American Psycho: a double portrait of serial yuppie Patrick Bateman.
--Sigmund Freud, 1919
He wears the finest clothes, the best designers heaven knows. Ooh, from his head down to his toes. Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci. He looks like a still that man is dressed to kill.
--Sister Sledge, 1979
In 2000, director Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis's controversial third novel American Psycho (1991) to the screen, starring Christian Bale as the 27-year-old yuppie/serial killer Patrick Bateman. Like the novel, the film American Psycho can be seen as an ultimate portrayal of the 1980s New York yuppie lifestyle, depicting a world dominated by hedonism, greed, and egocentrism. The novel's long enumerations of brand name consumer goods, denoting the fashion-dictated materialism that constitutes yuppie life, have been translated cinematically into a sterile space of (now extremely dated) 1980s designer goods. The film version anatomizes the construction of Bateman's double identity that in the novel is created through the use of an unreliable narrator, the appropriation of pop cultural products (particularly brand names, pop songs, and the images of horror and porn movies), and the use of "cinematic" techniques of narration. In this article, we will treat the fictional character Patrick Bateman as a double construction of narration and identity by examining the ways in which Bateman is constructed as both a yuppie and a serial killer. By focusing on his being an unreliable narrator in the novel and a reliable narrator in the film, we will show how readers/spectators make sense of Bateman's constructed identity through their role as Bateman's "witness" within his own fictional and cinematic world.
Rather than considering the film version to be an adaptation of the novel, we argue that the novel and film complement each other. In both the novel and the film, Bateman's identity is based on a double construction. Bateman embodies both the well-groomed image of the Wall Street yuppie and the gruesome image of the serial killer. Yet, while Bateman manages to establish the image of the yuppie as a credible appearance before others within the fictional world, beyond the world of fiction it is clear that his identity as cold-blooded serial killer is merely a hallucination. By creating himself an identity as a serial killer, Bateman attempts to connect with something real beyond the superficiality of brand names. However, his serial killer identity appears to be an illusion and this renders his identity as yuppie as artificial, meaningless, and invented. In other words, the readers/ spectators are invited to enter into the process of Bateman's double identity construction, as American Psycho reveals Bateman's techniques of the self. By clearly indicating that Bateman's identity as serial killer is a hallucinatory construction, American Psycho--both the novel and the film--suggests that Bateman's identity as yuppie is a construction as well.
This is the essence of the novel, which in the film version is made palpable through the process of narration, and specifically through the use of an unreliable/ reliable narrator. While in the novel, Patrick Bateman gradually proves to be an unreliable narrator, in the film Bateman's unreliability towards those within the fictional world is made explicit to those outside--paradoxically thereby making him a reliable narrator for the spectators. For example, when Bateman takes his drugged mistress Courtney (Samantha Mathis) to the fashionable restaurant Barcadia, she explicitly asks if they are at the more fashionable restaurant Dorsia. Bateman confirms this, while at the same time showing the spectators in close-up the menu that shows the restaurant's real name. This construction of double narration, where the spectators are placed in-between, suggests that we are watching a film that takes place within Bateman's world of facade, his imaginary world. This element is present in the novel as well, but the film version--appropriately--has taken it to be the most crucial element, the level that constructs the entrance point for the spectator into the film. From the very beginning, the spectators are invited to see the image of Bateman as an imaginary double construction, both within and beyond the cinematic diegesis and narration. The double image of Patrick Bateman is constructed both within the novel and the film, and both media help to construct the double image of the yuppie and the serial killer--which, in the end, becomes actualized only in an empty symbol, a reflection.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE SERIAL YUPPIE
One of the first scenes in the film American Psycho features a sequence of shots that portray Patrick Bateman doing his daily morning routines. Bateman is shown placing an ice mask on his face, training his abdominal muscles, taking a shower, and applying a facial mask. As he removes the mask that has formed a screen on his skin, Bateman's voiceover reveals an explicit self-analysis:
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. Although I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable--I simply am not there.
This self-analysis also appears in the novel, though almost at the end, on pages 376-377, and is the key to understanding American Psycho. Bateman strives to conceal his lack of being with designer suits and pop culture, but remains aware of the meaninglessness of his project: "Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in ... this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged ..." (375). As a result, he tries to narrate himself an identity as a serial killer, but fails in this project too, as he is unable to maintain his reliability as the narrator of his own life. By striving to embody both the image of a yuppie Wall Street stockbroker and a serial killer, Bateman becomes a dark double of the 1980s New York yuppie subculture that reveals nothing but meaninglessness.
From the start of both the novel and the film, Bateman's identity is unclear. He is repeatedly recognized as somebody else, he often confuses the identities of his fellow yuppies, and more than once he deliberately misidentifies himself to others. Bateman's cameo appearance in Bret Easton Ellis's second novel The Rules of Attraction--telling his brother Sean to "Stop deliberately misunderstanding me" (238)--introduces the identity confusion that is dominant in American Psycho, the novel and the film. When the novel was published in 1991, many critics (Iannone, Mailer, and Manguel) focused on the "boring" enumerations of brand name consumer goods and the "revolting" descriptions of the raping, butchering, and killing of women, rather than recognizing the narrator's confused identity and unreliability. They perceived the novel as a manifestation rather than merely a description of a nihilistic and empty culture. As post-feminist Naomi Wolf exclaimed American Psycho was "the single most boring book I have ever had to endure" (34).
However, the unreliability in narration ironizes the overload of brand names and butchered body parts, suggesting that the distinction between serial consumption and serial killing has disappeared. Although his sharp eye for detail suggests a careful and selective observer, Bateman continuously makes seemingly unimportant mistakes. Progressing into the novel, as the killings become more explicitly described, the "errors" increase. Shoes by Susan Warren Bennis Edwards are mentioned as shoes by Warren Susan Allen Edmonds, and as by Edward Susan Bennis Allen (see Young, 102). Bateman's seemingly structured, yet boring and revolting world proves to be inconsistent and illogical, both in time and space. A Christmas party is followed by a night in May; the daily references to the topics of that morning's Patty Winters Show change within the course of the day; the pop artists Bateman mentions do not match the pop songs he hears on the radio. Bateman is in fact an unreliable narrator whose credibility and identity should be questioned, including his confession of being "a fucking evil psychopath" (Ellis 20). Bateman's unreliability as narrator forces the reader to realize that the killings only take place in Bateman's mind. Such a realization is significant, as it shows that Bateman appropriates objects and images of pop consumer culture--both the "boring" and the "revolting" ones--to construct a double identity of himself, one that by definition is mistaken. In this way, the brand names are equated to the violence, and vice versa, reflecting the way in which Bateman's double identity is constructed as mutually incoherent.
In her discussion of the novel, Elizabeth Young has argued that Patrick Bateman is not a "character" but a "cipher"--an empty sign denoting the nothingness of yuppie identity. Bateman is "Everyyuppie, indifferent to art, originality or even pleasure except in so far as his possessions are the newest, brightest, best, most expensive and most fashionable" (103). The Everyyuppie is a flat "character" whose nihilism is concealed by his perfect exterior, a depersonalization ironically contrasted by the "personal names" of his clothes: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani. His subjectivity is based on (capitalist) materiality and symbolic expression, as haute couture fashion and cosmopolitan lifestyles have become identity building blocks that communicate the subject's social desirability and status, articulating the subject's cultural body (Lauer and Lauer; Silverman). Bateman is an inscriptive surface that can be signified, "masked" through fashions, lifestyles, habits and behaviours (Grosz). Through the inscription of cultural values, signified by the brand names like Clinique and Giorgio Armani, Patrick Bateman embodies the 1980s yuppie cultural environment. In fact, Bateman succeeds in establishing the image of the Everyyuppie to the extent that he is constantly mistaken as being someone else who embodies the same image; indeed his firm is full of Bateman-clones.
Several critics have pointed out that the film version captures the satire contained within the novel, how its cinematography and production design mirrors Bateman's narcissism and love of designer goods, and how this is juxtaposed to the killings Bateman commits (Kauffman, Porton, Rayns, Smith). More importantly, the film version highlights the way in which Bateman constructs his identity as yuppie with the cliche images of consumer goods and pop culture, and the way in which the construction of his identity as serial killer is based on the cliche images of horror and porn films. In the film version, this constructed superficiality of his serial killer identity is shown as Bateman lectures on pop music (Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston) before "performing" the sex acts and/or killings, suggesting that his serial killer identity is as superficial and artificial as his yuppie identity. While getting his silver colored axe (like his 1980s mobile phone, a gadget of high design) ready to butcher, Bateman lectures about the Huey Lewis hit single "Hip To Be Square"--"A song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics, but they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of friends, it's also a personal statement ..." and murders his colleague and competitor Paul Owen (Paul Allen in the film version, played by Jared Leto), hiding the dead body in a overnight bag designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. In another murder scene, we hear a bombastic instrumental version of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." Again, as Bateman is ready to kill, he philosophizes about the pop song. "Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it's not too late to better ourselves. Since it's impossible in the world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It's an important message, crucial really, and it's beautifully stated on the album" (our italics). Once the music stops, the sound is immediately taken over by the puffing sounds of Bateman having sex with two women, abruptly transforming into screams, as Bateman chokes one and chases the other with a chain saw, with blood all over the place. The juxtaposition of the banality of pop song philosophy with the stereotypical actions and sounds of the porn star and serial killer reinforces the notion that Patrick Bateman's identity is constructed as an empty sign of pop consumer culture.
The inconsistent and illogical narrative structure of time and place in American Psycho appears to be solved after Bateman's murder of Paul Allen, which subsequently leads to an investigation by detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe). The murder not only provides an explanation for Bateman's deliberate attempts to be mistaken for Marcus Halberstram, but also suggests a motive. Paul Allen has the nicest business card, has succeeded in obtaining the Fisher account, and is always able to get a reservation for the Dorsia restaurant on Friday night, making Allen, rather than Bateman, Everyyuppie. By being the ultimate successful yuppie, Allen challenges Bateman's subjectivity as the Everyyuppie--and thus needs to be exterminated. In Allen's embodiment of the Everyyuppie, Bateman sees himself more perfect than he feels himself (like the child before the Lacanian mirror), and he experiences his yuppie subjectivity to fade away. As a result, the subjectivity of the serial killer emerges. In addition, the investigation suggests that the outside world is finally reacting to Bateman's actions as serial killer, implying that Bateman's imaginary world is in fact "real." However, both in the novel and the film, the investigation by detective Kimball is presented in such a stereotypical, hyper-real Hollywood fashion that the reader/spectator is forced to question the sudden emergence of logic and consistency in the narration.
At this point, the comparison between the novel and the film becomes most relevant. In the novel the "cinematic" narration takes over, meaning that the narrative follows the conventions of the traditional Hollywood thriller. As according to convention the murderer always gets caught, the next murder Bateman commits is followed by a stereotypical chase scene--Bateman is chased by the police cars and helicopters, including a conventional exchange of fire. The chase is the only part of the novel which is written in the third person narrative, rather than in the first person, enhancing the image of Patrick Bateman--the Hollywood killer--starring in the role of his life.
... and in the near distance he can hear other cars coming, lost in the maze of streets, the cops now, right here, don't bother with warnings anymore, they just start shooting and he returns their gunfire from his belly, getting a glimpse of both cops behind the open doors of the squad car, guns flashing like in a movie and this makes Patrick realize he's involved in an actual gunfight of sorts, that he's trying to dodge bullets, that the dream threatens to break is gone, that he's not aiming carefully, just obliviously returning gunfire, lying there, when a stray bullet, sixth in a new round, hits the gas tank of the police car, the headlights dim before it bursts apart, sending a fireball billowing up into the darkness ... (Ellis 350, our italics)
The film version brings Bateman's movie to life, as the cinematic techniques of narration used in the novel are adopted in the film. With the "voice" of the ATM-machine telling him to "feed me a stray cat," Bateman enters the movie in which he stars as the main villain. As Bateman pulls his gun on the small kitten, an elderly woman passing by shouts "Oh my God, what are you doing? Stop that!" He shoots the elderly lady dead, an act which is directly followed by first the sounds of a police siren, then by the police car pulling up around the corner: the chase begins. As the non-diegetic music swells, Bateman adds to the cacophony by setting off the alarms of the parked BMW's and Porsches. With its use of the cliche elements, the chase scene is a direct caricature of the action genre, including exploding police vehicles and the exchange of fire. As the star of his own action film, Bateman succeeds in killing all the policemen and making the police cars blow up in an atomic explosion. By bringing Bateman's movie to life, the film invites the spectator into the process of Bateman's identity construction: the way in which Bateman sees himself as a star in his own movie indicates the way in which he has assumed the modes of his social conduct, either as Everyyuppie or as serial killer.
Conventional elements of the thriller and horror film genre can also be found in the film's other chase scene, in which, after choking his friend Elizabeth (Guinevere Turner), Bateman kills Christy (Cara Seymour), a prostitute that he has picked up from the street. This scene, entitled "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" on the DVD edition, reinforces the connection to the horror genre. The chainsaw chase scene is drastically different from the style and pace of the rest of the film. The scene includes point-of-view shots of Christy, while almost all the remaining POV's are exclusively Bateman's, with the exception of the POV's of Bateman's secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny). In this way, the film systematically incorporates female POV's other than Bateman's, suggesting a gendered identification, which will be discussed later on. Christy's POV's are intercut with long shots of her fleeing from the crime scene, her finding dissolving bodies of earlier killed women in Bateman's closet, and of Bateman chasing her with a chainsaw in his hands, blood dripping from his mouth. The fast-paced scene ends with the absurd murder of Christy at the bottom of the staircase, as, from an impossible angle, the dropped chainsaw slices her in two. Together with the police chase scene, the absurdity of this scene suggests that the murders take place in Bateman's fantasy; not in the diegetic world of the film, but in the universe of Bateman's cinematic fiction. As a result, we as spectators are drawn into his cinematic fantasy, a "film" that is playing in Bateman's head, featuring the exaggerated parody elements of the horror genre that Bateman uses to construct his identity as serial killer.
Patrick Bateman is constantly confronted with the possibility of his hallucinatory identity as Everyyuppie fading away. When his colleagues seem to have more elegant and stylish visiting card than he has, he suffers a panic attack. His corporeal body is brought into asynchrony with its environment as it collapses under the fancy suit: we can see sweat drops appearing on his well groomed skin and we can hear his heartbeat speeding up. In order to hold on to his hallucination, Bateman "kills" the ones--like his colleague Paul Allen--that present a threat to his hallucinatory identity. Yet his attempt to murder another colleague in "real life" fails, and this results in another threat to his serial killer identity. The appearance of detective Kimball provides a credible plotline to the narrative of Bateman's life. But all the other characters pose a potential threat to Bateman's hallucinatory identity, and this is why he cannot encounter anyone except on the most superficial level.
In the novel, Bateman's cinematic fictional world is implied through the use of the unreliable narrator and the use of the third person narrative in the police-chasing scene. In the film, however, the cinematic fictional world is made explicit through the use of horror and action film conventions. Bateman cannot separate the "real" world from the world of fiction--mostly horror and porn films--that he fills his days with. As a result, he sincerely believes that these actions have really taken place and, after the police chase scene, he calls his lawyer all confused and shaken, and "confesses" the murders. Bateman knows that, in a conventional fictional thriller, the murderer always gets caught, and that is why his twisted mind has to invent a chase scene. Yet it is clear that Bateman has fantasized the chase, as well as the murders, in order to provide himself with an exciting identity as serial killer, desperately trying to retain meaning into his life. Through the juxtaposition of the spectators in between the "subjective reliability" and "objective unreliability" in the process of narration, the spectators are invited to participate in the process of cinematic meaning production.
MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL ...
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the divided subject misrecognizes itself as a unified subject who acts in the world. This means that to be able to function in the world, the subject has to "accept" its fundamental disunity. This takes place for the first time in what Lacan calls the mirror stage. In the mirror stage the infant becomes aware of itself as an autonomous entity that is distinct from its environment. Whereas originally the infant experienced itself as a shapeless mass, it now gains a sense of wholeness by making an imaginary identification with its reflection in the mirror. In the mirror image the child now appears as a unified entity that is separate from other entities. The gratifying experience of the mirror image results in the child's sense of unity and inner control, a pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal stage that Lacan calls the realm of the Imaginary. This interplay between the mirror image and the self continues into adulthood, preventing the threat of a loss of self. The elaboration of an unitary body image is an essential part of subjectivity through which the subject is able to signify its body (1979).
The film American Psycho is full of reflecting mirrors and other surfaces on which the spectator gets to glance Patrick Bateman's face. These often vague mirror images--like the one in the metallic cover of the menu in a fancy restaurant--reflect Bateman back his acquired double identities: the one of a fashionable yuppie that he wants to show to others, and the one of a cold-blooded killer and porn star that he wants to believe in himself. In the sex scene with two female prostitutes, Bateman literally plays the role of the porn star. Not only does he look at himself constantly in the large mirror, striking a pose and flexing his muscles, but he also performs before the camera of his homevideo set.
The identity of the serial killer is repeated through the theme of the mirror even in the film poster, in which Bateman's image is reflected on a knife. Whereas Bateman manages to establish the image of a yuppie as a credible appearance before others--even to such an extent that he is constantly mistaken as being someone else who embodies the same image--he seems to be a cold-blooded killer only in his own fantasies. Already in the beginning of the film, we see a reflection of Bateman's face in the mirror behind the bar of a night club when he tells the waitress: "You're a fucking ugly bitch. I wanna stab you to death and play around with your blood." As the waitress does not react to this, the spectator is left to wonder whether Bateman really said these words out loud, or that it just took place in the mirror world of his imagination.
In the bathroom sequence we are shown a double reflection of Bateman in the mirror that forms a triangle with the "original image" (a frame within a frame). On the visual level, the reflections are given equal status with the "original" so that it is almost uncertain which Bateman is the original one. This suggests that it is really only a reflection that is being portrayed as "Bateman" while the "real" Bateman does not exist at all. His reflection on the glass of the framed poster of Les Miserables is perhaps the most thought-provoking: Bateman's identity is as illusory as the one of the sublime beggar of Victor Hugo, but whereas the latter has emotional and psychological depth, Bateman is merely a psychic void. The mirrors and other reflecting surfaces do not play an important role in the visual field of the film only because Bateman is narcissistic (he is not a Narcissus who got lost in the mirror image). Bateman needs the reflections of his own image as a confirmation of his existence, his Self--and this is how Sigmund Freud has described the funtion of the double in his work The Uncanny (1919). According to Freud, a subject needs to be able to recgonize itself in the reflection in order to be one with itself. This is, however, something that Bateman is not able to do (and why he constantly needs to confirm his identity by looking at mirrors and other reflecting surfaces), which causes his Self to gradually fade away. Bateman cannot attach himself to the world and to achieve himself an identity in another way but the double mirror images, because he has no emotions--except for greed and disgust. Bateman is incapable to be concerned with anyone besides himself which is the precondition for existing in the world. Because Patrick Bateman confuses his body with his mirror image, appearance with substance, he simply is not there, except as a reflection.
Like the facial mask, Bateman has built a protective screen between himself and the harsh truth that his subjectivity is merely nothingness. This mask is, on the one hand, his acquired hallucinatory identity as serial killer, and, on the other, the--equally acquired--credible appearance as Wall Street yuppie (his culturally inscribed body). These two identities function as a mask to Bateman and as a double for each other: the serial killer embodies the Other that the yuppie refuses to be. This is why Bateman's double identity causes him such anxiety: the identity of the serial killer causes the yuppie to fear for its existence and vice versa. According to the myth, whoever meets his or her double must die, and, indeed, as Bateman's nightly bloodlust starts to penetrate into his days, as "reality" eventually has to clash with Bateman's hallucinations, his mask of sanity gradually begins to slip and his identity eventually fades away--what is left is nothing. Bateman is confronted with the fact that his identity as serial killer exists only in his imagination. Like Dorian Gray, he searches his "portrait" in the closet of the apartment of his "murdered" fellow yuppie only to find it clean and shiny, with empty paint cans in the corner. Has the portrait been painted over? Bateman has taken his hallucinatory identity as serial killer literally, and as "reality" finally penetrates through this hallucination it also causes the (equally hallucinatory) identity of Everyyuppie to fade away. The identity that he has projected onto the external world (the serial killer) vanishes along with his incorporated identity (the Everyyuppie) and Bateman rushes out of the building in a hysterical state, in the verge of total collapse. In the final scene Bateman has returned behind the facade of his hollow yuppie life, and the business goes on as usual. Sitting in the Harry's Bar with his colleagues he confesses in a voiceover that "inside does not matter." Inside does not matter because it does not exist, and it is from this state that Bateman has NO EXIT.
THE RULES OF EVIL ATTRACTION
What is then appealing in this portrait for the spectator? From the very beginning of the film, as the camera strolls in Bateman's tasteful apartment on the level of the eye, the spectator is invited to enter into his world. Yet, the spectators do not identify directly with Bateman, but with the women--especially his secretary Jean--who are in love with him. It is this identification with women that renders Bateman's character fascinating for the spectator. This position for identification is not exclusive to male spectators. As Tania Modleski convincingly has shown in her reading of Hitchcock's Rebecca, male identification with a female character is possible, because of the male infant's original identification with the mother. In American Psycho, this possibility for identification is created by transforming the women (who in the novel appear flat) into full-dimensional characters, by giving the spectator access to their point of view (which in the novel does not occur), and by nurturing empathy for them. This appears to be a conscious choice from the part of the filmmaker, as director Mary Harron has defined her conception of the film as a feminist project (Porton 44). First, American Psycho can be considered feminist because of its strong reliance on identification of female characters. Without this identification, the spectator--male or female--cannot understand the film. The climatic scene of the film (which again does not appear in the novel) is told from Jean's perceptual as well as psychological point of view: we survey Bateman's diary filled with brutal drawings through Jean's eyes and we share her horror as we are shown a close-up of her terrified face. Second, the way Bateman is portrayed as an "object-to-be-looked-at" with his perfectly sculpted body seems to invite female (and gay) spectators to look in an erotic, active way. Third and final, identification with female figures in American Psycho is also important to the development of horror conventions in the film: one cannot understand evil unless one empathizes with those who are being victimized, and it is this structure of empathy that is essential to horror (dis)pleasure.
Even though spectators are prone to be disgusted by Bateman's actions, they cannot reject him entirely. First of all, Bateman is quite an attractive character, not monstrous. He does not meet the requirements of the monster of a horror story that, for instance, Noel Carroll has described, being an outsider that does not fit into reality, a strange creature in a normal world. Bateman certainly does not look like a monster (as the tagline of the film implies, evil never looked so damn good) and his appearance also fits perfectly into his social life. But Bateman is also charming, at least in the diegetic world of the film. He arouses love in almost every heterosexual woman and gay man in the film: his secretary Jean, his colleague Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross), his neighbor Victoria (Marie Dame). As one of his one night stands puts it, there is something sweet about Bateman. As a result, the spectator feels the urge to see him as a person that is full of psychic traumas instead of a glossy monster with no inner life. The spectator wants to be able to understand and even pity Bateman, to fill the void of his subjectivity, and to "normalize" him in a certain sense of the word.
Furthermore, with the exception of the brutal killings of a poor, homeless black bum and his little dog, the murders that Bateman commits are either distanced ironically or only implicitly referred to. He meets a woman late at night in the street and brings--supposedly bloody--sheets to the Chinese launderette the next day, or keeps a model's head in his refrigerator next to a carton of sorbet. But when he attempts to perform a "real" murder on his colleague Luis, Bateman gets all shaky and sweaty with the result that Carruthers mistakes Bateman's actions as romantic advances.
Spectators, then, also have an ambivalent relationship with Bateman, so typical for the horror genre where spectators are both attracted to and repulsed by the threatening monster--whether an alien or a psychopath (Shaw). On the one hand, spectators are confronted with Bateman's monstrousness, but on the other, they become Bateman's confidants, narratees, and this is why Bateman is both a fascinating and a disgusting character. However, not both at the same time. Bateman is a Janus-face, of whom spectators can see only one side at the time. Indeed, after Bateman has killed Paul Allen, only one side of his face is covered with blood, the other side is not. In the scene that follows the killing, Bateman turns first the bloody side of his face to the camera and then the clean side. Bateman's secretary Jean is the spectators' "double" in the film, in the sense that she is the only one in the diegetic level of the film who rises to the same level of knowledge as the spectators, being at the same time attracted to Bateman. After Bateman's hysterical breakdown, Jean goes to his desk and finds a diary filled with gory drawings--a scene that explicitly suggests that Bateman has done the killings in his head and not in "reality." Both Jean and the spectators are then the locus of the contradictory double life of Bateman, which manifests itself both on the level of narration and on the level of the reflecting images. In conventional horror films, spectators are enabled to identify with heroic protagonists that overcome themselves to destroy the monster (Wood, Shaw). American Psycho, however, does not bring this kind of cathartic outlet for the spectators, as there is no final struggle between the hero and the antagonist--something just disappears, Bateman's double identity was never there. It is thus impossible to render the situation normal--everything has remained the same--and that is why the ending of the film is a disturbing anticlimax for the spectators as well as for Bateman. In this way, American Psycho plays with the cliches of porn and horror films, but in the end takes distance from them.
In the final scene of American Psycho, entitled "No Catharsis" on the DVD edition, a connection to the "real" world is temporarily established through the television speech by President Ronald Reagan, talking about "mistrust and lies" in the Iran-Contra scandal. However, as Bateman's friends dismiss Reagan as a liar who covers up his "inside" with a false exterior, Bateman's voiceover takes over by stating that "inside doesn't matter." Subsequently, the voiceover continues the self-analysis presented at the beginning of the film:
There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. My punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling....
The image of Patrick Bateman, portrayed in the film American Psycho, is merely an imaginary double construction. While his character in the novel already symbolized the emptiness and the nothingness of yuppie identity, by making use of fiction within a fiction, the film version brings Bateman's nothingness to yet another level. The chase scene, where Bateman runs aimlessly and in a hysterical state along the empty streets of New York, resembles a nightmare a la Kafka, or perhaps Baudrillard, and suggests that Bateman's double identity simulacrum is finally falling apart. Bateman entered a movie in which he stars, and where he is able to attach meaning to his life as a movie killer, yuppie, and porn star, but now he cannot find his way back anymore, because there really is nothing beyond the movie. Bateman's acquired double appearances have irrevocably replaced the substance of his Self--if it ever was there in the first place. And it is this level that the film brilliantly invites the spectator to experience. Bateman's attempt to achieve an identity of a yuppie is thus no more than an illusion, a set-up, an alter ego. American Psycho is a double portrait of a yuppie monster, but what this double portrait reflects is nothingness, and that is what is terrifying in the portrait. Indeed, as Bateman's voiceover concludes: "This confession has meant nothing."
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JAAP KOOIJMAN is assistant professor in Media and Culture (formerly Film and Television Studies) at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His research focuses on the appropriation of images of "America" in European and Dutch Cultural production.
TARJA LAINE is a teacher in Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. thesis on Finnish visual culture and the way in which the emotion of shame as a master narrative is circulated in Finnish national imaginary.
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|Author:||Kooijman, Jaap; Laine, Tarja|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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