The Shadow Knows: A Jungian Guide to Film

Although they have fallen out of favor in psychiatric circles these days, the theories of Sigmund Freud were once de rigueur, particularly in creative circles.  His ideas inspired a legion of directors, from Alfred Hitchcock to David Lynch, to delve into the unconscious using a range of techniques, from surreal dream sequences to psychoanalytic explanations of the criminal mind. But for all of Freud’s influence on cinema, his theories have limitations when applied to film. His belief that dream content is peculiar to each individual seems antithetical to the commonalities people all over the world find in movies.

The first psychoanalyst to break with Freud’s ideas – and painfully, with Freud himself – was Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. Jung conceived of a collective unconscious of common images and character templates called “archetypes” that developed under evolutionary pressures to ensure human survival and adaptation.  Here are some of Jung’s most prevalent archetypes along with some memorable examples from the movies:

A Sunbathing Shadow: Ludivine Sagnier in “Swimming Pool”

The Shadow (the part of the psyche that is not “owned” by the conscious mind, or ego). The shadow is a paradoxical character that can pose both an opportunity and a threat for the protagonist.  In François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), Sarah (Charlotte Rampling, a prim, blocked writer, is confronted by her opposite in the form of an aggressive, sexually provocative young woman (Ludivine Sagnier). As the two interact, Sarah begins to blossom as a fully fleshed female, and the younger woman softens and takes on a more innocent quality, a sign of the acceptance Sarah’s shadow feels. When seeking creative inspiration, individuals often must confront their shadow to gain access to and reclaim the fullness of experience and human emotion, as well as to tame the aggression of a shadow made “angry” by rejection.

– The Anima (the female aspect of the male unconscious). The anima archetype takes many forms. In Inception, Mal (Marion Cotillard) is the quintessential negative anima “beloved” in movies: the femme fatale, powerful and mal-icious, yet fragile and distressed.  Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) cannot progress until he faces his feelings of guilt toward his female aspect and accepts them; when he does, Mal’s negative influence over his psyche ends with her “death.”

Deadly Innocent: Caprice Toriel in “Murder by Contract”

Another anima figure, this time a positive one, confronts Claude (Vince Edwards), a highly rational hitman in the film noir Murder by Contract (1958). His terror of having any feelings toward his victims causes him to go to pieces when ordered to kill a woman; his target, a mobster’s girl who is also a gifted pianist, represents his creative, feeling anima. He knows that to kill her would be tantamount to murdering his better self; ultimately, his ego prevents him from accepting the wisdom of this anima image, and he can do nothing but go down in flames.

– The Animus (the male aspect of the female unconscious). Notable animus figures are found in some of our most beautiful films, many of which are based on a great source for archetypes—the fairytale. The Beast in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) describes an animus figure that transforms from its primitive, bestial nature into a caring man through Beauty’s growing independence from her animus authority figure—her father. According to Jungian (as well as Freudian) theory, all women need to overthrow their inner father to begin the journey to mature wholeness.

Victim of Male Animus-ity: Ana Raquel Sartre in “Bluebeard’s Castle”

The myth of Bluebeard, assayed in any number of films, from Michael Powell’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1963) to Catherine Breillat’s Barbe Bleue (2009), describes the treacherous journey of women living in patriarchal societies to maturity and equality. Powell’s film catches its heroine, unable to tame the primitive beast of her animus, on the barbs of patriarchy. Breillat’s young heroine, however, arouses her animus’ higher qualities of empathy, buying her time to slay him and receive the rewards of her courage.

An excellent primer on these and other concepts comprises Mark Whitney’s documentary Matter of Heart, in which Jungian psychoanalysts and Carl Jung himself discuss each archetype. Gaining a working knowledge of Jung’s concepts can greatly enrich your film-going experience.

Marilyn Ferdinand is the proprietor of Ferdy on Films a film review and commentary blog. She is cohost of For the Love of Films: The Film Preservation Blogathon, fundraiser for to film preservation.

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