Life Lessons and the Cycle of Violence

a critical response by Jessica Faucher

Life Lessons (1989) is a short film directed by Martin Scorsese.  The story takes place in New York City.  Lionel Dobie, a famous artist, is well known for his paintings.  People who love this field see him as a model and someone very important. Paulette is his “assistant” and ex-‘friend with benefits’.  The message conveyed by this film is powerful and at the same time almost shocking. The film highlights verbal manipulation and verbal violence in all its horror.  The director used several techniques to convey his powerful message including types of shots, colors, dialogue, and editing.

Dialogue is a very important aspect of this film.  Throughout the film, Lionel uses a lot of his dialogue to manipulate Paulette so we can clearly identify, what we call in nursing, “the cycle of violence.”  The cycle is proposed by Walker (1979) and includes three recurring phases.  The three phases are demonstrated in this film.  “Phase 1 is the internal buildup of tensions as a result of the abuser not knowing how to verbalize inner feelings” (Halter 535).  In the movie, he can not have sex with her which frustrates him a lot and during their chic evenings, Paulette talks to men and it makes him very jealous.  Therefore, this feeling of loss of control over Paulette builds up tension inside him.

After the first stage, Lionel falls into the second.  He converts dysphoria into verbal abuse through the assertion that it is Paulette’s fault.  This stage two, called “tension-building,” is characterized by verbal abuse (“I’m under pressure”, “You’re not good”, “Where you are gonna go?” “Who cares about your work?” “I’m the lion,” etc.), pushing (pushing her into the closet, making fun of her, etc.), and minor incidents.  Lionel tries to reduce his tension by painting, and this is very characteristic to this stage.

After that, the stage called “acute battering” is starting.  This is when the abuser explodes (when he attacks her ex-boyfriend, prevents her from talking to other guys, etc.)  Directly after an extreme aggressive episode of manipulation or physical violence, the abuser promises anything to get the victim back (“I will do anything for you,” “I love you,” etc.)  This phase coincides with the “honeymoon” phase, which is characterized by kindness, loving words, gifts, and promises (he bought her a beautiful dress, made promises).

Throughout the film, Paulette believes the promises, feels needed and loved so she drops her plan to get out of this relationship.  As an example, 18:00 minutes after the beginning of the film, she calls her mom to say that she wants to go back to school and get out of New York and a few minutes later she changes her mind because she sees Lionel painting. Often in toxic relationships like theirs, victims focus only on the qualities of their abuser (for Lionel it is painting).  Unfortunately, if the cycle doesn’t break, it will repeat itself again and again. The victim’s self-esteem will become more and more eroded (Paulette always asks Lionel’s opinion) and the chance that the victim gets out of this relationship by themselves becomes more and more improbable (Halter 535).  When they are in the honeymoon phase, Paulette is always filmed in a high angle so that we see her as a fragile or manipulated person.  On the other hand, Lionel is captured with a low angle shot which makes him look superior to Paulette.

Moreover, the director used the color red to represent sex, romance, and temptation.  When the red light in Paulette’s room is on this means that Lionel is in a phase where he wants to have sex with her.  Also, when Paulette is having sex with the young artist Reuben Toro, we can observe the red light in her room.  Furthermore, at the beginning when Lionel tries to have sex with her, the lights are very low and the room is dark.  The darkness of the room brings a sense of sexuality.  When Paulette told Lionel that she does not want him back and that they are not going to have sex, the red light is hidden by a sheet.  Also, the music that Lionel puts at this moment is very intense and “aggressive” (“The Night Time is The Right Time” of Ray Charles) in contrast with the other music during the film.  At this moment, it’s a point of view shot as though we are the painting.  I thought it was very well done because we felt as if we were a woman looked at by him.  Not long after, there were many closeups of the red paint.  We were able to hear the paint on the canvas and it was a reminder of the sexual trait of this film.  Later in the film, when Paulette is supposedly sleeping with the other man, there is a closeup on Lionel, but more precisely on his filth.  His filth makes a link with the fact that he is a “piece of sh*t” and that clearly, he does not deserve her.  Thereafter, there is a medium shot of him looking at Paulette’s window and the audience can understand that the only thing that he is thinking about is her.

In the end, when Paulette begins to realize the truth, there are no more high angles of Paulette and low angles of Lionel as if Lionel’s dominance were leaving.  At the very end, there is a closeup on the skin of a new woman… he found another victim.  Through the words of Lionel, we know that the cycle will restart with another woman now that Paulette is gone.

Finally, this film was very intense in emotions.  The director did his job well and the message was very clear.  Most of the abusers are valued by their community, and are people who look good, but you cannot judge by appearance.  As demonstrated in the film, if the abuser does not seek help, the circle will start over and over again. 

Works Cited

Halter, M. J., Pollard, C. L. & Jakubec, S. L. (2019). Varcarolis’s canadian psychiatric mental health nursing: A clinical approach (second edition). Elsevier.