June 7, 2014

     The Off-Space of the Author 

Le Hors-champ de l'auteur
The Absent Field of the Author

     by Jean-Pierre Oudart

(Cahiers du cinéma 236-7, March/April 1972. Translation and endnotes by John Caughie, from Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/BFI)


'Quatre nuits d'un rêveur' 
[Bresson, 1971]
(L'ideologie moderniste dans quelques films recents)

1    The intrigue [1] which is developed in the screenplay is no different from that of any of Bresson's other films: it always consists of an erotic relationship of an hysterical nature. That is not to say that, even on the level of the working out of the script, Bresson inscribes in his film a clinical description of hysteria. He condenses, as before:
  1. the relationship between a woman (a girl) and two men, which can be referred on the one hand to the clinical analysis of hysteria, and, on the other, to the petit-bourgeois romantic mode which constantly invest it (it isn't you that I desire but another -- because I am myself another and because I desire something other); 
  2. directly denoted social relations and patterns of behavior of the provincial (or marginal Parisian) bourgeoisie and of an intellectual 6th-16th arrondissement milieu [2] (interiors whose bareness is discreetly valorized, rhyming with an interiority of the chracters which is also constantly valorized: the role of 16th arrondissement accents in all Bresson's films).
     The social 'exterior' and the already-written (the pre-text) of Bressonian films has always consisted of that, but their overdetermination, up until Au Hasard Balthazar, made the ideologemes [3] anchored in their chain insistent, producing ideological effects of writing (écriture) which became less apparent in the later films, and which have disappeared altogether in Quatre nuits d'un rêveur. The insistence of these effects was produced by the fact that: 
  1. the fictive milieu in which the intrigue took place was directly oppressive, full of threats of aggression and rape. Heroes and heroines could detach themselves from it fictively and abstract themselves from it ideologically through their roles as the shifters (embrayeurs) of the fiction (changing place, rushing forward in time); this role was overdetermined by conduct either in excess or in default in relation to the desire of the others and of their norms. This surplus element indicated an otherness all the more radical in that its inscription had only a fictional consistency and made the ideological effects of this otherness insistent only in the filmic articulation of the fiction (suturing looks, voices and gestures which were fetishized as 'more-real' [plus-de-réel] in images which systematically lacked the realistic appearance of classical cinema, etc.);
  2. the fictive milieu, whether or not it contained denoted elements of the social 'exterior' of the subject Bresson, was invariably inscribed in a referential position with regard to the hero of the fiction: that is, in the relationship of the fictive couple constituted by the hero or heroine and the others, it was exclusively oppressive, aggressive, transgressive in the enclosed field of the ideological and erotic relations which directly constitute the plot; in the field, that is to say, of the idealist inscription of the internal contradictions in petit-bourgeois ideology (sex/love, power/love; power = erotic relations, economic relations = erotic relations, etc.). Even in Une Femme douce, the characters' economic relations are nothing but the description -- and a very relevant one for psychoanalysis -- of a 'neurotic' erotic relationship.
     Moreover, Bresson inscribed his social 'exterior' only with a reticence which seemed, as far as his petit-bourgeois spectators were concerned, to be the mark both of his 'nobility' (his refusal of a certain obscene vulgarity characteristic of pre-war French cinema and continuing after the war), and of his catholicism (the real conflicts don't concern the objects of this world, even if these constitute their 'matter'), and even of a certain political activism (since, after all, this catholic artist made the social 'world' the fictive place of the contradiction, and chose characters who were socially marginal to reveal this contradiction). 

     This means that Bresson has always known his ideology and that his neurotic culture (meaning the interest he takes in erotic intrigues which are overdetermined by an inscription of neurotic fantasies) has always been the object of a process of negation: for example, the sexual and the economic are never inscribed in accordance with the order of the subject-Bresson's desires for bourgeois 'dolly girls' (sometimes disguised as working class), or with his interests in money. 

2     On the basis of these points, we can now establish that in Quatre nuits
  1. the world of the heroes consists solely of denoted elements of the subject-Bresson's contemporary social 'exterior', and the locations are constantly marked as being Bressonian (the quais of the Seine, the Drugstore, [4] etc.): that is to say, the shooting -- and the editing -- of the film constantly produces effects which externalize the intrigue 'into' a social exterior, contemporary for both the film-maker and the spectator, and which is connoted as a privileged place for the ideological contradictions exposed by the fiction;
  2. as in his previous films (Une Femme douce), the economic inscription, very rarefied here, serves only to give consistency to the erotic intrigue;
  3. this erotic intrigue is completely stripped of the ideological effects which the 'writing' of the previous films made insistent: it is filmed with a mise en scène which is completely flat; it is the object of a description which neutralizes the ideological-erotic surplus value of the earlier films;
  4. denoted as a neurotic, marginal artist (on the brink of psychosis), the character who serves as narrator (and as go-between in the relationship between the heroine and the other man -- the man who desires her and who is the object of her desire) is the third term in this hysterical erotic intrigue; it is this third term which allows the contradiction of the intrigue (desire/love) to be exposed, and which is itself foreclosed from any economic and sexual determination (he has neither economic status nor any real sexual desire; correlatively, his task is fetishized, and the scene in which he picks people up or voyeuristically observes the sexual relations of others occupy in the fiction the position of events which are extraneous to the development of the plot).
     On this basis, the fictional system of the film can be described as the classical triangle of petit-bourgeois erotic intrigues (husband-wife-lover), but foreclosed from any economic-sexual inscription. The fiction consists of the exposition, for an hour and a half, of a sexual relationship which is initiated and then deferred until the end of the film, and of a love relationship which is of no interest for the development of the plot.

     What is insistent in the fiction is simply the blind desire to insert this exposition into an exterior which Bresson fantasizes as the social exterior of the film, whereas it is only the fetishized locations used in the filming, into which, symptomatically, the film-maker introduces a series of petit-bourgeois cultural fetishes (picturesque narrow streets contrasting with the objects of capitalist industrial civilization: gadgets, 'dolly girls', hippies); in other words, the displacement-condensation of his political-sexual repression, to which are added a few scenes where the sexual is inscribed as the primitive exterior of the fiction. 

     The result is that the inscription of the desire of the subject-Bresson, repressed in the plot, is foreclosed in the fictive real (réel fictive) of its narrative development (in the previous film it invested the camera work and the process of cutting/suturing), and is hallucinated as a social practice taking place in the exterior of the film, that is, at a shooting location which is merged with the place of the social practice of the actors in the film.

     One can see from this that the reference in the last instance to social practice (or rather the referential inscription of a social practice) is the last resort of idealist cinema, its final attempt to give itself the semblance of a political position, that is, to reproduce a discourse which -- since, like Bresson's, it is no longer operative on the level of the ideological struggle (as his films were at the time of the New Wave) -- passes itself off, in the here and now of the fictive-real of the mise en scène, as the 'making-present' (présentification) en direct of a social practice, deemed to reflect actively the contradictions of the film-maker's real milieu.

3    Although the Bressonian intrigue has only an idealist consistency (as much in its terms as in their articulation), its inscription in a fiction overdetermined by his insistent erotic fantasies would be worked on by these fantasies, were it not that he radically censors their inscription.

     The censorship operative in Bresson's work is directed (as is that of Death of Venice [5]) towards a double (economic-sexual) articulation (of which Bressonian eroticism constitutes what is repressed) of the signifiers of the desire of the subject-Bresson, the scene of which can be constituted through an analysis of his films taken as a whole. 

     In the practice of Bressonian inscription, this censorship can be analyzed:
(a) on the basis of the fictive establishment of a Sadian relationship between the seducer and his victim, the former witnessing the appearance of the symptom of the arousal in the other;  
(b) as the repressed inscription of the relationships established between the director and his actors (actresses) while the film was being shot, literally as a prohibition against designating the perpetrator of the seduction as the director, ordering his actresses to offer him the avowal of an erotic arousal which is what constitutes the whole 'reward' ('prix') of the filming (prises de vue) (what Bresson says about the 'surprises' encountered while making the film is Sadian nevertheless, for all that is dressed up in psychological and mystical terminology). 
     Moreover, in the fiction, it is always by someone else that the avowal of the victim's pleasure is made; or rather, the Bressonian fiction is structured as the articulation of the relationship between a torturer and a victim which gives the spectator time to understand the symptom of the victim's arousal as:
(a) the object of an anticipated assertion (a signifier produced for someone's look, for the look of the Absent One); 
(b) the shifter of the fiction, which anticipates the becoming present in the next shot of the torturer whose presence retroactively sutures the act of enunciation (énonciation), and finally annuls the Sadian relationship, the effect of which was produced by the systematic re-marking of the 'différance' [6] of the suture.
     The Sadian relationship between the director and his actresses, indicated by the re-marking of the suture, thus constitutes the repressed in Bressonian fiction.

     It also overdetermines Bressonian narration, in which it is invariably inscribed in terms of the hysterical intrigue, in which a girl is torn between a sexual desire and a need for love which are not addressed to the same man. It is worth noting that in Balthazar Marie is raped almost before Jacques' very eyes and that he is the first person to see her after the rape: the rapist is the 'operator' [7] of a Sadian relationship in which the lover is the director himself. The figure of the (castrated) Bressonian lover is the product of the negation of the Sadian relationship between the director and his actresses which absolves the master, and represses his mastery in a hysterical intrigue in which he is given only as being undesired. 

     In Quatre nuits d'un rêveur, the economic-sexual foreclosure of this character, presented as a psychotic, undoubtedly marks the extreme point of regression for the Bressonian ideological inscription, overdetermined by that Sadian fantasy which is here expelled from the film's writing: the negation, which maintained both the consistency of the hysterical intrigue and the erotic insistence of a repressed political discourse: the installation of the film-maker in a marginal and debilitated 'cultural' film practice, whose product has exchange value only as the fetishized trace of the passage of the author in Parisian settings.


Fictional contradictions and historical contradictions in the New Wave

The same kind of Sadian relationship the director and his company of performers, the repressed eroticism of their relations of production, constantly overdetermines the writing of French New Wave cineastes: it always involves exposing a team of amateur actors, often taken out of a bourgeois milieu, in an intrigue whose elements are also directly denoted by bourgeois practices, making them formulate the avowal of what the bourgeoisie is supposed to repress, and making them act in such a way that the avowal constitutes the object of a knowledge of which the spectator is instituted as the sole beneficiary, and which is in fact paid back into the account of the spectator's ideological position. This ideological position can be deduced from the ideological position. This ideological position can be deduced from the ideology and practice of 'cinéma direct' or 'cinéma vérité' whose scene can be described as the overdetermined relation of four terms:

(a) the implicit rendering (implication) of the social exterior of the group being filmed;
(b) the implicit rendering of the political discourse which formulates the disjunction of the class and its exterior;
(c) the statement (énoncé) of an ideological (moralizing, metaphysical, erotic) discourse, repressing this disjunction and exhibiting instead a contradiction within the class (the bourgeois scene and its repressed);
(d) the placing in the position of controller of the fiction (that is, of agent of the avowal of the truth) of an 'operator' who participates socially in the class being represented and ideologically in its cultural values (an 'operator' for whom, therefore, the truth will consist of the revelation of an ideological contradiction within this class).

     The determining contradiction of the fictional scene of this cinema consists, therefore, of the relationship between a petit-bourgeois director and a team of (amateur) players who are similarly petit-bourgeois, a relationship in which what is at stake is the truth of the relations of these players as this is understood by the ideology of the director (who can be called a master in the sense that nothing of the truth is produced in the mise en scène that he doesn't already know). Bressonian mise en scène helps us to understand how this truth consists, by choice, of a sexual signifier, and how it is insistent as an erotic-ideological fetish: while, in Bresson, the truth most often makes itself heard from the lips of a woman, this truth arises in the position of the fetish (eroticism and surplus of soul) of something foreclosed in the mise en scène of its avowal, something which is the overdetermined position of the director as economic master and as desiring subject. If there is production of a fetish, it is precisely in the sense of an objet A arriving in the fiction in the location of a signifier which has not been made the object of a reality judgment, and which makes the determinations of the character of the foreclosed operator, inscribed as lacking in the fiction, insistent in the mode of repression. The Bressonian fetish is not connoted as erotic merely by the fact that the signifier (mouth, eye, hand) consists of an object cut from the erotogenic bodies of his actresses, but because in Bressonian fiction (the interval of the suture) it is not denoted as sexual by another performer, and is inserted in another signifying chain, a chain which consists of the overdetermination of the fictional scene by the ideological scene of the relationship between the director and his actresses, which insists each time that the foreclosure of the position of the director is re-marked, and which consists also in the intrigue to the extent that the director has inscribed it there (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc in particular).

     What is most fetishized in cinéma vérité, that is to say in New Wave films taken as a whole, is the precise historical moment and the geographical locations used in the film: what has to be seen in this case is not just the effect of a refusal to take into account the economic relations of production and the eroticism of the director in the literal inscription of the film, but also the effect of a refusal to take into account the socio-historical exterior of these relations (the ideological illusion of this cinema consisting, in the last instance, of the confusion of the inscription of secondary effects of class struggles/conflicts -- affecting a family, a small group, a cinematographic team -- with that of their principal determinants). What is foreclosed by cinéma vérité and re-emerges in the fetishization of 'cinéma direct', constituting the ideological surplus of its fictional system, is the socio-historical exterior of its production. 

     To say that it is foreclosed means that it has been: 
(a) taken into account by the film-maker in his ideological and social practice; that is, in his political practice; 
(b) taken into account also in the ideology of his signifying practice, since his film is addressed to a spectator who is presumed to have thought out the principal contradictions which overdetermine those which his film exposes, and since the filmic discourse interpolates the spectator as a political subject (that is, as a subject who can recognize the fiction as being cut off from its exterior) but only gives him food for thought in ideological terms.
     The fetishization of the 'direct' can, in the last instance, be understood only as the mark of a division into fictional field/socio-historical exterior of this field, where one of the terms of the division is not made the object of a literal inscription since it is ideologically implied as the precise historical moment of the shooting of the film, a moment of which the spectators are presumed to have made the political analysis: the off-screen (absent field) of 'direct cinema' is in effect the place of a spectator presumed to have already produced the analysis of the relations between the scene of the film and its exterior, and between this scene (as site of the production of the symptoms which affect it) and the discourse which he is supposed to hold on these symptoms.

     We will need to return, in a more extensive analysis, to the history of the production of this cinema in the field of a petit-bourgeois intelligentsia. It is not a coincidence if its discourse mimics academic discourse: the whole of New Wave cinema was produced as the surplus value -- always personified by an author -- of a presumed knowledge of the contradictions of bourgeois society, and all its ideological effects result from the fact that it has constantly practiced the assertion of this presumed knowledge. It is the overdetermination of this practice of assertion by the film-makers of the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia that we will now need to re-inscribe methodically.  


1. L'intrigue can mean plot, affair or intrigue, and Oudart plays on all three meanings throughout the essay. Generally the word 'intrigue' has been used in English, but it is used only in so far as it seems best to contain the other meanings, and there are a number of cases where the sense of 'plot' seems to be the dominant one.

2. The 6th arrondissement, adjacent to the Latin Quarter, comprises the area around the Luxembourg, Odéon and Sait-Germain-des-Prés. While preserving something of its 'intellectual atmosphere', it has attracted a concentration of 'trendy' shops, restaurants and cafes. The 16th arrondissement, Auteuil, Passy, and the area between the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois de Boulogne, is traditionally the most opulent part of Paris. It is frequently associated with a slightly affected upper-crust accent. 

3. Signifiers of ideology.

4. A late-night (and again, 'trendy') cafe-restaurant-store-boutique at the top of the Champs-Elysée.

5. See S. Daney and J.-P. Oudart, 'Le Nom-de-l'auteur', on the place of Visconti in Death in Venice, in Cahiers du cinéma. nos.234-5, December-February 1971-2.

6. 'Différance' is a term introduced by Derrida, constituted by a verbal play on 'différence' (difference) and the verb 'différer' (to defer, postpone). The play brings together the sense of the recognition of difference which is foundational for the formation of the subject, and the sense of 'deferred action' (Nachträglichkeit), a 
'term frequently used by Freud in connection with his view of psychical temporality: experiences, impressions and memory-traces may be revised at a later date to fit in with fresh experience or with the attainment of a new stage of development. They may in that event be endowed not only with a new meaning but also with psychical effectiveness.'
     Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, p. 111. As used here it refers to the way in which meaning is produced retroactively by the effect of the suturing process, the 'pure' image becoming someone's look in the following shot.

7. 'Operator' here carries the additional sense of 'symbol or function denoting an operation' in mathematics (O.E.D.).

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