Born in France in 1931, Christian Metz was a film theorist first made famous for his semiotic approach to cinema studies. Having been a proponent of semiotics for some time, Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier was his first incorporation of the psychoanalytic approach to cinema studies. Freudian psychoanalysis, first written upon by Sigmund Freud and later contributed to by Jacque Lacan and Melanie Klein, had been applied to cinema theory previous to Metz. Jean-Louis Baudry, for example, had previously written psychoanalytical film theory in regards to dream states and the cinematic apparatus. . Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier is his work on psychoanalytic theory, and how it can apply to cinema studies. The book is broken into four parts: “The Imaginary Signifier,” “Story/Discourse,” “The Fiction Film and its Spectator: A Metapsychological Study,” “and Metaphor/Metonymy, or the Imaginary Referent.” Within “The Imaginary Signifier,” the first section of the book, Metz begins to deconstruct the cinematic image, and begins his study by questioning why an audience goes to a film. By applying Freudian psychoanalysis to the film going experience, Metz illustrates how a film satisfies three important desires: the desire for ego, the desire to desire, and the desire for the object through fetishism. These three desires are only, however, an aspect of what Metz discusses within “The Imaginary Signifier” chapter. By incorporating the earlier elements of this first section, the reader comes to a deeper understanding of what drives Metz and how he came to his conclusions, which will be expounded upon within the later sections of the book. While certain elements of Metz’s writing, the translation (since Metz wrote in French and was translated into English), and some of his arguments do indeed deserve some criticism, his early outline of what the cinema is and why we consume it is indeed enlightening and worthy of discussion.
According to Metz, the cinema satisfies three Freudian desires. These desires, when combined make up a set of specific features that distinguish the cinema from other arts…such as literature, painting, music, theater, etc. The first of these features, Metz argues, is the fact that cinema satisfies the desire for the ego. “The cinema’s signifier is perceptual (visual and auditory).” The cinema is a conglomeration of images and sounds that stimulate and are read by more senses than most other art forms. Whereas literature is perceived through sight and music is perceived through the auditory, cinema is perceived through both sight and sound. An important paradigm, however, is revealed when the cinema is compared to art forms such as the theater, opera, and other art forms of the same type. Not only do these spectacles stimulate the same senses as the cinema, they take place in reality. That is, art forms such as theater also involve sight and sound sensory perceptions, and additionally they take place within a real space and a real temporality. When you visit the theater, the events take place directly in front of you within a real location and temporality.
Cinema, meanwhile, is made up of images recorded at a different time and place. The image you see when you watch a film does not exist in the time and place that the image is being scene. It was recorded previous to viewing, and was (most likely) recorded at a different location from where it is currently being projected. “But the perceived is not really the object, it is its shade, its phantom its double, its replica in a new kind of mirror.” This mirror, Metz argues, is entirely unique in the arts. The mirror that is the cinema or the cinema screen lies within a sort of duality. On one end of the duality is the fact that the cinema is an extremely perceptual art form because it stimulates sight and sound simultaneously. However, the other aspect of this duality is that what is ultimately stimulating the senses, is the lack of presence and the fact that what we perceive is not real. Therefore we perceive the imaginary.
Though “film is like the mirror,” Metz states that it is different than the primordial mirror of Lacan’s mirror stage because there is one thing that is never reflected in it: the spectator. When the child is held up to the mirror, it perceives itself being held by the mother, who Metz describes as “its object par excellence.” This form of primary identification of self leads the child to form ego, and the mirror image becomes the idealized self. However, as previously stated, the cinema screen is an entirely different sort of mirror. It is a mirror that does not reflect the spectator. So, the spectator identifies with something else during the projection of a film. According to Metz, the spectator comes to identify with the camera himself. “Absent from the screen, but certainly present in the auditorium, a great eye and ear without which the perceived would have no one to perceive it, the instance, in other words, which constitutes the cinema signifier (it is I who make the film).” As we perceive everything but ourselves when we look into the cinema screen, ultimately we become the camera and identify with it. Its pans and tracking shots become our head turns. Only through the use of uncommon camera angles and movements are we suddenly jarred into realizing our own presence-absence within the filmic image.
The second desire fulfilled by the cinema is the desire to desire. Or it satisfies, as Metz describes, the passion for perceiving. He argues that “the main socially acceptable arts are based on the senses at a distance…” Painting, theater, music, and cinema…all are, in some way, removed from the spectator. Fine art and painting is meant to be looked at from a distance in order to both appreciate the style and to be respectful of the artwork itself. Music is perceived and enjoyed from a distance between those making the music and those perceiving it. Either the musician is recording music in a location whereas the audience will listen to the music in an entirely different location, or is performing on a stage similarly separate from the audience. Likewise, theater sets up a specific boundary between audience and spectacle. The cinema sets up similar audience-stage boundaries to the theater or live musical performance. However, it is different in the aforementioned quality of lack. The images of the film are taken from real objects, but since those objects existed in a different space and temporality, the audience is doubly removed from them.
Whereas the previously discussed features of the cinema are not specific to only the cinema (as elements are similar to other art forms such as painting, sculpture, music, opera, etc.), “what distinguishes the cinema is an extra reduplication, a supplementary and specific turn of the screw bolting desire to lack.” It is, in fact, a kind of double withdrawal. Not only is the spectator removed from the images and sounds they perceive while they are sitting within a theater; they are also removed from the actual filmed or recorded object since it exists within its own space and temporality outside of the spectator’s perception of it. Since the object is, in a sense, not giving consent in being viewed (since it would break the illusory fourth wall), the scopic regime of cinema becomes a sort of voyeurism. It is a sanctioned, and yet unauthorized, scopophilia.
Cinema also, according to Metz, satisfies a third desire. This is the desire for an object, which in turn is satisfied by fetishism. Freud’s explanation of fetishism is based upon child development. When a child perceives its mother’s lack of a penis, this initiates a fear of castration. The child believes that the mother at one time has a penis, but has since lost it. This creates a fear of castration in boys, and a sense of loss or former castration in girls. “At the same time, the child, terrified by what is has seen or glimpsed, will have tried more or less successfully in different cases, to arrest its look, for all its life, at what will subsequently become the fetish: at a piece of clothing, for example, which masks the frightening discovery, or else precedes it (underwear, stockings, boots, etc.).” The fetish will come to always represent the lack of penis, or avoidance of castration. By adhering to the fetish, the lack is replaced with “fullness.”
Similar to how fetishism disavows the lack of the penis, the filmgoer disavows knowledge of the lack of absence of the pro-filmic image. “It is understood that the audience is not duped by the diegetic illusion…yet, it is of vital importance for the correct unfolding of the spectacle that this make-believe be scrupulously respected…” This creates another binary within the spectator. The spectator knows that the images that they see before them are not real. They realize that the story, plot, characters, etc. are fictional. Yet in order to be enjoyed, these fictive elements must be disavowed and instead fetishized as real. The spectator is both incredulous and credulous. In describing this binary, Metz uses the example of the audiences at Le Grande Café in 1895 whom fled the theater when viewing Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at a Station. The viewing audience is distinctly aware that what is unfolding before them is indeed fictional and not taking place within the same location or temporality. However, this knowledge must be sublimated (though never entirely) in order to the cinema to “work.”
These are the three desires that, according to Metz, the cinema fulfills. The cinema screen acts as a mirror that does not reflect the spectator, who instead interjects himself as the camera within the filmic space. This perceived lack is desired, and ultimately festishized in order to be enjoyed by the spectator. However, in order to understand how Metz has come to the conclusion that cinema does indeed fulfill these three desires, and in order to understand Metz’s psychoanalytic approach, it is important to incorporate the earlier sections of the chapter that preceded Metz’s explanations of the desires cinema fulfills. “Reduced to its most fundamental procedures, any psychoanalytic reflection on thee cinema might be defined in Lacanian terms as an attempt to disengage the cinema-object from the imaginary and to win it for the symbolic in hope of extending the latter by a new province: an enterprise of displacement…” Thus, in order to understand how to apply psychoanalytic theory to the cinema, Metz first must explicate on exactly what the cinema is and disengage from the more romantic and illusory conceptualizations normally applied to it. Instead, he describes the cinema as a “technique of the imaginary” which is characteristic to a capitalistic and industrialized social epoch. This is true in two senses. The first characteristic being that film consists of fictional narratives that depend upon the primary (and industrial-technological) imaginary of photography and phonography. Most importantly to Metz’s theory, however, is the Lacanian sense he has referred to. The imaginary designates the lure of the ego or the mirror image that makes “man the double of his double.” So, the cinema is defined by Metz in a duality that consists of technological-industrial produced sounds and images that create an imaginary that produces the lure of the ego, and will eventually fulfill psychological desires.
This is obvious in the fact that film is considered a “good object.” The good object-bad object duality, Metz begins to outline why we go to the cinema to have our desires fulfilled. The cinematic institution is comprised of both the cinema industry (the mechanical reduplication of images in a series recorded in a fictional time and place for capitalistic gain), and within the mental machinery of the audience (the desire to consume films). It is this second characteristic, or machinery, that creates this good object-bad object binary. This dual kinship reveals that the external machine (the film industry) and the internal machine (the spectators psychology) actually present a facsimile of the latter to the former. The institution depends upon the good object, as the audience is not forced to consume films. Therefore, the film industry must cater to the psychological desires of the spectator in order to exist.
Metz then explicates upon a third machine: the cinematic writer. Film historians, critics, and theorists, according to Metz, operate as a third machine within the cinematic institution. The cinematic writer seems primarily concerned with collecting as many good objects as possible, while vehemently denouncing the bad object. Using a rough example, Metz refers to the filmmakers of the French New Wave. “When they had not yet made any films and were working as critics for Cahier du cinema, (they) based a broad sector of their theory on the denunciation of a certain type of film, the ‘French quality’ film…it constituted them as bad objects…” However, as he describes in the next section, “Loving the Cinema,” the theorist must both love and not love cinema in order to separate himself or herself from the medium in order to look on it completely objectively. “To be a theoretician of the cinema, one should ideally no longer love the cinema and yet still love it…have detached oneself from it by taking it up again from the other end…” As Metz describes and explicates upon this third machine, it becomes obvious that he is stating not only his understanding of cinema, but also exactly how he has and feels it must be approached in theorizing upon a psychoanalytic film theory.
Having outlined his conception of the cinema and his conception of what his place is within the cinematic institution, Metz asks himself a question. “What contribution can Freudian psychoanalysis make to the study of the cinematic signifier?” Taking three words or terms within his question (contribution, Freudian psychoanalysis, and cinematic signifier), he begins to unpack this very question. He begins with the word “contribution,” and quickly asserts that psychoanalysis is not the only method of writing about the cinematic signifier, and can only be used in contribution to others. Metz identifies two other contributing methods: semiotics/linguistics and history. Like psychoanalysis, semiotics/linguistics is a science of the symbolic. Indeed, he describes linguistics and psychoanalysis as a secondary and primary process (respectively), “whose immediate and sole object is the fact of signification…” History is important as well, as knowledge of the signifier is rooted in historical/critical background. While linguistics and psychoanalysis may lead gradually to a science of the cinema, it is only through the historical element that the symbolic becomes social.
Unpacking the next term or nodal point within his question, Metz begins by describing Freudian psychoanalysis. That is, psychoanalysis in the tradition of Freud, of which has been added to and built upon by both Melanie Klein and Jacque Lacan. He then, on page 22, separates Freud’s work into different categories. For example, The Interpretation of Dreams is listed as a metapsychological and theoretical work, while Totem and Taboo is shown as an example of studies with an anthropological or socio-historical aim. After separating the works into six different types, Metz explains that the works that one would think would be most pertinent to the cinema (works in categories such as studies of arts and literature) end up being less helpful than those studies not explicitly tied to entertainment. Texts such as the metapsychological and theoretical studies are what interests Metz the most. He can apply them to four different types of psychoanalytic study of the cinema: a nosographic approach (psychoanalyzing the filmmaker), biographism (where neuroses are actualized with indifference to the filmic text), the psychoanalytic study of film scripts (which transforms the script into a signifier), and studies of textual systems. It is this fourth analytic study of cinema that Metz is attempting to anchor himself to. “Those that have the textual system and interpretation as their aim…but set out for it from the manifest filmic material as a whole (signifieds and signifiers), not from the manifest signified (the script) alone. It is the film as a whole that is now constituted as a signifier.” While the previous methods have identified neuroses of filmmakers or have utilized the script as signifier, this fourth method incorporates the entirety of the filmic experience, from the viewing of it to the method in which it is displayed and consumed. This is what Metz identifies as his approach to psychoanalytic film theory.
Indeed, this is his approach to unraveling the cinema-signifier. Psychoanalysis of cinema does present a number of issues. Freudian analyses of scripts do not differ from analyses of other aesthetic studies. The differences between a script and a novel are not great enough to truly give a psychoanalytic study of film scripts legitimacy as being strongly characteristic to the cinema. “To sum up, what distinguishes studies of scripts…from the approach I am trying to define here…is…not so much that they are indifferent to the signifier as that they are indifferent to the cinematic signifier.” For instance, Metz argues, what about films that have no scripts? Abstract and avant-garde films have no script, so a script-based psychoanalysis would not apply. Instead he initiates another approach. This fourth approach consists of a direct examination of the cinematic which exists outside of any given film or any set of films. Now that Metz has “more or less” unwound and unpacked his question about how Freudian psychoanalysis can contribute to the knowledge of the cinematic signifier, he asks what features of this sort of analysis are specific to cinema and the cinematic signifier, and thus different from other art forms. With this, we return to the three desires that the cinema fulfills that other works of art do not, and which have already been previously discussed.
As Metz concludes, he makes it clear that though he feels he can stop by describing these three desires and how he came to an understanding of them, or how they play a role in the knowledge of the cinematic signifier, that this is only the beginning of a discussion that he is still “not certain of it all at once…Psychoanalysis does not illuminate only the film, but also the conditions of desire whoever makes himself its theoretician. Interwoven into every analytical undertaking is the thread of self-analysis.” Though Metz loves the cinema, he also does not love the cinema. He needs to retain it to be questioned. Particularly, he needs to question why the spectator goes to the cinema when they are not forced to, how the spectator learns the “rules” of the game (such as the disavowal of lack), and how the spectator becomes part of the cinematic institution. Thus, to Metz, understanding film comes about as an act of loving the cinema. However, in order to love the cinema, one most not love the cinema in order to “step back” from and look at it with enough objectivity in order to understand it.
Though Metz’s theory is basically sound, there are a few issues that do seem nebulous or inconsistent with the theories put forward by Metz. For instance, Metz claims that the spectator identifies with the camera, becoming a sort of “god” who makes the film. However, this seems overly simplified. While Metz only briefly mentions that camera movement can shake us out of the reality wherein it is the spectator making the film, this leaves no room for the filmmaker themselves. Many filmmakers explicitly guide us through a film and leave us no room to identify with ourselves as the makers of the film or the film camera. We have very little control, for instance, over the filmic realities of mysteries, noir films, or horror films. As a matter of fact, these films are popular due to the fact that the audience member normally only knows as much as the protagonist character(s). I would argue that films such as these lends themselves more so toward theories of audience identification (Noel Carroll’s, for instance, or Berys Gaut’s), which Metz does not seem to agree with as he states, “As for identifications with characters…they are secondary, tertiary identifications…taken as a whole in opposition to the identification of the spectator with his own look, they constitute secondary cinematic identification in the singular.” However, when information within the film is held back from the spectator (such as in Hawks’ 1946 film The Big Heat), it’s impossible for the spectator to view himself as camera or the god of a fictive world making the film, as there is not the foreknowledge necessary to feel so. Instead, they are relegated to only a spectator status and, in my opinion, must look for their mirror self elsewhere (character identification).
Another issue within the writing, though it is a small issue, is the fact that Metz relies upon the example of the audience of Le Grande Café running in terror from the approaching train imagery within Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at a Station. While the example does fit nicely into his examination of how the audience must have the dual experiences of incredulity and credulity in order for the cinema to work, the fact that he used the mythological and commonly thought to be fictional reaction of the audience fleeing in terror does indeed undermine his example. This is especially true when his love-not love of cinema binary that he finds necessary in theorizing on cinema is taken into account. A truer separation from his love of cinema would, one hopes, involve less historical romanticism and more in-depth analysis or examples of that audience would be much more apt. Instead of “fleeing from terror,” merely referring to shock associated with the cinema of attractions (as coined by Tom Gunning) would have made a much more cogent example without romanticizing a historical past.
Having come full circle from one assigned reading of partial text to a reading of the text in its entirety, what is immediately striking about The Imaginary Signifier is how dense Metz’s writing is. To a reader with no true background in Freudian psychoanalysis, reading and understanding Metz can be incredibly difficult. This is a definite criticism of Metz’s style of writing. He assumes foreknowledge of facts and definitions that the reader may or may not have. There are very few explanations given, and those that are given have to be extracted from incredibly esoteric and nebulous material. This is partially due to Metz’s meandering and (as he states) free-associating and unplanned path to knowledge. Sometimes his ideas do indeed flow easily into one another. Other times, however, his writing is overly pedantic or obfuscating. However, this is also likely to be connected to another issue with the writing, which is the fact that Ben Brewster has translated Metz’s text from French to English. While it is possible that some clarity of writing may have been lost in translation, or that the translation could clear up some of the overly obfuscating language, ultimately it is Metz’s writing style combined with a perceived (by Metz) amount of knowledge of the reader that makes this so dense a reading experience.
Aside from these criticisms, Metz’s writing does eventually offer a cogent and concise beginning to a psychoanalytic film theory (though, as mentioned, a focused reading is necessary). What is especially fascinating and ultimately satisfying to the reader is how Metz explicates upon his understanding and his conception of the cinema. Having the knowledge of how Metz came to this conception is especially helpful in the later sections of “The Imaginary Signifier.” He backs up his opinions with knowledge and logical assumptions about not only how we consume media, but about how forms of media differ from one another, and how we must understand the unique cinematic signifier. Additionally, what is finally the most satisfying, to me at least, is how Metz hinges his theories on questions. These are questions that he admits freely to not having immediate answers to. However, in the way that Metz unpacks and unravels the meanings within his questions, the reader is given the opportunity to come to a greater understanding of the question and of their own conceptualizations and ideas. Metz is not necessarily saying that “this is truth” or “this is fact,” but instead “this is how I conceive.” This is far more interesting and thought provoking than writers who implicitly state their theories as fact. Additionally, his theory is sound. He has backed up his thoughts with (mostly) sound examples and logical assumptions that, though the reader can question, the reader can also predominantly agree with.
Though I may not agree with one or two of the points upon which he writes, I find his overall conclusion to be extremely satisfying, thought provoking, and correct. Though I do believe that there is more to character identification theory than Metz does himself, his theory on the presence-lack duality of the filmic image does account for the spectator’s desire or need to find their reflection within the mirror that is the cinema screen. Though I do find that other theories (the aforementioned work on character identification done by Gaut and Carroll) can also account for the spectator’s reflection within the filmic image, the expression of lack is essentially valid. Additionally, the audiences’ desire for the lack constituted by the filmic image, and the subsequent fetishization of the image in order to disavow the unreality and accept the imaginary both seem, to me, indicative of a signifier solely exclusive to the medium of the cinema and not characteristic of other art forms.
 Metz, Christian. “The Imaginary Signifier,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). P. 694.
 Ibid, P. 696.
 Ibid, P. 697.
 Ibid, P. 703.
 Ibid, P. 706.
 Ibid. P. 707.
 Metz, Christian. Imaginary Signifier, Tran. Ben Brewster (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). P. 3.
 Ibid, P. 4.
 Ibid, P. 9.
 Ibid, P. 15.
 Ibid, P. 17.
 Ibid, P. 18.
 Ibid, P. 32.
 Ibid, P. 34.
 Ibid. P. 79.
 Metz, Film Theory and Criticism. P. 701.