Impossible Desires: The Madonna-Whore Complex in Cinema

When the woman walks through the door, the pure jade light is so blinding that it engulfs everything in the room. The man can barely contain himself as his dead lover walks impossibly back into his life. What was once a relationship of cold compromise, accepted because of the resemblance to a deceased lover, is now an affection reincarnated through the Madonna; sans dark hair. She is now an untouched, platinum blonde, filled with the perfection that the seedy reality of the situation previously denied.

Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’, 1958.

This is a pivotal scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), an adaptation of the crime novel D’entre les morts by the crime-writing duo, Boileau-Narcejac. It concerns the conspiracy entangling the life of a tragic, retired police detective, Scotty (James Stewart), who unwittingly falls in love twice with the same women (Kim Novak) and equally loses her twice. Hitchcock’s film has been analysed and picked apart for decades, and one of the reoccurring arguments of such analysis is the narrative encapsulates the psychoanalytical mode of the Madonna-whore complex, especially in regards to the relationship between its two leads. But cinema has tussled with this complex for some time and its presentation of relationships has been enraptured, if not embroiled, by its workings.

Coined by Sigmund Freud, the theory suggests that men express their simultaneous fear and desire of female sexuality through a dichotomy that splits women into two separate groups: the pure Madonna or mother figure with whom one forms a loving but sexually banal relationship, and the whore whom one desires physically and perhaps achieves satisfaction with but can never progress with further in terms of a meaningful relationship. Though it would be wrong to say that this theory influenced cinema, classical Hollywood movies in particular have reflected the patriarchal and conservative view of women; the impossible pressure put upon women to somehow paradoxically perform both roles.

The pressure brewing in Vertigo is owed in part to conformity with Freud’s perception of male desire. Scotty must attempt to transform the everyday Judy back into the supernatural Madeleine because otherwise he would unconsciously have to consider the real-world possibility as to why the two women resembled one another so uncannily. His conformity to the Madonna-whore complex is a coping mechanism that crumbles when the truth about the plan to kill the real Madeleine dramatically becomes apparent. Where the application of this theory falls down in regards to Hitchcock, and where it seems too simple, is in the element of desire. There’s no doubt that Scotty’s desire for Madeleine is arguably more sexual than for Judy. His desire for Judy is instead uncanny, recognising the potential to rebuild the love of his memories. He arguably cannot feel anything at all for Judy, emotionally or sexually, until she has once more become Madeleine, itself a reversal of the dichotomy. His attraction is based as much on the purity itself as her availability.

Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) by Robert Altman.

Other films, however, are clearer and certainly neater than the application often applied to Hitchcock, even when ultimately subverting Freud’s original social diagnosis. In reality, very few films, outside of the traditional Hollywood framework, actually conform to the model in earnest. It is often part of a character’s evolution of desire rather than a steadfast rule of attraction. In most Westerns, for example, women inhabit these binary roles due to it being such a masculine genre; where women are present, with notable exceptions, as either wives, daughters or prostitutes. In Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), this is seen perfectly. Though the emotional barrier of the Madonna/whore complex is something to be traversed, it provides evidence of growth for the male lead (Warren Beattie) even when he ultimately is distanced from Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie); the cockney, opium addicted ex-prostitute who becomes his business partner in running his brothel.

Equally, in Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks (1976), a scene typifies the complex. Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) is flirting with Jane Braxton (Kathleen Lloyd), the daughter of the area’s powerful rancher. She is the perfected Madonna figure, being pure and also in a position of social standing and power. However, on trekking together into the countryside, Tom’s attraction wanes when Jane offers candidly to have sex with him in the mountainous landscape. He refuses to get off his horse, even though he is attracted to her. The situation has arisen from a conversation regarding his earlier visit to a brothel and so it is clear that his reasoning is based on being discomforted by the likeness between this woman and the prostitute he slept with. It is only later, when the roles are somewhat reversed and Tom is allowed to somewhat traditionally woo Jane that they partner up and become a couple. Many westerns are built on this dichotomy and ultimately force the women to temporarily achieve this impossible simultaneity, perhaps because it is the most patriarchal of genres and cinematic worlds.

Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda, 1965.

Appropriately, the brutality and the fallacies of the Madonna-whore complex have been better realised by women directors more than men; sometimes offering satire of it. Leaving aside for a moment the moral questions of the complex, seeing it with a female gaze raises the veil in regards to its pressure on women’s agency and the brutality with which male characters make their conscious or unconscious demands. Few cinematic realisations have been as brutal as Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965). Varda’s film follows a happily-married car mechanic (Jean-Claude Drouot) who begins an affair with a post office worker (Marie-France Boyer). He seems content with both women but soon the mistress begins to take the place of the wife until the wife (Marcelle Faure-Bertin) commits suicide and is totally usurped as a mother figure.

Varda’s film is quietly horrific, shot as if it’s a picture-postcard romance. Where it subverts the Madonna-whore complex is in its portrayal of sexuality. If the basis of the complex is generally that men cannot be faithful to wives and will always need new, less mothering figures for sexual gratification, then Le Bonheur shows how cyclic that situation will ultimately be.

Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda.

Varda uses a seasonal aesthetic to express this, as if the inevitability of male faithlessness is as guaranteed as the leaves falling off the trees come autumn time. Summer in the film is especially linked to the newfound sexual vigour supplied by the whore figure who, by the end of the film, has evolved into a new mother figure, hinting that when the seasons change once again, the mechanic may also begin his confused roaming in search of a new woman.

Delphine Seyrig in Akerman’s ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels’, playing a mother and prostitute.

Varda’s brilliance is in showing the satisfaction derived from both states of women, and the brutality that lies behind the social and sexual gaze of the man. Other women directors have addressed this too, notably being an almost constant norm of questioning in French cinema. Consider Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), with the working mother (Delphine Seyrig) silently and secretly inhabiting both roles of the complex; Claire Denis’ Let The Sunshine In (2018) with its mother (Juliette Binoche) trying to balance the search for love and sexual satisfaction whilst avoiding falling into either category of the dichotomy; or Marguerite Duras’ The Music (1967) in which a wife (Seyrig again) meets her estranged husband to finalise divorce papers, but where the lines of attraction sketched out by the complex create and relight confused desires between the two protagonists.

‘Let The Sunshine In’, by Clare Denis, 2018.

The tagline for Varda’s film was “Seule, une femme pouvait oser faire ce film”; translating as “only a women could have made this film.” Addressing the Madonna-whore complex in cinema, the same criteria apply. It is women directors who have questioned the demands of the male gaze, who have shown the chains wrapped socially and creatively around women. In Let The Sunshine In, Gerard Depardieu’s character advises Binoche’s to “Tend to what matters most: yourself. Don’t fall into traps.” It’s as good a mission statement as any for breaking away from such impossible shackles, in cinema or reality.

By Adam Scovell

Twitter: @AdamScovell

 

Main photo, promotional shot from Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’, 1958, copyright Paramount Pictures.

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