What do Pixar animation and Freud have in common? Quite a lot — just read Film Critic Marcus Nicholls’ essay and find out.
By Marcus Nicholls
Coraline is a bewitching and original film, released somewhat in the shadow of Pixar’s genre dominance. Drawn from a well-loved and successful children’s book, it is one of the more independent features that have followed in the turbulent wake of the mouse-financed giant. Its animation, however, is less smooth and glossy CGI, and closer to the spindly stop-motion eccentricities of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Its frames are full of texture; rough fabrics, cracked paint and splintered wood abound. These haptic touchstones, combined with the pulse of the sewing references, set the film apart as very much hand-crafted in the mould of skilled artisans, contrasted with the enjoyable but perhaps overly slick and self-aware Pixar features.
The story, too, harks back to older references than contemporary pop-culture, evoking a tradition of cautionary tales such as The Pear Drum, an English folk-tale. In that story, the children’s mother is transformed through their wickedness into a strange creature with glass eyes and a wooden tail. The tangled web of references to surrogate and impostor parental figures in children’s stories is an immensely dense one, and not to be picked apart here. The dynamics involved, of course, echo loudly in psychoanalytic chambers, where familial relations and notions of abandonment and independence clash in raucous Freudian analysis. Coraline draws on the legacy of fairy tales and appears to knowingly engage with many of Freud’s theories. Essays lurk in its composition when related to ideas of dreaming and the subconscious mind, of infantile complexes and the vicissitudes of psycho-sexual development.
In this snippet, however, I wish to consider a perhaps less famous, yet no less ubiquitous essay by Freud; his short investigation into ‘the uncanny’.
Whilst the theorizing here may not have made it so brazenly into the cultural consciousness, being somewhat less inflammatory at first sight, it underpins great swathes of the art produced in the last century, along with a specific yet undeniable section of the psyche.
The uncanny, or unheimlich, concerns itself with a certain aesthetic effect, a feeling engendered by particular triggers, more frequently utilised in art than encountered in life. It is an uneasiness rising from a kind of uncertainty, a creeping feeling quite singular in its disturbance. Freud considers it a fear of something old and familiar taking on a different aspect, the emergence of something that should have been hidden, an ontological uncertainty. It is often concerned with involuntary repetition, but gains its frightening nature from an atmosphere generated by the psyche of the observer. Strongly linked to childhood in its roots, we see the uncanny employed frequently in literature and cinema, and Coraline is steeped in its effects and tell-tale signs.
Dreams, reality and the slippages between these form a great part of the story. Coraline enters a mirrored world when she sleeps, a dream which tugs at the fabric of her life, threatening to engulf her. The wicked stepmother figure from fairy tales is the matriarch, tempting Coraline with treats as the gingerbread house drew Hansel and Gretel on. Coraline’s dreams begin to impinge upon her reality, first positively in the curing of her poison oak rash, but then more disturbingly as she begins to struggle to wake from this night-world. The uncanny can always enter when lines between dreams and reality blur, when the unconscious mind bleeds its symbols into the conscious. The whole film has an uncanny feel from the evocative opening scene, so expressly phantasmagorical in its lilting music, where under the silver moonlight a pair of skeletal, robotic hands stitch the Coraline doll and send it floating out of the open window. This already sets up the uncanny in its themes of superstitious beliefs seeming to be confirmed, in the animism, the non-human hands acting in a human way. This is the film’s creation myth, the genesis that sets its cogs moving, and it can also be speculatively read as that other facet Freud identifies as a generating locus of uncanny impression: the return of repressed infantile complexes. As the approximation of Coraline floats out of the window, tiny and simplified, we can read it as her primitive repressed returning, triggered by her uprooting from home and friends. From this symbolic trauma, the uncanny rises.
Buttons and eyes provide a strong bridge between the film and Freud’s essay. Buttons are the most enduring leitmotif of the film; they appear constantly as a signifier of the uncanny. We can tell those figures that populate the dream world (Coraline’s unconscious) from their living counterparts by the buttons that have replaced their eyes; Coraline’s doppelganger mother also wishes to take her eyes and sew buttons into them. This becomes a symbol for Coraline being trapped in the netherworld, and in the regressive uncanny cycle. In Freud’s essay he commits a large section to the relation between the uncanny and fears of losing one’s eyes, conflating the two as a repressed recurrence of the childhood castration complex; that earliest of fears that our development may be so brutally arrested. The uncanny becomes so singular in its effect because it is these most atavistic and repressed of dreads that is recurring, stirring in the unconscious to be glimpsed in the mind’s peripheries. His story of The Sand Man is particularly relevant when read alongside Coraline.
Dolls and automata also play a part in the uncanny as a generating locus, and this is written perfectly into Coraline, as it is the doll of herself that drives the narrative forward. This doll is uncanny: a doppelganger, an inanimate thing that appears to move, and through its button eyes, the spy for the Beldam. We see a constant interaction with characters who are indeterminate in their humanity; it is the omnipotence of the Beldam that controls all of these automata, who appear to live but merely live to appear. Like the piano that plays the ‘Other Father’, we can never be sure which characters exist and which are puppets; a postmodern reference, perhaps, to the medium chosen to ‘animate’.
Doubles are perhaps the most frequently used facet of the uncanny within art. Freud’s analysis of Otto Rank’s essay on doubling and the doppelganger is particularly enlightening in its attribution of these phenomena to the childhood complexes previously mentioned. He posits the double as created in the narcissistic early stages of infancy as insurance against the ego, before becoming a repository for complexes which turns the double from friend to figure of dread, symbol of the repressed, returning. Coraline is littered with doubling, from the mirrored family and friends to the doll, all existing in the eternal night of Coraline’s unconscious. Encroaching upon reality once triggered, and wishing to take her eyes, they must be symbolically surmounted to keep her development from being arrested.
Coraline’s use of the uncanny is adept and complex, brilliantly woven as it is a concept not necessarily understood in theory, but felt by all. I have only skimmed the surface of a few points of contact between these texts.
Further reading: Freud’s essay on The Uncanny. It’s short, and rewarding.
Film Critic Marcus Nicholls is a member of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.