an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image


Volume 2, February 2005, ISSN 1552-5112



Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 1:

‘A New Kind of Mirror’


Paula Murphy




Your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism.  That spot is bewitched.  Only theory can break the spell.[1]


Theodor Adorno






Film theory as we know it today did not come into existence until the late 1960’s, and since then has been dominated by psychoanalytic ideas.  This article seeks to specifically investigate the influence of Lacanian psychoanalysis on film theory.  Its development will be traced in two articles through classic film theory, the role of Karl Marx and Louis Althusser, the contributions of semiotics, the debates surrounding apparatus theory and the gaze, and finally the input of feminism.  While this type of broad overview has been attempted in many general introductions to film theory, it is hoped here to provide a rough sketch of its formative stages of development, while filling in the detail on a number of significant issues that highlight Lacan’s influence. 


Classic Film Theory

It was not until after the First World War that it became possible to identify two particular groups within film criticism.  Spearheading the first of these groups was the figure of Sergei Eisenstein, whose film-making and theoretical essays in the 1920’s established a conception of the role of the cinema as a primarily aesthetic one.  According to Eisenstein, a film’s aesthetic value depended on its ability to transform reality and in his films this usually took the form of montage.[2]  In opposition to Eisenstein were the impressionists and surrealists.  They also believed the main function of the cinema to be aesthetic, but thought that the camera itself was enough to render ordinary objects sublime.  Their emphasis on cinema as a visual medium meant that they regarded narrative in many cases as an obstacle that had to be overcome.  This, coupled with their emphasis on fragmentation, meant that the impressionist / surrealist tradition was unsuited to the rapidly expanding business of commercial cinema. 

Eisenstein and his followers gradually overshadowed other theoretical groups to the extent that it was not until after the Second World War, in the 50’s, that any radical development within film theory took place.  This development was primarily due to the influence of André Bazin and his two essays, ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’ and ‘The Virtues and Limitations of Montage’, which critiqued the two most prestigious schools of thought in film at the time: Eisenstein’s Soviet school of montage and German expressionism (Ray 2001, 7).  Bazin overturned existing conceptions of film by claiming that cinema’s true purpose was the objective representation of reality.  The expressionists, surrealists and the Soviet school all evinced a belief in the manipulation of reality: Eisenstein through abstract montage and mise-en-scene, and the impressionists and surrealists through their elevation of the image and disregard for other aspects of cinematography.  Bazin argued that cinema offered the chance of completely objective representation for the first time in history.  His position has come under severe criticism from post-structuralists, for whom reality is always a subjective experience.[3]  However, it is interesting to note that contemporary television would seem to have come full circle in a return to Bazin’s conception of film: reality TV is the ultimate symptom of a desire for totally objective, unmediated presentation of everyday life. 


Question Marx

The influence of Bazin’s theories was short-lived and the political upheaval that occurred in France in 1968 was the catalyst for a complete change of direction in film studies.  Bazin’s style of criticism based around the notion of the auteur and the aesthetic function of cinema soon became outdated as film studies became indisputably political: ‘[t]here was no place outside or above politics; all texts, whatever their claims to neutrality, had their ideological slant’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 1).  Film makers and film critics alike were forced to consider the relationship between ideology and power and the position of cinema within that dualism.  This new politically-centered, theoretically-driven film criticism was given a forum in two highly influential French journals, Cahiers du Cinéma and Cinéthique, along with their British counterpart Screen.  The editorial by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni in the October 1969 issue of Cahiers illustrates the radical new direction that film studies had taken.  In a marked reaction against the subjective, speculative analyses of classical film theory, Comolli and Narboni stress the scientific basis of their critique.[4]  In addition to scientific methodology, they also emphasise the political nature of their aims which are heavily influenced by Marxism.  They see film as a product that becomes transformed into a commodity which ‘is also an ideological product of the system, which in France means capitalism’ (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 45).  Acknowledging their own imprisonment within capitalist ideology, post-revolution film studies envisaged that theory would provide the key to unlock their chains.  It was through theory that operations of ideological control in cinema could be recognised, and through theory that resistance could be asserted.  The post-revolution critics saw the lack of theory in classical film studies as one of the primary reasons for its impotence:

the classic theory of cinema that the camera is an impartial instrument which grasps, or rather is impregnated by, the world in its ‘concrete reality’ is an eminently reactionary one.  What the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant ideology. Cinema is one of the languages through which the world communicates itself to itself.  They constitute its ideology for they reproduce the world as it is experienced when filtered through its ideology’. (Conolli and Narboni 1969, 46)

It was the philosophy of Louis Althusser that provided the political conceptual system for post-revolution film theory.  One of the driving forces behind Althusser’s break with traditional Marxism around 1945 was the desire to establish a scientific status for his theory in order to bestow upon it a degree of autonomy.  This move was to have a direct impact on film studies as the first paragraph of Comolli and Narboni’s editorial elucidates:

Scientific criticism has an obligation to define its fields and methods.  This implies awareness of its own historical and social situation, a rigorous analysis of the proposed field of study, the conditions which make the work necessary and those which make it possible, and the special function it intends to fill.  It is essential that we at Cahiers du Cinema should now undertake just such a global analysis of our positions and aims. (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 43)

It was perhaps this desire for scientific fortification that attracted Althusser to the theories of Lacan.  While psychoanalysis had an enormous direct influence on film studies, it also influenced it indirectly through the Marxist theory of Althusser.  In order to re-conceptualise the simplistic base/superstructure model of society espoused by Marx, Althusser borrowed the psychoanalytic term ‘overdetermination’ in order to articulate the complex web of conflicting elements, which combine to generate a historical movement in society.  In psychoanalysis, this term is used to describe how a mental phenomenon like a symptom can be traced back to several conflicting and often incompatible desires.  J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalais define it as ‘[t]he fact that formations of the unconscious (symptoms, dreams, etc.) can be attributed to a plurality of determining factors…[t]he formation is related to a multiplicity of unconscious elements which may be organized in different meaningful sequences, each having its own specific coherence at a particular level of interpretation’ (Laplanche and Pontalais 1988, 292). 

Althusser’s concept of structural causality is also redolent of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  The term refers to the way in which ‘[m]en are no longer agents actively shaping history, either as individuals or classes, but rather are supports of the process within the structure’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 6).  Lacan also emphasizes the primacy of societal codes (in the form of the symbolic order) in the shaping of subjectivity.  The way in which the subject is inculcated into the social order is described by Althusser as interpellation: a process explicated in all its complexity by Lacan in the Oedipus and castration complexes, the mirror stage and the acquisition of language.  According to Althusser, interpellation takes place through ideological state apparatuses (ISA’s): family, religion, education, media, etc.  In Lacanian terms, these social and familial structures are saturated with symbolic law.  Although both Cahiers du Cinema and Cinéthique used the philosophy of Althusser as the basis for their critique of ideology, they did so in different ways. For Cinéthique all films were hopeless victims of the ideology of the ruling class and had to be rejected in their entirety, whereas Cahiers du Cinema divided film into seven different categories, only one of which it wholly condemned, although this was the largest category: ‘films which are imbued through and through with the dominant ideology in pure and unadulterated form, and give no indication that their makers were even aware of the fact’ (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 46).  This emphasis on the ideological nature of films and of signification in general owes an obvious debt to the philosophy of Lacan.  But although there are several points of connection between the two theorists, the Althusserian and Lacanian subject are nonetheless two distinct and often opposing entities.  For Althusser, interpellation fixes the subject into a position of permanent blindness to the ideological mechanisms of his/her society.  The Lacanian subject is ceaselessly developing and changing through language, and although constituted by the symbolic order is ‘the producer as well as the product of meaning’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 53).  This idea is explored more fully in the following section in relation to the graph of desire. 


Cinematic Semiotics

Robert Lapsley and Micheal Westlake isolate two aspects of Lacanian theory, which were to prove crucial to film studies.  The first is Lacan’s reversal of the Cartesian notion of subjectivity.  Rather than the subject creating and naming the world, Lacan states that is in fact language itself, which creates the world, ‘the concept…engenders the thing’ (Lacan 1989, 72).  This idea has many implications for filmic criticism, as speech can thus be conceived of as already saturated with the predominant ideology, making it difficult or even impossible to utilise speech to criticize ideological norms.  In fact, Lacan even goes so far as to say that language can never fully articulate what the subject wishes to say: the unsignifiable order of the real is evidence of this. 

The second of Lacan’s theories that proved indispensable for film studies is his re-reading of Ferdinand de Saussure.  Lacan reverses Saussure’s formula for the sign, placing language above reality (S/s).  He states that, ‘[f]or the human being the word or the concept is nothing other than the word in its materiality.  It is the thing itself.  It is not just a shadow, a breath, a virtual illusion of the thing, it is the thing itself (Lacan 1987, 178, my italics).  Language murders the thing and takes its place.  In this model of the sign, there is an endless sliding of signifiers over signifieds, which is temporarily halted by the point de caption.  The graph of desire (Lacan 1989, 335) articulates succinctly the complexities inherent in signification.  The horizontal vector represents the signifying chain, and intersects with the vector ΔS at two points.  The first point of intersection denotes the constitution of the signifier from ‘a synchronic and enumerable collection of elements in which each is sustained only by the principle of its opposition to each of the others’ (Lacan 1989, 336).  In short, this point represents the signifier, which attains its status through its difference from other terms in the system of language.  The second point of intersection denotes the moment of punctuation, in which the signifier at the first point of intersection attains its full meaning retroactively.  The two points of intersection are not symmetrical, nor are they intended to be.  The first is ‘a locus (a place rather than a space) and the second is ‘a moment (a rhythm rather than a duration) (Lacan 1989, 336).  The elementary cell of the graph cited here is simplistic, but serves to illustrate the relationship between subject and meaning.[5] 

Meaning is produced après-coup by the subject through the retroactive nature of punctuation (the second point of intersection) in the subject’s enunciation.  However, the subject is also produced by signification, as the meaning of the signifier at the first point of signification is a differential meaning, not an inherent meaning.  This means that the subject must choose from a selection of signifiers that are available to him/her, which themselves shape and define the signified.  Collectively, these signifieds construct the world in which the subject exists, and so construct subjectivity itself.  For Lacan, there is an unending flux between the subject and signification, and this idea occurs in film studies in several different ways.

Christian Metz defends the analysis of cinema from a linguistic or semiotic point of view because although it is not a langue in the Saussurian sense of the word, it is certainly a language.  Metz argues that the cinema does not constitute a langue for three reasons: because there is no intercommunication; because it is duplication of reality rather than the unmotivated, arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified and finally because it lacks ‘the double articulation that…is the hallmark of natural language’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 39).  Natural language can be described as having a double articulation because it is comprised of both words (morphemes) and smaller units, phonemes, which signify nothing in themselves, but when combined produce morphemes.  While the camera shot could in theory be likened to the phoneme, there are numerous difficulties with this equation.  There are an infinite number of shots to select from, but there are a finite number of words.  Moreover, the meaning of the shot is not defined by its paradigmatic dimension, i.e. by the other shots which could have been selected, whereas the meaning of words is defined paradigmatically.  Because of these difficulties in analyzing cinema through its paradigmatic relationships, Metz instead embarked upon an analysis of the syntagmatic relationships in cinema: his ‘grande syntagmatique (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 40). 

Metz divides the narrative syntax of the cinema into eight parts, ranging from the smallest segment, the autonomous shot to the largest segment, the sequence.  While Metz’s analysis set up a detailed schema for understanding a film’s construction, it was nonetheless open to criticism.  Segments from films could not be categorized as neatly as Metz imagined and he was also criticized for being so formulaic that there was little room for practical interpretation of the workings of meaning and ideology within cinema.  Metz’s grande syntagmatique did elicit several progressive critical responses however.  Film director Pier Paolo Pasolini argued against Metz’s proposition that there was nothing in the cinema to correspond to phonemes, which would align it to language’s dual articulation.  Pasolini names the smaller units of cinema ‘cinemes’, which represent reality, or objects from reality.  Through a process of selection and combination cinemes were formed into shots, analogous to language’s morphemes.  Umberto Eco criticized Pasolini’s naivety in supposing that the cinema could articulate an unmediated reality.  Rather, Eco argues that reality is represented in the cinema through a system of cultural codes which are intimately connected to ideology.  He states also that cinemes could not be equivalent to phonemes, since phonemes only possess meaning in combination, whereas cinemes possess meaning in isolation.  Against Metz’s uni-articulation and Pasolini’s double-articulation, Eco contends that the cinema has a triple articulation made up of semes, smaller iconic signs which only attain meaning in relation to semes, and finally the ‘conditions of perception’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 45), which takes into account the audience’s perception of light, shade, textures, colours, etc. which contribute to their understanding of the filmic text.  Later on, Eco revised this model slightly, suggesting that signs are better thought of as ‘sign-functions correlating a unit of expression with a unit of content in a temporary encoding’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 46, my italics), recognizing that signs are defined by their context and that their meaning cannot be fixed.[6] 

          The relationship between the subject and the narrative text in the cinema was explored by many film critics and much of the remaining sections are concerned with an analysis of this relationship from various critical viewpoints.  One such critic is Colin McCabe, who was on the editorial board for the revolutionary British film journal Screen in the 1970’s and was also a regular contributor.  Screen took on board the challenge of analyzing the relationship between ideology, subjectivity and signification, and did so through psychoanalysis, semiotics and Althusserian Marxism.  It is in the structuralist mode that McCabe theorizes the production of meaning in film in the article that will be discussed here.[7] 

The model for McCabe’s analysis of film is a literary one.  Since the dominant mode of film was (and still is) realism, McCabe finds his model in the classic realist text, the nineteenth century novel, which he defines as ‘one in which there is a hierarchy amongst the discourses which compose the text and this hierarchy is defined in terms of an empirical notion of truth’ (McCabe 1974, 54).  The Marxist influence of McCabe’s analysis is obvious.  Extrapolating the hierarchical divisions within the realist novel allows him to uncover the mechanisms of ideology within the text.  McCabe divides the realist novel into narrative prose and object language.  Narrative prose is characterised by the omniscient narrator, informing, commenting and providing judgement on the object language, the language of the characters, represented in inverted commas.  McCabe states that the narrative prose is the first order of hierarchy in the novel.  It ‘functions as a metalanguage that can state all the truths in the object language’ (McCabe 1974, 54).  The narrative prose attempts to conceal its status as metalanguage: since its words are not spoken, it is almost as if they are not there.  Its invisibility hides its function as purveyor of the dominant ideology.  In film, McCabe believes that the camera is analogous to the metalanguage of the classic realist novel: ‘[t]he camera shows us what happens – it tells the truth against which we can measure the discourses’ (McCabe 1974, 56). 

McCabe defines two aspects of the classic realist text in both novel and film.  He states that ‘[t]he classic realist text cannot deal with the real as contradictory.  In a reciprocal movement the classic realist text ensures the position of the subject in a relation of dominant specularity’ (McCabe 1974, 58).  The ‘real’ here does not signify the Lacanian real.  It refers rather to the real events which are related in the subjective discourse of the cinema and conversely in the object language or dialogue of the realist novel.  He is stating therefore that realist narrative cannot accommodate a tension between metalanguage and object discourse.  The nature of the genre means that the object discourse must subscribe to the commentary of the metalanguage, and therefore to the status of metalanguage as ideologically motivated.  However, while tension is impossible between these two hierarchical levels within the film or the novel, it is possible for either to resist the dominant ideology of society.  So while the two elements are necessarily harmonious within the narrative of filmic text, in unison they are capable of critique:

 the classic realist text (a heavily ‘closed’ discourse) cannot deal with the real in its contradictions…it fixes the subject in a point of view from which everything becomes obvious.  There is, however, a level of contradiction into which the classic realist text can enter.  This is the contradiction between the dominant discourse of the text and the dominant ideological discourses of the time. (McCabe 1974, 62) 

While McCabe’s analysis provides a useful account of the ‘invisible’ operations of the camera as commentator and interpreter of the action, it fails to provide a theoretical analysis of how the spectator receives this ideological cinematic code and the exact nature of the relationship between spectator and film.  This task required an analysis of the subject’s relationship with other subjects, images, language and culture, and film critics found a theoretical paradigm that explicated all of these factors in psychoanalysis.  The emphasis on the occasion of consumption (the dialectic between subject and film in the cinema, when he/she is engaged in the act of perception) is one of the most important differentiating factors between film theory and literary criticism.  This is the central focus of the branch of film studies known as apparatus theory, which relies most heavily on philosophy of Lacan. 


Apparatus Theory

Metz’s foundational essay ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ is an exemplary account of the film/spectator relationship, providing what was to become a model for the use of psychoanalytic theory in film criticism.  In the scientific manner that characterized post-revolution film studies, Metz sets out to define exactly what the cinema is and how it differs from the other arts.  He proposes that the main distinguishing factor is that the cinema is a signifier whose presence is absence, i.e. the act of perception takes place in real time, but the spectator is viewing an object which is pre-recorded and thus already absent: it is the object’s ‘replica in a new kind of mirror’ (Metz 2000, 410).  He states that, ‘[m]ore than the other arts…the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is none the less the only signifier present’ (Metz 2000, 410).  Metz’s definition of the cinema is an accurate one, although he over-emphasises the difference between film and other arts.  All of the arts involve an element of presence in absence: reading a book or listening to a piece of music are activities where the action is not directly present.  Even the act of watching a play where the actors are present on stage necessarily involves the agreed absence of reality (suspension of disbelief), which is a fundamental convention of drama.

          Watching a film necessarily involves for Metz an instance of identification, since without identification meaning cannot be generated for the subject.  The spectator ‘continues to depend in the cinema on that permanent play of identification without which there would be no social life’ (Metz 2000, 411).  The question of what exactly the spectator identifies with proves to be more difficult.  The obvious answer is a character in the film, but Metz points out that not all films contain characters.  Even in instances where characters are present, there cannot be total identification: the screen is a mirror but not in a literal sense.  Metz concludes that the spectator must identify with the cinematic apparatus itself, and its re-creation of the act of looking: ‘the spectator identifies with himself, with himself as pure act of perception…as condition of possibility of the perceived and hence as a kind of transcendental subject, anterior to every there is’ (Metz 2000, 413). 

Identification is with the projector, the camera and the screen of the cinematic apparatus.  The projector duplicates the act of perception by originating from the back of the subject’s head and presenting a visual image in front of the subject.  The various shots of the camera are akin to the movement of the head.  As vision is both projective and introjective, the subject projects his/her gaze and simultaneously introjects the information received from the gaze.  The cinema replicates this experience, with the screen functioning as the recording surface for what has been introjected.  Opening the eyes to view the film, ‘I am the projector, receiving it, I am the screen; in both these figures together, I am the camera, pointed yet recording’ (Metz 2000, 415).

Identification takes place in the imaginary order.  The imaginary is governed by the symbolic, and the cinema is no exception to this rule.  Any theorization of the imaginary in cinema must pre-suppose the symbolic since the cinema is a system of signifiers which signify an absent signified.  Metz does not explicitly acknowledge that the cinematic experience replicates the experience of the child in the mirror: if the screen takes the place of the childhood mirror, then both can be said to create a version of reality that is based upon an illusion.  However, Metz does identify the cinema as characteristically imaginary, since what is depicted is already a reflection of reality.  He focuses on the imaginary at the expense of the symbolic and this issue has been taken up by several feminist critics who will be discussed in part two of this article.  This emphasis on the imaginary generated a large amount of theoretical analysis.  Like the childhood mirror, the imaginary completeness that the screen represents merely serves to disguise an inherent lack.  The means by which this imaginary completeness is created is known as suture. 

          Stephen Heath’s ground-breaking work, Narrative Space, provides an informed description of suture, foregrounded by a detailed discussion of filmic narrative space in general.  Pivotal to Heath’s analysis is the notion of ‘central projection’ and he outlines the development of this idea from fifteenth century Italian painting to early photography.  It is defined as ‘the art of depicting three-dimensional objects upon a plane surface in such a manner that the picture may affect the eye of an observer in the same way as the natural objects themselves’ (Heath 1993, 69).  Central projection, which we now regard as ‘natural’, dominates modern cinema.  For the illusion of central projection to be fully accurate, it is essential for the eye of the spectator to be positioned in the central point of perspective.  Anamorphosis is the term that is used to describe what happens when a painter or a film maker plays with central projection.  This is the distorted sensation experienced when an image draws the eye to one side.  Heath cites Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ as an example of anamorphosis: ‘playing between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’, it situates the centre of the projection of the painting…obliquely to the side, the sense of the painting…only falling into place (exactly) once the position has been found’ (Heath 1993, 69).  Although unacknowledged by Heath, the emphasis on the importance of subject position in maintaining the illusion of reality contains strong echoes of Lacan’s optical experiment, in which the position of the subject is crucial in order to maintain the delicate balance between the three orders[8].  Watching a film is also based on an optical illusion in which images on a flat screen appear three-dimensional and realistic.  The identifications engendered by film narrative centered around the imaginary order are similarly based upon méconnaisance. 

          Heath divides filmic space into space in frame and space out of frame.  The space in frame is ‘narrative space’.  ‘It is narrative significance that at any moment sets the space of the frame to be followed and ‘read’’ (Heath 1993, 69).  This narrative space is characterized and delimited by various conventions.  For example, most films contain a master-shot in the opening sequence: a shot that shows the whole setting in order to allow the spectator to integrate themselves into the spatial layout of the film.  The conventions of the 180 and 30-degree rules also regulate the narrative space of the cinema.  The 180 degree rule means that the camera rarely goes beyond the 180 degree line of the screen, in front of which the spectator would be placed within the narrative space of the film.  In order to avoid a jump in narrative space, which would interrupt the illusion of total visual access to the narrative space of the film, the 30-degree rule is common practice, which means that the camera should not attempt a sudden jump of more than 30 degrees.  All of these conventions function to maintain the illusion of reality that the cinema creates.  The illusion or misrecognition that is inherent in the cinematic experience centers around the complex issue of suture.

          The term originates with Lacan, who uses it only once in his seminar of 1965, and was later transformed into a concept by Jacques-Alain Miller in his article for Les Cahiers pour l’analyse, later printed in Screen as ‘Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifer)’.  In this article, Miller theorizes the notion of suture as the relationship between the subject and the signifying chain.  Roudinesco illuminates the objections that Lacan had to this article, which are quite significant in light of later usages of the term.  Unhappy with Miller’s article, he alludes to it in ‘Science and Truth’, taking a completely opposing position.  Rather than seeing suture as the closure of the relationship between the subject and the chain, Lacan favours its openness, and argues that ‘science fails to suture or produce a complete formalization of the subject’ (Roudinesco 1997, 327).  Summarising the polarity and subsequent impact of the opposing positions of Miller and Lacan, Roudinesco states that,

although Miller’s contribution was useful to Lacan, its tenor was quite opposite to his own.  Lacan’s logic of the subject was based on opening, ambiguity, ambivalence, and the idea of an impossible mastery; Miller’s interpretation of that logic was the harbinger of all the dogmas that were to come. (Roudinesco 1997, 327)

In the 1960’s, Jean Pierre Oudart contributed a description of the operations of suture in cinema to Cahiers.  He argues that the cinema screen initially produces jouissance in the subject, who is absorbed in the imaginary misrecognition of images, similar to the experience of the mirror stage.  As always however, the symbolic encroaches upon the imaginary when the spectator becomes aware of the frame.  This awareness consequently produces an anxiety in the subject who is unsure whose point of view is being depicted, threatening to shatter the cinematic illusion.  This threat is forestalled by the traditional shot/reverse shot mechanism, whereby a second shot allows the first to be shown as a character’s field of vision.  This maintains the illusion of completeness and allows the spectator to remain in his/her position as voyeur.  Suture became an important concept in film studies in both Britain and France until it underwent another transformation with the advent of deconstruction, where it became ‘a vague notion rather than a concept, as synonymous with ‘closure’: ‘suture’ signaled that the gap, the opening, of a structure was obliterated, enabling the structure to (mis)perceive itself as a self-enclosed totality of representation’ (Zizek 2001, 31).  Heath’s narrative space is thus dependent upon the action of suture since the cinema, as much as the childhood mirror, poses for the spectator ‘an absence, a lack, which is ceaselessly recaptured for…the film, the process binding the spectator as subject in the realization of the film’s space’ (Heath 1993, 88). 

From its very beginning then, throughout its influence by Marxism and semiotics, film theory has relied on psychoanalytic theory to provide a philosophical, pseudo-scientific and sociological basis for the conceptualization of the spectator.  However, the psychoanalytic subject espoused by film studies is not without its critics.  Many have accused the discipline of diluting Lacanian theory to serve their own purposes, reducing the complexities of the Lacanian subject to a deceiving simplicity.  In the second part of this article, the writings of Joan Copjec and Slavoj Zizek on the issue of the gaze will be analysed.  These critics, along with other discussed in part two, show that far from the cinematic screen being a mirror akin to the mirror of childhood described in Lacan’s mirror stage, that the mirror is in fact a screen, and that the spectator is not the one who looks, but rather is being looked at.



Adorno, Theodor, 1980. ‘Letter to Walter Benjamin’ in Aesthetics and Politics. ed. by Frederic Jameson. London: Verso.


Comolli, Jean-Louis and Jean Narboni, [1969]. ‘Cinema/Ideology Criticism (1)’ in Contemporary Film Theory, ed. Anthony Easthope. New York: Longman, 1993. [pp. 43-51]


Heath, Stephen, 1993, ‘From Narrative Space’ in Contemporary Film Theory. ed. by Anthony Easthope. New York: Longman. [pp. 68-94]


Lacan, Jacques, 1989. Ecrits: a Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge.


Lacan, Jacques, (1953-4), Le Séminaire. Livre 1. Les écrits techniques de Freud, 1953-4, ed. Jacques Alain Miller, Paris: Seuil, 1975 [The Seminar, Book 1, Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-4, trans John Forrester, with notes by John Forrester, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987].


McCabe, Colin, [1974], ‘From Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses’ in Contemporary Film Theory, edited by Anthony Easthope. New York: Longman, 1993. [pp. 53-67]


Metz, Christian, 2000. ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ in Film and Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Oxford: Blackwell. [pp. 403-435]


Ray, Robert B., 2001. How Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Lapsley, Robert and Michael Westlake, 1988. Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Roudinesco, Elisabeth, (1994), Jacques Lacan: Esquisse d’une vie, histoire d’un système de pensée. Librairie Arthème Fayard. [Jacques Lacan. Trans. Barbara Gray. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997].


Zizek, Slavoj, 2001. The Fright of Real Tears: Krystof Kieślowski between Theory and Post Theory. London: BFI Publishing.




[1] ‘Letter to Walter Benjamin’ in Aesthetics and Politics, edited by Frederic Jameson, p. 129.

[2] Eisenstein’s stance on this issue was foregrounded by the earlier pictorialism movement, which sought to disguise the photographic image by disguising it as art (Ray 2001, 3).

[3] Ray states that Bazin’s philosophy is an example of what Derrida names ‘unmediated presence’ (Ray 2001, 8).

[4] While the aesthetic bias of Eisenstein’s criticism was rejected, his theoretical writings were admired.  Along with his Russian contemporaries, he was perceived as contributing to the theoretical matrix of film studies (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 50).

[5]  Lacan develops this graph in four stages in ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ (Lacan 1989, 323-360).

[6] This view also bears the influence of post-structuralists like Lacan and Derrida who insist upon the temporality of meaning in signification.  For Derrida, ‘il n’ya pas hors de contexte’: there is nothing outside the context.

[7] Colin McCabe’s analyses are not confined to structuralism.  On the contrary, he is a well-regarded film critic who is capable of analyzing in many different modes.  This particular article has been chosen as an example of structuralist criticism.

[8] See seminar 1.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image


Volume 2, February 2005, ISSN 1552-5112