5 Lacanian Cinematic Clichés that Hollywood Loves – V
5. Men in Love
Case in point: Friends with Benefits
‘There is no such thing as a sexual relationship’ is a slightly odd translation of Lacan’s well-known maxim Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel. In the French, Lacan uses a word that is so commonly employed in English that it doesn’t really need translation to get the intended meaning: rapport. To have a ‘rapport’ with someone is to have an ‘understanding’ with them, to ‘get’ them. This is what both men and women look for in relationships. But Lacan’s maxim implies that this understanding is, unfortunately, not going to happen. And not because of societal repression or the malignant effects of discourses that frame the way we think about and experience sexuality. No, Lacan goes further: there is a fundamental lack of rapport because of the different ways that men and women obtain their ‘jouissance’, their enjoyment.
Lacan elaborates these fundamentals in his twentieth Seminar, Encore, in the early seventies. Recent developments such as the sex scandals in the UK that have dogged television personalities from the 1970s, together with a handful of new movies such as Lovelace and The Look of Love that mockingly depict seventies attitudes to sex and sexuality, would suggest that this era offers little that can be instructive for a modern audience. Things are changing, Hollywood’s attitude is changing, and movies like these point to how the sexuality of that time is being re-conceptualised. But this change is also reflected in movies of the last few years about present day relationships such as Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached. These movies show us the new forms that relationships and attitudes to sexuallity take in the twenty first century.
The Lacanian community is hardly behind the times here. Last year’s Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis spent a lot of time debating these new forms and prominent Lacanians like Jacques-Alain Miller had, as early as 1999, speculated that new forms of sexuality would be the saviour of the psychoanalytic field (see Miller’s response to the final question from the audience at the bottom of this presentation).
Friends with Benefits
In the final piece in this series on Lacanian clichés in Hollywood we’ll look less at the clichéd representations of men in love from yesteryear (Sleepless in Seattle, The Notebook) and focus in particular on one movie that is definitive of contemporary attitudes to sex and relationships: Friends with Benefits. Not only is it a movie rich with Lacanian overtones, it provides a nice antidote to the dreary references to courtly love with which Lacan peppers Seminar XX.
The movie is about a couple (Dylan, played by Justin Timberlake, and Jamie, played by Mila Kunis) who meet when their former respective relationships end disastrously and Jamie arranges a new job in New York City for Dylan. They become friends but after bemoaning their single lives and the complications of relationships strike a deal whereby they’ll sleep with each other but nothing more – no commitment, no emotional involvement, just sex. One night they sit watching a romcom together listing the clichés in the genre. She asks “Why don’t they make a movie about what happens after the big kiss?” He replies, “They do. It’s called porn”. This prompts Timberlake’s character to the subject of sex, and the proposal “Why can’t it just be a game, like playing tennis?” After this, they agree to play tennis.
Ostensibly, this deal is a mutual one, which would make an enjoyable movie in itself. However, feelings get in the way and with this being Hollywood, it’s no spoiler to reveal that in line with the cliché, over time the two fall for each other.
Friends with Benefits gives us the opportunity to look at Lacan’s formulas of sexuation again (see cliché number two for the first commentary on these). Although the movie errs on the side of masculine jouissance, shrinks from Freud onward have had a bizarre obsession with feminine jouissance, and so it is to the feminine side of the formulas to which we’ll first turn.
How to read Lacan’s formulas without looking like a sexist asshole
Let’s look at the lower portions of the formulas for sexuation.
On the woman’s side, one of the two arrows points to the phallic signifier, the other to the signifier of the lack in the Other. This is where things get tricky. Let’s imagine how a mis-reading of these lower quadrants would go.
Firstly, it would be very easy for someone to look at the arrow pointing towards the phallic signifier and immediately think of Freud’s ghastly idea that this represents a desire for a penis. If they knew a bit of Lacan, they would surmise correctly that desire for Lacan is lack, and so in lacking the phallic attribute women are lacking something fundamental. Ergo, they are fundamentally incomplete.
Secondly, they would look at the other arrow pointing towards the signifier of the lack in the Other and reason that this expresses the same idea of incompleteness. Ergo, Lacan is equating female jouissance with the something ineffable. Women lack the phallus but, as if by way of compensation, they have access to a ‘special’ kind of jouissance.
Of course, if you made this mistake you’d end up looking pretty patronising and offensive.
So how should we read Lacan’s formulas for female sexuality?
One suggestion comes from Lacanian analyst Alexandre Stevens, who tries to give the female side some finesse by referring to this ‘Other’ jouissance as “not corporeal but discursive. It is a jouissance of speech, for it is a jouissance that includes love.” (Love and Sex Beyond Identifications, in The Later Lacan, p.218). And if we think about how the romantic relationship blossoms in Friends with Benefits – and indeed in real life – it is not through sex but through the spoken relationship between the two characters, the deal-making itself, the witty banter, etc that things take hold. Stevens has grounds for this – Lacan says in Seminar XX that to speak of love is in itself a jouissance (Seminar XX, p.64).
But Jacques-Alain Miller provides an even better suggestion. In one session of his long-running course L’orientation lacanienne from 1998 (available in English as ‘Of Distribution Between the Sexes’ here) he points out that what appears as incomplete should instead be thought of as infinite. Contrary to the man’s relation with the ‘not-all’ (discussed in cliché number two, here), on the woman’s side the relation is to the ‘not One’. If man’s relation to his jouissance is characterised by a reference to an exception (the character who evades the law that binds all other men, as we saw in the second cliché), a woman’s relation to her jouissance is, as we see by the arrow pointing to the signifier of the lack in the Other, not bound by a reference to a totality of any sort. To use Jean-Claude Milner’s formula, “the infinite is that which says no to the exception to the finite” (Milner, L’Oeuvre claire, p.66).
Miller expresses the difference like this:
The dotted line indicates the absence of a structural limit, in other words, the infinite. The arrow pointing to the signifier of the lack in the Other should be read as ‘other’ to the Other and therefore not part of the ‘One’. The Other that is not one. This is what Lacan means when he says in Seminar XX that “the Other cannot in any way be taken as a One.” (Seminar XX, p.49).
Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupančič picks up Miller’s interpretation and expresses it in similar terms, arguing that we have to understand this ‘infinite jouissance’ in a mathematical and not in a metaphorical sense (Alenka Zupančič, in ‘The Perforated Sheet’, in Sexuation, p.295-296). “The infinite”, she writes, “is not a set but a virtual point excluded from the action of the finite” (ibid, p.290).
Does Lacan believe men can fall in love?
Friends with Benefits portrays an ideal male fantasy – the hot female friend who is completely cool with a purely sexual relationship with no strings attached. This chimes very nicely with how Lacan positions the male attitude to the sexual relationship in his formulas:
What strikes the eye about the lower quadrants of the formula is a weird asymmetry. The woman’s side has two arrows indicating the direction of her desire; the man’s side only has one – to the object a. But if all the man is interested in is the object a – which Lacan conceives of not as the other person, but as the partial object, the prop for masturabtory fantasy – how can a man love?
Lacan makes some very disparaging remarks about love at the start of Seminar XX – that being in love is just like the parrot that nibbles at Picasso’s shirt, that it is essentially narcissistic, and that it is impotent (Seminar XX, p.6). Although he also says that “Love is impotent, though mutual” (ibid) this is only so because there is a desire to be One (in the sense of a conjugal union between man and wife) and this desire is born of the fact that a rapport between the sexes is impossible.
So we can view the lack of elaboration in Seminar XX on the male position either as the weak point of Lacan’s argument about men, or its radical conclusion. Is he suggesting that the character of love for a man is really nothing more than a sort of over-valuation of object a? Is this all it’s about for a man – that he can love only insofar as object a is there to support his jouissance?
Lacan doesn’t seem to offer an answer, and despite the huge volume of work devoted to these infernal formulas, not many people seem bothered by the question.
Even Miller concedes that on the woman’s side there is “a jouissance which requires that one pass via love”, and then blithely adds “while jouissance on the male side does not require that it pass via love” (L’orientation lacanienne, available in English as ‘Of Distribution Between the Sexes’ here).
Men in love – between the object a and narcissism?
Nonetheless, because Friends with Benefits is a Hollywood movie, it ends in the characters falling in love. But the way in which this happens itself contains interesting Lacanian lessons about the character of love for a man.
If Lacan’s formulas suggest that men only relate to the object a in their sexual lives, in the deal between Dylan and Jamie in Friends with Benefits are we supposed to conclude that Dylan is just using her as the prop for his fantasy?
In actual fact, the movie is full of characters that pursue only the object a. This can lead us to conclude that it’s the movie itself that’s a male fantasy rather than just the character of Dylan (the film was written and directed exclusively by men). The character of Tommy, Dylan’s gay colleague, is the most obvious example – towards the end of the movie he stages a photoshoot with bunch of naked guys in which he is the photographic director arranging them as he pleases, and earlier he even jokes about how the offers from women “keep rolling in”. Similarly, Jamie’s mother is essentially the female equivalent of Timberlake’s character – she sleeps around and is quite open about the fact with her daughter, to whom she confesses not even being able to remember who her father was. Pure enjoyment, unfettered by relationships and committment.
Right at the start of Seminar XX Lacan proclaims that love is essentially narcissistic (Seminar XX, p.6), and he later elaborates on this when he declares that “when one is a man, one sees in one’s partner what one props oneself up on, what one is propped up by narcissistically.” (Seminar XX, p.87). Dylan’s narcissism is all over this movie, and often we see it reflected back by Kunis. Dylan works for GQ (a company most well-known for specialising in representations of the male ideal) as its art director (creating these representations of perfection). Even when Dylan is in bed with Kunis, there is a not-so-subtle reference to Timberlake’s day job as a popstar: for no apparent reason he tries to relax her in the most narcissistic way – by singing Third Eye Blind songs.
The route to love is via another man
Friends with Benefits ends very clumsily with Dylan all of a sudden coming to the realisation that he loves Jamie. But aside for the narrative imperfections, there is a nice Lacanian message. It is only when he hears his father, who is confused by Alzheimer’s, mistake another woman for the girl he confesses was the love of his life in his younger years, that Dylan realises he loves Jamie. The route to love is not straight to the woman (Lacan’s formulas show nothing of the sort, of course) but via another man. The absurdity of the movie’s conclusion is that he quickly admits his love for Jamie after this set-up – he showed no indication of having felt it before. In Lacanian terms, we can say he has taken lack as his object.
But the route to love is also via another man in a different sense. Friends with Benefits is peppered with references to the possibility that Dylan’s character might be gay. These are mostly insinuations by other characters, but in any case the movie wasn’t scripted by accident. We see it in the constant misunderstandings of the gay friend Tommy, played by Woody Harrelson; the references by Dylan’s nephew to the Harry Potter fascination he had in his boyhood; and, most flagrantly, to Dylan’s interest in anal sex in the movie’s opening scenes. Even the fact that Kunis’ character has a traditionally male name – Jamie – is suggestive. The introduction of a gay subtext can in itself can be read as indicative of the changing nature of sexuality that the movie points to, beyond the relationship between men and women.
At the end of the movie, after the declarations of love, we see Dylan and Jamie on their first ‘official’ date. They sit in a diner with nothing to say to each other. And in a beautiful parallel to the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Dylan gives up entirely on the falsity of the situation and says wearily, ‘Yeah… Fuck’, and they get it on.
Perhaps therefore the final lesson about male love that Friends with Benefits offers is that there is only one sexual relation possible – the one with your object a.
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
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