Curated by Alejandra Seeber

Femininity between Goodness and Act
Slavoj Zizek

Ana Cardoso

Author’s Bio

Let us approach the central topic of Lacan’s seminar Encore—the paradoxes of feminine sexuality—through Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (BW), a film which enables us to avoid the fatal misreading of Lacan’s notion of feminine jouissance.

BW, a film about the inherent deadlocks of Goodness,[1] is set during the 70’s in a small Presbyterian community on the West Coast of Scotland. Bess, a simpleminded and deeply religious local girl, marries Jan, a hearty oil-rig worker, courting the disapproval of the village elders. After the sexual ecstasy of their honeymoon Bess can’t bear having Jan return to the rigs, so she begs God to return Jan to her saying that in exchange for his return she would put up with any trial of her faith. Soon afterwards, as if in answer to her prayers, Jan effectively returns, but paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident on the oil-rig. Confined to his hospital bed, Jan tells Bess she must make love to other men and describe her experiences to him in detail—this way, she will keep awake his will to live: although she will be doing the act physically with other men, the true sex will occur in their conversation…

When after her first successful adventure Jan’s condition improves slightly, Bess dolls herself up as a vulgar prostitute and starts to consort with men in spite of warnings from her mother that she will be cast out of the church. After a series of ups and downs in her perverse pact with Jan (his occasional bouts of depression when he declares that he wants to die; her near-lynching by local kids, then being consigned to a mental hospital and escaping), she is informed that Jan is dying. Interpreting this as a sign that she is not doing enough for him, she returns to an offshore ship where she was once already cut by a sadistic sailor and barely escaped, well aware of what she can expect there. She is brutally beaten and, when brought to the hospital and informed that Jan is no better, dies in despair. At the coroner’s inquest, the doctor who took care of her earlier testifies that her true disease was Goodness itself. She is nonetheless denied the proper funeral service; Jan (now miraculously able to walk) and his friends steal her body and launch it to rest out at sea. Later, they are woken up by the sound of church bells resounding miraculously from high above the oil-rig…

This final shot of the film—the bells high in the sky—is to be conceived of as the psychotic “answer of the real”: the hallucinatory return in the real of the divine jouissance whose foreclosure from the symbolic is signalled by the absence of the bells from the church tower (throughout the film we hear complaints about the removal of the bells from the local church). This last answer of the real concludes the long series of exchanges and acts by proxy which follow the Fall from paradisiacal jouissance. That is to say, in the first part of the film, during her brief marital happiness, Bess fully enjoys sex with her husband in an absolutely innocent sense (all the talk in some reviews of the film about her sexual repression is totally misplaced); it is this very excessive attachment of hers to him which induces her to commit her original sin: unable to accept separation from Jan, she has violent fits of impotent fury and rage, and then, in a desperate prayer, offers God the first symbolic exchange—she is ready to renounce anything, to suffer any deprivation or humiliation, only if Jan is brought back to her…

When, as if an answer to her entreaty, Jan effectively returns, but completely paralyzed from the neck down, Bess reads his accident as the first “answer of the real,” as God’s price for the realization of her unconditional wish. From this point onward, throughout the film, she reads even the tiniest fluctuations in his humor and health as signs addressed to her: when he falls back into depression, it is because she did not sacrifice herself enough for him, etc. Consequently, when, towards the film’s end, Jan seems to approach the final coma, she decides to accomplish the ultimate act of exchange and visits a sadistic customer who, as she is well aware, will beat her to death—and indeed, after Bess dies, Jan miraculously regains his ability to walk. This denouement, of course, is purely fantasmatic: Jan’s miraculous healing is the answer of the real to her absolute sacrifice—it is literally over her dead body that he rises up again. Sex with strangers is for Bess a humiliating and excruciating experience, and this very pain confirms her belief that she is engaged in a properly religious act of sacrifice, doing it for the love of her neighbor, to alleviate his pain, to enable him to enjoy by proxy. (One of the critics quite appropriately remarked that BW does for God and sexuality what Babette’s Feast does for God and food…). It is thus easy to discern in her acts the contours of what Lacan defined as the modern, post-classical tragedy[2]: the highest sacrifice of love is not to remain pure, intact, for the absent (or impotent) lover, but to sin for him, to besmirch oneself for him. This is clearly signalled when alone in the church Bess tells God that, on account of what she is doing for Jan, she is going to Hell. “Whom do you want to save?” comes the divine reply, “Jan, or yourself?” In short, to save Jan, Bess accepts to betray HERSELF. The highest sacrifice of love is to accept freely and willingly the role of the other through which the subject enjoys: not to suffer for the other, but to enjoy for him. The price Bess has to pay for it is complete alienation: her jouissance is now in words, not in things, not in the bodily sexual activity itself, but in her verbal report on her exploits to the crippled Jan…

P1010684 Ana Cardoso

Here, of course, the obvious reproach imposes itself: is thus BW not the utmost “male chauvinist” film celebrating and elevating into a sublime act of sacrifice the role which is forcefully imposed on women in patriarchal societies, that of serving as the support of male masturbatory fantasies? Bess is completely alienated in the male phallic economy, sacrificing her jouissance for the sake of her crippled partner’s mental masturbation. However, at a closer look, things get more complex. According to the standard version of the Lacanian theory, the non-all (pas-tout) of woman means that not all of a woman is caught up in the phallic jouissance: She is always split between a part of her which accepts the role of a seductive masquerade aimed at fascinating the man, attracting the male gaze, and another part of her which resists being drawn into the dialectic of (male) desire, a mysterious jouissance beyond Phallus about which nothing can be said…

The first thing to add to this standard version is that the allusion to some unfathomable mysterious ingredient behind the mask is constitutive of the feminine seductive masquerade: the way woman seduces and transfixes the male gaze is precisely by adopting the role of the Enigma embodied, as if her whole appearance is a lure, a veil concealing some unspeakable secret. In other words, the very notion of a “feminine secret,” of some mysterious jouissance which eludes the male gaze, is constitutive of the phallic spectacle of seduction: inherent to phallic economy is the reference to some mysterious X which remains forever out of its reach.[3]

In what, then, does the feminine jouissance “beyond the phallus” consist? Perhaps the radical attitude of Bess in BW provides an answer: she undermines the phallic economy and enters the domain of feminine jouissance by way of her very unconditional surrender to it, by way of renouncing every remnant of the inaccessible “feminine mystique,” of some secret Beyond which allegedly eludes the male phallic grasp. Bess thus inverts the terms of phallic seduction in which a woman assumes the appearance of Mystery: Bess’ sacrifice is unconditional, there is nothing Beyond, and this very absolute immanence undermines the phallic economy—deprived of its “inherent transgression” (of the fantasizing about some mysterious Beyond avoiding its grasp), the phallic economy disintegrates.

BW is subversive on account of its over-orthodox, excessive realization of the fantasy of the feminine sacrifice for the male jouissance. So we have two versions of the excess which escapes the (sexual) partner’s grasp: on the woman’s side, it is the feminine Mystery beneath the provocative masquerade which eludes male grasp; on the man’s side, it is the drive which makes him stick unconditionally to his (political, artistic, religious, professional…) vocation. (This logic also accounts for the popularity of Colleen McCullough’s Thornbirds in which Father Ralph is torn between his love for Maggie and his unconditional religious vocation—paradoxically, a chaste priest is one of the emblematic figures of the non-castrated Other, of the Other not bound by the symbolic Law). The eternal male paranoia is that the woman is jealous of this part of him which resists her seductive charm, and that she wants to snatch it from him, to induce him to sacrifice that kernel of his creativity for her (afterwards, of course, she will drop him, because her interest for him was sustained precisely by that mysterious ingredient which resisted her grasp…). Consequently, as is proven by BW, the woman perturbs the phallic economy precisely by way of renouncing any Mystery and of totally and openly dedicating herself to her partner’s satisfaction.

It is thus crucial to bear in mind the radical asymmetry between the respective positions of Bess and Jan: Jan’s jouissance remains phallic (a masturbatory jouissance supported by the fantasies of and about the Other), he acts as a kind of libidinal vampire feeding on the other’s fantasies to sustain the flow of his phallic jouissance, while Bess’ position is that of feeding him voluntarily with the blood of fantasies. The asymmetry resides in the fact that Jan’s request that Bess should have sex with other men and report on it to him is in itself ambiguous: apart from the obvious reading (to provide him with fantasms which will make his crippled life bearable for him), it can also be read as a self-sacrificing act of extreme goodness—what if he does it because he is aware that otherwise she will lead a chaste life to the end? Asking her to have sex with other men is thus a stratagem destined to prevent her from sacrificing herself, that is to entice her to enjoy sex by way of providing her with a rationale which justifies it (she is really doing this just to please him).

The film indicates that, at the beginning, Jan finds himself in the predicament of the Wagnerian hero: wanting, but unable to die; so he enjoins Bess to have sex with other men and report on it to him as a supreme altruistic act—in order to enable Bess to enjoy sex—gradually, however, he gets caught up in it and effectively enjoys it more and more, so that what began as a gesture of excessive goodness turns into perverse enjoyment. That Jan is aware of the trap he got entangled in is clear from his conversation with the priest towards the end of the film when he confesses to him that he is evil, overwhelmed by bad thoughts…  Jan’s trajectory thus goes from initial goodness towards the neighbor to her perverse exploitation—with the underlying lesson that excessive goodness necessarily ends up in this way. In short, Breaking the Waves could be read as the inversion of the standard metaphysical opposition between pure mind and dirty body: (Jan’s) dirty mind versus (Bess’) pure body.

Bess is thus the figure of pure absolute Faith which transcends (or rather suspends) the very gap between the big Other and jouissance, between the symbolic and the real: the price to be paid for such immediate coincidence of religious faith and sexual jouissance is psychosis. Is, then, the film itself psychotic? How can one render palpable such a direct story about miracles today, in our cynical postmodern era? The key to Breaking the Waves is provided by the tension between the narrative and the way it is shot, between content and form. Three features of the form cannot escape the attentive spectator: 1. the nervous, jerky hand-held camera shots, with the visible grains on the screen, as if we are watching an enlarged home-movie shot on video; 2. the breaks and overlapping in the continuity (shots which follow often imply a time break or render the same event from a different viewpoint; furthermore, the camera pans from speaker to speaker, rather than cutting away as in a proper studio production); 3. there is no music accompaniment (except in the case of long static tableaux introducing each of the seven segments of the film: these tableaux are accompanied by excerpts from the big hits of Elton John, David Bowie, etc., popular during the time the story is supposed to take place). These features lend the film a kind of hystericized amateurish intensity reminding one of the famous early Cassavetes films, creating a sense of immediacy, of eavesdropping on the characters before the camera person has had a chance to edit the film, thereby prettying it up: at the level of form, the film relates to the standard professional film like homemade amateur pornography to professional pornography.

Fontaine_AC MODULE Ana Cardoso

The group of European directors led by von Trier himself recently published an anti-Hollywood manifesto that enumerates a series of rules to be followed by European independent cinema production: no special effects, no post-production manipulations, hand-held camera, no big budget, etc. Although Breaking the Waves already follows most of these rules, it does so as part of a specific cinematic strategy that exploits the antagonism between form and content: we do not get a narrative content that would seem to fit these rules (contemporary bleak realist narrative), but, on the contrary, an extremely Romantic narrative, the utmost opposite of the content implied by these formal rules. Von Trier himself emphasized that, if the film has been shot in a “direct” melodramatic-passionate way which seems to fit its content, “it would have been far too suffocating. You would not have been able to stand it.  What we’ve done is to take a style and put it over the story like a filter.  Like encoding a television signal, when you pay in order to see a film: here we are encoding a signal for the film, which the viewer will later ensure they decode. The raw, documentary style which I’ve laid over the film and which actually annuls and contests it, means that we accept the story as it is.”[4]


Therein resides the paradox: the only way for the spectator to accept the story as it is, is to encode it in a form which annuls and contests it—to submit it to a kind of dreamwork. Furthermore, the paradox which should not escape us is that von Trier’s procedure is the exact opposite of the usual melodramatic procedure in which the repressed kernel of the narrative returns in the excess of the form: the expressive pathos of music, the ridiculous sentimentality of acting, etc. Here, the narrative itself is ridiculously Romantic, pathetic, excessive, and the form understates (instead of accentuating) the excessive pathos of the content. The key to the film is thus provided by this antagonism between the ultra-Romantic content of Belief and the pseudo-documentary form—their relationship is thoroughly ambiguous. As von Trier himself emphasizes, it is not simply that the form undermines content: it is precisely by means of the “sober” distance towards the content that the film renders it “palpable,” that it prevents the content from appearing ridiculous (the same as in conversation, where a passionate declaration of love which would appear ridiculous if enunciated directly can pass if coated in the protective shield of irony). And, furthermore, is not the same antagonism discernible within the content itself, in the guise of the tension between the ascetic Presbyterian religious community, caught in the religious ritual from which every trace of jouissance is evacuated (signalled by the removal of the Church bells), and the authentic personal relationship to God grounded in intense jouissance:

What if the appearance of the strict opposition between the dry orthodox Letter of ritual (which regulates life in the Protestant community) and the living Spirit of true belief beyond dogma (of Bess) is misleading? What if—in the same way the excessively Romantic narrative is palpable only through the lenses of pseudo-documentary camera-form—pure authentic belief is palpable only against the background of—or filtered by—the closed orthodox religious community? Here, however, the problems with the film begin: today, the predominant form of subjectivity is not identification with a closed orthodox religious community (against which one could then rebel), but the “open” permissive subject avoiding any fixed obligations; the paradox is that, in a way, both poles from Breaking the Waves are on the same side against this predominant form of subjectivity. In a society in which, more and more, since there is no God (Law), everything is prohibited, the film establishes a fundamental Prohibition which opens up the space for authentic Transgression.

The problem of the film is that this third term, the predominant form of subjectivity today, is simply missing in it: von Trier reduces the conflict to the one between tradition (Church as Institution) and postmodernity (miracle), the properly modern dimension disappears. This dimension, of course, is present, but only in its immediate material existence (in the guise of oil-rigs and platforms, the ultimate form of today’s exploitation of nature); however it is suspended at the level of its subjective impact.

It is thus all to easy to read Bess as the latest incarnation of the figure of naive authentic feminine believer dismissed by her constrained orthodox environs as a promiscuous madwoman. The film should rather be read as a meditation on the difficulty, impossibility even, of Belief today: of belief in miracles, inclusive of the miracle of cinema itself. It doesn’t escape the usual fate of “returns to authentic belief”: the pure Belief inverts itself into just another aesthetic game.

As to the final appearance of the bells high in the sky, a possible reading of BW could claim that this, precisely, is the point at which the film slides into religious obscurantism. That is to say, it seems possible to argue that the film should end with the death of Bess and Jan’s subsequent regained ability to walk: this way, we would be dealing with an undecidable Pascalean wager, a “crazy” reliance on divine Will which reads in contingent events “answers of the real,” and which is sustained in the purity of its belief by the very fact that it cannot be “objectively verified” (as in Jansenist theology which emphasizes that miracles appear as such only to those who already believe in them; to the neutral observers, they necessarily appear as meaningless coincidences and contingencies). If this were the case, BW’s ultimate message would be that “each of us has a beatific vision of Paradise and Redemption inside of him or herself, without any guarantee in external reality…” However, what BW accomplishes is similar to the well-known genre of paranoiac stories in which the idée fixe turns out to be true and not a mere hero’s hallucination: it finishes with a brutal and unexpected factual confirmation of Bess’ faith, somewhat like Henry James’ Turn of the Screw rewritten in such a way that, at the end, we would get an objective confirmation that the appearing devilish figures were “real,” not just the governess’ hysterical hallucination.

At this precise point, one should introduce the distinction between modernism and postmodernism: if there were to be no direct miracle, no bells in the sky, the film would be a typical modernist work about the tragic deadlock of absolute faith; the last minutes, when the miracle does occur, are a kind of postmodernist appendix to the otherwise tragic modernist existential drama of Faith. That is to say, what characterizes postmodernism is precisely that one can return to a pre-modern “enchanted universe” in which miracles effectively do occur, as an aesthetic spectacle, without “really believing it,” but also without any ironic or cynical distance.

The ending of BW is thus to be perceived in the same way one should accept those “magic” moments in David Lynch, in which persons (who otherwise often stand for utter corruption) are suddenly transported by a religious vision of an angelic bliss. In Blue Velvet, for example, Laura Dern unexpectedly starts to report to Kyle MacLachlan on her vision of a bleak universe suddenly filled by robins and their singing, to the accompaniment of religious organ music—it is crucial not to take this scene of innocent bliss with a cynical distance. Of course, in the last scene of Blue Velvet, we see a robin cruelly holding in his beak a dead bug, thus establishing the connection with the traumatic shot, from the film’s beginning, of the camera approaching the earth and rendering the disgusting crawl of life—but, again, as in pre-Raphaelite paintings, edenic bliss and disgust at life’s corruption are the two sides of the same coin, so it would be wrong to read this last shot as an ironic undermining of Dern’s ecstatic description of the robin as the embodiment of the pure goodness.

template-07  Ana Cardoso

Is the supreme case of this radical ambiguity not Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, an extremely licentious girl engaging in promiscuous sex and drugs, and nonetheless elevated to the status of a redeemed innocence after her martyr’s death? In the final scene of Fire Walk With Me, the movie sequel to the Twin Peaks series, after the famous shot of her body wrapped in white plastic, we see her in the mysterious Red Lodge—this Zone of Twin Peaks—sitting on a chair, with the agent Cooper standing by her with his hand on her shoulder, benevolently smiling as if to comfort her; after some moments of anxious perplexity, she gradually relaxes and starts to laugh, with a laughter mixed with tears; the laughter gets more and more buoyant, until the vision of an angel appears in the air in front of her. Ridiculous and kitschy as this scene may appear, one should insist again that, when the brutally raped and murdered Laura Palmer is redeemed, changed into a happily smiling figure looking at the angelic vision of herself, there is absolutely no irony involved.

So the ultimate lesson of BW is that the standard Victorian male-chauvinist wisdom according to which the only way for a woman to remain sane, to avoid hysteric outbursts or perverse debauchery—is to get married, has to be turned around: the true question is, how is it possible for a woman to be married without falling into psychosis. The answer is, of course, by accepting the partner’s (husband’s) castration—the fact that the partner merely has the phallus, but is not the phallus itself, one is only allowed to fantasize about Another Man who would be the phallus itself, while the consequences of actually encountering such a man are catastrophic, as is attested to by the psychotic fate of Bess.

[1]   —I wanted to do a film about goodness—“Naked Miracles,” Interview with Lars von Trier, Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, Issue 10, p 12.
[2]   Lacan Jacques, Le Séminaire, Livre VIII: Le transfert, Paris: Seuil, 1988.
[3]   For a more detailed account of this aspect of the feminine masquerade, see Chapter 2 of Slavoj Zizek, The Indivisible Remainder, London: Verso, 1996.
[4]   “Naked Miracles,” op cit, p 12.


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