Precious Bodily Fluids

Deleuze on the Crystal-Image

Wrote this a few months back for a seminar presentation. Using it now for studying purposes, posting it here for reference. If anyone who reads this could offer any support, advice, clarification, or correction, please do so. Note: I haven’t cited Deleuze specifically (in terms of page numbers), but this obviously all comes from Cinema 1 and Cinema 2, mostly the latter. Parenthetical citations are references to time markers in Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima mon amour, to which Deleuze’s ideas are applied.

Deleuze is interested in how we experience time, following a model that traces the recent history of shifts in our mode of thinking, and thinking about time, specifically. Although this point has been the subject of debate, Deleuze maintains that the pre-WWII era featured a mode of thinking about time that was inherently spatial, pertaining to action. Cinema, as a product of culture, reflected this spatializing of the temporal.

Rodowick uses the example of a famous scene from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. to show how spatiality transcended temporality. In the scene, which is a dream sequence, Buster’s character walks directly into the cinema screen and begins to participate in the action. (The term “action” is important here, since the pre-WWII mode of thinking about time foregrounds action and sensory-motor images over time and pure optical-sound images.) As cuts take place, wildly disparate spaces are linked by a logic based on Buster’s movement. So, continuity is maintained. Buster’s actions subordinate time to movement. The space that Buster occupies shifts and those shifts are rendered rational, and temporality essentially doesn’t exist. Buster’s actions are the thread that ties together the different scenes. Our complete disconnection of this comical scene with our actual experiences perhaps strengthens Deleuze’s critique of the early era, or at least strengthens his claim that the postwar era does not experience time this way.

This priority of space over time indicates the now outmoded conception of clock-time, or spatialized time. Rather than each moment of time having its own space which it occupies, Deleuze notes the shift to a more horizontal axis of time that conceives of time as flow. Working heavily with the thought of Henri Bergson, Deleuze establishes that the trauma of WWII fundamentally fractured our experience of time and the way we convey that experience cinematically. Images are key to our experience of not only space, but time as well. (Images in this sense are not limited to the visual, but are anything we experience that is, in a sense, framed.) And whereas the pre-WWII era had sublimated images to their spatiality, postwar cinema uses a time-image that finds a kind of climax in what Deleuze terms a “crystal-image” that captures this quintessentially postwar experience of time, an experience that aligns with the way our brains think about time.

The pre-war era featured a presupposed rationality about time in its portrayal of cause and effect that depended on the use of clichés and metaphors. Cinematic continuity editing stands as the best example of this phenomenon, disguising breaks in time and space in order to maximize cohesion, orientation, and linearity. Not only in terms of editing, but the classical Hollywood narrative is known for a kind of logic of time—a chron-ology—that is clichéd in the sense that it appeals to pre-established narrative expectations, tropes well known in the narratives of comedy, tragedy, romance, and so forth.

The postwar era, in contrast, begins to foreground the virtual over the actual, emphasizing the disconnect between the two. Whereas the actual corresponds more-or-less to the present, the virtual corresponds more-or-less to the past and the future. Dreams and fantasies are also partakers in the virtual, considering their non-actual nature. Ironically, it is this reorientation, which is also a disorientation, that corresponds more precisely to our experience of time in a traumatized postwar era. Trauma’s necessary dependence on memory as well as the present—i.e., the way that conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder—can return a past trauma to a subject’s present (read: actual) moment in a way that blurs the discernibility between the past and the present. Deleuze stresses the point of discernibility. Although the virtual and the actual are absolutely distinct, they can become indiscernible. When this happens, we have a crystal-image: a moment in which a past image becomes fused or confused with its presentness. Because the virtual is in time and outside of consciousness, having passed through subjectivity (which is the present), the crystal image is that in which the virtual becomes actual again without losing its character as virtual. In the same way, the actual becomes virtual through a wedding with the virtual.

The time-image is not always a crystal-image. Time is experienced as a split between the immediate past and the present, a two-way mirror that forms its own world, with one way oriented toward the future and one to the past. The crystal-image is a hall of mirrors producing temporal short-circuits, rendering the actual and the virtual indiscernible. This is how we experience time, and modern cinema exemplifies this perceived movement. The confusion that may result in this splitting is the postwar experience of time, a kind of confusion we see formalized in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. Deleuze lists only three films that have perfectly, “purely,” achieved the crystal-image, one of which Resnais filmed, Je T’aime, je t’aime. Although Hiroshima mon amour doesn’t stand as Deleuze’s own ideal example of the crystal-image, we can examine how it falls short, according to Deleuze’s categories, for a better understanding of what it can potentially look like. It is worth noting that although this new time-image takes place in the postwar era, the prewar mode is still active. The vast majority of films, while they may begin to blur or confuse the actual with the virtual, still tend to prioritize the spatial over the temporal, action over time. So, when films expand virtual and actual realms across scenes, crystallization does not occur. However, when the virtual and the actual are consolidated into a single image, much closer to our own experience of the passage of time, the image crystallizes.

Hiroshima, mon amour offers numerous examples of the virtual and the actual juxtaposing, though not crystallizing, at both formal and narrative levels. In seeking these examples out, we are looking for non-clichés, fractured moments, pure optical-sound images that do not function as signs for external meaning but as pieces of a film’s own world. The closer the virtual and the actual become, the more the image becomes coterminous with its referent. In this way, Deleuze’s crystal-image rejects traditional semiotics in its quest for “meaning.” These time-images carry an excess within them irreducible to external signification. If we want to cooperate with Deleuze, we must see and hear these pure optical-sound images as they are.


In the lengthy scene wherein She and He sit at the bar as She recounts her memories of her affair with the German soldier, She is generally well-lit while he is fairly shadowed. When we see his face, it becomes increasingly obscured, through the angle and the lighting, to generalize him, to suggest that he is losing his specificity as an individual and taking on the identity of, simply, a male lover. When he begins to vocalize himself as the dead German soldier, allowing her to address him as “you” and using the first-person “I” to usurp the German’s identity, this suggests a temporal and spatial collapse along the lines of Deleuze’s crystal-image, but the image is not fully realized. In a sense, He more precisely reenacts or imagines himself as the German soldier. However, at the level of images, we can discern the actual from the virtual.

If the crystallization comes close to taking place, it is during flashback sequences that She narrates while at the bar. Her narration is a partial dialogue with him, and He replies under the German’s persona. Nevertheless, we enter a partial virtual realm here (the past) with a sonic intrusion of the actual, an intrusion that imagines itself as virtual but remains discernible from it. They assume the present tense and adopt the personae of the lovers of the past in Nevers rather than those of the present in Hiroshima.


(45:44-45:57) First, notice the dialogue which She utters in voiceover while the image is a tracking shot of a landscape in her childhood home in Nevers: “I was born in Nevers.” It is as if she is starting from the beginning in her recollection, even prior to the time of her recollection. No sooner does she make this statement, but we cut back to the present and She takes a drink of beer. This is the beginning of a process of drinking that will seemingly catapult her back to an earlier time. Her struggle to remember her love affair with the German soldier is rooted in guilt, which she experiences for the temporal gap separating her present from her past. Deleuze would emphasize the objective nature of her past, existing outside of her consciousness and requiring an act of access fundamentally different from the actual experience of the present. The more time passes, the more she must actively recall in order to remember. The non-actuality of her affair produces guilt, which suppresses her memories. By imbibing, she can move more freely into the virtual. He will fully cooperate with this, later refilling her glass and helping her drink. At this point, it is important to note that she takes a drink by herself. After another line of dialogue (“I grew up in Nevers”), she presses the glass against her cheek, the first of a series of idiosyncratic gestures that suggests childishness and yet reestablishes herself bodily in the present. When she then states, “I learned to read in Nevers,” we get the impression that a process of regression is beginning as she time-travels by means of memory into her past.


(45:57-47:01) As He asks her about the Loire river, the river we saw in the establishing shot of Nevers, he puts his hands on her face in an ambiguous manner. Also, note that as She describes the natural landscape of Nevers, the sounds we hear in the present in Hiroshima are urban sounds and natural sounds, frogs croaking along with music playing and car or motorcycle engines. Two types of sounds seem to be coexisting, one type corresponding to the present and one to the past. The pond or river just outside the window (slightly in view) also presents a visible suggestion of a different time and space.

A cut takes us to a close-up of He, who asks, “When you’re in the cellar, am I dead?” His question attempts to conflate himself with the German soldier and return her to the virtual, while the camera close-up formally weds this discursive move to the actual. Although we have a dynamic between virtual and actual here, the two remain clearly discernible, and so we have time-images that have not crystallized or collapsed into a déjà vu-like moment. The cut back to her returns him to the shadows, with only a partial profile of his face while she is bathed in light.


(47:01-47:25) She has a flashback, which we witness, of a point-of-view shot of her younger self seeing her German lover dying. When a cut returns us to the present, we shift to a low-angle shot. This angle foregrounds her beer and creates a subtle impression of a reverse shot, contrasting with the high-angle shot of the German soldier. [However, insofar as this can be considered a kind of reverse shot across time, the 180-degree line has been crossed; the shot should be from the other side of He. Strictly within the actual, no violation takes place. This disorientation constitutes an additional fracture, of spaces across times. The rationality that defined the movement-image is broken.] [Note: The bracketed portion, after further review, seems to be incorrect. Undoubtedly on account of the spatial and temporal shift that takes places through this edit, I was sufficiently disoriented to lose track of just where the 180-degree line is. Although I now don’t believe it is violated in this cut, the disorienting effects of the spatial-temporal jump still probably illustrate the same point I attempt to make here. In fact, the fact that the 180-degree rule isn’t violated, but that the camera shifts to a low-angle shot in Hiroshima, probably serves to illustrate my point even more strongly. But I’m open to other thoughts about this.]


(47:25-48:10) As She continues to recall the cellar in Nevers, she uses the present tense, speaking with an anguish that indicates a virtual return to a past trauma. Still, the circuit is too large and too open to crystallize; the images of virtual and actual do not threaten to collapse, but rather we have images of her present pain and recalled images of the past. In the midst of the flashbacks, one of which is a POV shot from within the cellar looking up at a window at soldiers, the camera in the present quickly tilts down toward the table, then cuts back to the past. When it returns to the present, a static shot of the table focuses on the hands of She and He. She takes both of his hands in hers as she describes the uselessness of her hands in the cellar. Again, She draws a correlation, which is a disconnection, between the present and the virtual and the film’s form distinguishes the actual from the virtual by highlighting precisely the erotic or affective use of hands in the present that was impossible in the past. The next flashback cuts to a close-up of her hands clawing at the rock walls of the cellar, bleeding and wounded. We watch her lick her wounds as her voiceover in the present confesses that she developed a taste for blood after tasting “yours.” She regresses further in this scene, and the following cut returns us to the actual image of the hands of the lovers. She removes one of her hands from his, and the camera follows it as she runs her knuckles against the beer glass, in clear contrast with the rubbing of her knuckles against the abrasive rock wall in the cellar. Her hand then grips the glass, which she brings quickly to her lips. The camera’s fast movement in following her hand emphasizes the speed of movement, capturing her need to medicate in order to continue her recollection.


This entry was published on September 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm. It’s filed under 1950s Cinema, Alain Resnais, Book Summaries, French Film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Deleuze on the Crystal-Image

  1. Pingback: Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) | Precious Bodily Fluids

  2. Keith Richards on said:

    Do you really mean “indiscernible” (as in imperceptible) or “indistinguishable”?

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