In this essay, I will be focusing on the affective presence or absence of the mother in Lynn Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) (referred to as Kevin), and Erick Zonca’s Julia (2008), where Swinton plays Eva in the former, and Julia in the latter. Initially, it is crucial for the term ‘affect to be defined as this term is notorious for pervading definition. The term affect came to prominence in A Thousand Plateaus, the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, two French philosophers. Written in 1980, it referred to affect as flows and forces, also described as intangible energies, with the translator, Brian Massumi, in the foreword, describing it as “an ability to affect and be affected” (1988: xvi), which implies affect is something exchanged between two people.
Silvan Tomkins, a psychologist and personality theorist, developed affect theory a decade later by categorising affects into six, and later nine, nameable emotion pairs ranging from enjoyment-joy to anger-rage. According to Tomkins, affects “are aroused easily by factors over which the individual has little control” (Tomkins 1995: 54), implying that affects are similar to emotions, but beyond our jurisdiction. Affect can be described as a state of mind relating to an emotion, or the aura created by a situation.
The ‘affective absence’ can be the absence where generic convention has led to our expectation of its presence, so that leads the ‘affect presence’ to become where the conventional maternal ideal has been fulfilled. The psychoanalysts, philosophers and theorists I will use in the essay to explore the affect absence/presence of the maternal figure are Judith Butler, E. Ann Kaplan, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. These individuals work has been selected because of their focus on the development of the mother, the development of the child, and the relationship between the two.
Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist, whose work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity strove to trouble the idea of what we perceive as the origin of gender. I intend to extend Butler’s theory to trouble the idea of the maternal, and show how it exists only within the dominant discourse of motherhood – by which I mean child-rearing books, women’s magazines and television shows and popular Hollywood films.
Kaplan is an English professor in New York, who wrote a book called Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular culture and Melodrama, in which she came to two definitions of the ‘maternal melodrama’: the complicit and the resistant. The complicit maternal melodrama “represents the mother as a paternal function, and addresses a male spectator” usually featuring an “intense mother-son relationship” (1992: 69). The resistant maternal melodrama is “from the mother position and about its pleasures and oppressions” (1992: 69). These two ideas will be explored in relation to the films later in the essay.
Widely considered the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud investigated the realms of the unconscious development of the mind based on case studies in the late 19th to early 20th century. This essay will look at the Oedipus complex, a stage of childhood development in which a male child directs his “first sexual impulse towards [his] mother and [his] first hatred and [his] first murderous wish against our father” (1899: 364). This theory is particularly relevant in regards to Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) behaviour towards his mother in Kevin.
Finally, this essay will explore some of the theory of childhood development from Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst from the mid 20th century. Lacan’s work will be used to explore how the child relates to the mother in relation to their ‘want’, ‘need’, and ‘demand’ stage from his work Ecrits and The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis.
As an actress, Tilda Swinton has been described as the “supremely poised ice queen of the cinema” (Lee 2009: 1). Swinton’s acting technique embodies flat affect, often portraying characters as measured on the surface, whilst hiding the chaos beneath. The Independent describes her on screen personality as “elusive” (Romney 2008: 1), while the Guardian describes her as “cool” and “intelligent” (Cochrane 2011: 1). By asking Swinton to perform the maternal figure in Kevin and Julia, both Ramsey and Zonca are making a statement about the idea of the ‘mother’, as Swinton troubles the constructed nature of the maternal figure, to be explored and discussed further.
Although in Julia, Swinton is not the biological mother, she is the predominant female adult in the film who cares for the character Tom (Aiden Gould). I have chosen this film because of the contrast in affective presence of Swinton as a maternal figure between Eva and Julia. This essay will explore the question of maternal affect or its absence in Kevin and Julia, through which I will uncover and dissect Swinton’s performance as a maternal figure within these texts.
In 21st century Hollywood cinema, the ‘mother’ is typically a warm, reliable, responsible woman, who cares for her children selflessly. The stereotype related to the American mother in both Kevin and Julia is long hair, minimal make-up and modest clothing, as shown by the other mothers in the anti-natal class of Kevin and Elena’s (Kate del Castillo) appearance in Julia, as the biological mother of Tom. These stereotypes align the association between motherhood and femininity, subverted by Swinton’s appearance, dress and behaviour in both films. Tilda Swinton has short, cropped hair and is famed for her androgynous style, challenging the idea of what it is to be feminine. In Judith Butler’s work on gender as a performance, she writes that gender is a set of acts, created through repetitive performance, “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself” (1993: 310). If we are to extend this theory to motherhood, it could be argued that the ‘maternal figure’ has been created through imitation, and is not in fact the original, but the effect of motherhood.
The pressure on mothers to fulfil this role often leads to dissociation with the child, as shown by Eva in Kevin. Vivienne Welburn, in her work on postnatal depression, protested, “If we do the job adequately, it is taken for granted that it is ‘natural’ to us, if we do it badly we will be castigated by just about everyone in sight” (1980: 23). The idea that motherhood is natural to all women is troubled in both films, as Swinton’s characters take on alternative relationships with the boy’s they are the mother figure to. In Kevin especially Eva is blamed for Kevin’s actions as a result of her parenting skills, not just by the women in her town breaking her eggs in the supermarket or physically assaulting her in the street, but by herself by making an omelette with the eggs and taking the piece of shell out from between her teeth as she eats it.
Kevin begins with Eva living an idyllic lifestyle as a globetrotting travel writer, but her carefree attitude leads to pregnancy and the result is a child whose brief moments of humanity excuse him from complete evil. Effectively, Eva is shown to sacrifice her independence and her place in the public sphere in order to fulfil the stereotypical association of motherhood with the domestic/private sphere. By the end of the film, Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) actions leave her with no family, no job and no friends. Ramsey has taken the book written by Lionel Shriver and stripped it of its epistolary form; instead of a vocal narrator, the audience is shown the story with temporal disjunctions from Eva’s shell-shocked point of view, that make us question the trustworthy nature of the protagonist. The films subversion of realism uses diegetic sounds that do not fit with the images on the screen, such as the garden sprinkler sound that is repeated throughout but not shown until the end, giving the film a disoriented feeling.
The first scene of Julia shows Julia as a promiscuous barfly, the result of which leads to her losing her job, and being pressured by her sponsor to attend AA meetings, where she meets Elena, a desperate mother whose child is under his paternal grandfather’s care. Elena convinces Julia to kidnap her son with a financial incentive. When Julia realises Elena has no money, she takes Tom anyway, blackmailing the grandfather for $2 million, however her plans are ruined when she has to drive through the border wall into Mexico, and, ironically, Mexican drug dealers kidnap Tom from her. The film ends in a whirlwind of unbelievable violence and guns, where Julia has a moral turnaround in her exchange of the money for the child.
The third person perspective of Julia allows the audience to observe the choices the character makes, whilst conforming to the idea of the resistant maternal melodrama – it explores the trials of motherhood from a fresh perspective, as Julia has only just been put in charge of Tom. The affective presence of Julia as she learns to become a mother is evident in her encouraging words of “Good boy Tom”, when Tom is drying himself in the bathroom, much to both characters surprise. Julia is a character who displays no ‘nurture’ desire in the beginning of the film, stating, “I don’t know the first thing about kids”. When forced into a maternal role, however, maternal characteristics are triggered, repositioning the figure of the mother in traditional discourse. In comparison, Kevin subverts and troubles the genre of the maternal melodrama because the non-linear narrative from Eva’s disorientated hindsight does not conform to Kaplan’s definition when placed alongside the idea that Kevin was never provided with an idealized mother. By mixing the complicit and the resistant maternal melodrama, Kevin subverts the idea of what the maternal is by questioning the audience’s expectations of motherhood.
So how does Swinton’s affective presence or absence as the ‘maternal figure’ in these films subvert the conventions of the maternal melodrama, which have depended upon emotional excess, and legibility of the maternal figure? In Julia, Swinton’s affective presence as the maternal figure subverts the conventions of the maternal melodrama due to the direction in which the character Julia’s emotional excess is directed. Julia is presented as being untrustworthy, shown through her inability to keep her job due to repeated lateness. Her boss snorts in disbelief at her poor excuse of “family problems”, as the character is not the typical ‘mother’ figure in her appearance (tight dresses, over-the-top jewellery, too much make-up, heels) or behaviour (poor time-keeping, alcoholism).
However, throughout Tom’s kidnapping, Julia and Tom become so close that Eva calls herself his mother when questioned by a stranger.
In Kevin, Swinton’s affective absence subverts the conventions of the maternal melodrama through the flat affect of the character Eva, Kevin’s birth is an example of disturbing the genre. In his work on the melodramatic imagination, Peter Brooks, a professor of literature at Yale University, characterizes melodrama as an “indulgence of strong emotionalism” with “extreme states of being” (1976: 4). This is the complete opposite to the post-birth shot of Eva, who sits in a white, clinical room with bare walls and no colour, upright and expressionless as her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) holds a bundle of blankets and coo’s into them. Kevin’s crying dominates the room, merging into the sound of a sander against concrete, a metaphor for overwhelming the eardrums and the psyche. Alongside this, we see no breast-feeding between Kevin and Eva, another example of how their relationship is unnatural from the offset, a denial of the most intimate affections between mother and child. Swinton’s pale skin almost blends into the sheets of the bed, adding to the lack her lack of presence and the unnaturalness of the situation, the blandness of the room making us aware of the absence of colour.
The colour red in Kevin occurs repeatedly, and is undoubtedly a metaphor for the horrors to come, however it could also be deduced that the colour red replaces the affective absence Swinton creates with her use of flat affect in her portrayal of Eva. She uses a red pen when trying to teach Kevin maths, which he purposely flouts by counting to fifty and demanding a stop to the lessons. Kevin turns a piece of bread with unnaturally bright red jam on it upside down on the coffee table, to which Eva glares at him, but does not chastise. Perhaps the most vivid of all is the red paint thrown at Eva’s windows. She cleans it off with the most teeth-clenching methods – razor blades on glass, an electric sander on concrete, scratchy paper on her windshield. The shots of Swinton washing the red paint from her hands are reminiscent of a historically famous woman, who was so affectively absent, she claimed she would “dash the brains” of her new born child: Lady Macbeth. Eva’s guilt in her failings to raise Kevin by society’s norms, not conforming to social scripts and regulations is evident in her eventual affective absence in her interactions with him.
Eva’s guilt is pungent throughout the film, her anxieties made clear as she sees her reflection in her sons actions, made visual through Ramsey’s clever editing of Swinton plunging her face into a sink, and Miller pulling his out. The water signifies purification as Eva tries to wash away the past, but the cuts keep taking us back in time. Kaplan wrote about Nancy Chodorow in her work Motherhood and Representation, a feminist sociologist and psychoanalyst, who theorized “the boy gets his masculine identity through precisely negating his earlier “feminine” identification with the mother” (1992: 33). In Kevin’s similar appearance to Eva’s, it could show the male child’s refusal to negate his identification with his mother.
Red wine is used by Ramsey to symbolise a desire to escape, often shown when Eva has experienced a particularly difficult situation with Kevin. Zonca also uses alcohol as a symbol for escapism, showing Julia often out of control, and then almost stupefied by her hangovers the next day. The character Julia is shown as being ruled by her pleasure principle for immediate gratification, and uses alcohol to forget about her problems. Julia admits to her friend Nick that she’s tired of her life, “I smile and I eat shit from guys, and what do I have? I don’t have anybody, I get drunk, and I’m getting old”.
Alcohol permits an escape from both characters’ lives, however also facilitates their isolation from motherhood, even if only as a temporary escape. Eva covered the walls of her study with maps of countries she had presumably been to, or wished to see, and when asked what they were for by Kevin, she said it was to show an aspect of her personality. When she leaves the room, Kevin takes a water pistol and paint, and shoots the room, ruining the maps and leaving his own mark. Upon return, Eva takes his gun and stamps on it until it breaks. In the next scene, she is shown sitting on the sofa with her feet on the coffee table, shoes covered in red paint, sipping a glass of red wine. The symbolic significance of this scene is overwhelming and has many different connotations, Film4 writer Catherine Bray describing the maps as Eva’s “lost freedom” (2011: 1), but I will explore the phallic ideology behind it. Kevin uses his water pistol, which could represent the penis, to splatter paint, which could be ejaculating and therefore a humiliation technique used on Eva, or urine to leave his scent, in order to mark the room and attempt to regain power over his mother. In this scene, Kevin is attempting to take back control by punishing Eva’s dreams of escape through the paint on the maps, ruining them. The red wine, as alcohol, signifies her need to escape the situation, making her affectively absent as a mother. Religiously, red wine symbolises strength and life, being the blood of Christ, and perhaps Eva seeks strength in order to deal with her daemon child.
Eva does not begin Kevin’s life as an affectively absent mother. In the first interaction scene with Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer), Swinton portrays an affectively present mother, one who tries to engage with her son by asking him “Can you say ball? B-b-b ball?” before rolling the ball towards him. By sounding out the plosives of a simple word, the character Eva is trying to pass on her knowledge to her child and help him to learn, whilst physically stimulating him with a toy. Kevin refuses to respond to Eva, staring blankly at her with a furrowed brow and allowing the ball to roll in between his legs without rolling it back. Kevin only rolls the ball back once when Eva has lost her patience, but then doesn’t respond again.
Kaplan used Freud to explain how and why children learn to speak, “children learn to use language as the means for replacing the loss of the mother” (1992: 29). Freud interprets the learning of talking as a moment when the child becomes autonomous from the mother, so this could be used to explain why Kevin refuses to talk, because he doesn’t want to let go of Eva. Kevin’s affective absence shows how the relationship needs both the mother and the child to participate in order for it to function. Kevin takes no enjoyment from playing with the toys, and does not seem to engage in activities like other children. Therefore he does not fulfil the role of the child that is essential in a mother/child dichotomy. Eva’s calm façade breaks in moments of frustration, for example when she says to him “Mommy was happy before little Kevin came along. Now Mommy wakes up every morning, and wishes she was in France”. When Kevin is incarcerated, Eva still seems to be playing the maternal role, she irons his clothes and folds them, and places them in a room he has never slept in.
The character Julia contrasts with Eva in that she does not attempt to nurture Tom, but does care for him. Julia adapts to her role as a maternal figure in Tom’s life after she kidnaps him, but in a forceful, brusque way. When they first arrive at the motel, she shoves him in the shower, makes him dry himself, and covers him in a blanket whilst he sleeps. This challenges the ideas of Stern and Stern, who wrote a book called “The Birth of the Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever”. This book is a self-help manual on how to be a mother, and what to expect from motherhood. In this book, they write, “you will draw on maternal instincts, developing intuitive ways of holding, touching, and making sounds that build the relationship between you and your baby” (1998: 13). Julia and Eva trouble this idea in regards to how the mother/child relationship is developed. Eva seems to lack the ‘maternal instincts’, whilst Julia develops a maternal relationship with Tom despite her lack of biological connection, and both Eva and Julia display affective absence as a mother throughout. From this we can conclude that Swinton defies the idea of the ‘maternal figure’ by presenting it as an effect of motherhood, rather than the original.
There is a battle between affective absence and presence within the character Eva when Kevin is born. She holds up the baby, who is wailing incessantly, and attempts to arrange her face in maternal ecstasy, but instead freezes in a grimace. Eva shows signs of post-natal depression after the birth. The baby cries for an unnatural amount of time, causing concern from passers by in the street. Eva stands with the buggy next to some road works so that the drilling will drown out the noise of the baby. When Franklin returns home from work, she is lying on the sofa with the curtains closed and a pained expression on her usually crease-free face. Post-natal depression symptoms include tiredness, irritability and indifference to the baby. In an interview in Welburn’s book, where sufferers of post-natal depression are interview about their illness, ‘Ann’ states “Nothing I did seemed to please the baby… I felt helpless… Every single thing that I did, he bawled his head off at, he never smiled, was never happy” (1980: 33). This is echoed in Swinton’s portrayal of a mother who feels she is unable to cope with her own child.
Eva’s pleads with Franklin to leave Kevin settled, when he returns from work. When he picks up the baby, the audience anticipate ear-piercing cries, but the expectations fall short as the child mews in comfort at the touch of his father. Franklins ability to interact with Kevin successfully question Eva’s capabilities, leading to further disconnect from both Franklin out of jealousy and Kevin out of anger. The mother’s life is taken over by the baby, as her appearance changes in order to provide for him, shown by her swollen breasts spilling out of her vest top.
The baby also takes over Eva’s life with his needs, wants and desires. In Lacan’s work on psychoanalysis, he theorizes about a child’s development in regards to their mother, often described as the ‘Other’ due to difference in sex. He writes, “Mans desire is the desire of the Other” (1973: 235), which can be interpreted as desire for recognition from the ‘Other’ – in this case Swinton – alternatively it could be desire for what the Other desires, what the Other lacks – in this case Franklin. In the first case, when a child receives care from the Other, this indicates the Other cares for them and understands them. However as Eva is unable to care for Kevin, the rift between them grows and a lack of understanding stunts their relationship growth. Eva is conflicted in her dislike of Kevin for altering her life, and her desire for him to be societies ideal child. In his earlier work, Ecrits, Lacan writes that desire is essentially a demand for recognition (1966: 431), and that the dependence on the Other for recognition is what structures the drives of the child. (1966: 343). Kevin as a child could be seen as playing up in order to hold Eva’s attention, which is understandable when taking her flat affect into account, and when he doesn’t receive this, his desperation for recognition leads him to act out.
In Julia, it can be interpreted that Julia desires recognition through her promiscuity – a desire for attention and intimacy from men – highlighting her loneliness. She has no ‘Other’ to demand attention from, which could be why she became an alcoholic. This is curbed when she puts herself in charge of Tom, she has responsibility, and her drinking reduces. Neither Eva nor Julia were warned about the effects caring for a child has on you as a person. Against their will, there is a transgression in the character of the female protagonist’s– in early scenes, Eva dances in the rain with Franklin, lies in tomato juice in a crowded festival, enjoys sexual intercourse, yet when Kevin is born, Eva loses the capacity to enjoy anything at all.
To conclude, by comparing and contrasting the affective presence/absence of the mother in Kevin and Julia, I have argued that the ‘maternal’ can only exist within discourse. Swinton has challenged the idea of ‘motherhood’ in these two films through her affective absence. The flat affect makes the ‘maternal figure’ the effect of motherhood rather than the origin, as seen through extending Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Swinton disturbs the conventions of femininity by her androgynous appearance in Kevin, and her over-feminine appearance in Julia, with clothes that accentuate her cleavage. Through this, she also challenges the idea of the mother, as she is supposed to be the ultimate woman – a provider of life. The idea of the ‘maternal’ has been shown to be a set of acts which comes into being through repetitive performance, or in the case of these two films, does not come into being if not performed at all. Instead there is an absence of maternity. In Julia, this is shown through the scene when she buys him food and gives him water, where she performs maternal tasks, even though she isn’t Tom’s mother, or even a mother at all. These tasks do not appear natural to her, so one can only assume she performs them because she has seen someone else do this. Likewise in Kevin, Eva consults a doctor because she has a lack of confidence with what her own parenting skills, and suggests Kevin has autism so as to free her from blame. Ultimately, both films epitomise the sense that neither presence/absence can dictate a woman’s maternal nature, in that conforming to society’s expectations of motherhood will not guarantee a successful mother/child relationship.
Through her use of flat affect in Kevin, Swinton manages to disconnect with the expected warmth and love that a woman is stereotypically expected to express towards their new born. This could be used to explore post-natal depression. Swinton’s performance in Julia contrasts mightily with this, being one of Swinton’s most extroverted roles. As a woman who shows no desire to be a mother, having the idea of her having ‘family troubles’ scoffed at by her boss, Julia takes on the maternal role reticently.
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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Director: Lynn Ramsey
Producer: Christopher Figg, Jennifer Fox
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller
Director: Erick Zonka
Producer: Jeremy Burdek, Bertrand Faivre
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Saul Rubinek