What stands out the most in the films “The Power of the Dog”, by Jane Campion, and “The Lost Daughter”, by Maggie Gyllenhaal, two films that are in the Oscar race with an emphasis on the performance of their actors, is the way in which the main characters are featured. Especially as their “imperfections” are hidden during their journeys, in which they carry some suffering and disturbances in the soul that the spectator does not recognize.
The films deal with the characters' life stories, with plots based on moral values, and with which the works are judged, leaving out the judgment of the characters' world, these invisible, and that the spectator does not see. The writer and filmmaker (both films are faithfully adapted from literary works) also do not notice these invisible layers of the characters when they create them, but build them using their intuitions as artists, who know how to enter the world of people themselves.
The authors of these films consider this invisible world of the characters as a “backdrop” for their actions. But now, with the arrival of Semiotics of Passions, by A. J. Greimas, which heralds a new world, a new science of knowledge focused on passions, we can understand many works that have not been properly understood over time. This science studies the characters' pathemic states of soul, which form the inner and deep layers where the articulations of passions and the damage that makes them strangers, through an "existential simulacrum", where the characters project their potential.
For millennia, passions have been seen as “something that affects the body and mind” of individuals, and which are linked to the “potency” felt. Passions have strengths and they are what suck or donate potency to the characters. This recognition of passions, which means the same as “suffering”, takes us out of the world of “guessing” about what we do not understand. And it allows us to see the invisible layer of movies and characters like we've never seen them before.
What drives a writer or filmmaker to be truly recognized is his perception of the disease of passions in characters. When they manage to penetrate this mysterious and invisible universe that affects them (morally positive or negative), which is generated by their “passions”, such as anger, hatred, revenge, fear, ambition, guilt or melancholy. What characterizes the “disturbed” actions of the characters Leda (Olivia Colman/Jessie Buckley – who are nominated for an Oscar for their performances) and Nina (Dakota Johnson), in “The Lost Daughter”, is the effect that the passion of “melancholy” provokes in the character, and that was used correctly by its creators.
What fills the invisible layers of the films, which moves and characterizes the characters of “The Power of the Dog” and “The Lost Daughter”, something that we do not see, but we feel what the character feels, is the passion of “melancholy”, the densest, the most tense, and the one that shakes the characters the most. And the main characteristic of this passion is that it is innate and never leaves the character, being able to mix with other passions, such as hatred, fear, the desire for revenge and guilt, which are passions acquired by the characters. A character's journey is motivated by the quest to liquidate the feeling of suffering caused by these passions.
In “Wild Strawberries”, by Ingmar Bergman, there is a male character refusing to be a father, because he does not intend to perpetuate the “gene” of the father and the mother, who suffer like him from “coldness”, one of the terrible effects of melancholy. “Wild Strawberries” has the same aspect as “The Lost Daughter”, in which a man refuses to be a father because he knows that this suffering he carries (of a father who can never touch his son) will never leave him, will never be settled.
What characterizes the “disturbed” actions of the characters Leda and Nina, in “The Lost Daughter”, is the effect that the passion of “melancholy” has on the character.
If we look again at the character Meursault, from “The Foreigner”, by Albert Camus, we will see that he is morally judged for not having “felt his mother’s death”, nor for having bereaved, and this effect will join the passions of “guilt” for not feeling the loss of the mother. This effect used by Camus in his character, which critics call “absurd”, and which he rejects, is also used by other existentialist writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, whose work “Nausea” was originally titled “The Melancholy". Melancholy becomes the structure, body and soul of existentialist literature. Without perceiving its effects, one does not perceive the work in its entirety, nor its density, nor, most importantly, its sensitive structure.
Melancholy is the passion that makes sense throughout the work of Marcel Proust, who makes up the seven books of “In Search of Lost Time”. The first revelation of the truth, in the first novel, "Swan's Way", which forms the first book and is the first chapter, is the discovery of melancholy by the character, when he was a child. We see the “birth of melancholy”. The event occurs when the boy expects with great expectation a meeting alone with his mother, as being an event of great tensivity, in which he would feel very happy, but he does not feel when it happens. He feels cold and sad.
If we look again at the character Meursault, from “The Foreigner”, by Albert Camus, we will see that he is morally judged for not having “felt his mother’s death”, nor for having bereaved, and this effect will join the passions of “guilt” for not feeling the loss of the mother.
In cinema, we can mention at least Frederico Fellini, François Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman as filmmakers, among many, who knew how to correctly use the passion of melancholy in their characters. The sensitive aesthetic of Fellini’s two films, “The Sweet Life” and “Eight and ½”, which form a single film, is anchored in a melancholic and anesthetized character (the same character permeates both films), who seeks death as a ultimate relief.
The profound effects of melancholy
What is the passion of melancholy? Melancholy is an endogenous, hereditary passion, considered a “disease”, whose origin is difficult to classify, but which manifests itself in the affections, in the feelings of individuals. Aristotle called it a "sickness of the soul," a burden that everyone wants to get rid of and can't, but at the same time it was also a sign of exceptional intelligence, like that of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee), in “The Power of the Dog”, a privilege that Greek poets and heroes possessed. And its characteristic melancholy effect could be compared to the alcoholic effect of wine, in which subjects go beyond their measure and show their true character.
In my research, which will be used in the analysis of the two films, I found that we must take into account three of the strongest characteristics of the effects of melancholy, while passion, that act on a character's body and soul. The first is that the melancholic person “does not feel”, his heart is anesthetized, the second is that he has, in most cases, a very latent “death wish”, and the third, that he needs the presence of a “sender-death” or “sender-life” interfering with your destiny.
These three factors greatly determine the huge list that melancholics have as a nomination, because we still consider melancholy to be a “moral disease”. Melancholics are parasites, they feel sad in joy and happiness, they are eternally insensitive, they are never satisfied with themselves, with a profession or a loving partnership. They live in a bubble, disturbed, without contact with the world of objects, the natural world. Perhaps this is the reason for the melancholics' search for a potency sender, whether to live or to die, as he often does not have the strength to potentiate himself alone, to self-destination.
The sensitive aesthetic of Fellini’s two films, “The Sweet Life” and “Eight and ½”, which form a single film, is anchored in a melancholic and anesthetized character.
The feeling that disturbs Leda and Nina, in “The Lost Daughter”, is the same; they don't feel able to take care of their daughters, “they don't feel like mothers”. This type of effect, present in all melancholics, according to Freud, in “Mourning and Melancholia”, is an “anesthesia” for the sensitive world of the subjects. There is a freezing of your feelings. Thus, we can understand that the melancholic does not feel the feelings of others. He is a near-dead being. And that this distresses him, because is eternal, will never be liquidated, until the day of his death.
The theories of sense offered by semiotics allow us to go to the root of these events that generate the nicknames in melancholics. They take into account the intensity and duration of the passion affecting the character, who has such a strong feeling of lack of potency to act and feel that he is often prevented from perceiving the pain and suffering of the other. You can see the effects that the character feels, as if a "drain" sucked all his energy and "potency". And these events are not a case of depression in the character, since Freud has already stressed that all depressives are melancholic, but not all melancholics are depressive, and that melancholy itself is not a neurosis. It is an ancient genetic inheritance, which can be reproduced in children since the beginning of humanity.
Melancholy is an endogenous, hereditary passion, considered a “disease”, whose origin is difficult to classify, but which manifests itself in the affections, in the feelings of individuals. Aristotle called it a "sickness of the soul," a burden that everyone wants to get rid of and can't.
The Norwegian film “The Worst Person in the World”, by Joachim Trier, has two Oscar nominations this year, for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film, precisely because it knew how to correctly explore the effects of melancholy in the character Julie (Renate Reinsve), to build the narrative, the deep layers of the character, which form the sensitive aesthetic of the cinematographic work. The very title of the film, of Julie being the worst person in the world, is already considered one of the negative moral nicknames that the melancholic receives.
The film narrates Julie's journey, reaching the age of 30, but who, due to the effect of melancholy, changes colleges all the time, as well as changing boyfriends, and refuses to be a mother. And she settles for being a saleswoman in a bookstore. But her great discomfort is not feeling the desire to be a mother, not feeling that she would be a good mother, and, therefore, she is under pressure to have children without her wanting to. She has the same passion damage as Leda and Nina.
The film is full of phrases about the character Julie, which reflect this melancholic affection beyond the anesthetized and without potency, such as “always exaggerates”, “never sees anything ahead, goes from one side to the other”, is a person “inconstant ” and does not cling to anything for a long time; even events that would be stressful to most people have no immediate effect on melancholics.
The melancholic person “does not feel”, his heart is anesthetized, the second is that he has, in most cases, a very latent “death wish”.
In “The Lost Daughter”, the phrase with the greatest tensing effect in the film is said, when, at the end of the plot that hides a truth to be revealed, in the impact of discovering the truth, the young mother Nina, with her present suffering, even being on the beach with the family, with a child in her arms, she asks Leda, the old mother, if “this will pass”. This what? What Nina asks Leda does not refer to postpartum depression, a “bad” and temporary effect due to the birth of her daughter. Leda says that “no”, that it doesn't go away, that it's not just any anguish, it's a pain that comes from a much deeper place, and that will always be there. This is the truth that makes the film rich and sensitive for the audience, but which is hidden in the world of its existential simulacrum, where the spectator has no access.
Leda, on the narrative level, is taken by the passion of “guilt”, as a moral judgment, which disturbs her vacation on a beach, in a journey in the film to get rid of a “guilt”, a passion that shakes her peace (but that can be liquidated), for having neglected her daughters when they were small. We have already discussed, in other articles, the effects of other passions, such as “resentment” and “guilt”, a passion that structures characters by Alfonso Cuarón, in “Roma” and “Gravity”, in which mothers feel the loss of their daughters as guilt, as the character Leda feels, when she is older, in “A Filha Perdida”.
Melancholics are parasites, they feel sad in joy and happiness, they are eternally insensitive, they are never satisfied with themselves, with a profession or a loving partnership.
The sensitive structure that transformed the script of Jordan Peele's horror film “Get Out”, voted the best screenplay of the century, is not in the absurdity and terrifying of its story, but in the effects caused by the passion of the “guilt” that the character Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) feels because didn't save his mother from death. Because of this guilt he has become fragile and therefore easier to be manipulated by others because of the effects felt by this passion.
The life-sender or death-sender strategye
In the absence of energy, the melancholic is often intuitively attracted to a “potency sender”, always to get rid of suffering, either by death or by changing destinations that give him potency not to die. In the genesis of narrative semiotics, a character must make his journey (of feeling and acting) to liquidate his suffering. It seeks potentialization when it makes contracts with objects that give it the value or power they need to fulfill their journeys, with the contract between a “subject and an object” or between a “subject and a sender” being the aesthetic game that will form the filmic discourse.
In “Jules and Jim”, by Truffaut, the character Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), under the effect of the death wish generated by melancholy, dies throwing herself in a car into a river, taking with her Jim (Henri Serre), the character who gives her potency to die, while Jules (Oskar Werner), her fun-loving husband, gave her potency to live.
Unlike Catherine, the character Celeste (Nicole Kidman), from “Big Little Lies”, is an example of how an anesthetized character acts with the help of a sender. Celeste “doesn't feel like she's a mother” (like Leda and Nina) of her two young children, and her husband, even violent, has a sender who puts her in a direct line with her children. There are scenes with actions showing this bond. The character Celeste is powerless to react, she practically “does not feel” the pain of the beatings she suffers from her husband, because her pain of anguish is stronger and tense. And being anesthetized weakens her, because she needs to do what the sender wants her to do in exchange for the donated potency. Celeste only changes sender by force of another sender. She refuses to leave her husband, the source of her potency, needing the help of another sender, her analyst, who will need a lot of persuasion to undo this almost transcendent attraction.
The Norwegian film “The Worst Person in the World”, by Joachim Trier, has two Oscar nominations this year, for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film, precisely because it knew how to correctly explore the effects of melancholy in the character Julie.
In the narrative, there is a “contract” in which the melancholic is always trapped in the figure of a sender, preferably a “transcendent sender”, as is a father or a mother, and God for believers. A bond of unbreakable power, which has the characteristic that the sender is “terribly attractive” to the melancholic subject. The object needs to cause an event for the sender to be perceived, because the melancholic has difficulty perceiving events that are not transcendent. And they don't mind being manipulated by them, since manipulation and persuasion are hallmarks of the senders, who are always “pulling” the manipulated subjects to themselves.
This is the case of the character Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), in “The Sweet Life”, by Fellini, who has a hidden death wish in his soul that will only reveal itself when he meets a death-sender, who brings him the truth by killing himself by surprise at the end of the film. Marcello is a trivia reporter who never manages to finish writing his first book, doesn't connect with anyone, until he meets Steiner (Alain Cuny), a sensitive art collector, who kisses his children before bed, but who, unexpectedly , commits suicide.
Of all the characters Marcello encounters during his journey, only Steiner generates an “extraordinary event” in his life. It is through Steiner that Marcello breaks the bubble of his simulacrum, when he discovers “death” also in his feelings, which was hidden in the soul of his melancholic friend. And this same character by Mastroianni, by the name of Guido, is in Fellini's next film, “Eight and a ½”, where he will also commit suicide at the end, as his sender did in the first film.
In “The Power of the Dog”, there is an explosive encounter between two melancholy characters, the demonic and terrifying Phil Burbank and the fragile and pale boy Peter Gordon, because it is still hidden that Phil is bound to do terrible "harm", to his friend and lover Bronco, who has destined him all the potency and still destined even after having died many years ago. The extraordinary event between the two occurs when Peter takes a long walk with his head held high among the pedestrians to observe a birds nest. He is then humiliated by them but remains so "cold" that Phil is immediately taken over by Peter's hidden potency. Phil surprises the viewer and Peter's mother Rose with a radical change in relation to the boy, immediately going from contempt to admiration.
The sensitive structure that transformed the script of Jordan Peele's horror film “Get Out”, voted the best screenplay of the century, is not in the absurdity and terrifying of its story, but in the effects caused by the passion of the “guilt” that the character Chris feels because didn't save his mother from death.
In “The Lost Daughter”, the character Leda, who has a very strong potency of death, calls Nina’s attention on the beach intensely, as if the young mother was facing a discovery about what she feels, but doesn’t know about where these confusing and painful feelings come from. Because she is young, she is still unaware of the repetitive effects of melancholy. At thirty minutes into the film, there is this event, in which Nina observes, enchanted, for a long time, the intensity of the “death potency” in Leda, as Phil saw in Peter, and Marcello, in Steiner. They generate “affective contracts” only attracted by the passion of “admiration” they feel for the tensive force of a sender.
The extraordinary event that changed Phil's feelings from the worst person in the world to the best person in the world was short, and Phil, in a few seconds, becomes, from a hard and cruel being, a gentle being, who conquers Peter without resistance. What causes this change is the way in which Peter “attracted” Phil, not as some resplendent object, with which a subject falls in love, but as a transcendent sender, such as Bronco, his lost source of potency (we classify this type of loss as being a scheme formed by “damage and fractures”).
There are two consequences of this affective relationship between the subject and the sender. The first is of a narrative nature, which will form the meaning at the end of the film. One is the phrase Peter says before the movie starts, that he "needs to protect his mother." The other is that Peter becomes a "death-sender" for Phil, unbeknownst to him, because his new sender had a hidden potency that Phil was unaware of.
In the book that generated the film, whose adaptation is very faithful, although the film does not explain Peter's past, there is a long explanation of the characteristics of his passion, as being a person no less strange and "cold" than Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Peter was always called a sissy at school and he never cared, he only got annoyed when they called his father, a mediocre doctor, a drunk. And he was cold-blooded to take the rope off his father's neck when he committed suicide, just as he is cold-blooded to kill chickens and rabbits with great coolness and calm. This being untouched by the effects of melancholy, as intelligent as Phil, was the brilliance that attracted Phil without his realizing it. The sender needed to have a “death potency” to be able to draw the attention of the melancholic subject.
In the narrative, there is a “contract” in which the melancholic is always trapped in the figure of a sender, preferably a “transcendent sender”, as is a father or a mother, and God for believers.
The relationship that is in the narrative plan, which hides a hidden intention, is that Peter is manipulating Phil to carry out a revenge plan, to rid him and his mother of the “The Power of the Dog” by killing him. Phil, in addition to terrifying them psychologically, was responsible for the death of their father. In the book (not in the movie), there is a great explanation for the suicide of Peter's father, caused by an event caused by Phil, who humiliates him when he finds him drunk in front of his friends, and physically assaults him, making him stop drink for the first time in years. But he goes into great depression after this incident and kills himself, but the text always leaves the doubt whether Peter and his mother knew about these facts.
When Peter coldly kills Phil, as if it were revenge, it is also the result of a game of forces between senders, because Peter has a transcendent-sender "mother", who gives him all the power he needs, and that's why he decides to side with the mother and eliminate the other, less potent sender. The same thing happens to John Snow, the most melancholy of the characters in the series “Game of Thrones”, in the final scenes, in which he finds himself in front of two senders, Daenerys Targaryen, his beloved, and the society that elected him as “social sender” that gives him the value he needs to no longer be a bastard. In choice, he kills his beloved, a lesser-powered sender.
The intensity of the “damage” due to melancholy
The intensity of the “damage” due to melancholy
In "The Power of the Dog", what makes Phil a mysterious, cold, aggressive, unhappy guy, without taking advantage of his wisdom and intelligence, will be revealed in the end as being a serious "damage" in his soul; the loss of Bronco Henry, a friend and lover, the best of knights, who taught Phil to braid rawhide, and who had become his "transcendent sender." This type of sender has a very strong force of attraction over subjects, like father and mother for children, or God for believers. Its loss brings about a loss of potency, potency of existing.
Phil's damage was acquired, the result of a loss, and melancholy has no reference to loss and damage, it is innate, but his brother George's damage is an endogenous, genetic damage, and his silent way, without having “feelings”, without perception of the world like others, is an evident result of a great “attention deficit”, and what science today calls ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), an occurrence in adults only analyzed recently. George's actions, such as asking Rose to marry him secretly, without regard for the consequences, stem from this damage in the body, which "feels no consequences" either from its actions or from others.
The extraordinary event that changed Phil's feelings from the worst person in the world to the best person in the world was short, and Phil, in a few seconds, becomes, from a hard and cruel being, a gentle being, who conquers Peter without resistance.
Phil is unusually intelligent, taught himself to play the banjo and chess, is a first-rate carpenter, and a classical philologist, specializing in Greek and Latin, but he lives in the grip of his suffering. Phil's narrative role is to take care of his brother, who doesn't know how to take care of himself, it's like he's a 10-year-old boy. George's father and mother appear in the film as a source of his damage, they are characters who have the same symptoms as their children, are inattentive, and live without the need for the potency that children destine to parents.
For film and fiction aesthetics, what matters is to endow characters with the effects of their passions and damages. The effect of Phil's damage, the loss of the friend who caused his soul to fracture, is so potent as to keep him stuck in that life of punishment, as if he purposely suffered for having lost Bronco Henry. Phil's damage is shown through a "sanctuary" he made for Bronco and when he masturbates with his dead friend's handkerchief, and that's why he keeps himself stuck in that house and that mountain. The brothers live in an abandoned house, rich but without comforts, trapped in place by a damage to Phil's soul.
In the sense of narrative theory, this damage that has become something sinister in Phil, hard as a rock in his soul, to the point where he remains trapped in that sinister house, will only be liquidated when his admiration for Bronco is dissipated. What happens with the presence of Peter. The writer and filmmaker keep this “secret” of the characters’ lives as a revelation of the hidden truth, which needs to be revealed in the sanction, in the final judgment of the characters, when the revelation of the damage turns out to be the event of the narrative that will most impact the spectator.
This same narrative strategy of damage and melancholy was used by Chloé Zhao, in the film “Nomadland”, which won the Oscar for best film in 2021, in which all the suffering of the character Fern (Frances McDormand), a 60-year woman who wanders aimlessly living in a van, no comfort, no bathroom, is related to damage like Phil's. Only at the end of the film, when Fern returns to the starting point through the countryside of the USA, it is revealed that she was stuck with her husband who has already died, and that they lived practically isolated from the world. Both must have suffered the ill effects of melancholy, and their loss caused a fracture as difficult to resolve as Phil's.
The truth about the character's suffering is revealed through the "ring" that Fern wears as if she were still married, in the same way that Phil makes a memorial in honor of the loss of her lover Bronco Henry, as if their contract never ended. What motivates Fern to wander aimlessly is not the American recession, but the harmful effects of a terrible damage to his soul, which has gained potency due to the anesthetizing effects to feel, arising from melancholy. And what has led many films to win fame and awards around the world comes from the correct use of these passions, as they leave the “imperfect” human being as he is, and that, therefore, we so much deny and run away from them.