The Male Gaze in Cinema
August 31, 2021
How psychoanalysis is used as a tool to expose the cinematic spectacle exploiting female images for male pleasure?
A ray of light appears in complete darkness and the viewer sitting in the cinema is presented with a wonderful spectacle - visual images replacing each other, united by a common narrative. The subject, going through his unconscious imaginary memory of the feeling of loss and gripped by the fear of potential lack, suddenly receives hope for pleasure, which cinema is generously ready to provide.

All this magic is based on skillful manipulation of visual pleasure, especially when it comes to the Hollywood production system, whose mainstream films coded «the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order». It critically influenced the representation of female images and female sense of life under the gaze of a male movie camera.
The main text, where psychoanalysis is used as a tool to expose the cinematic spectacle exploiting female images for male pleasure, isLaura Mulvey's «Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema». She introduces the concept of a male gaze, which she analyzes through her connection with fetishism and the unconscious of a patriarchal society. As a result the structure of the movie becomes clear: "sharpened" for obtaining a masculine type of pleasure, regardless of who is watching the movie - a woman or a man.

Moreover, the presence of a woman in movies is more than obligatory, but not as an active character, vice versa - her image stops all processes for the sake of moments of erotic contemplation. No doubt, such moments seem to be expedient, because in general, in the entire narrative of the movie, women take a passive position. They practically do not speak, do not act actively. They are assigned only the role of "accessory" and "beautiful picture" to feed the scopophilic pleasure of male viewers.
In contrast, we are witnessing an active male position - they save the world, change the course of events and, of course, without hesitation, look at the female parts of the body, and the camera, "playing along" with this action, demonstrates how to consider a woman as an object of sexual pleasure. It is the camera that plays a critical role here. According to the apparatus theory of Jean-Louis Baudry, we know that the primary identification of the audience is based on the camera's gaze. So in a patriarchal society, where almost all places in the movie industry are occupied by men, the camera becomes a substitute for the male gaze. As a result, a mechanism for the ideological representation of the female image.

Thus, Laura Mulvey, in her work, leads to the radical conclusion that all classical cinema represents the dominant patriarchal view and consolidates its structures. She explains this by the fact that in the narrative of Hollywood films, the focus is not only on the male hero, but a priori it is assumed that the viewer will be a man, or the viewer is encoded as a man. The so-called fetishistic scopophilia establishes the beauty (in its physical manifestation) of a woman as an object, thereby this object itself becomes the embodiment of pleasure.
Accordingly, the goal of feminist resistance to the fetishization of the female image and body as a sexual object seems attractive to me. Nowdays, as we could see, the problem of the representation of women in cinema is extremely relevant.

I propose to take up what techniques at the level of visual representation Chantal Ackerman uses in the movie "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Embankment, Brussels 1080" in favour of the female gaze. The very title of the film refers us to an exhaustive description of the chronicle of everyday life lasting three and a half hours: 3 days in the life of Jeanne Dielman in her apartment in Brussels, which is a perfectly folded space for the heroine's routine.

Jeanne cooks, cleans, washes, saves light, accepts a client who pays her for sex, has dinner with her son, and carefully combs her hair. Such a complete visualization of everyday tasks at the same time corresponds to the more sensational scenes of Jeanne's prostitution, which lasts just enough time that she has time to cook potatoes for dinner. The viewer soon discovers that sex for money is as commonplace as anything else in the film. You can see the work necessary to manage the house, and the efficiency with which Jeanne does this work, which controls the series of actions worked out to the smallest detail, which do not fade into the background, as is usually the case in films (thanks to the cinema form).
Ackerman does not use close-ups, 8s for dialogue or point of view. The camera in movie is fixed and low (corresponds to the short stature of the director), and the composition of the frame is frontal and symmetrical. Jeanne's understated portrayal adds to the director's formal clarity, which thus destroys the voyeuristic pleasure.

Many of the heroine's actions go beyond what the audience is allowed to see: when Jeanne is doing her homework, she often freely enters and exits the frame, occupying a world wider than what is available to the viewer of the film. She is not subject to the same restrictions as viewers. They arise from the impression that there are always aspects of the film world that are out of sight. The camera does not follow Jeanne, because she [the camera] lingers on the ongoing processes. While the film makes it feel like Jeanne Dielman's world is out of bounds, it also limits that world, giving priority to work that seems to have no greater purpose than keeping everything in place. Even social interactions don't seem like more than just actions, due to Jeanne's faraway behaviour.
But towards the end of the second day, something changes. For the viewer, these changes become noticeable due to the fact that a kind of "emptiness" of the form vividly conveys every action of Jeanne, which the slightest changes are brought to the fore. It is not entirely clear what exactly happened, but it is implied that it has to do with the client she had on the second day. The viewer notices how she forgets to immediately turn on the light so that the man gets dressed and pays, her hairstyle looks dishevelled (especially knowing how carefully she brushes her hair). In short, her actions look different than on the first day. But if at first glance these signals are read as "insignificant" and the viewer may think that it seemed to him, one detail that immediately follows a series of changes is strongly knocked out: Jeanne, who always puts money in a Delft tureen on the table and closes it lid, this time it does not close, but leaves the lid next to it on the table. For the viewer, this becomes a "point of attachment" according to Lacan (le point de capiton) in its expressive manifestation: a situation that is normal and natural, but in given specific circumstances (set earlier in the film) ceases to be "simple" and becomes an alarming signal, indicating that the puzzle does not fit.
Everything starts to go like a knockout: Jeanne makes mistakes in her strict routine, which in fact are completely insignificant for the uninitiated look. But this worries the woman, and by the time viewers are familiar with the details of her environment, it becomes clear how such little things are clear indicators of significant changes taking place. They are also evidenced by the first shift in the usual position of the camera, when the viewer sees Jeanne from the kitchen, appearing at her door.

Nevertheless, the camera captures the image of the heroine as a complete one and does not fragment it with the help of framing, thereby freeing her from the erotic order in which certain parts of the human body are usually distinguished. In classical cinema, such a fragmentation is a kind of restrained fetishism, when only separate parts of the body become significant, and such "an erotic body, as it were, can never be put together."

All these details are even more visible to the viewer due to the lack of music that could be used to place accents and create a certain atmosphere. Music is (usually) synchronized with the sequential visual part of the film, therefore has a special effect on the perception of the film. But in addition to "supporting" the development of the plot and revealing the inner state and / or transformation of the characters, music also creates the so-called musical bridge, which hides the "seams" in the film, allows the viewer not to break away from the plot and enjoy the story being told. Chantal Ackerman in the movie does not "model" certain sensory states of the audience with the help of music, but in this silence leaves space for true reflection, which is not based on moods inspired by music.
Continuing to experiment with form, the director exposes the fragility of order (when the fork falls and the dishes are left unwashed) with static shots, although in classical cinema it is the use of different framing techniques that constructs the viewer's focus on details. In the analyzed film, objects that move in the frame "independently" and without the help of classical techniques highlight anxiety and betray Jeanne's thoughts, which she obsessively tries to suppress. After all, just the same life adjusted according to the schedule gives out control, subordinate to the established order: the strong work of Jeanne's super-ego did not allow impulses from the unconscious to penetrate the conscious.

However, the destructive disintegration of everyday life for Jeanne leads to a fundamentally new turn in the life of the main character. In the last scene - the murder of the client after sex - which culminates in a chain of "breakdowns," the complete destruction of order serves as a means of subversive emancipation of subjectivity. And murder breaks through the wall of Jeanne Dielman's alienation from herself. On the other hand, this scene is read in two ways: was it an outburst of passion or the act of sex as alienated paid labour became dangerous for her ego, and the murder served as a radical way to free Jeanne's body from its commodity perception?

Clearly that the last 7 minutes of the film, where Jeanne is sitting at the table with bloody hands, depict an unforgettable image of the heroine, whose face reflects a calmness that was inaccessible behind the wall of anxiety for many years.
"Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Embankment, Brussels 1080" became a feminist movie classic that brought women to the fore. Jeanne is present in almost every frame, which opens up space for female identity in the movie. And the form of the film cancels out the voyeuristic way of receiving pleasure from the audience. Ackerman's idea of a concrete, unfamiliar (because it is receding into the last place in classical cinema) everyday life has become an important part in the approach to the way of presentation.

And one of the most important tasks of female cinema is precisely the rethinking of not only the female image itself, but also the way it is shown in cinema. Therefore the emphasis is shifted to working with a medium (cinematographic apparatus), which acts as a social technology, a reflective attitude to which it allows to analyze and deconstruct ideological codes rooted in representation.
Author: Caroline Rynkevich;
Translator: Olga Kyvliuk