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Cinematic Semantics: Does An Image Say More Than Words?

For Sigmund Freud, angst (anxiety) is inserted within the Symbolic, from a castration by the father. However, in his profound readings of Freud’s essay Unheimlich, french psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan gives a fascinating turn to this theory when he claims that angst comes from an encounter with the Real, from an experience that leads to the fall of all symbolic order and where the body plays a certain role. This type of experience becomes overpowering for the subject. In its singularity, the inability to symbolize such experience can become unbearable for us. In language is where we find ourselves, to communicate is essential to us as humans. Therefore, Lacanian psychoanalysis positions these traumatic experiences in the order of what comes impossible to signify, concerned with what he calls jouissance. In his tenth seminar, Anxiety, Jacques Lacan mentions the following:

“…what can ensure a relationship of the subject to this universe of significations, if not that somewhere there is jouissance? He can only ensure this by means of a signifier, and this signifier is necessarily lacking. It is the topping up that the subject is called on to make at this missing place by a sign which we call on from his own castration.” (pp. 31)

Nevertheless, creation comes as a sublimating aspect of the being. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says in, On the Genealogy of Morals, “Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering." (pp. 28) Angst, in psychoanalytic terms, is what provides humans with the quality of creation. Hence, we can say that all form of creation, art, is a product of the Real.

Figure 1: Men Shall Know Nothing of This by Max Ernst, 1923

As we know, all artwork is made up of symbols. Once we attempt to signify an experience, to relate and communicate with others even through art, we exclude experience from its singularity: we codify it in signs that make it possible for us to communicate to others. Therefore, art falls within the symbolic order, within language. However, not every work of art communicates in the same way, not every text is constituted merely by linguistic signs. There is a key element in cinematography that turns the artistic experience into something else: image. How does cinematography communicate this singularity? There is a perceptual difference from narrative/visual language to audiovisual language. Films have a particular way of signifying, through images presented in specific contexts, the body (the eye) plays an important role in the spectator’s experience. French film theorist Christian Metz (1982), in his essay The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, mentions the following:

At the cinema, it is always the other who is on the screen; as for me, I am there to look at him. I take no part in the perceived, on the contrary, I am all-perceiving. All-perceiving as one says all-powerful (this is the famous gift of ‘ubiquity’ the film makes its spectator) all-perceiving, too, because I am entirely on the side of the perceiving instance: absent from the screen, but certainly present in the auditorium, a great-eye and ear without which the perceived would have no one to perceive it, the instance, in other words, which constitutes the cinema signifier. (pp. 48)


Studies of audiovisual language began right after structuralist disciplines (linguistics and semiology) had been created. Thoroughly, these disciplines study the structure of language, and how our species construct codifying signs that serve to communicate. We must understand that humans are constituted in language, and that we are subject to it. There is no possibility of escaping language, of considering ourselves outside of it. Therefore, language is not an instrument humans use. We cannot think of ourselves as external codifying agents that use this instrument to communicate in exchange for "something". Humans are codified in language. Its communicative function does come as a form of exchange, where a composition of codified signs is used to make ourselves understandable to others, between a transmitter and a receiver. But, language must be comprehended as a condition of the being. We are conditioned to words, signs, codes; we are born in it, with a name that is given to us even before birth, and it is in it where we create. The transmitter and receiver must definitely share a common code, that is, "a series of rules that will allow one to attribute a signification to the sign" (translation of Eco, 1988, pp. 28).

On the other hand, semiology is a science that contains very well-determined validation criteria. Language is constructed of signs that are finite and can be listed in an explicit, defined, and delimited manner. "The sign is used to transmit information; to say or to indicate a thing that someone knows and wants others to know as well" (Eco 1988, pp. 27). However, with the emergence of new forms of telecommunication, specifically those constituted not only by words or signs, but also by reproduced images, we enter a new category of language; one that science has not been able to outline in the same way. These messages are transmitted in much more complex structures. In cinema, directors and producers use a series of tools that influence and change transmission: lighting, colors, framing and changes of shots, scene editing, camera movements, among many others. This language is much more dense in its details and nuances, and it comes impossible to deny that each of these aspects constructs a different message itself (González, 1991).

Figure 2: Still from the film Amélie directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001

These tools used to elaborate a film are an essential part of the discourse of the artist: the subject that creates, and a subject that decides what to show and how. A cinematographic work is composed of more than verbal and gestural signs, it also goes beyond its script and the performance of the characters. Each part of the scenographic composition carries a signifier that reveals itself, or speaks to us, in the form of an image. In semiotics, these tools are called iconic signs. However, it is questionable to think that images transmit signs in the same way as linguistic signs do. A linguistic sign represents an absence, something that is not there and is signified to come as a representation of it. Images, on the other hand, present something to us. Consequently, the receiver translates into language what he first perceived through the eyes. This means that iconic signs are composed of visual traces, and the spectator translates only because he is always subject to language. Even so, this translation is always a "cut" from the image: pure experiences get lost in translation (Gonzalez, 2002).

Different from other artistic expressions, cinematography has the ability to present an experience that is not completely symbolized. An experience is presented under a lens, a gaze, in the form images. Therefore, image itself does not belong entirely to the symbolic order. Only when it is translated and signified does it pass into it. But in the audiovisual image, which, in its own way, communicates, we are presented with a layer of textual analysis that contains an irrefutable and fundamental value. Cinema, as an artistic work, expresses something beyond what is narrated; in an enigmatic way, but at the same time very revealing. An expression of the real. "The linguistic instrument on which cinema is founded is thus of an irrational type. This explains the profoundly oniric nature of cinema, as also its absolutely and inevitably concrete nature, let us say its objective status." (Pasolini, 1976, pp. 2)

Figure 3: Cinema audience pictured using the Ilford infra-red process by James Jarché, 1932

The Spectator

When we speak of any artistic experience, we automatically speak of two experiences: that of the author, which has been captured in his work, and that of the spectator, who makes it his own from his receptive process. As mentioned before, every singular experience belongs to the Real. When one experience is shared between two, the singular characteristic is lost. However, a cinematographic work produces a particular experience for the spectator constituted by real emotions.

As mentioned before, specular images are constituted of visual traces rather than signs. Regardless of the perception of the subject, they are not specifically composed of signs, but traces that bring in themselves something of the real, as a presentation of something not hidden behind semiotics. According to González (1997) "...regardless of whether anyone can see it: the mirror reflects even if no one looks at it, as it could also reflect the retina of a dead person" (pp. 121). This is what constitutes cinematography; specular images, reproduced and maintained as such. It happens that the spectator, when looking at a film, goes through a perceptive process where two parts intervene; the real that comes from the materialized mirror image and the translation at the moment of perceiving, of making it conscious, of codifying and putting into words what has been seen. It is precisely the specular image maintained, which allows us to put together a discourse about the aesthetic experience that has been lived. We can say then, that just as the spectator looks at an artistic work, a film, insofar as it moves him, "looks" back at the spectator. That real experience, driven by the gaze, is what touches, in much more complex terms, the spectator himself (Gonzalez, 1991).

Figure 4: Still from "Breathless" directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960

In the presence of images, the gaze serves as a vector where the imaginary order comes in play: a process of identification occurs as we make what we have seen our own. The gaze is the major vector of desire, images not only contain signifiers but also "something" that moves desire. The object, then, looks back at us and this is where angst comes in, to the extent that it deconstructs it from the perspective in which it is installed at that moment. There is an impulse that demands to see the singular experience, and our insistence to veil that real experience through meaning. Films not only communicate a message that can be perceived and translated, they also carry mirror images, elements that unfold, question the spectator, and lead him to seek deeper meaning (Karothy, 2016).


Cinematography moves the unconscious in ways no other form of art can. The gaze, as a fundamental aspect in both the constitution and composition of the subject, functions as a fundamental aspect for directors as well. A film director creates a set of images, visual traces, carefully chosen and placed within certain details and handpicked frames to present to the spectator, who, in turn, perceives all these sensory audiovisual language as a mirror that does not return his own reflection. Instead, it gives the spectator something else, something that concerns the unconscious outside of any symbolic order. Any form of creation is drive sublimated, transformed, into art (Symbolic order). However, cinema has the particularity of working with images and sounds which involve unconscious processes in a greater depths. A cinematic composition is able to escape what we could consider solely semantic.

Bibliographical References

Eco, U. (1988) Le signe, Brussels: Labor, [1971]. translation from Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette.

González, J. (1991) Lenguaje Audiovisual, en Angel Benito Ed.: Diccionario de Ciencias y Técnicas de la Comunicación, Ediciones Paulinas, Madrid.

González, J. (2002) (coautor: Manuel Canga) La imagen televisiva: más allá de la significación, el espectáculo, en VVAA: Educación para la Comunicación. Televisión y Multimedia, Corporación Multimedia, Master de Televisión Educativa de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Karothy, R. (2016) La mirada desde el psicoanálisis. 1a. edición adaptada. Universidad Nacional de La Plata. La Plata, Argentina.

Lacan, J. (2014). Anxiety: The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Polity.

Metz, C. (1982) The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema translated by Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Nietzsche, F., (2017) ed. by Ansell-Pearson, K. Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morality and Other Writings translation from Carol Diethe. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge University Press

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Gabriella Yanes

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