Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 12 
24 June

this issue 
about us 
contact us 

more info 

english title 
original title 
article list 
journal list 
add a link 




    Printer-friendly version of this article

Dario Argento's Tenebrae (Unsane, 1982) HORROR
Transgressive drives and traumatic flashbacks
Dario Argento's Tenebrae
(Unsane, 1982)

Creatively and convincingly blending together a variety of psychoanalytic approaches and theoretical insights, Xavier Mendik here reveals the extent to which Argento's gialliTenebrae in particular—are marked by the detective's inability to contain his or her own transgressive drives.[*]
"The detective's role resymbolise the traumatic shock, to integrate it into symbolic reality. The very presence of the detective guarantees in advance the transformation of the lawless sequence; in other words, the reestablishment of 'normality'."
—Slavoj Žižek[1]
Sherlock Freud

Commenting on Freud's account of the "Wolf Man,"[2] Slavoj Žižek has noted analysts' fondness for detective fiction. In particular, the classical "English" methods of investigation practised by Arthur Conan Doyle's creation Sherlock Holmes were said to have informed many of the games and mechanisms that Freud used to uncover the roots of the patient's psychosis. As Žižek argues, the analyst's adoption of the role of detective, scrutinising the clues that will reconstitute totality and meaning to a scene, is pertinent. Both the detective and analyst are forced to piece together the truth from a series of fragments or clues which predate the investigation.

Following Lacan's celebrated reading of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter,"[3] the narratives of detective and analyst confirm these clues as pointing to the revisions or repetitions of real or imagined primal trauma. As Freud's case study of the Wolf Man indicates, these primal traumas centre on the infant's discovery of its own origins and the logic of sexual difference through a witnessed scene of parental coitus. This "primal scene" scenario proves so traumatic that the infant often recasts it as a scene of sexual violence, which constantly reemerges to impede future psychic and sexual development.[4]

In this sense, both the psychotic narrative (with its emphasis on displacement, disguise and loss of personality) as well as detective fiction (which works to conceal the identity of the killer) foreground "the impossibility of telling a story in a linear consistent way."[5] Both deal with past traumas around images of sexual violence and the accompanying loss or concealment of self. Both also centre on a traumatic principle of repetition: compulsive behaviour in the case of the psychotic and narrative repetition based around the crime and activities of a criminal in detective fiction. Both (ultimately) require an agent (analyst or detective) to investigate these enigmas and thus reconstitute those missing elements of identity.

While Lacan (and more recently Žižek) indicate a crisis of subjectivity in both psychosis and literary detection, I wish to apply these notions to modes of investigation in the films of Dario Argento, in particular Tenebrae (Unsane, 1982). Since 1970, Argento has directed over a dozen films featuring investigative drives derived from the Italian crime genre of the giallo. These films openly acknowledge both the director's and the genre's debt to the ratiocinative skills of classical English detectives such as Sherlock Holmes. Importantly, they also construct a primal scene structure as a basis for investigation.

Illogical detection

The subversion of generic and gender norms initiated in Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970) are further reproduced in the self-reflexive Tenebrae. Here, giallo author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), finds his latest novel—also entitled Tenebrae—used to influence a murderer bent on eliminating "human perversion." Neal attempts to solve the case by casting allusions to the logical methods of deduction plotted by writers such as Conan Doyle. The boundaries of murder investigation and fictional detection are further eroded when Captain Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) of the Rome homicide squad abandons normal criminal proceedure in order to plot a solution using Neal's fictional methods.

Much to the dismay of critics, Tenebrae's constant references to writers such as Conan Doyle and Poe failed to give the film the tightly plotted mode of detection that such references imply.[6] Specifically, Tenebrae was marked by a paranoid inability to limit or define culpability to any one individual in the text. Although Peter Neal is guilty of writing the book that sparks the killings, he is also postitioned as a potential victim for the maniac.

Yet, it is his very knowledge of detective fiction that allows him to identify the killer as Christiano Berti (John Steiner), a conservative television critic. Paradoxically, Neal's motives have little connection with the reintegration of law and logic. His proximity to the murders have awakened a dormant psychosis, and after killing Berti, he assumes his identity and continues his murderous quest.

When words fail...

In its complex shifting of Neal between the various positions of suspect, victim and murderer, Tenebrae offers an example of what Franco Moretti has defined as "the nightmare of detective fiction," namely: "...the featureless de-individualized crime that anyone could have done because at this point everyone is the same."[7] Although the film reveals Neal's psychotic status, it fails to isolate him as the only remaining killer at large. In raising this inability to resolve the central hermenuetic of the killer's identity, the text displaces the role of the agent traditionally responsible for bringing order to such narratives. If not fully repressed, Slavoj Žižek argues that the revised scenes of sexuality and violence underpinning both psychosis and detective fiction continue to disturb the subject's identity and sexuality.

This represents a "foreclosure" or negation of subjectivity as it relates to the symbolic and ideological structures that Lacan argued define and limit our gender identity. Its effect was seen in the Wolf Man's traumatic compulsion to repeat the fantasised and revised scenes of parental sexuality he had witnessed. In Freud's case study, these revisions conflated sexuality with violence seen in nightmares where the patient was threatened by savage wolves and had his body violently altered in acts of self-mutilation. Implicit in all the Wolf Man's fantasies are what can be termed a dual loss of discourse and established body image, two features that are central to psychosis.[8]

The "unspeakable terror"[9] which the patient explained as disrupting his established modes of speech during the hallucinations are themselves reproduced in several of Argento's works. The gallery sequence of L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo provides a space which positions Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) as viewer while cutting him off from the processes of speech. This is indicated in his inability to fully communicate with either the injured Monica (Eva Renzi) or the passerby who cannot hear his pleas from the street outside. In its visualising of Monica's penetrated body, the scene also demonstrates the "episodes of depersonalisation, bizarre body states and fear of bodily disintergration" indentified by Joyce McDougall's work on "Primal Scene and Sexual Perversion."[10]

In its dislocation of the speech act, Tenebrae also renders the tools of language and communication ambiguous. The opening sequence of the film depicts the killer hurling a copy of Neal's book into an open fire, then choking a shoplifter with pages from Tenebrae. Both instances indicate that this is a film in which words, sentences, grammar, syntax and logic are cut up, burned, destroyed. Alongside this systematic erosion of discourse, Tenebrae replicates other key features of the primal scene in its privileging of a flashback that is repeated before each murder in the film.

The flashback scenario once again recalls Freud's account, by conflating images of eroticism and sexual violence, as a woman strips to seduce a group of young men before being beaten by an on-looker. This potential assailant is then chased by the assembled crowd and sexually humiliated by having the heel of woman's shoe forced into his mouth while being pinned down by her lovers.

Gender trouble

If this sequence can be defined as the primal scene of Tenebrae, then it functions to disrupt not only the speech act (by reducing the soundtrack to musical score) but also established codes of gender identity. This appeal to sexual ambivalence is indicated through the casting of transsexual actor Roberto Coatti (aka Eva Robbins) as the seductive "girl" who dominates in the scene. Coatti appeared in a number of European exploitation productions which dwelt on his ambivalent gender. For instance, Antonio D'Agostino paired him with fellow transsexual Ajita Wilson for the Italian/Spanish sex film Evaman, la máquina del amor (Ambi-Sex, 1980).

The recurrence of androgynous representations in Argento's cinema indicates the filmmaker's interest in that which places existing and totalising gender categories under stress. It also confirms sexual ambivalence as central to the transgressions haunting both the primal scene and the giallo.

In L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, not only did Argento initiate a pattern of the mutilated female killer whose past genital violation defies the logic of sexual difference (a feature repeated in several of his works), but he also depicted the gallery as a site populated with figures marked by gender ambivalence. Prominent iconography in this space include a statuette whose features include breasts and a phallic-shaped beak for a head, a literal fusion of the features of both male and female anatomy. This confirms the gallery as a site where "the symbolic and imaginary meet and resistance occurs."[11] A fuller discussion of the representation of the androgenous figure and its links to primal sexuality is given in Francette Pacteau's 1986 article, "The Impossible Referent: Representations of the Androgyne."[12]

Flashing back to the primal scene

Importantly, the traumatic flashbacks from both films functions to fragment the flow of the narrative. In Tenebrae, the scene is both repeated and elaborated throughout the film, producing a series of disruptions which impede narrative progression. These inserts indicate the subject's attempts to repeat, work through and thus master past primal trauma. In the case of the Wolf Man, the traumatic "recollection" of parental coitus was accompanied by the infant's feeling of passivity (both in his sexual behaviour and his ability to affect the outcome of a scenario).

This lack of mastery became re-coded in phantasies and scenarios which saw the infant as the active and aggressive protagonist. An example of this is indicated in the Wolf Man's recollection of an aggressive disposition that he had undertaken towards his sister during his childhood. This "memory" was linked to the libidinal through his attempts to sexually assault his sister during a bath-time activity. According to Freud, this memory was actually the recodification of an experience that was "offensive to the patient's masculine self-esteem,"[13] namely that he was being sexually assaulted by his sister.

The recodification of these feelings of passivity and humiliation evidenced by the primal scene is also discussed by Joyce McDougall. She identifies the scanario of the "anonymous spectator" as present in perversion and psychosis. Here, the sufferer attempts to efface former feelings of passivity by re-running primal scene structures which maintain physical and visual domination over a partner.[14]

These structures are reproduced in Tenebrae's reorganisation of the flashback as a site of Neal's mastery and aggression. The initial scene of humiliation is replaced later in the film by one depicting Coatti being murdered by her former victim in a suburban location. Here, Neal's presence is defined by aggression (in his brutal slaying of Coatti) as well as visual mastery (by remaining concealed until the point of attack). This second "scene" not only attempts to efface the original site of his humiliation, but becomes a model of "mastery" upon which later revisions of the flashback are based. When the film returns to this past "scene" for a third revision, the point of focus becomes Coatti's death and the extent of mutilation afforded to this "female" body.

Trapped in/by the past

However, rather than indicate an ability to surmount past traumas, it is the purpose of Tenebrae to position both Neal and the spectator at the site of the writer's original humiliation. This is an encounter with "the pleasurable counterpart of death"[15] that Freud identified as an integral feature of the death drive and compulsions that are left unchecked. It is made evident in the reciprocity existing between Neal and Coatti which provokes the writer's hysterical attack. This feature equates passivity with penetration, and is initiated when Coatti forces the heel of a shoe into Neal's mouth. Although this humiliation is reciprocated with the later wounding of Coatti with a knife, this action merely mirrors Neal's own fatal penetratation with a steel monument in the film's closing scene.

This troubling preoccupation with the death drive is itself a feature initiated by Sam Dalmas' return to the gallery in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo. Here, the original primal scene encounter is revised with Dalmas in the role of a passive victim. Whereas the original scene was dominated by Monica's bleeding body, the end sequence of the film eschews Dalmas' notions of mastery as he awaits death trapped beneath a razor-edged piece of art.

Further evidence of the primal scene's reconstruction of subjectivity in Argento is La sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996). Here, Detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) finds herself the potential victim of a serial killer, Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). She experiences fantasies wherein she imagines being forced to watch passively as the killer sexually assaults and mutilates other women. During these "fantasy" assaults, the film plays openly with notions of primal trauma, even to the extent of parodying Freud's case study. One sequence, for example, features Anna imagining that the painting of a large wolf is about to attack her with an oversized phallus.

The source of Anna's traumatic encounters undergo revision during the course of the film. The climax reveals that Manni's experiences have resulted in her adopting Grossi's murderous quest. In her psychotic shift from victim to aggressor, Manni also exhibits the dislocation of speech and sexual identity that evidence the inability to contain these drives. She experiences "auditory hallucinations" or persecution from the disembodied voices which drive her. Anna's inability to control the modes of discourse which have hitherto kept her subjectivity in check confirm Benvinuto and Kennedy's conclusions that in psychosis, "the symbolic moorings of speech are used in a 'roundabout, fragmented or confused way."[16] This is indicated in Manni's adoption of Alfredo Grossi's voice in a series of misleading telephone calls to police investigators.

Accompanying this process of vocal remodification are the changes Anna makes to her sexual identity: cutting off her hair and practising body-building in order to achieve a more masculine appearance. This physiological remodification also affects Anna's sexual habits. She confesses a hatred of being penetrated during intercourse, even gesturing towards the anal rape of her boyfriend during a love-making scene.


If detective fiction works through the unresolved trauma underpinning subjectivity then Argento's gialli are marked by the inability to contain these drives. Whereas classical detectives such as Holmes can resolve quests of identity, the Argento detective is prevented from ever defining the self with any real conviction. These tensions are present in the final scenes of Tenebrae. Here, Peter Neal is found wallowing in a bloody collection of body "bits," while the investigating officer Captain Giermani verbalises the rationale for his crimes.

Linking this to the death of a "girl" in Rhode island during Neal's youth, Giermani appears to resolve the text's central problematic of crime and identity. However, after confirming the status of murderer on Neal, Giermani qualifies his statement by conceding that his interpretation is only valid if Neal is indeed guilty. The uncertainty of the detective's closing statement indicates that the repeated flashback remains the "embodiment of Tenebrae's driving imagination,"[17] and one which ultimately prevents the final definition of the killer's identity (and sexuality) through speech.

The film subverts the symbolic power of the detective to deliver an analysis which clarifies the source of transgression beyond any reasonable doubt. In so doing, Tenebrae and Argento's other films confirm Žižek's conclusions that detective fiction represents event that cannot be integrated into symbolic reality because it appears to interrupt the "normal" causal chain... This radical opening... bears witness to an encounter with the "impossible" real, resisting symbolization.[18]

Xavier Mendik

    Printer-friendly version of this article

Also of interest
About the author

Xavier Mendik is Director of the Cult Film Archive at University College Northampton as well as the General Editor of the Wallflower Press Alter Image series. His publications on the themes of psychoanalysis and its application to cult and horror cinema include Dario Argento's Tenebrae (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000) and Fear at Four Hundred Degrees: Structure and Sexuality in the Film of Dario Argento (Flicks Books, forthcoming). Details of interviews he has conducted and accounts of sitting on film festival juries can be found on the website, where he runs the monthly film column "Scream Theory."

return to the Kinoeye home page
return to the main page for this issue


* This article consists of excerpted sections from the author's longer essay, "A (Repeated) Time to Die: The Investigation of Primal Trauma in the Films of Dario Argento," which first appeared in Crime Scenes: Detective Narratives in European Culture since 1945, ed Anne Mullen and Emer O'Beirne (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000). Reprinted with kind permission of the author, editors and publisher.return to text

1. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 58.return to text

2. Contained in the study "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis," in Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (London: Penguin, 1991), 227-345.return to text

3. See Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1995), 132-48. See also Jacques Lacan's analysis, "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'," in The Purloined Poe, ed John P Muller and William J Richardson (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 28-54.return to text

4. This was indicative of the Wolf Man's recasting of the scene he had witnessed from mutual sexual pleasure to violent anal intercourse initiated against the mother's will.return to text

5. Žižek, 49.return to text

6. See "Tenebrae," Sight and Sound 52 (Summer 1993): 220. This argued that the film was "frenetic," with little style being paid to methods of detection. Other reviews include Philip Strick "Tenebrae," The Monthly Film Bulletin 50 (May 1993): 20. Here, Strick commented that the film was "marked by an inability to match visual flair with anything worth watching." Such criticisms added to earlier claims by Vincent Canby that Argento was "simply a director of incomparable incompetence" in his knowledge of the rules of detective fiction. Canby "Deep Red is a Bucket of Ax-Murder Cliches," The New York Times, June 10th (1976): 219.return to text

7. Franco Moretti, "Clues," in Popular Fiction: Technology, Ideology, Production, Reading, ed Tony Bennett (London: Routledge, 1990), 238-52 (p 53).return to text

8. See Bice Benvinuto and Roger Kennedy, The Works of Jacques Lacan (London: Free Association Books, 1986), 142-65. This contains a more detailed exploration of the Wolf Man's fantasies through Lacan's constructions of psychosis and the Real.return to text

9. Ibid, 153.return to text

10. Joyce McDougall, "Primal Scene and Sexual Perversion," International Journal of Psychology 53 (1972): 371-84 (p 372).return to text

11. Francette Pacteau "The Impossible Referent: Representations of the Androgyne," in Formations of Fantasy, ed Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (London: Routledge, 1986), 62-85 (p 63). Pacteau's account traces artistic representations of sexual ambivalence to the problems of gender identity that the primal scene produces. As a result, the androgyne, a frequent figure in fantasies about the primal scene, comes to embody its threat to symbolic structures and its emphasis on sexual differentiation.return to text

12. See above citation. As with the Wolf Man's construction of its mother as a "wounded" animal, the hermaphrodite carries with it both the signs of castration and violence that accompany the revision of the primal scene. It also indicates a desire to transcend the gender distinctions that the symbolic uphold. It is the essential oscillation between differing readings of the body that marks Dalmas' relation to the ambivalent figures in the gallery space of L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo. The fact that these displays constantly alter whenever he returns to the locale indicate it as a site which denies a stability of sexual identity to the subect.return to text

13. Freud, Case Histories II, 248. The patient's later choice of adult love object's confirmed a pattern of social domination, with suitor's being drawn from the servant classes.return to text

14. This concept is extended by McDougall in her book A Plea for a Measure of Abnormality (London: Free Association Books, 1990), 21-55. Here, she discusses the case study of "Professor K," whose adult life was traumatised by a fear of a past "crime" being discovered. This transgression was revealed as infantile access to a primal scene encounter which conflated erotic excitement with the fear of parental discovery. The trauma that this experience induced was reproduced in K's adult sexual experiences, as evidenced by his ritualistic beating of a female partner's buttocks as a precursor to his orgasm. Rather than merely indicating K's mastery over this event through the punishment of another, McDougall notes the patient expressed fear that the "anonymous spectator" was present and would turn the object on his own body.return to text

15. Sigmund Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," in On Metapsychology (London: Penguin, 1991), 269-338 (p 285). Along with his analysis of the Wolf Man, this account identifies a pattern of traumatic repetition present in both the "fort/da" scenario of infantile play as well as the obsessive recounting of images of destruction in traumatised soldiers.return to text

16. Benvunito and Kennedy, 146.return to text

17. Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (London: Sun Tavern Fields, 1991), 184.return to text

18. Žižek, 58.return to text

  Copyright © Kinoeye 2001-2017