Thierry Kuntzel’s “The Film-Work, 2” attempts to deconstruct a film the way Freud’s dream work psychoanalyzed dreams as a series of signifiers, revealing layers of psychic interpretation that lie at the subject’s core. In Kuntzel’s piece, the subject of analysis are Ernest B. Shoedsack and Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932), as well as the wider cinematic-cultural apparatus and its socio-cultural framework. Like Freud, who suggests that word-play and slips of the tongue reveal the workings of the unconscious, Kuntzel makes much of the film’s title and the multiple meanings of the word “game.” He explores the word’s dual meaning – or “duel-istic structure” – as both entertainment and prey, in both a playful context and that of hunting. While they appear unrelated in symbolic language, the nexus between the two domains reveals a fundamental truth of psychoanalysis: that pleasure and aggression are inherently intertwined.
Kuntzel discusses various ways in which the film alludes to hunting and the relations between the hunter and the hunted, both narratively and subliminally. At the beginning of the film, the men engage in a discussion on the nature of hunting, how the game seems to enjoy being hunted equally as much as the hunter enjoys the act of preying. Immediately preceding the ship-wreck, Rainsford says, “I’m a hunter and that will never change.” Of course, the precarious conditions throw that dynamic, so fundamental to Rainsford’s self-identity, literally off balance, forcing him to confront its potential futility. Cinematically, the film points to the hunter-hunted dynamic and the notion of play through the inclusion of a variety of signifiers (the bow and arrow, the hunting horn, the card game on the boat, references to poker and chess). But the image that most notably combines the two is the appearance of a centaur figure on both the door-knocker and the tapestry which decorates the staircase of the house, framed in line with Ivan. The body of the figure embodies the film’s central problematic, hinted at in its title: the relation between man and beast, civilization and savagery, man and woman, camera and subject, hunter and game. The visual association between the centaur and Ivan, the film’s designated “savage,” points to society’s projection of submissive roles onto the racialized other. Though Zaroff is “game,” he assumes the role of hunter, thereby rendering him dangerous. Not only does he murder individuals; he threatens to destroy the hegemonic social order.
How then, does this relate to the notion of the word “game” in its playful context? Though stakes are high, the violence the men engage in in this film is ultimately a game practiced for the pursuit of pleasure. Each figure is bound up in aggression, displacing their destructive impulses (part of Freud’s notion of the death drive) onto “the other,” whether it be deemed Rainsford (the stranger), Ivan (the servant and racial other), Zaroff (also the racial other), or Eve (the woman). As Kuntzel writes, Eve is excluded from the game because she is the game, or “what is at stake; she may not enter into the permutations of the hunt because she is the ultimate prey.” The hunt is both necessity and sport; rather than simply a means to capture an object of desire, it is what creates that very desire. As Lacan describes in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, specifically when he writes of “Courtly love as anamorphosis,” the process of courting a woman is what renders her the object of desire. Likewise, every object of desire stems from the process of pursuit.
The subject of the camera is not immune to this status of game. In Peeping Tom, Mark says, “Whatever I photograph, I lose.” From the first scene these relations are established, with the view behind Mark’s camera showing target marks placed over the woman’s face, rendering her both the object of desire (“to be looked at,” as Mulvey says) and the subject of violence. After all, The Dangerous Game is an adventure film; it creates a sense of thrill for the viewer only because the viewer is not actually threatened by the violence onscreen in the safe confines of a darkened theater. In invoking the complex relations of hunting and being hunted, of civilization and savagery, the film both critically engages in the problematic of aggression and playfully employs it.