Cinema teaches us how (not what) to desire

Geraubte KŸsse

Psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek maintains that “there is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desires. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire. Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what to desire, it tells you how to desire.” His views are informed by Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and originator of the theory of the Objet petit – the unattainable object of desire, sometimes called the object cause of desire. Desire, in Lacanian terms, can never be satisfied because it is a result of a sense of loss of wholeness that, in fact, never originally existed in the first place. And so, when we believe to have obtained our object of desire, we are disappointed by the persistent feeling of incompleteness and begin focusing on a new, different object of desire.

Endorsing these views means also understanding that cinema doesn’t give you what you desire because what you desire does not exist. It tells you how to desire because it can tell you a story. It is able to make a persuasive argument because it can capture movement and, therefore, represent life. It is also able to make a persuasive argument because of its ability to submit the viewer to its own perspective. It has long been debated that cinema’s perspective is masculine.

In the 70’s, Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze,” in reference to the dominance of masculine perspective in literature and the visual arts. She also spoke of looking as a pleasure in itself. She used the Freudian term “scopophilia”: looking as a source of pleasure in itself. This is a vital asset of the cinematic medium. The power of scopophilia is especially true in cinema because, as she says, “among other things, the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on the performer.” Furthermore, “curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition.” The ability cinema has to both place the viewer in a submissive world and tell a story from a definite, conventional point of view makes it an ideal “teacher” of desire.


Chaplin once said that life is a tragedy in close-up and comedy in long-shot. In the Chaplinesque interpretation, cinema is not only able to represent life through its ability to record movement – cinema is life because it presents a mixture of long-shots and close-ups. When we watch a film, particularly at the cinema (in fact, almost exclusively in the cinema, due to the darkness and overall atmosphere of a cinema room), we are watching life unfold in front of our very eyes. We are totally immersed in its causality. Furthermore, cinema is the only art form that allows us to really look at life.

Nonetheless, the act of looking in (at life) cinema relies on an unspoken contract that is vitally important: we must never be caught looking. The intimidating spectacle of the magnified physiognomy of cinema is as fascinating as it is frightening. The eye in the close-up is many times bigger than our own heads! This is a spectacle that contributes to the pleasure of submission that the cinema presents us with.

Despite this, we are simultaneously empowered by the fact that we look straight at these faces, but they don’t seem to notice us. Our illusion of power, our pleasure in looking, is that we remain mysterious objects (or godlike creatures?) in the world of the film. What if those eyes turned to look at us; what if they broke the fourth wall and started communicating with us. The illusion of desire may be entirely lost. The illusion of cinema, the revelation of a film’s reality – film as film – would be uncovered. At this moment, do we lose our connection with cinema’s idea of “how” for desire? What if the intention of the film is simply “not” to be desirable in the slightest. What if we desired for the end of a movie. Does that still qualify as a desire?


Žižek’s statement may be more complex than it seems, but when taken at face value, it celebrates the abilities of cinema to be an extension of our own lives. Knowing how to desire is not at all as restrictive as knowing what to desire.

Conrad Veidt’s expressionless close-up in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) allows us to feel ambiguous about whether or not we want him to die. Morally, we feel compelled to see the murders come to an end, despite the fact that he is under the manipulative spell of the titular doctor. But in the face of the immediacy of his murder, do we choose for him to be killed when left with no possibility of seeing the spell he is under magically broken. If he had looked monstrous and abominable, we surely may have hoped for his life’s end. Yet, Veidt’s face is of a timeless, dark kind of beauty that makes him terribly ambiguous. Furthermore, scattered all over the film, are evidences of his repressed, but existant humanity (repressed femininity, implied homosexuality?).

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a German expressionist film that aims for the most part to re-evaluate the cause and effect properties of every one of its elements (especially when we take its “intro” and “outro” out of the picture), is the perfect example of cinema’s ability of freedom. In fact, we would be forgiven for considering those films that tell us outright “what” to desire as the plague of the cinematic art.



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