In an image (shown below) from 1926 “psychoanalytic film” Secrets of a Soul’s brilliant dream sequence, the protagonist, Martin Fellman, seems to be plagued by an oddly indiscernible affective fusion as he watches his wife and her cousin traverse on a love boat together, while he is confined in a tower. Though Martin’s mouth contorts in obvious disgust and intense envy, his eyes are fixated on the scene of cuckoldry passionately, as if the scene was a restaging of the childlike delirium that occurs during the child’s spectatorial gaze of the primal scene. While Secrets of a Soul ultimately fails in its (impossible) task of showcasing the truth of psychoanalysis, various moments from the film, like the scene I described, are undoubtedly, and perhaps unintentionally, ingenious in conveying the primal enjoyment of voyeurism and scopophilia. This enjoyment, beyond the pleasure principle, as duly expressed in Martin’s face, is an enjoyment of the gaze mirrored in the experience of cinema. Martin’s psychic dilemmas, as reflected in his dream, are a problem of a repressed and non-reciprocal gaze, and thus a problem of his false identification with an emasculated image of himself. The spectator of cinema finds himself in a different position. Instead of the gaze unrequited, the spectator identifies with elements of the film that are infallible in the (and by the) Real sense of the wor(l)d i.e. the camera, the characters of the narrative. Therefore, with the spectatorial gaze being catered to by the film, the fantasy of transcendent plentitude is constituted for the viewer. Despite differences in identificatory perspectives, the vantage points of both Martin and the cinematic spectator intersect at the level of a similar bodily anxiety far from anything properly signifiable.
In the history of psychoanalytic film theory, the focus on particular sects of (Lacanian) psychoanalytic terminology has veered from the Symbolic, or linguistic order, to the Imaginary, and most recently (thanks to Slavoj Zizek) to the Real, at the level of disavowed enjoyment and bodily disruption. For the cinematic spectator (and film theorist), the anxiety of the encounter of the Real can be figured by Virginia Woolf’s fantasy of cinema presenting “anger in the image, breaking across it, out of the screen.” (31) The threat of the Real is a threat of which there is no answer to, something obscene that affects the body, and yet, as can be discerned from Woolf, the threat of the Real is the very Thing cinema and the spectator desire. Thus, while the (cinematic) spectatorial gaze is catered to by the film, the Real looms as a force of enjoyment and bodily anxiety never to be accessed. Similarly, the Real manifests itself in Martin’s life as a desire for and anxiety of the Real, figured narratively as his tumorous desire to stab his wife to death. While, as mentioned, Secrets of a Soul fails to adequately express the psychoanalytic truth, instead opting for a psychoanalysis-as-magic-cure ending, its rare, and disavowed, moments of brilliance retroactively disclose the common anxiety of spectatorship and (non) reciprocation.