Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) has gained notoriety not only for the sheer quantity of critical analysis it has produced, a voluminous outpouring of exegesis from scholars, critics and fans alike that shows no signs of abating today, forty years after the film’s initial release, but also for the uncanny nature of so many of the responses to which it has given rise. Kubrick’s film is, on a fundamental level, about the writing process itself, and more precisely about the angst and paranoia that this process generates – from the terror of the blank page to the ineluctable indeterminacy between lucidity and lunacy – as well as the human sacrifices that literary production so often entails, which are literalised in the film as the protagonist Jack (Jack Nicholson) passes from the detached neglect of his wife and child to actively seeking to murder them. As such, it may be no surprise that the hermeneutic reactions to The Shining, a cinematic honeypot for obsessives of all stripes, so often end up becoming entwined with the biographical trajectories of those who take on the task of interpreting the film. This phenomenon has recently received attention thanks to Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (2012), which showcases readings of The Shining, ranging from the arcane to the conspiratorial, by five Kubrick devotees whose lives have become shaped by their enduring engagement with the film.1 But the phenomenon can also be seen in earlier responses to the film. Indeed, one of the most vivid, prophetic and, in light of its resonances with his own tragic fate, profoundly disquieting pieces of film criticism, Jean-Pierre Oudart’s “Les inconnus dans la maison” (“Strangers in the House”), published in the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma in November 1980, appeared in the immediate wake of The Shining’s initial release at the dawn of the 1980s.

Jean-Pierre Oudart in the documentary Une partie de campagne: les Cahiers du cinéma face au film (Bernard Eisenschitz, 1969). This film is the only known footage of Oudart in existence.

Oudart is most renowned in film studies for relating the Lacanian notion of suture to the processes of film editing and spectatorial immersion in classical cinema, a conceptual move he made in the two-part 1969 article “La Suture” (or “Cinema and Suture”), which went on to become something of an Ur-text for psychoanalytic film theory, in both France and Anglo-American academia. Even today, the suture article frequently appears on film syllabi, and Oudart is confidently name-checked by undergraduate film majors. And yet the success of the concept he devised, which itself has become progressively divorced from its articulation in his obtusely written article, has significantly overshadowed Oudart’s broader output as a critic, which comprises more than 80 texts published for Cahiers, across a timespan of more than a decade (from 1969 to 1980). Among the journal’s readers, Oudart’s critical writings became particularly known for their theoretical density, drawing chiefly from Jacques Lacan and his followers, the idiosyncratic nature of his critical judgement (which invariably paid little regard to the Cahiers canon of directors), and the opacity of his writing style, which motivated more than one exasperated correspondent to protest against their impenetrability.2  His writings for Cahiers frequently skirted the threshold between acuity and delirium, and even his editors often found his texts intriguing and baffling in equal measure. In the latter half of the 1970s, this tendency became even more pronounced, as his texts veered further into the domain of the inscrutable, and his taste in films progressively departed from the consensus prevailing within the journal, to the point that, by the end of the decade, he was in a state of open critical war with the rest of the editorial team, during which time he both attacked some of Cahiers’ auteurist shibboleths (Godard and Straub), and defended the work of those who had otherwise failed to find favour in the journal. Among the latter category, the most high-profile figure was none other than Stanley Kubrick, who came to play a central role in Oudart’s film criticism in the late 1970s, culminating with his extraordinary response to The Shining.

Until then, Kubrick had garnered mainly tepid reactions from the Cahiers critics. It is true that Louis Marcorelles, who was in any case never a key collaborator within the journal, wrote with enthusiasm about Lolita (1962), but he also chided the dominant view within Cahiers of Kubrick as “the progressive who wants to bear witness for humanity, but whose mise en scène always remains external to the subjects he treats”.3 Bernard Eisenschitz’s reception of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was thus more indicative of the journal’s views on Kubrick, as he judged it to be a “film without a message” whose main effect was to “send critical sense to sleep”.4 In spite of the controversy surrounding its 1972 release, A Clockwork Orange, meanwhile, was met on the pages of Cahiers du cinéma with categorical silence; the journal was at this point entrenched in a Maoist political orientation that had concomitantly narrowed its critical focus.

Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

The French distribution of Barry Lyndon in 1976 nonetheless prompted Oudart to write on Kubrick. By this point, Cahiers had relinquished its Marxism-Leninism, but a certain strain of critical absolutism, and a residual hostility to contemporary Hollywood cinema, remained intact. Already, Oudart’s considerations of the film distinguished his position: while Barry Lyndon was apparently faithful to the newly established model of the big-budget blockbuster and its ideological unanisme (conveying the tacit message to the audience that “we are all the same”), in fact the vast historical fresco presented in the film is marked by an “excess of heterogeneity in its form” which is “contrary to Hollywood realism”. Whether through a surfeit of pictoriality or of archaeological veracity, the decorative opulence of the film’s shots does not imbue Barry Lyndon with the “charming desuetude of retro imagery”, but instead tends to mark the characters and their actions with an “accent of derision” which produces a pervasive “coefficient of strangeness” throughout the film.5

It was Oudart’s 1978 article “À propos d’Orange mécanique, Kubrick, Kramer et quelques autres,” however, where the critic’s interest in Kubrick signalled his increasing distance from the critical consensus at Cahiers. The piece was occasioned by Oudart’s belated viewing of A Clockwork Orange. Fearing that the “ultra-famous film” would turn out to be a “mythological grand parade of violence”, Oudart declared his relief that the adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel had only gained in the time that had elapsed since its initial release, most notably in the presence of the “rarest and most precious” quality in contemporary cinema: an extraordinary sense of humour, which in the end brings Kubrick’s films close in tone to Kafka short stories such as Die Verwandlung.6 While the narrative may read as a “despairing meditation on violence and its modern repression”, Kubrick’s direction conversely produces a parody of the social conscience film, which places the spectator in the position of a “bad audience” and thus turns A Clockwork Orange into a “terrifying and risible puppet show”. It is Kubrick’s ability to produce a comic register perverting and undermining the thesis his film would otherwise be purported to espouse that makes him such a unique filmmaker, and so remote, in Oudart’s view, from the North American mainstream. Whereas Hollywood scenography seeks to maximise the “impression of reality” through diegetic continuity, Kubrick’s films are marked by the opposite approach. In them, “a flux of disconnections, cavities and dislocations gives the fiction an effect of internal death”, and the result is a mode of filmic writing marked by a “schizo accent” and “a kind of merry catastrophism.”7

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

To have praised Kubrick so abundantly was an idiosyncratic position to hold within the editorial board of Cahiers, but if this had been the sole content of Oudart’s article, it may not have been as contentious as it was. It was his accompanying attacks on “Saint Jean-Marie” (Straub) and “Saint Jean-Luc” (Godard) that proved to be truly unacceptable. Noting that the two filmmakers “passed, at Cahiers du cinéma, for the fin du fin of cinematic modernity,” Oudart insists that they are in fact “moralists of the imaginary” who would have found A Clockwork Orange to be an “ultra-fascist film”.8 The problematic of cinematic modernity, for Oudart, comes instead from the impossibility of reconciling Kubrick’s films with those of Straub and Godard, and it is by reflecting on this irreconcilability that film theory can be developed. Oudart, here, criticises the theoretical practice of Cahiers in its post-1968 phase in terms that are distinctly more forceful than his fellow critics – despite their own processes of introspective self-criticism – were willing to allow:

For ten years, what has prevailed is a valorisation – let us quickly say – of an overworking of the signifier, following the dogmatic presupposition [impensé] of the here-and-elsewhere dialectic […] in the vertiginous iconoclasm of the deconstruction of the impression of reality. […] There has been a politico-moralist fallout of the problematic of the filmer-filmed contract and its fetishism of the scenery, without speaking of the old materialist sing-along on the semiotic productivity of montage. We were all part of this vogue, but it is high time we left it behind. Because it ended up costing us too much blindness.9

In opposition to the sterility of academic film analysis, Oudart calls for his colleagues to refuse to be “constrained to do work in the movie theatre,” and instead recover “a bit of idiocy.”10

The sharply critical tenor of Oudart’s comments, bringing the entire critical project of the post-1968 Cahiers into question, could not go without a response. Exceptionally, however, the proponent of the Cahiers “line” was not a member of the editorial team, but the filmmaker and photographer Johan van der Keuken, who rebutted Oudart in a letter that originally appeared in the Dutch journal Skrien before its French translation was published in Cahiers. In van der Keuken’s missive, A Clockwork Orange is a “neon tube” that functions as a “constant alibi for the spectator’s identification with whoever, at any moment, is the strongest person on the screen.”11 In his attacks on Godard and Straub, meanwhile, Oudart in fact ends up defending public indifference and the perpetuation of the “natural order of things” – even though, ironically, “an audience that did not work or interpret in a movie-theatre is doubtless as remote from Oudart as it is from Straub and Godard.”12

Undaunted by van der Keuken’s strictures, which had the implicit approbation of Cahiers’ editors-in-chief Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, Oudart pursued a critical practice that would be distinct from the rest of the journal. His increasing alienation from his fellow writers, however, was accompanied by a deterioration in his own mental health, evinced in the more feverish nature of his writings from this period, and in the end it precipitated his departure from Cahiers. It is morbidly salient that the last edition of Cahiers which had any significant input from Oudart, the November 1980 issue, should feature his in-depth review of The Shining, which sheds precious light into Oudart’s critical views at the twilight of his involvement with Cahiers, as well as, symptomatically, his own psychological state.

Much as Oudart described A Clockwork Orange as a comic parody of the social message film, The Shining is seen as a “parody-monster of so many American horror films.” In Oudart’s analysis, it is a “wild, schizo-psychoanalytic meditation on the family, society, the cinema and the media”, and the final message he takes from the film is that “it is good to cultivate the part of America that so many films have accumulated within ourselves, and to use it in order to have new ideas on the cinema and on the media.”13 Foreshadowing the way so much of the film’s later reception has been overdetermined by its viewing on VHS cassettes, with their concomitant decomposition of the visual image through the ability to rewind, fast-forward and pause the tape, Oudart relays that he received The Shining as “a kind of video-film, a television broadcast that had escaped from the TV, a giant video that would be a horror film programming the story of a family escaping from social delirium,” and this explicitly determines the manner in which he speaks of it.14 Similarly, he seems to prefigure and poke fun at some of the more outlandish, conspiratorial interpretations of the film in his sardonic overview of its plot: “Jack has been engaged by a mysterious company to be the caretaker of a grand hotel lost in the mountains. The CIA is surely in on it. They bought the château from Dracula and transported it to America.”15

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

But Oudart’s own reading of the film centres more on the psychoses of its protagonists. Utilising a grid of psychoanalytical concepts, the critic designates each of the three main characters with a different ingredient in a stew of mental disorders: the father Jack (Jack Nicholson) is paranoiac, the mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) hysterical, and the young son Danny schizophrenic. Over the course of the film these maladies will cross-fertilise each other, as the signs of Jack’s madness “enter into resonance with the scenario of the son, or rather, the madness of the father comes to integrate the scenario of the son in his program.” Jack’s paranoia, the suspicions towards his wife and son that will end up overwhelming him and driving him into psychotic violence, represent for Oudart “the ordinary paranoia of a white American male, with his delirium about America’s society, its power, and its racism.”16

At many points throughout this astonishing text, it is hard to resist the temptation to read passages about The Shining as being self-referential in nature. Just as Oudart’s own relationship with the written word had become a tormented one, and as his film criticism began to cross over the threshold of comprehensibility that he had always uneasily skirted, so too does his analysis of the film place an emphasis on the role of the written word in programming Jack’s murderous paranoia. The film’s signature phrase “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”, which Wendy discovers written endlessly on Jack’s typewriter, and appearing repeatedly in Oudart’s article, written in bold majuscules at random moments in the piece, is seen as “a very fragile victory in a war with language.”17 Jack’s typewriter is a “murder-program”: the way it “chops up” (découpe) the written phrase into fragments prefigures Jack’s fantasies of chopping his family into pieces. Kubrick’s genius, for Oudart, consists in “turning writing, the writing-machine, into this object of terror which, in the scenario of Jack and Wendy, is the wild operator of the symbolic and sexual disjunction of the couple, of their lunacy, their hysteria, and of the murder-program, in a simulation of an ordinary scenario, a ‘normal’ family scenario.”18  While Kubrick can not resist pastiching horror films from classical Hollywood such as Psycho and The Night of the Hunter, The Shining represents both a nostalgic “adieu to the old cinema” and a “flight towards a giant video-cinema” that will inexorably form the future of the medium.19 But for Oudart, Kubrick’s film does not stop at the moment when, chased through a hedge-maze by his crazed father, the child Danny finally conquers his fear. In fact, the film has no end:

We leave it with complex, confused, scattered feelings, like after the telling of a news item that was recounted, acted out, mimed by a multitude of actors improbably gathered together, some in the emotion, in the shock of the event, others completely distracted, weaving their tale, dramatising it, deliriously hopping about from one episode to the next. Such a delirium would be perfectly reasonable, just as reasonable as the creatures of this film are true.20

Oudart’s article on The Shining, where both the object of the text and its writing occupy a liminal zone between critical insight and mania, presaged his departure from Cahiers after more than a decade with the journal. Sliding into paranoia, he violently broke with his colleagues, sending threatening letters to the Cahiers office.21 A position organising the Committee of Ethnographic Film at Jean Rouch’s Musée de l’Homme was short-lived.22

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Later, according to Sylvie Pierre, Oudart was declared clinically insane and interred at the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital, just one of many of those involved in post-1968 militant politics and radical theory to have succumbed to mental breakdowns, who now form the psychological fallout of one of the most spectacular confrontations with state power in modern history. After this point, the trace goes cold. After the early 1980s, Oudart never again published film criticism, or any other writing. The lasting fame of his concept of suture, upon which so many other careers in academic film studies have been built, stands in stark contrast to the ignominious demise of the man himself. Today, his whereabouts are a mystery, and none of his former colleagues can even say with any certainty whether he is presently alive or dead. It is as if Oudart himself has become trapped in his own Overlook Hotel, eternally haunting the corridors of film theory with his phantomic presence. Perhaps the most touching testimony to his legacy comes from the critic Louis Skorecki, who spoke of his fellow Cahiers alumnus in the following terms: “Let us pass quickly over the case of Jean-Pierre Oudart, heretical ex-theorist (‘La suture,’ ‘Milestones’) and isolated slanderer exiled from himself, no doubt unaware that he is one of the two or three greatest film theorists of the century.”23

Endnotes:

  1. For more on this film and the implications it has for the practise of film criticism, see Daniel Fairfax, “The Anxiety of Interpretation: The Shining, Room 237 and Film Criticism”, in Jeremi Szaniawski (ed.), After Kubrick (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), pp. 195-212.
  2. See, for example, Christian Oddos, “Lettre de lecteur,” Cahiers du cinéma 229 (May 1971), pp. 54-57.
  3. Louis Marcorelles, “Témoignage dévastateur”, Cahiers du cinéma 141 (March 1963), pp. 43-45, here p. 43.
  4. Bernard Eisenschitz, “La marge (2001: A Space Odyssey),” Cahiers du cinéma 209 (February 1969), pp. 56-57, here p. 56.
  5. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Barry Lindon (S. Kubrick)” (sic), Cahiers du cinéma 271 (November 1976), pp. 62-63, here p. 62.
  6. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “À propos d’Orange mécanique, Kubrick, Kramer et quelques autres,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 293 (October 1978), pp. 55-60, here p. 55.
  7. Ibid., p. 58.
  8. Ibid., pp. 55-56.
  9. Ibid., p. 58.
  10. Ibid., p. 60.
  11. Johan van der Keuken, “Tribune: une lettre de Johan van der Keuken”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 296 (January 1979), pp. 60-61, here p. 60.
  12. Ibid., p. 61.
  13. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Les inconnus dans la maison (Shining),” Cahiers du cinéma 317 (November 1980), pp. 4-11, here p. 4.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 6.
  16. Ibid., p. 5.
  17. Oudart uses the English phrase here, but inaccurately rendered as “work and no play make Jack a dull boy”. In the French synchronisation of the film the epigram is replaced with “Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras”, which is roughly equivalent to “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
  18. Ibid., p. 8.
  19. Ibid., p. 11.
  20. Ibid.
  21. This was confirmed in interviews with both Serge Toubiana (April 29, 2014) and Sylvie Pierre (May 26, 2014).
  22. Oudart’s last published text of any kind was a brief notice publicising an event on the Dogon people at the Musée de l’Homme. See Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Les Dogon à Paris,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 321 (March 1981), p. xvi.
  23. Louis Skorecki, “L’Ombre rouge de Jean-Louis Comolli,” Libération, October 1, 1997, p. 47.