Alfred Hitchock’s desire was to make movies in which dream and reality are indistinguishable. In his Vertigo, he creates a nightmarish world in which Scottie (James Stewart) draws the female progatonist into a surreal ordeal, or it is the other way around; at certain moments we cannot really tell. The film is centered around several themes and recurrent motifs:
- The impact of psychological trauma on a person
- The necessity to preserve (relive) the memory
- Erotic obsession (amour fou – mad love)
The film opens with a tragic death of a police officer who was trying to save Scottie, and that very experience shook him and had a severe impact on him, although this is not mentioned in the film; he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, after that event. Psychological trauma he experiences later in the film is the perceived death of a loved person and a feeling of guilt because he did not prevent it because of his own incapability.
The scene in the courtroom after “Madelaine’s” death is surreal in its structure and it can mirror Scottie’s psychological state; the judge blaming him for her death because of his “weakness” seems to personify his conscience. In the hospital, Mozart’s music is played to Scottie while he is suffering from melancholia; his friend says that it won’t really help and it would be a wonder if it could; it amounts to playing cheerful folk music at a funeral.
The scene by the sea, when “Madelaine” and Scottie kiss each other, has the quality of a memory, of something that longs to be preserved. The whole set-up Scottie got into is imbued with the reliving of memories and pyschological traumas, a suicide, to be more precise, because a mother lost a child. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madelaine and her death; after meeting Judy his obsession can be materialized into another “object” of passionate love. Georges Bataille once wrote: “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” This quote can be compared to Scottie’s desires toward Madelaine and Judy.
In Scottie’s dream, we can see flowers disintegrating, him falling from the roof (the guilt complex) and looking into a tomb. The woman in the painting, who was presented as a great-grand mother of Madealine, appears as well. The colours change forming an esoteric nightmare of utter terror to the dreamer. Life and death, his own fears and sufferings, all merge into a singular uncanny experience.
Scottie is caught in a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling; this type of love deranges the senses and is essentially an obsession, amour fou, as it came to be called by the surrealists. In other words, love is a type of madness. His need to relive the memories he experienced with Madelaine compels him to turn Judy into his doll, resembling Madelaine down to the most precise details. It is the same person, but at the same time it is not. It seems that in Vertigo Hitchock captures the spirit of erotic feelings in their fullest force. The title of the film does not allude only to Scottie’s fears, but to his desires as well.
It is as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of the corridor, there is nothing but darkness.
“Fragments of the mirror” may represent memories, what was once a whole, a life experience now shattered into fragments of dispersed memories. Vertigo’s life force relies on memories, on the past and on the days long by, which need to be relived again. The darkness which represents death needs to be overcome so life can take its place. In Hitchock’s artistic world this is an illusion. Scottie’s sin is not his “weakness” and fear, it is his hubris, a belief that he can enjoy days that have passed.
Memories cannot be relived again, and the very attempt to do this is a starting point for a nigthmare, more darkness and thus death. This may be the moral of Vertigo, told in a surrealist fashion which traps the characters into a corridor through which they walk, observing fragments, memories, trying to reshape them into life, but in the end they fail – tragedy is inevitable.