Eyes Wide Shut and the Lacanian Real

by Slavoj Zizek

Excerpt taken from The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post Theory, by Slavoj Zizek, London: BFI Publishing, 2001, pp. 173 - 175. All Rights Reserved

In the summer of 2000, a disturbing advertising poster was displayed in all large German towns: it depicted a girl in her late teens in a sitting position, holding a TV remote control in her right hand, staring at the spectators with a resigned and, at the same time, provocative gaze; her skirt did not fully cover her slightly spread thighs, so that one could clearly perceive the dark patch between them. This large photo was accompanied by the words ‘Kauf mich!’ (‘Buy me!’). So what was this poster advertising? On closer inspection, it was clear that it had nothing whatsoever to do with sexuality: it endeavored to solicit young people to play the stock market and buy shares. The double entendre on which its effect relied was that the first impression, according to which we, the spectators, were interpellated to buy the young girl herself (ostensibly for sexual favors), was supplanted by the ‘true’ message: she is the one who is doing the buying, not the one who is for sale. Of course, the efficiency of the poster relied on the initial sexual ‘misunderstanding’ which, although it was subsequently supplanted, continued to reverberate even when one discerned the ‘true’ meaning. This is sexuality in psychoanalysis: not the ultimate point of reference, but the detour of an initial misunderstanding which continues to reverberate even after we reach the ‘true’, asexual meaning.

One of the anti-antifeminist prejudices against Lacan concerns his alleged claim that, since desire and Law are two facets of one and same thing, so that the symbolic Law, far from preventing desire, is constitutive of it, only a man – being entirely integrated into the symbolic Law – can fully desire, while a woman is condemned to the hysterical ‘desire to desire’. Such a reading misses Lacan’s point: desire, at its most radical, is a reflexive ‘desire to desire’. However, what one is tempted to do is to supplement this thesis with its quasi-symmetrical opposite concerning fantasy: only a woman can fully fantasise, while a man is condemned to the ultimately futile ‘fantasising about fantasy’. Recall Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999): it is only Nicole Kidman’s fantasy that truly is a fantasy, while Tom Cruise’s fantasy is a reflexive fake, a desperate attempt to artificially recreate/reach the fantasy, a fantasising triggered by the traumatic encounter of the Other’s fantasy, a desperate attempt to answer the enigma of the Other’s fantasy: what was the fantasized scene/encounter that so deeply marked her? What Cruise does on his adventurous night is to go on a kind of window-shopping trip for fantasies: each situation in which he finds himself can be read as a realized fantasy – firstly the fantasy of being the object of the passionate love interest of his patient’s daughter; then the fantasy of encountering a kind prostitute who doesn’t even want money from him; then the encounter with the weird Serb (?) owner of the mask rental store who is also a pimp for his juvenile daughter; finally, the big orgy in the suburban villa. This accounts for the strangely subdued, statuesque, ‘impotent’ even, character of the scene of the orgy in which his adventure finds its culmination. What many a critic dismissed as the film’s ridiculously aseptic and out-of-date depiction of the orgy works to its advantage, pointing towards the paralysis of the hero’s ‘capacity to fantasise’. This also accounts for the efficiency of the shot of Nicole Kidman sleeping, with the mask at her side, on her husband’s pillow: in this version of ‘death and the maiden’, she effectively ‘steals his dreams’, being coupled with his mask, which stands for his fantasmatic spectral double. And, finally, this also fully vindicates the apparently vulgar conclusion of the film, when, after he confesses his nightly adventure to her, i.e. after they are both confronted with the excess of their fantasising, Kidman – upon ascertaining that now they are fully awakened, back into the day, and that, if not forever, at least for a long time, they will stay there, keeping the fantasy at bay – tells him that they must do something as soon as possible. ‘What?’ he asks, and her answer is: ‘Fuck.’ End of film, final credits.

The nature of the passage a l’acte as the false exit, as the way to avoid confronting the horror of the fantasmatic netherworld, was never so abruptly stated in a film: far from providing them with a real-life bodily satisfaction that would render superfluous all empty fantasising, the passage to the act is rather presented as a stopgap, as a desperate preventive measure aimed at keeping at bay the spectral netherworld of fantasies. It is as if her message is: let’s fuck as soon as possible in order to stifle the thriving fantasies, before they overwhelm us again. Lacan’s quip about awakening into reality as an escape from the Real encountered in the dream holds more than anywhere apropos of the sexual act itself: we do not dream about fucking when we are not able to do it – rather, we fuck in order to escape and stifle the excess of the dream that would otherwise overwhelm us.