This book approaches cinema as a domain in which possibilities of being are potentially at stake. Although often referring to the work of Lacan, Forms of Being appears to move decisively away from the classic psychoanalytic film theory assumption that films are determined in advance by the general “apparatus” of film so as to “reproduce the subject” in terms of a dominating ideology. Instead, each of the three films discussed here — Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999), Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) — is treated as an experiment in subjectivity, a kind of cinematic flight test, in which viewers are invited to participate. Each film evokes not only the availability of alternative modes of being, but the possibility of escaping the gravitational pull of any given model. The aesthetic interest here focuses on the ways in which film art may evade heavy, fixed, monumental forms of subjectivity. Each film is analysed in this context for its power to suggest a “potentiality that exists in and beyond all realised being” (114). As such, this interest is never purely formal, confined to the level of cataloguing devices, but ethical and reflective: “the retreat from being is not a particularity of the aesthetic narrowly conceived; it is an ethical duty coextensive with life itself.” (118) Each film therefore comes to serve as a kind of reflexive object lesson, not just in a theme carried by fiction, but in the potentially liberating power of fictionality itself.
The problem explored across all three films is that of the couple. In different ways in each case, the figure of the couple is loosened from its normal representation (according to psychoanalytic premises) as an exclusive relationship determined by desire and the aggressive demand for recognition, instead finding itself continually re-invented through an inclusive logic of “inaccurate replication”. The lessons through which this possibility is taught are delivered through something like a pedagogy of the visible. Viewing each of these films, we find ourselves caught up in a fluid, mobile field of correspondences and near-doublings that effectively enact new logics of coupling, new forms of being, shifting our interest away from the fixity of singular nouns (“the couple”) towards the renewable and connective activity of verbs (“coupling”).
Bersani and Dutoit’s treatment of Godard’s Contempt begins with a paradox: “contempt” we are told “cements the couple” (19). Rather than viewing the film’s portrayal of romantic coupling in terms of a pure moment of bonding that is subsequently corroded by the alienating effects of contempt, the film is said to teach us that this negative emotion is itself a mode of coupling, perfectly in accord with the relational dynamics of romantic passion. Paul (Michel Piccoli) becomes evermore tightly bound to Camille (Brigitte Bardot) by his very awareness of her apparent contempt, seeing himself entirely trapped in her disdainful gaze and becoming increasingly obsessed with the question of the cause of her apparently unprecedented feelings. For Bersani and Dutoit, however, Paul’s insistent demand for revelation of the causes of Camille’s contempt is portrayed by Godard as merely the inverse of the demand for recognition that characterises passionate bonding from the very beginning. It is this demand that we see played out between the two in the early bedroom scene, which at once answers and distances us from the erotic fascination that Bardot’s naked presence so powerfully provokes, as Paul obeys Camille’s itemised requests to verify his desire for each part of her body caught reflected in a mirror. Trapped in the logic of identity and its reflections, Camille and Paul soon become frozen in their relationship, unable to play with or re-invent their mutual roles. Contempt cements the couple together in the manner of a monument, fixing both parties in rigid roles determined by presumptions of identity.
In order that we ourselves, as viewers, may move beyond the narrow, oppressive quest for origins and causes, we must avoid allowing our interest to be shaped by Paul’s own overweening demand for recognition. Instead of seeking any simple answer to the question of the causes of contempt within the narrative, we are advised to ask a very different, more reflective question: “What is the appeal of contempt, both for Camille and for Godard as a film-maker”? (21) From this perspective, the failure of the central couple in the course of Contempt’s superficially “realist” narrative merely provides a pretext for the testing of alternative forms of “non-copulative coupling”, which are suggested primarily through visual and aural rhymes of an apparently inconsequential nature. Bersani and Dutoit draw our attention to the way that Camille’s posture momentarily doubles a statue in the couple’s apartment, the way that the inexpressive expressions of her face are echoed in images of Greek gods, the way that translations of statements across different languages inaccurately replicate each other, and towards all the other accidental or potential couplings that happen to proliferate around the initial couple. Most importantly, the refusal of the couple found within the fiction (Paul and Camille) to learn from the potentially infinite mirror games suggested by their relationship to the couple formed within the narrative of Homer’s Iliad (Ulysses and Penelope) teaches us about the possibility of escaping the demand for recognition and all the frozen gestures of desire such a game implies.
All of this works, according to Bersani and Dutoit, to suggest the prospect of realising fictionality within our own lives as a strategy for the evasion of fixed identities. Reflecting upon the relation between theatre and cinema, a question already actively reflected upon in Godard’s use of cinema, Bersani and Dutoit suggest that the unified, irreversible temporality that characterises the theatrical presentation of tragedy is fundamentally undermined in cinema by the use of montage. It therefore becomes impossible for Godard — who famously identifies the cinematic with montage — to reproduce the sense of necessity implied in the theatrical revelation of the inevitable consequences of character. Nonetheless, a different sense of the tragic does pervade the film, one that revolves less around the unfolding of each character’s uniqueness, than the demonstration of the very “illusion of uniqueness” that traps each character in the demand for recognition. Here our relationship to film as such is mirrored within the fiction of the film, and this mirroring relationship in turn reflects upon the aesthetic possibilities and ethical implications of perception as a function of subjectivity. What is thereby dramatised is the tragic loss of “the filmic itself”, that is, the subjective blindness or narrowness of vision that allows characters and/or viewers to become insensitive to the aesthetic qualities of the spaces in which they move, a narcissistic indifference that is the correlate of narrowly exclusive forms of coupling.
Like Contempt, although in quite different ways, Almodóvar’s All About My Mother is seen to mobilise a strategy of “inaccurate replication” in the interest of affirming possibilities of coupling that no longer revolve around the demand for recognition of identity. Just as transgendered bodies may be said to display exaggerated signs of gender in order to transgress the imperative of gender identification, so the baroque twists and turns of Almodóvar’s plot itself are centrally important in that their very over-elaboration and integration through coincidence serve to neutralise and re-orientate the usual imperatives of narrative development. All About My Mother is characterised by an extravagant promiscuity of plot connections, all of which are even more extravagantly integrated in the course of the narrative. From beginning to end, Almodóvar’s narrative is driven by a specific logic of differentiation through repetition. This process is underlined, for example, in the migration of the name “Esteban” within and beyond the sphere defined by the Name of the Father.
It is also this formal principle of displaced identity that is allegorised visually in the film’s opening shots of organ donation and transplantation surgery, scenes that not only introduce Manuela (Cecilia Roth) in the caring context of her working life and prepare her status as a kind of “universal mother”, but also anticipate the fact that the film is structured around the slippage or transplantation of identities. The plot of All About My Mother is less concerned with correlating causes and effects than generating a series of “exchanges within a vast realm of possibility” (112) that transcends any logic of defining oppositions. As viewers we are ourselves “seduced” by the narrative of All About My Mother into seeking answers to questions of identity and origin only in order to be “educated in the techniques by which they may be ignored.” (106) Repetition thus implies a kind of movement, a form of indefinite transformation. For all its sense of mourning and loss, the film becomes an affirmation of “joyful theatricality” (92) that cuts across supposed divisions between stage, screen, and life. In a manner reminiscent of the intra-fictional doublings already analysed in Contempt, All About My Mother further infolds the process of differential repetition that structures its narrative by generating various frame-within-frame relations of doubling and substitution between the “real” lives of characters and on-stage performances. Indeed, this celebration of performance through a pattern of differential repetition may also be traced across the range of Almodóvar’s films. Just as the plot of this film allows Manuela to gather a kind of accidental family around herself — in a way that neither excludes nor becomes defined by patrilineage — so Almodóvar appears to have established a kind of non-filial family of actors who are taken up in different roles in several films. All of these actors appear to have been chosen for their “remarkable talent for playing extravagance as if it were wholly natural” (84).
The question which arises for Bersani and Dutoit is this: “what exactly is repeated when a theatrical character or situation reoccurs, differently, in reality — a reality which is, of course, the aesthetic construction”? (98) Their answer is again one that both invokes and exceeds the postulates of Lacanian psychoanalysis: the laws of desire are effectively subverted when the status (sexual and otherwise) of its subjects becomes fluid, circulatory, transplantable, and uncertain. In Almodóvar’s film “repetition, far from certifying the reality of what is repeated, undermines the very category of the real” (100). This is not to say that the aesthetic of All About My Mother works to collapse all distinction between the imaginary and the real. The difference is still assumed, but as the locus of indefinite exchange, rather than the limit of a definite opposition.
In The Thin Red Line, a narrative dominated by a military assault upon a hill becomes an exploration of “retreat from being”. In particular, the look that a particular character, Witt (Jim Caviezel), brings to the scene of war invokes the possibility of a singular form of aesthetic witnessing in which pure passivity becomes an ethical act. Bersani and Dutoit begin their approach towards Malick’s third film by revisiting Freud and Lacan on the universally necessary negativity of “jouissance” (in Lacan’s terms): the unsurpassable core of aggression and “blind destructive fury” that at once founds subjectivity and promises the greatest sense of release from the burdens of selfhood. This material is rehearsed, however, only in order to set up the possibility of articulating a mode of subjectivity that transcends its terms. The simultaneously ethical and aesthetic question of moving “beyond jouissance” once again becomes tantamount to that of moving outside the laws of desire.
For Bersani and Dutoit, The Thin Red Line presents war as “unequivocally evil”. Indeed, the theme of evil is highlighted from the very beginning: “What’s this war at the heart of nature?” we are asked in the first of many direct questions carried by the film’s voice-over. This central use of explicit questioning should not, however, be taken as proof that the film subordinates visuality to the rule of words and definite answers. Malick, we are told, takes these questions seriously, but not as objects of a propositional discourse. What ultimately matters in The Thin Red Line is less the prospect of providing answers to questions raised, than “the preponderance of the interrogative mode itself” (134). The entire film becomes “the repetition of an immense question” (134). The fact that the voice-over track does not always correlate with the image track, so that questions may sometimes be voiced in relation to the “wrong” point of view, as if mouths and eyes had become uncoupled, shifts the focus of interest from the content of the questions, towards the question of their own enunciation. At the same time, these questions also raise the question of their own address through their constant appeal to an unspecified “you”, an unqualified subjectivity that the interrogative mode repeatedly assumes as its addressee, yet never identifies. This play of dissonances between image and voice, enunciation and address, is essential in setting up the “reworking of the individual within a new relational ethic” that, for Bersani and Dutoit, structures the entire film.
Once again, however, this ethic is performed more through the visual than the discursive. In his desire to “own” the war, Nick Nolte’s performance of the relentless Colonel Tall embodies a “pure will” that is juxtaposed against the existential attitude of “letting be” expressed in the non-expressive gaze of Caviezel’s Private Witt. Nolte is “all thrusting forward movement” (136). His aggressive linearity is offset against the ceaseless circular movements that pervade the film — movements of water, movements of the camera, movements of grass, movements of other characters. This contrast between Nolte’s forward advance and the swirling patterns of motion that surround him constitutes “a kind of kinetic argument against the invasive movements of war.” (136)
For Bersani and Dutoit, The Thin Red Line enacts its most powerful visual response to the question of evil through its exploration of different modes of looking as they are embodied in the faces of characters. Cinematic style again becomes reflexive in an ethical, rather than merely formal sense. Each face is isolated by the camera as a “certain mode of registering the world” (144) in an aesthetic strategy that reflects upon and transforms the normal functions of the camera. In this context, Forms of Being proposes a brief theory of cinematography: the camera’s frame implies a mobile presence implicated in the world it portrays; this presence, in turn, implies both that any claim to objectivity is compromised in advance, and that the camera may be understood as looking back at the viewer (an idea rendered literal at the beginning of Contempt, as the filmed camera swings round towards the lens of the filming camera). In the apparent security and anonymity of the cinema “we are in reality confronted, looked at, by a point of view, a world already interpreted. And we are in turn interpreted, identified, by that interpretation.” (144) Through the deliberately interrogative, ethical style of Malick’s film, “characters thus become multiple cameras within the film” (145). Ways of seeing become visible objects: points of view and the worlds they assume are rendered directly readable on the faces of characters. It is here that Forms of Being focuses on the almost serene face of Witt, whether caught absorbed in the beauty of nature or observing the agonising death of comrades, as the embodiment of an individuality that transcends individualism, an expression that escapes expressivity. The look of Witt, for Bersani and Dutoit, shows that “the most powerfully individuated perspective on the world in the film is also an erasure of perspective itself.” (146)
The ethical implications of Witt’s aesthetic mode of witnessing the world from a standpoint of simultaneous distance and implication are drawn out in his ongoing “argument” with Top (Sean Penn). It is Top who explicitly enunciates the cynical world view embodied by Colonel Tall: “the whole fucking thing’s about property”, yet it is also Top who chooses to risk his own life for the sake of delivering morphine to a mortally wounded soldier, Top who most clearly recognises and responds to the singularity of Witt, and in whom Witt claims to see a “spark”. The repeated encounters between Top and Witt stage an existential conflict that is at least as important to the drama of Malick’s film as the strategic clash between American and Japanese forces. At the level of words, this is the conflict between Top’s stated conviction that there is “just this world” of war and Witt’s insistence that he has seen “another world” of redemptive “glory”. At the visual level, this becomes a conflict between two ways of registering the world: the narrow, wounded squint of Top versus the open-eyed acceptance of Witt. This conflict is played out within Top himself, in the dissonance between his words and his acts, as well as in the ongoing debate between himself and Witt.
Ultimately at play in Forms of Being is the suggestion of forms of relationality that are no longer defined by the universal Lacanian “tragedy” that tells of our necessary passage through “the defile of the signifier” in order to become desiring and speaking subjects. Lacan is repeatedly invoked, yet sidestepped. The radiant bodily photo-presence of Camille/Bardot becomes emblematic of the “enigmatic signifier”. The effects of her evident contempt in relation to Paul dramatise the defining impasse of the desiring subject: “the inability to understand the other as enigmatic signifier constitutes us as sexual beings — that is, beings in whom desire or lack is central.” (37) Contempt is not content, however, to move entirely within the orbit determined by these Lacanian laws of desire, but also and crucially intimates the possibility of other forms of relationship, other forms of being. Godard’s film, as read by Bersani and Dutoit, performs a singular inflection of the universal. The reading that most aptly responds to this singularity would be one that assumes neither a stance of aesthetic disinterest nor the reductive imperative of representation, but instead articulates a kind of transcendental infolding of the world through the immanence of form. It is this movement, at once highly complex and incomparably simple, that allows film form to effectively incarnate different forms of being. It is not just the fictional fate of a fictional couple that is enacted here, but the possibility of a different form of coupling between ourselves and fictionality as such. Capture by the lure of the enigmatic signifier would also become our fate if Godard’s film allowed us (or we allowed ourselves) to become involved in the potentially infinite game of interpretation implied by an attempt to definitively answer the question of origins by reading the expressiveness (or lack of it) in human expressions caught in close-up. Such an interpretative relationship, or coupling, between spectator and image would be “anti-cinematic”. Instead, the non-ethical ethics of Godard’s film would be one that calls upon us not only to release ourselves from the hermeneutic lure of expression, but to “lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness” (70). The possibility of non-expressiveness would, paradoxically, be expressed most directly in the closing shot of the sea and horizon from the Malaparte rooftop, in which we might expect to see the face of Ithaca, that distant shore to which Ulysses will always find himself fated to return, but see instead nothing but a kind of scintillating indifference to human demands for recognition and homecoming. The supreme indifference of nature answers the heavy indifference of narcissistic desire with a call that summons us to receptive silence.
Having done my best to evoke the merits of Bersani and Dutoit’s arguments, I have to admit that their book has left me with a deeply divided response. I think that this ambivalence reflects more than my own failure to decide as a critic, but something essential about the way Forms of Being addresses both its reader and subject matter. It is certainly a highly demanding work, not so much in the sense that it is couched in difficult or overly complex terminology, but insofar as it assumes a particular kind of reader, one willing to accept and enter unreservedly into a world constituted by its terms. This book does not so much address arguments to the reader, as assert a certain sensibility that the reader is invited to inhabit. Although, at one level, it may be true that this can be said of any work of cultural analysis, even one presented in apparently cold, propositional discourse, Forms of Being seems quite deliberately, even aggressively, to adopt this element of necessity as an axiom of style. One of the definite virtues of this approach is that the writing avoids the itemising tone that can characterise contemporary academic discussions. In particular, this book moves a million miles away from the kind of cultural studies that seeks to avoid any appearance of indulging in hierarchical “judgements of taste”. To be sure, as with just about every current academic approach to the study of culture, the primary value that Forms of Being seeks to promote is difference — in its own terms, the possibility of escaping “identarian myths”. In this case, however, it is also and primarily the difference of singular works of art that is celebrated. Bersani and Dutoit believe in the liberating potential of art and in the existence of rare works that genuinely deserve the appellation.
One of the problems that emerge here, however, is that a laudable desire to restore the rights of aesthetic differentiation is too often expressed in pre-emptive, generalising, prescriptions about films (or approaches to film) that are evoked in the negative as background examples of the vulgar and commonplace. Bersani and Dutoit have no compunction, therefore, in summarily dismissing films (or novels) judged unworthy of their extended consideration as merely “mediocre”. The “difference” celebrated here is evidently not a plurality ideally encompassing all the different realisations and reinventions (i.e. “forms of being”) of the filmic medium, but one imposing a strict division between the majority of rote productions and those singular works that are seen to bravely (and more or less exclusively) mobilise and incarnate plurality within themselves. This determination to quarantine “art” from popular culture seems quite bizarre when applied to the work of Godard and Almodóvar, both of whom, I would not be alone in arguing, tend to stage the mutual contamination of high and low in their own films. For the authors of this book, however, there seems here to be no possibility whatsoever of “inaccurate replication” across the field of film history itself, which would appear to be strictly divided between those rare works that raise themselves to the level of “masterpieces” and those that remain merely “mediocre”.
The novels on which the Thin Red Line and Contempt are based are themselves subject to unbridled contempt, not on the basis of any considered analysis, but rather through the mere assertion of mediocrity. Thus, even as the prospect of transcending narrow conceptions of temporality and identity is evoked, even as we are exhorted to receive works of art as never finalised, contemporaneous with our own time in their potentiality, the novels cited as inspiring by Godard and Malick are isolated, fixed, and subject to final judgement. Bersani and Dutoit themselves thus seem incapable of emulating the open, transformative, non-judgemental relationality which Godard and Malick would seem to have adopted with regard to the novels they have taken as premises for their films. For example, the possibility that the very evident rhetorical excess of the novel on which Contempt is based, Moravia’s Il Deprezzo, might function to open up a kind of distance between character and narration, narrative and reader — might divide the tone of the narration against itself — is never entertained. Instead, effectively pre-empting any more complex analysis through a gesture of negative projection, Bersani and Dutoit assure us that “Moravia’s work unintentionally parodies the literature of desire and of psychological analysis to which it belongs.” (28)
In general, although the themes privileged by the book may often seem distinctly “postmodern”, the rhetoric adopted for their exploration can often seem resolutely modernist, sometimes absurdly so. Moravia’s novel, we are told, is nothing but the redundant preservation of an outmoded form after the “climactic dissections of Proust.” (32) The three films centrally discussed are explicitly prized for the ways in which they exemplify and enact both the native powers of a specific medium and something very much like the proper mission of art as such. I often found myself distracted whilst reading Forms of Being by an apparent conflict between tone and critical premises.
In their analysis of Contempt, Bersani and Dutoit tell us that the couple in the film is “just as fictional” (at what level of reference?) as the couple in the not yet finished film within a film of the Iliad, yet this very reading of this fiction is offered as determinate and exhaustive. Bersani and Dutoit seem quite sure that there is a right way to read the film – their own – and that this correct reading should disqualify all others. This authoritarian tone becomes most jarring in the presumption that Bersani and Dutoit can tell “us” (the average viewer) what we have or have not seen in the films. In discussing the scene from Contempt where Camille first meets Prokosch (Jack Palance), briefly allowing her fingers to caress the surface of his sports car, Bersani and Dutoit tell us that “It is as if Camille-Bardot knew that our transfixed look would not see the way she circles Prokosch’s car…” (42). Here the authors project a pedestrian and unrevealing reading of the film, in which everything that follows is determined by Paul’s action in encouraging Camille to take the lift with Prokosch, then contrasted with the apparently more revealing, yet also more difficult, reading in which Camille’s action in stroking the car becomes legible. Yet, having tested the reactions of several viewers, I would assert that Camille’s provocative gesture, constructed as a kind of subliminal suggestion by Bersani and Dutoit, is easily noticeable. Forms of Being here merely describes layers of the film as readable or unreadable, visible or invisible, in order to claim for itself the privilege of reading the unreadable and seeing the invisible.
Forms of Being repeatedly describes, and then disqualifies, allegedly naive readings of the films under consideration. Yet if most viewers more or less miss what a film “really” is, or what it “really” does, can it “really” be said to be or do these things at all? At the very least, it must do so ineffectively in terms if its own immanent purpose. Bersani and Dutoit, however, often seem to value films, or their readings of films, precisely on this basis. There is something breathlessly serious in the way that the need to escape seriousness is invoked here; something disconcerting about the way the reader is repeatedly asked to do the stations of the cross past the works of Freud and Lacan (only to be told once again that the real action happens outside this structure altogether); something at times almost priestly in the tone of the text. Everything suggests that this book wants to be an ethical lesson; that Bersani and Dutoit’s own habits of reading/viewing are to be taken as a model for an ethical way of viewing in the world. Indeed, one could argue that in Forms of Being the “visual” is actually reduced, in direct contradiction to stated intentions, to the terms of a propositional discourse about the limits of discourse, one controlled in advance by the authors’ own ontological decisions. The attitude adopted towards the possibilities of film production thus becomes aggressively hierarchical and judgemental: either films (and novels) fulfil their proper mission of reflexively thematising possibility — thereby exemplifying Bersani and Dutoit’s own critical terms — or they may be summarily dismissed as “mediocre”.
The arguments presented in Forms of Being are also severely under referenced. In discussing the tension between theatricality and the cinematic in Godard, for example, no allusion is made to other discussions of this far from original critical theme (Perez immediately comes to mind) (1). There is something at once refreshing and annoying in the way that Bersani and Dutoit’s meditation on the transcendental conditions of the cinematic image is conducted in an apparent void. Refreshing because it allows the authors to modulate given assumptions without becoming entangled in the tortures of definitional argument, instead enabling them to appeal directly to the image. Annoying because it artificially isolates and privileges both their own approach and the qualities of the films in question. Any reader of film theory will be underwhelmed by the predictability of reading the moment when the filmed camera turns on “us” at the beginning of Contempt as “threatening the impunity we generally enjoy in looking at films” (34). Here, not for the only time, I sense the spectre of old-fashioned “apparatus theory” entering unannounced into the rhetoric of Forms of Being. Bersani and Dutoit seem to assume that most films may still be dismissed as simple vehicles for mechanically reproduced ideologies, if only in order to register and measure the singularity of the films they have chosen to study. In this, however, they are far from alone, insofar as these classic film-theoretical assumptions concerning the psychoanalytic and ideological functions of cinema continue to be widely reproduced as a kind of self-justifying back-projection in a wide range of analyses. It is a recurrent problem of contemporary film studies, I would argue, that the very effort to escape over-generalising models in order to evoke singularity in specific films once again summons up those very models in the second degree.
As the reader may note, this review is effectively split in two. At first I seem completely immersed in the argument and rhetoric of Forms of Being; then I suddenly seem to become entirely hostile to the same arguments, the same rhetoric. I have been at once enthralled and distanced, seduced and repelled, persuaded and alienated by this book. It is certainly an important and provocative text for anyone interested in the relationship between theory and the interpretation of particular films in this post-Bordwellian era of film studies (2). I should also admit that, for all my criticisms regarding matters of tone, it is often quite beautifully written. Reading Forms of Being has reconfirmed my conviction that there is still much to be explored in the hermeneutic tension between the general and the singular.
(Readers of this review should probably be aware that I contacted the authors of Forms of Being concerning several remarkably close correspondences in matters of observation I had perceived between the analysis of The Thin Red Line offered therein and my own response to the film, “The Shape of Fear: Thoughts after The Thin Red Line”, published in this journal, October 2000. Although I am entirely satisfied that there is no question of plagiarism here, or anything resembling it, I still tend to think that pre-publication research should have led to some kind of reference to my essay.)
Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity, by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, British Film Institute, London, 2004.
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