Post-structuralism has governed cultural thinking from the early 1960s as a major philosophical and sociological breakthrough. The success of this discipline led by French psychiatrist and philosopher Jacques Lacan, has had a strong impact on other disciplines, such as film theory. The influence of post-structuralism on film theory became so strong that scholars discussed the very meaning of film theory as both a discipline dedicated to film analysis and as independent intellectual movement. They feared that film theory dissolved into the trend of post-structuralism by excessively using its concepts. In the view of its detractors, post-structuralist psychoanalytic film theory imposes somehow ‘apodictic principles’ of analysis from which film theory should liberate. They named this movement the ‘Grand Theory’ or “S.L.A.B theory” to emphasize its systematic and excessive use in filmic analysis.
Yet, post-structuralists may have considered that film theory falls into their scope of analysis as reflecting social behaviour and human patterns. Indeed, post-structuralism looks at the relationship between film text and spectator, thus between the text and the viewer’s subjectivity and can therefore provide a valuable perspective. In this respect, Jacques Lacan’s contribution on psychoanalysis has remained a crucial theory, “with its emphasis on misrecognition and fluidity of meaning and subjectivity.” The notion of the instability of subjectivity stemmed for other schools of thought based on anti-essentialism such as feminism, queer theory and post-colonialism. Naturally, Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories have been applied to film studies, although not deriving directly from filmic analysis.
Therefore, one is to ask if post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory – notably Lacanian film theory – applicable or relevant to film analysis. Furthermore, does psychoanalytic appraisal create a risk of interpretosis i.e. over- interpretation when applied to film theory? What makes filmic examples “eligible” for post-structuralist psychoanalytical reading?
I will start with Lacan’s mirror stage concept as a core example, which has been highly influential on film studies. Then I will discuss Todd McGowan’s argument, which criticizes Lacanian film theory, not Lacanian concepts per se. Finally, I will analyse Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986) in the light McGowan’s argument, who finds the notions desire (objet petit a) and jouissance more relevant than that of the mastery of the gaze.
Lacan draws from Sigmund Freud the idea that a child is not born with a fixed identity but identifies with imaginary or idealized figures. And this stage does not really end as the subject endlessly identifies himself with different entities, for instance texts: “It is a commonplace that the identification of readers and spectators with the idealized heroes of narrative is a source of much of the pleasure to be derived from such texts.” Moreover, psychoanalysis acknowledges the possible identification with several characters at once. According to Lacan, there are three forms of subjectivities or so-called ‘worlds’. First, the Imaginary, which is made of blurred boundaries, fragmentation and that corresponds to early childhood. The Symbolic is that of the fixed, the institutionalized and is primarily established through language. Lastly, the Real is that of psychosis and death – one could call it the “unconscious.” This ternary grid of interpretation is proper to Lacan and post-structuralism generally speaking. One can already understand the intellectual temptation- dare I say compulsion – to use these concepts in order to understand the public and their relationship to certain films which evidently convey a symbolic charge. This intellectual slide – from film theory to psychoanalytic interpretation- becomes more obvious when exploring the ‘mirror stage’. Lacan has worded this stage during which the infans discovers his identity as an independent ‘I’ – separated from the mother or matrix – when realizing the very existence of his own body by watching oneself in front of a mirror:
This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage … would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.
One can easily understand the importance of Lacan’s research on the child’s mental construction as a subject during the early years of life; this, because with the early stages of individuation and differentiation (from the mother and the others) will come the need to communicate with others i.e. the desire to speak- language. In this context, one can understand the original paradigm in which Lacan’s work can be circumscribed at first: it is the result of the substantial work of a psychiatrist following a psychoanalytical approach of the early childhood.
Yet, one can perceive an interpretative extension of Lacan’s work on the imaginary to film theory as pertinent, specifically when analysing how readers or spectators might identify to imaginary personas when, in reality, they might have nothing in common. In this perspective, disruptive might be the world in which individuals are to live in. Indeed, according to Lacan, the instability of the language – the signifiers and the signified – creates an instability in the identification process. Consequently, the subject will follow a never-ending quest for an objet petit a that can never be found. Indeed, “from the moment of its constitution in the symbolic order the subject is in search of what is lacking.” Therefore, the meaning of art (texts, for instance) may vary: “as the relations between signifiers are constantly changing – for example when new signifiers are added to the signifying chain – meaning too can change.” And this provides a wide place for interpretations and reinterpretations, meaning that there is no final readings.
However, the post-structuralist psychoanalytical approach may not constitute the principle of reflection on film theory. One can consider – although part of the post-structuralist movement- psychoanalysis as ultimately rooted in the clinical practice and therefore should be used, perhaps, as an illustrative source of analysis that should not overrule the film theorist’s own thinking. In addition, Lacan’s theory has been discussed and criticized by contemporary philosophers, asserting the fact that post-structuralism psychoanalysis does not constitute a universal paradigm.
Indeed, post-structuralists did not agree on the interpretative content of Lacan’s analyses. For instance, Jacques Derrida, although indebted in Lacan in his notion that a text can acquire different meaning according to the context, criticizes the phallocentric Lacanian (and Freudian) assumptions that it all goes down to the castration and the woman’s lack. McGowan also clearly expresses a will to release Film Theory from any predominant doxa, labelled as the “Grand Theory” by Bordwell and Carroll, expressing a will to emancipate from the “S.L.A.B theory”, quote: “no one theory predominates in film studies today (…) In fact, because of its universality and its hegemony over the field of film studies, David Bordwell and Noël Carroll simply label Lacanian film theory ‘the Theory’.” Bordwell has strongly advocated for an alternative approach to the ‘Grand Theory’, by exploring other forms of art appraisal and critic, such as neo-formalism, i.e. study of the form, related to the historical context and spectatorship. Furthermore, McGowan argues that Lacanian theory has not been applied correctly to film theory. It is not so much the mirror-stage but rather the notion of desire that would be relevant to film theory, since the mastery of the gaze is first and foremost an illusion. Rather, he expends on the fact that we are not seeking mastery or power, but the lack of power, i.e. jouissance, which implies a transgression of the order (the Symbolic).
McGowan uses Blue Velvet as an illustration of Lacanian thought, because “Lynch’s films hold desire and fantasy apart as wholly separate. [It is when they intersect] that the gaze manifests itself.” In this respect, the film Blue Velvet encompasses themes that are tightly related to psychoanalysis: voyeurism, desire, sadomasochism, Oedipus Complex and death. The film displays two fantasy worlds, the perfect small town of Lumberton, and the dark and devious underworld represented by Frank.
The film starts with a shot on actual blue velvet – creating a “textured” or haptic mise-en-scène, recurrent throughout the film – accompanied by the title ‘Blue Velvet’. Thus words (signifier) and what they represent are linked (signified). It gives the spectator a momentary feeling of safety and mastery as there is no challenge in the meaning of what we are seeing. The blue velvet could also refer to a theatre curtain, therefore epitomizing the sense of illusion inherent to films. We enter the fantasy world of Lumberton (i.e. the ideological enforcement of the white bourgeois ideal), where everything is in its proper place. However, this perfection is disrupted by the irruption of the Real. Indeed, Jeffrey’s mother is watching a film showcasing the close-up of a gun. Jeffrey’s father is watering the garden when he has a heart attack. We see a spectacle of death in a heaven-like decor. The camera then thrusts into the grass to find bugs in extreme close-up. This shows that death is close to the surface, as the bugs might be reminiscent of decomposition. The tactile and closeness texture of the image is reinforced by the swishing of the grass and the sound of the bugs. This will echo Jeffrey’s discovery of a human ear in a field, a bit later in the film. However, the film goes beyond a simple critic of the white picket fence ideal, but an encounter with the Real, which is the powerlessness of the spectator faced with close-up of bugs. It does not reveal any truth but faces us, unease the desire to know more.
Slavoj Zizek – an opponent critique to Bordwell and neo-formalism – sees the film as a bi-dimensional and hermetic space, there is no openness or perspective towards explanations or truth. There is no perspective or vanishing point but blurred boundaries and contradictions. This pleads for a psychoanalytical approach, because of the dreamlike atmosphere of the film. Close-ups are so extreme, we are so close to grasp reality but we miss, as the extreme close-up provides us with a dark, blank, screen (ear close-up). The closer we get to the solution, the further and quicker it gets away from us. The ear makes obvious the existence of void. The ear, coming from the fantasmatic underworld, appears within the fantasmatic Lumberton: the two world interact and create in Jeffrey and the spectator a desire to know more. This desire, coupled with the fantasy will make the traumatic Real obvious. Jeffrey shares his enthusiasm on investigation “That must be great!” with the inspector who replies “That’s horrible too,” illustrating the duality of desire: pleasure and danger; fulfilling one’s desire leads to death. Later, Sandy, amazed by Jeffrey’s persistence and recklessness to discover the truth (he breaks into Dorothy’s flat) says: “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” It parallels again the spectator’s position, as films trigger voyeuristic impulse, morbid curiosity, and the desire to get to the bottom of the story.
Near the apartment of Dorothy, Sandy is catcalled which is a clever intrusion or reminder of the Real in the quiet place of Lumberton, in this dreamlike atmosphere. Dorothy’s flat is red/purple, like her dress, symbolising desire and sexuality. Jeffrey’s goes further into his desire by breaking in her flat, and putting himself in danger at the same time. Later in the film, several sequences clearly remind us of Freudian literature: the sadomasochist scene between Jeffrey and Dorothy (“hit me”), figure of Frank Booth, a violent sociopath with strange sexual obsessions (dry humping, sadomasochism, etc.) According to McGowan, Frank’s violence towards Dorothy would be the result of her traumatic gaze and terrifying desire. Violence would be an attempt to obtain a response to her desire, which would be “why the spectator can find some degree of pleasure in the character of Frank.” I would argue that this statement is debatable and that any identification with Frank is relative to each spectator.
McGowan’s analysis highlights the importance of the gaze as an intersubjective pond between desire and fantasy, “keeping desire and fantasy separate allows Lynch to depict the point at which they interact, and it is as this point – the edge of desire and fantasy – that the gaze manifests itself.”
The desire for mastery is indeed a dominant theme of the film. This desire for mastery over the ‘other’, especially the masculine desire over the feminine object. For instance, when Jeffrey sees Dorothy singing for the first time, he gazes at her with fascination and this will lead to an unstoppable and dangerous quest. The other’s gaze become the starting point of a satisfactory process which will transform the desire to a satisfaction and therefore, the exhaustion of this desire (“that’s not it”). The discovery of the interrelation between the Symbolic, the Real and the Imaginary is worded by Jeffrey to Sandy in those terms: “I’m seeing something that was always hidden. /I’m involved in a mystery. I’m learning. /And it’s all secret.” Sandy and Dorothy are two antagonist feminine personas. As McGowan explains: “the traumatic Real (…) exists between the world of desire and the world of fantasy. It is in the movement between the two worlds that one encounters the gaze, the Real of the Other’s desire.” The other’s desire might become an unfamiliar encounter as embodied by Dorothy. According to McGowan, “Dorothy embodies the gaze,” and therefore, “Blue Velvet strictly separates desire and fantasy so as to depict the traumatic point of their intersection.” I would argue that this approach provides an interesting appraisal of David Lynch’s will to explain the mechanisms of desire and how it attains its acme by a mirroring game of gaze and egos.
The desire for mastery in the other and the subsequent and inescapable return to the Real is the substance of David Lynch’s work. In this respect, McGowan psychoanalytical approach is pertinent to Blue Velvet. However, Blue Velvet can be seen as a psychoanalytical mise-en-scène because of the richness of its psychoanalytical charge and archetypes: the bad and good feminine (Dorothy/Sandy), the aggressive and fatherly masculine (Frank/John), the search for a phallus (the guns/the knife/blade) and the sadomasochist desires (“hit me”). Therefore, David Lynch’s work – inspired by psychoanalytical analysis -bolsters the psychoanalytical approach of film theory rather than liberating it.
Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, 1913.
Kuhn, Annette and Guy Westwell. Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, 1st Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Lacan, Jacques. “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience.” In Ecrits: A Selection, edited by Alan Sheridan, 1-7. London: Tavistock, 1977.
Lapsley, Rob. “Psychoanalytic Criticism.” In The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory, edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake, 73-86. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.
McGowan, Todd. “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and its Vicissitudes.” Cinema Journal 42, no. 3, 2003: 27-47.
The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
Lynch, David. Blue Velvet, 1986.
 S.L.A.B theory: Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, Barthes.
 Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell, Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, 1st Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), s.v. “post-structuralism.”
 Rob Lapsley, “Psychoanalytic Criticism,” in The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory, Simon Malpas and Paul Wake eds, (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 78.
 Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of The I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits: A Selection, Alan Sheridan ed., (London: Tavistock, 1977), 2.
 Lapsley, 82.
 Laspley, 80.
 Lapsley, 84.
 Todd McGowan, “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and its Vicissitudes” Cinema Journal 42, no. 3, (2003): 1.
 David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1991).
 McGowan, 30.
 McGowan, 32.
 McGowan, 40.
 McGowan, 42.
 McGowan, 40.
 McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 23.
 McGowan, 41.
 McGowan, 43.
 McGowan, 43.