From Anxiety to a Kiss

I recently gave a talk on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 movie, Suspicion. Cary Grant and Oscar-winning Joan Fontaine are the stars in this Hitchcock thriller set in England in the early 1930s.

The plot is typical of Hitchcock, a sewing together of circumstantial events that increasingly leads Fontaine (as Lina) to suspect Grant (as her husband, Johnny) of trying to murder her.

As the publicity poster puts it, each time they kissed there was the thrill of love, the threat of murder!

Detail of Film Poster for Hitchcock’s Suspicion

The film begins with their chance meeting on a train. Lina is reading a textbook book on child psychology when Johnny asks if he could borrow money to pay for his train ticket.

Sometime later, while returning home after an embarrassing first date, Lina overhears her parents talking about her:

FATHER: Lina will never marry, she’s not the marrying sort…

MOTHER: I suppose you’re right, dear. I’m afraid she is rather spinsterish.

FATHER: Well what’s wrong with that? The old maid is a respectable institution. All women are not alike…

Suddenly confronted by the question of what women want, as well as by her father’s answer – that she remains unmarried, becomes an ‘old maid’ – Lina is shown distracted and anxious.

In a desperate attempt to end what has clearly become an unbearable scene, Lina turns to Johnny and kisses him for the first time.

But what kind of kiss does she give him?

Her kiss was sudden, Johnny was not expecting it nor given the chance to respond since Lina exits through the doorway as soon as she kisses him.

One way we can make sense of Lina’s kiss is as an example of a ‘passage through the act’.

an unbearable combination of embarrassment and anxiety

 
A ‘passage through the act’ is a last resort against an unbearable combination of embarrassment and anxiety.

Within the therapy literature there are two much-discussed examples of a ‘passage through the act’: young Dora’s slap across the face of the man who confessed to her his lack of interest in his wife; and the fall from a bridge by another young woman following her father’s disapproving look.

Here, Lina’s kiss constitutes her as ‘the marrying sort’ – whatever that might entail – instantly distancing or separating herself from her father’s satisfaction.

This is what makes a ‘passage through the act’ radical – it catapults Lina beyond the boundaries that up to this point had determined her social and mental existence.

This is also what makes a ‘passage through the act’ desperate since it can never be known fully in advance what you are committing yourself to, what you have suddenly become.

(The young woman who fell from a bridge paid for this undoubtedly serious attempt at suicide with a considerable time on her back in bed, though fortunately little permanent damage was done.)

The next few scenes show Lina in a variety of situations ‘working through’ what it means for her to have become the ‘marrying sort.’

This part of the film culminates with Johnny proposing to Lina in front of a portrait of her father. With a tragicomic touch, Hitchcock has the portrait fall from the wall.

Lina tells Johnny, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.

 

Johnny about to propose to Lina in front of a portrait of her father

 

Johnny catches the portrait as it falls from the wall following his proposal of marriage

In the next scene they elope. Lina’s parents thought she had simply gone out to buy some wool.

 

Notes to blog

My talk, Beyond Doubt: Alfred Hitchcock’s Lina, was given on 12 April 2019 here.

Were Lina to remain ‘not the marrying sort’ then an answer to what she wants might be to enter a same-sex relationship, perhaps like the couple she dines with later in the movie, rather than become the ‘old maid’ advocated by her father.

Passage to – rather than through – the act is the usual translation of the French passage à l’acte, borrowed by psychoanalysis from French criminology and psychiatry.

The two much-discussed examples in the therapy literature are case histories by Freud: Dora (1905) and The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920).

Judith Butler might describe Lina’s new identity as performatively constituted by the very ‘expression’ – a kiss – that is said to be its result. See her Gender Trouble.