Credit: Janus Films
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Spirit of the Beehive — Victor Erice

June 28, 2024

The psychoanalytical turn of film theory in the 1970s, foundational to critical and theoretical film discourses on cinema to date, has always had a particularly limiting and, quite frankly, condescending view of spectatorship in cinema. The already abstruse concept of the Lacanian “mirror stage,” extrapolated by Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry in the ’70s to position “cinema as a (false) mirror” to its presumably white, male, and European audience, rests on the core assumption that cinema’s seductive powers not only render the spectator passive and blank, but also regressively infantile. We become so enraptured with what the screen inside a darkened cinema hall reflects that “our body and mind regress to an earlier stage of psychophysiological development,” unable to distinguish image from reality. So, we become the Lacanian child, aged between 18 months and six years, desperately clamoring to “fill the opaque spot or perceptual hole” of an idealized self we see reflected upon the screen that, in actuality, doesn’t exist. In other words, we’re consistently “othered” by these otherwise idealized images; the unattainable desire to become exactly like these life-like illusions paralyzes and shatters us.

But what if the model Lacanian child sees the cinematic hall of mirrors as more than just an exercise in self-(mis)recognition? What if they see it as an imaginative portal into the world of not “Their Own Other-Self” but “The (Imagined) Other?” The haunting allure of Victor Erice’s extraordinary The Spirit of the Beehive, first released in 1973 and widely regarded as one of the greatest Spanish films of all time, has endured because of its entirely unsentimental, and hence all the more potent, belief in the magic of cinema and, especially, cinema watching. The narrative centers around a six-year-old girl, Ana (played by then-six-year-old Ana Torrent, giving one of the most astonishingly mature child performances of all time), who, after watching the pristinely projected print of Robert Whale’s classic horror film Frankenstein (1931) in their village auditorium with a similarly hypnotized audience of children and adults, becomes deeply fascinated with the film’s most terrifying sequence involving the scientifically engineered Monster first innocently playing along with a young girl before innocently killing her off. In a purely Lacanian sense, she seems to “see” herself as the “other” young girl on screen. And she’s terrified. But she’s also curious – not about the girl, but about The Monster. She wants to understand why he did what he did and why the village folk, in turn, punished him for doing that.

Ana’s productive and proactive engagement with movies is, of course, not positioned as a refutation of film theory that essentially came to dominate film circles after the film’s initial release. It’s imagined as a richly allusive jolt to the self-deceptive, stultifying silence adopted by the adults around her after the Nationalist army defeated the Loyalists in the early 1940s. (The film was also released under the Franco dictatorship, which meant allusion was a more “acceptable” way to critique the ruling establishment). Erice portrays almost everyone in the village as comatose toward, devoid of, or, worse still, even against imagination: Ana’s elder sister outright tells her, “Everything in [Frankenstein] is fake.” But Ana’s radically subjective engagement with the film is anything but that: she “sees,” “finds,” and possibly even “conjures up” her Frankenstein Monster. He’s not what the screen promised; instead, he’s a benevolent Loyalist soldier running away from people who want to make him invisible. Erice doesn’t dismiss this revision of Frankenstein as a young child’s stupid and “fake” imagination. Instead, he reveres it as most hauntingly real. Movie-watching is not, then, an exercise in self-deception in The Spirit of the Beehive; it’s mesmerizingly and movingly real: a, or potentially, the gateway to other(s’) realms outside of your-own-Laconic-narcissistic-self.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon