Anthropologist Mary Douglas entitles her forward to the English translation of French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ masterpiece, Essai sur le Don [Essay on the Gift] (first published in 1925), “No Free Gifts” because of Mauss’ belief that all gifts imply a gesture of reciprocation. Seeing in the exchange of presents a kind of magic power, Mauss queries: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (3). The question has spawned much of contemporary critical theory, ranging as far as communication studies, where the sending of any message implies a necessary response in order to complete the circuit of meaningful exchange.
Mauss sees human culture as a series of “three obligations: to give, to receive, to reciprocate” (39). I pondered the importance of Mauss’ work while watching the new film, The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015), a crass attempt to parlay sexist suspense films from our neo-conservative past, such as Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987) into our present social milieu. The film concerns Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall), addicted to prescription drugs because she is married to an abusive husband, Simon (Jason Bateman) who is fully revealed as a cad throughout the film via the family’s interaction with a former schoolmate of Simon’s, Gordo (Joel Edgerton).
In order to convince you of the importance of Mauss’ ideas for understanding the film, I have to give away the ending. The worst that can come of my breach of protocol is that you won’t want to go see The Gift, which given its vile nature, can only be a social good. Consider this my gift to you.
In childhood, Simon made up a story about Gordo being the victim of abuse, scarring him for life. We come to realize Simon’s Machiavellian habits—of lying no matter what the consequence to others—has continued to this day: Simon gets an important promotion at work by making up a lie about his primary competitor. Gordo schemes to punish Simon by drugging his wife, recording it on video, and then carefully editing the footage for Simon to see. Gordo makes it seem as if he has raped Robyn, forcing Simon to question the paternity of their newborn baby. In the last moments of the film, Gordo calls Simon to seal the full force of his revenge. Gordo’s gesture of quickly casting aside the sling on his arm, caused by Simon’s violence toward him, leads one to believe that Gordo has learned malevolence from Simon, and merely told another lie in order to ruin Simon’s life.
The removed footage (neither we nor Simon actually see Gordo physically assaulting Robyn) produces an ambiguous ending, the ambiguity itself being Gordo’s revenge upon Simon. However, whether Gordo has actually raped Robyn and fathered the child, or it is all just a story meant to punish Simon, the fact remains that the masculine battle between Gordo and Simon takes place at the expense of Robyn, bodily and spiritually. The film is vile either way because it positions Robyn as a mere cipher, an object around which men play their war games.
I want to use Mauss to understand what the notion of the gift means in the film, and in our culture. I suggest that the film, The Gift is an example of the perversion of civilization, transforming human connectivity into alienation. The premise of the film, whether a lie or not, is built upon an impossibility: if Gordo’s rape of Robyn, resulting in her impregnation, is the gift he gives to Simon, then the reciprocation demanded by Mauss is biologically forbidden. Neither of the bellicose men who compete in the death’s dance of masculinity is capable of childbearing, thus making a farce of their performances of mastery by fertility.
But how far afield from Mauss is the film, The Gift, in actuality? After all, the two works share the title. Edgerton’s film seems scripted via Mauss’ observations. Mauss sees marriage rituals as prime examples of the gift-reciprocity system: “[The gift] sheds light upon all the economic and juridical relationships between the sexes within marriage: the services of all kinds rendered to the wife by her husband are considered as a remuneration-cum-gift for the service rendered by the wife when she lends what the Koran still calls ‘the field’” (30). The sexual relations of men and women are bound up with legal rights and property exchange. Robyn’s desire for a child and Simon’s rapaciousness in his business life are the film’s narrative building blocks, cultural behavior productively analyzed by Mauss as part of the gift system.
Indeed, Mauss’ very language for describing the culture of gift giving seems to resonate with the perversity of the film. Building upon the anthropological field work done by Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, Mauss argues: “The system of gift-through-exchange permeates all the economic, tribal, and moral life of the Trobriand people. It is ‘impregnated’ with it, as Malinowski very neatly expressed it” (29). The true sin of Edgerton’s film might simply be that it literalizes Mauss’ mere symbolic analysis.
While the film seems to believe it has discovered a deeply ironic sense of the gift, Mauss suggests that gift culture always already contains this abusive violence. Mauss emphasizes the “double meaning of the word Gift in all these languages—on the one hand, a gift, on the other, poison…. This theme of the fatal gift, the present or item of property that is changed into poison is fundamental in Germanic folklore. The Rhine gold is fatal to the one who conquers it” (63). Gordo gives many gifts to the couple beyond the baby, such as a pond full of ornamental coi fish, which indeed he literally poisons after more of Simon’s insults.
Like Gordo, Mauss sees gift giving as a form of assaultive violence: “[The gift giver] can only prove this good fortune by spending it and sharing it out, humiliating others by placing them ‘in the shadow of his name’” (39). If Gordo is in fact the father of the baby, he has threatened to interrupt the naming privileges otherwise given unequivocally to Simon as Robyn’s husband. The film’s violence is predicted by Mauss: the sociologist argues that failing to return an invitation to a festival or potlatch “has fatal consequences” (40). Thus, Gordo follows a sort of Maussian logic when he repays Simon’s childhood humiliation of him with an even more misanthropic plot in adulthood.
Many of the plot dynamics of the film are referenced in Mauss’ study, as for example the multiple times Gordo and the Callums share meals: “The recipient is dependent upon the anger of the donor, and each is even dependent on the other. Thus one must not eat in the home of one’s enemy” (59). The entire first half of the film offers a series of visitations and dinner parties in which Simon, at Robyn’s behest, tries, and fails, at being hospitable toward his fellow man.
However, Mauss ultimately is interested in critiquing contemporary civilization, and thus turns quite profoundly from the trajectory of Edgerton’s film. Studying so-called primitive cultures, Mauss finds them nothing of the sort. Unlike our present-day, commercial forms of gift-giving, Mauss sees in the cultural practices of the Trobriand Islanders the formulation of a better civilization than the one he was writing from, France in 1925, in the wake of the devastation of the First Word War: “All the things relating to hatred and war… must be exorcised in order to be able to trade between friends” (25).
Indeed, the film associates this war hatred specifically with masculinity, via the question of paternity. Here also, Edgerton’s film merely literalizes that which is symbolic in Essay on the Gift. Speaking of China, Mauss observes: “[The gift] is a kind of right of succession over the thing, mingled with a right of succession over the person, and which clings to the buyer a very long time after the thing has definitively disposed of to another patrimony, and after all the terms of the ‘irrevocable’ contract have been carried out” (63).
The Gift is a vile film where both men in their own way brutalize Robyn; in the grand scheme of things, she is the only one not deadened by their gamesmanship. She is the only character unaware of what has been done to her, while the two men spiral downward, locked in schemes of revenge and counter-revenge. The film seems to want to propose that Gordo leaves his hatred of Simon behind him as he walks out of the hospital with a dismissive wave, but, whether he really went through with the rape implied in the video or not, his return gift of Simon’s childhood hatefulness implicates him in the destructive circuit. Conversely, Robyn’s gift giving, a beautiful baby in the nursery whose reality (or maternity) is not in question, results in the film’s only attachments to life and vitality. Given what we are left with at the end of The Gift, a world without men wielding overextended power might be the best solution of the poor options available, a path toward attaining Mauss’ “trade between friends” where the gift system short-circuits our proclivities toward violence.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W.D. Halls. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1990.