The book is divided into three close and thorough analyses of the films Contempt (Godard, 1963), All About My Mother (Almodóvar, 1999), and The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998). In each, the authors examine the overlapping categories of subjectivity, being, and identity. In Contempt, they argue that being is deferred, or perhaps deconstructed, by the nature of the contempt that grows between the central couple, Camille and Paul. By resisting otherness and love, their despising of one another maintains their deferred being as a couple and erases the realization of future possibilities of being. The authors see the film-within-the-film, a staging of The Odyssey by Fritz Lang, as containing a mythical counterpoint (Ulysses and Penelope) for our on-screen couple. But the authors note that the couple’s attempt to aestheticize the historical couple renders the possibility of becoming them futile. The deferred nature of the mythical couple renders identification with them ultimately impossible; they cannot be interpreted but are instead relegated to the realm of the imaginary. The statues that repeatedly show up throughout the film, punctuating the narrative in a manner distinct to Godard’s style, are themselves aestheticized, spotted with bright blue paint. Refer back to the early and infamous sequence of Camille being examined through multiple colored lenses, colored, aestheticized, and also framed – she asks if Paul can see her ass in the mirror behind her, then proceeds to ask him about each of her body parts in turn. As she is deconstructed and aestheticized, her identity and being are deferred. Paul, in fact, can say nothing other than that he likes “everything the same.” By obsessing over their status as selves in questionable relation as a couple, they close themselves off to the world around them, a world that the camera nevertheless captures as they wander around within it. In a key shot toward the film’s end, Camille wanders off screen to the left. A moment later, without a cut, Paul wanders into the frame from the left. They are looking for one another but cannot find one another. We would imagine that they must have walked past one another but were blind to one another’s presences. Godard uses the film frame itself strategically in this regard, as if their wandering in and out of frame constitutes their wandering into and out of the only world in which we can know them. When the camera itself wanders away from them at the film’s end and rests on a landscape devoid of human figures, the deferred being or non-being remains restless, unstable, and out of frame. In a word, the couple’s contemptuous narcissism paradoxically cements them as a couple and blinds them to the outward world of aesthetic possibility and ethical freedom.
If being in Contempt is defined by deferral, it is defined in All About My Mother by possibility. It is unstable and open to creative definition, as evinced in the fluid sexualities, genders, and other roles of the characters. Here, couples can exist and thrive as couples without recourse to abandoning individuality or recognizing it per se. Differentiation by means of repetition defines the film and its revolving narratives. The authors point to the numerous figures who might stand as the titular “mother,” the multiple “Esteban” characters, and the way in which gender can become altered at the visible level in an overt and even excessive way that reflects being’s own flexibility and malleability. Though the authors don’t pursue the point, the site of Barcelona might stand especially as one of excess. Consider the Sagrada Família, which is “gaudy” in the truest sense of the term, and the way in which Barcelona itself is largely composed of Catalan-speakers, a variation on standard Spanish, along with the first stop once we and Manuela arrive there: a roundabout of gender and sexual otherness on the outskirts (read: margins) of town. A “joyful theatricality” defines the characters within the film, particularly Agrado, whose overt display of shifted identity thrills a crowd and stands as a point of narrative liberation. Another such point is Manuela’s entrance into Barcelona in a moment of maximal formal joy and liberation, entering by means of a train’s-eye-view into a tunnel and then emerging by a bird’s-eye-view above the city’s suburban and urban boundary. The soundtrack adds a mystical element that rapturously allows the spectator to experience the nostalgic and melodramatic and, most of all, sublime freedom that Manuela feels. The authors ultimately do not blur the division between the real and the imaginary (they make appeals to Lacan), but rather they note the exchange possible between the two realms and the aesthetic possibilities available to being thereby.
The authors save their most profound and difficult work for Malick’s The Thin Red Line, to which they apply Lacan’s notion of jouissance: “the unsurpassable core of aggression and ‘blind destructive fury’ that at once founds subjectivity and promises the greatest sense of release from the burdens of selfhood” (Schaffer, 2005). After defining and observing this phenomenon within the film, the authors acknowledge that the film attempts to transcend, or rather shows how being at its limits certainly does transcend, the ability of language itself to express. Despite the unequivocal evil that is war, the film features a central character so consumed with the beauty of the world and the possibilities it presents that he seems nearly indifferent to the war at times. At other times, he paradoxically seems macho in his dedication to his fellow soldiers and willingness to sacrifice his life. The authors describe the difference between performance and being, the former defined by the character played by Nick Nolte, who as an actor puts on the strongest performance, and the latter defined by the actor played by Jim Caviezel, an underperformance that stands on the camera’s close-ups of him and his lack of personal history and expression. Language operates as a springboard, and Malick, according to Bersani and Dutoit, doesn’t minimize its importance. Although answers are not readily found, the mode of questioning is crucial. The form of being elevated above others in The Thin Red Line is not only ethical and aesthetic, but also relational. Close-ups of characters’ faces offer us glimpses into the different ways of looking at the world, each of which questions, in its own way, the problem of evil in juxtaposition with a world of exceeding beauty. In the end, Private Witt’s perspective is apparently “the erasure of perspective itself.” Witt enters into a sea of being, one that is fundamentally relational in nature and seems to give up his own subjectivity for the sake of the beauty of being-in-the-world. Even as he is killed near the end, his narrational voice lingers, as if his being remains though his body is dead.