The Surrogate Shrink
Released 30 years ago, Gere, Basinger and Thurman could've made the perfect casting couch, but we were not ready for that conversation
Freud as a gimmick. That's my catchy Final Analysis (1992) tag line. I gotta admit that, "hot-blooded passion, cold-blooded murder", the official one, does hit the right mark. Leaving aside its schizophrenic first hour, I found the movie a competent thriller. Think of it as the male version of "I can fix him", except that you don't fix shit, you get a sour outcome, and leave the door open for a sequel. A sequel that never was. Nevertheless, something captured my attention. For all its flaws, the movie is a good example of how filmmakers use film form to contrast different elements in the film. In its broadest sense, form refers to the "overall set of relationships among a film's parts".1 This is how Final Analysis presents some of these relationships. Spoilers ahead.
The key location in the movie is a (fictitious) lighthouse under the Golden Gate bridge. The first time we encounter it is when Isaac Barr (Richard Gere) takes Heather Evans (Kim Basinger) to a date. These are idyllic times. Love birds getting to know each other. The male wanting to "impress" the female.
The time of the day and the weather are metaphors for the relationship between the characters. When they are friends, it's daytime and the sun shines (1.1). When they become enemies, it's nighttime and the rain pours (1.2). Notice that in these establishing shots, there's no visual match, only a metaphorical one. The lighthouse is established closer to the camera during the day (when the characters are emotionally close), and further away during the night (when the characters are emotionally distant).
Before they arrive to the lighthouse, we first see Isaac approaching on his car. He runs into a small ditch on the ground that slightly bumps the car. At this time, we don't make much about it, but by noticing the low-angle and composition of the frame (consider how the drain pipe occupies all the length of the left-side of the screen, and the puddle all its width), we can begin to suspect its presence requires our attention (1.3). This shot is complemented by another low-angle close-up, which shows us that the puddle has some significant depth, causing the car to bump (1.4). If approached at a different speed or circumstances, it could turn fatal. Just by bringing our attention to a detail like this, a film-maker could turn our alertness and prepare us for things to come.
During the climax, we'll encounter our familiar puddle, but this time there's a cascade flow of water due to heavy rain (1.5). The low-angle is not as extreme or as close to the focus point as it was earlier (1.3), but it does one thing to perfection: It allows us to anticipate the action. A car approaches in the distance, but Isaac is no longer driving. In fact, he's being held at gunpoint by his former lover Heather, and neither her nor the driver (a police detective) remember or know about the ditch. If Isaac remembers it, it's in his best interest not to reveal it, making us (the audience) his indirect accomplices. Heather and the detective (or perhaps all of them) are in for a surprise. In other words, we know more than they know.
There are other examples of this day and night contrast, but closer to being matching shots (this is film style at play). For instance, the following shots (1.6, 1.7) have almost identical framing and angle. Notice that in 1.7, Heather is no longer friendly and is pointing a gun at Isaac (middle-right).
The same is true with the next shots (1.8, 1.9), although they're less similar than the previous ones. However, they follow the same thematic contrast. Friends at the beginning, foes at the end (in 1.9, Isaac is hanging off the platform).
The relationships presented so far, although charged with what I consider a reasonable interpretation, have been highly visual (paying close attention to the frame composition). But there is also the characters function. The detective (Keith David), while trying to seek vengeance from Isaac at the beginning, ends up helping him at the end. Uma Thurman's Diana (Heather's sister) plays a key role at the opening and ending scenes. But these characters come and go, and they're multifunctional. Let's look instead at Pepe Carrillo (Agustín Rodríguez).
Pepe, unlike the detective and Diana, has a unique function: To help Isaac. In the opening scenes (1.10), we see Pepe avoid prison time due to a key testimony from Isaac, who gives a psychiatric evaluation favourable to the defense. Grateful for the outcome, Pepe commits to return the favour ("I owe you one"). When the time comes, Isaac delivers. He stays off-camera most of the movie (you might even forget about him!), but when he returns (1.11), I never doubted his motivation. Perhaps it's the form's signature moment, if only because the resolution of the conflict is underway and the liabilities are high.
Objects can also contribute to the overall form. During the opening credits, for example, we see a brief shot of Volume 4 of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1.12). You blink and you miss it. But at that point, it's impossible to know its full meaning since there's no diegetic context.2 As such, it's just one of the elements of a foreshadowing credit sequence, which will only make sense halfway through the film (1.13), when Isaac realises that Diana has been sending him codified messages wrapped in Freud's jargon all along.
For an individual who should be well-versed in psychoanalysis, Isaac is a shining example of a negligent "couch doctor". At least Final Analysis is worth the price of one session, and I'm already feeling better about it.
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Bordwell, David; Smith, Jeff and Thompson, Kristin, Film Art: An Introduction, 12th Edition (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2020), p. 52.
In simple terms, diegetic content means all the elements that originate from the film's world. If a character turns on the radio, the music we hear is diegetic.