The ideal romantic relationship involves mutual understanding, interdependence, and personal growth. However, to love is to risk one’s own identity, for loving another is often a transformative experience. Those willing to fall in love may find their sense of self so thoroughly entwined with another’s, their own wants, needs, and aspirations become secondary to their partner’s. In William Friedkin’s psychodrama, Bug, a lonely waitress and former victim of domestic abuse named Agnes becomes romantically involved with Peter, a brooding, intellectual war veteran whose unconventional thoughts and behavior gradually alter Agnes’ view of the world. Prone to codependency and wanting to escape her world of loneliness and fear, Agnes allows Peter’s ominous obsession to subsume her own identity.
The visual tone established in the first few scenes that introduce Agnes’ character reveals her loneliness and vulnerability. In an aerial shot the camera gradually glides over a vast and empty landscape before honing in on a small motel isolated in the middle of the desert. With the exception of the occasional car driving on a nearby road, the area seems to be devoid of human life until Agnes’ tiny figure becomes more visible. A subsequent wide angle shot of her standing alone outside of her motel room, further emphasizes her isolation. The overwhelmingly empty surroundings, the trees surrounding the motel, and the building itself seem to obstruct Agnes’ connection to the outside world. A blue neon light envelops the entire area including Agnes’s body, setting a somber tone and signifying her unhappiness. Extremely small compared to other elements in the frame Agnes’ faceless form seems insignificant and devoid of an identifiable self. While leaning on one of the motel’s columns, staring up at the sky she gives the impression that she lacks the ability to stand on her own. The dark sky above and the ground below which dominate the frame imprison in this desolate reality. After entering her small living space, Agnes she is plagued by passive aggressive phone calls from her violent ex-husband, who only breathes on the other line. Agnes’s inability to ignore these messages and the increasingly tight framing of shots which ultimately becoming extreme close-ups focusing on the terror in her eyes demonstrate Agnes’s fear, lack of agency, and susceptibility to manipulation. Undoubtedly in need of rescuing and a resurgence of self-esteem Agnes invites Peter and mysteriously dark presence into her life, body, and mind.
When Agnes is introduced to Peter for the first time, the shifting proximity of the characters illustrate the hasty development of their relationship, while the dark atmosphere foreshadows a foreboding union between them. Initially, Agnes makes her mistrust of Peter apparent when she says she “[doesn’t] know him” and that “he could be an axe murderer.” A succession of shot reverse shots between Agnes and Peter accentuate the personal distance between them, as neither character shares the same space. By the time Agnes and Peter do share space in the frame, Peter stands in the background a blurry, enigmatic figure bathed in the blue light of the motel exterior, while Agnes stands in the foreground, untouched by the blue light, far away, and seemingly oblivious to his presence. Agnes’ progression toward Peter in the medium two shot places her in the blue light, marking the beginning of their emotional connection. Peter admits that he wants to see Agnes again after they have both moved to a secluded and dark area obscured by trees. In this moment the high contrast lighting shrouds Agnes in darkness while casting large, harsh shadows on Peter’s face, suggesting that Agnes is literally in the dark about Peter’s mysteriously ominous disposition. The abrupt cut from a close-up of Peter’s face to a painting in Agnes’ motel room indicates a relationship between Peter and picture. This painting at first glance seems to depict a sun setting on a house by an ocean with beautiful flowers. However, closely examining the picture, one might notice that the ocean is full of sharks and in context appears to be blood red rather than sunset-colored. As Peter says, the painting “has hidden stuff in it” very much like his own seemingly quiet and withdrawn persona. Unfortunately, Agnes does not take the time look hard enough, and invites Peter to stay with her, having known him for less than a day.
The juxtaposition of shots in the film’s only love scene between Peter and Agnes fuses the characters together in a bizarre way and exhibits the beginning of their shared obsession. Flashes of flesh and overlaid shots of limbs superimposed on top of each other appear disturbing rather than sensual, accentuating the construction of Peter and Agnes’ shared identity. Peter’s hands are a dominating force, which manipulate Agnes’ movement and most importantly the placement of her head, alluding to Peter’s power over her mind. An overhead fan, overlaid on top of the lovers’ joined bodies, whirls in a circular, choppy motion as though it is both blending and cutting Agnes and Peter to pieces. Their minds and lives are now irrevocably intertwined. The love scene ends with an extreme close-up, a non-diegetic insert of an insect emerging from a cocoon, indicating the birth of Peter’s obsession with “the bug” and his parasitic attachment to Agnes. Having established their relationship, Agnes sees what Peter wants her to see, a world of paranoia and fear.The development of Agnes and Peter’s bizarre romance insinuates that love can be a contagious disease binding two lovers in a dark and twisted reality.