Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy The Jungle Book 2016: Is Mowgli Infantile and Asexual?

The Jungle Book 2016: Is Mowgli Infantile and Asexual?

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Closest to the phallic but yet not phallic, bisexual, linked to a sensitivity of leads and not to that of a surface, intimately unified, in the symbolism, to the consuming fire which fuels in the character and in the destiny, the most ambitious relationships …
– Jean Laplanche

Would sexuality still have a bad press in Hollywood? The last Jungle Book 2016 film in the 3D version of Jon Favreau and distributed by the Walt Disney Company offers us an amazing illustration of the issue. Despite all the cinematographic achievements made by the techniques of the ‘virtuality’ which can combine, closer to the optical illusion, the developments of a human with those of animated beings, the crux of the film – not to say its climax – failed grossly: the sexual seduction scene of Mowgli by the little girl who drags him into the world of the adults, the basic thesis of the whole story, is completely ‘scotomised’.

Let us take as the reference the most famous version, that of the 1967 Disney cartoon-inspired, admittedly with a lot of freedom, by the famous Rudyard Kipling book (Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, Vintage classics, 2012). The thread of the scenario lies in the run of an initiation journey which is supposed to drive the little man to his people in order to ‘save’ him. This idea is expressed by the black panther Bagheera at the beginning of the film: That is definitely the purpose, the teleological argument. Mowgli will be safe and sound if he reaches the goal defined ab initio. As such, the 1967 film performs well with the three moments of an initiation rite: the separation, the marking and the aggregation. The separation from the family of wolves, the passing tests throughout the film, the aggregation into the world of men at the end of it.

Let us compare the two final scenes, the one of 1967 with that of the 2016 version. What does the final scene of 1967 show us? While Bagheera, Baloo and Mowgli are resting in the jungle, the latter hears the melody of a little girl without seeing her. He discovers her in the process of drawing water. He literally falls under her spell and follows her into the village of the humans. Thus summarised, the scene is of little interest. If we detail it, sequence by sequence as proposed by the technique of the ‘fractional dream‘ interpretation, it reveals quite a different content, full of symbols and of psychoanalytical references. Its brutal suppression in the 2016 version interrogates us more than ever.

Mowgli, therefore, hears the melodious song of the little girl; without seeing her. The first reference to the voice register: ‘the largest power of the body emanation’, according to Guy Rosolato and, following to the Freudian model, the ‘bodily, the organic and excitement source, a force, a field, a goal of pleasure linked to a voltage to reduce an object to reach a receiver, to ensure communication. The childish curiosity of Mowgli who rushes on a branch to put a face and a body on the melody probably combines a diffuse seduction with child anxiety by providing’ as a body exercise to old images reconstructed by an evocation produced by the fantasy.’

Is it possible that the reflection of the female face in the water before discovering the real face of the girl indicates this mirror stage, a need for this footboard to constitute an identity before engaging in the understanding of the one of the other: the necessary second time for ‘the perception of the object as an outside’? From the voice, the scene evolves with the seduction by the look. The manipulation – the emphatic and reiterated blinking of the eyelids – by the little girl is equalled only by Mowgli’s awkwardness mixed with his intimidation. His fall from the tree that makes him drop into the water is symbolic in many ways: the ritual purification bath and the sexual awakening in a panic that makes him move back to the edge. The roles are almost reversed while the femininity operates as a ‘masquerade‘: the woman actively seduces the man in order to be then recognised by him as a woman, particularly when she lets fall ‘clumsily’ the water jug. The suspicious comment of Baloo and the amused confirmation of Bagheera are, in this regard, without appeal. The moment when Mowgli places the jug on his head reveals the share of the feminine identification, a substitute for the relationship of love if it is not in its primordial form, as well as this cultural process of hominisation: the learning of an unstable balance where the water would be the reminiscence of overflowing sexuality that needs to be contained. Simultaneously, Mowgli admits with a gesture, the consequences of his biological maturation to which no one can escape. ‘What can I do ?’ he seems to address for the last time to his friends.

Meanwhile, behind the scene and while observing, the surrogate parents consecrate the roles dedicated to each of them in the Oedipal triangulation. The reservations and the concerns expressed by the bear Baloo are assuming the maternal mistrust vis-à-vis the future ‘daughter-in-law’ who ravishes her male offspring while the paternal part is played by the black panther who understands, amused, all the significance of the issue: against the ‘come back’ of the mother reacts the ‘go-ahead’ from the father who is acting, more than ever, as the one who separates the mother from the child. Finally, it is interesting to note the geographical feature of the scene: from the jungle – an instinctual space without law or a limit – Mowgli walks into to the village of men through a marked path. The village is surrounded by a fence which means: to include and to contain, besides the process of civilisation, the human sexual dimension. The entrance in adolescence, often cataclysmic, occurs ‘by the subordination of all other origins of sexual excitement under the primate of the genital areas and that of the process of discovery of the object.’

The fence is even the prerequisite for the emergence and also for the implementation of the adult sexuality by removing the enlarged sexuality as it exists in the jungle, the off-law of instinctual chaos. This is the prohibition, the one who guides us so carefully during the analytic sessions, that demonstrates the surreptitious and, as such, the unconscious presence of the sexual drive in the human psyche. ‘Without the law, the sin is a dead thing,’ reminds us of the apostle Paul.

That is for the version of 1967. All this disappears in that of 2016 when the film ends differently: with his two accomplices, the little man lies lazily on a tree branch. The same one where the earlier version starts the final scene. No indirect reference to the original work – the one which had impressed Freud – where Mowgli asks: ‘What is the good of a man if he does not understand man’s talk?’ Or, when he ‘was so busy learning the ways and customs of men’, ‘to wear a loincloth’, and ‘learn about money’. What is the kind of message conveyed by that unexpected end? No more need to look for the village of men! No more need to grow! No more need to confront oneself to adult sexuality! Let’s remain big children stuck in the ‘outlaw’ world! This is the triumph of the infantile instinctual drive with the message of the individualistic sports performance through the conquest and the mastery of fire.

A subject about which Freud and others after him, have us largely informed: the overweening and even the ‘burning’ ambition of those who were once bedwetting. Certainly, in this 2016 version, the devastating fire and its extinguishing are intimately intertwined. Jon Favreau turns Mowgli, who abducts the fire from men in order to shield the jungle from the cruel claws of the tiger, into a Promethean arsonist: Could it be that Mowgli takes revenge for an offence, a frustration, ‘the most common aetiology of arson as a reactions discharge?

The reminiscence of the childhood scene – the murder of his father by the tiger – makes us think like that. Despite the extinguishment of the fire by elephants, could Mowgli possibly endorse, being surreptitiously Kleinian in our interpretation, the restorative tendency of his sadistic stage? Would the life-saving act allows him to ‘inhabit his body, the same thing that to let the child be almighty‘?

This conclusion convinces us to rule out the Freudian interpretive option, ‘the requirement for an instinctual renunciation.’ It testifies on the contrary, and still according to Freud in Civilisation and Its Discontents, ‘how regularly analytic experiences demonstrate the correlation between ambition, fire and urinary eroticism’: Mowgli learned to run faster, to overcome more obstacles in a wild competition where his main competitors are still animals. Besides the narcissistic dimension of this ending, oddly similar to the unalterable tube of this summer by Justin Bieber, (Baby, you should go and love yourself ), the young hero also endorses a sad humanoid superiority: in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Jean-Luc Vannier is a French psychoanalyst based in Nice (French Riviera). Jean-Luc is an editorial board member of the Psychreg Journal of Psychology


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