lacanThe Marxist approach was short-lived, partly because it was too monolithic, but partly too because the attempt to account for spectatorial positioning and pleasure had been in the air since at least Morin’s 1956 Le Cinema ou I’homme imaginaire. Indeed, strictly psychoanalytical approaches did not suddenly appear in the early 1970s: as early as the 1940s, there had been an attempt to analyse Bunuel’s Un chien andalou using Freudian psychoanalysis (see Mondragon, 1949).

The psychoanalytic turn of 1970 is considerably less like the psychologist approaches of earlier decades, however, and much more related to structuralist linguistics, mainly because of Jacques Lacan’s version of Freud. Lacan famously said that the unconscious is structured like a language, so it is easy to see how someone like Metz was able to slip, in just a few years, from using linguistics in the analysis of film to psycho- analysis.

Nevertheless, it was not Metz but Jean-Louis Baudry who acted as the transitional figure between the theories of ideology outlined in the previous section andpsy- choanalysis, as the title of one of his more influential articles suggests: ‘Cinema: effets ideologiques produits pas 1’appareil de base’ (1971). In this article, Baudry argues that the illusion of reality constituted by a film is fundamentally ideologi- cal. Using (as Laura Mulvey was to do in 1975in the UK) Lacan’s theory of the ‘mirror-stage’, he showed how a film constitutes the spectator as an imaginary unity that confirms the world as it is, rather than pushing the spectator to ques- tion it. In his 1975 article, ‘Le dispositif: approches metapsychologiques de Peffet de realite’, Baudry, picking up where Morin had left off in 1956,argued that the cinema returns spectators to a regressive infantile state; they become ‘absorbed into the image’, and the film functions analogically as a dream (a theory debated in the 1920s). Baudry’s 1975 article was published in a ground-breaking issue of the journal Communications on psychoanalysis and cinema. The journal was published by an interdisciplinary research group of the prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique with the cumbersome title of ‘Centre d’Etudes Transdisciplinaires (Sociologie Anthroplogie Politique)’. This particular issue, edited by Metz, Raymond Bellour and Thierry Kuntzel, who all published articles in it, also included pieces by Roland Barthes, Felix Guattari and Julia Kristeva, amongst others. Metz in fact published two articles in the issue, both of which were collected in his major contribution to the field, Le Signifiant imaginaire (1977). One of these two articles pursues Baudry’s discussion of the film as dream. Metz systematically explores the analogies between the two, pointing out that the illusion of reality is confined to the dream, and that in the case of a film, where we know we are watching a film, an impression, not an illusion of reality, is created (Metz, 1975b).

Other article, which gives its title to Le Signifiant imaginaire,is a remarkable analysis of film through psychoanalysis (Metz, 1975a; translated in Metz, 1982). Countering the problem of the objectifying view of the (linguistic) scientist which we discussed above, Metz questions his own investment in the analysis of film, saying that ‘to be a theoretician of the cinema, one should ideally no longer love the cinema and yet still love it: have loved it a lot and only have detached oneself from it by taking it up again from the other end, taking it as the target for the very same scopic drive which had made one love it’ (Metz, 1982: 15). He discusses various ways in which psychoanalysis could be used to analyse films: psychoanalysis of the director working back from the films as ‘symptoms’; of the film script, by which he means the narrative (as had been the case with Mondragon’s analysis of Un chien andalou; see Mondragon, 1949); of the ‘textual system’ by which he means not just the script but mise-en-scene and cinematography.

The more important parts of the article, however, concern issues of identification. Like Baudry, he likens the screen to the Lacanian mirror, the point in the child’s development between six and eighteen months when s/he misrecognises what s/he sees in the mirror as a more complete ideal self, an issue also coincidentally dis- cussed by Laura Mulvey in the same year, 1975, in the British film journal Screen. Metz points out the differences too, of course, in that what spectators see on screen is not an image of themselves. Nevertheless, the analogy of the mirror allows Metz, again following Baudry (who himself was picking up on comments by Morin in 1956) to claim that there are two types of identification for the film spectator. Identification with characters on screen is merely secondary identification. What the spectator identifies with in the mirror-screen, termed ‘primary identification’, is the act of viewing itself, the apparatus (camera and projector). The spectator both ‘projects’ on to the screen by identifying with the camera/projector, and ‘introjects’ (psychoanalytic terms used by Melanie Klein) what is coming from the screen on to the screen of the retina. Watching a film is therefore like a play of mirrors: ‘the film is what I receive, and it is also what I release, since it does not pre-exist my enter- ing the auditorium and I only need close my eyes to suppress it. Releasing it, I am the projector, receiving it, I am the screen; in both these figures together, I am the camera, which points and yet which records’ (Metz, 1982: 51). The narcissism that this play of mirrors involves goes a long way towards accounting for the pleasure of omnipotence that spectators may feel when watching a film.

Metz also explores other kinds of pleasure, such as scopophilia (a psychoanalytic term meaning the pleasure gained from watching), suggesting that watching a film is akin to voyeurism. Again, this was an issue also explored by Laura Mulvey in 1975. Metz goes so far as to suggest that the thrill of watching a film may be related

to the guilty pleasure of the primal scene, when a child watches the parents making love. Indeed, for Metz, the cinema is a particularly eroticised environment. Specific techniques such as framing, fades and so on, because they reveal and hide, excite desire and lead Metz, famously, to compare cinema with striptease:

The way the cinema, with its wandering framings (wandering like the look, like the caress), finds the means to reveal space has something to do with a kind of permanent undressing, a generalised strip-tease, a less direct but more perfected strip-tease, since it also makes it possible to dress space again, to remove from view what it has previously shown, to take back as well as to retain. (Metz, 1982: 77)

We have separated three strong currents in the preceding sections – linguistics, Marxism and psychoanalysis- but it is important to realise that when it came to the analysis of films the three often worked together, in an environment also influ- enced by Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist ‘deconstruction’ or Bardies’ analysis of literary codes. As Stam suggests, this combination led to sceptical readings of films, to ‘calling attention to the repressions and contradictions [of films], the assumption that no text takes a position that it does not at the same time under- mine, the idea that all texts are constitutivelycontradictory’ (Stam, 1999: 183). The same issue of Communications that had the texts by Baudry and Metz to which we have referred, also included lengthy analyses of film sequences. Kuntzel had 53 pages of a shot-by-shot analysis of the opening sequence of The Most Dangerous Game (USA: Shoedsack and Pichel, 1932), using Freud, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida and Metz, amongst others, to explore issues of repetition (Kuntzel, 1975). Bellour explored North by Northwest (USA: Hitchcock, 1959), in an even longer Lacanian analysis (115 pages), with complex tables, diagrams and equations (Bellour, 1975).

The theories of the cinema we have outlined so far correspond broadly to the stan- dard histories of film theory. We have of course omitted important theorists who were not French, such as Arnheim and Balazs pre-war, or Kracauer in the 1960s, as well as detailed consideration of the various Anglo-American psychoanalytically inspired debates during the period 1975-1985. It is at this point – the late 1970s – that there is considerable divergence between the French context and the Anglo-American context. Whereas psychoanalysis became, at least until the mid- 1980s, the dominant form of film theory in the Anglo-American context, largely because it was taken up by feminist theorists, in the French context, psychoanalysis was absorbed into the combination of approaches referred to above, without in any way being privileged. One of the curiosities of the French arena is the almost total blindess to issues of gender that characterise theoretical debate in the period 1975-1985. But it is perhaps also because of this emphasis on gender in Anglo-American discourse that some of the more interesting developments in French-specific discourses have not been visible until very recently.

In our final sections of this chapter, then, we will outline more recent important French-specific developments. The choice of writers in what follows is inevitably partial and selective. We have not covered some who might be considered to be major theorists by many, such as Pascal Bonitzer and Jacques Aumont (both associ- ated with the journal Cahiers du cinema), whose work in the 1980s in particular examined the relationship between painting and film; their purpose was at least partly to bolster the notion of the auteur in the face of the cinema du look and other 1980s trends, such as the superproductions (see Aumont, 1989; Bonitzer, 1985; see also Darke, 1993: 374-5 for a brief discussion of this point; Aumont’s better-known work in the Anglophone arena is his work on the image, see Aumont, 1990, trans- lated in 1997). The fortunes of those theorists we shall examine in more detail have been variable. Daney’s work has not appeared in translation, and despite his prominence in the French arena, he is relatively unknown to Anglophone film writers. The issue of space in the cinema is a recent development, although Gardies does not figure high as a theorist in such debates, since the approach to space in the cinema has been, by and large, pragmatic rather than theoretical. Burch’s work is frequently anthologised in English translation, as is Chion’s. Deleuze in particular has assumed increasing importance for Anglo—American as well as French theorists.

French Cinema: A Student’s Guide –  Phil Powrie and Keith Reader –



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