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Lacan and the ostrich: desire and narration in Bunuel's 'Le Fantome de la Liberte.'(Jacques Lacan; Luis Bunuel; psychoanalysis and film)

Editor's Note: In his essay, Humphries begins with the post-structuralist notion that language controls experience and applies it to Bunuel's film, Le Fantome de la Liberte. He posits that Bunuel questions empiricist ideas about the individual by suggesting that, while individuals may believe themselves to have control over their own words and actions, they are in fact controlled by social codes and norms--a fact which individuals attempt to repress. Bunuel enacts this theme in his film by calling attention to social norms and then diverging from them in a series of "tableaux" which continually present the viewer with what Humphries calls "reversals of expectations." Things that seem to be "normal" and "natural" are continually "revealed to be a form of unconscious coding determined by the dominant codes of narration and representation functioning within mainstream cinema, both classic and modern" (Humphries).

Le Fantome de la Liberte is divided into fourteen sequences which, for reasons I shall clarify in due course, I propose to call "Tableaux." Given the importance of time, place and, particularly, character in the movie, I refer the reader to the list of these "Tableaux" at the end of this article. How the "Tableaux" function as part of the overall narrative strategy, however, merits attention at once.

Tableau 3 shows the bourgeois husband spending a sleepless night during which the intimacy of his bedroom is invaded by an ostrich and a postman. These outrageous events are presented in the same way as other, more banal, happenings, which means that the ideologically coded binary opposition "awake/dreaming" is no longer overdetermined by specific cinematic codes connoting the social utterance "it's only a dream" and thus fails to function "normally" for the spectators.

We now move to Tableau 4 and the doctor's surgery, where the letter brought by the postman plays the central role, thus maintaining its place in narrative motivation. The husband, understandably, is perplexed by what happened, whereas the doctor dismisses the matter out of hand: he was dreaming. At this point the husband produces the letter and the doctor, flabbergasted, does not know what to say (nor will any spectator know who might be tempted to interpret in terms of a dream). Suddenly a secretary enters and asks the doctor if she may speak to him on an urgent matter. He accompanies her into the waiting room where she informs him that she must leave at once as her father is seriously ill. The doctor agrees and returns to his surgery to continue to converse with the husband. What happens now?

The discussion between the two men over the husband's sleepless night and the letter has been central to the Tableau, a fact motivated by the events of the previous Tableau. We would normally, therefore, expect the enigma to be, if not elucidated, then at least analyzed. Not a bit of it: the two characters disappear and the secretary becomes the center of attention. This displacement of the center of interest obliges the spectators to displace their expected and desired relation to the text and, literally, to adopt another point of view. It is clear, therefore, that my use of the word "normally" was ideological: far from defining something natural that goes without saying, it is revealed to be a form of unconscious social coding determined by the dominant codes of narration and representation functioning within mainstream cinema, both classic and modern. These codes, in turn, do not function in the closed circuit of filmic representation but partake of that system just referred to, where calls for coherency stem from a belief in the unity of the ego. As a result, to introduce themes and characters as important only to remove them from the scene in favor of a seeming irrelevance is to challenge the fictional concept "character." Bunuel does this systematically, but only up to a point. It is precisely where the alternative narrative system breaks down in its turn that, as we shall see, the film takes on a political edge.

What we are dealing with, then, is a reversal of expectation and, by extension, of standard narrative ploys. Such reversals are far from being confined to marginal characters ousting central characters only to become central in turn, finally to be ousted by the following Tableau. The tactic is extended to the representation of events within each Tableau and to the very processes of thinking that are also naturalized in our society. An example of each kind of reversal will, I hope, suffice to show how Bunuel proceeds.

In Tableau 6 a couple arrives at the home of friends and apologizes for being late. Everything about the scene leads us to assume that it is a dinner engagement. They are dressed according to certain social codes, their hostess is dressed in a like manner and says: "We were about to start without you." Then the camera pans to the right and we see the other guests waiting impatiently, not on chairs, but on toilets, with a maid serving toilet-paper. Now during a "normal" evening, the syntagmatic chain constituting discourse would turn on matters of food and general discussion, with the possibility of asking where the toilet is existing on the paradigmatic chain. Such an element, however, must intervene as part of the accepted criteria of selection. By reversing the normal process of selection Bunuel opens up a gap in conventions that places the spectators elsewhere and foregrounds the narration as production of a meaning that has to be constantly renegotiated.

Let us return to the doctor's secretary. In the course of Tableau 5 she stops at an inn for the night in the middle of a violent storm that causes a power failure. One of the guests at the inn lights a candle and power is restored at this very moment, which provokes his remark: "It's a well-known fact. You only have to light a candle for power to be restored." He then invites the secretary and a group of friars to have a drink, saying: "It is chance that has brought us here together."

I would suggest that both these remarks are instances of reversal, but not of the accepted codes. Quite the reverse: they are standard cliches and this is the point. There is no rational link between lighting a candle and the lights coming back on, but such is the desire for a clear-cut relation of cause to effect that words come to be taken for things. This in turn is part of the psychic structure of miscognition where the subject believes him/herself to control words, whereas he/she is an effect of the signifier. This belief goes hand in hand with the ideology of the self-centered individual who will thus evoke chance to repress the fact that other unconscious forces determine his/her actions or words or presence at a particular place at a particular time. Similarly, the spectators will misrecognize their place within a given narrative structure which fixes and un-fixes identifications. The ego has recourse to defense mechanisms within the structure of disavowal.

Certain discourses seek to repress the existence of a subject of the enunciation in favor of a message that is always already there, as if of its own accord. It is part and parcel of a form of repression of the psychic and social dimension of the signifier of which each subject is an effect. Thus the reversal at work within the discourse of the man at the inn is to do with language itself, with thought processes that produce certain effects. The cause/effect linking two (f)acts in reality--lighting a candle/restoring electric light--is then a reversal. The utterance of the man is the effect of a cause, and that cause is unconscious. The simple binary opposition "cause/effect," linked as it is to the power of the word as giving immediate and unmediated access to a recognizable referent, is again inscribed within the ideology of the unified, self-centered ego able to identify anything and everything, including itself The question of loss is thus repressed. And it is precisely on various forms of repression that matters turn.

Now children figure prominently in the strategies of repression the film represents and Bunuel gives us an interesting foretaste (so to speak) in Tableau 6 before going to the heart of the matter in Tableau 8. The food/excrement reversal that the former Tableau represents includes a scene with a little girl who is told not to use such language at table when she says: "Mummy, I'm hungry." This return to the pre-Oedipal anal stage on the part of adults is a subtle reference at once to the persistence of early libidinal drives and to the socially determined desire to repress any manifestation of these drives on the part of children, since the sexual dimension of the drives can make its presence felt in the form of the return of the repressed in adults. The Tableau gives a new meaning to the anything-but-innocent cliche "Children should be seen but not heard." Tableau 8 approaches the matter in a way that constitutes an incisive reversal.

The parents of a little girl (yet another) are summoned to her school by the headmistress: their daughter is missing. The parents are conducted to the classroom where the distraught mistress calls the child's name. She at once walks to the front of the class and the beadmistress says: "You see? She's not here." The fact that the parents acquiesce is in itself an indication of the way a certain discourse functions to place subjects in relation to a belief that comes to represent knowledge. We can surely see this scene as the representation of disavowal: the repudiation of the visual senses as a form of defense on the ego's part. Before returning to this concept, we must see what happens next. The little girl accompanies her parents to the police station: that way it will be possible to provide, for national circulation, a more faithful description of her. It would be difficult to find a more telling attack on the ideology of the unproblematic relation of word to referent. Bunuel, however, does not leave things there: when the child protests she is not missing, the police commissioner says to her: "Don't speak until you're spoken to." Thus the old cliche is reformulated and becomes "Children should neither be seen nor heard." Or rather: they will be heard only when adults decide. Thus the power of the word takes on a decidedly less innocent signification: it also depends on who has the right--or power--to speak. What insists is the fact that, even when plainly visible, the child is not seen, which I would interpret as a form of disavowal: the adults refuse to recognize someone who is there. If we take this as yet another reversal and compare it to similar reversals within the unconscious, then it partakes of the structure of fetishism in the Freudian sense. Thus the present child passed off as an absence becomes, by reversal, an absence passed off as a presence. This is the definition of the phallus.

Let us take the case of the first Prefect of Police whose desires are located in his sister, or, to be more precise, in an absence, the phallus (Tableau 12). In one sequence he visits his sister who is naked and playing the piano. In keeping with his philosophy of representation, Bunuel shows the man as seeing this as perfectly normal, an indication of the preeminence within the film of the unconscious. The narcissistic component of desire demands that it be immediately gratified. Given the constant unfolding of desire within the film's rigorously applied narrative structure, this representation of desire and its gratification can be construed as the mise en abyme of spectatorial desire. This desire cannot be construed as being produced exclusively by the film, inasmuch as desire is always already situated within social structures. At one point the Prefect drops a lighter which just happens to roll under the piano, a parapraxis that allows him to bend down to look for it and therefore have the opportunity to observe his sister who is wearing only stockings. Her legs are obligingly open, but if he carefully averts his gaze, it is certainly not out of respect for his sister but out of a refusal to see something which, if recognized, would modify his relation to reality.

If stockings are a perfect fetish, so is hair and Bunuel flatters our desire within the same Tableau: the Prefect goes to the family crypt where his sister, who has just died, has informed him by telephone she is waiting to see him. As he stands alone beside her coffin, we notice that the sister's hair--suitably long and luxuriant!--is hanging outside it, whereas it is absent when the police come to lead him away. Now, although the link between fetishism on the one hand and death and castration on the other are obviously present (the sister has phoned her brother to reveal to him "the mysteries of death" , the social dimension appears not to dominate because of the intensely individual emphasis given to the characters and their narration of the events that befall them. It is, however, precisely to avoid such a trap that Bunuel has articulated the various Tableaux in the same way, while at the same time introducing elements that suddenly return like the repressed.

These elements are the execution of the Spaniards by the Napoleonic troops in Tableau 1 that returns as a painting--or: tableau--in Tableau 13; the breakdown of the carefully constructed narrative device analyzed at the beginning of this article; and the ostrich. I shall present them in that order.

Tableau 1 represents the Napoleonic campaign in Spain. At one point Spanish soldiers are executed by firing squad and, as they die, shout out "A bas la liberte!" I shall return to this cry in detail later; suffice it to say here that it introduces the first reversal in the film, for we would normally expect "Vive la liberte!" What happens now is an interesting instance of Bunuel's ability to exploit a narrative code in order to put it to less "innocent" and transparent uses.

The move from Tableau 1 to Tableau 2 comes about through the use of a woman's voice off. She is given a face at the opening of Tableau 2: a woman sitting in a park reading to a friend a book about that period of History we have just seen represented. By this exploitation of the classical concept of discursive contiguity, Bunuel achieves several things: he reassures the spectators who might be put off by the illogical temporal jump from Napoleon to the present day; by so doing he encourages them to identify with a narrative code that sutures the enonciation and split subject-positions in favor of "simple" identification; be makes an implicit link between two apparently disconnected historical events; he introduces the notion of History as being, not a series of events, but an object constructed in and by the discourses on it. This means that when the film comes to shift from one Tableau to the next by abandoning everything in the previous Tableau but the least "significant" element, the spectator will be willing to go along with this fascinating new ploy. Bunuel will exploit this to the hilt with the return of the sequence of the execution in Tableau 13 in the form of a painting, as he will with the return of the ostrich.

Let us not anticipate too much, however, and return to the woman in Tableau 2. She is soon revealed to be the maid of the couple who figure in Tableau 3 where the husband has the encounter with the postman and the ostrich during his troubled night. Her importance lies in her origins, both social and ethnic. She is in charge of the couple's young, pre-pubescent daughter (her age is important: she is meant to be innocent of sexuality) who, along with a friend, is "picked up" in the park by a man who offers to show them "de tres jolies images." We do not see them, but the reaction of the girls shows that they are certainly not innocent as far as sexual knowledge is concerned, since the postcards are obviously dirty. It will surprise no reader when I say that they turn out to be tourist shots of Paris, but the matter is more complex than it seems. To start with, the sequence is the first reversal of expectations--apart from the significantly discursive reversal in Tableau 1--and reveals the spectator as the effect of a discourse where the signified "dirty postcards" function along the lines of Lacan's "points de capiton": the unconscious desire to find a fixed meaning at the end of the signifying chain leads the reader/spectator to "jump ahead" to that signified which is then read back over the sentence--here: sequence--to homogenize it and produce a fixed subject position. That the spectator should read a sexual meaning into the postcards is surely an indication of the problematic nature of these subject-positions, grounded as they are in a sexuality that cannot speak its name.

When the parents discover the postcards they are disgusted; it is now that we are shown them and that the film's political project starts to insist. For the card that elicits the most violent disgust is a shot of the Sacre Coeur. This must not be interpreted as just Bunuel's anti-clericalism, for the edifice was erected by the French bourgeoisie after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and their victory over the Communards in the wake of this national humiliation. And the Communards, like the Spaniards in the opening Tableau, died before firing squads. As History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, it is fitting that the maid is promptly sacked for endangering the sexual welfare of the little girl. Not surprisingly, she is given no chance to defend herself: like the "missing girl" she does not have the right to be heard and is utterly powerless. And Bunuel gives an extra twist by making her a Spaniard.

Now the foregrounding of History as a discourse is repeated in Tableau 13 where the executions return in the form of a painting. And, as if by chance, this painting is hanging in the office of the Prefect of Police. Not, I must add, the fetishist Prefect, but another one who just happens to be receiving the visit of the Commissioner of Police who investigated the case of the "missing" girl. So many strands of the narrative are coming together here that we need to pause to try to disentangle them.

From Tableau 1 to Tableau 10 inclusively, the narrative functions in a strictly homogeneous fashion: a character with a minor role in one Tableau evinces the central character(s) of that Tableau and takes over the main narrative voice of the following Tableau. As I have pointed out, it is a voice-off which assumes this function to link Tableau 1 and Tableau 2 in order to put the audience in the right frame of mind, as it were. As from Tableau 11, however, the system breaks down: the father, whom we have not seen since Tableau 8, returns and meets the Prefect of Police who informs him that his daughter has been found.

The class dimension of le Fantome de la Liberte must be stressed at this point. The father of the "missing" girl, like the father who sacked the maid, clearly belongs to the French bourgeoisie: who can afford to hire a maid and who has access on request to a Prefect of Police? It is just as obvious that the killer who shoots people down from the top of the Tour du Maine (Tableau 9) has the same class origins: having been found guilty, he is promptly released and heartily congratulated by the forces of law and order in the courtroom. The trial has lasted fourteen months which is precisely the time taken to "find" the "missing" girl. Readers will appreciate Bunuel's sense of the vraisemblable.... Now this lapse of time, which is totally illogical, surely partakes of the indifference of temporality which characterizes the unconscious, which means that political and psychic repression (with the libidinal dimension of the latter stressed: adult behavior towards the child is identical to adult reaction to children's sexuality in the affair with the postcards) are now shown to be interdependent.

This becomes explicit in Tableau 12 in the sequences involving the Prefect and his sister and we are surely justified in seeing the former's necrophilia as not only a psychic obsession with death that, once projected, results in executions such as those of Toledo and the Commune, but also a fetishistic attitude towards life after death that stems from reified social relations that repress all aspects of existence that might question the natural, ahistorical order of things bourgeois. Should we not be on the alert when both Marx and Freud use the concept "fetishism"? Their definitions go off in opposite directions but meet at the same point. For Marx a presence (labor) is passed off as an absence, thus enabling the subject to misrecognize the commodity as a self-sufficient plenitude and, by extension, itself as a like plenitude. For Freud an absence (the phallus) is passed off as a presence, thus enabling the subject to misrecognize its place within a structure existing only as the effect of that absence.

In both cases we are dealing with a split subject-position, which explains the presence of two Prefects of Police, indeed their co-presence in the final Tableau. For, if the first Prefect represents psychic repression, the second represents political repression. Now it is not a question of approaching them as two separate characters: no region has two Prefects, any more than within the doxa an individual is comprised of a variety of subject-positions. It is thus essential to interpret the two Prefects as representing two interdependent aspects of the human subject within a certain ideology of desire, class relations, and power politics. Only a certain class has the right to hire and fire maids or, to put it more pertinently, to release convicted murderers belonging to that class. The common expression "getting away with murder" must be given back its literal meaning, in keeping with the way words are represented literally as things within the unconscious.

The very concept of representation is central to le Fantome de la Liberte. The fact that it is the about-to-be-sacked Spanish maid who is reading a history book about the Napoleonic Wars is indicative of the way a class discourse, once naturalized, plays a role in determining the ideological representation of the event in question. It is fitting, then, that the Toledo sequence returns as a text, as a painting looming large--and insisted on by a camera movement that is superfluous from the point of view of the enonce but central to the enonciation--on the wall of the office of the second Prefect, deep in conversation with the Police Commissioner, who returns obligingly from Tableau 8 to help organize the repression that will be the concern of Tableau 14.

The action takes place at the Vincennes Zoo. The police have gathered to put down a riot, but all we see are animals. What we hear, however, are voices off-screen and the cry is familiar: "A bas la liberte!" The invisible characters here, like the Spaniards of Toledo, show an awareness of the nature of their place in a system which maintains itself discursively until it is forced to resort to force. In what way?

This reversal of the common expression "Vive la liberte!"--so common (and so obvious) that it "goes without saying," as the saying goes--means that the subjects have recognized the truth (in the Lacanian sense) lying behind a discourse emanating from the place of the Other. For we are, I would suggest, in the Lacanian realm of "la bourse ou la vie" where a straight "choice" is not a choice at all, but an indication of alienation where the subject fails to recognize its true place. Lacan takes the two remarks "la liberte ou la vie" and "la liberte ou la mort" (1973, 191-93). In the first case, the person who chooses "liberte" dies because (s)he has chosen the truth against the lying discourse of those in power: death can be preferable to slavery. In the second case, the leurre functions because "liberte" is that of the bourgeoisie and the choice is to remain a slave. The first choice is a genuine choice made from a position of knowledge; the second a false choice made from a position of miscognition as to one's real place determined by the discourse of the Other.

This is where the ostrich comes in, making its triumphant return from the husband's bedroom. It is the film's literal manifestation of Lacan's "la politique de l'autruiche." In this condensatory signifier we have "autruche" (ostrich), "autrui" (others/Other) and "tricher" (cheat). Those who continue to bury their heads in the sand, such as the spectators who will content themselves with calling Le Fantome de la Liberte "Surrealist" the better to deny its political message, are "cheating" themselves as to their real place in what is called "the order of things."

As Lacan has put it: "le sujet prend conscience de son desir dans l'autre, par l'intermediaire du desir de l'autre qui lui donne le fantome de sa propre maitrise" (my italics). This is as clear a "message" as one could hope for and will perhaps finally arrive at its destination like the now notorious "purloined letter." Bunuel certainly gives us other clues to be going on with, including a letter: the one delivered by the postman in the man's bedroom during the nocturnal visit of the ostrich. The ostrich who returns at the end to insist on the class nature of repression in all its forms is surely a sign that, if one pays attention to the letter of the text, then it will arrive at its destination. For what surely concerns Bunuel with the letter is not its physical aspect but the reading effect it has. The spectator will be the effect of the letter inasmuch as it functions as a signifier. From that standpoint, perhaps we can operate another reversal and rewrite Derrida's criticism of Lacan so that "le facteur de la verite" becomes "la verite du facteur."

What truth? If I have just been concentrating on repression as a class and political phenomenon, I have not repressed the dimension I first evoked: the sexual dimension. Now, as I have indicated, the narrative strategy of the film breaks down from Tableau 11 on: certain characters reappear. They are: the father of the "missing" girl, the Police Commissioner and the first Prefect of Police. They have certain common characteristics: the right/power to impose a certain order within the family and society (they help one another to do so according to the social functions they fulfil); the right not to respect that order if it does not suit them (hence the decision to free the killer); they are all men.

We must not lose sight of the fact that all the children in the film are girls. Similarly, if we exploit the film's narrative strategy as Bunuel does, we are entitled to assert that the presence of these men is determined by the absence of the "missing" girl. As I have already stated, by applying the structure of reversal, the little girl who is in fact present represents the phallus. It is therefore necessary for her to be absent--to be "absented," to be subject-ed to repression--so that the male representatives of order--much as we say that a policeman is the "representative" of law and order--can maintain their belief in the phallus as a presence. Hence the scene between the Prefect of Police and his sister where an image of woman is imposed by a man to bring order to a faltering subject-position. That this order is threatened is manifest via the representation of class and political repression. As D. N. Rodowick has put it: "the phallus signifies nothing except the hierarchical organization of power according to patriarchal culture" (1991, 73). That little girls and a working-class woman are victims of repression on the part of both men and women belonging to the bourgeoisie is eloquent testimony to how much is at stake when the phallus is revealed as a fraud.


Lacan, Jacques. 1973. Lev quatre, concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Le Seminaire, Livre XI. Paris: Editions du Seuil. Rodowick, D. N. 1991. The Difficulty of Difference. London and New York: Routledge.

The Fourteen Tablaeux

No. Setting Characters 1. Toledo (1808) Napoleonic troops, Spanish troops,

a woman's voice-off 2. A park A maid, her friend, a man, a little girl and

her friend 3. A bourgeois home The maid, a little girl, the girl's parents,

a postman, an ostrich 4. A doctor's surgery The little girl's father, a doctor, a secretary 5. The surgery, a country road, The secretary, soldiers, the inn-keeper, an inn the guests, the Law Professor 6. The inn, a police station, The secretary, the Professor, gendarmes, a bourgeois home "dinner" guests 7. A doctor's surgery The Professor, two policemen, the father

of the "missing" girl, a doctor 8. A bourgeois home, a police The parents of the missing" girl, a nanny, station, a school the Headmistress, a teacher, the "missing"

girl, a Police commissioner, a gendarme, 9. The Tour du Maine The gendarme, a shoe-shine boy, the killer 10. A courtroom The killer, a judge, a man's voice-off 11. A police station The father of the "missing" girl, a Prefect of Police 12. A cafe, a bourgeois home, a crypt The Prefect, his sister, a lady 13. A police station The Commissioner, a Prefect of police 14. The office of the second The first Prefect, the second Prefect, Prefect, a zoo police, animals, the ostrich
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Author:Humphries, Reynolds
Publication:American Imago
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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