I know at the end of my Teeth review I promised to review something normal this week. And although (compared to Teeth) David Cronenberg's Spider (2002) is a relatively normal psychological thriller, I also know I'm going to talk about it in an openly Freudian way. So to those hoping for something like my Italian Job review, where I just talk about movies being movies and stuff, I am sorry. Spider is worth it though. Expect spoilers throughout.
So what is Spider? Spider is the nickname of our protagonist Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) who, after being released from a mental hospital, tries to piece together a repressed childhood trauma. So right off the bat it should be obvious that one of the reasons I love this movie is that it exposes Cronenberg as the Freudian he is (despite this infuriating title screen at the end of A Dangerous Method).
But before we get too far into that rabbit hole, there are a couple more obvious reasons to love this movie. First of all, the acting is absolutely phenomenal. Ralph Fiennes has incredibly few lines (instead he spends most of the movie mumbling inaudibly) but nonetheless manages to convey incredible emotional complexity. Miranda Richardson plays both Spider's affectionate, maternal mother Mrs. Cleg and Mr. Cleg's lascivious mistress Yvonne, and if you didn't sneak a peek at the credits you'd never know it's the same person (honestly, even after looking at the credits I still didn't believe it). Gabriel Byrne is forced into a similar dual role, being required to play a dedicated husband and a promiscuous lover (we'll find out why later).
Second, (and this is the last thing before I get into plot analysis) the shot composition in Spider looks beautiful while setting the atmosphere for the movie and at the same time foreshadowing the film's ending. My absolute favorite moment of this I didn't even notice until my second time viewing the movie. Around the end of the first act, Mr. Cleg is burying Mrs. Cleg. We get a wide shot of Adult Spider looking towards the camera, and then Mr. Cleg, having finished the makeshift grave, violently enters the frame from the bottom upward. Toward the end of the final act we get this shot repeated except with Child Spider entering the frame.
Now that I'm coming dangerously close to encroaching on my plot analysis I'm going to explain precisely what the movie shows us and then attempt to break down why these things happen the way they do. So here are the bare bone basics of the plot.
Ralph Fiennes moves to a halfway house where he keeps a journal in which he relives moments from his childhood which lead up to a traumatic repressed memory (it doesn't seem at all deliberate; instead it feels more like Spider is enslaved by his memories). In these memories he witnesses his father cheat on his mother and eventually murder her to be with his mistress. When the mistress attempts to replace his mother in the house Child Spider plots to murder her to get revenge. Back in the halfway house, Adult Spider attempts to murder his landlady, but right before he can go through with it the movie cuts back to Spider's childhood. As a child, he succeeds in killing his father's mistress only to realize that it was his mother. Again returning to the halfway house, the landlady wakes up and Adult Spider is sent back to the mental hospital.
Wait what? Before you jump to the conclusion that this is another one of those silly "she's been dead for ten years" movies, there is a method to this (literal) madness. Apparently the popular reading of this movie is that Spider is a schizophrenic, but there are some serious problems with this reading. As Patricia MacCormack explains in her wonderful analysis of the movie (seriously, it's not a perfect article but it's a much more theoretically rigorous reading of the film),
Schizophrenia describes the internal shattering of a single subject. Spider’s memory is indeed fragmented, however announcing him schizophrenic depends entirely on how we position memory in relation to subjectivity. As a child Spider hallucinates that his mother is a completely different woman – thus it is the other who is shattered not Spider himself.
Because it is the (m)other and not the subject (Spider) who is "shattered", Spider would much more accurately be described as a psychotic* than a schizophrenic. While it may seem that Spider is split into his adult self and his child self, this is not so much a split as a way to show that Adult Spider is still very much a child. This can be be seen in part in the way that Adult Spider repeats what Child Spider says in the flashback sequences (some of the very few lines Adult Spider has). But the true measure of analysis is what it reveals about its subject, so let's see how a Freudian reading might help understand this movie.
I'm going to talk about the Oedipus complex now, something I don't believe I've done before on this blog (explicitly at least), so before we move forward I'd like to make a few things clear for all you non-Freudians. The Oedipus complex is not about kids wanting to literally have sex with their parents. Childhood desire for (the attentions of) the mother arise from the fact that, as the embodiment of the big Other**, she is the only thing holding the child's (Symbolic) world together. The reason Freud named the complex after Oedipus is because the Oedipus Rex story arose out of these tensions, not because little boys occupy Oedipus's position. This is why girls can have an Oedipus complex as well as boys: they're not little lesbians, they're just trying to hold onto the only thing they see as a stable grounding for reality.
With that out of the way, there's a moment of dialogue in the film that perfectly embodies the framework for my analysis:
Mrs. Cleg: If you knew where to look, you could find the spider's egg bags. Perfect little things they were. Tiny little silk pockets she made to put her eggs in.
Child Spider: What happened to her after she laid her eggs?
Mrs. Cleg: You like this bit don't you? She just crawled away without looking back once—
Child Spider: [interrupting] And then she died?
The point, of course, is not that Spider wants his mother to die. The point of the Spider story is that there should be nothing else in life more important than your children. In Spider's worldview the only thing his mother should care about is him. This is the elaboration of Spider's Oedipus complex at its most fundamental.
There's one more important detail before we can go back to the plot and start making sense of things. Some of the flashback scenes have Child Spider in them and some of them do not. Maybe this is obvious, but it's crucial to understanding what actually happens in the movie: the scenes with Child Spider are Adult Spider's memories, whereas the ones without him are pure fantasy. So, yeah. Here we go.
The precise point at which things start going topsy-turvy is when Child Spider witnesses his mother and father groping each other outside the house, and then finally after he sees his mother in a slinky negligee she says she bought for his father. It is at this point that Spider realizes that there's more in his mother's life than his own well being, and because of this the (m)other becomes "shattered" into the affectionate mother and the bawdy mistress. He becomes jealous that his mother has desires that don't involve him, blames this on his father's desire, and fantasizes that his father kills the mother to be with the mistress (only Adult Spider is present for the murder). Because Spider literally can't recognize this lecherous woman (who would allow herself to be groped) as his mother he begins to lapse into psychosis, and this is why he hallucinates his mother as the mistress.
Meanwhile, as Adult Spider relives increasingly psychotic moments of his childhood he begins to hallucinate that his landlady is also his father's mistress and plots to kill her. Just before going through with it, however, he realizes what did as a child (kill his mother) and what he's about to do. He can't go through with it after realizing the truth of the situation, and both Adult and Child Spider are sent to the mental hospital.
(Four beers because the movie is slow to start but well worth the wait; five Zizeks for the accurate & insightful exploration of the Oedipus complex and its relation to psychosis)
*For more on psychosis, check out my readings of Cabin in the Woods (here) and/or Holy Motors (here).
**For more on the big Other, check out my readings of Cabin in the Woods (here), Le Samourai (here), and/or The Conversation (here).