Psychoanalytic film theory, despite its relatively late development, has become one of the most widely practiced theoretical approaches to cinema studies today. This is largely owing to the fact that psychoanalysis and film technology were born in the same era, and essentially grew up together. Thus, as cinema quickly came to focus on ways of rendering subjective experiences--the innermost psychological depths of the characters it portrayed--it naturally drew upon the newest conception of subjectivity offered in the field of psychology, namely the psychoanalytic conception of it. A great many films from the first half of the 20th Century accordingly drew upon such psychoanalytic concepts as: the unconscious (see Keaton's Sherlock Jr.), dreamwork (see Cavalcanti's Dead of Night), the Oedipus complex (see Olivier's Hamlet), and psychoanalysis itself (see Hitchcock's Spellbound).
Despite the fact that so many films so overtly incorporated psychoanalytic concepts, film studies did not really begin to examine this incorporation until the 1960's and 70's. There are two reasons for this: first, because film studies did not really exist as a recognized academic discipline until roughly this period; and second, because the emergence of film studies as a discipline happened to coincide with a rekindling of interest in psychoanalysis (largely brought about by the innovative new approach to this subject in France). Thus, while the birth and development of early cinema coincided with that of psychoanalysis, the birth of cinema studies as a discipline similarly coincided with a renaissance in psychoanalytic theory. Historically speaking, film and psychoanalysis have always been close siblings.
Fine and good, you say, but what exactly is psychoanalytic film theory? It is an approach that focuses on unmasking the ways in which the phenomenon of cinema in general, and the elements of specific films in particular, are both shaped by the unconscious. Whose unconscious? This is where things get a little tricky. The unconscious studied by psychoanalytic film theory has been attributed to four different agencies: the filmmaker, the characters of a film, the film's audience, and the discourse of a given film.
So psychoanalytic film theory unmasks the psychic mechanisms functioning in the unconscious of: filmmakers, characters, viewing audiences, and specific instances of cinematic discourse. In the remainder of this discussion, I will demonstrate how the last three variations of psychoanalytic film theory can expose the machinations of the unconscious as they are at work in the central character, the audience, and the cinematic discourse of Chris Marker's La Jetée. (I won't presume to venture any guesses as to what is on Marker's unconscious mind).
The unconscious mechanism that I will focus on here is that of fetishism. Here, briefly, is Freud's explanation of this mechanism. The fetish-object (which is to say, the particular object that procures sexual gratification for the fetishist: e.g., shoes, undergarments, fur coats, etc.) is revered as if it were a penis--and not just any penis, but specifically the one belonging to the fetishist's mother! This of course sounds ridiculous and not a little disgusting. Freud clearly has some serious explaining to do. He explains himself thus: when a young boy (for Freud, all fetishists are male) first sees a woman--usually his mother--in the nude, he mistakenly conceives that she has been castrated. This troubles him not only because he shudders to think or her pain and humiliation, but because it suggests to him that he too is vulnerable to castration. So to help himself deal with his fear of castration, he will find a way to blank out the image of his mother's apparently mutilated genitals. He will fixate on the last object that he saw the split-second before his eyes encountered that terrifying lack of a penis. If the occasion of this traumatic sighting was a scene of undressing, then he might fixate on his mother's undergarments. If he were gazing upwards from the floor to his mother's naked body, he might fixate on her feet or shoes (if she is wearing them). If he only gradually sees her lack of a penis after first seeing her ample pubic hair, then he might fixate on the pubic hair, or by visual association, on a piece of fur clothing that resembles pubic hair (e.g., a fur coat or hat).
Later on, after the young fetishist matures and comes to understand that there are two sexes, he will repress both his fear of castration and his feelings of relief brought on by his mental substitution of an object to fill in for the missing maternal penis. These repressed feelings will be shunted into his unconscious, where he will still harbor them, even though he is not consciously aware of any of this. Thus, on one (conscious) level, the fetishist has come to understand that there are two sexes and that women do not have penises because they belong to the opposite sex. But on another (unconscious) level, the fetishist will still fear his mother's--and potentially his own--castration, and he will continue to crave the release from fear that the fetish object seems to grant. Consciously, the fetishist knows all about the nature of normal sexuality, but he nevertheless craves his fetish-object instead of, or in addition to, a sexual partner. He himself does not know why he craves this object. The explanation can only be found, so Freud explains, by psychoanalyzing the fetishist's unconscious.
This theory of fetishism, as Freud stated it, is a bit much to swallow--even for many strict Freudians. It seems to be too hung up on penises and literal castration, too localized below the belt, that is. Recent psychoanalytic theory has offered another, more general articulation of Freud's insight. Instead of a child feeling terrified by his mother's apparently literal castration, it is possible that when the child sees her nakedness he feels terror at the realization that there are two sexes. This realization suggests that biology and society have separated him from his mother by putting her into a different category. Henceforth he will be "cut off" from her--in a purely metaphorical sense, castrated. Thus, this theory goes, the young fetishist seizes upon the fetish-object, in the manner Freud described, in an effort to disavow sexual difference. Later he will consciouslycome to accept sexual difference, but unconsciously he will still harbor the fantasy of there being only a single sex to which he, his mother, and all the women who can potentially replace her belong.
Now let's see how this mechanism of fetishism can inform the different aspects of the unconscious vis-a-vis La Jetée.
1. The Character's Unconscious. La Jetée, at first glance, seems fairly remote from the psychoanalytic theory of fetishism. And yet, if we look closely at the protagonist's character, we might begin to see a certain fetishistic dimension to his fascination with the image of a woman that he retains. With the exception of an explicit emphasis on sexual difference, all the aforementioned coordinates are firmly in place: metaphorical castration (i.e., separation), fixation upon an object (i.e., the image of the woman), the preference shown to his relationship to the object over his relationship to living persons (i.e., his rejections of a present and future society to return to an image from his past).
||Here we should also recall that the protagonist initially fixates upon the image of this woman at the moment when he sees a man (himself) die. Metaphorically speaking, it is he himself who is perceived to be castrated (cut off from their union), while she is merely vulnerable (to the coming holocaust). This reverses one aspect of the Freudian dynamic of fetishistic fear, but otherwise the model holds. By retaining the last joyful image of their potential union, the man will be able to mentally disavow all evidence of their inevitable separation. He will, in other words, suppress his ability to recognize himself as the man who is killed while running to grasp the woman.|
The fetishistic cast of the protagonist's character is furthermore stressed by the form of narrative discourse Marker adopts in this film. It is presented as a sequence of still-images--which is to say, a photo-roman. Thus the image of the woman that the protagonist imprints into his memory is literally objectified for the audience, rendered as a photo-chemical imprint, namely a photograph. This serves to heighten our sense of the image's status as a fetish-object--comparable to a fading photograph that a pining lover might carry in his wallet.
2. The Unconscious of Cinematic Discourse. Let us skip for the moment our examination of the way this film can expose a form of unconscious fetishism on the part of the audience. Turning then to the unconscious of the film's discourse, we find the coordinates of fetishism similarly inscribed in the form of the photo-roman, or more precisely, in the film's single instance of deviation from this form. I refer to the moment when the sequence of still-images is sped up to the point of momentary superimposition, or lap-dissolve. This yields, for a brief moment, the effect of cinematic "live-action." We are, (literally) for the blink of an eye, transported into the medium of motion pictures, or as it is commonly called, the "movies." This brief moment in the film serves to underscore the photographic (as opposed to cinematic) form which dominates the rest of the film's discourse.
Photographs imply, among other things, a sense of chronological separation from the persons or things photographed--a sense that we are "cut off" from them. "Live-action," by contrast, creates a sense of their immediate presence. But this instance of live-action radically undoes any sense of immediate presence. Here, in the gradual transformation from photographic sequence to live-action film, we see how the sense of immediacy is artificially produced in the movies. The slow formal transformation recalls us to the fact that live-action cinema is actually never anything more than a sped up sequence of projected stills with fractional, flickering moments of darkness separating them. This produces the stroboscopic illusion of a continuous image in various stages of movement--the so-called phi-effect upon which all cinema relies. Thus cinema inscribes a series of gaps (dark spots between frames) which "cut up" the projected image, and then cinema subsequently disavows these cuts by way of certain fetishistic sleight of hand (persistence of vision, flicker-fusion, and beta-movement). In the slow emergence of cinema at this single point of La Jetée, we catch a brief glimpse of the fetishistic unconscious of the film's discourse, a discourse that photographically alludes to loss and alienation, only to disavow this by deploying the standard cinematic technique (live-action cinematography) for recovering the immediate presence of what has been lost.
3. The Audience's Unconscious. The disavowal of the gaps between the photographic frames furthermore bears upon a form of fetishism unconsciously at work in the film's audience. For in addition to a sense of loss and remoteness, photographs also implicitly underscore the fact that they were themselves "taken" elsewhere, and, in this case, by someone else (the filmmaker). Psychoanalytic film theorists refer to this elsewhere as the "fourth field" (the unseen area behind the camera in any given shot), and to this someone as the "Absent One." As soon as film-audiences become conscious of the fourth field and the Absent One who resides there with his camera, they lose the feeling that they are in control of their own gaze. They come to discover that they are being coerced, through a careful manipulation of compositional framing, lighting, editing, and so forth. They perceive that they are being made to see only what the Absent One (the director, the photographer) wants them to see. Thus audiences come to realize that they are alienated, "cut off" from their own powers of vision. The foregrounded artifice of photography in the photo-roman functions to drive this awareness home. The brief eruption into live-action cinema then provides a welcome moment of respite, a moment when the viewer can once again regain the illusion that he or she is seeing all there is to be seen, without the coercive mediation of an Absent One. Here, suddenly, the darkness framing each photographic instant disappears (or appears to disappear) as the photographs merge into a living, moving form--someone we can look at, so it seems, from our own perspective. This is what psychoanalytic film theorists refer to as "suture": the condition that arises when the perceived control held by the Absent One dissolves, and the audience accordingly relates to the film's field of view as if they themselves were in control of the film's visual field and capable of moving freely about in it. Suture thus names a fetishistic mechanism by way of which the audience disavows the loss of its visual powers and unconsciously subscribes to the fantasy of its own all-seeing gaze.