The Imaginary Signifier and the Collapse of Voyeuristic Desire

One of Metz’s many claims about the essential nature of the cinema is that insofar as cinema as a recording inscribes the fundamental absence of that which is shown (by way of the necessary spatial and temporal distance between production and projection), cinematic representation is the perfect titillation (which is not to say the fulfillment) of the voyeuristic desire of the “perceiving drive,” which depends upon exactly this distance achieved via the inscription of the object’s lack. In Metz’s words, “as opposed to other drives, the ‘perceiving drive’… concretely represents the absence of its object in the distance at which it maintains it and which is part of its very definition: distance of the look, distance of listening.” (59) This distance is crucial for the voyeur: “his look fastens the object at the right distance… represent[ing] in space the fracture which forever separates him from the object; he represents his very dissatisfaction (which is precisely what he needs as a voyeur), and thus also his ‘satisfaction’ insofar as it is of a specifically voyeuristic type. To fill in this distance would threaten to overwhelm the subject, to lead him to consume the object (the object which is now too close so that he cannot see it anymore)” (60). If the fundamental ingredient of this distance is the spatial-temporal separation of spectator and film, the collapse of this distance – the appearance of the spectator in the represented world – would thus “overwhelm” the spectator. While the spectator can never appear as such in the world of the film’s diegesis, there are a number of ways that the film can interpolate the spectator, troubling – if not collapsing – the distance between them.

One way of interpolating the spectator is to turn the gaze of a character within the film onto the camera, troubling this distance in that the spectator’s gaze (which is also that of the camera, with which the spectator identifies) meets that of the character, breaking down the otherwise one-sided structure of viewing (“I take no part in the perceived, on the contrary, I am all-perceiving” (Metz 48)). A famous example of this is, of course, the scene in Rear Window in which Mr. Thorwald realizes he is being watched and turns his gaze towards Jefferies’ apartment, locking eyes with the spectator who, like Jefferies, has been watching Thorwald through an apparatus. The relationship between this scene and Metz’s theory of the cinema is rather self-evident: the spectator is, to say the least, overwhelmed. The fracture which separates Jefferies (and thus the viewer) from his object has been removed, and his voyeuristic pleasure is unseated (pun intended) by a fear of punishment from Thorwald, who soon comes into Jeff’s salle obscure, nearly killing him. But this example is a charged one, insofar as this breach of perceived-perceiver is itself woven into the narrative, and thus bears consequences for Jeff, with whom we are (secondarily) identified. In counterpoint to Rear Window would be an interpolation of the spectator without narrative thrust, such as in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, when Ferdinand turns suddenly to face the camera, complaining in cinematic apostrophe of his seatmate, Marianne:

Ferdinand: Vous voyez? Elle ne pense qu’à rigoler.
Marianne: A qui tu parles?
Ferdinand: Au spectateur.

Marianne here turns toward the camera, “ah”-ing in approval. The spectator has been interpolated perhaps even more deliberately than in Rear Window; the spectator’s gaze has been met by that of two characters, who verbally acknowledge and even address the spectator directly. Like Rear Window, this elicits a strong response in the spectator, though it is not one of horror; if anything, it is playful, comedic even. Perhaps this ambiguity of response is writ into Metz’s characterization of this filling of distance; to continue the passage quoted earlier, “To fill in this distance would threaten to overwhelm the subject… to bring him to orgasm and the pleasure of his own body, hence to the exercise of other drives, mobilising the senses of contact and putting an end to scopic arrangement… Orgasm is the object rediscovered in a state of momentary illusion; it is the phantasy suppression of the gap between object and subject” (60). It is exactly this quality of the breach of perceiver-perceived that gives Thorwald’s gaze such thrust in Rear Window; insofar as the spectator is, momentarily, both the caster and the receiver of the gaze (both components of which are of his own creation – “it is I who make the film” (Metz 48)), the gap between object and subject is suppressed. The same can be said of Pierrot; while Rear Window makes a larger issue of this breach by imbuing it with narrative consequence (and, moreover, by rooting it in the subjective point of view of a character with whom we are secondarily identified), the dual role of the spectator as caster and receiver of the gaze nonetheless allows for a “phantasy suppression of the gap between object and subject.” The difference in affect might be chalked up to the ambiguity of affect in orgasm itself (referring both to Metz’s word choice and the physical sensation it describes). Rear Window might well exemplify the time-honored French euphemism, “la petite mort”; Pierrot‘s breach is one closer to the realm of playfulness and titillation.

Metz continues, “In [the looking drive] we do not find that illusion, however brief, of a lack filled, of a non-imaginary, of a full relation to the object… If it is true of all desire that it depends on the infinite pursuit of its absent object, voyeuristic desire… is the only desire whose principle of distance symbolically and spatially evokes this fundamental rent.” (60) This does not undermine the petite mort the spectator experiences in watching Rear Window; if anything, it explains its gravitas insofar as Thorwald’s gaze violently interrupts a precept of this looking drive. It also, however, gives us a hint as to Godard’s motivation in including his version of the spectatorial rupture; this scene, in its staunch absence of narrative import, serves only to underscore the irreality of Ferdinand and Marianne insofar as they are solely cinematic figments of our/Godard’s imagination. To interpolate the spectator here is thus something of a game with the spectator on Godard’s part, a taunting reminder that what we are watching, what we are enjoying, does not exist, and whatever jouissance we are getting out of it is as illusory and fleeting as the suppression of the gap between object and subject that orgasm promises. In this sense, it’s perhaps the perfect elaboration of Metz’s definition of the cinema as a “perfected strip-tease” (77), constantly dressing and undressing the spaces it depicts, toying with the spectator by withholding that which we think we want, precisely because it knows better.

Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965)

Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)