BION IN FILM THEORY and SEA CAVE CINEMA: a book and a film about the retreat in cinema

By Carla Ambrósio Garcia

Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film is a book published by Routledge that was launched earlier this year at the Close-Up Film Centre in Londonalongside the premiere of the film Sea Cave Cinema. This book and this film are two forms of research that originated in the same question: what if Plato’s forms could be found inside the cave? Since then, these two objects of research developed in their own way, yet always maintained a kind of dialogue between them, even if this was not explicitly acknowledged. What follows is intended to go some way towards making that dialogue more tangible.

The project began when I encountered images of a cave located near Sesimbra in Portugal, which, because of its difficult access, was only discovered in the mid-1990s.. The cave’s formations, in vivid colours and various textures, had strange, evocative shapes that led me to ask: what if these were the true forms of the objects in the outside world that they seemed to evoke? There was a sense of wonderment and discovery in the contemplation of these images, and this made me think of an inversion of Plato’s allegory of the cave, whereby Plato’s forms could be found inside the cave and could be perceived by the senses.

A still image from SEA CAVE CINEMA

While Plato was interested in the movement from inside to outside the cave – from what he postulated was a place of illusions to a space where the true forms of things could be apprehended through the intellect – I was thinking of the opposite movement, and of a different topography. Implicit in this movement of ‘going back into the cave’ was a gesture of retreat from the ‘outside world’. But this gesture, to my mind, did not simply imply a regression or a mere return to an origin.

Plato’s cave has been used to theorize the cinema numerous times, perhaps most famously by the French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry (1975). Wanting to see how I could challenge this analogy, I began to think about the cinema as a potential space of transformation and discovery, and to see it through a psychoanalytical lens, as a space connected with the internal world.

At this point the work of the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion came into the project. Bion, reader of Plato, Kant, and other philosophers, was also concerned with forms, noumena, ultimate reality. He considered what happened between analyst and analysand in the consulting room to be unknowable, a thing-in-itself in Kant’s sense – what Bion called ‘O’ – as it was always subject to transformations in the mind of the people involved (Bion, 1965). These transformations deserved investigation if we were to better understand what psychoanalysis is or could be.

If Bion was interested in the notion of an ultimate reality beyond our apprehension, he conceived of emotions in a very different way to how Plato saw them. Plato saw emotions as ‘the lower elements in the mind’, opposed to reason (Plato and Lee, 1955, p. 348), whereas for Bion the growth of the mind is in fact dependent on the capacity to think about emotions. The mind grows as it becomes able to assimilate emotional experiences; and the mother’s role in containing and assimilating the infant’s emotions through communicative projective identification is fundamental in the initial stages of this process (Bion, 1961). In later formulations of his theory of thinking, Bion notes that it is not the apprehension of the ultimately real that is stake; rather, it is the capacity to be or become real, which entails the process of being or becoming at one with our own emotional truth.

Parallel to this reading and writing about Bion’s theory of thinking and how it was helping me to rethink the experience of the subject in the cinema, I contacted the speleology group who had discovered the cave I had seen in pictures. The NECA group (Núcleo de Espeleologia da Costa Azul) first showed me some other caves they knew in the area, and it was, in the end, in one of these caves that I decided to make a film. This was a sea cave with a hole in its ceiling, which at a certain time of the day projected a beam of sunlight on the undulating surface of the sea, which in turn projected a moving image of light on the cave wall.

There was something cinematic about this cave. In a way, it was already a cinema. What could my experience of being a spectator of its moving images, of making a film from these images, and of thinking about how to present the film to an audience, tell me about the experience of cinema? What could this film tell us about cinema?

As I filmed inside the cave and the day passed, I saw the light of the Sun being transformed. I also saw the waves become bigger, and the tide begin to ebb, and was reminded of the gravitational force of the Moon. Things were projected and contained inside containers, which then became contained in other containers, such as my eyes or my camera. The coming together of these things produced transformations: different shapes of light and water, different sounds, slow erosions, exposures, and emotions.

I was rethinking the cinematic apparatus with Bion, but I did not want to confine my theory to the space of the cinema. In my view, cinema can happen in other spaces or situations too, but what is it that defines those spaces or situations? What, when, where is cinema? What, when, where is the retreat in cinema? I decided to shoot a last roll of film somewhere outside the cave, perhaps at night, on the coast. I was not sure what I was looking for, but I needed a place to set up my camera. As I walked along the shore, I saw the reflection of the Moon on the water that filled a small hole in the rock. I aligned my camera with the Moon and this tiny reflection, and let the film run. The two long takes that make up this roll are the opening shots of Sea Cave Cinema. The spot of light in the rock gradually disappears in the second shot, as the Earth and the Moon continue along their course. Then, the film cuts to an image inside the cave, filled with bright reflected light.

During the process of making Sea Cave Cinema I realised that it is about a force, an energy between things that move, when they become temporarily placed in relation to each other. The different elements that compose the spaces in the film – the sunlight, the moonlight, the cave, the water, the wind, the waves – seem to come together in certain patterns, in relations that involve a force, a tension, an attraction, and then let go. Cyclical, linear, chaotic – day after day, season after season, through the years. These energetic fields carry with them visible and invisible areas, sounds and silence, sensations, effects, and affects. They make things strikingly visible and audible, or barely perceptible, and then plunge them again in darkness and silence, drown them into horizons, to then return.

Pluto and its moon Charon rotate and revolve around each other in tidal locking. This means that they always show the same hemisphere to each other as they move; in other words, they always face each other as they move. Because Earth’s mass is bigger than the Moon, only the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth. The Moon always faces us, but we turn away from it, only to return again after some time.

The cinema is a massive circulation of images happening around the world in certain patterns, and we are attracted to it also in patterns, aligning ourselves with its energies, at certain moments in time.

Sea Cave Cinema is about how we make space and time for cinema. I made the film on 16mm film, and showed it in a darkened space. I wanted an encounter with space and time for cinema, at a time when our encounter with digital images is so pervasive that most have become completely banal or indistinct. I wanted this film to be seen very much as belonging to this moment in the history of cinema, even though it was made using technologies that have been around for decades, and shown in a space that has existed for even longer, for the experience of film. To paraphrase one of Bion’s comments on the suppression and expression of the epistemophilic instinct (1965, p. 77), I do not see these choices as backward-looking, having been made in relation to what might have been lost, but instead as forward-looking, searching for what can be found.

The image I found in this work is not of a specific or ideal form of cinema; it is an image of a relation, an encounter, a certain energy or force, an effort even, a focused experience. This encounter has a certain physical and psychical quality about it, but it is one that can take many forms.

Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film looks at some of the forms of this encounter: experiences of unpleasure, pain, turbulent moments of psychical change: film’s thoughts in search of a thinker. Within the object-relations paradigm in psychoanalysis, Bion notes the importance of the metabolizing function of the container – mother, analyst, an other – for the development of our own capacity to think. However, a certain energy or effort in that process has to be allowed to take space and to take time. Cinema is about this encounter with ourselves and with others at a deeper level: it is about objects, and about subjects, put in relation. The work of Bion and object-relations psychoanalysis are of crucial relevance to our study of the cinema and its transformations.


Ambrósio Garcia, C. (2017). Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Baudry, J-L. (1975). The apparatus: Metapsychological approaches to the impression of reality in the cinema. In: Rosen, P. (ed.) Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Bion, W.R. (1961). A theory of thinking. In: Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac, 2007.

Bion, W.R. (1965). Transformations. London: Karnac, 1984.

Plato and Lee, D. (1955). The Republic. Translated by D. Lee. London: Penguin, 2003.


Ambrósio Garcia, C. (2017). Sea Cave Cinema. 16mm colour film, 16 min.


SEX AND NOTHING: BRIDGES FROM PSYCHOANALYSIS TO PHILOSOPHY, edited by Alejandro Cerda-Rueda, Review by Will Greenshields


Sex and Nothing: Bridges from Psychoanalysis to Philosophy, edited by Alejandro Cerda-Rueda (London: Karnac Books, 2016).

Review by Will Greenshields

‘That there is no sexual relationship, is essential in what I state.’[1] This line, uttered by Lacan in 1979, marked the conclusion of several decades of research into the nonexistence of a relationship between the sexes. It was a refutation of both the optimism expressed in Seminar XVIII (i.e. that one might, ‘one day’, be able to say of the sexual relationship that ‘“it is written [c’est écrit]”’[2]) and the idea, first mooted in Seminar XXII, that, rather than there not existing a relationship, there existed a non-relationship and that this non-relationship could be written. In the first instance the hope was that the negative axiom (‘there is no sexual relationship’) could somehow be reversed (‘there is a sexual relationship’) while the second more modestly concerned the suggestion that its negativity could be solidified into a concept that had an object, a writable form (‘there is a sexual non-relationship’). For reasons that would take too long to explain here, both efforts failed and, as Guy Le Gaufey writes,

‘There is no sexual relationship’ thus rejoins the other ‘there is no’ produced by Lacan throughout the years: ‘there is no Other of the Other’, ‘there is no metalanguage’. None of them can exhibit the object which would be valid as a proof for all bear witness to facts of internal limitations, which depend on the consistency of the predicated set, and do not depend therefore on any local singularity that can be approached, be exhibited, of which one can ‘make a case’. Each one of these statements nevertheless managed to subvert the operation of the universal and its particular by chipping away at the ‘all’ thanks to which one can lay hold of any special one of its elements, which this ‘all’ encompasses like a mother hen. In consequence, these same statements subvert the natural operation of the concept which calls for these objects, events, individuals to gather together under her protective wings. Thus they go against a whole literature in which the ‘obsessional’ disputes with the ‘jealous person’, who is differentiated or linked to the ‘pervert’, who happily takes the ‘hysteric’ as partner, etc. It opposes this psychopathological bestiary which displays its clinical entities, great consumers of ‘cases’ since these entities are fed by clinical vignettes as so many objects which ‘fall’ under them.[3]

Therefore, there is no ‘there is no sexual relationship’ beyond its own articulation. The axiom that attests to a non-existence has itself a certain nonexistence as a non-concept.

It is around this nothing that Sex and Nothing is organised. As the editor writes, ‘if something emerges from this ensemble of essays[, it] is a discussion around… nothing.’ (xix) The particular way in which this curiously empty ensemble is organised is worth noting: the book is divided into two geographically distinct parts with the first consisting of contributions ‘from Ljubljana’ and the second consisting of contributions from ‘elsewhere’. This is not gratuitous: few have done more than the Slovenian troika (Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič and Mladen Dolar) to productively examine the existence or nonexistence of a relationship between psychoanalysis and philosophy. As part of the increasingly popular practice of identifying contemporary ‘isms’ and discrete sets and subsets of thinkers, there is an interesting attempt on the part of the editor to organise the history of Ljubljanski thought into three distinct generations with each generation represented by a contributor (e.g. Žižek, Zupančič, Tomšič). Leaving aside the fact that the most celebrated member of the first generation is very much alive and still publishing books at a frantic rate, I’m not convinced that each grouping’s intellectual project is distinct enough to warrant being called a ‘generation of thought’ (xix) without somewhat devaluing the term. In any case, it is perhaps best to let the people who apparently belong to a third wave get on with things for a few decades before burdening them with the title, ‘generation of thought’.


It is, argues Zupančič in the book’s opening essay, only when psychoanalysis and philosophy are thought together, when sex is understood not as a series of perversions, peculiarities and practices that are to be catalogued by a sexologist or dismissed as signs of a deeper issue but instead regarded as a primary, ‘ontological lapse’, that the true import of Freud’s subversion is recognised (14). Sexuality, throughout its various instantiations and acts, retains an irreducible negativity; it is the impossibility of total satisfaction even when there are no barriers to such satisfaction. It persists as an ‘ontological lapse’ or, in Lacan’s terms, an irreducible ‘lack-of-being.’ Zupančič distils her argument into two concise points: ‘Firstly, sexuation is a lapse in being, a point where being itself is not fully being’, a point at which being always fails to be (a unified, lackless whole) (15). ‘Secondly, this lapse of being as the point of sexuation is the very void around which circulate the drives, while they are attached at the same time to this or that partial object. In this precise sense, sexuation (as pure negativity) “precedes” the drives and makes them what they are, that is to say “sexual”.’ (15) The object of the drive is not necessarily sexual in the devolved, everyday sense – as Lacan observes in Seminar VII, a collection of match boxes could do the job just as well as a particular bodily feature. Rather, it is sexual because it serves the function of obscuring the void that the drive repeatedly circumscribes. The entire ‘psychopathological bestiary’ and range of polymorphous perversities that can be found in books such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis owe their status as sexual practices to a primary ontological fault. Finally, ‘sexuality pertains to the very being-there of the unconscious’ not because the subject does not know how to resolve this lapse by finding satisfaction, but because he does not know that he knows that it is an irresolvable and unknowable problem (this, despite all that sexologists and sex therapists think they know) (9):

Animals do not know (that they don’t know). Not completely joking, we could say that sexuality is not problematic for animals because they do not know that it actually is. Now, what distinguishes the human animal is not that it knows (that is, doesn’t know), and that it is conscious or aware of this lack of sexual knowledge in nature, but that it is “unconscious of it”. In other words, with the human animal the “we don’t know” (that we don’t know) is of a slightly different kind, it is in itself twofold or split: It involves not knowing that we know (… that we don’t know). Which is one of the best definitions of the unconscious….

The singular and revolutionary Freudian notion of the unconscious is thus not simply about not knowing as opposed to knowing. It is about knowing in the form of not-knowing, or about not-knowing as a form of knowing. A knowledge smuggles in, yet knowledge that only exists in the form of its own repression. And – we are thus returning to the initial question – it is this originally repressed knowledge (knowledge that has never existed otherwise but as repressed) that sexualises the enjoyment (the surplus pleasure related to the drives). (12-13)

Readers familiar with Žižek’s work will know what to expect from his contribution – a kinetic tour through a surprising and enlightening series of associative asides (Lars von Trier, the Talmud, haiku poetry, Mallarmé, etc.) – and what a fool’s errand it is to attempt a succinct précis. With Žižek we get sex and nothing (and ‘Gangnam Style’ and New Age philosophy and Stalin…). If Žižek manages to entertainingly add a little bulk to the pure negativity of (the concept of) sex, the great virtue of Dolar’s essay is that it convincingly cuts away at a theoretical mass that secondarily attached itself to, and obscured, this negativity (in particular, the charges of ‘phallocentrism’ and ‘phallogocentrism’).


It is apt that Joan Copjec’s essay opens the collection’s second half since, as an anecdote relayed in the introduction reveals, it was Copjec who first provided Žižek with a bridge ‘from Ljubljana’ (or, more precisely, a Slovenian grouping in Paris) ‘to elsewhere.’ It was also Copjec’s ‘Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason’ (published in 1994 as a chapter in Read my Desire: Lacan against the Historicists) which provided an Anglo-American audience with a first clear account of Lacan’s logic of sexuation – its philosophical stakes and its distance from the Foucauldian caricature (i.e. psychoanalysis as a taxonomising science of sex). In ‘The Sexual Compact’ Copjec echoes the main argument of Zupančič’s essay: citing Shulamith Firestone’s claim that ‘the end goal of the feminist revolution is not just the elimination of male privilege, but of the sex distinction itself’,[4] Copjec argues that the ‘gender theory’ prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s had, by concentrating on the social construction or performativity of gender, ‘not only thrust the term sexual difference out of the limelight, [but also] removed the sex from sex. While gender theorists continued to speak of sexual practices, they ceased to question what constituted the sexual. No longer the subject of serious theoretical inquiry, sex simply reverted to being what it is in common parlance: a secondary characteristic (when applied to the subject) or (when applied to acts) limited to a highly restricted – and naughty – sub-set.’ (108)

One consequence of this dissolution of the sexual into ‘multiple’ and ‘discrete instances’ has been what Copjec calls ‘the Oprah Winfrey distribution of sex: “You get a sex and you get a sex and you get a sex.” (109-110) Far from eliminating ‘the sex distinction’, gender theory has heralded a veritable efflorescence of distinctions but such distinctions concern symptomatic or sublimatory practices (qua individual responses to the void of sexuality – that is, ‘the point at which being is not fully being’) and not the ‘ontological lapse’ itself. As Copjec puts it: ‘Why multiple rather than divided; why not multiple because divided? The former alternative shirks from thinking difference in favour of simply adding another one to a previous one, indefinitely: 1+1+1…’ (110) Of course, when compared to the on-going growth of acronyms, the Lacanian contention that there are two sexes – that is, not two biological organisms but two stances with respect to the void (i.e. one that pre-tends to fill or disavow it and one that does not) – can look terribly old hat and, to cite Judith Butler’s term, ‘heteronormative.’ Nonetheless, Copjec effectively argues why we should avoid attempting to replace sex and nothing with sex and an infinite series of somethings in the name of a well-meaning pluralism (this is, of course, not to deny the existence of any +1).

In response to Lacan’s increasing reliance on mathematical analogies in explaining sexuality, an attendant at the fourteenth seminar (The Logic of Fantasy) is said to have joked that it might be necessary to bring a slide rule to the bedroom.[5] In ‘Mathematics in the Bedroom: Sex, the Signifier and the Smallest Whole Number’ Sigi Jöttkandt treats Lacan’s idiosyncratic deployment of mathematics rather more seriously, providing us with one of the first clear and systematic accounts of Lacan’s earlier (that is, prior to the celebrated logic of sexuation) attempts at formalising sexuality. Once again, Lacan’s preference for logic and mathematics (over and above myths or case studies) is related to the nature of the subject at hand: there is a particular negativity to the (algebraic) letter; it is empty of meaning and symbolism and yet it obeys certain laws that dictate its relationship with other letters. The ‘ontological lapse’ as a structural or formal flaw caused by the signifier would be in danger of resembling an occasional and secondary instance were it presented in the form of case studies or a ‘mother hen’ concept (collecting under its wing all of these secondary instances) were it presented in the form of a universal myth.

In each of the book’s two parts the essays that directly concern sex and nothing are succeeded by essays that branch off in other productive directions (one can, after all, only talk about nothing for so long…). We shall leave the reader to encounter these for himself, save to say that they include the best available account of Lacan’s ‘anti-philosophy’ (from Samo Tomšič), an demonstration of the productive relation between Lacanian psychoanalysis/anti-philosophy and continental philosophy (from Jelica Šumič) and a novel and highly persuasive periodisation of Lacan’s thought (from Gabriel Tupinambá). Alain Badiou is also invoked in several of the articles as a representative of the second side of the bridge between psychoanalysis and philosophy, most notably in Daniel Tutt’s ‘Love, Psychoanalysis and Leftist Political Ontology’. Unfortunately, such is the massive scope of the essay, the complexity of the theoretical systems discussed – Badiou is no easier to wrap one’s head around than Lacan – and the extraordinary amount of stances that Lacan adopted with respect to concepts such as love (Jean Allouch devotes some 600 pages to this subject in L’amour Lacan), one is left with the impression that, while it is an admirable achievement of erudition to summarise and combine in some seventeen pages the theses of Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Heidegger, Eric Santner, Žižek, Badiou and Lacan, this sophisticated mélange would perhaps be better suited to the book format – not least because it might allow the author space to provide some more concrete examples of the co-implication of love, psychoanalysis and leftist political ontology beyond the very familiar Žižekian references to St Paul and Antigone.

In summary, this collection serves as the perfect foil to 2016’s other book on Lacan and sex (Lorenzo Chiesa’s more focussed and forensic The Not-Two: Logic and God in Lacan) and provides a welcome reminder of the importance and distinctiveness of the psychoanalytic conceptualisation (or non-conceptualisation) of sex as neither a matter of biological essentialism nor post-structuralist gender theory.


[1] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XXVI: La topologie et le temps, 1978-1979, unpublished, 9/1/79.

[2] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVIII: On a Discourse that might not be a Semblant, 1970-1971, trans. Cormac Gallagher from unedited manuscripts, session 7, p. 20.

[3] Guy Le Gaufey, ‘The Scholion: A Misuse of Metaphor’, trans. Cormac Gallagher in The Letter: Irish Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 47 (Dublin: 2011), pp. 81-82.

[4] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1972), pp. 10-11.

[5] This is relayed by Cormac Gallagher in ‘Sexual Difference in The Logic of Phantasy’ in The Letter: Lacanian Perspectives on Psychoanalysis, 17 (Dublin: 1999), p. 7.

New Films and Books By Agnieszka Piotrowska, with Ben Tyrer and others

Psychoanalytically inspired books and films launched at Birkbeck

On 18th November at 6pm, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image will be showing Agnieszka Piotrowska’s documentary film Lovers in Time or How We didn’t get arrested in Harare (2015), followed by the launch of her book Black and White: cinema, politics and the arts in Zimbabwe as well as Psychoanalysis and the Unrepresentable (co-edited by Agnieszka Piotrowska and Ben Tyrer) both just published by Routledge.

Professor Valerie Walkerdine said the following about the Black and White monograph:

Agnieszka Piotrowska comes to Zimbabwe as ‘the subject supposed to know’ –a position of privilege, albeit unwanted, stemming from her whiteness, undermined by her gender.  She interrogates her own experience, attempting to refuse the place of the knowledge, to engage with what it means to tell a story without claiming to know. Beyond black and white, she peers into the grey – the unrepresentable, coming to the recognition that she cannot know, because knowing is so compromised, that engaging with it is challenging, raw, visceral. That she approaches this not knowing through an arts practice is paramount – it is the work together, the embodied creative work of making, that allows the unrepresentable to begin to make its painful emergence. A brave and important book.’-

Valerie Walkerdine, Distinguished Research Professor, Cardiff University, UK

And Professor Caroline Bainbridge noted the following about the The Unrepresentable collection:

This anthology sets out to ‘do the impossible’ in interrogating the paradoxes of unrepresentable and unspeakable experience. Drawing together an impressive array of writers from diverse fields including those of clinical practice, film and literary studies, post-colonial theory and cultural analysis, it weaves a complex matrix of ideas grounded in the work of psychoanalytic thinkers as diverse as Freud, Lacan, Bion, Malabou, Winnicott and Meltzer. The essays are lively and compelling, offering new perspectives on themes such as trauma and embodiment, silence and invisibility in the digital age of media, the psychodynamics of touch, voice, gesture, love, grief, adoption, and anxiety. A wide range of textual material embracing literature, cinema, poetry, language, meta psychology and metaphysics, provides the basis for philosophical and psychological commentary that is often astute, and the daring inclusion of creative work premised on personal experience acts as an emotional coup de foudre. Piotrowska and Tyrer have curated a cracking compendium, one that seduces and challenges in equal measure, and one that will surely become essential reading for anyone interested in the riches of psychoanalytic enquiry.

Caroline Bainbridge, Professor of Culture and Psychoanalysis, University of Roehampton, UK

The event is currently booked out, but please email the organizer Mathew Barrington ( as there may be cancellations.

To coincide with these book and film launches, Reframing Psychoanalysis presents the below text and films by Agnieszka Piotrowska.

By Agnieszka Piotrowska

Below are embedded two short fiction films that I wrote and directed. Both are discussed briefly in the Black and White monograph, but will not be screened at the 18th November event. Both deal with gender relations but also experiment with a filmic language that contrasts rigid ideas and set values with more fluid relations, ones open to new possibilities.

The Suitcase (2015)

Spectacles (2015)


The two short films also subvert the gender expectations in stories–told in Harare–that men are heartless and women powerless. The latter expectation stems also from a Zimbabwean commonplace that it is far better to be married, or at least be with a man of some kind, than single, however painful or destructive the relationship. One could argue that this, too, is part of the colonial legacy and of some of the values introduced by the missionaries: from what we know, the position of a woman in the indigenous culture was very different.

In addition, in terms of its content The Suitcase attempts to subvert the notion that the only stories worth telling from Zimbabwe are those about poverty, HIV or indeed some kind of issues with freedom of speech.  Here our protagonists are well off, but tormented, too.

Charmaine Mujeri, whom I met in 2011, and who is a close friend, stars in both films, playing very different characters. She also played the (transgender) Kaguvi in Piotrowska’s earlier film Lovers in Time.

Mujeri found The Suitcase quite difficult as she wasn’t sure conceptually about the notion of throwing a man out just because he had been seen with another woman. But she overcame this uncertainty in her performance. What happened with The Spectacles was a different matter – the leap between the role of a respectable wife and academic to that of somebody who is prepared to consider a love affair with a woman was a profound challenge. During the rehearsals, Kudzai Sevenzo (of the Playing Warriors fame), the actress originally intended to play the younger woman, Clarissa, began to struggle with the notion that two women could become close physically. In the end, the new performer Pauline Gungidza, agreed to play the part. But the kiss that was supposed to happen between the two women never took place as written – there is a suggestion of the closeness but I had to leave the ending ambiguous.


Above: Charmaine Mujeri 2014. Phot. Joe Njagu. C. Agnieszka Piotrowska


In both films the gaze is of crucial importance: in the first one, The Suitcase, the beginning of the film shows Stella (played by Mujeri) receiving a picture on her phone. We never see it but we presume it is a photo of her husband/partner Mark with another woman. The title of Spectacles,  refers to the optical glasses that one of the characters wears, but it also clearly points to the issues of looking, seeing and changing perspectives. Below, I offer some psychoanalytical reflections connected to the films.

In Seminar XI Lacan boldly states that the gaze can function as an object – this is a reference from The Visible and the Invisible by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964). It is an idea, which becomes central in Seminar XI, that there is a pre-existing gaze in the world. The gaze gives us the distinction between what belongs to the Imaginary order and what belongs to the order of the Real. Antonio Quintet glosses: ‘what corresponds to objet a in the visible is the image of the other. The gaze is not seen because there is something, which covers it over. What hides it is an image – the image of the other (Quintet in Feldstein et al 1995: 140). I have discussed the issues of gaze and structure elsewhere (Piotrowska 2014)  but here it was fun to employ fiction and camera to create shifting perspectives and thus different ‘gazes’ and power constellations in gender relations.

Psychoanalyst Carlo Bonomi (2010) reminds us after Lacan of the importance of the ‘gaze’ of the other (Bonomi 2010: 112) which enhances one’s visibility and on occasion can enhance one’s ‘sense of being’ – either through actual actions or through an imaginary relationship to the world. It can be empowering to imagine that somebody we care about is watching us. But, Bonomi points out, there is a possibility that somehow the benevolent gaze might turn into a sinister one. In the shorts, the gaze changes in different ways and certainly for the character of Mark it does become sinister..

Bonomi talks about the risk of being transformed into an object of the gaze of the other. Worse, there is a possibility of suddenly feeling ‘shame’ arising thereof, and causing ‘a sudden collapse of the self provoked by the gaze (…)’ (Bonomi 2010: 113).  This happens to the male character of The Suitcase: once he realises that he was ‘seen’ by his partner, the collapse of the relationship and the persona he has created for her is inevitable.

Bonomi gives clinical examples of patients hiding behind dark glasses in order to create safe places, ‘shelters’. ‘Our visibility is dangerous because, in certain situations, when our vulnerability is enhanced, we experience visibility as a threat to the core of our being’. He calls this core ‘soul’ – not perhaps a term which either Freud or Lacan would use [1] and points out defences, which, he says, concern making the body ‘filled with libido and ‘make it thick and real’ like a shield. (Bonomi 2010: 113) When these strategies fail, an individual might feel exposed to the ‘evil eye’ which has links both to Freud’s ‘uncanny’ (ibid.: 113-114) but also to myths and beliefs in non-Western cultures and societies. That disembodied gaze might cause a fear of ‘sterility, disease, and death’ (ibid.: 114). In African cultures, too, one has to be careful of the evil eye.

Further in Seminar XI Lacan shows that the eye as an organ has a fundamental relation to that separation. He gives an example ‘invidia, envy which has it etymological roots in “videre”, to see, and is triggered at an image of ‘completeness closed upon itself’ (Lacan 1998: 116) when the subject gazes at someone else who is in the possession of object little-a. This is a circumstance under which the subject gives to the object an ‘evil look’ which is a fatal gaze symbolizing the separating function of the eye.

Lacan gives an example of a (documentary) film of Cézanne painting which shows it to be, according to him, not the result of a natural action but a terminated gesture – it is the termination of the gesture that produces ‘the fascinatory’ effect (ibid.: 118) as it ‘freezes’ the movement.

Berresem points out that throughout the discussion Lacan plays off the double meaning of fascination as both ‘charming’ as well as ‘putting under an evil spell’. The Latin ‘fascinum’ also means ‘phallus’ or ‘phallic emblem’, which captures its relationship to lack, castration and death (Berresem in Feldstein et all 1995: 177) but also places seeing on the par with the Master Signifier.

In my short films, the gaze, and the moment of seeing, empowers the women, whilst at the same time inflicting pain as something is lost. The gaze does something extraordinary here – it un-freezes them – exactly the opposite of the Lacanian example. Women in both films take power back from a patriarchal order – Lacan might say they gain the Phallus. The seeing camera appears to be disintergrating the world they live in too, particularly in Spectacles as the camera appears unstable, out of focus, unsure – as the world inhabited by the women is falling apart. But something  new is beginning  to emerge and tboth women begin to see things they did not see before.

The two shorts can be seen as a diptych and have been shown as such at conferences. I felt very unsure about Spectacles because of some technical problems but it appears that it resonates with viewers because of its imperfections.


Bonomi, C. (2010) Narcissism as Mastered Visibility: The Evil Eye and the Attack of the Disembodied Gaze in International Forum of Psychoanalysis,  19, pp.110-119).

Berressem, H. (1996) The ‘Evil Eye’ of Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold Gombrowicz on the Gaze in R. Feldstein, B. Fink, & M. Jaanus (eds.) Reading Seminar XI. New York: State University of New York Press, pp.149-175.

Lacan,J. (1998 [1981]) Seminar XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Miller, J-A. (ed.) Trans. By A. Sheridan. London & New York: W. W. Norton.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968 [1964]) The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. by A. Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Universities Press.

Quinet, A. (1995) The Gaze as an Object in R. Feldstein, B. Fink & M. Jaanus Reading Seminar XI. New York: State University of New York Press, pp.139-149.

Piotrowska.A. (2014) Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary Film. London: Routledge.


[1] Although there is an issue as to how to translate the German word ‘Seele’ which can mean both ‘psyche’ and ‘soul’. Freud uses that word often without defining it. Jung offers a distinction.

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