Freddie Highmore : a golden stone has been carried to the History of Madness in cinema

We all know a couple of actors who brilliantly embodied the craziness of being : Klaus Kinski, Mia Farrow, Faye Dunnaway, Anthony Hopkins and, of course, leading to our point : Anthony Perkins. In modern movies, Brad Pitt has also offered a pretty convenient interpretation of what is supposed to be for us, people of the 20th and 21st centuries, schizophrenia, paranoia, or, in light of a more contemporary psychological reading : PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) which, notably, implies a cause to the actual disorderedness. But, whatever you call it, it’s always all about the artefacts through which we picture to ourselves how it’s like to be crazy, and not the craziness itself.

The most spectacular approach of it, as depicted by the entire history of cinema from its origins, if you think of the German expressionism period and of Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s M, stages madness as a split personality. It is properly what Dylan, Norman Bates brother, is embarrassed to define in the finale season 8th episode of the A&ETV show, Bates motel, presented as a Psycho prequel, to a cop : « I don’t know what you’re calling it, multi-personalities or something, but he changes », and that’s all of it : « he changes ».

We are scared by people, included us, who « change » : we can accept anything from our siblings or close friends, furthermore from accountants, but not that they  are not the same person we remember they were the last time we met them. Dylan seems to be finally pretty okay with Norman’s hypothetical murders as far as it runs with him being an acceptable brother : as long as they stand matching with the behavior we expect them to have, we can deal with their dark side as an hypothetical false lead. But we can’t understand, and, so on, accept that they « change », at the right moment it’s obvious they have. Continuity is the tribute we demand to people, the proof we expect them to provide as a condition to accept them as normal. And we manage life based on such a thin evidence. That’s why the point of most movies related to this « schizophrenia » topic, since the word is improperly taken as a resume of what’s weird about those people, sums it up by presenting split characters, in a convenient way regarding our abilities to understand it, which is, more or less, what our imagination is capable of and, worst, nothing but the way it uncovers itself to our consciousness. We suffer a lot of not being anybody, and we argue a lot with ourselves about the necessity to be someone or to be anyone, including the worst « part » of our « character »  : why wouldn’t we be in « love » with those characters who deal « in the light » with what we are afraid to be « in the depth » ?…

Still, it means one only thing about us and our exceptions regarding the books, movies or even paintings (The Scream , Edward Munch) we’re digging in to hopefully yield an answer to our own scariness of being (someone or anyone) : we understand this kind of craziness (is there any other else remaining ?) as a doubling of what we think, say and act. The most fascinating disturbance of our self confidence in everyday life and, even, in our prospective reflexion to carry black stones from our deep, inside and secret, assuming worst, part of ourselves receives only one expression : we have no other solution (if no time to devote to an extinguished reading of Lacan) but to figure ourselves as being two people. If not several, in the worst case scenario : being two is something, but if you think about it, it’s pretty common and, even more, it’s the way we deal with ourselves as soon as we wake up…

Several is another game level : a game Norman Bates, embodied by Freddie Highmore, is trapped into when he has to argue, for instance, with both his not-that-much-imaginary mother and this crazy guy, in a non-institutional care demanding acception, Chick, half-poet, half criminal, if they have to call the police or not, after Norma’s rapist/lover brother (the uncle neither Norma nor Norman would ever accept as one) has been crashed by Chick’s truck. That means, in such a scene, Norman is dealing at least with five people : his imaginary mother, who is two persons : the one he reminds of and rebuilds from memories and experiences, and the one that remains as a resistant golem to Norman’s perspectives, a sort of « ghost » that refers to the audience’s acknowledgement ; Chick, who is at least two persons also, because he seems like he doesn’t even know what he is really doing (covering the Bates « familial drama » in a « true crime » novel, like he says to Sheriff Romero, or being attracted by the exceptional freedom that being above any legal boundaries allows Norman to) ; and himself, being at least two persons : the one who knows Norma is dead, and the one who doesn’t want or can accept it, partially because he is her murderer.

And that is, we may think, one of the most efficient statements Bates Motel is based upon : to start from the point where you admit drama acting is being crazy, and being crazy, conversely, is acting drama ; that life is nothing but to deal, rather successfully or not, with your need to play drama, and, so on, to be crazy… And that’s probably how Bates Motel ends to be definitely extremely relevant : speaking about the means we have to figure out our own personal attraction to madness through arts, as our own last chance to understand anything in a life that doesn’t allow us to read Lacan.

Compared to the others embodiments of psychological disorders, Norman Bates by Freddie Highmore is the only one who really « switches » from one character to the other. The interpretation of Max Schreck limits itself, on purpose, to fit with Murnau’s conception of drama, to a grotesque variation on the monster figure. « M » would be called today a bipolar personality, but, still, you can establish almost clearly a logical continuity in between the two « solutions » that presents his personality : « M », who has no real name, is tempted to become a child murderer despite of his own will, and the movie exposed his struggles with himself not to become this cursed creature everybody wants to die, in the last trial scene, a scene that promotes the common barbarism of the crowd over the craziness of one guy, captive of a mind he doesn’t recognize nor admits for his own : he will finally become « himself » when confronted, with no chance of admittance or forgiveness, to the rest of humanity, through a reconciliation of his two natures since the rest of the human beings is definitely trapped in its own cruelty. Highmore stages something different : he totally switches, before our very eyes, from his socialized version to his dark one, but we never know which one is « real » and, beyond that, if one is even real or if both are only mystifications, since they are, in the end, both performed by the same Freddie Highmore.

Therefore, Doctor Edwards (who will conveniently die so that Norman can enjoy switching when it suits him) will reply something really important to him, considering the status of the one we’re tempted to call « Norman’s Norma ». Norman is in a mental institution called White Pine Bay. It’s a very expensive place and you need to pull some strings to bypass the endless waiting list (the social satire is reenforced by a narrative line that opposes the living Norma to industrial lobbies which want to build a bypass that will eventually shut down her little familial business) : a sort of contemporary utopia where he can only confess his deepest traumatizing memories, and, first of all, this moment his was hiding under the bed and finally grabbed his mother’s hand, while his father was violently raping her on the bed : beautiful scene. But it’s a wrong track : no need for Norman to uncover his darkest past, even more : it would « crush him », says Norma, who popped up in the meantime, as Edwards asks if he can talk to her, to stop the analysis by taking the speech in charge.

But then, after Edwards told Norman he has turned « into someone else » and finally taught him he was his mother for a while, Norman, just before leaving, closing back the door, asks a very heartwarming question : « How was she like ? ». « Charming », the doctor replies… And then, how do we interact more deeply with people than by charming them or being charmed by them ?… If Norma is « charming », she does exist, and it’s important for Norman that she’s not an awful person, that she is not « anybody ».

Norman can’t be save because he doesn’t have to be, at least in regard of scientific expectations. It’s not in the past Norman’s issues can be solved, it’s in the present time. What those sessions with Edwards reveal is not a traumatized memory that should be unlocked to unchain Norman from a past that would be ignored of him, but the roots of an unfailing love for Norma, his mother.

We are first invited to suppose this « inside ghost » is built with what Norman can’t admit about himself or her mother : « I think he is a very confused boy. Easy for people to take advantage of it. », he/she says to prevent Edwards effort to make Norman remember of his past. But his lecture doesn’t stand in front of the mix-up relationship of these mother and son. It’s obvious the screenwriters want us, especially during the first two seasons, to interrogate Norma’s responsibility in her son becoming a « serial killer ». But we gradually understand that she might be right, even if in a too much protective way, considering her purpose to protect her murderer son (she was there when Norman, in a transe, killed his father to stop him beating her). Highmore gives an emotional dark sincerity to his « mother inside » when he/she explains the disaster it could be for him to dig deeper in his memories. But we have to remind that it’s only Norman embodying his mother like he thinks she would behave and speak : the challenge for Highmore is here to put this sincerity itself in question and to let the audience experiment the difference between sincerity and truth, and by the way, to minimize the interest of a binary division of the conscience, which can remind of Sartre criticizing Freud’s analysis : how could your unconscious censor something he is not conscious of (Being and Nothingness, 1943) ?

So what’s the most impressive in Highmore’s performance is that we never know what he knows or doesn’t know himself and, hence, what everybody knows about him being a murderer or, if they can’t ignore it, how they deal with this acknowledgement. Speaking about the others, let’s just consider Dylan who let any evidence of his brother’s culpability sink in the back of his memory : « it takes a huge memory to repulse the past », french philosopher Gilles Deleuze said in  Abécédaire (The Letter Book, Pierre-André Boutang, 1988-1989), at the letter « E » entrance for « Enfance » (« Childhood »), until the judge sets out the murders Norman is charged for, and it’s only when it comes to his step-mother Norman has also killed that he leaves the courthouse in a hurry.

Speaking about Norman, Highmore’s performance, the way he confuses the audience about being sure if he is Norman or Norma and, furthermore, if he knows which one he actually is in time is a massive contribution to the exhibition of human psychology in arts. With the serial progressing, the ambivalence grows stronger in some specific scenes where Norman is a « mix » of them both and maybe more : himself and what he thinks his mother’s like but, also and more intriguing, herself and what he thinks he is. He switches in fact from a not so naïve and not so sweet teenager (the way he gets angry when confronted to an opposition or a disappointment ; the way he « deals » with girls, neglecting Emma for the more popular Bradley) to this « mother » he has created, to manage with painful or stressful situations. Talking about this « substitue mother », like we suggested it before, she is not that simple either and that’s once again to be put down to Highmore’s most subtile performance. He imitates Farmiga’s acting in a way you can recognize her, with no doubt, but also in the way he acts himself being already a split character : what he creates is what we call, improperly, a monster : a creature that is impossible in the animal kingdom, or, to speak from the artistic point of view : reality. A kind of « golem » whose fonction is to serve the exhibition, despite any logical speech, of the human « nature ».

In another shrink session, after he has discovered in a newspaper his mother married Sheriff Romero (who has committed his own insurance and also payed for Norman’s staying at White Pine Bay), Norman calmly explains, besides a tangible contained tension, he is the only one to « really know » his mother, and he paints a pretty convincing psychological portrait of her, to announce the eventual failure of her hasty wedding : what Norman really knows, and we can trust him, is that love is not suppose to match with any social consideration. And he is true. Norma is forced to lie about the reason she accepted (she is actually the one who asked) to marry Alex Romero, saying it was for Norman’s sake : for her, at this moment, it is true, but she has also enjoyed happy moments of honey moon with the Sheriff. Of course, she justifies explicitly this lie by the assurance Norman would react badly (and her false conception about her son’s needs and the necessity for him to endure such a disappointment is not to be questioned) but we can feel by the performance Framiga delivers that she is herself not that confortable with her decision, like she had indeed been cheating on her son. In this session, Norman has not « officially » turned into  his mother, and Highmore’s performance seems here to refer to some moment of clearness, even as an admission of weakness. But, especially when he walks before a window in the background (in particular how his stoped walking, his leg stretched forward in a very Framiga style), his acting indicates than sincerity itself is nothing but a show, which the « actor » himself is abused by.

What’s very impressive is that Norman doesn’t turn « for real » in this scene into his mother. But the performance of Highmore refers to a new stage of evolution in the loss of any reference to any individual subject but a character. Indeed, if Norman’s new attitude could be interpreted as the result of the analytical work he is doing with Doctor Edwards, it’s also slighlty sliding to a new charcater we may also read as a new version, apparently more reasonable, of her mother, Norma : once again, we can read the thoughts and speeches he attributes to her as a a traduction of what he thinks of himself, or what he would like Norma to think about him. Besides the scene is symmetrical to the analytic session with Edwards we were talking about before : when « Norma » was trying to keep the doctor to expose his own memories to Norma, she was depicting a fragile and extremely sensitive person which is excactly what « Norman » is doing with his mother in this second scene.  So, if we can perceive this new version of « unidentified » character as the look Norman is taking on his mother, we are encouraged to consider what the actor is actually doing (playing Norman as a different one, calm and open to discuss his mother’s issue) as work in progress that scrambles the identification : is it really Norman speaking about his mother or a new mystification he plays to himself to discredit Norma’s weeding ? So on, it also could be read as an uncovering of what he thinks she thinks about her. And, finally, of what he directly thinks she is : a mother he is disappointed by, a traitor, when he is precisely presenting disappointment as a feeling she is very sensitive to.  We are back to square one, which, in the eyes of art, could be the only true one, if we considere he is really saying what he thinks of her, but through the narrow prism of a bitter resentment. It may be notable and meaningful in the firts scene he has turned after Edwards has asked if he could speak to his mother. So, it’s not, at this specific moment, about the acting performance anymore, the transformation being shown as a pure demonstration : the acting is « given » to the audience as a « performance » and, therefore, acting is not acting anymore to refer to anything but acting, like a gamble Highmore would take on, as a joke : « You want me to turn ? I’m going to turn », which has to be seen as a comic scene. In the second scene, only Highmore’s gait, the way he streches his leg, a voice slightly softened and a calm manner to seat back in the couch to continue the discussion indicate a new character, neither Norman nor Norma, has appeared. Disapointment and thruth have been put on the same level. The connexion in between those two ideas is evident : truth is a disppointment. This sounds like a law that refers to Norman’s most intimate fear : he can’t be disppointed by his moter because it would mean they are not the same person anymore. But, in another sense, it could also put in the light what Norman is trying to do : to find a reason in Norma’s past (her disastrous relationship with men who always disappoint her) to blame her for rejecting her own responsabilities in the failure of any relationship she would have with a man : this is excatly what Norman wants to believe and, furthemore, if you note that he is putting himself in the painting like « the old little (him) » that will be in charge of her reconstruction, this is the best way for him to consider his mother as his own golem. If he is conscious or not of this manipulation is impossible to decide : that’s, once again, the effect of a most brilliant interprétation.

« But I see what is really there… that she is just frightened, tiny and fragile inside and fragile as a baby bird. And that she has lived her all life that way because she could just be crashed by disappointment. Oh and she doesn’t want anyone else see that but me. »

The question is : does he mean what he is saying ? And the problem is there’s no answer to such a question because being sincere or frank, being « honest » is no longer possible since you don’t know who you are because you know you are several persons, or, to be more specific, characters. And Norman knows he is not only one single extremely sensitive teenager, he knows since Edwards told him that he is also, sometimes, for no objective reason, a personal version of his mother. And before Edwards told him about the rape, his « mother part » knew everything ! From an episode to the next, the talented Freddie Highmore pushes any certain identity further back, not in some past which should be excavated to bring any truth to the light, but in nothingness, because light has changed, making impossible any true reconstitution (which is, nevertheless, the job the police and the Justice Department has to do). It’s in the back of any possibility to know anything more than we already do that the actor’s ambivalent performance wraps the truth in. Norman, Norma, Dylan, even Sheriff Romero, they all know everything, but they refuse to be conscious of it until Norman’s murders collide with their own interests, which are the same than Norman’s : love issues…

In a very « ancient greek style », Freddie Highmore put on stage a new character, deprived of any referenciation, who refers only to himself, even if he pretends to stage on Norman’s past and experience of his mother. Highmore proceeds to a total erasure of any truth defined as a match between what we think, what we say and what we do, he pushes to the limit of nonsense the possibilty of knowing someone and, so on, of being anyone, in the long term, with continuity. And when Norman is finally totally « blocked », white face and empty sight, after Emma, his mistaken girlfriend but true friend, has convicted him, forcing Norman-Norma to explain the reasons why « she killed her mother », it seems like a collapse of acting : Norman is traped, Highmore stops acting, or, to be more specific, he perfomes the end of acting.

At this time, Norman has definitely let her mother overwhelmed him and Highmore starts to play the « blank face », slightly ironic, latest version of « the face » the directors say he has been choose for, but it’s only humorous ( This face is actually what Brecht called a « gestus », a socially encoded gesture that refers clearly to an attitude for the audience : this one is as much exposed than Peter Lorre’s crazy bulging eyes over exposed in Lang’s famous close-up. But it’s so obvious here that it doesn’t actually refer to any attitude : it’s more readable as a mean to declare the end of the performance, the end of acting : Highmore’s character is finally confronted to the only person he can’t play with (in both acceptions), Emma, who is the only one to be able to confront the « true » Norman, and to respond as a grown up to the mystification he is trying to  fool himself and the others with, provoking him to finally be himself, meaning, in the end, being « nobody », just because the actor can’t keep on acting…

That’s why, if criticizing Bates Motel in the name of scientistic reasons is totally irrelevant, like all the movies we alluded to before — art is a projection of our fears and desires, it doesn’t have to be true — criticizing it for being too simple since it splits Norma in two characters, instead of some other aesthetic trick, is also irrelevant, and maybe even more : the topic of this TV show is not madness considered as a pathological disturbance of the mind, it’s not even about madness at all, it’s about craziness, which is to madness what is the heart symbol to love. It has to be read as a meta-artistic show : it’s a show about the show, assuming, in a very show-like way, that life in its whole expansion is a show… The importance of this word comes clear when Norman is considering using it as to describe his own state :

Mother: You’re mad because I left.
Norman: I’m not mad. Except in a British sense of the word like the Mad Hatter. In that way I am mad. But the world is full of mad people that function, many of whom are heads of state so I think I can manage running a motel.

Who do you really know ?, ancient anthem of the thriller, but also of the greek tragedy, especially Œdipus King. Sophocles play is not more a play about destiny than Bates Motel is another about madness. Both are concerned by questions like identity, freedom and acknowledgement. The fact we know everything from the beginning (Œdipus and Norman are both guilty) allows us to always have a head start on the other characters and the police. We know who is the « monster » and what kind of monster he is, we have time to feel empathy for him before the crimes he has committed are unveiled (which opens the field to grotesque sequences like the police searching for some corpses around Norman’s house on a syrupy-sweet jazz song). Like Œdipus, and before he is totally transformed by his arrestation, Norman experiences some moments of brutal clearness that blow out in a tragical searching for the truth about himself (just after he tried to kill Dylan, « inspired » by the imaginary Norma, for instance). Like the King of Thebes who ignores he is actually the one legitimate to rule the city, since he is not the stranger he thinks he is, Norman knows without knowing he is a murderer. His shadow part is not covered by amnesia, it’s wrapped in some (shower) curtain like the past and the future is wrapped in Tiresias, the prophet that « used to know » the truth but doesn’t want to speak it because it would mean to remember it : it is just like if Norma were Norman’s Tiresias, someone keeping the truth without knowing it himself. The curtain he uses to wrap the corpses and orders to Madeleines’s Loomis hardware store is of course an obvious metaphor for the one which opens on stage when the show is about to start, and the reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho reenforces this symbol. But it’s also an image for the issues we encounter searching to know anyone, including us, in a sufficient scale we can accept them as « part of us », which means to trust them, or ourselves. This double « trick » we face to when we are confronted to the others, or to ourselves in intense crisis, rough situations of dilemma, is extremely well figured by the focus we are encouraged to make on the double performance Highmore gets himself into. The denial all Norman’s closest siblings and friends responds to our own confusion with judging Norma or Norman. Once again, this is not the point : Norman is no more guilty than Œdipus and, if Norma is definitely responsible for letting her son killing people, she can’t be judge as a person, because she is not, she is a character stuck in her loops, like the all of us. It finally uncovers our problem with knowing anything about anything beyond the spectrum of our own representations and, so on, to know anything for sure : what we love, what we hate, what we can forgive, even what we properly know. We know nothing real about our feelings and what reality they have over the long term. And finally, if anything is true about love but the exceptional match it sometimes realizes over all the lies and bad faith effects we have to forget before loving anyone or anything.

Therefore the horror frame is just an ingredient : Bates Motel is not about horror, about the limits of belonging to the human race, about what it feels or implies to cross over those limits, it’s not about craziness as an external experience of the human race, Bates Motel is about trapping the audience in its own expectations: it’s about, like any horror movie which pretends to gouge out of the genre, the way we live, about our responsibilities, the way we deal anytime with all those remainders of our own personal guiltiness (of not being someone, of not being anyone). It’s actually like if the screenwriters were taking up all the psycho cinema history as a shover curtain : wrapping it up after it has been totally exposed to our curiosity for old fashioned items. This being said, it doesn’t mean its purpose is to overrun the tradition, Bates Motel is not a re-reading of horror films clichés, unlike American Horror Story, for example. This is not on a cinematographic scale that the show deals with craziness (some other aspects of it could nevertheless compete on this line), it’s on the speech, the refection, the « mise en abyme » of drama playing that it focuses all its attention, and ours. Chapeau, chapeau bas, Monsieur Highmore

Avril 2017

© Sébastien Pellé

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