Pleasure, Asceticism and the Meta-Antagonist

Emily McMehen

Pleasure is not virtuous, it is not consistent in its sources and there is no specific formula that identifies a correlation between a source of pleasure and the nature of its delivery. If we perceive pleasure as a changeable trope - a condition that is intrinsically unfixed and somehow linked to the Lacanian Real, we allow for notions of what is pleasurable to be severed from those of what is pleasant. In its extremity, pleasure is savage: more like horror or hysteria in its indulgence than like another form of more principled enjoyment - closer maybe to the narrative premises of Clive Barker's cenobytes 1 and their notable sensual hybridity than to the singular approach to libidinal satisfaction provided by most mainstream pornography, for example. But still we turn to film and to other forms of entertainment as a means of realizing it.

Referring to cinema as an experience rooted in a desire to be simply entertained is inadequate. If this were the case, there would be no need for conflict within the narrative plot development. Either we must reject this concept outright, and propose another need met by cinema beyond a desire to simply be pleased, or we must include the desire to perceive conflict - even to experience ersatz conflict - within the proffered margins of what is entertaining. This may seem obvious, but it is important to distinguish clearly the disparity between an experience that is pleasing and one that is pleasurable. If being faced with conflict to varying degrees of extremity, or in some cases, without the potential for resolution is essential to the pleasure derived from cinema, then the criteria for being entertained is at least in part to be unsettled.

So if pleasure exists as a many-tentacled medium whose purpose it is at least in part to expose glimpses of a primal self, then numbered among its prosthetic devices we find scopophilia and an inward curiosity - imagine one of these tentacles holding a mirror, another operating a lens. In the cinematic arena, this discordant process becomes more sharply aligned, providing a concentrated and specific pleasure delivery device. The pleasurable occupies these interstices that join the horrific Real with narrative engagement, however superficial.

"In the symbolic order, even when we are undressed, we are not really naked since the skin itself functions as the 'dress of the flesh."'2

Zizek goes on to propose that the flayed skinless body is most akin to that of the Real; that the impossible rawness and viscerality of the flesh is its purest function exposed.3 This is also the key concept behind Clive Barker's Hellraiser films, with the fusion of agony and ecstasy occurring in the carnal dissolution or dismemberment and subsequent reconstitution of the body. Haneke's films indulge this notion of pleasure only inasmuch as they activate an acutely critical hook in their deployment of violence, which is relentless, but the viewer is denied the scopophilic satisfaction of naked violence. Haneke offers in its place an oppositional asceticism - a language of violence that provides none of the pornographic pleasure generously tendered by David Cronenberg's cathode ray cults,4 for example, but immediately coerces the viewer into a state of immobility and surrender, being simultaneously morally bereft and patiently waiting for the pornographic punch line.

The single viewing subject is sated by glimpsing its horrific and unknowable self, its Real self, in the narrative framework of film - each viewer's private sub-libidinal monster peers out with its scopophilic eye in an act of gleeful self indulgence seeking to satisfy its curiosity about itself, encoded as it is within the composite and imperative emotional diagram provided by the cinematic experience. For most filmmakers, the objective is a complex emotional vignette, where the spectator is lead through a detailed emotional sampler, with these deeply pleasing and horrific glimpses of the Real fleeting as though cast through a prism embedded in a more wholesome visual and emotional language of entertainment. Pornographic films and slasher movies notoriously employ only the most tenuous suggestion of a plot as this is what transforms the experience of the horrific Real into pleasure by allowing it to be represented - providing a raison d'être and activating the mirror. For a filmmaker like Michael Mann or Francis Ford Coppola, the plot provides a complex narrative armature upon which the mirror in question is hung - the tool to activate this ultimate cinematic affect; the tool in which the Real within the viewing subject might glimpse itself, and in so doing satiate a fundamental desire of the human psyche by revealing itself to itself.

Michael Haneke's most successful films dispense with complex emotional engagement and present the Real alongside the complex pleasure it proposes with the immediacy of an over-zealous stripper. In Funny Games (USA, 2007) Ann, played by Naomi Watts, is forced to undress in front of her family who has been taken hostage by two savagely erudite teens. The scene is protracted to show the woman's profound displeasure, the camera lingering on her face as it twitches and tics, eyes streaming tears, as she removes her clothes without revealing any intimate details of her nudity. The camera's modesty chastises the viewer for anticipating exposed flesh as catharsis. Similarly, the intimate details of the violence enacted on her family happen for the most part off-camera, and the violence itself is swift and unsentimental.

By repeatedly using video controls as reanimators, Haneke's characters manipulate time and inasmuch the intrinsic ethical formula of narrative film. The concept of linear narrative makes a series of promises to the general spectatorship about rationality and permanence, for example that the dead should stay dead unless there is reason for their reincarnation that mimics rationality, and that the present is consistent and its happenings adhere to the same general rules of engagement as those happening in real time. In Funny Games (Austria 1997/USA 2007) and Benny's Video (Austria 1994) Haneke's real-time time-travel disrupts this model. He breaks the deal, violating the symbolic order, and rending the narrative from a construct of linear time. The result is a catastrophic and perverse temporal rupture that bears likeness to Zizek's skinless body, the literally time-less body of the Real. In Funny Games, when one of the antagonists is fatally shot by the now-feral Ann, the power structure onscreen is disrupted. By now, a complex hierarchy has mutated and metastasized to include the viewer off-screen as a sort of meta-antagonist whose passive scopophilia is the cause of the continued violence inflicted on the character Ann and her family. Moreover, the viewer has been identified as straddling the ethical chasm between transgressor and victim in that he both guides the hand of the aggressor and empathizes with the victim. But, when the surviving antagonist sees his dead friend, and after a frantic search for the remote control, the power structure shifts again. With the remote control, the surviving teen (who goes by many names throughout the film), rewinds to the moment before Ann shoots his comrade and thwarts her effort by taking the gun. Now rendered helpless, the narrative deal broken, the viewer is forced to submit to the fatalistic fulfilment of his own orchestrated spectacle.

"It is Haneke's embrace of Heideggerian temporality that is most subversive: what gives his work such terrifying immediacy is the fact that everything takes place in a pure present, the terrifyingly 'normal', eternal now. Irredeemably trapped in the moment, his characters are on one side haunted by a tragedy that has always already-occurred, on the other overshadowed by a repressed anxiety about what will happen next."5

As with the ascetic denial of Ann's nudity mentioned earlier, the promises of heroism that promote a conventional narrative are perpetually rebuffed, at least in part by being banished to the realm of the pathetically mundane. Any hope (the hypothesis upon which suspense in cinema is conventionally based) is overwritten with an ever-presence of anxiety and despair.

Stunned into a sublime state of complete surrender - those who are not capable of surrender under these terms will have left the cinema by now - the spectator humbly assumes the roles of both subject and facilitator of precisely coordinated clinical violence. Earlier, I made a reference to the nature of pornographic film as employing a similar type of narrative delivery device, for Haneke the plot is a negligee peeled back from shielding the singing nerve - the raw and unrepresentable flesh of the monstrous inner being - the curious monster, the monster who does not know it is a monster. His films reveal the intimate details of this body, and the viewer himself is exposed, seeking pleasure he has instead arrived at a horrific self-knowledge by way of a prolonged encounter with the looking glass.


  1. Recurrent characters in Barker's films and novels, cenobytes (also cenobites) are inter-dimensional figures of human origin who act as perversely neutral spiritual guides and thrive on a fusion of agony and ecstasy. Their experience of these combined elements is a key concept in understanding Barker's identification of Hell as seen in the Hellraiser series as well as several of his books.

  2. Zizek, Slavoj The Metastases of Enjoyment:Six Essays on Women and Causality, Verso 1994 pgs 116-119

  3. Ibid.

  4. Cronenberg, David. Videodrome 1983

  5. Knezevic, Boris. Cries and Whimpers: Hollywood's Apocalyptic Ending vs. Being Towards Death in Haneke