Constance, The Cold Fish
In Hollywood films of the 1940s, a young woman was supposed to be full of love, life, yearning, and sexy fragility… especially if that young woman was played by Ingrid Bergman. You simply did not cast Ingrid Bergman unless you were going for sexy fragility. That was considered a waste of Ingrid Bergmanitude.
But Constance Petersen, psychiatrist extraordinaire, is determined to be that waste. One of the first things we learn in this movie is that Constance is about the furthest thing from sexy and yearning. She's cold, serious, and uninterested in romance.
Just check out what her colleague, the amorous (and creepy) Dr. Fleurot, tells her:
DR. FLEUROT: Your lack of human and emotional experience is bad for you as a doctor and fatal for you as a woman.
And when he grabs her in his arms he pauses, rebuffed, and says:
DR. FLEUROT: It's rather like embracing a textbook.
Constance, with her glasses and her dowdy outfit, is not, as Dr. "Sexual Harassment" Fleurot says, a "sweet, pulsing, adorable woman." She's serious. She's boring. She's cold.
(Of course, she's all these things through the lens of Hollywood in the 1940s, when calling a woman "bookish" was almost as insulting as calling her "a serial killer.")
But her coldness is presented in part as what makes Constance cool. Brulov tells her,
BRULOV: Women make the best psychoanalysts till they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.
The film presents Constance's professional skill as tied to her lack of womanly love and sexiness. She doesn't even believe in love, as she tells Dr. Edwardes:
CONSTANCE: People fall in love, as they put it, because they respond to a certain hair coloring or vocal tones or mannerisms that remind them of their parents.
Psychological knowledge empties love out, and shows that it's meaningless and silly. Constance is a skilled psychiatrist, and a professional success, precisely because she rejects all the "womanly" nonsense about love.
Constance the Lover
Psychiatry may think that love is nonsense, but Hollywood doesn't. Hollywood loves love. (And also nonsense, for that matter.)
And so, Spellbound isn't a film about how love is stupid and professional women are awesome for not taking that stupidity seriously. Instead, it's a movie about how Constance, professional woman and cold fish, discovers in herself the womanly lover who can star in a Hollywood film.
Constance falls in love—basically at first sight—with "Dr. Edwardes," the new head of Green Manors psychiatric clinic (who's played by Gregory Peck, a guy designed for women to fall in love with).
Edwardes takes her out to walk about the hills, and the soundtrack swells into ecstatic romantic whooshing. When she comes back, she's visibly moved. One of her gossipy colleagues says:
"Did you notice her blush every time we mentioned his name?"
Once, Constance was impervious, cold, and inscrutable. But when she's in love, she becomes accessible, and readable, by everyone. Love also makes Constance more conventionally feminine and less concerned about her professional appearance and professional standing:
CONSTANCE: I've always loved very feminine clothes, but never quite dared to wear them. But I'm going to after this. I'm going to wear exactly the things that please me. And you.
Love: the Hollywood medicine that makes you uber-feminine and ready to embrace your inner love of lace and high heels.
Psychiatrists in Love
So does Constance's love interfere with her psychiatric practice? In some ways, maybe not. Love doesn't stop her from figuring out that "Edwardes" isn't really Edwardes, but an amnesia case that makes Jason Bourne look like a stable dude.
And her love doesn't steer her wrong about Edwardes/Ballantyne's character, either. She thinks he's a good guy though everybody else thinks he's a murderer—and she's right. At first, her decision to pursue him when he leaves Green Manors seems foolish, as does her decision to protect him from the police.
CONSTANCE: You don't know this man. You know only science. You know his mind, but you don't know his heart.
Constance is being super melodramatic, and Brulov pooh-poohs her illogical womanish pleas for love. But she's right. Being in love, as it turns out, makes her a more insightful psychiatrist. Hooray for love.
But while Constance does become a better therapist through love, the movie also has a lot of anxiety about her professional success and skill. Ballantyne, for example, doesn't like it when she gets all medical.
BALLANTYNE: As a doctor you irritate me. I sit here swooning with love, and then suddenly you ask me a question and I don't like you anymore.
Constance explains that in therapy, the patient always resists and resents the doctor.
But be that as it may, the fact is that throughout the film, Ballantyne continually attacks her and insults her for her accomplishments and her professional status. "If there's anything I hate, it's a smug woman," he snarls.
Oof. According to Spellbound, smart women make men nervous
So: is the professional accomplished woman awesome? Or is she a contradiction and a threat? This film goes back and forth, cheering Constance on one moment, then having Brulov, or Ballantyne, say something nasty about women therapists the next.
It's significant that at the end, you're not exactly sure whether Constance will continue as a psychiatrist, or whether she'll give that up to be Ballantyne's wife. Can love and psychiatry coexist? Spellbound seems to have conveniently forgotten to answer that question.