Fifty years ago Bond broke his way onto our screens with Dr. No. I’ll do the maths for you: it was 1962. To put it in cinematic context, that places it neatly between two Hitchcock classics, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Two films that rely heavily on old school psychoanalytic narratives that take the symbolic role of the mother to hyperbolic proportions. As we’ll see, Skyfall does the same (spoilers follow).
Skyfall is a film that looks back through its own fifty-year history of the Bond franchise, eventually finding its way from the glossy MI6 offices in Vauxhall to the familiar but staid bureaucratic office space, complete with hat rack, occupied by Miss. Moneypenny who makes a new return here. This is the first of many spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, avert your eyes now.
This is a film about age, time, nostalgia, and technology. Though Bond defeats death yet again, he is reborn weaker, in many ways disproving Nietzsche’s maxim that:
Whatever does not kill him makes him stronger -Nietzche
Daniel Craig’s Bond struggles to keep up with his former invincible and arrogant self. He is an older Bond, and he is resistant to confronting the limitations of that age, both physically and psychologically: a difficult task for a narcissist. He is an aged Bond that comes back weaker, older, and an ‘old dog’ in a world so in love with youth and its technology that it is rapidly losing touch with the importance of its flesh and blood field-workers: the operatives that keep showing up in flag draped coffins.
M, too is an aging Judi Dench. Though maintaining her strong exterior, she is undermined by the civilian politicians, the petty elected officials who don’t understand what’s really going on in the world — the young(er) Turks who desperately seek sound bite, headline, and tweet at the expense of the real dangers lurking within the liminal shadowy world.
Our world is not transparent now, it’s more opaque, It’s in the shadows. -M
Hitchcock and Freud: Cinematic Consultants
Nobody masters the shadows like these men. They were the masters of showing us the liminal world of the in-between – opening up the irrational horrors of our unconscious.
There is purpose in this film’s hearkening back. With the glossy MI6 digs in ruins, the crew has to move to an older place an abandoned bunker from Churchill’s time, sequestered below Smithfield meat market. Just like in Psycho we have a clear relation between levels, a going down always meaning a wrestle with the unconscious.
There is much descending in this film, whether it is the new rat-infested bunker replacing the old glossy one, the intensive battle through underground London, the secret tunnel under the house in Scotland, or, the dénouement where Bond struggles for the last time under the ice to fight off his demons before going to rescue M(um). This is a film about Bond going back to his roots — literally going there (to Skyfall) to resolve the “unresolved trauma” described in his psychological profile.
Hitchcock, we know, was obsessed with mothers, as was demonstrated so clearly in Psycho in which Norman Bates’s pathological identification with his mother creates in him a psychopathic killer who needs to destroy the competition to the mother’s love, and The Birds where the mother’s super-egoic rage bursts the containment of the real world and is expressed through the attacking birds.
Nobody can put these concepts better than Slavoj Zizek, so I’ll leave that to him to explain:
Zizek on Psycho
Zizek on The Birds (skip to 1:40).
Oedipus Wrecks: Everything
In both Psycho and the The Birds we have representations of maternal rage. In Skyfall, however, we have a slightly altered Oedipus complex in which the Mother becomes the victim of her abandoned son. In this case it is the tremendously creepy Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva who comes bearing revenge for having been abandoned by M many years ago.
How does Silva take this revenge? He steals his mother’s children (his siblings), puts them at risk, ultimately killing them. “Reflect on your sins” is the message he repeatedly sends to M. he demands that she reflect on her betrayals (the deepest sin, for a mother to betray her son). The ultimate punishment for this sort of mother is to stew in her own guilt, to feel powerless, and eventually, to kill herself as did Jocasta in the Oedipus myth.
Both Bond and Silva become the other corners of the Oedipal triangle here (yes, siblings are allowed): both having previously been favourite sons, both having been betrayed by their mother.
“Who will be the last rat?”
From a psychoanalytic perspective we can see that Bond has accepted M’s betrayal as part of the reality principle. Yes, she gave the order that would kill him, but she did so for a grander purpose, to save the rest of the brood, the other spies hidden in operations around the world. Bond was hurt, yes. Bond took his revenge too, by allowing M to believe him to be dead for three months. When he heard the news that his other mother was in danger, his motherland, he came out of death (the liminal space [oddly shared by his other fictional doppleganger Jason Bourne]) and returned to duty. M takes back in her wounded chick, and sends him back into service.
Silva’s trajectory took a different course. He, like his brother Bond, was also abandoned by M, and for similar reasons. There is a hint that he was already in some ways coming undone, and for his sins, M traded him in for six other operatives during the time of Hong Kong’s transition back into China’s hands. However, Silva’s reality principle wasn’t operating quite so well as Bond’s. Instead of seeing her abandonment as a larger deed, the salvation of her six other sons, he took it terrifically personally an affront his (old fashioned homosexual) narcissism which drove him over the edge. Unlike every other Bond villain who creates powerful organisation for power or money, his entire operation was centred around payback to M.
It is at this point that the film takes a twist into fantasy, or as Zizek says about The Birds, a point at which
It is not enough to say that the birds are part of the natural set up of reality, it is rather as if a foreign dimension intrudes, that literally tears apart reality . . .
No one would go through such trouble to kill their abandoning mother, but psychic reality as shown to us by both Freud and Klein are full of totally destructive fantasies. Silva has spent years on his plan, years that will result in not only in the planned destruction of his abandoning mother, but also the wrecking of the secret service (the exposure of the secret operatives) and potentially the very fall of the motherland for whom he worked to protect for so long.
In this twist it is M who for a time plays the Oedipal role. A plague has fallen upon her city, and only by solving the riddle can she save it. The riddle tells us that the responsibility is hers alone: a responsibility that her son, Bond, relieves her of.
The old fashioned Freudian/Hitchockian Homosexual
Homosexual baddies are a staple of mid-century films, notably Hitchcock’s. These include Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers (with an unhealthy interest in the underwear drawer), Bruno from Strangers on a Train, both protagonists Philip and Brandon in Rope, and more oblique references to Leonard in North by Northwest to name just a few.
These characters emerge for a psychoanalytic tradition towards homosexuality that became a mainstay in the 1950s through the 80s, pathologising homosexuality as a perversion at worst, or a more banal arrested development. Freud is often misunderstood as being homonegative himself, but he really was not, it was really mostly his followers after his death that went for this particularly familiar and disdainful model:
A child of a dominant mother and weak father fails to identify with his father and identifies with his mother instead, taking a passive relation to his father in his unresolved Oedipus complex. There are also other currents in early psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality that align it with pathologies of narcissism and paranoia.
Beiber (not Justin) was a famously virulent psychoanalytic theorist of homosexuality and sums up the variety of theories like this:
strong attachment to a man; immaturity with lack of comprehension of sex drives; lack of virility in the fathers; excessive defeat in assertiveness; feminization by being dressed as a female; incidents, such as venereal diseases, which render heterosexuality unpleasant, disillusionment in marriage; being treated by homosexual as an equal; inherent or acquired timidity; persistence of childhood concepts that heterosexual coital activity is degrading, humiliating dirty, prohibited, painful, mutilating, etc. (1962).
Note the timing of this quote, 1962 (the year The Birds came out). This was dominant thinking about homosexuality during this period, so it is no wonder creepy villains with creepier mothers are always insinuated with the most insidious form of a pathological homosexuality.
Our character Silva has all the makings of the villainous homosexual. Rather than making the film seem homophobic, however, it does just the opposite. This is a film that hearkens back to the past and pulls upon themes from these earlier films. Hitchcock imbues the film in a rather nice way. There is an element of Poe too, not least in the creepy Scottish pile in Skyfall, Scotland, reminiscent of his House of Usher which collapses under the weight of the hidden family secrets of incest.
In one of the final scenes we see Silva’s terrific and horrifying revenge come to life in his destruction of this house of usher. His helicopter menacingly approaches playing “Boom Boom.” The lyrics are obscured by much of the noise but you if you listen closely you can hear The Animals belting out “Boom Boom Boom – I’m in Love with you, love that is true – Boom Boom Boom.” A choice song when coming to kill your Oedipal mother.
Skyfall is a rich film in which themes of history, old Bond, and psychoanalysis come together and richly reward the viewer with an experience of emotional depth and thought. Though M(other) dies in the end, there is a redemption. She is not killed by the evil son, but by the good one. He prevents her murder/suicide and allows her to die in peace. The natural order is restored by the death of the parent, and the necessarily ‘growing up’ and passage of the son (baptised by ice).
We are also treated to the comfort that comes with nostalgia, the easier days – when a padded door to muffle conversation was the only thing standing between Moneypenny and the hatrack.