“Gender (de)Constructions and ‘Disjunctive Montage’: Narrative Telos and Filmic Play from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto.”
The specular transforms the drive into desire, aggression into seduction.
In his chapter “David Copperfield’s Home Movies,” published in the book collection Dickens on Screen, John Bowen illustrates “how David Copperfield narrates scenes of memory in quasi-filmic ways, and how these ways are implicated in questions of male sexual identity, which it explores through various kinds of fetishism, voyeurism, sadism, and sexual transgression” (29). Bowen interrogates these complex intersections between novel, film, and gender construction with a rigor that is far too rare in Dickens studies, which often tends to oversimplify the question of gender even as the critical attention to Dickens’ influence on cinema sparks new interest in recent years. Yet if Bowen’s reading of David Copperfield points the way to new filmic approaches to Dickens’ novels, it also, I would suggest, stops short of the potential for gender analysis that it promises. On the one hand, that is, by focusing on the ways in which Dickens’s narrative techniques, such as the montage-like construction of memory-images in David Copperfield, anticipated modern cinematic storytelling techniques and how both of these are related to gender, Bowen forges new paths for exploring the relationship between novel, film, and gender construction. On the other hand, however, his emphasis on “male sexual identity” (29) in these filmic elements seems, rather uncharacteristically for Bowen, to overlook the potential for play (in the Derridian sense as well as the formal) opened up by these very techniques . I will, therefore take Bowen’s essay as an invitation to explore another, more playful side of the filmic/novelistic gender-construction it does so well to evoke, in part by reading the novel David Copperfield retrospectively via a film on which it had, I believe, a special influence: Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, based on the novel by Patrick McCabe (but written by Jordan and McCabe). Jordan’s film, I will argue, both draws upon this already inherently filmic/novelistic play with gender in David Copperfield and also engages it in “queer interpretation and enquiry” (Furneaux 253) in such a way as potentially to revisethe way we read gender constitution in the Victorian novel.
My comparison between Dickens’ semi-autographic mid-nineteenth century novel and Neil Jordan’s 2005 gender-bender film about Patrick “Kitten” Braden—a transgender Irish foundling who flees both the political strife of the Troubles and the oppressive gender codes in Ireland to embark on a search for her lost mother in London—may seem at first glance, admittedly, a bit jarring. Yet surely there is something undeniably Dickensian about the film. Roger Ebert noted, for instance, in his Chicago Sun-Times film review, that Breakfast on Pluto “is like a Dickens novel in which the hero moves through the underskirts of society, encountering one colorful character after another” (76). Moreover, the film’s self-consciously novelistic chapter titles—such as “In Which I am Abandoned,” “In which I am Mis-Conceived,” “Changes,” and “The Price of the Dance”— overtly allude to and parody chapter headings typical of the nineteenth-century bildungsroman, perhaps even specifically evoking David Copperfield’s chapters like “I am Born,” “I Observe,” “I have a Change,” and “My First Dissipation.” In any event, most readers of Dickens who view the film will intuitively recognize the similar indomitable innocence, guilelessness, and gender-ambiguous “boyishness” of the two young heroes, David (also “Daisy”) Copperfield and Patrick (or “Kitten”) Braden as they struggle to form their identities in a hostile and iniquitous world (see Figure 1). While these generic parallels and allusions invite certain stylistic comparisons between the two works, I am interested here more specifically in delving into formal comparisons of how both novel and film employ a kind of “specular” play in order to alter assumptions about gendered subjectivity often embedded in the logic of montage and narrative.
Figure 1: In a Dickensian scene, Kitten (Cillian Murphy) is sent to the Dean’s office as a result of her unconventional response to an in-class creative writing exercise.
John Bowen’s reading of the cinematic nature of David Copperfield, for instance,reminds us of the way in which we tend to unconsciously associate the construction of identity in text and film with narrative and especially imagistic teleologies, as for example in the case of retrospective montage: as Bowen has it, “David Copperfield tells the story of the production through narration of a particular kind of subject: male, bourgeois, heterosexual, monogamous. That process is, I want to argue, deeply cinematic” (29). Bowen suggests, that is, at least from this cinematic perspective, that all of the erotic tensions and ambiguities of gender and sexuality in the novel are ultimately subsumed under the overarching narrative (i.e. temporal) “production” of a stable and normative subject at the novel’s conclusion which turns out to have been determined all along by its generic telos, and his inclusion of film adaptations in his analysis of the novel (especially Cukor’s 1935 MGM adaptation) only strengthen these assertions. So for instance, Bowen points out that the three “Retrospects,” which work like montages to re-structure and re-interpret past events through image juxtapositions, center overwhelmingly on women as objects of the male gaze, which underscores the idea that women in the novel in general tend to be fetishized (that is, are given fetishistic qualities or characteristics) as either threats to David’s masculinity or as objects of male spectatorship. The case in point for Bowen is Rosa Dartle, the young woman with a scarred face and an uncanny knack for irony who resides in the Steerforth household wasting away with unrequited desire for Steerforth: “Rosa,” says Bowen, “the most persistently eroticized, fetishized and perverse figure in the novel, has a profoundly disturbing, not to say castrating, effect, on David’s psyche” (35). Rosa’s “castrating” presence in the novel is best illustrated for Bowen in the scene, set in an obscure room in a dilapidated apartment house, when Rosa wrathfully lets loose a torrent of chastising, jealous rage towards the fallen Emily for her affair with Steerforth, while David, to highly cinematic effect, gazes on voyeuristically from an unseen enclosure, watching in the two women “the signs of his own desire, moving in and out of his and our vision, fetishized and phallic, punished and castrated” (Bowen 35).
Imagining David as “silent witness” or “a camera” (31), Bowen is led to see all of the erotic tension and ambiguity of this scene as subsumed under the overarching presence of a certain type of cinematic subject-gaze (male, heterosexual, etc.) which desires to witness transgression but only so it can narratively master these transgressive “signs of … desire” (35). From the perspective of plot and telos (and a certain sense of the cinematic), this makes for a compelling reading of the scene; but, I would ask, if David acts as the camera here, isn’t there more to the cinematography, in this highly charged interplay between concealed gazer and displaced erotic object (Rosa/ Emily/ Steerforth), than just a simple POV shot, as it were? Doesn’t the uncanny effect of this appearing and disappearing, this scopic displacement and multiplying of the object of desire, derive at least in part from off screen, from a projection of the gaze itself? Put another way, couldn’t this strangely cinematic scene playing on the margins of the specular be read, rather, in terms of a kind of unconscious editing process whose projection of jouissance (pleasure as surplus beyond signification) is precisely an effect of the intrinsic blind spot of the gaze, what it must always cut? Reading Rosa’s character in light of the specular and filmic nature of Dickens’ prose, drawing on a different sense of montage, will allow us to see gender in David Copperfield not in terms of a normalizing teleology based on fear of castration but rather in terms of the sustained and sustaining play or cut of (the Real of) sexual difference founded on symbolic castration (i.e. semiotic potentiality, as opposed to ego-psychology’s castration anxiety, or semiotic authority).
Garrett Stewart’s conception of the “intrinsic flicker effect” (143) of Dickens’ prose, what he calls the “explosive” or disjunctive effect of Dickens’ use of the stylistic trope syllepsis, could, although Stewart doesn’t relate it to gender or identity construction, provide a compelling alternative to teleological approaches that assume the narrative construction of normative gendered subjects as inherently cinematic. In order to draw an almost ontological parallel between Dickens’s prose style and certain types of montage techniques, Stewart takes his cue from a comparison Eisenstein made between certain elemental structures of both prose and film in his famous essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today” (1944): the Russian linguists’ “concept of rudimentary ‘word-sentences’ of primary utterance operates, like the ‘montage cell’ of film, as an ‘embryo of syntax’” (124). In each case, an elemental formation of signifiers, whether imagistic (“montage-cell”) or linguistic (“word-sentence”), acts as an “embryo” containing in itself the potential to split and double, dismantling an established “order” of ideas to spark new symbolizations. The “‘word-sentence’ as the model for the explosive character of Soviet montage,” Stewart observes (pushing against Eisenstein’s reluctance to attribute the full credit of this trope to Dickens), “also typifies the tensed density of Dickensian phrasing in its syntactical overspill from word to word, its potential splitting even of syllables and linked sounds” (124). Unlike retrospective or parallel montage, then, “disjunctive montage,” or what Stewart calls “syllepsis” in Dickens’ prose, does not function in the typically cinematic sense to restructure and reinterpret past (memory) images through sequential logic, but rather splits or disrupts pre-narrativized images to create unexpected doublings and proliferating metaphors.
Thus Dickens’ stylistic syllepsis, Stewart explains, “typically involves one verb governing two objects or modifiers in different senses,” of which a “classic example in Dickens’ first novel” would be the implied splitting/deferring of the verb “to fall” in the sentence “‘Mr Pickwick fell into a wheelbarrow, and fast asleep’” (127). These syntactical/grammatical differences “splayed out in such phrasing” can be traced from the sentence and even word level to increasingly broader figural senses and contexts, such that “Dickens’ sylleptic formats expose more broadly the kind of differential—or protofilmic—logic that spawns both literary trope and film editing alike: the undoing of strict sequence by the interplay of disjunction—and its ignited explosion of new meaning” (129). Stewart’s stunningly rich analogy bringing together the syntactical splitting of words, phrases, and images in Dickens’ prose style, or “syllepsis,” with the experimental techniques of layering disjunctive images in “intellectual” or “conceptual montage” in Russian cinema could have, I will suggest, fascinating implications for the understanding of gender-construction and sexuality in novel and film alike, insofar as syllepsis/disjunctive montage taps into a logic of difference in order to energize or “ignite” potentials for doubling and multiplying gender symbolizations necessarily suppressed by oedipal/teleological narrative structures.
But before returning to the novel, let us take this opportunity to explore a little further the relation between the various threads we are weaving together here, among them: prose style, editing techniques, montage, the gaze, fantasy, and gender. These threads seem to come together around a single phenomenon: the specular image, whether in prose or film. Why such symbolic primacy of the image both in the psyche and on the screen or page? And what is its relation to fantasy and gender? Julia Kristeva provides a compelling groundwork for understanding the primary role of the image in the construction of a sense of self or interiority that dates back, she shows, to St. Augustine’s introduction of “a third register between sense perception and the intellect, that of images,” which constitute, in the Christian pre-psychoanalytic tradition, an “internal vision”: “This register of interiority, which certainly must be called imaginary, very interestingly describes for all Christianity the intimacy that we are investigating today [under the heading of psychoanalysis]. Neither perception nor thought, it is image, or imaginary” (Kristeva 46). Cinema, as a language of images, thus has particular appeal to specular fantasy, the interior narrative of images that inscribes our “intimate” unconscious drives and desire (which are for Kristeva pre-linguistic) in order for them to enter the realm of our psychic representations: “Since the visible is the port of registry of drives, their synthesis beneath language, cinema as an apotheosis of the visible offers itself to the plethoric deployment of fantasies” (69). Cinema projects not objects of our perception, but the imagistic interiority or intimacy of our psychic experience; or better, it “captures” interior drives in images, and although much cinema (and visual media) is grounded in stereotype, and therefore “destructive of fantasy” (67), the cinematic image has the potential to “[explore] the specular,” reproduce “it most closely to its untenable logic,” in what Kristeva calls the “thought specular” (73). Yet novels, too, have this potential to create specular images, and here is where I think the term “filmic” to describe Dickens (or other novelists) has a different sense than what is typically meant by it: specular images, whether read or viewed, can take part in an uncanny space that is in a way neither interior nor exterior, “neither perception nor thought” (Kristeva 46), and thus engage imaginary fantasy and latent drives in a way that is perhaps only more demonstrable in cinema.
Returning then to the question of sexual identity and its relation to the specular or filmic in Dickens’ David Copperfield specifically, Stewart’s concept of the flicker effect can provide us with a means to rethink Bowen’s reading of Rosa’s “castrating” role in the narrative production of a heterosexual male subject, David Copperfield. Bowen is certainly right to see that there is an overdetermined element of sexual fantasy in Rosa’s character, although voyeurism or perversity doesn’t seem to capture the complex imagery here; rather there is an uncanny sense of the “thought specular” to Rosa, about whom there always remains something insistently latent and unformulated, like her “unearthly” signing that sounded “as if it had never been written, or set to music, but sprung out of the passion within her; which found imperfect utterance in the low sounds of her voice” (Dickens 369). Also hauntingly symbolic are her two distinguishing character traits: her cutting irony and the scar cut across her mouth, inflicted by Steerforth’s having thrown a hammer at her as a child, which fades and flares with her passionate outbursts. Rosa’s irony, constantly probing ingenuous statements with “but isn’t it, though… isn’t it, really?" (251), is haunting in that it evokes unspoken intentions or meanings beneath the surface of everyday language, without naming what they are. And the first visualization we get of Rosa in the novel is sparked by a rather uncanny simile when David tells us that "she was a little dilapidated—like a house—with having been so long to let; yet had… an appearance of good looks” (251). There is already the sylleptic effect of an unsettlingly disjunctive montage in the image that first captures her: Rosa (herself existentially left out, as it were) and “a house,” sharing in the adjective “dilapidated,” retroactively converge in the (perhaps sexually) ambiguous term “to let.” Both Freud and Jung tell us that the image of the house often stands in dreams as a metaphor for the self or psyche (the self as a house to let, in a very strict sense unheimlich), and the image of the dilapidated house to let adds a sense of memory, past childhood, and loss. These associations run deep in the case of David’s childhood home which was imbued with a sense of loss from the start—both Rosa and David are orphaned—and which we later find has been put to let since soon after his mother’s death, so the unsettling montage-like cutting together of Rosa and a dilapidated house from the beginning suggests a kind of overdetermined “projection” (to use a term at once psychoanalytic and filmic).
There is, however, an even more surprising example of a kind of imagistic syllepsis, or flicker effect, involving Rosa that occurs when David confronts Rosa Dartle’s portrait in the guest bedroom on a visit to the Steerforth household. Although the portrait itself notably omits Rosa’s most strikingly visual character trait, the scar, the portrait scene as David narrates it revolves around her two now-absent character traits, especially the scar, as focal points of projection and identification. While a guest at Steerforth’s house, David gazes at the portrait of Rosa in his room before he retires to bed, which he describes thus:
It was a startling likeness, and necessarily had a startling look. The painter hadn’t made the scar, but I made it; and there it was, coming and going; now confined to the upper lip as I had seen it at dinner, and now showing the whole extent of the wound inflicted by the hammer, as I had seen it when she was passionate. (255)
The image of Rosa’s portrait ignites a stylistic syllepsis—the subject, “it,” flickers between form and content, between the image’s “startling likeness” (passively gazed at) and its subject’s “startling look” (actively gazing)—which sets off a series of splitting/doublings in the prose: from David’s doubling of the artist (“the painter hadn’t made [it]”/ “I made it”) to the doubled “now” (“now confined”/ “now showing”) which alternately reveals or conceals the original wounding (the childhood trauma of Steerforth’s phallic “hammer”) to the flickering of Rosa’s passion in the presence/absence of the scar, all collapsed, montage-like, into a single frame. The splitting/ doubling of the verb to make revolving around the scar, in particular, marks a play between omitting and projecting that highlights the act of editing. This specular tension between viewer and image culminates, moreover, in an unconscious inversion of the subject/object relationship of the eroticized gaze:
To get rid of her, I undressed quickly, extinguished my light, and went to bed. But, as I fell asleep, I could not forget that she was still there looking, “Is it really though? I want to know”; and when I awoke in the night, I found that I was uneasily asking all sorts of people in my dreams whether it really was or not—without knowing what I meant. (255)
In David’s unconscious, it is Rosa that is “still there looking” at him from the portrait, and while he can’t gaze back he is dominated by her look, and the exposing irony that accompanies it. The struggle over the “I” of the sentence reflects an ambiguity of identity and gender-difference, as the unconscious narrator’s (David’s) “I” is in fact ventriloquized by Rosa, asking, in her ironic voice, “whether it really was or not,” without self-mastery or “knowing what I meant.” Rosa, or at least her projected image on the canvas, refuses to be a narrative unit in the teleological construction of a heterosexual male subject: in his dream his intimate self speaks from the place of the other (gender), Rosa.
Holly Furneaux has convincingly explored the role that sister figures play, as mediators, in facilitating the expression of queer desire between men in Dickens’ novels, as in the case, for instance, of the role Little Emily plays in mediating the desire between David and Steerforth, an observation that in itself opens the door to potential queer readings of the gender play and same-sex desires in the novel (124-125). And the fact that Steerforth nicknames David “Daisy” might be seen to hint at David’s “feminine” part in this triad. But Rosa is the other woman triangulating the Steerforth-Copperfield relationship (interestingly, the portrait of Rosa is said to be “quartered” on David, 255), and as such remains something of an elusive mystery to both David and critics alike. She seems at once castrating threat (Bowen), alter ego, and object of desire—David even “felt [himself] falling a little in love with [Rosa]” for a brief span of the novel (304). This is because Rosa does not, like Emily, mediate the Steerforth-David relationship from the perspective of plot, but rather from the perspective of the specular: far from offering a transgressive fantasy that is contained and consumed by David’s narrative construction of a self-present heterosexual male subject, Rosa, through the flicker effect of her scar and irony, signifies quite strikingly the potential for David’s subjectivity to split and double into disjunctive but simultaneous variations. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “[t]he scar is at first described as a ‘seam,’ as if her face were liable, as it were, to come apart at the seams” (Bove 672): or as David describes it, “[i]t was an old scar—I should rather call it, seam, for it was not discolored, and had healed years ago—which had once cut through her mouth, downward towards the chin, but was now barely visible” (Dickens 251). And in spells of intense passion the split seems to threaten to return and tear her very face in two: as David say, “[a]s she looked full at me, I saw her face grow sharper and paler, and the marks of the old wound lengthen out until it cut through the disfigured lip, and deep into the nether lip, and slanted down the face” (Dickens 366).
In my earlier essay, I discuss the archetypal connection Rosa, with her scar across her mouth, has with images of doubles and doubling. “Levi-Strauss,” I explain, “illustrates the deep-seated mythological association between hare-lips, doubles, and twins with an ancient story of a girl who hits the mythic figure Rabbit on the mouth with a stick (compare Steerforth’s hammer) and ‘begins a cleavage that, if completed, would split the animal’s body and turn the animal into twins.’ ‘Now if twins result from a child, an embryo, or an animal that has split or is about to split,’ he continues, ‘the myths attest that a rabbit and a hare-lipped human being are themselves the splitters’ (Bove 672). Rosa herself can be seen then as a kind of feminine double of David, perhaps even a kind of uncanny female twin, if we recall David’s fictional female twin since birth, Betsy Trotwood (“conceived” by his Aunt Betsy, who had wanted and predicted a girl), whose name, edited down to Trotwood and later Trot, David adopts for a period of his life, as if illustrating or projecting the potential to have become a feminine double of himself, or the potential of a totally different narrative (fantasy) of himself externally existing alongside his own. Rosa is then both an alternative or displaced projection of David’s subjectivity and the unconscious force (or drive) that splits his sexual identity into self and other. As a “splitter” (she is repeatedly described as “sharp” or as one who “sharpens” (253, 366, 370)), however, Rosa is not so much a “castrating” force as a subversively proliferating or sylleptic one, countering the tendency to unity, normalcy, and mastery of David’s narrative telos; as her cutting irony illustrates, what she omits or separates reveals something that should have remained hidden, like the uncanny, like an edit. As both feminine other and projected double, Rosa refuses to let David’s specular fantasy and unconscious gender-play be edited out of the text; rather, she cuts or edits into David’s /Daisy’s / Trot’s narrative an uncontainable sense that he, to quote Levi-Strauss again, “would split… has split or is about to split.” Rosa Dartle, in short, is the disjunctive flicker effect, the montage-cell or word-embryo, of sexual difference for David’s narrative and filmic (de)construction of subjectivity.
While both works seem to find in the specular flicker effect of sexual difference a powerful form of counter-representation within the bildungsroman form, what Neil Jordan’s film Breakfast on Pluto draws out from David Copperfield, and foregrounds more playfully, is the performativity of sexual difference and, especially, its political valence. So much so that the film almost seems to transform the bildungsroman genre, through pure play, into a kind of allegory of the very fantasy of constructing a subject, or better, of constructing a particular kind of subject as an act of fantasy. It thus puts on open display the specular logic of Rosa Dartle, the idea that gender-identity is as such inextricably bound up with fantasy-construction, that because, as Lacan’s formula has it, there is no sexual relation , the subject is by definition already split in itself by gender, already a flicker effect of the drive to fill in the (lacking) “Real” of sexual difference with a positive symbolic expression. As Žižek puts it:
Sexual difference is not the opposition allocating to each of the two sexes its positive identity defined in opposition to the other sex… but a common Loss on account of which woman is never fully a woman and man is never fully a man—‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ positions are merely two modes of coping with this inherent obstacle/loss. (272)
This playful performativity of (ontological) sexual difference is what gives the film its political/ ethical force. For if fantasy is a “mode of coping” with the lack or absence of positive representation of gender, then the repression of this function of fantasy is anxiety, and the affirmation of it, play. Put more directly, fantasy is, then, what allows a subject to perform and express in images its (gender) identity as being—the way for instance a “masculine” gesture is performed to be “viewed”/ “read” as evidence of a masculine “essence.” Kristeva, in fact, likens this phenomenon of fantasy producing an inner subjectivity through image and narrative to the process of montage: “fantasy in its visibility invents an instinctual montage and a drift toward meaning, language, thought. The most direct cinema, which projects more or less modified fantasies, seizes us in this place in our psychic lives where the imagination lets itself be controlled by fantasy, which I call the specular” (73). Inversely, a film like Breakfast on Pluto shows us the political valence and potential aggression of the specular in cases when (in an ideological sense) the imagination does not let itself “be controlled by fantasy” and identifications are (mis)taken to be firmly grounded in objective “reality.”
Breakfast on Pluto adopts this idea of the double-edged role of fantasy (from anxiety to play) in the construction of subjectivity to link sexual identity and nationalism, queerness and Irish politics. Kitten’s character has been criticized for neglecting to take a position on crucial political themes, but the more one watches the film, the more one sees that Kitten’s constant refusal to take any ideological narrative seriously (“serious, serious, serious” is her ironic dismissal of anyone who insist that certain matters exclude the realm of play) is, in fact, a heroic insistence that all ideological identifications are forms of a regulated fantasy that represses free play (the free-play of signification). Thus Kitten never actually rejects these competing violent ideologies. Far from it; she merely engages them in play, the best example being the tale she provides for the police interrogators (who suspect her of harboring terrorist bombing plots) about her double agent adventures—a very cinematic and tongue-in-cheek spy-genre cutaway fantasy sequence in which a leather-clad Kitten conquers the bad guys with Chanel No. 5. The point here is that by resisting or opposing the violent narratives (from homophobia to IRA resistance and counter-terrorism) one still accepts them as viable narratives, but by putting ideological positions into playful and self-reflexive narratives and images, Kitten (or the film through Kitten) exposes them as fantasies—potentially transforming “aggression into seduction.” Thus even the brutal police interrogators seem to realize they are merely playing their role in a larger fantasy when they wind up dropping their hard-guy image and sympathizing with Kitten, and one of them (seemingly the more brutal of the two) eventually helps get her off the streets and into a safe-zone for sex workers.
Oddly enough, however, most of the scholarship on Jordan’s film has been ambivalent, at best, about its treatment of gender and has frequently been critical of the film, under one pretense or another, for the very quality I am praising here: its playfulness, especially with respect to replacing the novel’s darker unresolved ending for its protagonist, Pussy, with a more clearly resolved and celebratory ending for the film’s protagonist, Kitten. Moreover, I would suggest that this skepticism is usually traceable to an apparently irresistible impulse to read the transgender theme, in the film especially, in almost exclusively allegorical terms, specifically as some form of direct allegory of Irish politics and nationalism. Anne Mulhall, for example, reads Pussy’s “lost mother,” in the novel, as an allegory for the nation’s lost “ideal image,” which leads her to interpret Jordan’s adaptation of this motif in the film, substituting a “good” closure (finding and rejecting the mother in the film) for an ambiguous ending (the mother figure remaining symbolically lost in the novel), as a gesture of paternal re-oedipalization:
Paternal intervention demands that Kitten relinquish the mother, thus overcoming her stalled development and progressing her along a phallic oedipal teleology. … In other words, the “unfinished” substructure that Jordan senses in the novel is, in fact, Pussy’s refusal of oedipal teleology and “normal” mourning. Pussy’s melancholic tenacity is broken by the film’s reconstitution of “normal” oedipal development, no matter how superficially “queer” the newly constituted family seems at the film’s close. (233)
Thus, for Mulhall, the “superficially” queer family that hinges on the rejection of the “bad” mother (Eily Bergin) in favor of the “good” (multicultural) mother (Charlie) at the film’s close is not only deceptive but, in fact, unethical: it participates in a kind of biopolitical ethnic whitewashing, as “the ending conflates the real mother with the mother of fantasy, Eily Bergin with Mother Ireland, … erasing the violations that the real mother has endured in reaching towards a utopian postnational future” in which really the “phallic oedipal teleology of the nation reasserts itself” by interpolating the now-neutralized ethnic and sexual diversity that had threatened to resist the national/paternal narrative (235).
Mulhall’s leaning on allegory in order to bind the gender theme to the political theme of the Troubles, it seems to me, leads her to rely heavily on plot and to overlook almost completely the formal playfulness of the film, something that characterizes much of the film’s critical reception. In fact, one of the only formal elements of the film to which Mulhall draws attention (a novelistic one at that), it’s bildungsroman structure, serves precisely to seal the deal of its supposed unethical naiveté, its “superficial” radicalism: “Jordan’s representation of Kitten’s narrative as a kind of queer picaresque bildungsroman… serves to negate any political or ethical valence that the film might have had” (236). I would argue that in order to reach this conclusion one would have to completely dismiss Jordan’s postmodern play with this genre, which seems to me very difficult to do when this play is so essential to the film; whereas I am suggesting it is precisely this formal play that gives the film its “political and ethical valence.” Thus the ways in which Jordan uses both formal and symbolic play to present “Kitten’s narrative as a kind of queer picaresque bildungsroman” are both complex and meaningful. For instance, the handwritten font of the title, “Breakfast on Pluto,” superimposed over the opening shot of male construction workers cat-calling Kitten as she struts past with a perambulator, chronologically the last moments of the film, foregrounds the ambiguity of its referent—the film we are watching or the autobiographic novel Kitten is narrating?—even as it plays with gender types, as emphasized by the subsequent subtitle in the same font, “‘Chapters from my Life’ by Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden,” playing cheekily on the double nature of the narrator/ character in a way not unlike the retrospective opening lines of David Copperfield’s “[t]o begin my life with the beginning of my life” (9). And the film captures this picaresque, episodic playfulness in part by developing a very distinctive rhythm, alternating at times between flows and jolts, seduction and violence, for instance through sequence montages and smash cuts within and between chapters.
Through all this, we should consider the formal aspects of the lost-mother motif. The motif is first visually introduced when the father of a childhood friend tells Kitten he once saw her “real mother” (who, he says, resembles Mitzi Gaynor) pass him by on a bus in Piccadilly and get “swallowed up” by the city. The story introduces an interesting memory-image cut-away of Eily Bergin glimpsed from behind in the doorway of a bus as it glides down a busy London street (a fantasy memory-image since it was projected, presumably in Kitten’s mind, by the telling of the story). The motif is again struck in the incredibly tongue-in-cheek, almost pantomimic, cutaway dramatization of Kitten’s in-class creative writing exercise which tells of the affair between a priest and his cleaning woman (her origin fantasy)—and earns Kitten a trip to the Dean’s office (see Figure 2). These images visually and narratively establish the theme of the lost mother as kind of myth, a fantasy motif of the “Phantom Lady” that establishes a telos for Kitten’s fantastic novel (or for her story insofar as it is fantastic) and her life story, but these should also be set off against, and in parallel with, the more realistic bildungsroman motif of the search for the lost mother commenced in the confessional booth scene as Kitten questions Father Liam (her biological father, as she now suspects) about her mother’s true identity and location. These visual threads also meet occasionally in the film, in particular in the “Love is Many Splendored Thing” chapter, which begins with an ironic montage of Kitten retuning to street prostitution set to the music of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” (and replete with ironic allusions to Hollywood romances), when, just by chance, Kitten passes (what she assumes is) her mother in a tube station. She chases her down to the tracks and just misses her getting into the train as it speeds off. There follows a lap dissolve (also a kind of match cut) to the repeated fantasy memory-image cutaway of Eily Bergin gliding off on a London bus. The chase into the depths of the tube station is a dead end, culminating in a gritty over-exposed freeze-frame of Kitten looking haggard and colorless in the blanched underground (see Figure 3), while the more romantic memory-image cut-away still lingers out of reach in the liminal space of pure fantasy. If the match cut/lap dissolve between the two different images of being “swallowed up” by the city establishes a parallel/contrast between the two images of the lost mother, it is to highlight a conflict at the heart of the story that will soon be repeated and thought through in the peepshow booth scene to follow this chapter.
Figure 2: Dramatizing Kitten’s short story, Eily Bergin (Eva Birthistle) plays the role of the cleaning woman who has an affair with Father Liam in Kitten’s highly theatrical fantasy.
Figure 3: Kitten chases an elusive figure that appears to be her mother down into a tube station, but just misses her. The tone of the image contrasts sharply with figure 2.
This is the emotionally and visually charged scene in which Kitten is on display in a peepshow booth when her father, in the position of the voyeur on the other side of the glass speaking through a transistor, reveals the information about her past and her lost mother for which Kitten has been searching. This highly overdetermined and (despite its edgy boundary-pushing) archetypal scene echoes and resonates with several other correspondingly archetypal scenes in the film, specifically in terms of the symbolic motif of the concealed father addressing Kitten about her lost identity from behind some kind of visual screen or channeled through some form of mediation: there is, for instance, the earlier confessional-booth scene when Kitten questions the priest (her unacknowledged father) from behind the sliding screen about her absent mother, only for him to rush out in shame without speaking (see Figure 4); and then there is the magic-show scene in which the hypnotized Kitten is seduced into hugging a speaker as the male (but maternal) magician beckons through the microphone, “I am your mother… over here.” Reading the peepshow scene wholly in terms of its plot function, however, Mulhall, in fact, sees it as the pivotal scene of “paternal intervention” that turns the story’s path from the ambiguously open ending suggested in the novel to the (in her reading) patriarchal closure of the film, thus transforming the narrative from a subversive to a hegemonic one; or as she puts it, “[t]he recuperation of the priest-father [in the peepshow scene] is the fulcrum on which this transformation turns” (233).
Figure 4: Kitten questions Father Liam (Liam Neeson) about her mother through the confessional window, one in a series of images reflecting a mediated and deferred access to her own origin story.
Yet looking at the scene from the perspective of specular fantasy and disjunctive montage makes it appear pivotal in a very different sense, and seeing it for only plot function misses all the visual nuance of the scene. That is, this highly compositional, painterly peepshow-booth scene featuring a costumed Kitten with her autobiographic-novel (“Chapters from My Life”) notebook in hand stages a self-reflexive moment about fantasy, narrative, gender, and identity that can clearly be described as “thought specular” in Kristeva’s sense (see Figure 5). The scene falls at a crucial point in the film, and its dialogue is laden with an almost dreamlike symbolic and affective intensity. Having discovered earlier in the film that her father is in fact the local priest in their little Irish border town who had abandoned her as a baby, Kitten had eventually fled to London in search of her lost mother, where she has several strange adventures, including finding herself in police custody suspected of an IRA terrorist bombing. One day, after she finds refuge from turning tricks in the streets at an all-female-run, commune-style strip club where she dons feathery costumes and sways idyllically on a swing in a lavishly-colored peepshow booth, amid a montage of droll encounters with peepshow patrons, a man’s voice asks mysteriously from the dark side of the one-way mirror whether she would like to hear a story “about a boy [like you] who lost his parents.” As Kitten swings to and fro in her fantasy milieu cradling a manuscript that contains her incomplete version of this very story and, listening captivatedly, amends the speaker’s use of gender (“I’m not a boy, sir, I’m a girl—you can call me Patricia”), the mise-en-scène of this booth seems to become a kind of liminal internal/external space of narrative production and specular montage:
Kitten: “Please do, stories are what I love…”
Patron: “You love stories?—”
Kitten: “—love stories… even more than I love mysteries.”
The voice on the dark side of the glass belongs of course to her father, as Father Liam having “had a long time to think” has traveled to London to make amends for abandoning her as a child by providing her the information about her origin that he withheld in the earlier confessional booth scene and thereby setting her on the right track to discover her lost mother (see Figure 6). The dual and parallel relation between Kitten’s fantasy narrative and her realist bildungsroman progress, far from converging here in the service of telos, is never more self-conscious than in this scene, exemplified when Father Liam, revealing “where to find” her mother, introduces the realism of her actual name— “her name was Eily, Eily Bergin”—causing Kitten to pause in her swinging for a moment and, amid a plethora of reflections of herself and other strippers in each window on all sides, interrupt his story to insert her fantasy version:
Kitten: “where to find the Phantom Lady.”
Kitten: “…please, go on…”
After Kitten runs out into the street to verify the identity of her father (or thank him or hold him accountable?), who has again suddenly disappeared, the film, picaresque and delightfully freewheeling up to this point, quickly sharpens into narrative focus as Kitten again peruses and concludes her original mission to track down her mother. This is a plot shift to which I will return shortly, but the scene itself seems to be pivotal in a more meaningful way if we approach it from the perspective of specular fantasy and gender construction/play: it is a virtuosic piece of mise-en-scène, like the film’s nodal point of editing and cutting, with its dizzying, tense, emotionally-charged, and yet somehow comforting array of reflections, angles, overlays, intense colors, and voiced-over crosscuts. Most of these images of close-up faces or reflections are crosscut across gender-difference in an array of splitting and doubling: a man’s face reflecting back the image of a (transgender) woman’s or a women’s doubled reflection projected over a man’s voice, in a sylleptic doubling and overlapping of sexual identity through reflection and refraction (see Figures 5-9). If there is a revived sense of telos in the film at the level of plot here—as the father puts the son’s/daughter’s narrative back on path towards finding the lost the mother—it is countered by the fact that this montage is never cinematically synthesized, but rather gathers its full affective force, its poignant intimacy, from purely disjunctive interplay, its dazzling array of fragmented shots and cuts.
Figure 5: Kitten on the swing in her peepshow booth, autobiographic writer’s notebook in hand.
Figure 6: In the peepshow booth, reflections/ gazes (the patron preceding Father Liam).
Figure 7: In the peepshow booth, voices/ reflections from beyond the glass.
Figure 8: In the peepshow booth, Father Liam tells a story about a boy… or a girl… who never knew his parents.
Figure 9: In the peepshow booth, splitting, thought specular.
Thus the peepshow scene (so full of reflections) reflects on the fictionality and fantasy inherent in gendered identity construction and the way we mythologize it in culturally-determined generic forms, like the mystery and the bildungsroman; and by playing with this fantasy construction through sylleptic editing techniques, the scene opens up new potentials for Kitten’s narrative production of an identity. As such, this scene does not function as a “fulcrum” pivoting the narrative towards a teleological closure by oedipalizing her gender difference. Rather it further bifurcates and doubles the path of the film’s/Kitten’s narrative: precisely by directing Kitten not to an allegorical “Lost Mother” (the “Phantom Lady”) but to an actual address of an actual person (Eily Bergin), a biological mother, the plot in effect turns away from literal narrative solutions and towards more playful and unregulated symbolic possibilities. In the narrative path that follows from the peepshow-scene revelation, the biological origins of identity and gender become mundane and literal but symbolically void. Kitten gains access to her biological mother’s home through the ploy of role-play, disguised as a conservative bureaucratic telephone-company clerk, now in the position of a concealed “monitor” without fear of being exposed or intimately engaged—the proper inversion of the peepshow scene, a parallel emphasized by the telephone theme, as there she had spoken to her father though a grainy transistor, which in turn echoes the magician’s microphone and the childhood confessional screen.
Thus Kitten can gain access to the fantastic mystery that is the telos of her narrative, the real “Phantom Lady,” purely on the level of fiction or performance, but what she find there is, of course, a completely non-fantastic, conventional family plot, an ending fit for a nineteenth-century bildungsroman. But she also finds herself, in the form of a double, already inscribed in this narrative. That is, it is here that she finds her own alter ego, her mother’s other son Patrick, who perfectly fits the stereotypical role of the bourgeois British son, the gender-normative young boy who ingenuously believes that “everybody owns a telephone;” accordingly, in their interactions, the boy, pushy and yet instinctively sympathetic, seems oddly interested in this telecom clerk. So Eily Bergin, the biological mother, is never really “rejected”; Kitten’s role-play performance allows her the benefit of experiencing this scene of discovering her mother without becoming narratively part of it, keeping her narrative identity while shedding the telos structuring her original fantasy. Yet we know Eily’s plotline does continue along with the other Patrick, and we even see that she is having another child in the final scene, which Kitten hopes will be “a girl this time” (the coded message she conveys through the other Patrick as they go their separate ways). After finding her “real” mother, which takes place more as a kind of encounter (without merging) of two different narrative plotlines, Kitten can return home again to Ireland, where her father has come to accept her gender-identity, in order to pursue diverse symbolizations of both gender and family, and finally return to London more successfully a second time to fully adopt this new narrative grounded in gender play.
But are we once again confronted with the question of castration anxiety and re-oedipalization? Is, as Mulhall believes, Kitten merely re-oedipalized by her turn from her mother to her father? If we return to the peepshow scene, we may find a rather startlingly self-reflexive answer to this question—precisely in what the film cuts, or screens, from our gaze. The peepshow scene rather audaciously toys with a transgression of oedipal structures when, accompanying the paternal voice hesitatingly applying her alternate-gender name to a particularly paternal question (“can I tell you a story… Patricia?”), Kitten coyly opens her legs, hikes up her negligée, and precisely with the words “more than I love mysteries,” motions to literally unveil the (lack-of-)phallus to the Father (in both senses of the word). Confronted with a kind of accidental travesty of the underlying castration theme, the Father anxiously resists: “don’t do that… please, please.” Yet after Kitten pauses mid swing to thoughtfully shrug off the deflection of this latent symbolic moment, the scene kicks back into gear taking it up as part of the performative play within the fictional/fantasy space of the booth, and it is precisely Kitten’s ability to transform these motifs of oedipal coercion into play that is the catalyst for this sylleptic scene’s engendering the explosive array of images and reflections of gender and identity. The intimate pink velvet box that envelops Kitten is almost literally an embryonic “montage cell” that opens the potential for the subject to freely express and perform its lack of “real” gender, or rather, to experience gender itself as ground zero of symbol-producing Loss, as symbolic castration. Žižek’s explanation of the Real of sexual difference—“that which forever eludes the grasp of normative symbolization” (271)—takes on new resonance here: “[the] gap between the Real and its symbolization,” says Žižek,
must be sustained by a cut, and ‘symbolic castration’ is the Lacanian name for this cut. So, ‘symbolic castration’ is the not the ultimate point of symbolic reference which somehow limits the free flow of the multitude of symbolizations: on the contrary, it is the very gesture which sustains, keeps open, the space of contingent symbolizations. (275)
Opening the playful space of the multitude of “contingent symbolizations” of sexuality is what allows the film to paradoxically achieve and subvert the bourgeois teleology of the bildungsroman at once, so that Kitten does finally find her stable family role in the manner that the genre dictates, but, in a radically revisionary manner, as the second female parent in an interracial same-sex unwed family (see Figure 10).
Figure 10: Kitten playfully revises the narrative/image of the happy family and the bildungsroman telos.
We could say, then, that what Garrett Stewart calls the flicker effect at the level of prose and montage, Lacan would call symbolic castration at the level of sexual difference—the “cut” that sustains the play of signification. In this sense, then, Bowen’s claim that Rosa’s presence in David Copperfield is “castrating” may be far more suggestive than he himself realized. For David’s/ Trotwood’s/ Daisy’s portrait scene with Rosa Dartle and Patrick’s/Patricia’s/ Kitten’s peepshow-booth scene with Father Liam are both instances where syllepsis/ symbolic castration works to radically disrupt the narrative construction of a particular kind of subject in novel and film, thus opening those very forms up to an irreducible play, not a telos, but a flicker effect of gendered subjectivity.
In the broader context of theorizing the relation between the Victorian novel and film generally, Garrett Stewart’s concept of syllepsis allows him to see the specular potential of Dickens’ sentences and prose rather than focusing on the plotting of a scene, staging of a mise-en-scène, or even the effect of visualization or montage-like splicing together of visual images frequently understood as “cinematic.” This linguistic/imagistic flicker effect produces a different kind of montage and (therefore) a different kind of thought, less teleological and more “disjunctive,” like Eisenstein’s “jamming together images that fail to cohere either as continuous space or action” and thus “not adding up” must be “thought through” (Stewart 123). As I have tried to show, with the help of Kristeva’s thought—where linguistic and cinematic images merge into the specular image of “internal vision”—Stewart’s reading is already a queering of the relation of novel to film/film to novel and thus points us towards the kind of “queer interpretation and enquiry” of which Furneaux speaks, in relation gender studies, when she expresses her hope that “a broader field of queer interpretation and enquiry will be part of our continuing reinvention of the Victorians, … extending our appreciation of erotic vitality that exceeds those categories that we now find it difficult to think outside of” (253). While Bowen’s approach invites us to analyze the underlying gender implications in the very concepts “cinematic” and “narrative,” I have suggested that an attention to play at the formal level of signifiers or syntax paves the way to “queering” those binary categories we still find it so hard to think outside of: Male/Female, Word/Image, Novel/Film—and moreover to queering the very relation between novel and film, to queering adaptation itself.
Intimate Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis, 72.
I need hardly note here that Bowen’s early work, Other Dickens, still stands among the most important and impressive readings of Derridean play in Dickens’ prose to date; see also John Bowen’s more recent “dickens and the force of writing,” charles dickens studies, John Bowen and Robert L. Patten, eds. (houndsmilles, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
See Holly Furneaux’s Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities, 253.
In fact for Lacan the gaze is that which is by very nature omitted from the subject’s point of view, as the unconscious object cause of desire, or objet petit a, in the visual sphere.
Bowen seems to be drawing more on the castration anxiety of the American psychoanalytic tradition, or ego psychology, as opposed to the Lacanian/Žižekian sense of “symbolic castration” which will be explored further below.
Stewart demonstrates convincingly here that while Eisenstein claims this as his own advancement from Dickens’ more basic “parallel editing,” his idea of conceptual montage in fact originates in Dickens’ experimental prose.
Kristeva: “We are inundated with images, some of which resonate with our fantasies and appease us but which, for lack of interpretive words, do not liberate us. Moreover, the stereotype of these images deprives us of the possibility of creating our own imagery, our own imaginary scenarios” (67).
See Alexander Bove, “‘The Unbearable Realism of a Dream’: On the Subject of Portraits in Austen and Dickens.” ELH 74.3 (2007).
See Alexander Bove, “‘The Unbearable Realism of a Dream’: On the Subject of Portraits in Austen and Dickens.” ELH 74.3 (2007).
See Bove, “‘The Unbearable Realism of a Dream’: On the Subject of Portraits in Austen and Dickens.” ELH 74.3 (2007), p 672.
In the “Last Retrospect,” her final scene, Rosa, uncannily suspended with Steerforth’s mother in a ghostly space of mourning, can be read in the filmic sense as the return of the repressed of David’s narrative, eerily suspended in an ever-present latency, the very embodiment of Freud’s formula of repetition (there is no repressed without its return). It is this very repetition compulsion, which Freud also calls the death drive, as that which forever resists the linear logic of the bildungsroman here, that sustains the specular logic of fantasy-formation, the psychic space that allows for the unresolved play of the drive.
See Lacan’s seminar On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge: for example, “They [love letters and duets] revolve around the fact that there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship” (57) or “[e]verything that is written stems from the fact that it will forever be impossible to write, as such, the sexual relationship” (35).
Interestingly, the playfulness with which the film treats gender themes seems to have caused no small amount of anxiety and uneasiness among reviewers, especially in a Guardian review by Peter Bradshaw, who laments the “shrill, twittering monotony” of our heroine: “…Kitten appears to get involved in deadly serious situations: [insert list of deadly serious situations].... But all the time he airily waves away any suggestion that he should take any of this seriously: ‘Oh serious, serious, serious....’ But isn't it serious …it is miraculously disarming - the cross-dressing Christ in high-heels? - but it can only be disarming in this world tinged with black-comic fantasy” (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2006/jan/13/2).
See, for instance, Aisling B Cormack. “Toward a ‘Post-Troubles’ Cinema? The Troubled Intersection of Political Violence and Gender in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto, ” Charlotte McIvor, “’Crying’ on ‘Pluto’: Queering the ‘Irish Question’ for Global Film Audiences,” and Anne Mulhall, “A Cure for Melancholia? Queer Sons, Dead Mothers, and the Fantasy of Multiculturalism in McCabe’s and Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto(s).”
This scene also echoes another important inspiration for the film, the scene from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, when Giulietta Masina’s character is also hypnotized by a magician and induced to reveal her intimate secret desires in front of a raucous crowd only to be exploited for it—just one of several parallels with that other gender-forward Dickensian picaresque film.
“Filmic Dickens locates the rapid layered succession of his verbal as well as imagistic effects, whereas cinematic Dickens concerns larger, more readily staged (and filmed) blocks of description and plotting” (Stewart 123)
Bove, Alexander. “‘The Unbearable Realism of a Dream’: On the Subject of Portraits in Austen and Dickens.” ELH 74.3, 2007.
Bowen, John. “David Copperfield’s home movies.” Dickens on Screen. John Glavin, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Breakfast on Pluto. Screenplay by Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe. Dir. Perf. Cillian Murphy. 2005. Sony, 2006. DVD.
Cormack, Aisling B. “Toward a ‘Post-Troubles’ Cinema? The Troubled Intersection of Political Violence and Gender in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto.” Eire-Ireland 49: 1&2, Spr/Sum 2014. Pages 164-192.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2007. Andrews McMeel Publishing 2013.
Furneaux, Holly. Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Kristeva, Julia. Intimate Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality: the Limits of Love and Knowledge. ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg. New York, Norton, 1998.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The View From Afar, trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985.
McCabe, Patrick. Breakfast on Pluto. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
McIvor, Charlotte. “’Crying’ on ‘Pluto’: Queering the ‘Irish Question’ for Global Film Audiences,” in David Cregan (ed), Deviant Acts: Essays on Queer Performance. Dublin, Carysfort Press (2009).
Mulhall, Anne. “A Cure for Melancholia? Queer Sons, Dead Mothers, and the Fantasy of Multiculturalism in McCabes and Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto(s).” Theory on the Edge: Irish Studies and the Politics of Sexual Difference. Giffney, Noreen and Margrit Shildrick, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Stewart, Garrett, “Dickens, Eisenstein, film.” Dickens on Screen. John Glavin, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology. London: Verso Books, 1999.