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Mott, G. (1996). Carrington. Psychoanal. Rev., 83(3):447-450.

(1996). Psychoanalytic Review, 83(3):447-450


George Mott

I had an experience once while visiting one of those stately homes of England now in the care of the National Trust which came back to me while watching the film Carrington. Having passed through a series of exquisite roped-off rooms, furnished as though their inhabitants had just quit them, I saw a door open opposite me across a vast library, and a distinguished gentleman with a copy of The Times under his arm cut across the room and disappeared through a side door. I recognized him as the titled owner of the estate, now banished to a smaller, more practical apartment not open to the public. That house and its contents stand out more clearly than any of the others seen during my trip.

In Carrington, alas, there is no such surprise appearance. As elegant and polished as any National Trust mansion, its namesake never seems to fully materialize.

Recent decades have seen the development of a film genre best described as “English Historical.” Treating fiction and nonfiction indiscriminately, this style proposes the past as “true-to-life,” with what Roland Barthes describes as the reality effect, that which results when “the ‘real’ is never anything but an unformulated signified, sheltered behind the apparent omnipotence of the referent” (Barthes, 1989, p. 139). The films of Merchant and Ivory, studded with detail like rich plum puddings, are good examples. They tend to lull the viewer into thinking that what is seen is “simply true … what things are and nothing more “(Barthes, 1989, p. 148). Enjoyable as these products of the British Heritage industry are, their most interesting element is that which has been excluded, the fact “that any absence of an element is itself a signification” (Barthes, 1989, p. 139). What this referential illusion obscures is the particularity of the enunciator.

Carrington, a British film written and directed by Christopher Hampton, is the story of the painter Dora Carrington, taking up from her meeting with Lytton Strachey. The credits, illuminated with woodcuts inspired by Carrington's work, announce the historicizing intentions of the film. An enormous effort has been made to reproduce the actual places where Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey lived between 1915 and 1932.

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