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  • Lacan and the Ostrich: Desire and Narration in Bunuel’s Le Fantôme de la Liberté
  • Reynold Humphries

Editor’s Note: In his essay, Humphries begins with the post-structuralist notion that language controls experience and applies it to Bunuel’s film, Le Fantôme de la Liberté. He posits that Bunuel questions empiricist ideas about the individual by suggesting that, while individuals may believe themselves to have control over their own words and actions, they are in fact controlled by social codes and norms—a fact which individuals attempt to repress. Bunuel enacts this theme in his film by calling attention to social norms and then diverging from them in a series of “tableaux” which continually present the viewer with what Humphries calls “reversals of expectations.” Things that seem to be “normal” and “natural” are continually “revealed to be a form of unconscious coding determined by the dominant codes of narration and representation functioning within mainstream cinema, both classic and modern” (Humphries). Le Fantôme de la Liberté is divided into fourteen sequences which, for reasons I shall clarify in due course, I propose to call “Tableaux.” Given the importance of time, place and, particularly, character in the movie, I refer the reader to the list of these “Tableaux” at the end of this article. How the “Tableaux” function as part of the overall narrative strategy, however, merits attention at once.

Tableau 3 shows the bourgeois husband spending a sleepless night during which the intimacy of his bedroom is invaded by an ostrich and a postman. These outrageous events are presented in the same way as other, more banal, happenings, which means that the ideologically coded binary opposition “awake/dreaming” is no longer overdetermined by specific cinematic codes connoting the social utterance “it’s only a dream” and thus fails to function “normally” for the spectators.

We now move to Tableau 4 and the doctor’s surgery, where the letter brought by the postman plays the central role, thus maintaining its place in narrative motivation. The husband, understandably, is perplexed by what happened, whereas the doctor dismisses the matter out of hand: he was dreaming. [End Page 191] At this point the husband produces the letter and the doctor, flabbergasted, does not know what to say (nor will any spectator know who might be tempted to interpret in terms of a dream). Suddenly a secretary enters and asks the doctor if she may speak to him on an urgent matter. He accompanies her into the waiting room where she informs him that she must leave at once as her father is seriously ill. The doctor agrees and returns to his surgery to continue to converse with the husband. What happens now?

The discussion between the two men over the husband’s sleepless night and the letter has been central to the Tableau, a fact motivated by the events of the previous Tableau. We would normally, therefore, expect the enigma to be, if not elucidated, then at least analyzed. Not a bit of it: the two characters disappear and the secretary becomes the center of attention. This displacement of the center of interest obliges the spectators to dis-place their expected and desired relation to the text and, literally, to adopt another point of view. It is clear, therefore, that my use of the word “normally” was ideological: far from defining something natural that goes without saying, it is revealed to be a form of unconscious social coding determined by the dominant codes of narration and representation functioning within mainstream cinema, both classic and modern. These codes, in turn, do not function in the closed circuit of filmic representation but partake of that system just referred to, where calls for coherency stem from a belief in the unity of the ego. As a result, to introduce themes and characters as important only to remove them from the scene in favor of a seeming irrelevance is to challenge the fictional concept “character.” Bunuel does this systematically, but only up to a point. It is precisely where the alternative narrative system breaks down in its turn that, as we shall see, the film takes on a political edge.

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