A potential theory of film: Psychoanalysis


Psychoanalysis is essentially a form of treatment, a therapy that allows us to go beneath the surface and find new meanings that govern our actions, and so on, and so on. This is the most common conception, but at a ground level, psychoanalysis really does rule the here and now, the everyday, and the inner and outer circles of life (the internal and external; the mind and the body).

Cinema reels together a number of relations that an audience is presented with at face value. Much like life then, the cinema provides an ordeal of interest for the participant preoccupied with psychology. Acting is psychology, the camera plays on this psychology, and then the audience is the final receiver of these psychological transactions. This is the interaction of film.

The above is an example of projecting onto film. Perhaps it is too abstract and too unclear. This essay argues, with reference to psychoanalysis, about such projections and what they could potentially mean for the cinema. There is no easy definition of cinema. Cinema is not simple.

“Everything is set to work to make the deception effective and to give it [the film] an air of truth.” Christian Metz (The Imaginary Signifier, 1982: 49).

The question as to whether we project too much on to film studies is determined by what we consider a film. In the strict sense, by looking at a film we can categorise that it consists of two principal themes: the message (the content) and the medium (the form of cinema and audience spectatorship). In cinema, and as for McLuhan, the medium has often become the message, in other words, film is strictly a form and is always taken as a film i.e. we know it is not reality, but just a film. However, we can begin to look beyond the film, we can take the elements that make up a film’s reality and use them, within our fantasy space, to constitute our own sense of a reality. This is the point at which studying film focuses on the spectator, the subject and their gaze. This is central to the contemporary field of film studies, how the audience is able to project onto the screen and into the world that is occupied by the film. Cinema asks for our prognosis and it does so by its very nature of foretelling us (human beings) in the first place; after all, cinema is about the journey and discovery of these human beings (the characters in the film just like us).

Psychoanalytical film theory predominantly originates from the work of Jacques Lacan, a theoretical psychoanalyst who lived and worked in France up until his death in 1981. He is known for his re-workings of Freudian concepts on subjectivity and sexuality. Perhaps Lacan’s most famous aphorism is “the unconscious is structured like a language.” Immediately it becomes clear how this structure can be applied to cinema, as cinema is the unconscious structured as a language, and so on. The unconscious is the figure of our defective communication; the unconscious disrupts communicative discourse with a similar structural regularity to language. Cinema is a disruptive discourse with a cinematic language similar to the regularity of our own language. Lacan is pre-determined with structures, the subject is never purely enacted, in other words, the subject must always battle with its a priori functioning of the self. This is important for cinema because the event is determined by the subjects own knowledge, a clear example of this is how every audience experiences a film differently i.e. we are well aware that it is a totally subjective medium for each individual.

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“Truth is structured like fiction” (Lacan). For anybody serious about cinema, it is always about finding a certain truth. A great film follows a line of enquiry that we feel emotionally involved in as human beings, it can therefore be argued that a form of truth is speaking to us. Yet, how is this possible? For Lacan, reality is always tied to its other, the imaginary, which means that reality is always accessible via fantastical engagements. Lacan then, in the simplest sense, must be the ultimate figure for pioneering the cinematic experience as meaningful for the subject. The escapism can even be answered for as the subject’s awakening; they are left to be awake in the dark and to enjoy their own egotism; they awake into a false reality, which is not a dream, yet still an escape from their everyday lives and encounters with the Real.

It is here that Freud can be used to further this almost narcissistic position of the subject. Mulvey argues, “The cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing ego” (cited in Flisfeder, 2012: 32). The protagonist provides an ego formulation par excellence for the spectator whose own drives, especially that of the id and super-ego, can be left to rest for the reason that there are no concerns of survival for the viewer to contend with and no ethical boundaries either; they are left untamed and can project as they wish, ego is only reinforced by ego. However, for Lacan and his dedicated disciple of what we might term Lacanian popular culture, Slavoj Zizek, these experiences most certainly do exist for the subject and their drives, even if they can only take place within the subject’s mind i.e. the subject’s experience still becomes their reality. Essentially, across all these ruminations, there is a distinct belief in the power of the imagination.

Before we project too much onto the subject of the psychoanalysed, Metz, quoted above, is an important scholar to note who battles with film studies and the notion of semiotics: the apparent meanings behind the images themselves rather than the spectator. Most of the material that existed prior to 1960 was vehement film criticism, and Metz wanted to construct a way to analyse the medium of the film image in the theoretical language that it was calling for, and in turn, summon the thought that can be applied to an institution. Cinema does exist as an institution, like a prison or an art gallery, there are a set of rules or understandings of how things function, even if they are not known to us. In Foucauldian terms, the institution would need to be a place where the body is regulated and confined, but perhaps the space of cinema for Foucault would be one of panoptics; the spectator who sits in the watch tower and gazes at his inmates trapped within the confinements of a screen. This would put the spectator in a position of absolute power. The spectator institutionalises his subject.

Metz’s line of enquiry was psychoanalytical as well as semiological because he realised that such an investigation of film – the medium par excellence of transparency – did not exist. The utterance that stands the test of time, and which I previously alluded to is that “a film is only a film… but all the same”. This is the suspension of disbelief that we see in the spectator: the threshold of “irreality” is crossed so that the spectator is tied to the illusion – the imaginary object becomes a true representation beyond the screen.

The irreality of the cinematic signifier invites a comparison with the Lacanian mirror stage in the sense that we must project onto the screen, or identify with the other; the child identifies their ideal self in the mirror just as the spectator in the image. The mirror and cinema are both about desires; they are manifest in the subject’s desire for the imaginary. Here cinema poses the problem of distinguishing a judgment between what is objective, or symbolic, from what is the pure expression of desire and subjectivity. Unlike the mirror, the screen does not reflect the subject itself and yet the subject’s pleasure must derive from an object, yet the pleasure in perceiving images that do not derive from such is a wholly imaginary position and therefore arguably, again, one of narcissism. This is what Metz identifies in his viewing of film as an approximation of the dream, nevertheless the spectator “identifies with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception” (1982: 49).


Projecting further onto Freud, we could argue that in the spectator’s disavowal of cinematic irreality into a dream they are comparable to Freud’s conception of psychosis. Dreams and hallucinations lead to confusion between the reality and illusion of a certain situation. However, the cinematic signifier makes it very clear to the spectator that the image is just an image, such was the same kind of pleasure derived from Jean Baudrillard’s conception of the trompe l’oeil in painting, it gives itself for what it is. Even so, this pleasure is akin in its nature to what fuels the subject’s drives: fetishism, scopic passion, voyeurism etc. all spring to mind. The spectator finds the fetishistic subject that is equivalent to the substitution of the penis in castration. He denies the absence of the penis (the object supposed to be) and marvels at the grand illusion. This is activity beyond the gaze, for which an illusion is always an illusion, and is rather identification with some form of utopian power. The cinema begins to function more and more in an idealistic way.

Indeed, one could argue that such analysis projects too much onto the object-subject split, especially when in society our individualism is ultimately passivism. Perhaps any analysis projects too much, and everything can be analysed, and that everything can also be analysed perpetually. It is therefore our task to focus on a specific field, as we are, but still then one can always question the “what?” of any situation, rendering to Jacques Derrida’s line of thought. This may exceed the nature of projection, but such is the nature of psychoanalytical studies in film. One obsessive attracts another; Zizek’s fervent approach attracts the media, and visa versa. This analytical paraphernalia is a source of new inspiration and creativity, for it is not concerned with protecting the status quo of ‘correct’ thinking or ‘correct’ punctuation, but rather opening up new ways of thinking, being and ultimately of freedom. This is an argument for film as a philosophical study, a subject of metaphysical analysis. Just as Derrida stripped down the text to its bare minimum in On Grammatology, so we can strip down cinema by means of psychoanalysis. Fundamentally, there are always new ways to critique a subject, which raises an enquiry into the history of what it is to create these so-called subjects.

We can also look at cinema as a form of therapy. Foucault had a conception that to escape the disillusionment of the modern world we must simply turn back to historical antiquity, our care of the self, or rather what he called ‘technologies of the self’ (1988). However, despite Foucault’s slight disregard for cinema, can it not itself be seen as a technology of the self, a technology that allows the subject to be freed from their own forms of repression and to experience actuality beyond their own? Cinema can act as a fresh perspective on the familiar; Foucault always wished to see the ordinary with a fresh perspective. You might be rightly thinking that Hollywood offers no such perspective, but let us now turn to the vast heritage of world cinema.


Lars Von Trier is a filmmaker who allows for complete expression of the self, the spectator is allowed to see the so-called underbelly of the human condition and make of it entirely what they will. In Melancholia we see a genuine and disturbing portrait of two sisters with severe depression and anxiety. They are confronting the truth of human existence and letting their inner demons out on the screen. Yet, these demons do not infect the spectator, rather they have the opposite effect. We have witnessed the Lacanian Other experience these demons and so the other has cleansed them of ourselves so that we may leave disinfected. By using the imaginary signifier we have dissolved into the characters and learnt their pitiless lessons. One still may react in vigorous distaste, or one may feel deeply moved and wish to resolve his or her own inner conflict, a reaction is dependent on the life condition of the particular spectator. Cinema of this free-nature has no ideological function, it is purely powered by a notion of the self (the director’s ego par excellence, if you like), and it could even be labelled as a productive power. Is this not slightly perverse?

The subject who watches cinema must be a perverse subject. It was the acclaimed filmmaker David Fincher (known for putting Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box – Seven) who said, “I think people are perverts”, which is of course why they love cinema. What are we as a cinema spectator if not a Peeping Tom (a metaphor for our behaviour)? Quite literally we seek out the lives of others who do not know we are watching them, and from a very close proximity. For Walter Benjamin, this alluded to the ‘optical unconscious’, the shock that we can experience from a close-up in cinema that the human eye could never see. A great film director like Fincher will use such cinematic devices to manipulate the audience into feeling uncomfortable or deeply involved, as two suggestions. Does a close-up not embody an act of sadism?

Cinema does not always have to act as if the camera were a sadist, or as Kraceur would say, by insisting, “on rendering visible what is commonly drowned in inner agitation” (1960: 58). Though, the audience can be just as sadistic as the filmmaker. Take for example, the Hays Production Code of the classical period in Hollywood, during which time restrictions on sex and violence etc. were severely restricted. Zizek argues that such excess provokes the very prohibition it seeks in the first place i.e. if you don’t show the audience something it enables them to imagine it for themselves, or a more common conception is that you tell someone not to do something, and as by some divine intervention, this gives them the will to do just that. For example, in the film Casablanca, Rick and Elsa are kissing and the screen fades to black, cuts to a watch tower (the phallic symbol perhaps) and back to Rick who is now smoking a cigar and looking out the window. What happened? They most likely had sex. Even if they didn’t have sex, it does not matter as for the Big Other (that Real space blurring lines of the real) they most definitely did. Classical cinema still allows us to interact with the Symbolic order in ways manifest with the Lacanian other. Even in Hollywood, the Big Other is staring at us, but we just don’t know it – it will hide in plain sight like the ideological content that it transmits alongside.


There is pleasure to be had in the order of the Symbolic language that the cinema allows. There are sinthomes, often projected by the Big Other, these are literally symptoms of jouissance, of the enjoyment that is raised by the spell of fantasy. Every individual experiences this differently; it is what is unique to their experience and can therefore raise questions about the subjects’ ethics, and so on. For example, “I thought that character was great,” response: “are you kidding? He was evil!” The way this element of enjoyment is organised in the cinematic exchange raises such questions about our need for this jouissance. There will always be an element of the perverse and unattainable desire, which can only prevent a true awakening, as Lacan says: “the ultimate ethical task is that of the true awakening: not only from sleep, but from the spell of fantasy which controls us even more when we are awake” (cited in Zizek, 2007). Can cinema escape this spell of fantasy that is locked to the human condition of being? It is either a magnification of the spell, or in this very excess we could argue that it renders the spell obsolete. We know very well that the spell exists so that we may transcend it? This speculative, Kantian, way of perceiving cinema is tribute, once again, to the power of cinematic projection – the cinema.

No essay on film studies is quite complete without a reference targeted at David Bordwell, a prolific scholar of the field who keeps a tradition of the art form in check. His work Post-Theory is largely a rejection of psychoanalytical film theory. It stems from a concern of the emphasis being placed on the subject over the object, such as a particular film by a particular director and with a particular side note of cognitive functioning within a rational agency. However, Zizek would see this as an ideological gesture par excellence; the presentation of cinema as objective is exactly how and when ideology is allowed to function. This is Hollywood cinema and in Hollywood cinema there is a correct way to view a film, the way in which the gap is filled, there is no lack, ambiguity, or an abjection (Kristeva) in which to experience a difference, or perhaps a welcomed nothingness, but rather the path is paved by the definite gesture. The subject/cinema-goer concerned with freedom should look beyond the Hollywood cinema and beyond the work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.

Of course, if the defining feature of film is that it is an ‘impression of reality’, then there would be little concern for film studies to grow beyond where it stands. To be taken seriously, we have to take into account the very real accounts of the spectator and how cinema functions in the grander scheme of society; where ideology comes out to play and cinema inevitably becomes a tool – a form of political technology. While psychoanalytical film theory gives some revitalising perception around spectatorship, should film scholars really be so concerned with the mediation of reality over the image? After all, isn’t film characterised by the image and the aesthetics of this image moving at twenty-four frames per second? Should we not be concerned with film just as an art form, the mise-en-scene, and so on? The latter achieves a level of critique that often falls short of a film theory, even if it is the synthesis adopted by most film studies textbooks.

As a conclusion and in keeping with the themes of this essay, let us argue that film studies deserves to be projected amidst every academic discipline, or indeed line of thought, as a method of learning first and foremost. Films are fantastic tools for analysis across the arts and humanities; one can even find scientific regularity and argument, in science fiction films for example. Every day we are consuming signs and images, and the cinema is the temple for such things. Laterally then, the cinema is not removed from everyday reality. Thus, even a thinker such as Jean Baudrillard can be applied to cinematic language. For Baudrillard, to simplify, there is no real left over in a post-structural society, we have consumed so many images that they have become more real than real itself (commencing from a lack of any original, authentic copy, and so on), and as such as new reality is ever evolving, known as the hyper-real (the fourth stage of simulacra where physical reality is rendered decadent). An easy example would be Facebook being more important to an individual than their very own life. Either way, such latitude is the essence of cinema and the direction for film studies.

Written by Charlie Bury





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