If there is anyone to be given credit for completely decimating the idea that mother and child are supposed to be star-crossed lovers blindly enmeshed in a warm glow, it would be psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Author Lionel Shriver is getting contemporary credit for illustrating this in her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, as is Lynne Ramsay who directed the film: and Tilda Swinton who so beautifully performed in it.
When it comes to psychoanalytic film analysis it used to be Freud who led the pack (can you spot the Oedipus complex? Hitchcock can) though nowadays people utilise French theorists like Deleuze and Lacan. The application of Klein to such media isn’t so widespread, but that’s a shame. She has a lot to offer: especially for a film like this which is veritably leaking Klein all over the place. Here are some initial thoughts on a Kleinian analysis of this film.
Klein herself uses cultural artefacts to illustrate her angle on psychoanalytic theory quite a bit, notably her article “Infantile anxiety-situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse” (1929). In this she uses an opera by Ravel, in which a child has a tantrum and rampages a room after which the room phantasmagorically comes to life; teapots stoves, chairs and sofas come alive terrifying the child in retribution. She uses this operatic scene to illustrate the depth and intensity of a child’s sadistic phantasies that emerge from both young children’s wish to destroy and their fears of being destroyed:
“Smashing things, tearing them up, using the tongs as a sword – these represent the other weapons of the child’s primary sadism, which employs his teeth nails, muscles and so on” (437).
What is the child so intent on destroying and why?
For Klein, as it was for Freud, this involves the trauma of the “primal scene”: that moment when the child becomes aware of the sexual union of the parents. This can be experienced as both a great violence between the two of them (as the child doesn’t understand it) and it can promote intense feelings of envy for being left out of the parent’s union. For Freud, this came at about the fourth or fifth year of life, at the culmination of the Oedipus complex, for Klein, it is much earlier. In boys, Klein states:
“. . . the dread of castration by the father is connected with a very special situation, which . . . proves to be the earliest anxiety-situation of all . . . the attack on the mother’s body, which is timed psychologically at the zenith of the sadistic phase, implies also the struggle with the father’s penis in the mother” (438).
Now this might all seem a bit anachronistic and over the top, both the themes of castration and the primal scene – but anyone who has seen We Need to Talk About Kevin will find essences of these very things throughout (there are spoilers to follow, so quit now if you haven’t watched it yet).
Concepts like “castration anxiety” and “primal scene” need to be understood metaphorically. After all, We Need to Talk About Kevin is not really about castration in the classical sense. If anything, Kevin has no castration anxiety and this is indeed what makes him so dangerous: he is very pontent, and nevermore so than in his witnessing of the primal scenes.
Primal scenes and Oedipal themes that are apparent throughout this film. There are in fact two primal scenes, both of which are witnessed by the young Kevin. There is a tricky third where Eva catches Kevin masturbating (a reverse primal scene) and instead of the expected response of his shame, we get a perverse pride mixed with his obvious pleasure in exhibitionism. In all these scenes it is as if we cannot be in Eva’s head without Kevin being there too — with the incestuous undertones.
Throughout the film we are tied tightly to Eva’s internal narrative; we are too tightly embraced by it, it is claustrophobic. The first scene creates a sort of trompe l’oeil where smashed and smashing tomatoes create the red motif that we will come back to again and again. Red suffuses the film (not to dissimilarly from another mother/child thriller, Don’t Look Now) and we come back to it again and again. The film itself rotates around Eva’s never ending challenge of ridding the front of her house of the red paint that introduces us to the narrative.
Because we are in Eva’s head, it is difficult to make any objective judgments about what is going on. Is the connection between Kevin and Eva, when Kevin is ill, a figment of Eva’s imagination, her hope that there was some modicum of love in the relationship, or did it really happen? His behaviour is objectively psychopathic and the accusation throughout the film is that Eva didn’t love him enough. From Eva’s perspective, Kevin could never receive love; perhaps from Kevin, that she could never give it.
Klein’s brilliance lies in the fluid ways in which things are both taken in (introjected) and thrown out (projected) between people. Clearly throughout the film destructive phantasies are shared between the two principle characters. Kevin was produced as a “love child” yet Eva’s resentment of his presence, even as a foetus, is apparent from the start. Were her anxieties projected into him from this very stage? His rageful screaming is obviously projected back when he’s a newborn.
In the most literally Kleinian way Kevin employs his own faeces into his sadism.
In Kleinian terms, “ . . . defaecation may be an initial resource of the ego for generating phantasies of exclusion of hostile internal objects . .. which are then represented mentally as an unconscious phantasy of expelling a bad object” (Hinshelwood 1991, 303). In other words the child symbolically puts all the bad stuff in his shit, which is externalised. In this case, Kevin projects the shit, literally, at his mother, which provokes a violent physical response.
This is an attack which at the same time promotes some sort of détente between them, sort of a clearing of the air (what Kevin will later call Eva’s most “honest” moment), while at the same time making Eva vulnerable to blackmail and manipulation by the precocious boy. She becomes complicit, somehow, which is a major motif within the film.
Throughout Kevin remains sadistic, particularly towards his mother, who ultimately reaps the greatest punishment of all: surviving her son’s actions and thereby becoming a magnet for other people’s projected “shit” throughout the film. She also becomes his only sustaining relationship
Ultimately, Kevin’s Oedipal desires come to fruition. Son gets mum in the end, with everybody else removed from the picture. Eva is left to struggle with her own guilt (washing the red from the front of her home) and her confusion, the underlying “was it me?” question.
The ray of hope in this film is Kevin’s final statement, in which he says that he thought he once knew why he did what he did, but does not anymore. This, for Klein, would be a movement from the “paranoid/schizoid” position, where the world is split into clear ideas of good and bad (and the self can be idealised) to the “depressive position” where things get a bit more confusing (both good and bad are aspects of the same thing). Confusing is a higher developmental position, in fact, than assurity.
However, Klein does not wrap up this film for us, there are many questions to be asked and worked through. We need to talk about Kevin with Melanie Klein to get some answers. And she’d be the one to talk to, as this was the most “Kleinian” movie I have seen in a long time.
Klein, Melanie. (1929) “Infantile anxiety-situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 10: 436-443.
Hinshelwood, R. D. 1991. A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought. London: Free Association Books.