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Mott, G. (1997). The Mirror of Choice: The English Patient And The Mirror Has Two Faces. Psychoanal. Rev., 84(6):941-947.

(1997). Psychoanalytic Review, 84(6):941-947

Film Notes

The Mirror of Choice: The English Patient And The Mirror Has Two Faces

George Mott

“Romantic,” “sentimental,” and “melodramatic,” often used interchangeably when applied to film, all come to mind when considering two recent films. Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces is a sentimental film that takes the classic Hollywood melodrama as its model, while The English Patient is vividly, operatically romantic and quite unsentimental, employing a form of melodrama that sets it apart from many other recent examples of cinematic Neoromanticism.1

In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks suggests that psychoanalysis is the “modern fulfillment and codification of melodrama.”2 (In discussing film I prefer “romantic” to Brooks' “melodramatic” in order to distinguish romantic from the film genre to which Stella Dallas and Imitation of Life belong and toward which Barbra Streisand's film pays dubious homage.)

The past is an essential element for both melodrama and psychoanalysis, and it is closely related to nostalgia (from the Greek nostos, a return home and algos, pain). Nostalgia can imply the yearning for a painful past represented in the present as pleasurable.3 As an ingredient of the sentimental, nostalgia is a longing for an idealized often confectionery past (The Way We Were Not). Romantic nostalgia evokes Freud's return of the repressed: an emanation from an unwritten past about which the neurotic seems to learn nothing. This past, inhabited with suffering (what Lacan identified as jouissance4) is in the neurotic's best interests to preserve. If nineteenth century romanticism was passionately concerned with states of painful bliss (Verdi's Alfredo in La Traviata sings of his disastrously inappropriate passion for Violetta as croce e delizia (crucifixion and delight), the late twentieth century variety is no less ambivalent. In both cases, the romantic narrative with its appeal to excess and overwhelming emotions is an attempt at retroactive articulation and healing of that fundamental nonsymbolization (real or imagined) which the neurotic (like Wagner's dying Tristan, castrated Klingsor, and hypochondriac Amfortas) perceives as an incurable wound or a fatal privation. It is this unconscious enjoyment of pain that drives the romantic agony.

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