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Psychoanalysis and the scene of love: Lars and the Real Girl, In the Mood for Love, and Mulholland Drive.

The love scene is an idealized, highly conventionalized moment in cinema, so neatly ordered and condensed by Hollywood that "love" itself, whether consummated in word or flesh, often appears to be a single, homogeneous state of desire that minimizes the gap between the social experience of love and the libidinal fantasy that powers it. Much like continuity editing, classic Hollywood love scenes erase the ruptures in the audience's sense of time and space; variegated and sometimes deviant forms of desire seem coherent; actions of the characters are harmonized in the merger of erotic will; the circuitry of mutual gazes, of expectation and satisfaction, is completed; fundamental contradictions between bodies and minds are resolved. (1) For conventional cinema, the homogeneity of love ultimately comes to define--and delimit--the vicissitudes of fantasy. Films such as Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000), and Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), however, suspend these ideals, forcing love into an alternative--even pathological--form, splitting it off from fantasy and then exposing the latter as a determining force: a hidden primal scene of experience driving the manifest scene of erotic passion toward provocative and often disturbing new realities. (2)

Facing Bianca

In Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Lars is a cripplingly shy young man who lives in the converted garage of a house that had belonged to his father. Lars's older brother, Gus, lives in the main house with his pregnant wife, Karin. The early scenes in the film show Lars awkwardly trying to avoid any moment of connection or contact with the people in his small Wisconsin town, who are depicted as kindly and slightly bumpkinish. For Gus, Lars is both an embarrassment and a concern, and Lars's social phobia casts an unwelcome shadow on his new marriage and the expected arrival of their first child. Gus's wife, like others in the movie, tries gently to draw Lars out, but he politely stumbles out of their grasp, fleeing any possibility that he might have to be present as an emotional entity. The stalemate of this situation is broken in a surprising way. Lars announces to his brother and sister-in-law that he has met a woman "on the internet" and agrees to bring her to dinner at Gus and Karin's house. Hope turns to horror, though, when this woman--introduced as "Bianca"--turns out to be a latex sex doll of the kind manufactured by the Californian company Abyss Creations and retailing for six thousand American dollars under the brand-name "RealDolls." (3) The precise manner in which Bianca is a created "abyss" will become apparent, but, for now, the extreme discomfort of the dinner scene is set into a register of comedy by its direction, which features a slow pan from face to face, each registering a distinct affect. Lars ingenuously displays the pride of parading his first girlfriend to his symbolic parents. Gus displays the horrific realization that the brother he feels responsible for, and whom he thought merely troubled and a bit odd, has now entered psychosis. By contrast, Karin, though surprised, displays a humane grasp of Lars's complicated achievement at coming to dinner at all. "Bianca," understandably, remains serenely indifferent to the drama. But her face is the primal source of disturbance, because, Bianca, as a literal object of desire, cannot be assimilated to the socialized gaze.

Bianca's face is where the gaze, with its social promise of love in this scene, dies; it is the (non)expressive crux of her lifeless, life-like form, the mise-en-abyme of the film. Once the gaze arrives at Bianca's face, it can be neither absorbed as pure object, because it is visually articulated as a "human" self, nor relayed to others as subject, because it lacks expressive potential, let alone articulacy. In this collapse of the social performance of desire, Bianca's presence evokes the degree zero of cinema itself, in which the non-diegetic apparatus of the visual narrative--a prop--presents itself in the diegesis as a person. One probably recalls that cute moment in Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) in which a stop-motion sequence causes the camera, now as an animated being, to dance around on its tripod legs for the benefit of the invisible camera that is filming it. By seeming alive, Vertov's dancing camera assumes the audience's own capacity to see the world as subjects see it, not as objects like real cameras "see" it. "Real Girl" Bianca does the opposite: by literalizing the "to-be-looked-at-ness" that Laura Mulvey identifies as the definitive feature of the female romantic object in Hollywood cinema, Bianca removes entirely the life of the standard cinematic object of love, immediately plunging the notorious translation of it from subject into object by the agonistic male gaze. (4) The apparatus of cinema--its desire turning person into prop--is literalized.

But the film moves beyond displaying the abyss of personhood. Some assistance in the analysis of Bianca's function can be gathered from the resemblance the film bears to the iconic postmodern photography of Cindy Sherman. Sherman's work stages a similar encounter between the spectator/voyeur and the prosthetic female body, in her famous "film stills" series of the late 1970s and her "sex pictures" series of the early 1990s, the latter featuring pornographic mannequins in grotesque sexual poses. (5) The film stills expose what the realist's contingent cinematic shot attempts to conceal, for they reveal the manner in which actors are always already posing, which is to say, constituting themselves like an object before the gaze (from both the audience and other actor-characters). It is not a matter of affectation; it is the means by which actors make themselves legible. Posing is an unconscious act of becoming, as Kaja Silverman's analysis of the gaze and of Sherman's "film still" photos, in The Threshold of the Visible World (1996: 207-24), explains. The obscenely posed doll, for example, collapses the division between socially conscious and primally unconscious gazing and invites a rather direct insertion of the viewer's gaze into the doll's most prominent aperture, whereas, for Silverman, the "stills" suspend the gaze in the form of the viewer's embodiment-for-the-other.

In the film still, the eyes of the heroine look away from the viewers. Though apprehensive, she stands above them, forcing them to assume coordinates in which they could be legible to her but by which they could not be looked at, because the still can never return to any motion that would complete the circuit of the viewers' own gazes, now left unrequited. The effect is to turn the viewers into the objects of her unconscious attention, perhaps even the cause of her averted gaze. The beautiful woman, though potentially a sublimated prop herself in a film, is here controlling the terms of the gaze, and so, in Sherman's ontological reversal, the "still" of the woman is fixing the viewers; she is the center of action, still but spatially dynamic, posing the viewers outside her conscious gaze. The sex pictures, by contrast, offer a de-sublimated version of the film stills. The subjects are stripped of their symbolic matrix (mise-en-scene), as well as their "excess" detail (the necessary supplement for realism) and, instead, occupy the rudimentary aspects of primary fantasy. (6)

In Lars and the Real Girl, Bianca is situated between these two figures. Because of her insertion into the social discourse of love, she registers as both demure (in her silence) and frank (in her visual hypersexualization); she offers a kind of spectral demarcation of the position of romantic heroine, exposing the superimposition of scenes necessary for romantic love, while intruding obscenely into the scene of love's diegesis. Bianca's effect is akin to that generated by the empty schematic sound stage in Lars Von Trier's Dogville (2003), where a street is designated by the word "street" stencilled onto the bare, black boards of the stage. In a similar way, Bianca is plainly tokenized, but she is not merely fetishized and consumed. True, the reduction of woman to pure function takes the form of a sex doll, and this reduction literally embodies Mulvey's critique that, in Hollywood cinema, women typically exist to be looked at and thus consumed by masculine subjects. But, if Bianca is reduced to vulgar object, what agent is reducing her? As I shall explain, the film itself, in its evolving ethos, works against the reduction; the social and symbolic realm of the diegesis--its ideology--suspends the conversion of Bianca into object. She dangles outside social subjectivity and sensual objectivity, forcing the viewer, in Lacan's terms, through the defiles of the signifier. (7) Visually similar to Sherman's sex dolls, Bianca is nonetheless fundamentally mobile, dynamic, evolving from primal and social fantasies, looking past the viewers, past the neat constraints of subject and object, to expose the unconscious remainders of the doll's visual order.

Bianca's continued presence gradually reveals something of the events that had brought Lars to his present predicament. Lars's mother died giving birth to him, and the grief-stricken father effectively abandoned the new baby and his older brother (Gus), failing to model for Lars any love for a woman (even for an absent one) and thus failing, on both masculine and feminine terms, to connect Lars with people of either gender. Lars himself is little more dynamic than one of Sherman's sex dolls. The film therefore moves Bianca into this social/sexual space, wherein Lars can become a real boy and Bianca can become a real girl. The remarkable ideological feat of the story is that all of Lars's family and friends join this quest to heal Lars. To do so, they must turn human objects (Lars and Bianca) into human subjects, and doing that requires everyone to confront the representational limits of love.

The purchase of Bianca, on its own, has in no way released Lars from his immobility. Indeed, this only made visible the object relations that were preventing Lars's subjectification (in particular, his worship of the effigy of an indifferent maternal object--now uncannily, revoltingly, literalised as Bianca). His constant, futile, fantasmatic rehabilitation of this figure bears witness to his utter solitude. Instead, the animation of this scene (the one in which Lars is trapped) occurs when the whole subjective network that surrounds but cannot as yet "touch" Lars decides to play along with the delusion, to treat Bianca "as if she is a subject. Quickly she is incorporated into the multitude of activities that make up the life of the community. She attends classes, becomes a member of various committees, gets her hair cut at the local salon, and so on. During this transference, however, sometimes occurring out of Lars's view, friends and family also devise ways to portray Bianca as an object outside Lars's control, one that resists Lars, holding opinions and desires inconsistent with those in his fantasy. In this way, they convert her into a subject. By animating Bianca from within Lars's intentionality but then keeping her slightly outside his fantasy, they open Lars up to a necessary disruption in the field of object relations--objects and subjects become exchangeable but not identical--and thus in the same instant win for him the capacity to love an "other."

If Lars and the Real Girl were a romantic comedy, then the lovelorn protagonist would be rescued by chancing upon someone who successfully misreads him--convincingly and invisibly compensating for what he is not. So the shy Lars would meet before too long a new woman at his work place. They would not get off to the best of starts. Her manner would initially terrify him. For her part, she would find him annoying or queer, and be naturally drawn to some more conventionally regaled man. But something would happen (a broken elevator, an illness, an abandoned puppy dog, etc.), some collision that jostles the two figures out of their settings and into an unprecedented third space where a poignant mutually constitutive "play" could occur, with new interpretations of subjecthood allowing them to reclaim or repurpose once-excluded, but vital, parts of themselves. The shortfall--which is the content of romance--is made up for with wishing, with filling in what is missing. And that lack in the self is exactly, too, the weight of the film's (i.e., a romantic comedy's) ideology: what does the lover make up for, and why are both that lack and its compensation meaningful to an audience?

What Lars and the Real Girl shows is that for the subject to claim his or her subjectivity, the other must lack something fundamental, must contain an absence. Against the usual wisdom, the subject (in this case, Lars) does not constitute its being from a positive other but from a negative other, a necessary abyss, into which the subject's fantasies can be poured. The precise aetiology of Lars's condition, and its clinical plausibility, are not the key points here. The story is perhaps best understood as a dramatisation of the conditions precedent for Oedipalisation. In other words, the dramatic work of the film is to constitute a Jocasta from the inert form of Bianca so that Lars might become an Oedipus. From there, the necessary psychic tragedy-- of reversal and death--can ensue. To trigger that crisis, the community must force Bianca into reality, so that Lars will face the terrible fact that the other who forms in the fantastical contours of the absent breast is not entirely "for me": Bianca belongs to others, she takes enjoyment (jouissance) from others, they please her in ways that (there is no other conclusion) Lars is not equipped to provide. Bianca is more than Lars imagines, more than his object. The up-side of this depressing realisation--indeed, the assumption of the ethical subject position that Klein calls "depressive"--is not immediately visible amidst the woe of one's demotion. (8) But Lars and the Real Girl elegantly and humanely eases the solipsistic lover into the crucial fact lurking outside his control: the other must exist. Until he attempts and then fails, through Bianca, to reclaim his mother, along with all the girls to which his libido has subsequently drawn him, Lars has not believed, really, in the existence of other subjects.

But, astoundingly, his community manages both the attempt and the failure. In romantic comedies, the community is usually reduced to a close cohort of friends on the one hand and, on the other, the general assailants of modern life, in the form of an uncaring boss, cunning rivals, sabotaging siblings, domineering mothers, inconsequential fathers. In Lars and the Real Girl, the community is capable of something that capitalism generally refutes: concerted redemptive social action (ethical praxis). Unlike the spectres of narcissism that capitalism generates (from tycoons to reality stars), Bianca is not treated as a commoditised object; she exists in a dignified Brechtian materiality because she is a concretisation of social relations based on common ownership. She is loved, in other words, not just by Lars (in a relationship that, by itself, is not actually love) but by the community. To love her for Lars, his family and friends must love Bianca beyond Lars, incorporating her into activities and positions that make her structurally inconsistent with the figure of Lars's delusion (i.e. the visualisation of his wish), and thus imbuing her with difference from Lars, with an absence of him, so that he can see the otherness beyond his gaze, see the abyss beyond the self, see and accept death. Bianca's "death" in the film is the very operation that dialectically repels the horrific possibility of fusion into the maternal-imaginary matrix. The sex doll, initially operating as object for the film's viewers and thus implicating the viewers themselves as the potential agents of Bianca's objectification, acquires subjective being, becoming the "real girl," entirely through social relations, not from subjective gazing. And these bonds, because they socially create the excess and absence that Lars's fantasies have created only unconsciously, become the only means by which the reality of love can be vouchsafed, lest it sink back to the inertness of subject-object relations.

Erasing the Mood for Love

A slightly more conventional and oddly similar love story takes place in Wong Kar Wai's film In the Mood for Love. Although the lovers are a real man and woman, it is helpful to approach the relationship with a lesson learned from Lars: the two actants are figured as lovers because they operate inside mutually reinforcing illusions of being apprehended in their difference, rather than each operating as the mere prosthesis to the other's fantasy. The lovers in this film are Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung). It is the early 1960s in Hong Kong, and the pair happen to rent adjoining rooms. Each is married and without children, with both couples working. Mr Chow's wife and Mrs Chan's husband are never shown--at least not their faces. Only their voices can be heard; the dialogues in which they appear do not contain the "reverse" shot that would show them speaking. Sometimes these elusive spouses are shot from behind, but their faces are hidden. Mr Chow and Mrs Chan meet by chance in the corridor, on the stairs, in the alley on the way to the noodle house--all encounters pointing toward the possibility of romance between the two. Both their spouses seem to be away on business a great deal and, when not overseas, then often working late. The conversations they have with their spouses suggest a creeping indifference between each couple. Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, emotionally abandoned by their spouses, and evidently lonely, soon discover, however, that their respective partners are, in fact, having an affair. The solution seems obvious--now, at last, the two can consummate their own nascent relationship without moral concern. Or, fortified by meeting the other wronged party, they could at least confront their spouses and demand an end, one way or another, to the infidelity.

Neither of these courses transpires. Ostensibly, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan do meet to confirm their suspicions regarding their spouses. But not satisfied with knowing that they are being betrayed, the two make a monumental decision, which is to seek to discover exactly how this could happen, committing to an unexpected form of persistence and perversion. (9) Their epistemological method is to play-act the seduction, with each playing the other's spouse. So, instead of acting to change a scene, they deploy each other in the task of sustaining a fantasy through its repetition as "act". The masochistic tension in their play derives from the fact that each must imagine precisely what his or her rival would do to seduce the other's partner, and yet each must also be constrained by the playing-partner's knowledge of his or her spouse. When Mr Chow (playing the unfaithful Mr Chan) rather too abruptly asks Mrs Chan (playing the unfaithful Mrs Chow) to stay the night, Mrs Chan thus rebukes him: "My husband would never say that!" She knows--or thinks she knows (see below)--exactly how her husband would betray her. So the play, even as it luxuriates in the awful consequences of the actual reality, returns to and revivifies the moment at which the facts were only a possible reality, a hypothetical or subjunctive form of being, when betrayal lurked only in the domain of "as if".

The play-acting suspends the actual betrayals and offers a means to recover or perhaps to create what the cheating partners apparently cannot find in their respective mates. Within the mutually reinforcing space of their fantasy, the two "actors" make up for the lack they suspect in themselves. Moreover, because neither Mr Chow nor Mrs Chan has actually seen the betrayal (i.e., "the primary scene"), the re-enactment must first call it into mind as fantasy--so it can be witnessed. This paradoxical formulation of a "real fantasy" goes to the heart of the Freudian insight that, because we rely existentially on the primary structural fantasies of our being-in-the-world (on compensatory mental strategies and neuroses), when those fantasies are attacked, we suffer trauma. Love can emerge only by preserving a fantasy of compensation from the other, which the psyche must identify as "real". In the film, the two figures of pathos--Mr Chow and Mrs Chan--are trying to maintain the fantasy that their respective spouses derive their primary enjoyment from them and not from someone else.

With In the Mood for Love, the play-acting couple are seeking to disavow, through the strategy of perversion, their actual apprehension of the spouses' enjoyment in the arms of the Other. The players are ensnaring themselves in a compensatory fantasy. By contrast, with Lars and the Real Girl, the community was play-acting in order to convince Lars of a liberating truth: Bianca can exist without you; she can get her pleasure in other places, where you cannot provide them; she is not you; as a subject, she can forsake you, betray you; she therefore can--and perhaps even must--die; and you can live. The work of this community was to galvanise in Lars the constitutive imaginary vengeance necessary for his individuation. (10) But with In the Moodfor Love, the would be lovers--Mr Chow and Mrs Chan--subvert the reality that is begging them to act, retreating instead into the shared fantasy of becoming the lovers they are not to their spouses. That is, they refuse to become actual lovers. Chow's irascible friend Ping tries to point out his cuckoldry, but Chow refuses to see--or perhaps, like Hamlet (indeed, like any hysteric), he cannot see the reality of the situation, so he, like Mrs Chan, disavows an active role in constituting it. (11)

The crucial ontological element is that the fantasy love scene that repeats the betrayal is a scene that another fantasy--of compensation--has already generated: the endless re-enactment protects the original fantasy. But what is the final substance of this trauma? What are Mr Chow and Mrs Chan trying to act out--as in "purge" through play? The Freudian answer for this film, when psychoanalysis still provided an explicit framework for artists, is that it is nothing other than the scene (incapable of being seen or spoken) in which a person horrifically realises (retroactively cast as helpless witnesses) his or her insufficiency to the pleasure of the other. (12) Both Mr Chow and Mrs Chan are, beneath their suave mannerisms, paralysed by a single, devastating idea: I am not enough for the other. For Lars, in Lars and the Real Girl, this insufficiency enabled action, liberating Lars. There the immobilized woman (sex doll), who was proxy for his mother, could find pleasure outside him and could therefore die to him. Here the mother/father is ruthlessly pleasured by another, and each child/lover refuses to detach. A fantasy of impersonation is constructed instead. Why? Because Mr Chow and Mrs Chan remain inaccessible to reconstruction from outside, from any loving society; they construct love as a pure duality. And in that retreat from social love, they seek to acquire as voyeurs inside their hermetic fantasy what they have lost as participants inside a genuinely contingent--and always insufficient--reality.

Belonging to the imaginary, the primal scene is strictly wordless. Each spouse attempts to channel the wish of his or her rival, to enter into a direct identification, at the level of speech, with the one who defeats them. (For Mrs Chan this is Mrs Chow, for Mr Chow this is Mr Chan.) Not only this, they then demand that the contingent other (i.e. the actual, direct interlocutor) channel the thoughts of the object that betrays them. The surprising thing is that even this traumatic element exists inside the shackles of fantasy: No, my husband would not betray me like that! He would betray me like this! Can't you do anything right, you idiot! It should not be surprising, then, that Wong Kar Wai, borrowing the motif of re-enactment from Hitchcock, compares his hero's actions to Scottie (James Stewart) in Vertigo (1958). A lovelorn Scottie coaxes an apparently random stranger, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), to dress up like the presumably dead "Madeline" he had been hired to follow. The irony, of course, is that Judy has already played that "Madeline" in a previous enactment for a man scheming to murder his wife, the real Madeline. Scottie's determination now to "see" Madeline again has ensured the success of the husband's subterfuge. And it is this insistent, coercive quality of fantasy that Wong Kar Wai saw as the "dark" core of Mr Chow's (Tony Leung's) character. (13)

By removing the paranoid dimension, in which Scottie is the central character of a sinister plot (he is actually a stooge), Wong Kar Wai makes all the more prominent that feature that Wong Kar Wai is correct to suggest we are most prone to miss in Vertigo, that the husband's murder plot works so well because it coincides exactly with Scottie's fantasy--so much so that the fantasy propels much of the action, even co-opting the husband into making use of its imperatives in order to kill his wife. This reading, more or less, is what Zizek insists on for Vertigo, agreeing with Wong Kar Wai and, indeed, Mulvey. (14) In Wong Kar Wai's film, the paranoid cover of a sinister external agency pulling the strings is abandoned, and viewers are left with the ambiguous pact between Mrs Chan and Mr Chow, where they agree to play the parts in the other's betrayal fantasy.

But crucially, perversely, they do not do so in the conventional manner in which we all do when we presume to have sex with another: I will pretend to be having sex with you, whilst all the while having sex with my fantasy of "you", and you can do the same. In the mean time I will supplement this fantasy with the inconsistent further belief that you will actually believe "I" am having sex with "you ". Our bodies will make good the deception and the result of this mutual fantasy is actual sex. In the re-enactment scene from In the Mood for Love, the formula is instead like this (speaking from the masculine position): I will pretend that I am your husband entering into a sexual relationship with my wife, and you will pretend that you are my wife entering into a sexual relationship with your husband. This way I get to have sex with my wife in the form of the person truly equipped to do so (the big Other) and you get the same from your husband. Our bodies, however, will remain utterly chaste and the result of this mutual fantasy is that actual sex is strictly forbidden. Framed this way, the logic of their perversion is clearer. As it is with any pervert, the point of the game is to displace actual (i.e. consequential) sex to its fantasmatic version. The voice of the betraying other has already been scripted by fantasy and requires only a willing actor to express it. By this method, Wong Kar Wai exposes how little the play-actors actually know of their partners and how little interest (i.e., against the interests of fantasy) they have in such knowledge of the real. This deletion of reality from their concerns is what accounts for the camera's precise and direct failure to picture the players' spouses: they are not shown because they are not genuinely known. One can easily imagine a Hitchcockian moment when the camera finally peers at the spouse's face and sees only a desiccated cadaver, or a tape recorder, or indeed a lifeless sex-doll. But the moment never comes. In this way, the camera, as it were, is allowed to fall victim to the enabling prohibition of the fantasy that is guiding it. The ethical position that Mr Chow and Mrs Chan outwardly maintain is given away after they spend a night together, where it is initially left unanswered whether they had sex or, as serials writers, spent the evening in a rented room composing a martial arts fantasy. Parting in the corridor the following morning, however, Chow reassures Mrs Chan, saying, "We will not be like them." With this assurance in place, they are free to play "their" parts for each other, in a kind of "escape by transposition". Of course, like any defence, it eventually collapses under the weight of its unreality, or what is the same thing: the libidinal exhaustion of the fantasmatic apparatus.

The film's denouement is swift and sad. Convinced Mrs Chan will not leave her husband, Mr Chow takes up an offer to go to Singapore. Mrs Chan secretly visits him there, not making contact but instead leaving telling signs of her passing through (a lipstick covered cigarette in his ashtray at one point). In short, she makes herself a ghost, stalking Mr Chow, because the missed encounter--the absence to be filled in with fantasy--constitutes the "real" pleasure now in the libidinal economy of the parties. Still later, they just miss each other again in Hong Kong as they separately revisit their old rooms. The point of these latter scenes is to show that Mr Chow and Mrs Chan are still preoccupied with each other as compulsive fictions, where preoccupation itself has become the substance of the fantasy. The last thing they want now is to meet each other, let alone to live with one another, to love in reality. The final scene takes place as if in an Asian version of a de Chirico painting, with Mr Chow alone amidst the ruins of Angkor Wat. This scene bears the same relation to the bustling mise-en-scene of 60s Hong Kong that the sex pictures bear to the film stills in Sherman's photography. That is, they expose the fundamental fantasmatic structure of desire that is masked by the diegesis. The whole sumptuous dance of missing each other (and the corresponding fetish of the trace) that had characterised the film thereto is suddenly suspended, and the hero appears as he always really was: wandering the vast catacombs of the maternal, poignantly figured as the temples of Angkor Wat. (15)

Conflation and Collision on Mullholland Drive

In David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, "love" also consists of two parallel narratives. The dream scenario comes first, however, disorienting audiences. It begins in typical, indeed hackneyed, noir fashion. Betty (Naomi Watts) has arrived in Hollywood to try her luck as a film actress only to find the bloodied and amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) cowering in her borrowed apartment. The plot then follows familiar pathways, with Betty auditioning for parts hoping for her big break while acting as amateur detective trying to solve the mystery of Rita's condition. The film then famously folds over into a second, quite distinct, reality. The moment of metalepsis (here, waking up) is signalled by the appearance of a strange blue box on the stage of a nightclub as Betty watches on alone in the theatre. The camera zooms in on this blue box and then appears to fall into it. After this, Naomi Watts is no longer Betty but "Dianne Selwyn", and the world is noticeably grimmer and dimmer than that occupied by Betty and Rita. This sudden onset of gritty realism accentuates the idealisations of the earlier scenes. The fact that the figures and scenes of the first part of the film are repeated in the second implies that the first was a compensatory dream/fantasy of Dianne Selwyn.

In the first part of the film, Dianne's fantasy enacts revenge on various figures, especially the film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who is, in the course of one day, forced by gangsters to "recast his leading lady", then to find his wife in bed with the pool cleaner, then to be declared broke, and finally to be chastised by a cowboy for failing to live authentically. The second part of the film mercilessly records the life Dianne actually leads as a desperate, lonely, struggling actress, having to endure minor parts and to watch as her lover, the woman we see as "Rita" in her fantasies, wins the lead roles she covets. Her humiliation is crowned when Adam Kesher, the director of their current film, announces he is going to marry Rita at a party held at his glamorous mansion on Mulholland Drive. It is Adam, of course, who will suffer all the indignities once Dianne's dreams get hold of him. (16)

The blue box operates visually as the conduit between the two worlds. Like the parents' bedroom door for a child, the box simultaneously contains the "other" world of primal fantasy (so long as one remains on this side of it, inside one's social fantasy) and yet opens up to its infinitely unknowable space of longing. Lynch is positioning love at this juncture. Without access to primary fantasy, love would be unable to deliver jouissance, but, without access to social fantasy, the source of jouissance--the unconstructed, unarticulated libido--would leave the ego formless, unable to map itself into the intersubjective network of exchanges of language and culture. Like Freud's "Dora," Dianne experiences a disorienting set of betrayals from Rita and Adam, who begin to figure as sexualized mother and father for a disoriented, hysterical Dianne. Such confusion, for Freud, arises from the traumatic onset of differentiated sexuality, and hysteria is a rebellion against the consequences of sexual allocation. The distinct feature of the hysterical moment is the innocence of the subject to the sexual imbroglio that spins out from her/him. The solution, the only one offered by the social fantasy (which can be either more or less "real" as lived experience), is to reconcile what one wants with what one can have and to mourn the corresponding loss (limitation) of jouissance. But Dianne's social fantasy--the first part of the film--enacts infantile revenges against the crimes of the parents. Adam is systematically humbled and Rita is returned to a malleable form, shorn of the memory that would empower her over Dianne/"Betty". In the fantasy version, the broken, confused mother (Rita) crawls into the baby's (Betty's) bed, not the other way round. Both "parents" of Dianne's sexual being are made into manipulable children for the canny "Betty".

But revenge is only half the battle. It remains for this fantasy to "recast the leading lady": to re-install the subject of the unconscious as the object of desire, just as the viewer is invited to become, but never can become, the object of the figure's averted gaze in Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #124. This installation of the subject as the primary object takes place in the memorable scene in which Betty turns up for her "big audition"--her entree into the notoriously sordid world of Hollywood casting. Having patiently learned her lines with Rita, in a manner cognate with the play-acting of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, Betty arrives in the office of a kindly, buffoonish producer to audition for the part of a leading woman in a melodrama. In the chosen scene, the woman is being seduced by the friend of her father:

BETTY: You're still here?

JIMMY: I came back. I thought that's what you wanted.

BETTY: Nobody wants you here.

JIMMY: Really?

BETTY: My parents are right upstairs! They think you've left.

JIMMY: So ... surprise!

BETTY: I can call them ... I can call my dad.

JIMMY: But you won't.

BETTY: You're playing a dangerous game here. If you're trying to blackmail me ... it's not going to work.

JIMMY: You know what I want ... it's not that difficult.

BETTY: Get out ... Get out before I call my dad. He trusts you ... you're his best friend. This will be the end of everything.

JIMMY: What about you? What will your dad think about you?

BETTY: Stop ... just stop! That's what you said from the beginning. If I tell what happened ... they'll arrest you and put you in jail, so get out of here before....

JIMMY: Before what?

BETTY: Before I kill you.

JIMMY: Then they'd put you in jail.

BETTY: I hate you ... I hate us both.

As with In the Mood for Love, as in scenes from Shakespeare, Brecht, Bergman, and Kaufman, the play-within-a-play may serve as critique, satire, antithesis, or synthesis of the master play, or even, in the postmodern variation, as a certain infinite regression (mise-en-abyme) of the master play. Despite this outward variation, however, the play-within-a-play most often manifests the uncontained "real" of desire--in this case the primal scene for Betty/Dianne: "My parents are right upstairs!" The audition works in direct parallel with the scene at the party, on the other side of the blue box, in which Dianne watches on, seething, as Adam proposes to Rita, his newly chosen "leading lady". In the audition scene, the subject thus becomes the leading object of a displaced father-figure's desire, with the mutual threat of blackmail serving as unconscious prohibition for the primal scene and with the parents upstairs serving as its hidden erotic power. Betty must obey the lecherous friend of her father, or he will tell them, and they will know of her sexual hunger--in effect for her own father: "What will your dad think about you?"

Before the actors perform the scene, the producer asks the director if he wants to offer the actors any guidance, and the director replies, "It's not a contest, the two of them with themselves, so don't play it for real... until it gets real." This is a seeming non sequitur for the film, where the dialogue is often at crossed purposes and yet is never really absurd. Whilst for Lacan, this missing of each other is the very essence of dialogue (i.e., successful miscommunication), it is a gross violation of the purpose of dramatic dialogue in the Hollywood style, which is to confirm the coherence of the exchange of speech. In Lynch, speech is not confirmed by the agreement of the interlocutor, but by its correspondence to the primal scene. The question, of course, is who is directing this scene? The hysterical insistence is anyone but me! The film thus multiplies "directors" beyond Adam, the vanquished father, punished and ridiculed in Dianne's dreams. In the audition scene, there is, in addition to the producer and various other attendants, a new director, whose function is nothing less than to regulate reality ("don't play it for real ... until it gets real"), like the analyst who appears under the name of the father and functions, as it were, as the gatekeeper of the real. The "real" that should not be played as such until it becomes so is, of course, the real of sexuality, both in Betty's audition and in Dianne's hysteria. When Betty and the fatherly friend kiss, it is "played for real", and Lynch, in an extended take, allows the passion to flood beyond the plausibility of the scripted "scene". Unlike In the Mood for Love, where a real betrayal is also converted into play, the play returns to the real, consummating it without disguise.


Each of the examples discussed here--Lars and the Real Girl, In the Mood for Love, and Mulholland Drive--presents a social disguise (romance) for love that is in disarray. In Lars and the Real Girl, the discord is introduced by a sex doll in the position of romantic heroine who resists sex. Audiences never see Lars behaving obscenely with his doll. He is the model of gentle chastity. Indeed, Bianca literalises Lars's impotence: she is as incapable of penetration, despite her perfectly engineered holes, as he is of penetrating. Penetration, in this sense, means to enter another at the point of difference. The film's scandal is that Lars is taught to penetrate her socially, not sexually, by the good burghers of this wholesome mid-western town. Lars's community make Bianca real by clothing her, removing her from unconscious desire, and positioning her within a romance that manifestly spirals outside Lars's control.

Like Lars, who cannot look others in the eye, the camera in In the Mood for Love will not face the guilty pair--the adulterous partners of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan. Strangely, though, this refusal to see does not free them, because, in acting it out for themselves, they are implicated as cause. As Freud has said, what they cannot remember, they are condemned to act out in their bodies and in their relations with others, (17) just as audiences themselves are forced to witness the betrayal in the form of re-enactment, screened from the causes and consequences of desire in a fleeting pleasure of the unreal. (18)

The reliance on the camera to provide a stable ground for an audience's voyeurism is profoundly upset in the cinema of David Lynch, where the primal scene is initially suppressed, and then, upon rupture into the social fantasy, it is nonetheless still dangling outside, unincorporated. In this way, Lynch deconstructs the holism of cinema on the basis of psychic drives, much like Brecht used the stage to deconstruct realist theatre on the basis of historical materialism. Lynch exposes the way that for all our finely tuned scepticism and critical awareness, we depend for our sense of narrative on the assumption that the camera is ontologically consistent, that, however many perspectives audiences may be given, however kaleidoscopic the montage, the shots all ultimately resolve into a single stream. The film allegorises this by introducing the meta-cinematic device of internal films made by different directors. These directors are the metonyms of Freudian principles--toward pleasure and toward reality. The film is remarkable because it manages to make these universal conditions the very subject matter of its story.

By comparison, only Lars and the Real Girl offers a way out of the impostures of romance--out of Lynch's rupture and Kar Wai's dissolution of the real--by positing a collective form of subjectivity that might rescue desire from the limits of the self.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 'The Reality Effect' (1968). In The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang (1975). 141-145.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. 'Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus' (1970), translated by Alan Williams. Film Quarterly 28.2 (Winter 1974-75). 39-47.

Bollas, Christopher. Hysteria. London and New York: Routledge (2000).

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press (1985).

Chute, David. "Unforgettable" LA Weekly (15 February 2001). Accessed online at

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image (1983), translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum (2005).

Freud, Sigmund. 'Screen Memories' (1899). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume III, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press (1968 [1955]), 303-322.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volumes XVIII, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press (1968 [1955]), 7-66.

Freud, Sigmund. Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria ("Dora," 1903). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press (1968 [1955]), 7-112.

Freud, Sigmund. From the History of an Infantile Neurosis ('Wolf Man," 1918). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volumes XVII, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press (1968 [1955]), 7-122.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volumes IV and V, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press (1968 [1955]).

Galassi, Peter and Cindy Sherman. Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills. New York: Museum of Modern Art (2003).

Klein, Melanie. Love, Guilt and Reparation, and other works 1921-1945 (1975). London: Random House (1998).

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI) (1973), translated by Alan Sheridan and edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton (1981).

Morris, Catherine. The Essential Cindy Sherman. New York: Harry N. Abrams (1999).

Mulvey, Laura. 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.' Screen 16:3 (Autumn 1975), 6-18. Sappho. Fragment 31. In If not Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson. New York: Vintage Books (2003), 62-65.

Silverman, Kaja. The Threshold of the Visible World. London and New York: Routledge (1996).

Zizek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. London and New York: Routledge (2001).


Dogville (2003, d/ Lars von Trier)

Guys and Dolls (2007, d/ Nick Holt)

In the Mood for Love (2000, d/ Wong Kar Wai)

Lars and the Real Girl (2007, d/ Craig Gillespie)

Man with a Movie Camera (1929, d/ Dziga Vertov)

Mulholland Drive (2001, d/ David Lynch)

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006, d/ Sophie Fiennes)

Vertigo (1958, d/ Alfred Hitchcock)

Tony Hughes-d'Aeth

The University of Western Australia

(1) David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985).

(2) This essential division is a cornerstone of Freudian theory, notably in The Interpretation of Dreams, but also elsewhere, such as the essay on "Screen Memories," and the case histories which depend on dream analysis, especially Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria ("Dora") and From the History of an Infantile Neurosis ("Wolf Man").

(3) The phenomenon was the subject of a widely aired documentary Guys and Dolls (2007), directed by Nick Holt.

(4) 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975).

(5) Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980 consists of 69 black and white photographs held, since 1995, by the Museum of Modern Art. Sherman's Sex Pictures were taken between 1989 and 1992 and feature medical dummies in pornographic poses. See, Catherine Morris, The Essential Cindy Sherman (1999), and Peter Galassi and Cindy Sherman, The Complete Untitled Film Stills (2003).

(6) Roland Barthes, 'The Reality Effect' (1968).

(7) Jacques Lacan's address, 'Sexuality in the Defiles of the Signifier,' appears as Chapter 12 in Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis of his Seminar.

(8) Klein introduced the "depressive position" in two landmark papers, 'A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States' (1935) and 'Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States' (1940), both in Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation, and other works 1921-1945 (1975).

(9) The theoretical application of perversion was developed by Slavoj Zizek in his discussion of the Wachowski Brothers' film The Matrix (1999), "The Matrix, or The Two Sides of Perversion" (Chapter 6.2, 213-231) in his book Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (2001).

(10) Without this impassioned hatred of the maternal, there is no possibility for the Kleinian sequence: Love, Guilt and Reparation. Klein's sequence resembles the Judaic one of Crime-Punishment-Atonement, but she emphasises that a key precipitate of each process is love, the capacity to love in a manner distinct from infantile possession.

(11) In Chow's case, this disavowal is effected by his maintaining an apparently hyper-passive relation to the facts, presenting a strange, almost morbid, fatalism that is disguised by the exquisite beauty of the film's cinematography. Chow could bring an end to his wife's infidelity. He need only name it. So why doesn't he? Equally, this passivity is true of Mrs Chan and her husband, though certainly, in its historical context, the balance of gendered power relations would have made the cost higher in her case. A sympathetic account of formative hysteria is given by the British analyst Christopher Bollas: "All children seek temporary refuge from this conflict [caused by the advent of sexuality], as it is impossible to acknowledge that one's sexuality is the agent of this change. Comfort is sought by putting it outside the mother-child relation, inevitably pointing to the third object, the father. 'He did it! He is to blame for this disruption!'" (15).

(12) This traumatic realisation was the core of the dream thought which Freud uncovered in his analysis of the Wolf Man.

(13) "[T]he role of Tony in the film reminds me of Jimmy Stewart's in Vertigo. There is a dark side to this character. I think it's very interesting that most of the audience prefers to think that this is a very innocent relationship. These are the good guys, because their spouses are the first ones to be unfaithful and they refuse to be. Nobody sees any darkness in these characters--and yet they are meeting in secret to act out fictitious scenarios of confronting their spouses and of having an affair. I think this happens because the face of Tony Leung is so sympathetic. Just imagine if it was John Malkovich playing this role. You would think, 'This guy is really weird.' It's the same in Vertigo. Everybody thinks James Stewart is a nice guy, so nobody thinks that his character is actually very sick." Quoted in David Chute, "Unforgettable", LA Weekly (15 February 2001), and included in the Wikipedia entry for In the Mood for Love, which also provides the link to the article.

(14) Zizek's reading of Vertigo is given by him, amongst other places, in the film, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006), which he presents.

(15) The melancholic repression of Mr Chow holding on to his unfulfilled love for Mrs Chan shows the manner by which cinema, since Antonioni, can make us sad by simply reducing the figure as against its field. Narrative cinema, brought alive by the close-up (the face), is rendered suddenly inert by the simple act of diminution, when this is the fate of its protagonist. In this sense it is the exact opposite operation of that performed in a "close-up." Deleuze (2005) maintained that every close-up is a face, that the close-up embodies "faceicity" [visageite] (99) and that the grammar of modern cinema gains almost its entire grounding, its consciousness, from the close-up.

(16) The jealousy of the scene (Dianne's jealousy) in which Adam proposes to Rita at his Mulholland mansion so perfectly captures the rage of Sappho's famous 31st fragment--he seems to me equal to gods that man/ whoever he is who opposite you/sits and listens close/ to your sweet talking--that it is almost hard to imagine Lynch did not have it in mind.

(17) "[The patient] is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past." Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

(18) The first detailed elaboration of this argument was Jean-Louis Baudry's 'Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus' (1970).
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Author:Hughes-d'Aeth, Tony
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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