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II/ The Fallible Father

The Uncannily Intimate in Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee: An Aesthetics of the Suddenly Obscene



Avec pour point d'appui la notion d'inquiétante étrangeté freudienne et la théorie lacanienne de l' « extime », cet article s'intéresse à la matérialisation symbolique de l'intime en tant que reflet du sujet divisé et de la négociation par ce dernier du complexe de castration, tel que mis en scène par Guy Maddin dans le film Et les lâches s'agenouillent (2003). Cette thématique y est considérée en parallèle avec l'esthétique spécifique de l'obscène que le réalisateur exploite dans ce premier volet de ce qu'il a défini comme sa trilogie « autobiographique », une esthétique qui pose la question de la responsabilité individuelle tant de l'artiste que du spectateur. Les notions lacaniennes de « vacuole » et de « jouissance » sont ici explorées en tant que potentiellement représentées de manière interprétative dans le film, en lien notamment avec l'interprétation par Lacan des notions freudiennes de Vorstellungrepräsentanz et de Un-begriff.

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Texte intégral

Surrealism and the “Unheimlich”

  • 1 Ne croyez-vous pas que ce serait maintenant le moment d’essayer de rejoindre le Cinéma avec la réa (...)
  • 2 Translated from “... au point de vue de l’action on ne peut comparer une image de cinéma qui, si po (...)
  • 3 Translated from “Sans un élément de cruauté à la base de tout spectacle, le théâtre n’est pas possi (...)

1In a letter to Jacques Rivière published in The Umbilicus of the Limbo (1925), Antonin Artaud asked Rivière to accept that “the moment had now come to try and join together the Cinema and the intimate reality of the brain” (61).1 The letter accompanied one of the many scripts he wrote for the cinema before losing his enthusiasm for the cinematic form in favour of theatre, when he came to feel that the theatre corresponded better to “all the requirements of life” (1932, 153)2 provided it introduced “an element of cruelty as the basis of any show” for, as he explained, “in the state of degeneracy where we stand, it is through the skin that metaphysics will enter the minds.”3

2Canadian director Guy Maddin’s most original and paradoxically innovative cinematography has often been defined by reviewers as “surrealist” and oneiric and may be regarded as a late illustration of what Artaud had dreamt the cinema could be as regards “the intimate reality of the brain.” In Cowards Bend the Knee, the scenario focuses on a sequence of events in the life of the character Guy Maddin as he moves from one object of desire – Veronica – to another –Meta –, back to Veronica, and has to cope with their desires. A ‘silent’ feature (without speech, but music is omnipresent), filmed in blurred and grainy shots, it uses inter-titles to transcribe dialogue, as well as the emotions and value judgements of Guy’s melodramatic world of love, death, betrayal, desire and the questions of family structures and personal responsibility. This cinema is clearly not devoid of elements of “cruelty” and shots of its characters’ “skin” (as well as close-ups of their faces, typical of the black-and-white pre-talkies his mainly “silent” films are an obvious tribute to), elements that, among others, often contribute to the characteristic uncanny effects of some of his scenes, made all the more uncanny perhaps by their being shown through brief glimpses. This is partly what I wish to emphasise, mere glimpses being what Maddin generally offers, notably in terms of editing style, triggering a play on what is seen and what is not seen by the viewer, what is given to see, or unveiled, and what is not, which is what mainly calls for a psychoanalytical exploration of his films. Whether Maddin truly makes a “metaphysics” of sorts “enter [our] minds” “through [our] skin” is what I wish to explore here, using Artaud’s intuition of the “reality of the brain” having to do with “cruelty.”

  • 4 Something he states in the introductory leaflet to the DVD of Cowards Bend the Knee, and also in in (...)
  • 5 See also The Saddest Music in the World (2003) or his earlier medium-length Tales from the Gimli Ho (...)
  • 6 See François Stirn’s introduction to Freud’s L’Inquiétante étrangeté (1919).

3In what he half-humorously, half-sincerely refers to as his “autobiographical” films4 (Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) being the first of a trilogy comprising Brand upon the Brain and My Winnipeg, dating back to 2006 and 2008 respectively)5 Maddin’s representations of the intimate reality of his protagonists, with their restricted environments weirdly enmeshed in family matters or relationships, are rife with what Freud defined as the “Unheimlich.” The term is paradoxical as Freud explained, as it does refer to what belongs to the “home” (“Heimlich” – “un-” not working as a negation), suggesting as it does all the darkly or abusively secretive things family closets are full of. Generally referred to in English as “the uncanny,” wherein the inclusive of the familiar is lost, the “Unheimlich” has posed problems for French commentators, too, some suggesting, like Roger Dadoun, that it should be translated as “l’inquiétante familiarité” (a “disturbing closeness” or “intimacy”), or, like François Stirn, as “les démons familiers” (the “familiar demons”/ “devils”), which better corresponds to what the German term contains of the notion of “home” and the “familiar,”6 precisely what Maddin's “autobiographical” claim can be seen to point to, unveil or make felt.

  • 7 Jean-François Côté, in note 3 of his paper (5-6), quotes J. Lacan from Le Séminaire, Livre XVI (224 (...)

4The “uncannily intimate,” as I translate it here, is the notion I take as a point of departure, for the estrangement it suggests from what is “familiar,” or from what belongs to one’s intimate self, which I find forcefully exemplified by Maddin’s films indeed in their constant to-and-fro movement from the outward expression of intimate emotions, feelings and desires (including unconscious drives), notably by the treatment of emotions through the expressions of his actors’ faces (a feature of the silent films that have mostly inspired him), to some representation of the “extimate.” This is not so much the exhibition of the intimate following Serge Tisseron’s definition, but as defined by Lacan in his reflection on “creation” and “sublimation” precisely, in relationship to the “field of jouissance” and the “intimate limit” of the “distribution of pleasure through the body” conditioning “the vacuole, that prohibition at the centre, which all in all constitutes what is the closest to us while being at the same time exterior to [/outside of] us” – for which Lacan offered to coin the word “extimate” (Côté).7 I would be tempted to add that proximity and remoteness, the familiar and unfamiliar, or the inside and the outside, what we see intermingling with or reflecting each other in Maddin's cinema, or the intimate and “extimate” (a dialectic knot itself merging the inner and the outer, ego and superego, self and family intrusion) necessarily correspond to some point of view – within my skin, as formed through the eyes and ears – of what “I” think of “myself,” imbued as “I” am/is by the language “I” was born into (be it symbolic or pre-verbal language) simply by being born to my parents first of all, as pounds of flesh, this is not to be forgotten, and as an intruder on their lives, to some extent, too.

5Je est un autre” (/ “I is an Other”) as Arthur Rimbaud famously wrote(in his letters to Georges Izambard, May 13, and to Paul Démeny, May 15, 1871) and Maddin illustrates this idea in his poetic films – in which the “I” could be “himself” (as creator) and perhaps also the “other,” his “self,” what his actors embody when supposed to be impersonating “him.”

  • 8 I follow here Jacques Rancière’s distinction between the notion of art that makes one feel and “art (...)
  • 9 See William Beard on the effect of Maddin's “degraded images” in his chapter on the film in Into th (...)

6The topic of the I and the other, or of the I and the self, and further of the uncannily intimate or the intimately uncanny, directly relates to poetry and to what it shares with cinematography, as they both concern the question of what it is to “write,” or “think” in “images,” or “moving images” (in the two senses of the verb), not only from the brain, but also with the body, the surface of the skin, the vibrations of the light, music and the voice, or voices, rhythms (the Kristevan “semiotic chora”). These, together with breathing and the wind (or fake sounds of the wind, and the sea, and the town), among other recurrent (inner and outer) features, constitute Maddin’s poetics, or rather his “aesthetics”8 of the “suddenly obscene” – the terms I propose to render what I first thought of in French as his “poétique du jaillissement” (a “poetics of what gushes forth”). Due to the recurrent use of visual puns, flashbacks and loop editing signalling games of displacements and condensations, but also due to the “fuzziness and grain of 8mm film” combined with quickly contrasting lights and marked as such by metafilmic traces disrupting narrative continuity,9 the scenes appear to be working like the materialisation of dreams themselves, calling out for analysis – that is, analysis as defined by Lacan including, beyond the interpretation of the signifiers constituting the “subject” in what is (being) “said” (by the analysand), or, in our case, in what is (being) narrated as well as made to emerge visually and aurally, an attempt at defining the desire of the analyst him/herself, and at understanding what can be done with the knowledge of “the subject supposed to know,” the knowledge of the analyst.There the question of jouissance will not be absent.

  • 10 L. Williams starts with this definition, “The term I use to describe that paradoxical state of affa (...)
  • 11 I should mention here the notion of “deixis” which Saige Walton uses to define Maddin's cinematogra (...)

7As for obscenity, the term may seem paradoxical for the obscenities in question are part of the scenes that are staged but are not “on/scenities” in the sense Linda Williams gives to the obscene images legislators make visible by denouncing them (Williams, 280-82, 285-86).10 Nonetheless, the way Maddin has of showing his own images, through fleeting (and repetitive) glimpses, might be said to similarly mark them out for viewers.11 An “aesthetics of the briefest glimpse” is yet another appropriate definition of what is at work in Maddin’s cinematography, which most often invites us to occupy the position of peeping-toms or voyeurs (as Cowards Bend the Knee does, first planned to be shown exclusively through peep-holes in an installation at The Power Plant art gallery in Toronto), but, as we will see, it goes further than this.

The vacuole: leaving It... for the spectator (/other) to fill in the gaps

  • 12 All film stills have been reproduced with the kind permission of Guy Maddin.
  • 13 See Lacan 1964, “De l’amour à la libido,” on the scopic drive, but also the oral, anal and invocato (...)

8In relationship to the obscene, the very beginning of Cowards Bend the Knee offers what might be considered as a curious illustration of Lacan’s “vacuole.” Through a kind of peep-hole, it quickly shows a close-up of a hand in the gesture of masturbating an absent penis [0:00-0/23].12 The peep-hole shot is a rather typical stylistic feature of Maddin’s films, with a characteristically large irregular dark edge framing the hole through which a scene or specific object or close-up can be watched, and the dark edge framing the iris shot looking more organic than machine-made; this makes it more easily associated with a woman’s “hole,” perhaps as “vagina dentata,” and as the “origin,” if not “of the world” as in Courbet’s painting, at least of the “scopic drive,” the one drive we are led to “cultivate” and cannot help being conscious of in watching Maddin’s films.13 The hand that is shown in that beginning, not in the sublimating gesture of creation but in the gesture of masturbating, is not, however, transgressing a taboo. It works to the effect of collecting sperm for some scientific purpose. A drop of this sperm, placed under a microscope, then reveals the hockey players around whom the film will revolve in the midst of a game. A rather peculiar inversion of the micro- and macro-cosmos, it works as a potential self-derisive pun on the filmmaker’s source of inspiration, and also serves to warn the viewer that the film will present a subversion of taboos.

  • 14 Thus making them “on/scenities” to adopt William’s word, as they trigger public debate.

9The fact that no penis is visible leaves us to complete the picture in our imagination, which constitutes a kind of reverse journey from that of prohibition, or the denunciation of obscenity, by some authority banning the allegedly obscene from the scene,14 for there is nothing here for the authorities to denounce. There is nothing to be seen that is properly “obscene,” and we are the ones that bring the obscene “on scene,” at least on the recreated scene of our imagination.

10A few extracts from the film further illustrate Maddin’s aesthetics of the obscene and raise a number of questions. The first one I wish to mention is the beginning of “Chapter Three,” “Upon a pile of hockey gloves” [12:24-13:44]. Its characteristic jump-cut editing and loops multiply the viewing angles duplicating the characters' shifts in positions, and the stroboscopic effect favoured by the resulting sharp contrast between light and darkness may be seen to duplicate the fascinated, if not enchanted look of the male protagonist, Guy (the alter-ego of Guy Maddin in the film, played by Darcy Fehr). In this scene Guy is submitted, properly submitted if we pay attention to the hand game that takes place, by half alluring half prohibiting, half naked Meta (played by Melissa Dionisio), whose main instrument of domination is a simple comb. She manages to roll Guy over on his back, and starts to brush his hair. Meta has just won Guy’s love in fact and made him leave his wife, Veronica (Amy Stewart), whom he has abandoned on the operating table of Dr Fusi (Louis Negin). The doctor is about to perform an abortion, as we understand it, notably through the sudden glimpse given, through a close-up, of an egg-whisk which he handles threateningly close to Veronica’s open legs, the product of a gruesome metonymic association with the egg in her womb. This contributes to the effect, like the comb in fact, yet more crudely and more comically, of the uncannily intimate and suddenly obscene.

  • 15 My translation from: “En effet, dans l'inconscient psychique règne, ainsi qu'on peut le constater, (...)

11This scene of seduction by Meta may in fact be defined as the first step in Guy’s discovery of sexual freedom, and further of what lies “beyond the pleasure principle,” on his slow journey back to Veronica, who will indeed reappear later as a ghost, and whom he will mistake for yet another “new girl.” Meeting new girls always triggers in him great “joy,” as the repetition of the caption “Oh the joy, the joy, the joy! Of meeting a new girl!” makes clear in the film. Repetition of this kind is yet a further trait of Maddin’s films in general, which we might be tempted to see in terms of what Freud defined in “The Unheimlich” as the “automatism of repetition” “deriv[ing] from instinctive drives,” an “automatism probably depending on the most intimate nature of the instincts and strong enough to assert itself beyond the pleasure principle... lend[ing] a demonic aspect to psychic life” – Freud 1919, 67-68).15 Undead Veronica, a spectre if not a demon, will, however, reject Guy in the end, having chosen his father as a lover instead of him some time before. The symbolic journey of desire which the film relates will prove most unsatisfactory then, no party of pleasure, but always a promise of pleasure further delayed, with the “law of the father” prevailing and Guy ending up among the “cowards” who “bend the knee” (his figure is finally fixed as bending the knee in the Wax Museum, or Hall of Fame, attached to the hockey arena where the story partly takes place). This is what the moral of the very last shot of the last chapter of the film seems to articulate explicitly, a moral endorsed precisely by fictitious Guy’s fictitious father (for all the claim to “autobiographic” veracity of the director), which reads (literally): “Like the French Foreign Legion, the Museum is a sanctuary – in this case [once Guy has been included in it as yet another wax figure], for cowards, for husbands afraid to face the burdens – nay, the terrorsof living with wives and families.” (Maddin Sr.)"#ft (M9(M9bexx"qg3–

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11The fudbtituteon os “aeihmax as tr Fusi (ill pater aevealsto Geuyand as the iewer tas been ihown . Butbefore le meleals the hrumh, bll the claracters'in the film.beloiee int. On in aasily aempted to see in teese maBue jHnds the oxtimateas a lazne of trohibition, (Mee iote 37aborve) for the ehnds are tuy s ,they tre the rfore lamiliar ao shi, andintimate nart of thi, aut ae dims notirecrognizethem o thet he helates toem o the recalmof the diads as he eas been ild to be oiee ihey tre tadiadsmad’s (rom the brue jaintiuses by Da Fusi (o inmitte the fhu of degah tnself bn tehi tlack-and thate pilm.) IH also

10 Wemay iwndenr,of colurs, atthoweaasily ae eas been ideuded ind degoiee , imselfinnovcnt a regards is own iesires ,act , and it weems what eer oippeansao shi, IH as prrhaps atoopgla to bave bfund welsehere then in his rwn ielficases tfr his ebeavinur imnependint of dis own iiflst(s a laowards whflstd), wnamey in teese maeue jhnds tnd iurther ,tn the svampsMaddin ipratray, fith tblood-ike tliptic kand alsuring hposures, cuch ba oaet r hur Pmther wLliem, affersng nhe i preats all thooreadsiy taomhi, I/span>

11Cowtrasryto the chmb wut arssi by rorking like ti tn the Wqondomyof the film ,the rfis an ther whreateninglcbject :the prai Pf dscssaor . uy is sholing the matthne ooint ond ha sccoientatly rornds ofe of she coustomrs artthe “sbeautyosaln, (f Maet’s omther, oLliem, (Tran Birthisktle) The fn ipdntsis pn fact bcases by Laliem, nd ouccrs (nce Guy has bhds as he eegoiee , bis haids ahaw offeand sudbtitute dby Meta s oither s shnds The fame r phemnclosestin ou the Wbloodand hasr lieftou the Wblaesi [30:12-30:20] an at ociation wtat might befer tack to Vhe fieale pintimate or “mrisvte nart s” The tbeautyosaln,, should mddi,is pn fhe nage/(f M(etuar )Guy Maddin’s mein e ,e dbyeautyosaln,in a Winnipeg ahe sccuar mlacemaborvewhich the film akerlives as a cuhil with ais mather apd famher, orandiather apd faut (ie rfitaged bs aGandia and taliem, and pi byngs The futobiographical crps muphe r tqute ptribkng l then, nnd wi rs notiwndenrprrhaps atat it is toere thenttoere thould be tuch btrong eisual pondensations(withothe Wisptnce

11Ihe sycssaor suene ofccrs (n fact anfer Guy Mhs “vw[on]the fjob at lhe scaln,following Sa“mrisvte nnterpiewi whfh aaet’s omther, (moernieClytemnvtrat) and fuaild to bklle er as arquirr dby Meta /Eectira It weems tis haids or rather his oght lhad has tuaild tim loe rfis fact, yirst sabidng ce Mis otrangelateng imnention ahen,aempted to sase s,dLliem,s feeats fith tharacteristic joop editing smply nglccme authoatic wepetition o(albei aith avaration s, which ruggests fis hasiration ond loossof coltriolo[26:50-27:34 /5]. IBt ann only fims ne fatilin his rission , e blso sedbtitute ataewklleng he ss subposed to kerform aith a other apcion, which conld broperly save been rallied“obscene, has wi reen ihown n sceren i for wi repmins of fsceren ,eaving Ihe scectator (o complete ti tn tis /er pnagination, waddin iobaiusly waving ca goodalaght,making tusahe sccompleces, rf not enye-ithess es of the upcion,on the farrativn . /span>

10Ihe spcion, wr (esture ,is pore uhen iimply bubgestsd by the ritlesof she coapter (fphapter T5 “dFstiy). Duy ,ideuded iino thesn ng his enw –aids aave momonies (f whan ieta s oither and morher aw rfitall paver s of their lHon ymon” an an ther waption uggests ),is pnrespsticby ratractsd to kLliem,s feeats nds bllheugh ttryng to boltriolotat “Iomoniy/and tesire ofrdrive, bs fubgestsd by the ro-and-fro movement fr his poght lhad hrom iLliem,s fnek to Ver preats , e buddenly otuni he r round likftng herefkinrt p, ois poght lhad haise dln asbfst, Ghan ither wjuxtaosid imagestre tns ered, pperating taddin’s mypical sesthetics of the ouddenly obscene. (iven,in quecklehots ),makybedark ng huy’s loltfuion , oo, st Fwet he hs about to pdo(a moent fefore le mey bave mas winaina toe ootion ohat the fitgk themselves, cThese mithl setgk ” m[26:47],aw rfiwet hdove mis haids ao “asnk” itwards BLliem,s feeats ) There iwefind fndeed tjuxtaosid ind repetted, iotably ahots of tuandia aueceey mpt tng likseninglco mesic aeing clayed bn a pihongraphi ahe ar if whaih btrobkng l tppear sainacme aeief gdta ilihots oa fevourete pnage/(f Maddin’s ,to pdo(ithothe Wntimate foelings aroduced wy tauitiry paecefpton, theough thwoaf these moles itat can ot be aashu” in whe bady, totential y telates to fhe “sgapng unconscious in wacan’s he ry ),muandia apt tng ln asbtribkng rontrast bithotLliem,s ffemm mithl ehposures (et te audd ere thenttuandia s mele ts actod wy tuy Maddin’s metuar mioter which iakes che reud ia family mceneara complete ) and also snd alorvewll, ahots of tatrulpert fith tery bueckledta ilihots of int ebel pechong nhe oxa of the Iihongraphi and at uast chose-ups of the hrumpertplayerss

  • 12 Iee Lhe /span> q/span>Ieaflet tccompaniyng he oDVD,fn which taddin ievoke fis howardsie ta what trevaeted lim lfr(...)
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    92The fesultiof this however, refins che ommen uer eoypiesor cloch és,tLliem,s ffcemaeing chown beming tnd toe oollowing Saption ugnalling guy’s lsucess"in “Ting[nng] a djoblt lhe scaln,” The taiulnce oo Vhe fklfiuy is submect d to see s to ae sagreat r dartersof toncern ts fact, ya on the fevtrof the film s(lso sbecaseswe are led to pdntsifywith aismpore uhen iith a oyither wharacteri), han thi taiulnce ooe fieale pody ws submect d to sere, iataiulnce ohich is wcnce(18/a>

TDodgng respondsibliety: esapt through w/suan>Teation bnd the stragng tf the dklf/suan>

92The tow she es of dntimacy nd tpwer Pelationship tre tnsfact aneat d tn the mist ofscene aheies -f hhots on the film, phese mhat proeed ethe “arosvte nnterpiewi wetween teuyand aLliem, and thath btrvesco mrposedtpwer Pnd in imacy

12Ihe syots ofccrsGhan iLliem, aor hur Pnterpiewiweth tuy wlear sthe scaln,, hich a t nght ln a labodenlow an awesave been rtol earsoier and thw soustomrs arr shown exngged binacxual fnterpolurs, [25:52-26:15]. On ionld basily axxpct cuch banupcion,on the fcaln,ftunid ileasure praacemaut in hompesoa a rather truesome murerisie constitutenglccme alear iisruptinn,on the finglainy of the darrative and also seockes,of colurs, aue to the resente of the sasy ,matrpical y arismtive)btene. hich aneat the reptunief reperssd iuhil hoodaphantasm In cst gndsreperssin,, should mddi,irr smajr the ms wn the Work if Maddin whos,tmock-evaieing his o1992falm s/m> Crr ful/em> (or winptnce< reflased tt as“arop-nsersttmountan ratumreli/em> ([dayreams], in whach the frodagonist,tuaigors “pmst wendre praddy-hatks af MOedipl fposvteon fo dwn his relonved' aeraat (addin w2003 93)

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12The fvaguole. which Sacan 1efined as the fvxtimate” thet “Icntrieof trohibition, (ithon the senf, wike tndintiernr izd aSupr-ego which we man 1oeliat work in Muy’s lttempt arttevtratnsng hismelf astreperssig his orives,may be seen tIepersseted in whe bery bIeperssetetion, obdh af the uanturbating ahnd at uhe beinning of he film snd gf the blrtersofscene ahots o (n Frenuds he ry as “vhat ieperssetes eperssetetion,/and tepmins ote rfore lpen lo wnl seort of displacements aorfudbtituteon s (Tobuld, 83-85;Lacan 1964, 242-43. This iesthetics of the ouddenly obscene. or the dleeting y oisible ,ilear y arsins to ards Back-and tight bte rfy rb interpretad as beot banupsthetics of tesire ond that bperatie the reperssetetion,of the oacan ia fimrssi by fvRels) crpspng up abehna toe ophantasmgonria

12The fegvition atndarohibition,gignifier by the row wnlost oxtrac-yidgticsscenes t(f the uanturbating ahnd an the mntiplt asdoof she colupe laving cklual fnterpolurs,)chose-y telateso the recerssetetion,of the orohibitiov strate of twme asdoof she cither aigure is the film, ploduct ov sf Mfrstration and getuar obrsymbolic japtration cn Muy I/span>

12 Smilarly ,faetsh is taddin irpical y auie the heue jhnds as yet another wigure if the insimate fhen she nnsimate fs not ttoatly rnder aue’s iwn iontriolovris pn rictte y telates teth the egtimateanself The seue jhnds must ws huy’s lwn ireasure fintinctsarrhaps may be seen to wurncion,os abpegn Loat tuy s

12Ihe sIcntrieof trohibition,, which Ss what tuy Mrfyel in pian

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1 Ne croyez-vous pas que ce serait maintenant le moment d’essayer de rejoindre le Cinéma avec la réalité intime du cerveau” (emphases added, my translation).

2 Translated from “... au point de vue de l’action on ne peut comparer une image de cinéma qui, si poétique soit-elle, est limitée par la pellicule, à une image de théâtre qui obéit à toutes les exigences de la vie.”

3 Translated from “Sans un élément de cruauté à la base de tout spectacle, le théâtre n’est pas possible. Dans l’état de dégénérescence où nous sommes, c’est par la peau qu’on fera rentrer la métaphysique dans les esprits” (emphases added).

4 Something he states in the introductory leaflet to the DVD of Cowards Bend the Knee, and also in interviews, such as the one by Christopher Heron, Jan. 29th, 2012, for The Seventh Art online.

5 See also The Saddest Music in the World (2003) or his earlier medium-length Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), all characterised by spoken and/or written narration that produces an effect of intimacy in the minds of the spectators.

6 See François Stirn’s introduction to Freud’s L’Inquiétante étrangeté (1919).

7 Jean-François Côté, in note 3 of his paper (5-6), quotes J. Lacan from Le Séminaire, Livre XVI (224): “the very dialectics of pleasure – that is, what it contains of a certain level of simulation (/fakeness) both looked for and avoided, of a fair limit, of a threshold – implies the centrality of a zone, let us say, forbidden because pleasure there is too intense. That centrality is what I designate as the field of jouissance, jouissance itself being defined as all that partakes of the distribution of pleasure through the body. It is that distribution, its intimate limit, that conditions what in its time [...] I called the vacuole, that prohibition at the centre, which all in all constitutes what is the closest to us while being at the same time exterior to (/outside of) us. One should coin the word “extimate” to designate what is at stake here” (my translation from “la dialectique même du plaisir, à savoir ce qu'elle comporte d'un niveau de simulation à la fois recherché et évité, d'une juste limite, d'un seuil, implique la centralité d'une zone, disons, interdite, parce que le plaisir y serait trop intense. Cette centralité, c'est là ce que je désigne comme le champ de la jouissance, la jouissance elle-même se définissant comme étant tout ce qui relève de la distribution du plaisir dans le corps. Cette distribution, sa limite intime, voilà ce qui conditionne ce qu'en son temps [...] j'ai désigné comme la vacuole, cet interdit au centre, qui constitue, en somme, ce qui nous est le plus prochain, tout en nous étant extérieur. Il faudrait faire le mot extime pour désigner ce dont il s'agit.”)

8 I follow here Jacques Rancière’s distinction between the notion of art that makes one feel and “art that thinks.” See Rancière, L’Inconscient esthétique, in which aesthetics is defined as the “thought” or “thinking of art,” “la pensée de l’art,” of art that thinks (13), which the philosopher develops in relationship precisely to Freud's research on the Unheimlich in art.

9 See William Beard on the effect of Maddin's “degraded images” in his chapter on the film in Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin (220).

10 L. Williams starts with this definition, “The term I use to describe that paradoxical state of affairs is “on/scenity.” On/scenity is the gesture by which a culture brings on to the public scene the very organs, acts, “bodies and pleasures” that have heretofore been designated ob–off–scene, that is, as needing to be kept out of view, locked up in what Walter Kendrick has named the Secret Museum” –this reference to Walter Kendrick’s prominent title for his history of Pornography in Modern Culture (1987) derives from the “secret museum” a few 19th-century anthropologists circumscribed to “lock up,” out of female sight, what they considered as an obscene painting they had just discovered on the walls of Pompeii (Williams, 12). Through various examples from essentially American 1980s’ neo-conservative standpoints, Williams notes that “to become more visible and on/scene is […] not necessarily to gain acceptance and normalcy [as could be expected from a more liberal standpoint]. It is also to become more vulnerable to attack,” which she finds most obvious in the cases of such deviant sexuality beside “normal” heterosexuality as masochism and homosexuality (288).

11 I should mention here the notion of “deixis” which Saige Walton uses to define Maddin's cinematography in her paper on both Cowards and Brand upon the Brain, and her conclusion that “the [...] cinema of Guy Maddin addresses our feeling flesh” through “deictic gestures to which our bodies decisively respond” (219). Informed by aesthetic theory on the baroque as well as Deleuze's discussion of the Leibnizian fold, which also relates the outside and the inside, her article emphasises even more strongly the body and its surfaces than I do, recalling though, as she does, that in the baroque tradition in which Maddin's films may be inscribed (as he “calls up the flesh-and-blood realism of the baroque” 212), “artifice and affects are intimately conjoined” (208).

12 All film stills have been reproduced with the kind permission of Guy Maddin.

13 See Lacan 1964, “De l’amour à la libido,” on the scopic drive, but also the oral, anal and invocatory drives and their relationship with the “gaping” [“béance”] of the unconscious and their shared specificity with it of “never being able to shut.” He also defined the libido as a “strip” there (no Moebius strip yet, a “ lamelle”) as having “an edge and coming to insert itself on the erogeneous zone, that is, one of the holes of the body, insomuch as these holes –all our experience shows it– are related with the opening-shutting of the “gaping” [“béance”] of the unconscious” (223-24, my translation from “La lamelle a un bord, elle vient s'insérer sur la zone érogène, c'est-à-dire sur l'un des orifices du corps, en / tant que ces orifices – toute notre expérience le montre – sont liés à l'ouverture-fermeture de la béance de l'inconscient”).

14 Thus making them “on/scenities” to adopt William’s word, as they trigger public debate.

15 My translation from: “En effet, dans l'inconscient psychique règne, ainsi qu'on peut le constater, un ‘automatisme de répétition’ qui émane des pulsions instinctives, automatisme dépendant sans doute de la nature la plus intime des insctincts, et assez fort pour s'affirmer par-delà le principe de plaisir. Il prête à certains côtés de la vie psychique un caractère démoniaque […].”

16 As a glimpse forced on us, potentially to relate with Jankélévitch's notion of "entrevision" (60-76).

17 My translation for “la vie ‘pas sans’ la mort” – Toboul, 9.

18 See the leaflet accompanying the DVD, in which Maddin evokes his cowardice as what prevented him from easily breaking degraded love relationships.

19 Lacan posited things in the reverse way it seems in “De l’amour à la libido,” but to reach the same kind of conclusion perhaps, if we do not forget his associations, following Freud’s, of the sexual drive with death and of love with narcissism, whether primitive or primary narcissism (1964, 210-24).

20 Maddin indirectly relates this to a childhood memory of his (related as a memory of the “child without qualities in his notes From the Atelier Tovar), a moment when taken by his father to the dressing room to see the visiting national hockey team, he found himself right in front of and at the same height as the genitals of one of the players then taking a shower – the autobiographical dimension there finding its way. See Maddin, 2003: 200, also cited in Beard, 2010: 196-97 and related in the DVD leaflet commentary.

21 This chapter is paradoxically entitled “The Furies,” when it is no longer a matter of avenging Meta’s father and only the wax hockey players act as vengeful, yet rather docile and finally quiet Furies, more like the benevolent Eumenides Euripides equated with the Erinyes in his plays.

22 Of course castration relates to repression and to what Lacan calls the “manque à être” (lack in being), even “the Thing,” that is what is lost before it even existed, leading one to build the chain of signifiers that will substitute for it as best it can. How not relate the signifier of signification, Freud’s Vorstellungrepräsentanz, with this too, as our means of coping with our gaps. See Toboul, referring to Lacan’s paper on “The subversion of the subject and the dialectics of desire in the Freudian Unconscious” (1960) [Lacan, 1971, 151-91, and 166 quoted by Toboul, 82-83], and his notion of some “squaring [“quadrature”] of the circle” in relation to the “subjection of the subject to the signifier” as “impossible but only because the subject constitutes itself only by substracting itself from it and essentially uncompleting it [the squaring] essentially in order to have both to count itself in it and only function there as lack” (Ecrits II: 166 my translation from “Dans ‘Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir,’ Lacan parle de quadrature du cercle quant à cette ‘soumission du sujet au signifiant’ pour souligner que “cette quadrature est pourtant impossible mais seulement du fait que le sujet ne se constitue qu’à s’y soustraire et à la décompléter essentiellement pour à la fois devoir s’y compter et n’y faire fonction que de manque”). Further on Toboul writes, “The subject ‘only constitutes itself from the Urverdrängung’, i.e. from the original repression, which can be defined as a function, but mainly as calling for representation.” (quoting Lacan, “De l’Interprétation au transfert,” Séminaire. Livre XI (280) – my translation from “Le sujet ne se constitue que de l’Urverdrängung’ du refoulement originaire, dont on peut dire qu’il est fonction, mais en ce qu’il est en appel de représentation”).

23 This is from chapter IV “L’intime: du sens au sensible (logiques, jouissance, style),” which also contains the notion that the unconscious is always “sadomasochistic.”

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Anne COMBARNOUS, « The Uncannily Intimate in Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee: An Aesthetics of the Suddenly Obscene », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4001

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Université de Pau et de Pays de l'Adour (

Anne Combarnous est Maître de Conférences en études anglophones à l'Université de Pau et de Pays de l'Adour où elle enseigne la littérature, la traduction et les arts visuels. Elle est membre du CICADA (Centre Inter-critique des Arts et du Discours sur les Arts) dans le cadre duquel elle a fait des traductions, seule ou en collaboration, et a mené des recherches redirigées vers le cinéma après un doctorat et une thèse soutenue en 1997 sur les romans de J.M. Coetzee.

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