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Hereditary: The splitting of “seeing is believing"

"What you see and hear is true" is not only a problem of the characters in the story, but also a problem for the audience.

Publication date: 2018/07/02

The relationship between film (especially horror films and thrillers) and psychiatry is often the former’s appropriation of the latter, taking its most imaginary and fantastic facets, such as dissociative identity disorders, as from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Hereditary, one can argue that it’s “a new touch from a hundred years of dissociation". In the movie Hereditary, the protagonist Annie took the excuse of “going out for a movie" each time when she went out to participate in group psychotherapy. This replacement somehow reminds me that there is a lot in common between the interpretation of a film and the pathology of mental illness: How should this phenomenon could be explained and encoded? If one clings onto a particular interpretation, is it always not comprehensive enough, just a jump-to-conclusion? The movie Hereditary playing as both the roles of physician and patient, puts the audience in the shoes to see and to feel the perceptions experienced by the mentally ill that are hardly imaginable, but at the same time reminds you through its stylistic film language that such intuitively visible diegesis is only a clue warranting additional interpretation rather than a seeing-is-believing certification.

“What you see and hear is true" is not only a problem of the characters in the story, but also a problem for the audience.

The title “Hereditary" is almost straightforward to the audience: that “biological transmission" and “passage by inheritance/establishment by tradition" are the two aspects of the film. The beginning card introduces the family history (reflecting the history of the disease) by text, quickly followed by Annie’s confession in a group therapy session: her self-introduction reveals specific diagnoses of her relatives. Nevertheless, this reveal is a deliberately-set self-challenge of the film. As the Chinese proverb goes, the movie intend to “let the audience see the mountain (disease) as the mountain (disease), then see the mountain not as the mountain, and may finally return to see the mountain as the mountain". The movie Hereditary is like an ambiguous figure. Taking the works of director Polanski for example, to which Hereditary largely pay tribute, it is like an ambiguous figure showing both The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby, simultaneously presenting in a pattern of delusion and conspiracy. And its unfolded the scheme by, letting the audience, who these days are highly trained to spot the tactics of such film genre, to see what the character sees when suffering from psychosis. Things you see are distorted not by the eyes, but through the distorted mind. Things that do not exist become real when you believe you actually hear and see it. The movie allows the audience to experience the same.

Taken one step further, the movie makes the audience “develop the symptoms" earlier than the characters. This “malicious" intention reaches a level that make us feel prickles down our spines: at the party, the girl in the kitchen is using a kitchen knife, the sound of the chopping knife is deliberately magnified and made aggressive; the next shot is Peter, Annie’s son, smirking. While we are still wondering about the relevance of these two shots, the following shot leads to the girl that Peter much appealed to, letting us realize that Peter is watching the girl laughing at the living room. Therefore, the first shot, implying a kind of visual and acoustic processing of schizophrenic patient, this seemingly “ownerless" perspective belongs to whom? Does it belong to Peter’s younger sister Charlie, the character who went through onset of the disease first,? Charlie indeed appears in this party, but this arranged misplacement of the matching cut seems to be a curse cast on the audience, making the psychotic perceptions our very own experience.

The film is adept at using the chain effect that “makes the audience delusional prior to the characters’ onset" to stir up the audience. In the beginning we accompany Charlie noticing a man at the funeral smiling awkwardly at her. This could be connected to a later scene at school, where some people staring at her inexplicably, suggesting the symptom of “referential delusion". In addition, a “blue aura" (possibly the presentation of “visual hallucination" or a more embodied “delusional atmosphere") first appeared in the audience’s field of vision before being detected by Charlie. In another scene unexplainable by the subjective distortion of the character, during Peter’s trip to the party, far away and opposite to his vision, the family (cult) emblem appears on the trunk of a tree facing the audience. This could be connected to an earlier scene when Annie turned the dollhouse to face the viewer away from her own vision, becoming an “announcer" to the audience: an eccentric union of tiny models of grandmother, mother and baby (similar to the ending scene of Rosemary’s Baby).

Does the movie permit more information to be shown to the audience than the “truth" the characters could find? Or is it just a visual narrative trap played through plot twists by an unreliable narrator? If you linger in the narration to collect yourself the clues, you would be prone to realize your own delusional context by following the family members one by one, ultimately reaching “the victory of the evil spirit". From the facts that only the characters could comprehend, to the “announcement" directed solely to the audience, it seems that we are reminded the transferral of not only the characters’ vision/perspective but also their symptoms onto ourselves. We “fell ill” at a similar point as Charlie, earlier than Annie and Peter, and because our perception closely follows these family members, we end up in a conspiracy connected by the whole family’s (mainly the mother Annie’s) symptoms, a conspiracy inherited by the cult activities starting at least from their grandmother’s generation.

However, if you pay more attention to the form of the shots, the more likely you would be able to try to distinguish symptoms from the possible truth by maintaining a distance, by questioning whether the things you see have been distorted. The scenes that Annie visits her friend, Joan, who she met due to their pain of losing their children, offer important clues. The last time Anne visits Joan’s apartment, the scene seems to give the audience more information about Joan’s involvement in a cult. However, the scene beginning with an upside-down shot left the actuality of Annie ever entering the building itself (and the following scenes) in doubt. This could be compared to the earlier scenes in which Annie passed through the entrance. The first time there seems to be a neutral visit and the mirrors did not reflect anything. The second time it got weird (with Joan’s introduction of the séance to Annie, which leads to Annie’s obsession of getting in touch with the spirit) and the mirror reflects Joan’s face next to Annie’s, suggesting that Annie’s encounter with Joan might be true, but what is presented to us could have already been reflected and distorted by Annie’s mind.

The ending scene of King Paimon’s coronation is not only the film’s climax in  narration, but is also the high point in reinforcement of form. The off-screen sounds imply auditory hallucinations. Other delusions or visual hallucinations are presented by shallow focus and close-ups that blur the individual’s relationship with the surroundings, emphasizing that the whole play has been “symptomised". The relatively “concrete" shot to establish the composition of people and location is akin to the opening theme as Peter awakens in a dollhouse. In both themes Peter was positioned as if inside his mother’s art craft, hence this seemingly “realistic” shot is somehow retracted into a more inner world. The fact that both the beginning and the end are about a doll-like Peter, echos with the metaphor of the whole movie: the mother Annie who leads the audience to dwell in to the conspiracy is the key person to “building the family" (and as an artist, building the model house), moulds her work as this familial tragedy and most of all, Peter’s tragedy, by maternal genes (causing those psychotic symptoms of Peter and Charlie), and by psychosocial stress (for Peter, his mother’s unforgiveness and illness, the death of loved ones).

However, if a movie, with the ability of making the invisible visible and determining what you see to be “true", is also a transient, tolerable and thus fabulous attack of psychosis, should you believe in the delusion that the film art by definition provides, or believe in the metaphor, as Hereditary utilises the form to remind you, that its content is deluded? If you follow the conspiracy theory regarding the cult’s victory, perhaps the “story" is explained, but the overall design of the film is then reduced to a eeriness-inducing work, and the “film" per se cannot be well interpreted. Is the “splitting" between the film and the story – which resonates with the disorder schizophrenia, meaning “of split mind” – the reason this film won much praise, or just another cliché manipulation only successful in embarrassing the audience ? Or, is this kind of “splitting" an elaborate plan to immerse the audience into the characters’ suffering, by allowing them to participate in this journey of distinguishing between symptoms and reality?

Nevertheless, the audience seems to struggle harder than the characters do in the film to distinguish between truth and distortion. Rather then persuading the audience in a soft tone or giving them a good lesson to be sympathetic with mentally-ill patients’ realistic situation, this movie is more about providing an inward journey of suspicion and pain. It’s about the seriousness of suffering from mental illness, the seriousness of the audience being tortured by what they see and what they suspect. In the fictional world of the movie, the characters, occupied by the disease, harm themselves and others. The movie transforms these events into the most horrible images and serves them to us. The symptoms let the characters see hell, but so do we, in our own reality.

關於 甜寒

甜寒,台灣大學醫學系,英國華威大學(University of Warwick)社會學碩士。電影文字工作者、編劇。 @TGHFF Asian Cinema Observation Group 19' @BerlinaleTalents Press '23

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