This paper aims to be a psychoanalytic interpretation of the film Third Person/Dragoste la persoana a treia, a movie that represents a parable on loss, as well as an inventory of the possible defence mechanisms to the impact of the disappearance of the loved one, from their sanogenic version to that of a perverse abuser or sadistic dominator type of structuring, in other words, an explanation of the handiest ways to cope with suffering.
Not infrequently, we find in the training of young specialists in the psychotherapeutic area workshops which focus on the analysis of works of art – paintings, sculptures of famous painters. The conferences of the Romanian Society of Psychoanalysis or the Summer Schools have one or two sections dedicated to film performances, carefully chosen by experienced trainers. Also, such an approach is itself creative and based on brainstorming led by a well-trained psychotherapist. Recent examples include books interpreting essays or literary works written by leading specialists – such as Daniela Luca’s Estetica inconştientului (“Aesthetics of the Unconscious”) which analyzes the works of Max Blecher, Mircea Cărtărescu’s novel Solenoid, Winnicott’s perspective, together with personal cases explained at the borderline between the creative artistic and the psychotherapeutic area.
The area of creationology remains a touchstone in the training of “psy” specialists, who thus make contact with both the beautiful and the amorphous magma of the raw unconscious, as it is reflected in every novel, volume of verse, painting, sculpture, the film being the complex variant of the mind imagination of several creators, minds that manage to harmonize in a complete production, over which the thinking of the “psy” specialist who interprets offers a higher level and an integrative vision of the artistic product.
The explanatory perspective of the film is based on psychoanalytic concepts and encompasses several views. The movie shows three overlapping love stories and life stories, stories regarding the expression of human emotions, in their most diverse presentation. Taking into consideration that the area of psychopathology is much denser than the one of psychiatry and sometimes harder to find in this form in the psychiatric practice, the analysis of movies which capture elements of personality disorders can be a real tool for the young mental health specialists when they need to keep in mind pattern and frames for apprehending pathologies.
Michael, the main character, who is – either himself, or the narrator alter-ego, either a false self – pictures the prototype of the narcissism, in its self-destructive form, but also as a pain provoking agent for the others. Anna Barr seems also frozen in a sort of timeless narcissism, following the passage of an incest which must be regarded not only in its Oedipean dimension, but also in the concrete reality. So, this character is filled with symbolic meanings while her life story takes into account not only the psychoanalytical side, but eminently the side of the abuse with which the young mental health specialists are forced to work more and more. We are discussing here not about a psychological abuse, whose elaboration is made in a therapeutic, phantasm-related way, neither about an oneiric abuse; we are discussing a real abuse and the psychotherapist must work with the objectiveness of the trauma.
The maid character represents an obvious version of a borderline personality structure, nowadays seldom found in a psychiatric hospital, but more often encountered in psychotherapy offices; she offers the young specialists the chance of identifying a complex structure in a specific dynamic.
The maid represents the prototype of the borderline woman for which the disturbance of her own emotions is so severe that it disrupts her contact with reality. She might be the most accurately defined character from a psychopathological point of view, in her passage from the idealisation of the child to the devaluation of her husband and herself, self-harm behaviours and her unconscious desire to hurt herself, these reaching a climax in the ambient scenes. Facing the “disaster” and the emotional dissolution, the other characters of the trio remain numbed.
The study of the movie is inviting the young mental health practitioners to analyze the dynamic of the countertransference from which they can learn relational patterns during crisis and depressive decompensation. Also, empathetic resonances may be clarified or a projective counter-identification with a borderline mother may show up.
The couple of the Italian man and the Romani woman makes reference to the pathology of imagination, to the area of confabulation as an “existential alibi”, the “fake” being a symbol of the fantastic – an oneiric construct in which the defence mechanisms belong to the areal of reality denial and the displacement towards metasimulation.
The trauma is the common link of the three stories, so the young specialists who work with the concrete reality of their patients and clients can learn various relational coping mechanisms together with deep understandings of the constellation of human emotions.
The movie refers to the narcissistic and borderline personality disorder, the incest, the pathology of imagination, the area of the “unbelievable” and the idea of “existential alibi” – the entire plot following these concepts.
The film Third Person begins with the story of Ana Barr and Michael, suddenly immersing us in a tumult of heavy feelings generated by the ambivalence identified in arousing a man who is your mentor. The events are peppered with irony and sarcasm, with “I don’t care” and “That’s no way for a mentor to behave!”, as in every deep connection, in which case you don’t know in whose mind the lust is first born. Anna turns Michael on (including going naked to his door), then says generally: “Why did you give in? Why did you go through with it?” The dynamics of the relationship are punctuated by the inability to match as time (when he offers her roses, she leaves) and the inability to synchronize in giving/receiving, seen as a consequence of trauma.
The dimension of ambivalence is also played out on the axis: the framing of the image of the loved one (the Gypsy asking “Would you like to take a picture of me?”) and the desire to be invisible in the maid’s mind (“Nobody looks at the maids!”).
Another axis of duality is determined, on one hand, by the characters’ inability to see the obvious, and on the other hand, by the question of whether the writer is still able to live his own life other than through character construction. Michael himself is a man who can no longer feel except through representations, in relation to which it is hard to know whether they are authentic or illusory (watching the film one may wonder whether the main characters, male or female, are merely the writer’s alter egos). Compared to the classical view of what we know as the lyrical Self, or the narrator’s perspective, the film reveals sacrifice with perverse connotations, in which everyone is more concerned with writing in a book what happens to their lives than with living per se. At the very edge, Michael gets a reproach: “You don’t love people, but the love of people!”
In the couple between the Romani woman and the American character (the Gypsy and Scott), inauthenticity, the fake and the kitsch are revealed, in which the Gypsy steals money, the fashion designer steals sketches, and they meet in a train station, a symbol of the transcendence of ethnicities, nationalities, financial perspectives and, beyond all, motivations. The Gypsy is the character who has no value in relation to certain social rules, but regarding her internal rule she has any value and demands any price for herself and her child, which we don’t know if he is real or fantasized.
Anna Barr chooses the eternal mistress hypostasis (“Are you looking for someone else to cheat on with me?”) as an option not to get out of Oedipus. As a wife, you can be left. As a mistress, you know a priori that you are not chosen, just as a daughter you know for sure that you will never be left.
On the edge, the characters in this film have an incredible talent for denying any reality, being themselves random, fragmented, various hypostases that justify different portions of life. No genuine bonds are forged, a bleak loneliness is the lived-in experience throughout the film, the characters do not allow themselves to be contaminated by each other’s suffering (the maid: “I wish you were my friend!”).
In all three couples, the question remains: Who’s conning whom? The relationships are haunted by insecurity, mistrust, identity confusion, loss of individuality, an idea projected in the film’s key symbols: clocks, the telephone, water, the cancellation of time. The Gypsy and her game with Scott begin with “Will you take a picture of me?”, an idea that recurs throughout the movie, which means to engram the loved ones, not to lose them. “Let the water run over all memories, to undo the passage of time! Do you want to never forget me? Do you want me to stay in your memory forever? Fix me with your eyes and you’ll never lose me from your mind!” When the one in question couldn’t stare at his child for thirty seconds, he/she lost him/her. Staring and being seen, along with the inability to see the obvious (Anna doesn’t see the amazing dress).
As a character, the Gypsy is the most strongly delineated in terms of the strength to demand and assert her worth where everyone else sees exactly its absence.
In all three stories, dead children are paid for, with priceless prices and numbered days. The phrase “Watch me!” is an internalized cry of desperation, sometimes in stuffed toys, sometimes in phone pictures or answering machine messages. Empirically, the lost child is the third person in the equation, as the stories flow, showing us that you have to steal to retrieve the genuine.
In relation to the dead, lost children, Ana Barr’s incestuous story seems to hold up over time and vicissitudes. The idea is echoed later, when after she goes into Daniel’s arms, she says, “Can you do something for me? Anything? I want you to forgive me!” No one knows what she wants to be forgiven for. For the guilt of stirring up the switch to the act, for a former little girl who thinks she provoked her father.
In her non-literary existential maturity, in that space of everyday reality between her and Michael, she imperatively demands that somewhere the force of incest must stop: “If I’m so weak that I can’t stop myself from going to Daniel, how can you be so weak that you keep loving me, even though you know I keep doing the same thing!”, Michael replies contritely and compassionately, “I know what that smile cost you, I don’t care who you were with!” After the loss of one’s own child, any grief seems incomparable in the area of loss, these beings being beyond grief. Does Michael’s attitude of denying the reality of Anna Barr’s incest help her escape from Oedipus? Her rhetorical question to Daniel: “Can you forgive me?” is an assumption of desire!
All sin originates in judicious rationalizations: “I only wanted to protect you!” (a statement uttered throughout the film both by Daniel in relation to Anna, and by the maid to justify the gesture of the macabre game in which she tried to asphyxiate her child, in order to arouse in him the experience of danger).
The image of the room strewn with white roses is justified in the book by the choice of the colour of confidence and trial. In the mirror, the perspective suggests the freezing in a kind of mortuary (even Jesus was dressed in a white shroud), the loss and inability to experience mourning. Life offers no one any clues or chances, which causes the maid to smash the rose vases because her trust has been betrayed in a paranoid game bordering on the absurd: She is promised that if she admits the abyss of cruelty she will be rewarded (“Admit you hurt the child and all will be well!”). The scenes are played out in a grotesque manner, essentializing the necessity of evil and emphasizing it (“I had to do it for protection!”).
The movie’s perspective further marches to dehumanization and the tearing of the characters from their affections, as they remain stripped naked, so that they can be shown to the audience in their raw state (“I’m sure I’ll read this discussion in the next manuscript”). The stories unfold in a timeless present, the happenings demanding their right to immortalisation. In this version, “Watch me!” means “Don’t miss anything that’s going on around you!” and, at the same time, a kind of obligation to see what you don’t want to see. “Watch me!” even means “Look, I can!” when you have nothing left to miss. “What does it matter if you steal another toy, if people think you’re a thief after losing so much?” (the maid). “Will you take me back after you know who I was with?” (Anna Barr). “It doesn’t matter after losing so much!” Dead children are the only genuine thing and all relationships are on the edge.
Writing a diary in the third person represents a cleavage of the emotional from the being, which at the limit leads to the creation of a simulated and simulating character, trying to carry on with his life after his greatest trauma, the death of his child: “The colour of the lies he tells to himself”. Losing your child through death or theft, with direct reference to neglect, can affect you regardless of social standing, ethnicity, nationality or financial support. Destinies can be the same, you remain set on searching for real or symbolic treasures, you feel duty bound to repair the trauma of loss, in your own life or at least in someone else’s, through pleasure by proxy (the Gypsy and the American seem happy looking back, Anna Barr and Michael seem to be able to love each other, albeit in an aggressive dynamic, but beyond Oedipus). In this perspective, the sense of too much generated by the film resides in the facets of perversity.
There are several triangulations seen simultaneously from various perspectives: mother-father-child trio, man-woman-lover trio, me-you-character trio (Anna and Michel can no longer have a relationship unless there is a character between them).
In all three stories, the world of art is revealed to us: the men are a writer, a painter and a fashion designer. The stories are thought of as explaining the power of women and their perverse games on the minds of men, who are then reproached for the moment of absence (the absence of that “Watch me!”) that made it possible to enact the tragedy in the absence of triangulation. In the literary-metaphorical dimension, the artist disappears from the frame, he no longer matters. In the psychoanalytical dimension, “Watch me!” draws our attention to the men who may be missing from the story, facilitating misfortune.
The reference to the primordial elements of the world is found in the film’s anchors linked to water (the little girl is brought in by boat, the phone, the watch, the coins are drowned in water), as a symbol of disappearance and cancellation.
The successive manipulations between the couples refer to the corrupted self and narcissistic twinning, to intuition and survival instinct, to paranoid chicanery such as “who makes the first move”, metaphorically “under the eye of the cops”. The taste left is of the need to allow oneself to be manipulated in order to repair a greater wrong (the paranoid provocation trap). The manipulator is actually the man, while the desire is first in the woman (Anna Bar thinks she provoked her father, the Gypsy provokes Scott). The man is smart, he realizes he’s being manipulated, but chooses to let himself get caught up in the whirlwind of the game. The police car remains the representative of reality. To call the police is to validate reality in some way. And Scott is a fake, the deception is mutual (“My suit of clothes is counterfeit!”).
Michael sacrifices all his relationships for art, Anna finds the immortality of her own story by opening the book. Somewhere, in a film full of abusive beings, of the imprint of real or symbolic murder, of real neglect or the suffering of incestuous love, of characters stripped of feeling and eroticism, the antisocial transcends. The characters are exacerbated in their wager with fate, in terms of the chance of escape from repetition.
The painter’s new wife has a special place in the film, as she remains mute, watching and receiving the abuse, unable to react. In the painter’s life, the current abused woman does not allow herself to be contaminated by the abused ex-wife, as she tacitly follows the flow of events. From this perspective, the third can be considered the one who stands by and witnesses the abuse and does nothing to prevent it. Thus, “Watch me!” becomes “Watch the abuse reflect, we are all frozen in front of it!”, at the risk of developing Stockholm syndrome, with only water left behind as the ultimate symbol of reflective capacity. In Michael’s book, water refracts light, the characters emphasizing their grotesque features, to make us pay attention (“Watch me!”) to what we can lose and how loss deforming your being.
The film’s title suggests, on a superficial level, the book’s ending, found in the image where the car leaves the real road (of reality), showing that all the characters belong to the world of Michael’s book. Completed with the fact that best sellers are born when they contain true stories, as is writing about yourself. Michael lives in life and in his own book simultaneously. The trauma he has suffered (the death of his son) is so overwhelming that the handiest defence mechanism is cleavage: he builds a new, parallel life in the story with Anna Barr, but also in his own book. The meaning attributed to gestures and colours is one initially intuited, then validated in and by reality.
The deeper meaning of the title Third Person (“Dragoste la persoana a treia”) symbolises that love as a couple no longer finds meaning after the loss of the child. The central idea is whether or not losing from the memory and from the soul the memory of a dead child, “Watch me!”, the despair of the writer’s wife that her phone was broken and she would never even have pictures of Robbie again, of the other man when he is told that after a while his answering machine messages are automatically deleted, of the maid when she learns she would never even be able to visit her child again. The concept of loss is maximally linked with that of guilt, along with the childish attempt if I could change that moment... “Watch me!” symbolizes both “Don’t forget me” and an attempt to process the trauma by apotheosizing and immortalizing the time in a book.
It is known from the literature that more than half of all couples who lose a child will break up. What creates the break-up is the successive denial and projection of fault and guilt from one to the other. Years later, there remains no pure reality, but an après coupe construction of the moment of loss, in which no one knows where guilt is. The moment is vividly illustrated in the scene between the maid and her ex-husband, in which we are made to believe one by one it is true/not true, she is or is not guilty, the guilt is or is not in her or her ex-husband.
In the other stories where the dimension of loss is happening simultaneously, the child is:
Emotionally sacrificed, torn apart by the parents’ divorce and the ban on visitation.
Recovered after years and for large sums of money; the reality of the recovery is questioned or not (“You were a fool to believe me!”).
Inclusively in the story of incest between Anna Barr and her father, there is loss. If incest can be seen in one dimension of its drive as a culmination of (perverse) love, at the other pole it represents a loss. Namely, for incest to take place, fantastically there has been (previously or in parallel) the labour of loss of the child (girl) in question. Incest itself can be seen as an act of action that aims to undo the loss of the child (when you recognise as a parent the transformation of the child into a young person/other mature being identical to yourself).
The image of the Gypsy suggests, beyond discrimination, the intuition of this ethnicity. The play of dialogue: “You didn’t choose me well, because I don’t have as much money as you thought I could/I chose very well, I know that!” symbolises the ability of these people to sense/intuit trauma in others. The film is shaped around the dimension of paying whatever price is asked for the child/their existence/their well-being/the undoing of loss. This potential mother perceives the pain given by the loss of her child and manipulates it in her favour. “Watch me” represents the moment of looking back, where if you’ve let the child out of your sight, you’ve lost it forever. The split second that decides birth or death is unique. In après coupe, multiple interpretations can be created about who didn’t have the attention, care, supervision, responsibility and accountability. After its production, a trauma of such dimensions elicits multiple attempts at elaboration and successive reworkings. The maid herself wants to make herself invisible, although in this role she can successively enter into the life stories of others, to give herself a chance to make phantasmal amends.
The children’s stories of loss are simultaneous:
The loss of the writer’s son, in which the father’s lateral love is incriminated, who not only betrays his wife to another woman, but betrays his care for the child, the punishment being his final loss, through death.
The loss of the American citizen’s daughter, who subsequently lives her life forging clothes, also as a symbol of seeing what it would be like to live someone else’s life.
The loss of the Gypsy’s daughter, which seems a metaphorical loss in the transgenerational of this ethnicity, suggesting the loss of virginity, the compulsion to a femininity constructed in a too early, the area of possible prostitution, the loss of the girl’s childhood and of these girls in absolute value, the freezing of age and ages in pre-pubescence spent on a boat, the loss of the mother-daughter bond, for a daughter who refuses to be inscribed in an unhappy genealogy.
The loss of Anna Barr to her father, a symbolic loss in which Daniel must accept that Anna actually and in fact belongs to another man.
The loss of the son by the maid who, just as she didn’t realise the moment of the decision to have a child, seems not to realise and systematically misses the trains of life and is always late in understanding the decisions she seems to make in the unawareness of her own existence.
What is striking is the passing of responsibility between partners, between members of a couple, in terms of guilt. Sometimes the feeling of pain is so acutely intolerable, coupled with the inability to forget/repress the trauma, that it leads the person concerned to acknowledge, verbalise and perhaps even internally accept alternative realities, possible guilts, greater than real, just to cope. Admitting even what you didn’t do, what didn’t happen, a greater guilt (which implicitly demands a greater amount of punishment!) is delusionally sanogenic. The feeling created in the audience about the characters is of not knowing who, where, from where and to what extent they were wrong. In every split second you are watching a reality, that of the moment, where things seem in a certain way. But there’s always the potential flip side, the guilt of the other.
Stories that run parallel involve varying degrees of guilt, and varying possibilities for reparation. The maid’s son suddenly grows up and is the one who takes care to bring his father the soothing glass of milk before bedtime. The Gypsy’s daughter seems like the magically recovered child (the proof being her discreet presence in the car at the end of the film), though the mother’s verbal message is a mixed one: “You were a fool to believe me!”
The characters seem to be beyond trauma, in an out of phase functioning in which (as highlighted in the story between Anna Barr and Michael) feelings of love no longer find moments of simultaneous expression. By turns, the two love and understand each other, but there are rarely moments of happy reunion. It’s as if these characters’ relationship runs on anaerobic metabolism, on memories, with nothing in actual reality not providing good enough nourishment. It is an expression of living from the past, of being unable to exploit the present. Even as far as the American male character is concerned (an ordinary citizen with an undefined, poorly defined image), it seems that the revelations he has and the desires to pay for that little girl are not in the presence but in the absence of the woman.
To love in the third person is both to love the third person and to be able to love in absence, to be able to retain the memory (in sanogenous quantities) of what you have lost – the detachment necessary and sufficient to cope with such trauma. The characters have somehow crossed a boundary into a functioning in which they seem dismayed, detached, frozen, able to take pleasure in perverse, aggressive, non-involving, somehow dry and casual functioning. But at the same time desperate. To feed on a Pulitzer Prize obtained in youth, to idolize and enthral the father-daughter love, which in mature life can no longer suffice. Of the movie’s characters, the one in whom this experience is masterfully projected is the painter’s wife, who participates in all that happens somehow paralyzed by fear, helplessness, and an inability to internally, mentally, structure something hardly structurable. She seems to understand and accept the cruel reality with dread, amazement, a sense of the incredible, of too much, a too much that is hard to tolerate. An attitude that combines total and unconditional acceptance with indifference.
On the other hand, the only way for the writer to be authentic is to talk about himself and his story (even though in the third person). Thus, detachment from trauma is sanogenic, if not total, even if it summons and challenges other defence mechanisms, such as sublimation. The film’s ending is to take back the pain in an elaborate form, synthetically expressed in “Watch me!” in the absence of which the inability to look at your internal disaster (in its soulfully “arranged” form) makes you unable to move on.
The film’s narratives are thrust into blatant expression of ambivalence, significantly greater than the usual amounts in a normal life. Love and hate are simultaneous, and love feeds on rejection, insecurity, pain, grief, the frozenness of time (the waterlogged clock), the attempt to reanimate it, and the importance of its Heraclitean flow.