Cinema and The Mirror

Film Theory

Hugo Münsterberg (1916) – Psychologist

  • Parallel between the structure of the human mind and the filmic experience
  • Only concern the conscious mind, not the unconscious
  • Conscious experience of the spectator predominated in film theory

Psychoanalytic Film Theory

Jacque Lacan – Psychoanalyst

  • The process of spectator identification understood through the idea of the mirror stage
  • Mirror stage occurs in infants between six and eighteen months of age, when they misrecognize themselves while looking in the mirror.
  • The infant sees its fragmentary body as a whole and identifies itself with this illusory unity
  • This self-deception forms the basis for the development of the infant’s ego
  • This idea for film theory is readily apparent if we can accept the analogy between Lacan’s infant and the cinematic spectator

Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry – Psychoanalytic Film Theorists

  • The film screen serves as a mirror through which the spectator can identify himself or herself as a coherent and omnipotent ego
  • Spectatorship provides derives from the spectator’s primary identification with the camera itself
  • Identification with the camera provides the spectator with an illusion of unmitigated power over the screen images
  • The camera knows no limit: it goes everywhere, sees everyone, exposes everything
  • The camera inaugurates a regime of visibility from which nothing escapes, this complete visibility allows spectators to believe themselves to be all-seeing
  • It remains unconscious and the spectator sustains the sense of being unseen
  • Once the camera itself becomes an obvious presence rather than an invisible structuring absence, the spectator loses the position of omnipotence along with the camera and becomes part of the cinematic event.
  • Reality effect: events on the screen are really happening and not just the result of a filmic act of production

Louis Althusser (1970) – Marxist Philosopher

  • Thinking about the political implication of the mirror stage
  • Fundamental ideological deception: ideology hails concrete individuals as subjects, causing them to regard themselves mistakenly as the creative agents behind their experiences

Traditional narrative film: the process of ideological interpellation and control

Hollywood film: invites spectators to accept an illusory idea of their own power, and in doing so, it hides from spectators their actual passivity

Laura Mulvey (1975)

  • Link psychoanalytic film theory to feminist concerns
  • Link the process of spectator identification to sexual difference
  • A secondary identification with character accompanies the spectator’s primary identification with the camera

Reference: Psychoanalysis, Cinema and The Mirror


Style and Format of Essay Film


  • unorthodox, personal, reflexive
  • intersection of personal, subjective and social history
  • personal investigation involving both the passion and intellect of the author
  • a meeting ground for documentary, avant-garde, and art-film impulse
  • beyond formal, conceptual, and social constraint
  • to record, reveal, preserve; to persuade/ promote; to express; to analyse/ interrogate
  • self-reflective and self-reflexive
  • literary and filmic
  • reflectivity and subjectivity


  • lay open my self
  • essayist: conscious of his own self, must find himself and build something of himself
  • directors: express their inner self and their personal dreams in their films

Protean Form

  • indeterminate, open, ultimately, indefinable
  • the essay’s innermost formal law is heresy
  • create from within itself all the preconditions for the effectiveness and solidity of its vision
  • does not obey any rules
  • saying almost everything about almost anything
  • no longer binds the filmmaker to the rules and parameters of the traditional documentary practice (e.g. chronological sequencing/ depiction of external phenomena) → free reign to the imagination


  • the filmmaker/ author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen
  • allows the beauty and intelligence of words to transfer also to the visual component
  • cannot do without a poetic, intelligent, written text read by a voice-over
  • all filmic material that might help the case (e.g. still images, engravings, photos, animated cartoons)
  • filmmaker’s personal style in the approach to reality was valued
  • do not take a “passive subject” but an “active theme”

Must have words

  • in the form of a text (spoken/ subtitled/ intertitled)
  • represent a single voice
  • attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem
  • impact more than information
  • have a strong, personal point of view
  • eloquent, well written and interesting as possible

Relationship between essay and experience

  • experience represented in the essay
  • experience of representing a subject writing the essay
  • experience of a public receiving that essay

Textual Commitments

  • expression of a personal, critical reflection on a problem or set of problems
  • does not propose itself as anonymous or collective, but a single authorial voice
  • not in order to present a factual report, but to offer an in-depth, personal, and thought-provoking reflection

Rhetorical Structures

  • creates an enunciator who is very close to the real, extra-textual author
  • represents the author’s views, and is his/her spokesperson
  • remain a voice-over or also physically appear in the text
  • does not conceal that he/she is the film’s director
  • voices personal opinions that can be related directly to the extra-textual author
  • personal and individual, rather than social and collective
  • “I” always clearly and strongly implicates a “you”
  • openness: opens up problems, and interrogates the spectator
  • person who speaks must situate herself in what she says, must display her own subjectivity, and must address the person who watches
  • produce a different, more active type of viewing experience

Structure of the Essay Film

  • a constant interpellation
  • each spectator, as an individual and not as a member of an anonymous, collective audience → engage in a dialogical relationship with the enunciator, to become active, intellectually and emotionally, and interact with the text
  • the essay film asks questions and dose not offer clear-cut answers (pretend to discover things, but to lay open my self)
  • presented by the speaking subject as a subjective, personal meditation, rather than as objective truth
  • enunciator is able to convey an argument and enter into a dialogue with the spectator through images unaccompanied by commentary (uses both visual and verbal language)

Inscription of the Authorial Figure

  • direct: making the filmmaker’s body visible and his/her voice audible
  • indirect: use of a narrator/spokesperson, or of intertitles, or of musical commentary, camera movement, etc

Reference: Laura Rascaroli. (2008). The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media.