Equus (1977)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Peter Shaffer

Cinematography by Oswald Morris

Starring Richard Burton, Peter Firth, and Colin Blakely

Equus builds its narrative structure around the cathartic cure of psychoanalysis, in which flashbacks take us progressively closer to the traumatic incident in Alan’s unconscious. There is nothing new in that technique, which was perhaps most famously used in Hitchcock’s Spellbound about three decades earlier. Here, however, the cathartic event itself is not a mystery; rather it is revealed within the first few minutes of the film that Alan blinded six horses with a metal rod. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine an audience member going into Equus without any pre-knowledge that the film deals with zoophilia, yet this too is treated as a cathartic revelation – one that is uncovered about midway through the film. Nevertheless, Equus maintains a sense of slowly evolving mystery. Perhaps it is a “mystery of the personality”, as we probe further into what motivated Alan’s vengeful attack and his sexual yearnings for horses; this is certainly part of it. But there’s also a philosophical mystery posed by the psychiatrist himself, towards himself: who is more insane – the passionless or the impassioned?

The psychiatrist, with his frigid marriage devoid of offspring, is exceedingly normal, and over the course of his treatment of Alan he begins to view that normalcy as a prison. Richard Burton’s narration of the film is delivered while he stares straight into the camera, pontificating with conviction about his own lack thereof. At one point, he proclaims, “Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of health. And I am his priest”. The success of Alan’s treatment, then, is a kind of spiritual punishment. It is easy to see this argument in favor of behavioral diversity being made for a case of mild depression or ADD; less so in a case of bestiality and borderline psychosis. Nevertheless, the dubiousness of Dr. Martin Dysart’s argument is actually what makes it so disquieting and affecting; he does not deny the seriously crippling nature of his patient’s illness, he just obsessively probes (and kvetches about) the crippling nature of his own normality. Adapting a play to film is a far less elegant endeavor than adapting a novel, but somehow the theatricality of Burton’s monologues feels appropriate. Its self-indulgence mirrors the indulgent nature of Dysart’s analytic complaints.

Luckily, Lumet makes some distinctly cinematic gestures to balance out the theatrical ones. Alan’s flashbacks are incorporated seamlessly into the diegesis of the present scenes through editing tricks that exploit our expectations for classic continuity. When Alan is hypnotized in the psychiatric office, for example, Lumet uses a lens with a low depth of field as Alan’s hand reaches toward the camera and turns the imaginary key. When we cut to closeup of an actual lock opening (in his memory), the conventions of continuity editing bridge the gap in space and time. Moreover, whenever we cut back to the present, Alan is always transformed somehow into the same state he has just relived. We don’t need to see how Alan has completely undressed himself in the psychiatrist’s office, because we’ve already seen him do it at night in the middle of the woods. This parallel structuring of the flashbacks and the present day narrative of the cathartic cure places us in sympathy with Dr. Dysart’s psychological voyeurism. His fascination with Alan’s fantasies provide him with the passion he lacks in his own healthy brain, and we too are caught up in the passion of Alan’s past; whether or not that passion is enviable is ultimately left for the viewer to decide.

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~ by Daniel N. Goldberg on June 6, 2011.

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