Last night I watched Frozen and then started a chapter on Freud in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Bloom’s thesis is that Freud was dead wrong on most of his interpretations of Shakespeare, but that if we analyze Freud using Shakespearean psychology, we find some very interesting things. The most important thing I get from Bloom’s ideas is that the quality of ambivalence is incredibly important to understanding what makes a character compelling. Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, is a character that rivals MacBeth, King Lear, and Hamlet in her ambivalence and psychological torment, so I finally have an analytical tool to express my profound enjoyment of this great movie.
I’ve heard many analyses of what makes a great character, but none of them quite hit the nail on the head. What surprises me is how often these days formulaic characters are supposed to stand in for real characters, despite how every book on writing says not to use formulaic characters. As long as Star Wars serves as an example and people are open to completely misinterpreting Joseph Campbell, we will still find troops of characters who exemplify a certain mix of types, as in the method of Ben Jonson, where characters embodied particular humors. Quite often you will find in movies, but even in books, where this sort of thing is supposed to be easy to catch, a troop made up of an idealistic, naive youth (Luke Skywalker), an old man (Obi Wan), a roguish, pragmatic scoundrel (guess who) and some comic relief. They have to save a girl. This really comes off sometimes, like in Repo Man, or of course Star Wars, but those movies don’t touch us in the same way as something like Hamlet.
Why? Because characters that are written like real people — Shakespeare’s real innovation — are not just wounded. It’s not just that their parents are dead. It’s that they are ambivalent. They have goals, they have motivation, but they often swing back and forth between what they will do about it. They have bouts of depression and periods of certainty, always with something to end it and turn them back the other way. They have repression (in the Freudian sense), and often find themselves betrayed by their own minds. Othello doesn’t know who to believe about Desdemona, and ultimately it is his own duplicitous mind, not Iago, that leads him to tragedy. MacBeth is tortured by his knowledge of fate and his own moral sense, and doesn’t act until his wife bullies him into it, even though he suggested the murder of Duncan. Then he goes nuts and starts massacring everyone, including children, and eventually comes to think of himself as invincible: he thinks the Weird Sisters have told him something impossible (that he cannot be killed except by one “not from woman born”), and he only interprets it that way because of his tragic hubris. Or is it because he’s tortured by guilt? The reader, or audience member, sees the ambivalence of the character and recognizes his own ambivalence, and this creates tension. How is that particular person (the character) going to resolve things? We want to know how the character will resolve his inner conflict, or how fate will do him in because of his inability to do so.
What about Elsa? When we first meet Elsa, she is innocent. She plays with her magical ice, and until she becomes aware of its destructive power, by almost killing her sister Anna, she has no anxiety about it. After this she becomes an example of repression: she has amazing power, but sees it only as a threat. The doors are closed, Elsa is separated from her sister, and her father becomes her coach in repressing her emotions. When Elsa first shows her anxiety, she’s about on the cusp of puberty (in the shot where she paces back and forth before her father, saying she can’t control her ice powers). Before this she’s being a good little girl, repeating her father’s commands, and then at about menarche, her power bubbles over and she becomes convinced that she will hurt someone. Her power, like that of all women, is generative and deadly, both beautiful and frightening.
When Elsa’s parents die, her isolation is complete, and she carries her father with her to coronation in her style of dress, her policy of closing the gates and her treatment of Anna as a foolish child. This incarnation of Elsa I call “Frigid Elsa.” She’s closed up. If she lets anyone in, if she takes off her gloves, her inner (sexual) power will be revealed and people will get hurt. Then watch what happens after Anna (the trickster) provokes her and cracks her casing by ripping off her glove: she runs into the hills, to become queen of a “kingdom of isolation.” But it’s there that she accepts her power, sees its positive side as a creative force, and breaks free of her father’s repressive strategy. She realizes he’s dead, and she no longer has to please him. “Let It Go” is Elsa saying goodbye to her father.
When she’s in a place where she thinks she can’t hurt anyone, she creates not only a beautiful ice palace, but Olaf, a living thing who doesn’t fit the rules: he doesn’t have a skull (or bones), he laughs about getting impaled, and wants to live in the summer. Olaf is not repressed at all, and neither is Elsa when she throws off the Frigid costume. I love when she shakes out her hair and struts out onto her balcony. Look at the way she sways her hips. She’s not hiding anything. When Anna says she’s different, she is blown away by the sexual power that she didn’t know was there, hidden under the father-mimicking costume Elsa wore at the coronation. She’s a fully realized power, comfortable with her sexuality, at least by herself.
But when Anna confronts her again, she is faced with her isolation, her fear of hurting others, and her wayward sister’s potential adoption of yet another boyfriend she hardly knows (“foot size doesn’t matter!”), which is a kid-friendly way of saying she’s promiscuous, at least emotionally. What’s compelling about Elsa is that even when we (and she) think she’s free, she still has huge problems to deal with in terms of relating to others. The end of the story cannot come about until there is a union of opposing powers: Elsa sees that when Anna sacrifices herself, there is a duality that betrays their underlying commonality. The sisters love each other, and Elsa sees that she can love her sister without isolating herself.
What separates Frozen from other movies is this ongoing tension within Elsa: yes, there is external conflict, but it’s all an outgrowth of Elsa’s inner ambivalence. If Elsa weren’t tortured by her own power, Hans and the Duke of Wesselton wouldn’t be able to seize power. If Elsa’s father hadn’t spent so much time teaching her to repress her emotions and sexual nature (and Elsa hadn’t spent so much time trying to please her father), Anna would not be so desperate to find a father figure in a jerk she’d just met. Look at how convinced Anna is that Hans is right for her: “Love is an Open Door” is basically Anna’s neurosis shining through. She sees everything that happens through the lens of her need for acceptance and relationship, even to the point of making stuff up. Anna’s impulsiveness is an outgrowth of her absent father, who spends all his time incestuously dealing with Elsa’s emerging sexual power (look at where his wife is in the shots with pubertal Elsa, and examine her style of dress) that he doesn’t see the burgeoning desperation in Anna, which is her own sexual awakening. Anna is way too sexy for her own good, and reckless to the point of being blind. As a princess, she ought to be smart enough to see what Hans is doing, but she sees herself as “completely ordinary,” and refuses to acknowledge her own wounds. And how does Anna die? By becoming frigid: Elsa almost takes away her warmth, the very thing that makes her ambivalent. Everybody loves Anna’s vivacity, but that’s also what makes her kind of stupid.
This is, according to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare’s innovation: real people, not characters. As compelling an illustration of youthful naivete Luke Skywalker is, he displays very little ambivalence until the middle of The Empire Strikes Back. What’s the most emotionally compelling moment in Star Wars? It’s when Leia finally expresses her vulnerability (ambivalence), as Han is being put into carbon freeze. Rand al’Thor, as well as he is written, is not a very interesting character until The Dragon Reborn, or perhaps Lord of Chaos, when he realizes there’s a madman living in his head. He definitely has moments of confusion in The Great Hunt, but he mainly serves as a swizzle-stick for really ambivalent characters like Nynaeve al’Meara. Shakespeare’s innovation, as far as I am reading Bloom correctly, is that he expressed this ambivalence and its mechanisms of repression so deeply, most deeply in Hamlet. The betrayal and backstabbing of the unconscious is there in every great character. It’s undeniable. It’s not easy to write, but Frozen does it better than any movie I’ve seen in the last ten years. In an era of superhero movies, it’s a good thing to have such a great film masquerading as a kids’ movie. That’s an excellent piece of irony.