Where The Freudian Things Are
January 8, 2010
“Psychoanalysis has taught us that a boy’s earliest choice of objects for his love is incestuous and that those objects are forbidden ones – his mother and his sister.”
Where The Wild Things Are (2009), so much more than just a beautiful and imaginative rendering of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, reveals to its adult audience an acute interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. Protagonist Max is a hypersensitive, hyperactive boy who (we presume), since the absence of the constant paternal figure in his familial clan, suffers, in the place of mourning, great melancholia. Mourning, as Freud explains it, is the reaction to either the loss of a loved one, or, the abstraction taking the place of a loved one. For Max, it could be the loss of his father, or, more simply, the loss of the ideal of the father. Melancholia then, a displacement whereby ties with the lost object are not necessarily severed thus allowing the object to persist in the individual’s psyche, causes Max to act out in petty, selfish ways. After he is repeatedly ignored by both his teenage sister and his mother in favour of other, older, male figures, be it friend or boyfriend, Max inflicts an oral injury upon his mother, by playfully yet aggressively biting her. In Freudian psychoanalysis, incestuous desires are, by the clan or family unit, regarded as an unconscious taboo, and certainly Max’s actions here are testing the bounds of that taboo, his mother repeatedly asking him, “What is wrong with you?” Fleeing his familial home, Max searches for solace with another clan.
Following the trauma of these events, Max experiences a break with the Real and finds himself ensconced in fantasy. It is in the fantasy world that the film really comes into its own. As is often true of cinematic representations of a rupture between the fantasy and reality, Max’s fantasy world often resembles the reality from which he comes. The mirroring of the real world is for the most part subtle and well observed, and certainly Carol and KW’s complex relationship is a gentle and moving treatment of the way in which Max struggles with his own emotions for sister, Claire. Though there are many parallels between the two worlds (too many to list here) what is most interesting is the quintessential difference: here, Max is King. Having ingratiated himself to the Wild Things, becoming one of their clansmen, and most significantly their totem, as Freud would have it, “their guardian spirit and helper”, Max is now safe, for “the clansmen are under a sacred obligation … not to kill or destroy their totem and to avoid eating its flesh”, and more importantly, relieved of his melancholia, for he has assumed the role of the love-object he mourns. In taking up the position of totem Max embodies, and thus reinstates, paternal order.
Finally and inevitably Max must leave the Wild Things to return home, and as he does so he expresses honestly and starkly the greatest of his boyhood desires saying, “I wish you guys had a mum, I’m going to go home.” Preferencing Freudian womb fantasies over his once overwhelming melancholia, Max relinquishes his kingdom, severing his ties with the paternal order, accepting both the Real and his (m)other. Culminating in a quiet, honest exchange of companionship between mother and son, Where The Wild Things Are is perhaps the most thoughtful and provocative exploration of childhood to grace the commercial cinema scene since Labyrinth (1986) (indeed it is no coincidence that the costumes for the Wild Things come from the Jim Henson Creature Shop), and it is most certainly not the flat film the print media critics would have you believe.