“The secrets of the analyst’s couch are like those of the confessional, only more interesting.” ~ John Collier.
Two films touching on the theme of psychoanalysis, then: Compton Bennett’s THE SEVENTH VEIL, whose very title suggests a relation between the seductive and the psychotherapeutic, and I AM FRIGID…WHY?, a demented dollop of Euro-sleaze from the febrile “mind” of Max Pecas.
THE SEVENTH VEIL is a woman’s picture from Gainsborough Films, makers of “classy” bodice-ripping romps like THE WICKED LADY and THE MAN IN GREY. All these films helped make a star out of James Mason as Britain’s leading attractive brute, raping and beating his way across the Flowers of Young English Womanhood to the delight of repressed 1940s audiences.
T7V takes James away from the period trappings, where he could safely say things like, “It’ll make a change, taking you by force,” and sets him up as a rich, neurotic cripple who forms a controlling obsession for his young ward, Ann Todd, a brilliant pianist. (This reminds me of Ann’s namesake SWEENEY TODD — you wait ages for a movie about a man lusting after his ward, then two come along at once. The only other one I can even think of is BATMAN AND ROBIN.)
Ann T is the star and female sensibility through which events are filtered, but they get further filtration from smooth-talking head-shrinker Herbert Lom (full name: Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru — I’ve been known to recite this at parties so be warned) who is treating her for suicidal depression and a fixated belief that her hands are paralysed, which they aren’t.
HCAKZS puts her under hypnosis, and she sorta drifts into flashback…
…and we realise what a big influence this flick had on Hollywood melodramas like POSSESSED, etc. Even the “technical terms” used, like narcosis and mutism, are the same. Todd’s case history emerges from these induced flashbacks, and we see her as a schoolgirl, entrusted to the “care” of James Mason, a distant relation in every sense:
Ann T. espies Mr. Mason’s pussycat. “Would you like to stroke her?” he offers. She demurs tremulously.
Poor Ann has already failed to win a music scholarship after being caned on her hands, but the chilly Mason senses her talents and sets about molding her, Svengali-fashion, into a star. This rampant control-freakery soon extends to breaking up relationships with perfectly nice men. After YEARS of this, Todd finally rebels, tells her Wicked Uncle that she’s leaving…
Mason is kind of affecting here, because he wants to reach out to her, but his neurotic coldness won’t let him, and so —
In an iconic moment of British ’40s melodrama, a wigged-out J.M. tries to smash his beloved’s fingers with his cane (Mason is Romantically Crippled, like Byron). Fleeing with her podgy German portrait-painter beau, Todd gets into a car-crash and injures her hands, though not seriously.
Now Lom has the facts. Like the best Freudian detectives, he seeks out the “suspects” and gets additional info from them, then calls them all together. Podgy Teuton, Mason, and Todd’s first love, the wise-cracking yank. Lom then effects a MIRACLE CURE simply by PLAYING A RECORD to Todd, who descends the stairs into the roomful of waiting swains, ready, like Lassie, to go to the one she loves the most.
And she chooses… well, it might be unfair to give this away. But if I say “the highest paid actor” and “the one more in need of psychiatric care than herself” you’ll probably get it. It’s a fascinating turn of events because the film gives absolutely no clue as to how this relationship is now supposed to work. A.T. has been cured of her fear, but will her new lover be able to express the tender emotions that have completely defeated him thus far? Is this going to be an s.m.-type relationship? Does Herbert Lom know what the hell he’s playing at?
The ending feels like a very bold piece of provocation: we are being asked, What do we think of this? Can we make sense of it? The filmmaker, of course, is copping out of his usual responsibility, that of telling us what to think. This means the film is either incomplete, devoid of meaning, or mature, treating its audience as thinking beings. I’d say Compton Bennett has actually hit on a way of EXPLOITING inconclusive narrative for financial gain.
Everybody’s very good in this movie. Mason gets to be brooding and uptight. Ann Todd is a revelation: always a slightly cold actress, here she exhibits an impressive range, even convincing in ponytails as a schoolgirl — she does an even better job that Joan Fontaine in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Neither can convince as teenage, physically, but both do a great job with childlike body language. Certainly better than Sandra Julien in I AM FRIGID…WHY?
Sandra, as the virginal Doris, is rendered frigid by the trauma of rape in a greenhouse, then must Walk the Earth in search of sexual kicks that might break through her psychological block. These include Kubrickian masked orgies, fey spanking sessions, and listless lesbianism, all filmed with oppressively coloured-gel-lighting, soft-focus and starburst filters until you’re aching for somebody to OPEN A BLOODY WINDOW.
There’s also the “theatrical troupe” glimpsed in the vid above:
But Doris only finds true happiness at the movie’s end, where she is able to have pure, loving consensual sex… in the greenhouse she was raped in… with the man who raped her.
The psychoanalytic narrative seems to have been seen as a great excuse to abandon all narrative logic and have characters behave in a totally incredible way. Since understanding human nature is the speciality of SCIENCE, it’s OK for the behaviour in these films to make no sense to the audience.
I kind of have to hand it to Max Pecas for making a film as ludicrous as IAF…W? and still managing to have it be so outrageously offensive. Despite its campy surface (the men, though nominally straight, all seem like gay stereotypes) the flick seems to seriously propose the idea that revisiting a trauma can cure it — a popular Freudian fantasy (still big in Scientology), but even if Pecas was determined to follow this narrative (while making an erotic film about frigidity, itself a perverse idea)…still. The film can only be acceptable if we see it as 100% sexual fantasy and 0% sexual politics, but can a film entirely rid itself of any relationship to life? And should it?
“I want to take you to the dernieres limites d’erotisme.” ~ Alain Cuny, EMMANUELLE.