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Lacan and Contemporary FilmReview - Lacan and Contemporary Film
by Todd McGowan and Shelia Kunkle
Other Press, 2004
Review by Marilyn Graves, Ph.D.
Sep 3rd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 36)

The editors of this work provide an introduction both to Lacan's works and to film criticism.  Despite the ideological boost, it is unlikely that readers who are unfamiliar with Lacan's body of work will be comfortable reading this selection of nine essays.  The prose is often dense and some of the selections are less jargon free than others.  Paul Einsenstein's chapter is the least accessible but in all fairness he is attempting to talk about a very slippery concept.  The analyses are of a group of wonderful and memorable films:  Memento, Dark City, Breaking the Waves, Cape Fear, The Sweet Hereafter, Holy Smoke and Pi.  Rather than reviewing each selection briefly I have chosen to focus in more detail on Mark Pizzato's "Beauty's Eye:  Erotic Masques of the Death Drive in Eyes Wide Shut."

Pizzato's language is clear, sharp and without pretense.  He says "here film itself becomes a manifestation of the death drive in human culture." (p. 83).  He sees film, and Kubrick's last work in particular, as producing in us a state of alienation from being.  And he says, "Kubrick's final film exposes the lure of beauty as bearing a death drive in the eye of the beholder, implicating the audience, male and female, in its rite of sacrifice." (p. 87).   Pizzato sees Kubrick as being consciously aware or at least instinctively aware of these themes.  Kubrick skillfully draws the viewer into a voyeuristic spectacle "with beauty's ecstasy masking and revealing the death drive." (p. 90).  Both Lacan and Freud believed in the existence of this drive.  Pizzato does not define it.  The closest he comes is "an apparently alien force, reproducing through us and 'feeding' on us, by perversely replacing us with dramatic fiction."(p. 83).  Thus destroying jouissance, replacing it instead with hollow, meaningless frenzy.    Jean Laplanche in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1970) spends twenty-two pages on this but a gross simplification of what he says might be:  a self-destructive tendency fueled by libido impelling one in a sado-masochistic direction.

Kubrick's movie is an adaptation of  Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story (Traumnovelle).   The two central characters Bill and Alice, a married couple, as were then the actors who portrayed them (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman).  Bill stumbles on a secret society which host erotic events.  His curiosity is aroused.  Bill's voyeurism parallels the voyeuristic attitude Kubrick is attempting to elicit in the film viewer.  Pizzato says, "these meetings and fantasies prepare Bill to desire a more perverse experience, in revenge against his wife's Other jouissance, when he is told about a mysterious orgy by this pianist friend, Nick Nightingale." (p. 94).  Alice has rebelliously told Bill about a fantasy she had about another man.   Pizzato sees her action as a desire to refute Bill's attempts to reduce her to an object belonging to him, wife and mother, not capable of an independent existence.  He says,  "Bill and Alice are already suffering a symbolic death, through their disintegrating marriage." (p. 106).   Bill's journey though on the surface an erotic one is extremely self-destructive and lurking in the background is the idea that the secret society whose gates he has crashed might well have killed him perhaps his wife and child as well. 

Of the orgy scene Pizzato says "the masked nudes of Kubrick's film (and their masked spectators), the anonymous force of life in each body is revealed.  Although their ritual is highly formalized, indicating certain human structures of power, the base force of Dionysian, orgiastic life is the ultimate attraction in the puppet theater of the mansion.  The erotic energy of the masked nudes ignore individual personality, using the human body as a shell to reproduce the species (and recombine genetic codes), then discarding it. Even the beauty of self-sacrificing maternal love (to which the oedipal subject longs to return), while involving imaginary and symbolic structures of desire, is driven by the Real erotics and deadly objective of reproduction." (p. 105).

Pizzato says, "Kubrick's film, unlike most cinema, eventually takes the viewer too far—beyond voyeuristic pleasure—toward a more disturbing jouissance at the symbolic and imaginary edges of the Real." (p. 96).  This is quite an achievement.  Pizzato begins this chapter commenting on the alienating force of film which can threaten to robs us of  jouissance.  But he shows us how Kubrick used that negative to focus our eye in the direction of the Real.  And, the Real is a region of wordless, terrifying, stark truth.  Pizzato does not address any speculation as to why Kubrick chose to call his adaptation Eyes Wide Shut but I think many of these issues just touched upon are relevant.  Even when looking the desire to not see is overwhelming. Perhaps that is why some critics just did not want to see this film.

Each of the nine chapters in this book focuses around Lacanan theory to organize their film criticisms.   I highly recommend this work for those who have some basic familiarity with Lacan's work 


© 2004 Marilyn Graves


Marilyn Graves, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and sometime freelance writer.  


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