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Hess, N. (1999). Chinatown. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 80(6):1243-1246.

(1999). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 80(6):1243-1246


Review by:
Noel Hess

Director: Roman Polanski

Distributor: Paramount

As is often true for the patient's first words in a session, the opening image of Chinatown (1974) sets the scene for the particular psychological terrain that the film will explore. The first thing we see is a photograph of a sexual couple. Clearly, the couple, caught in an act of private passion, have been seen by a hidden third party, the photographer. A series of photographs depicts the intercourse. This is accompanied by a moaning sound from the person (as yet unseen) who is looking at, or being shown, these photographs. There is a momentary ambiguity—is it a moan of voyeuristic excitement or of jealous agony? Quite quickly, the conventions and context of the scene are established. The photographs are being shown by a ‘private eye’ to the husband of the woman photographed. The husband is in a rage, and says, in almost the first words we hear: ‘She's just no good’, and soon after, ‘I think I'll kill her’.

While the initial ambiguities resolve into a conventional situation, one we feel familiar with within the genre, it is important to hold on to that initial strangeness, because it does throw us into the situation of the primal scene, of oedipal rage at the sexual mother and the private eye that watches. Chinatown will explore this territory of incestuous longings, and subtly contrast it with actual incest. In an important contribution Simon (1992) has shown how, in what he describes as ‘the history of an error’, these two radically different but related situations are often muddled, both in our thinking and in the history of psychoanalysis.

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