Psychoanalytic film theory

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Psychoanalytical film theory is a school of academic film criticism that developed in the 1970s and 1980s, is closely allied with critical theory, and that analyzes films from the perspective of psychoanalysis, generally the works of Jacques Lacan.[1]


Early applications of psychoanalysis to cinema concentrated on unmasking latent meanings behind screen images, before moving on to a consideration of film as a representation of fantasy.[2]

From there, a wider consideration of the subject position of the viewer led to wider engagements with critical theory - to psychoanalytic film theory proper.[3]


In the early 1970s, Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey separately explored aspects of the "gaze" in the cinema, Metz stressing the viewer's identification with the camera's vision,[4] - an identification largely "constructed" by the film itself[5] - and Mulvey the fetishistic aspects of (especially) the male viewer's regard for the onscreen female body.[6]

The viewing subject may be offered particular identifications (usually with a leading male character) from which to watch. The theory stresses the subject's longing for a completeness which the film may appear to offer through identification with an image, although Lacanian theory also indicates that identification with the image is never anything but an illusion and the subject is always split simply by virtue of coming into existence (aphanisis).[7]

Second wave[edit]

A second wave of psychoanalytic film criticism associated with Jacqueline Rose emphasised the search for the missing object of desire on the part of the spectator: in Elisabeth Cowie's words, "the pleasure of fantasy lies in the setting out, not in the having of the objects".[8]

As post-structuralism took an increasingly pragmatic approach to the possibilities Theory offered, so too Joan Copjec criticised early work around the gaze in the light of the work of Michel Foucault.[9] The role of trauma in cinematic representation came more to the fore,[10] and Lacanian analysis was seen to offer fertile ways of speaking of film rather than definitive answers or conclusive self-knowledge.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentzi eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 112
  2. ^ R. Lapsley/M. Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction (2006) p. 67 and p. 91
  3. ^ Lapsley, p. 92-5
  4. ^ Lapsley, p. 82-4
  5. ^ Childers, p. 173-4
  6. ^ Lapsley, p. 77-8
  7. ^ Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1994) p. 207-8
  8. ^ Quoted in Lapsley, p. 93
  9. ^ Todd McGowan, 'Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  10. ^ McGowan
  11. ^ Lapsley, p. 273-6

Further reading[edit]

  • Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I (1986)
  • Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier (1982)
  • Laura Mulvey Visual and other pleasures (1989)
  • Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales (1991)

External links[edit]