The Metaphor of the Beautiful Automaton Reanimated: Artifice, Illusion, and Late Style in Vertigo

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Thursday, April 08, 2021 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm
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Laura Mulvey


This paper had its origins in 2015, the fortieth anniversary of the publication of ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Vertigo’s particular significance for the essay’s ideas had always been clear to me. In retrospect, however, the film seemed to be more complex and self-aware than I had realised in the early 1970s. Rather than simply reproducing the female star’s image as signifier of sexuality and object of the voyeuristic gaze, Vertigo reflects on her fabrication, on the fusion between femininity and cinematic spectacle and on male spectatorship to the point of self-reflexivity. In this paper, I consider the way that Hitchcock uses Scottie’s erotic obsession with Madeleine to create a symmetry between two structures of illusion and artifice, that is: between a masculine fantasy of a fetishized female body and a spectator’s fascination with the phantasmagorias conjured up by cinema. Both revolve around the animation of the inanimate which, in Vertigo, is cemented by the fascinating uncertainty of, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, ‘the sex appeal of the inorganic’.

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