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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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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.) [01:01:11-01:01:33 – emphases mine]. We see in this that it is a matter of the domestic field indeed, the “home” and what frightening devils or “demons” and the accompanying “terrors” it involves. This final judgement is possibly related to Maddin’s actual memories of his father at the hockey club or leaving for long drives away from home as he relates in the DVD leaflet – with a humorous aspect in the displaced re-membering of those memories that sets pathos at a safe distance.

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

12Guy’s bending of the knee is also quite obvious in the scene of the combing and the threatening comb, with a striking reversal of operating effects, as with the egg-whisk, between the ordinary and the obscene, when the ordinary, in the way it is shot16 appears as the threateningly obscene, the power tool, either of the man subjecting a woman (egg-whisk) or of the woman subjecting the man, the protagonist’s self, with her promise of always delayed pleasure (her breast in the bright lighting is filmed to this effect).

13The film is a fable on creation itself, as its incipit as well as all its displacements strongly suggest, as here the comb standing for a potential substitute of a woman’s phallic power (as the instrument of “phallic jouissance” perhaps of the Other (“Guy”)’s body, or a substitute for her terrifying oral/dental power, or vagina dentata). The film has a subtitle, The Blue Hands, and it replays a theme that had already been dealt with in Robert Wiene’s 1924 Orlacs Hände with Conrad Veidt or Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love with Peter Lorre, adapted from Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac (1921), even though the substitution of Guy’s hands is not with a murderer’s (allegedly) but with a murdered man’s, those of Meta’s father, previously killed by his own wife, Liliom, with the help of Shaky. It is Meta’s furious wish that Guy’s hands should be replaced by her father’s and, as a modern embodiment of Electra, she is determined that Guy should avenge her father (Euripides’ tragedy is a reference acknowledged by Maddin). It is also the condition she sets for Guy to be allowed to touch her – with her father’s own hands then, incestuous fetishist that she is.

14The substitution is “a hoax” as Dr Fusi will later reveal to Guy and as the viewer has been shown. But before he reveals the truth, all the characters in the film believe it. One is easily tempted to see in those “Blue Hands” the extimate as a “zone of prohibition” (see note 7 above), for the hands are Guy’s, they are therefore familiar to him, an intimate part of him, but he does not recognize them so that he relates them to the realm of the dead, as he has been led to believe they are a dead man’s (from the blue paint used by Dr Fusi to imitate the hue of death itself in this black and white film). He also keeps them concealed most of the time by wearing gloves – a second skin further marking his estrangement from his own hands. Obviously Guy is frightened at having been forced into this too proximate relation to death.

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

15Still Guy’s hands act as living hands, moreover, with a vibrant “vital impetus” (Bergson’s “élan vital”), to be set in parallel with the death instinct, conjoined in Lacan’s interpretation in the driving power of “jouissance,” the signifier that comprises the two instincts of life and death, “life ‘not without’ death”;17 a return producing the “Unheimlich” in disrupting the emotions by recalling one’s own primary affects, mainly anxiety or fright in association with the castration complex. If not a murderer’s hands, Guy’s “blue hands” cannot, he believes, be his own, as though the sexual desires they embodied (yet another metonymic displacement this) were not really his own either, which is why he reacts as he does, with no control over his deeds, a truly split self, which the symbolic fragmentation of his body, his “blue hands,” embody.

16We may wonder, of course, at how easily he has been deluded and believes himself innocent as regards his own desires, acts, and, it seems, whatever happens to him. He is perhaps too glad to have found elsewhere than in his own self causes for his behaviour independent of his own will (as a “coward” will do), namely in those “blue hands” and, further, in the vamps Maddin portrays, with blood-like lipstick and alluring postures, such as Meta or her mother Liliom, offering their breasts all too readily to him.

17Contrary to the comb, but possibly working like it in the economy of the film, there is another threatening object: the pair of scissors. Guy is holding them at one point and he accidentally wounds one of the customers at the “beauty salon” of Meta’s mother, Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle). The incident is in fact caused by Liliom and occurs once Guy has had, as he believes, his hands sawn off and substituted by Meta’s father’s hands. The camera then closes in on the blood and hair left on the blades [30:12-30:20], an association that might refer back to the female “intimate” or “private parts.” The beauty salon, I should add, is in the image of (actual) Guy Maddin’s reinvested beauty salon in My Winnipeg, the actual place above which the filmmaker lived as a child with his mother and father, grandmother and aunt (here staged as Grandma and Liliom) and siblings. The autobiographical crops up here quite strikingly then, and it is no wonder perhaps that it is there that there should be such strong visual condensation (with the distance humour introduces of course) of what we could interpret as the taboo of incest. The scissors’ cut might be seen to stand for Guy’s misplaced or uncontrolled sexual power, initiating a rendering of some displaced yet effective castration. Following the incident, Liliom, the “proprietress” of the salon, forbids Guy to use any more of his power, as it were – just as her daughter Meta forbade him to touch her in the combing scene. She thereby restrains his job to taking care of the little ones – no longer the grown-up women. But this leads to another threatening scene, when the threat might be felt more forcefully as it involves a little baby’s hand, although Guy is merely equipped with a nail file, which, however, could very well cut into the skin, as suggested by the shifts in viewing angles and quick editing again, juxtaposing the close-ups of Guy’s large hand encompassing the little hand of the baby under his care [30:20-30:42 end of the chapter]. The scene is very brief but nonetheless marking, all the more so as the baby may be the one we saw in a brief previous scene, offering perhaps the weirdest and, strictly speaking, most “properly” obscene shots in the film, which I will refer to further below.

18The scissors scene occurs in fact after Guy has “w[on] the job” at the salon following a “private interview” with Meta’s mother (modern Clytemnestra), and failed to kill her as required by Meta/Electra. It seems his hands, or rather his right hand has failed him there in fact, first abiding by his strangulating intentions then tempted to caress Liliom’s breast, with characteristic loop editing implying some automatic repetition (albeit with variations), which suggests his hesitation and loss of control [26:50-27:34 /54]. But not only does he fail in his mission, he also substitutes the killing he is supposed to perform with another action, which could properly have been called “obscene” had it been shown on screen – for it remains off screen, leaving the spectator to complete it in his/her imagination, Maddin obviously having a good laugh, making us the accomplices, if not eye-witnesses, of the action in the narration.

19The action, or gesture, is more than simply suggested by the title of the chapter (“Chapter 5” “Fisty”). Guy, deluded into thinking his new “hands have memories” (of when Meta’s father and mother were still lovers, on their “Honeymoon” as another caption suggests), is irresistibly attracted to Liliom’s breast and, although trying to control that “memory” and desire or drive, as suggested by the to-and-fro movement of his right hand from Liliom’s neck to her breast, he suddenly turns her around, lifting her skirt up, his right hand raised in a fist, when other juxtaposed images are inserted, operating Maddin’s typical aesthetics of the suddenly obscene (given in quick shots), maybe marking Guy’s confusion, too, at what he is about to do (a moment before he may have had in mind the notion that the sinks themselves, “Those fatal sinks!” [26:47], were what drove his hands to “sink” towards Liliom’s breast). There we find indeed, juxtaposed and repeated, notable shots of Grandma quietly sitting listening to music being played on a phonograph, the ear of which strikingly appears in some brief detail shots (a favourite image of Maddin’s, to do with the intimate feelings produced by auditory perception, through two of those holes that cannot be “shut” in the body, potentially related to the “gaping unconscious” in Lacan’s theory), Grandma sitting in a striking contrast with Liliom’s femme fatale posture (let me add here that Grandma’s role is acted by Guy Maddin’s actual mother, which makes the Freudian family scenario complete), and also and above all, shots of a trumpet, with very quick detail shots of its bell echoing the ear of the phonograph, and at last close-ups of the trumpet player’s hand also shaped into a fist plunging into the bell of his instrument, adding to or making up for the obscenity (actual ob/off-scenity) of a relation in which no intimacy is reached but a fight for power has been played out.

  • 18 See the leaflet accompanying the DVD, in which Maddin evokes his cowardice as what prevented him fr (...)

20The result of this, however, defies the common stereotypes or clichés, Liliom’s face being shown beaming and the following caption signalling Guy’s success in “win[ning] a job at the salon.” The violence to the self Guy is subjected to seems to be a greater matter of concern in fact, as in the rest of the film (also because we are led to identify with him more than with any other character), than the violence the female body is subjected to here, a violence which is cancelled as such, as it produces not pain but pleasure in sadomasochistic Liliom – another stereotype, that of the Sadeian woman, the “mother” of sexual fantasies or phantasms with phallic power, which her whip easily signifies, and as her being referred to as the “proprietress” of the place highlights. What this “ob/off/scene” violence, or cruelty triggers, in a scene that comes out as an obvious comic parody of Greek tragedy turned into erotic romance, is comic relief above all regarding the expected or called for murder which the unnamed, unutterable, not-to-be-shown fist-fucking replaces as punishment of the villain. Even if it does not achieve this purpose, though, given Liliom’s obvious pleasure, it does enter the pattern of revenge this whole mock-heroic comedy actualises, to the benefit of Guy, whose difficulties in overcoming castration threats are the main focus of the film, as potentially confirmed by Maddin’s comment on his film as a confession as to his own cowardice.18

Dodging responsibility: escape through creation and the staging of the self

21The two themes of intimacy and power relationships are in fact enacted in the most obscene series of shots in the film, those that precede the “private interview” between Guy and Liliom, and which serve to oppose power and intimacy.

22The shots occur when Liliom, for her interview with Guy, clears the salon, which at night is a “bordello” as we have been told earlier, and two customers are shown engaged in sexual intercourse [25:52-26:15]. One could easily expect such an action in the salon turned pleasure palace but it comes as a rather gruesome surprise, constituting some clear disruption in the linearity of the narrative, and also shocks, of course, due to the presence of the baby, a typically primitive scene which enacts the return of repressed childhood phantasms. Incest and repression, I should add, are major themes in the work of Maddin, who, mock-reviewing his 1992 film Careful for instance, declared it a “pro-incest mountain traumerei [daydream],” in which the protagonist Grigorss “must endure paddy-whacks of Oedipal privation to win his beloved's heart” (Maddin, 2003 93).

  • 19 Lacan posited things in the reverse way it seems in “De l’amour à la libido,” but to reach the same (...)

23Again it is a matter, as regards the devices in Cowards, of focusing our attention in a certain way, of surprising the viewers with uncanny juxtapositions between the familiar / familial / domestic (Liliom there at “home,” the sight of the baby and baby’s legs), and what belongs to another genre altogether, the man’s rather gross guttural panting next to the baby crying, associated with mounting orchestral music, the shamelessness and nakedness of the bodies, the rhythmic mechanical quality of their performance. This is no porn film, however, but with the sexual intercourse taking place on a raw mattress set on the very floor, the man looking back at Liliom (who is both smoking and holding a whip which we will hear cracked as the couple leaves the salon) as if hoping she will let him finish what he is at, the woman’s rapid glance at the camera at one point (with the couple in these shots taken from a distance though), and most of all with the woman’s hand grasping the baby by the leg, the scene clearly posits sex as a form of deviation at the opposite range of the spectrum from intimacy–disrupting intimacy, what is more, between mother and child–, and from “true love” certainly (which Guy seems bound never to find).19 Sex, at least in this economic form, where it is nearer to trade than to love (nearer to its exchange value, or “commarxe” in Lacan’s pun of 1973 – Encore, 124), is made to relate blatantly to the notion of some understandable prohibition given the proximity of the baby, just as the scene suggests how any deviation or perversion will first of all be experienced in the intimate circle of the family, be it merely the reduced family nucleus of mother and child as here.

24The “vacuole” which Lacan defined as the “extimate,” that “centre of prohibition” within the self, like an internalized Super-ego, which we can feel at work in Guy’s attempts at restraining himself, at repressing his drives, may be seen “represented” in the very “representation,” both of the masturbating hand at the beginning of the film and of the latter obscene shots – excess in the latter substituting for lack in the former – in parallel perhaps with Lacan’s interpretation of the Vorstellungrepräsentanz in Freud’s theory as “what represents representation” and remains therefore open to all sorts of displacements or substitutions (Toboul, 83-85; Lacan 1964, 242-43). This aesthetics of the suddenly obscene, or the fleetingly visible, clearly points towards lack and might thereby be interpreted as both an aesthetics of desire and what operates the representation of the Lacanian impossible “Real” cropping up behind the phantasmagoria.

25The deviation and prohibition signified by the two almost extra-diegetic scenes (of the masturbating hand in the incipit and of the couple having sexual intercourse) closely relate to the representation of the prohibitive stance of women and of the father figure in the film, productive of frustrations and actual or symbolic castration in Guy.

26Similarly, fetishist Maddin typically uses the blue hands as yet another figure of the intimate when the intimate is not totally under one’s own control or is intricately related with the extimate itself. The blue hands, just as Guy’s own pleasure instinct perhaps, may be seen to function as a sign that Guy’s intimate wishes are not completely his own, that deep down he is under the command of a superior, external authority. That authority is obviously his father (Victor Cowie), whose figure is characterised as almighty, tall or made-to-look-tall, wearing a long overcoat and hat when he comes down from the room in which he is shown most often, set high above the hockey arena, with loud-speakers at his disposal (another favourite instrument of control in Maddin's films).

  • 20 Maddin indirectly relates this to a childhood memory of his (related as a memory of the “child with (...)

27Even Guy’s (true?) love for the ghost of Veronica is rivalled by his own father’s love for her, and his father goes as far as helping him pee by holding his penis for him at the urinating trough once Guy has lost his hands for good, derisively saying to him, to crown it all, “I see you still need your hand held” (where the “hand” clearly comes out as a substitute for the penis, and phallic power on a symbolic level). The father’s sexual organ is shown by contrast, seeming almost too “young” for such an old man, with the rather long take of the shot potentially expressing Guy’s envy, although it is not a subjective-camera shot that we have, for it is taken at waist height while Guy is obviously looking down at his father’s sex [52:06-52:34].20 The father will even try to strangle his son later on, stopped only by Veronica who fears for his “heart” condition. This occurs after Guy has gone too far in his protest, in expressing his rage and his feeling of injustice at the ghost of Veronica’s choice of his father instead of himself, and this is the moment when Guy calls back to life the famous players of the Wax Museum to help him take his revenge [57:00-58:35].

28The “centre of prohibition,” which is what Guy rebels in vain against in the end, somehow finds its transcription in the vibrant “No!” Guy’s father finally opposes to him in that scene, actually transcribed in a caption (as the simple written “Law” of the Father, or the “Nom[ “Non”]-du-père), which gives way to a close shot of Guy, left quite voiceless (“interdit” in French), looking down submissively, as the “coward” – or at least too submissive son he (still) is.

  • 21 This chapter is paradoxically entitled “The Furies,” when it is no longer a matter of avenging Meta (...)

29Yet, following this scene, at the close of this, the tenth and last chapter21Guy becomes a “new fixture” in the Wax Museum of the Hockey Arena. It happens, as does the oppositional scene with his father, once his hands have been sawn off for good, Meta having demanded to retrieve her father’s hands after Guy left her, having fallen in love with a “new girl” as he believes (ironically the ghost of his former girl, Veronica). He may, however, have left her simply due to his inability to face Meta any longer – she is the one who led him to become the actual murderer of hockey player Shaky (Liliom’s lover and accomplice, the embodiment of Aegisthus), as well as the murderer of Liliom herself (he eventually strangles her after rejecting her kisses and seduction with no hesitation), and also the murderer of Mo Mott, his best friend, a hockey mate and also a cop, whom he kills for refusing to accept his claim that he “killed Shaky.” Dr Fusi yields to Meta’s command to retrieve her fathers’ hands from Guy instead of telling her about the fake substitution he first performed, and there is blood on yet another blade, that of the saw Dr Fusi uses to operate the actual cutting or sawing off of Guy’s now truly murderous hands [49:40-50:35].

30Could Guy’s integration among the wax figures of famous players suggest that once he has lost his “(blue) hands,” he has retrieved his true self, or is it simply that he has become heroic by hockey standards, scoring a goal, as he has just done, though handless? He has also acted as the hero avenging his beloved lover and become even more heroic perhaps by, at last, controlling drives he now has no hands to actualise – a hero who has only briefly opposed his father but has given up Meta’s physique –, a mock-heroic deed of self-restraint or self-abnegation.

31Guy’s name has been changed to “Red Dunsmore” (a mix of “Red Dutton” and “Fred Dunsmore,” famous players honoured at the actual Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum in Winnipeg). Could Guy have decided to usurp another “guy”’s identity to dodge punishment for his crimes, or will the killing of Ma-in-law be simply ignored? “Red,” as a complement and opposite of “blue” in the colour spectrum and symbolism, the red of the Maroons’ team shirts, might be a suggestion that he has indeed recovered his own self, rid of the death instinct “blue” was associated with (as the colour of darkness and night, and bloodless cadavers) and can now live more fully (be it as an undead of sorts). At least he is now rid of his rivalry with his father and of his desire for his “father’s wife,” with an acceptance thereby of symbolic castration in connection with the prohibition of incest, an obvious step in the construction of the self – be it into another self, here strongly objectified or rather reified (but not necessarily very heroic), and further, why not, into an “I”(?).

32There is no such clear subject as a narrating “I” in the film, but some of the speech quoted in the captions, notably when characterised by a specific tonality triggered by this or that feeling or emotion, clearly emanates from the protagonist’s “self” , a “self” not often directly assumed as “I” (once again, the typical “coward”), except in the end when he acknowledges, answering Meta, that indeed he loves “the new girl” (“Well, yes, I do” [49:33 – my emphasis]).

33At least Guy has truly escaped in the end what could have been his lot; the domestic enslavement of family responsibility. Or has he? His tarot cards in the Museum had announced to him “a mysterious apocalypse” [50:59-51:09], a “revelation” that is, which we might identify with this escape, although it only confirms, does not belie his cowardice, as illustrated throughout by Maddin in a very humorous, self-derisive way. The brief scene when resurrected Chas (Meta’s father, with the actual first name of Maddin’s father, played by Henry Mogatas) drops Meta from the catwalk above the ice rink [59:47-01:00:07], just before the ending, is accounted for by these rather abrupt captions (all the more abrupt as they sound so neutral): “the weight of a daughter” “is too much for a father with no hands.” Such a father is what Guy will fortunately never be, it seems.

34Paradoxical as it may seem, the ending must probably be interpreted quite favourably due to the announced “apocalypse” and Guy’s illuminated look at discovering it, as well as to the tone which is decidedly comic, not tragic, throughout. Not only is Maddin having a bit of fun, but in the guise of thrashing himself in public by the exhibition of his own intimate cowardly tendency (the transfer of his own role to an actor could be seen as further evidence of that tendency), he is seemingly praising cowardice itself, which being a hockey hero should not prevent one from displaying – quite the contrary indeed if we consider the above-quoted ironic moral of the film, which directly follows the shot of Guy slightly bending the knee in his position as a “new fixture” in the Wax Museum, a moral obviously subverting the commonly supposed heroism of hockey players in Canada, where the sport is just as important as soccer for the French or English, and a good means there, too, for husbands to stay away from “home.”

  • 22 Of course castration relates to repression and to what Lacan calls the “manque à être” (lack in bei (...)

35What a relief to be released from one’s own potential responsibilities! The subject here, once he has “constituted himself,” including the acceptance of inevitable castration, is necessarily lacking (“with no hands”) but is at ease now.22 He is at peace with his drives and thereby his “extimate,” prohibition, and further his unconscious – his “Unbegriff,” as famously interpreted from Freud by Lacan to mean some a-concept, with “Un-” meaning both “one” in French and the privative “un-” in German, something “a-conceptual” which, however, is “one”; that is, deprived of (conscious) thought (the “hands” symbolically), but at one with the unconscious, open to, or “all ears” to one’s slit(s), crack(s), cleft(s), split(s), “cut(s)” (Lacan 1964, 34-36).

  • 23 This is from chapter IV “L’intime: du sens au sensible (logiques, jouissance, style),” which also c (...)

36These slits or cuts should, however, also be related to the scriptural traces of writing in Lacan (as in Kristeva), such traces as we find in Maddin’s noisy “silent” films together with, like here, frequent stripes moving across the screen like snow falling, as are the cuts themselves that are part of that articulation of the self the filmmaker obviously stages in his cinema. These might invite us, as all good works of art do, to be watchful or open to our own “cuts,” “slits,” “holes” and “articulations” (our joints and “hands” too) so as, like his character at the end, to be left undisturbed by the fear that spectres or ghosts could return to rule our life. Or, having left open the doors, there being no more “secret” to be held – a favourite word of Maddin’s –, no censorship ruling, to welcome our ghosts, as Maddin himself summons his own ghosts (as Guy summons the ghosts of the wax hockey players in the end), to signify perhaps the ancient affects without which thought would be nothing. In doing so we perceive what Kristeva has called “le vif de l’intime,” the “living flesh” or “(pounding) heart of the intimate” (Kristeva 78),23 and we experience it through the combination of the senses on the one hand and the symbolic on the other, as we do through Maddin’s distanced camera shots and the vibrant fuzzy effects of 8mm film and quick editing, together with his characteristic self-derisive humour. The task of psychoanalysis is precisely to help one reach that experience as Kristeva claims in her subpart on “Psychic life as jouissance” (81, 82). It is also what the cinema that counts could be said to achieve, by proxy, through role models, in its play on the “Unheimlich” or “uncannily intimate” – and in Guy Maddin’s films such as Cowards, more strikingly, through this aesthetics of the suddenly obscene.

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Artaud, Antonin. “Le Théâtre de la Cruauté (Premier manifeste).” (1932) Le Théâtre et son double. Paris: Gallimard (Folio Essais), 1964. Print.

---. L’Ombilic des Limbes (1925) suivi de Le Pèse-Nerfs et autres textes. Paris: Gallimard Poésie, 1968. Print.

Beard, William. Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Print.

Côté, Jean-François. “Des origines artistiques de l’extimité à une esthétique généralisée des démocraties de masse chez Andy Warhol.” L’Intime et le politique dans la littérature et les arts (June 2010 International Conference Proceedings). Eds. Florence Baillet and Arnaud Régnauld. Le Texte Étranger 8 Web. Jan 2011.

Freud, Sigmund. L’Inquiétante étrangeté (1919). Trans. Marie Bonaparte and E. Marty. Intr. and comment François Stirn (1st edition Jan. 1987). PhiloSophie (Profil Textes Philosophiques), Octobre 2008: 4-5. Web.

Heron, Christopher. Interview of Guy Maddin. Jan. 29th, 2012. The Seventh Art online. Issue I, Section 3. Youtube. Web. Jun. 6 2014.

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque-rien. 1 : La manière et l’occasion. Paris: Seuil (Essais), 1980. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. La Révolte intime. Pouvoirs et limites de la psychanalyse II (Seminar 1996-97, Université de Paris VII-Denis Diderot). Paris Fayard (Biblio - Essais), 1997. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits II. Paris: Seuil (Points), 1971. Print.

---. Le Séminaire. Livre XI. Les Quatre concepts fondamentaux de la Psychanalyse (1964). Text established by Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil (Essais), 1973. Print.

---. Le Séminaire. Livre XVI. D'un autre à l'Autre (1968-1969). Paris: Seuil, 2006. Print.

---. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore (1972-1973). Paris: Seuil (Essais), 1975. Print.

Maddin, Guy. Cowards Bend the Knee / Et les Lâches s’agenouillent (Canada, 2003, 65'). E.D. Distribution, 2007. Leaflet commentary trans. Bénédicte Renard and Maximilien Michiels. DVD and Print.

---. From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. L’Inconscient esthétique. Paris: Galilée (La philosophie en effet), 2001. Print.

Toboul, Bernard. “Le passage de la jouissance à l’inconscient.” Figures de la Psychanalyse 5.2 (2001): 75-87. Cairn. Web.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core. Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Walton, Saige. “Hit with a Wrecking Ball, Tickled with a Feather: Gesture, Deixis and the Baroque Cinema of Guy Maddin.” Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin. Ed. David Church. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009. 203-23. Print.

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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 15 juillet 2018. 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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