filling up the entire frame, even to the point of distortion.  It begins with a shot of the nuns lit and placed in such a way one is pressed to separate them into individual people while a trio of disembodied whore heads smile overlapping the nuns.  Disembodied heads for both sides becomes a motif during the onslaught, indicating again the similarity of the two different ideas.  It is as if Fellini is suggesting through them that either type of love can cause one to lose one’s head.  In any event, the commingling becomes more cluttering.  In a series of shots, all three planes of view within the frame contain some type of action or image from either side to the extent that there is too much for the eye to take in.  The effect is perceptually overwhelming, and because the shots are linked with eye-line matches from Giulietta, the association between what she feels and is seen is not hard to make.  These two sides are surrounding her so she cannot escape without resolution.

She does try to escape by going upstairs and leaving the spirits alone downstairs, but it is upstairs that she meets the final test.  Her mother manifests as a death bride, ashen and impassive, as her unconscious’ last attempt to keep Giulietta in the underdeveloped state she is in.  In order to break free, Giulietta has to physically disobey this psychological image of her mother, an act of rebellion she has never been able to accomplish against her real mother.  In succeeding to defy her mother, she is able to enter the odd perspective room in the wall and free her younger self from the grille.

Freeing herself, she causes the spirits downstairs to disappear into the night, and she finds her self-love, shown in the act of the Giuliettas hugging each other.  Self-love, and from it self-acceptance of who she is, was something held in check by her upbringing which dictated love to God instead.  Iris and her minions were preaching love yourself by loving everyone physically.  Neither version of love was strong enough to win her to their side.  Self-love needed to be attained to form any type of identity that would allow her to move out of her Church created world where she was a prisoner to the world of her grandfather, who at the end has landed his plane on her front lawn to say good-bye.  By accepting that either side is not sufficient without loving yourself, she no longer needs to hold onto her grandfather and the ballerina as her unconscious idea of what love can be.  She now has them in her conscious appraisal of herself.

The turmoil of Giulietta’s outer world, with the breaking apart of her marriage, sparks off a struggle in her inner world about what to do.  Her strict Catholic upbringing would have her give in, accept her fate as married to an adulterer because loving her husband equals loving God.  Susy and Iris would have her give up her husband and do onto him by embracing lust.  She does not know which one is the true path to happiness, and her confusion internally becomes manifested in the manipulation of the film’s editing and mise-en-scene at certain points of the narrative where it is clear these are representations of her subjective state.

These visions of the unconscious appear in the conscious world to make her realize more keenly what is happening in her mind, but also to give the viewers the same knowledge.  The viewer learns her problem without long expositions to others that would probably have slowed down the film’s pace.  Instead of telling what is going on in his protagonist’s mind, Fellini chose to show it by using surreal techniques of juxtaposing shots and elements of settings so that the viewer engage in an intellectual process to understand it.  This is what makes Juliet of the Spirits art cinema, and just plain fun to watch.

About CarrieLynn D. Reinhard

I am an explorer of pop culture, technology, mass media, and human nature. I want to make sense of how we all make sense of the mediated worlds that surrounds us.

Posted on June 7, 2012, in Text Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Fantastic analysis! You reminded me why I enjoyed the movie so much; now I have to re-watch. Funny that I don’t remember the Eve/snake image (could I have forgotten that?)… I wonder if it was cut out of my version.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 606 other followers

%d bloggers like this: