Ulrike OTTINGER [english] > Books/Texts > Texts > secondary literature > K. Silverman, From the Ideal Ego to the Active Gift of Love


Kaja Silverman

The Ideal-Ego and the Fantasy of the Body in Bits and Pieces: 1

At first glance, Bildnis einer Trinkerin (1979) seems to provide an extended illustration of two of the most accepted tenets of feminist film theory. Like the theories of Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane, it seems to suggest that there is a certain collapse between woman and the image,1 and to propose as an alternative to this specular implosion the masquerade of femininity.2 Its female protagonist is pathologically obsessed with her own mirror reflection; that reflection engrosses all of her desire, and completely defines her relations to all of the other characters in the film. A long fantasy sequence in the second half of Bildnis, however, shows her assuming in succession a whole range of professional roles, and in the process manipulating the contours of her bodily imago. Here, she seems to have achieved some distance from the mirror, to be detached from the identities which it figures forth. Because of the parodic aspect of the fantasy sequence, this detachment might well be taken for irony, and the images it inflects as a politically enabling masquerade of femininity.

I want to advance a very different reading of Bildnis einer Trinkerin, to show that, from the very beginning, "Madame" (Tabea Blumenschein) stands at an irreducible distance from the mirror, and that her pathological relation to her own reflection is the logical extension not of too complete a specular "captation," but of her inability to accept her exteriority to the idealizing image. I also want to use Ottinger's film to challenge the larger assumption-which sometimes informs the equation of woman and spectacle-that the female subject stands outside lack, along with the particular reading of psychoanalysis from which that assumption proceeds.3

Bildnis provides a wide-ranging commentary on what Lacan calls the "imaginary," on the psychic register that is specific to identification and narcissism, and which the author of Seminar II places in the closetst possible relation with the specular.4 Bildnis tells the story of a woman who abandons her past, and with it her name, in order to dedicate herself uninterruptedly to the adoration and exhibition of herself-as-image. More precisely, it recounts the narrative of a woman who decides to take seriously the impossible mandate which is culturally imposed upon the white female subject: that she conform to the visual specifications of an ideal femininity. Bildnis brilliantly dramatizes the fantasy of bodily disintegration which haunts this project, and the consequent self-hatred into which self-love constantly threatens to devolve. However, it refuses to characterize the imaginary as a "feminine" domain, as a presymbolic space from which woman never fully emerges, or to which she easily regresses from the symbolic order.

Rather, like Lacan's early seminars, which will figure prominently in the following pages, Bildnis shows the imaginary to be fundamentally reparative, and, hence, unthinkable prior to the subject's symbolic structuration. It suggests, that is, that the images of an ideal unity within which the subject attempts to locate herself are not only always inflected by meaning, but are also conjurations against the void which is introduced by language. And if the imaginary cannot be thought apart from the symbolic, neither can the symbolic be "entered" without imaginary mediation; it is only through the coordinates of that necessary fiction, the self, as Bildnis shows, that the subject is able to apprehend the other.

The theoretical gendering of the imaginary as "feminine" consequently represents a misrecognition of the part that register plays within all subjectivity. Finally, Ottinger's fourth feature film takes very seriously both the dangers and impasses to which the logic of the imaginary can lead, and its undeniable seductions, pleasures, and powers-seductions, pleasures, and powers which are at the heart of its own spectatorial appeal.

In "Film and the Masquerade," Mary Ann Doane claims that for the female spectator, who is here representative of the normative female subject, "there is a certain overpresence of the image-she is the image." She argues that because of the "closeness" of this relationship, "the female spectator's desire can be described only in terms of a kind of narcissism-the female look demands a becoming. It thus appears to negate the very distance or gap specified by Metz and Burch as the essential precondition for voyeurism" […]. Although Doane is careful to specify this "overpresence of the image" as a theoretical construction, her own insistence upon the importance of masquerade as a mechanism for opening up an interval between the female spectator and the spectacle confers upon that construction a certain psychic reality, at least within the present symbolic order. 5

The white protagonist of Bildnis is not introduced in terms of her biographical specificity-we are in fact never given a single concrete detail about her past-but rather in terms of what might be called her "mission." A disembodied female voice-over characterizes her as someone destined to embody the feminine ideal. It invokes this ideal by enumerating a number of the names with which it has been associated throughout the history of Western representation:



She, a belle of antique grace and raphaelic harmony, a woman, created like no other to be Medea, Madonna, Beatrice, Iphigenia, Aspasia, decided one sunny winter day to leave La Rotunda. She bought a one-way ticket to Berlin- Tegel.



However, this proliferation of names attests to the impossibility of locating the feminine ideal within any individual woman, even within the realm of literature or art; it can only be conjured forth through a range of mythical figures. The images which accompany the voice-over commentary attest further to the abstract nature of this ideal. Ottinger's "belle of antique grace and raphaelic harmony" is not depicted through the specificity of feature or limb, but through the spectacle of swirling red fabric, and the sound of high-heeled shoes tapping with exaggerated precision on a green marble floor.

When we are finally given a close-up of Madame's face, it is shot through a glass door, as if to stress its distance from actuality. But even this guarded attempt to corporealize the ideal is doomed to failure. Almost immediately, the exquisitely composed image of Madame's face and raised hand is "liquified" or destabilized by the cleaning woman, who squeezes water out of cloth onto the other side of the door's transparent surface […].

This series of shots demands to be read in relation to the project outlined in the opening monologue. There, we are told that Madame is leaving La Rotunda for Berlin because Berlin seems to her a place where she will be able to devote herself uninterruptedly to a very singular goal:



She wanted to forget her past, rather leave it like a ragged house. With heart and soul she wanted to concentrate on one affair. Her affair. To finally follow her destiny was her sole wish. Berlin, foreign to her, appeared to be the right place to live her passion undisturbed. Her passion was to drink, live to drink-a drunken life, live of a drunkard. Upon landing at Berlin-Tegel, her decision had become irrevocable. Inspired by a Berlin folder that was presented to her by a friendly stewardess, she decided to set up a drinking schedule….. She decided to do a sort of boozer's sightseeing, briefly, to use sightseeing for her very private needs….. Her plans for a narcissistic worship of loneliness have deepened and intensified to the point where they have entered a stage worthy to be lived, not to risk being lost in realms of phantasy. Now had come the time to let everything come true.



As this commentary makes clear, the object of the passion to which Madame commits herself for the duration of Bildnis is only ostensibly alcohol. The consumption of wine and brandy is really a metaphor for another kind of incorporation, one much more difficult to effect. It is a metaphor, that is, for Madame's attempt to assimilate or become the specular ideal in relation to which she, like all female subjects, is (negatively) defined. However, whereas for Doane the dilemma of femininity is the excessive proximity of the mirror, for Madame the problem is rather its irreducible distance.

Alcoholism functions as an appropriate metaphor for the project described by the voice-over for two reasons. First of all, the consumption of alcohol leaves behind no permanent "deposit" or residue. It results only in a very transitory and delusory euphoria, which then gives way to a sense of emptiness and loss, and must consequently be endlessly repeated if its effects are to be sustained. Alcohol also lends itself to Ottinger's purposes because it is a fluid substance. Implicit in the Narcissus myth, as in Ottinger's retelling of it, is an insistence on the impossibility of the lover's incorporative desire for the idealized self, and liquidity assumes a privileged role in the articulation of this impossibility. Because the image which engrosses him is reflected in a pool, he cannot embrace it without shattering it.

Lacan provides an important definition of the fragmented body in Seminar I. He suggests that it is "an image essentially dismemberable from its body" […], that it provides the fantasy through which the subject acknowledges his or her distance from the idealizing representation within which he or she would like to find his or her "self." It could thus be said that any attempt to enter the impossible frame of that representation leads inexorably, as in the Narcissus legend, to the subject's "fall" into an image which is the very opposite of the one which is desired: his or her headlong "plunge," that is, into an image of bodily decomposition.

As we will see, the shot in which water streaks down the window separating Madame's face from the camera is only the first of many occasions on which her attempt to approximate the status of an exemplary spectacle ultimately leads to an experience of a radical corporeal disintegration. Over and over again, the protagonist of Bildnis ventures into the streets of Berlin in the guise of the image which she wishes to become, only to have that image quickly lose its shape and coherence as she commences her evening of drinking. However, the film never permits the spectator to imagine that he or she stands safely outside the insane project to which Madame devotes herself. It prolongs the moment of mécon-naissance long enough to remind us of the jubilation it affords-long enough, that is, to evoke in us once again our own inextinguishable desire to approximate the ideal.

The airport scene provides a witty dramatization of the no-exit logic of the narcissism to which Madame commits herself upon her arrival in Berlin. She is thwarted in her first attempt to leave Tegel by the window washer who stands on the other side of the door. Her second attempt initially meets with no greater success; the electric door in front of which she stands fails to open, and Madame searches in vain for a knob to turn. The claustral binarism which leads relentlessly from the desire for unity to the fantasy of the fragmented body is of course a trademark of the imaginary register. However, Bildnis emphasizes more than once during this scene that although the imaginary promotes closure, it is not itself isolated from the symbolic. Not only does the female voice-over evoke the ideal femininity which Madame seeks to embody with names that are redolent with cultural significance, but she arrives in Berlin at the same time as three "professional" woman in extravagantly styled houndstooth suits.

As their names suggest-Common Sense (Monika von Cube), Social Question (Magdalena Montezuma), and Exact Statistics (Orpha Termin)-these figures provide parodic representatives of the symbolic order. Although one of their primary functions in the film is to demonstrate the inadequacy of a whole range of social discourses to account for the peculiar pleasures and dangers to which Madame surrenders herself, their presence in virtually every important public scene also speaks to all of the ways in which the symbolic intrudes into the imaginary register. The obsessive conversational return of each of the houndstooth woman to the comforting certitudes of her professional discourse also suggests the extension of the imaginary into the symbolic.

The scene following Madame's arrival at Tegel begins with a spectacular shot of her leaving her hotel, which once again stresses the close imbrication of imaginary and symbolic. Dressed in an exquisite black dress and matching hat, with a golden spiral hanging from each ear, she is emphatically situated within the mise-en-scène of her desire, on the side of a hyperbolically idealized image […]. That image is also classically articulated, organized according to the strictest perspectival principles. At the moment when Madame first comes into sharp focus, she is framed by an ornate interior doorway, and she stays within this frame until she is lost from sight. Even her movement through this doorway fails to disrupt the fixity of the composition, since it is in turn framed by a second doorway. And the interior entrance seems to lead to yet another doorway, which represents a kind of vanishing point. This shot functions as a powerful reminder that, even at its most imaginarily alluring, the field of vision is never free of symbolic definition.

The casino where Madame begins her "sightseeing" tour of Berlin provides the site for one of the film's most explicit repudiations of the heterosexual imperative at the heart of classic cinema. In the elevator leading to the gambling room, a uniformed man attempts without success to interest her, first by exhibiting his card tricks, then by showing her the photos of naked woman on the reverse side of the cards. Although here, as in many other scenes in the film, the protagonist of Bildnis functions emphatically as an erotic spectacle, it is not for the benefit of the male look.6 Her indifference to the uniformed man strips that look of its usual phallic pretensions, not the least of which is its claim to confer meaning on the female body.

A later shot in the same scene again situates Madame beyond the reach of the male scopic drive, and outside the libidinal economy which it conventionally implies. This shot begins with a close-up of her black-gloved hand placing an elegant glass of white wine on the casino table. The contents of this glass, which now occupies the center of the frame, are brilliantly illuminated, gold against a black background. Significantly, however, this light does not radiate outward, but is entirely contained by the contours of the glass, as if-like the protagonist of Bildnis-it shines only for itself. A man's fingers reach from right frame toward Madame's hand, which lies beside her drink. She immediately frees herself from his hold, and slowly lifts the glass to her lips […]. The glass casts a luminescent reflection on her face and neck, a reflection which is framed and echoed by her long spiral earrings. Lacan suggests in Seminar II that the shadow of the ego always falls upon the object […]. Here, that relation is reversed, attesting to both the initial exteriority of the images through which the ego constitutes itself, and the infinite reversibility of its relation to the object.

The camera shares Madame's indifference to the man's appropriative hand; like her, it never even turns to glance at the man. However, although the feminist spectator might be tempted to offer a lesbian reading of this indifference-a reading which many other scenes in the film support-the shot under discussion points unequivically in a different direction. Here, Madame is clearly locked in a narcissistic self-embrace. Alcohol is ostensibly an external substance, pointing at least tentatively to the possibility of a libidinal investment in the exterior world. However, the shimmering reflection of the glass on Madame's face and neck makes clear that her relation to its contents is less under the sign of "having" than "being."7

When she appears in the ornate double doorway of her hotel prior to leaving for the casino, Madame seems at least momentarily to approximate the image around which her desire revolves. The ensuing cab ride, however, already attests to a certain unravelling of this coherence. Initially, she is located firmly in the back seat of the car, but eventually she projects herself imaginarily into the driver's seat, in the guise of a young white man with a moustache and black leather jacket […]. Significantly, this masculine masquerade fails to alter the terms of her self-address. What this scene dramatizes is less the production of an ironie distance from the mirror than the conjuration of yet another ideal image of self, this time male rather than female. As is so frequently the case in Bildnis, either the image cannot be assumed, or it quickly loses its seductive luster. The fantasmatic cab driven by Madame in her capacity as male driver knocks over the cart of Lutze, a homeless white woman, and spills its contents all over the street. This accident provides another demonstration of the inability of the self to contain the images out of which it is ostensibly composed. But here, at least, the specter of disintegration is successfully exteriorized.

As she leaves the casino, Madame once again encounters Lutze, who helps her into a cab and washes one of its windows with spit and a rag. Like that important series of shots organized around window washing in the airport scene, Lutze's actions serve to liquify or destabilize the image on the other side of the glass. Her face also functions as a kind of alternative mirror. As Lutze wipes the window with her rag, Madame stares intently at her features, even turning to look back when the cab pulls away. This scene early positions the wealthy woman in a narcissistic relation to her homeless counterpart. However, this relation differs markedly from that described by Lacan in "The Mirror Stage." Lutze does not provide Madame with an idealized self-image, but with the opposite; she literalizes the fantasy of the body in bits and pieces, which constantly threatens to undermine that image.

Back in her hotel room at the end of her first day in Berlin, Madame resorts once more to alcohol as a device for closing the gap between herself and ideality. Her room has been transformed into a narcissistic shrine: two identical photographs of its occupant in masculine clothing hang on the wall above the bed, each lit by three lights in the shape of votive candles. Madame again positions herself in relation not only to feminine perfection, but also to what might be called "the man she would like to have been."8 Bildnis einer Trinkerin thus equips its protagonist with both a female and a male ego-ideal. And, unlike the woman about whom Freud writes,9 Madame reserves for herself the right to approximate each in turn.

The wine Madame consumes facilitates a series of extraordinary fantasies. Because these fantasies are "actualized" at the level of the image, but not the narrative, they dramatize the resistance that the spectacle of woman can offer to the forward movement of the story. Each takes the spectator into what Mulvey calls "a no man's land outside its own time and space," and gives "the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen" […]. Of course, given its larger preoccupation with female specularity, and, most particularly, with those idealized images of femininity which can be neither temporally nor spatially localized, this quality inheres as well in many of the film's other images; this fantasy sequence merely represents its apotheosis.

In the first shot of the sequence, a dwarf (Paul Glauer) stands to the right of an elaborate granite fountain, bowing and gesturing to Madame to approach. She enters from the other side, sits down on the ledge of the fountain, and drinks from its contents […]. The hyperreal acuity of the sounds made by her approaching footsteps and the placement of her glass on the ledge evoke the clink of ice cubes in a glass. This acoustic version of the alcohol metaphor surfaces again in the next fantasy, where it is given a visual analogue. Here, Madame and the dwarf slowly climb a glass-enclosed stairway […]. This structure has the shape and the opaque consistency of the glasses conventionally used for iced tea or mint juleps. The third fantasy shows the dwarf, in extreme long-shot, carrying a drink on a tray toward a pagoda, in which Madame sits. She raises the glass to her lips.

In the final, and most aesthetically compelling fantasy, Madame and the dwarf ceremonially cross a brook on the round steps provided for that purpose, again producing a sound evocative of ice against glass. Here, as in the other fantasies, her clothing, the music, and the general mise-en-scène connote "the Orient." The dwarf plucks an orange flower from the water and hands it, as if it were a glass, to Madame. She raises it to her lips, her head thrown back voluptuously […]. Three more shots repeat this gesture, emphasizing the contrast between the intense orange of the flower, the rich black and blue of Madame's dress, and the exaggerated pallor of her complexion […].

Each of the first three fantasies consists of only one isolated shot, as if to insist at a formal as well as conceptual level on its status as "cut-out" or "icon" The final fantasy, on the other hand, consists of four shots. Interestingly, however, this recourse to montage does not serve to advance the narrative; each subsequent shot merely works to reiterate the action shown in the preceding one. The final fantasy does nevertheless dramatize an "advance," but one which is spatial rather than temporal. Whereas the camera remains at a discreet remove from its human subjects in the first three fantasies, in the last one it abandons this principle. In each of its four shots, the distance between Madame and the camera diminishes, until her face is finally shown in an eroticizing close-up which isolates the activity of drinking from all else. I say "the distance between Madame and the camera," but what is really at issue here is the distance between the protagonist of Bildnis and her ideal imago. In the first three fantasies, that imago remains unapproachable, but in the final four shots, Madame moves closer and closer to the desired mirror, until she almost achieves in relation to it that proximity which Doane characterizes as the feminine norm.

Significantly, in the shot immediately preceding the fantasy sequence, Madame is shown lying with her back to the images that hang on the wall above the bed. Consequently, she is not overtly positioned as an external spectator in relation to the ideal she seeks to approximate, which presumably facilitates the imaginary approach to it dramatized by the flower-drinking shots. However, not only are all of the fantasy images marked by a high degree of "unreality," located in a "no man's time and space" -a place, that is, where no one can actually "be"-but each is emphatically displayed for an implied viewer, who can only be Madame. The final shot of her lifting the flower to her mouth gives way to two scenes in which the axis of vision is much more fully foregrounded, in ways which work to place her once again at an irreducible distance from ideality. Here, Madame is subordinated to the gaze, in her capacity both as spectacle and as look.



The Ideal-Ego and the Fantasy of the Body in Bits and Pieces: 2

The first of the two scenes to foreground the axis of vision does so by deploying the gaze to problematize Madame's quest to approximate the feminine ideal. In it, she sits at a table in a coffee shop drinking brandy after brandy, the empty glasses ranged in front of her. Here, the ingestion of alcohol offers none of the narcissistic gratification it provides in the fantasy sequence; instead, it is manifestly desperate and obsessional. Madame faces a window, toward which she repeatedly grimaces and gesticulates […]. At first, she appears to be addressing someone on the other side of the window, but as the scene progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the window is important less for its transparent properties than its reflective ones. Madame's gestures and grimaces are not directed to the world outside the restaurant, but to the body in bits and pieces, or-to state the case somewhat differently-to the principle of decomposition which now threatens to gain the upper hand. Significantly, that principle is once again represented by Lutze, who is now placed in an even more intimate psychic relation to Madame than in the cab scene. In the only shot which purports to show what Madame sees when she looks at the window, Lutze pushes her cart toward the restaurant from the rear of the frame, until she stands directly behind the reflection cast on the glass by Madame […]. This shot not only indicates that the window functions as a mirror in the coffee house scene, but it also incontrovertibly establishes Lutze as the image which that mirror shows.

Significantly, Lutze passes through the window which maintains her exteriority in the cab scene, and into the space where the other woman sits. Madame summons her inside the restaurant, in an explicit acknowledgement of the psychic affinities which link her to the "bag lady." The two woman drink several double brandies, but the alcohol again fails to provide Madame with the desired méconnaissance. Finally, in a reversal of the Narcissus legend, she attempts to shatter rather than embrace the mirror. She tosses the contents of a glass of brandy onto the window, much as one might throw something into a pool of water to disrupt the image formed there. As she does so, two other patrons of the coffee shop quickly pull out their cameras. They point them not at Madame or Lutze, who replicates the action of her friend, but at the streaming surface of the window […]. They thus photograph Madame not as "herself," but in the guise of the image she attempts to efface.

The photographers' action serves as another potent reminder that self-recognition is never a purely imaginary transaction. That transaction involves not only subject and image, represented in the restaurant scene by Madame and the window/Lutze, but also the gaze, which is metaphorized-as it is in Lacan's eleventh seminar10-by the camera. The gaze, which can perhaps best be defined as the inscription of Otherness within the field of vision, radically exceeds the, human looks through which it often manifests itself. It impresses itself upon us phenomenologically through that sense which we all have at moments of acute self-apprehension of being seen from a position outside ourselves, a position which Bildnis inscribes through the flash of the camera. That experience of specularization constitutes a necessary feature of identification; we can only effect a satisfactory captation when we not only see ourselves, but feel ourselves being seen in the shape of a particular image.

I say "particular image" because the gaze does not photograph us directly, but through the cultural representations which intervene between it and us-representations which Lacan calls the "screen"11 Although we often treat these representations as simple mirrors, they do not so much reflect us as cast their reflection upon us. They are carriers of-among other things-sexual, racial, and class difference. For these reasons, the subject does not always occupy the field of vision happily. No image can be comfortably assumed by the subject unless it is affirmed by the gaze, but the gaze does not necessarily photograph the subject in ways that are conducive to pleasure. As is so clearly the case in this scene, the gaze often imposes upon the subject an unwanted identity.

Even before the actual cameras are pointed at the window within which Madame sees herself as a body in bits and pieces, the screen is firmly in place. It manifests itself through a conversation taking place elsewhere in the restaurant. At a certain point in this scene, Common Sense, Social Question, and Exact Statistics enter, and order "Houndstooth" desserts. As they eat their sweets, they engage in a conversation about alcohol abuse. At the precise moment that Madame and Lutze are ejected from the coffee house, one of them provides a verbal gloss on the sereen through which those figures have been "photographed": "Disgusting! Woman getting drunk in public!"

This commentary serves an extremely important funetion. It suggests that the image of the fragmented body is no more "authentic" than those within which Madame more jubilantly apprehends herself. In other words, it disposes of any temptation on the part of the spectator to see the restaurant window as the mirror in which Madame discovers her "true" self. Like the spectacle of ideal femininity, that of corporeal disintegration is culturally produced, and projected onto certain bodies by the social gaze. Not surprisingly, then, when Madame apprehends the distance which separates her from that femininity, she visualizes herself in the guise of Lutze. As I stressed in Chapter 1, in our culture, homeless bodies signify the very unravelling of the bodily ego.

The next morning, an unseen hand pushes under Madame's hotel room door a copy of a newspaper with the headline "Wealthy Foreign Lady Raised the Roof at Coffee-House ?Mohring.'" When Madame picks up the paper, she discovers that it also features one of the unflattering pictures taken of her the day before. She carries the picture to the mirror, ostensibly to compare it with her reflected image. But the dissatisfied expression on her face shows that she is unable to separate the two representations. After several more unsuccessful attempts to isolate the mirror image from the newspaper photograph, she throws the contents of a glass of wine against her recalcitrant reflection, in a repetition of the previous day's action and looks at it once more […]. Again Bildnis stresses that there can be no direct access to the "self," and that even the subject's relation to the literal mirror involves all kinds of cultural coercions.

The film cuts immediately from this shot to a scene which, although clearly fantasmatic, is nevertheless curiously embedded in the large narrative, and which again draws attention to the gaze. This scene begins with the oblique image of a sexually ambiguous figure whistling and gesturing, as if signalling the opening of a circus performance. This is followed by an overhead shot which shows a large auditorium, with a conspicuously empty orchestra space. Five woman, all dressed in black, file ceremoniously down the aisle and sit in the front row. A second whistle is heard. Madame enters and is encorted to her seat by the androgynous figure. The camera cuts to a medium shot of the black-clothed woman, who turn around en masse to stare at Madame […]. Their faces have been dramatically made up, as if for a dumb show. The character presiding over this strange "event," who can now be seen to be an eldery woman, brings Madame a glass and a bottle of champagne. Madame takes a sip of the champagne, and gestures her enthusiasm to her server. Again, the camera cuts away to the five women in the front row, who continue to stare fixedly at the drinking woman. There is a final shot of Madame; she takes another sip from the glass, puts on her dark glasses, and adopts a theatrically spectatorial position […].

This scene, which might be said to make a spectacle out of spectatorship, demands to be read in relation to the one which follows it. This next scene begins with a close-up of the blue video monitor in Madame's room. It shows the dwarf carrying a large cooked turkey on a platter into the same room. He stands motionless for several moments, as if displaying the turkey, and then carries it over to the bedside table and bows. The camera then pans away from the monitor to the right, revealing the "actual" night table and turkey. Madame enters the frame, picks up the carving knife that accompanies the bird, and stabs with it violently around one of the two images of herself hanging on the wall […]. Again, that image is illuminated by a bracket of candle-shaped electric lights, as if it were a shrine. Madame is dressed in the same pink satin nightgown that she wears when tossing the wine against the mirror, suggesting that this scene is the continuation of that one.

Whereas in earlier scenes Madame lay with her back to the images on the wall, she is now manifestly a viewer of them. This unwanted exteriority promotes aggressivity; located at a stubborn distance from the figure standing in front of it, the idealizing representation becomes a threatening rival which must be destroyed. This scene thus dramatizes the "despair" side of what Mulvey characterizes as the "long love affair/despair between image and self-image" […].

In the auditorium fantasy, the desire for the elimination of the hated rival finds dramatic fulfilment. Again, Madame is positioned as spectator rather than spectacle, but now the stage remains conspicuously empty. This void permits her once again to make a narcissistic claim on ideality, this time from the position of spectatorship. She attempts, in other words, to retreat from specularity to vision-to position herself as gaze, and thereby to achieve the narcissistic gratification which is denied her in her capacity as image. But this is an impossible aspiration. The subject always looks from a position within the field of vision. Even when adopting a spectatorial position, in other words, he or she is subordinate to the gaze, which remains outside. The impossibility of Madame's project is signified in this scene not only by the hyperbolic specularization of her look, bur also by the fixed stare of the five black-clothed women.

I have interpreted the auditorium scene as though it followed the scene in Madame's room, but that is not the order decreed by Bildnis. When these two scenes are considered in their actual sequence, the second assumes the status of the spectacle which is called for by the first. The shot that begins with the video monitor and ends with Madame stabbing around her portrait comes as the "reverse" counterpart to the one of her sitting in the auditorium in an attitude of exaggerated scopic anticipation. In the transition from the one to the other, her look is even more emphatically disassociated from the gaze. She is transferred from the seemingly transcendental viewing position of a theater spectator to one in front of the ideal imago, a position manifestly defined by exclusion and insufficiency.



The Ideal-Ego and the Fantasy of the Body in Bits and Pieces: 3

Yet another fantasy sequence occurs immediately after Madame and Lutze visit the lesbian bar. In this sequence, Madame aspires to occupy not only the position of the gaze, but also that of the spectacle "photographed" by the gaze. This sequence is initiated by an extreme long shot of Madame sitting in a sky-blue dress on a decorative park bench, symmetrically positioned in front of a bridge over the Spree, and framed by trees. Again, the compositional impulse is classical. The dwarf enters from the left, places a picture of himself on the ground beside the bench, and exits to the left. A close-up of Madame's left eye follows, accompanied by the dick of a camera […]. This image gives way to six more shots of her sitting in the same place. The camera moves progressively closer to its human subject […], cutting back between each shot to the close-up of her eye. The last of the eye images introduces a series of six "professional" fantasies. At the end of this series, the frame sequence is repeated in reverse, beginning with a close-up of Madame's eye, and concluding with an extreme long shot of her sitting on the park bench while the dwarf removes his photograph. In the latter, the dwarf enters from the left, and carries away his portrait.

The close-ups of Madame's eye that are interspersed between the images of her on the park bench are extremely brief, more like "flashes" than composed images. Like the sound which accompanies them, they suggest the opening and closing of a still camera shutter. Because of the metaphoric value afforded the camera in the restaurant scene, these shots make very evident Madame's renewed aspiration to occupy the position of the gaze. However, whereas the auditorium scene dramatizes her attempt to abolish the spectacle she cannot inhabit, the situation here is more complicated. The eye/park bench series does not dramatize Madame's ambition to become a transcendental gaze, outside spectacle, but rather her attempt to occupy the point from which she is "photographed." She seeks to safeguard the ideality of herself as spectacle by functioning simultaneously as the gaze, thereby imposing a purely imaginary logic on the field of vision.

Once again, Bildnis attests in all kinds of ways not only to the alterity of the gaze, but also to the unavoidable imbrication of imaginary and symbolic. To begin with, in each of the professional fantasies, Madame "performs" not for herself, but for the houndstooth woman, who, as I have already suggested, offer a parodic personification of the symbolic order. Moreover, although Madame never produces "embodied" speech in any of these fantasies, each depends in some central way upon a verbal text, whether it be the soliloquy from Hamlet, the outraged monologue a business owner directs toward his recalcitrant secretary, an advertising brochure for coffins, the words of a popular song, or the exclamations of onlookers during a tightrope performance,. Sometimes these texts are spoken by a voice-over, and at other times they are spoken by a voice internal to the fiction, but we are never given images uninflected by language. The professional fantasies are also characterized by a certain degree of narrative elaboration, which, like the centrality of language and the spectatorial role played by the houndstooth ladies, testifies to the omnipresence of the symbolic.

The eye/bench sequence introduces yet another term that cannot be assimilated to a hermetic narcissism: the photograph which the dwarf places on the ground beside Madame. That photograph does not show the fantasizing subject, but an image seemingly extraneous to her specularization. Nevertheless, its introduction works somehow to precipitate the ensuing sounds and images, suggesting that for Madame-as for the subject described by Lacan-the self is an "other." The images that constitute the moi come from outside, and cannot be "owned."

The figure of the dwarf is an element in excess both of a hermetic narcissism, and a claustral imaginary. Miriam Hansen characterizes that figure as the representative of Madame's "death wish" and the "master of ceremonies" within the domain of her fantasies.12 He performs some version of each of these functions in the eye/bench sequence. His appearance in the park both opens and closes that sequence, and the first fantasy begins when he pulls back the curtain from the stage on which Madame will subsequently "deliver" Hamlet's most famous soliloquy. That gesture suggests that the scenes that follow are being ordered or "managed" from another "scene," and that Madame's desires are the desires of the Other. The soliloquy from Hamlet, moreover, immediately introduces a topic which will resurface repeatedly in the professional fantasies, only to be subordinated each time to a concern with "appearances." The first words Madame "speaks" after appearing on the stage are "To be or not to be-that is the question." The subsumption of death to a narcissistic problematic indicates perhaps more strikingly than anything else that the fantasy sequence represents an imaginary displacement of a symbolic problematic.

In his second seminar, Lacan remarks that the fully constituted subject is a dead subject, he or she "engage[s] in the register of life" only from a place "outside life" […]. The Rome discourse also attributes an annihilatory force to the symbolic order; the signifier murders what it designates.13 And in Seminar XI, Lacan proposes that the subject accedes to language only at the cost of "being." He allegorizes the entry into the symbolic as an old-fashioned highway robbery, in which the alternatives are not money or life, but meaning or life. The subject, of course, always chooses meaning, and hence speaks from the domain of death.14

However, Lacan writes in the Écrits that "fear of death" is subordinate to "narcissistic fear of damage to one's own body" […]. He thereby underscores the reluctance of the subject to arrive at a conscious acceptance of his or her "being-for-death"-his or her unwillingness, that is, to confront the nothingness or manque-à-être out of which desire issues. The ego represents the primary vehicle of this denial, that through which the subject procures for him or herself an illusory plenitude.

As is so often the case within the psychic domain, we are not dealing here with a simple denial, but with a simultaneous avowal and disavowal. The only ego capable of filling the lack at the heart of subjectivity is the one which affords a "jubilant"self-recognition, and this exemplary unity-which always assumes in the first instance a corporeal form-is impossible to sustain. It inexorably gives way to its antithesis, corporeal decomposition. The body in bits and pieces might thus be said to provide the imaginary construct through which the subject indirectly apprehends both his or her distance from the mirror, and his or her manqué-à-être.

The eye/bench fantasy sequence enacts precisely the displacement I have just described. The Hamlet soliloquy offers let another version of the old-fashioned highway robbery, only here the options are more starkly stated; the alternatives are, quite simply, life and death. But even as this grim choice is articulated, it undergoes an imaginary transmogrification. While listening to the famous monologue, Social Question, Common Sense, and Exact Statistics comment not on the relative merits of the two possibilities it presents, but on Madame's unsuitability for the role she plays. "The lead is totally drunk!" one of them exclaims. Another complains that Hamlet is a "breeches" rather than a female part. Again, attention is deflected away from death to the specular domain, or, to state the case slightly differently, from manque-à- être to the moi.

The subsequent fantasies subordinate death even more fully to a "fear of narcissistic damage to the body." Madame literally falls out of her assigned role in two of these fantasies, dramatically opening up that gap between the subject and its ideal imago which Lacan associates with the fantasy of the fragmented body. In one scene, she loses her balance while attempting to walk a tightrope and plummets to the ground; in another, she rolls unconscious off the hood of a stunt car after it drives through a wall of flames. Bildnis shows this last fall three times, with virtually identical shots, as if to emphasize the loss of corporeal control. In the remaining fantasies, Madame's fall out of the idealizing frame is more metaphorically rendered. In the scenes in which she represents an advertising consultant, a secretary, a singer, and a coffin salesman, she remains manifestly exterior to the roles she plays. This exteriority is perhaps most strikingly communicated through the sound track; the voices which speak "for" Madam are not synchronized or "married" to her body, but manifestly derive from elsewhere.15

Parts of the fantasy sequence might seem to provide precisely that masquerade which Doane presents as an alternative to classic femininity. However, Madame's dislocation from the parts she plays in that sequence is only obscurely and intermittently parodic. For the most part, it does not represent an ironic deformation of the social vraisemblance, or the production of a psychically and politically enabling distance from the images which would otherwise engulf her, but a manifestation of the abyss separating the female subject from an exemplary specularity. In other words, it is a signifier of the impasse at the heart of traditional femininity: the impossibility of approximating the images in relation to which one is constantly and inflexibly judged. In this fantasy sequence, as in those which precede it, Bildnis suggests that if the specular domain figures more centrally in conventional female subjectivity than it does in its masculine counterpart, that is not because woman is the image, but because-more than man-she is supposed to be.

The scene which follows immediately after the eye/bench fantasy sequence provides a further caution against a too easy assimilation of that sequence to a masquerade paradigm. In it, an already drunk and slightly dishevelled Madame boards a fish-shaped boat, orders a bottle of wine, and initiales a glass-breaking competition with a group of other passengers. She is abruptly ejected from the boat, and stumbles with her wine bottle along the edge of the Spree to a cheap café, where she finds Lutze and her cart. The two woman then wander from bar to bar in an alcoholic haze, a spectacle which constitutes the very opposite of mastery.



The Ideal-Ego and the Fantasy of the Body in Pieces: 4

The next two shot sequences, which represent the events of a single day, but which do not cohere "scenically," offer several more images of an idealized femininity. Significantly, however, Bildnis does not provide the female spectator with, easy identificatory access to these images. The first sequence positions Madame in the same frame as Lutze, stressing once again the intimate relation between the ideal imago and the fragmented body. Those two figures walk away from the camera, which occupies a fixed, low-angle position, toward the Column of Victory. At a certain moment, they simultaneously-and seemingly involuntarily-drop their purses. In keeping with the metaphoric value consistently attributed to its owner, Lutze's bag spills its contents on the ground. Madame's, on the other hand, remains closed, an apparently sealed unity. Lutze returns for her possessions, but Madame continues walking after dropping hers […].

A photographer picks up the abandoned purse and follows Madame for a time, as if to return it to her. Eventually, he abandons his pursuit, empties the contents of the bag on the curb, and photographs them one after another. These photographs, which are presented as six brief close-ups, reveal in succession a bottle of medicine, a tube of lipstick, a small pink heart, an address book, a watch, and a rocket knife. As the inclusion of the heart would suggest, these objects represent less another inscription of the fragmented body than a half-humorous catalogue of the elements of Madame's "interiority." If the contents of her psyche can be so easily exteriorized, it is clearly because they derive in the first instance from outside. Once again, then, Bildnis works to deconstruct the notion of the 'self."

The six objects found in Madame's handbag testify as much to her symbolic structuration as they do to her imaginary capitation. The address book connects her not only to the order of language, but to that of the name and-by implication-kinship. The watch signifies the social and economic regulation of time, and belies any easy relegation of Madame to a presymbolic space. The tube of lipstick offers an obvious synechdoche for woman-as-spectacle or, to be more precise, for all of the feminine props and appurtenances through which the female subject attempts to approximate the ideal image. The pocket knife surfaces again in a closely adjacent scene, where it evokes the aggressivity implicit within the subject's relation to that image. Together with the medicine bottle, the knife represents the culturally induced "malady" at the heart of classic femininity.

In this series of shots, as in the restaurant scene and the final fantasy sequence, the camera clearly represents the gaze. Significantly, it is once again situated at an emphatic remove from Madame's look; it "takes" her from behind, from a position which is inaccessible to her vision. However, although the gaze constitutes both a literal and a metaphoric third term in relation to Madame and Lutze, and so stands outside the insistently dyadic logic through which the imaginary articulates the interactions of self and other, ego and reflection, it is once again shown to play a determinative "backstage" role. And as in the coffee shop scene, it does not "photograph" its object directly, but through a series of intervening images.

Madame makes one final attempt to embody the image of her desire later in the same day. She leaves the bar where she has beeil drinking with Lutze and walks out into the dark, past a series of shop windows, and down to the pavement below. A spotlight illuminates her as she progresses, and her high heels produce the by-now familiar sound of ice against glass. At the end of this shot, Madame lifts her arms dramatically toward the sky. For a brief moment, she lays claim not only to a generalized ideality, but also to a very specific image from the history of Western representation-the image of Rita Hayworth in a black sheath dress and gloves, singing "Put the blame on Mame."

This citation from Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946) serves a complex function. Although the scene in question inscribes such an idealized feminine eroticism that Hayworth was to feel inadequate to the task of representing it in day-to-day life for ever after, it is constantly on the verge of giving war to the body in bits and pieces. Disintegration haunts Gilda's performance from the very beginning of this scene, and ultimately it triumphs as she begins removing her clothing, and is dragged from the dance floor in a state of masochistic intoxication. The spotlit image of Madame raising her arms to the darkened sky is also placed in the closest possible intimacy with the fragmented body, although here that relation is conveyed formally rather than narratively. This shot is cross-cut with the scene in which Willi and Lutze stagger drunkenly amid the debris surrounding the railroad tracks, and finally embrace incoherently in a ruined glass railway station.

Lest the spectator fail to note the significance of this montage, Bildnis cuts from the final shot of Willi and Lutze in the railway station to a medium close-up of Madame's hand reaching into the left of the frame with a knife […]. The knife casts a theatrical shadow against the wall. Almost immediately this shot yields to a series of rapid-fire images. First, a shadow of the hand and knife, appears against the wall from the left frame, followed by a smaller version of this shadow in the lower fight frame. Then, in a jump cut, Madame walks into the frame from the right, her outstretched hand still holding the knife, and crosses over to the corner of the room. She stabs the wall around the edges of her shadow with the weapon. This shot gives war first to the shadow image of a hand-held knife striking the wall from the left frame, and then to one of an, ambiguous body shadow.

In shot seven of this sequence, the shadow of a second person appears on the left, also with knife in hand. Shot eight reveals the person to be Lutze. Her right arm, which holds the sharpened implement, is dramatically extended, and she is framed by a large shadow. Madame stands next to her, facing away from the camera, one arm protectively lifted. She struggles with Lutze, who says, "It's me, Madame! I'm your only friend, Madame! Stop that rubbish, Madame!" She "combs" her own hair and that of her friend with the knife. Madame faces Lutze acquiescently, and the two embrace.

In this shot sequence, as in that which follows, Madame wears a dress composed primarily of silver foil. She has attempted to close the gap between herself and her ideal imago by literally "putting on" the mirror. However, the dress does not entirely close in the back, and in the final moments of the film this gap will become more and more pronounced. The exaggerated shadows cast on the white wall throughout this sequence also render visible that dislocation of body and image which is for Lacan the very definition of corporeal fragmentation. As before, the exteriority of the idealizing representation provokes violence; in asserting its independence from the desiring subject, the beloved imago becomes a hated rival and must be destroyed. Significantly, the sound of the knife striking the wall is connected acoustically to all the many variations of the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass; indeed, the ice cubes clinking can be heard in the knife stabs, and vice versa.

The final sequence of Bildnis is organized around a text by Peter Rosei. This text, titled "Drinkers," circulates among a series of narratively inconsequential characters, each of whom reads a passage aloud. Ottinger herself initiates this textual relay, in the guise of a derelict alcoholic. Sitting on a bench with a bottle of alcohol, she reads,



"Wondrous plan: to heighten a pleasure so much that it torments one to death. Lately I talked it over with Lipsky. He meant: ?Our manias are nothing but Eryns in the theater of cruelty.' I said: ?So we hate ourselves.' ?Yes,' Lipsky said, ?It's not that bad.'"



This passage makes explicit the metaphoric connection between alcohol and narcissism. It also suggests once again that a libidinal economy organized entirely around the attempt to approximate an ideal imago could more justly be characterized as "self-hatred" than "self-love." since the demands it makes on the subject are impossible to sustain for more than a delusory moment. However, since the "intoxication" of that moment is so extreme that all other pleasures pale by comparison, there is nothing more addictive.

The final section read from the Rosei text also emphasizes the thrill that comes from being lifted even briefly into the rarefied atmosphere of ideality. It compares that experience to planetary travel; "drinkers are travellers," reads a businessman into whose open suitcase Madam has dropped the book, "they're...moved without moving. You pick them up, you give a lift. Can you see the galaxy?" The Rosei text stresses not just the pleasures, but also the life-threatening dangers of this sublation. To identify with ideality is to refuse lack, and with it desire; consequently, it is to turn away from life itself. For this reason, the Rosei passage concludes, "self-sufficiency could only be ruin [ous]."

The penultimate shot of Bildnis shows Madame lying unconscious on a flight of stairs leading to a train station. Lutze finds her there and attempts to lift her to a standing position. As she does so, a crowd of people rush down the stairs, obscuring the two woman from our view. Lutze screams in terror, indicating that Madame has been trampled to death by the crowd. This shot must be read in relation to the one with which the film concludes. In it, Madame walks down a hallway constructed entirely of mirrors in her silver-foil dress […]. As she proceeds, she crushes her own reflection underfoot. This shot, which has no narrative locus, repeats the one which precedes it at a metacritical level. It thus makes clear that Madame's death is less literal than symbolic-the event outside the train station is to be understood not as her physical demise, but as a signifier for her full and final surrender to the morbidity of that psychic trajectory which leads from self-idealization to self-disgust. Madame's destruction o the many mirrors which reflect her image back to her in the final shot of the film is only the most dramatic instance of that aggressivity toward the ideal image which follows inexorably from the aspiration to ideality, here brilliantly indexed through the silver-foil dress.

Bildnis einer Trinkerin dramatizes vividly the closed logic of the psychic loop which leads from the aspiration to ideality to the fantasy of the body in pieces, and back again. However, it has nothing to say about how we might break out of this closed logic, and into a relational field which includes the other. It also affords us no alternative model for conceptualizing how idealization might work We are left with the sense that its operations always annihilate the other and the self alternately, that having once exalted an object, the subject will first attempt to murder it so as to take its place, and then fall in turn into radical self-disarray.








1. I do not mean to suggest that the formulations advanced by these two theorists are in all respects commensurate. Laura Mulvey's concern is with the positioning of woman as spectacle within classic cinema (see "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989], pp. 14-26). Mary Ann Doane addresses rather what she sees as the psychic proximity of the female subject, particularly of the female spectator, to the image-her lack of symbolic differentiation from it (see The Desire To Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940's [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987]; and "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator," in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis [NewYork: Routledge, 1991], pp. 33-43).

2. This argument derives primarily from Doane's "Film and the Masquerade," pp. 24-26. But Mulvey also talks about female transvestism in her "Afterthoughts on ?Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun," in Visual and Other Pleasures, pp. 29-38. For an engagement with the second of these formulations, see Chapter 1.

3. Again, within film studies, it is primarily Doane who has articulated the argument that woman stands outside lack. See, in addition to the texts cited above, "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body;" in Femmes Fatales, pp. 165-177.

4. Lacan there observes that "Bilder [images] means imaginary" (137).

5. I am arguing in same crucial respects against Doane's formulation. However, it would seem important to acknowledge that whatever the differences in our models with respect to how we account for the dilemmas of normative femininity, we are agreed in arguing that they can only be overcome if the female subject accepts her distance from the representations which define her. See Doane, "Film and the Masquerade," pp. 22-26.

6. For a discussion of the cinematic conventions surrounding the male look, see Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."

7. Although Bildnis does not seem to me to be a film primarily about lesbian desire, it clearly contains many lesbian tropes and locations, and even a number of manifestly lesbian characters. Judith Mayne offers an excellent formulation of this apparent contradiction in The Woman at the Keyhole (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). Mayne suggests that although Madame is herself narcissistic rather than lesbian, she circulates primarily within a world of woman, one which is often transected by lesbian desire: "The woman drinker appears to live entirely and exclusively within the narcissistic world of her own regressive fantasies, but female figures of social marginality function, however briefly and tangentially, as marks of otherness and signs of fascination. On the other end of the social spectrum, the film is equally taken up with how Blumenschein's woman drinker tantalizes and even challenges the less obviously narcissistic but equally self-enclosed world of the three houndstooth ladies. Lutze fascinates the woman drinker in some of the same ways that the woman drinker fascinates the three houndstooth ladies, with the significant difference that the woman drinker, located on the brink between subject and object, is much more susceptible to crossing over those boundaries than the houndstooth trio" […]. Lutze, as Mayne suggests, is clearly a figure who is able to step over the threshold of the mirror stage and into a relational visual field. She thus remains a key player within the lesbian "thematic" of the film. Madame, on the other hand, remains for the most part on the far side of that threshold.

8. For a discussion of the woman who takes as her ego-ideal the man she would like to have been, see Charter 1 of this book.

9. See Sigmund Freud, "Femininity,"in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), vol. 22, pp. 132-33.

10. See Jacques Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 106. For a general discussion o the gaze, see not only this text, but Charter 3 of my Male Subjectivity at the Margins, and Chapter 4 of the present volume. In the latter, I provide a fuller discussion of the metaphorization of the gaze as a camera.

11. See Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, pp. 91-107; Male Subjectivity, Chapter 3; and Charpers 1 4, and 6 of the present volume for an account of the screen.

12. Miriam Hansen, "Visual Pleasure, Fetishism and the Problem of Feminine/Feminist Discourse: Ulrike Ottinger's Ticket of no Return," New German Critique, no. 31 (1984): 100.

13. Jacques Lacan, "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, in Écrits," p. 104.

14. Four Fundamental Concepts, pp. 210-11.

15. Synchronization implies above all else a unified subject. Its absence here attests yet again to the heterogeneity of Madame's bodily ego, as well as to her dependence upon the Other. For an analysis of the cinematic norm of synchronization, and its implications for sexual difference, see my The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988), Chapter 2.


© Kaja SILVERMAN, in: the THRESHOLD of the VISIBLE WORLD, New York 1995