The transcript of Jacques Lacan’s seminar dated May 25th, 1960 records a “murmur of pleasure” when the great psychoanalyst recommends that his students attend Federico Fellini’s new film, La Dolce Vita. In the film’s final scene, the fashionable guests of a decadent all-night party walk through a beach-side wood towards what Lacan refers to as “some disgusting object that has been caught by a net in the sea”. For Lacan, the enormous staring sea creature to which the celebrities are oddly compelled encapsulates what he had formulated in the seminars of that year as the sublime “Thing”: the true lure and motivation behind all desire. In psychoanalysis, the objects we crave – whether sexual or material – are only arbitrarily connected to the desire itself, allowing momentary physical form to a kind of blank and motiveless force of desire Freud calls “drive”. The Louis Vuittons and Ryan Goslings that periodically seem to have harnessed this drive in order to occupy the position of the object of our desire are in fact standing in as a sort of socialized version of this empty “Thing”. In itself, the “Thing” could only be represented either as a blank void, or as a traumatizing impossible-to-symbolize monster, such as Fellini presents us with in his extraordinary representation of celebrity life at the start of the 1960s.
What can this new La Dolce Vita, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, tell us about desire today? In the film, a group of teenagers realize that the Beverley Hills celebrities from whom they derive their whole frame of reference may be burgled with a certain amount of impunity, simply because they are unlikely to notice when a small proportion of the priceless jewelry, clothes and accessories in their possession go missing. Just as Fellini’s celebrities charge towards the monstrous fish, Coppola’s teenagers are driven self-destructively towards the night club-like homes of Paris Hilton and Audrina Patridge, dressing in their clothes and taking their drugs. “Desire” in this film, to take another famous Lacanian maxim, is “desire of the other”. This doesn’t simply mean that I want the objects that other people want, but rather that what fascinates me is the extraordinary mystery of their ability to want them: the unexpected union of drive and object manifested in “the Thing”. In truth, I am far less interested in Lindsay Lohan’s handbags, shrugs and tennis bracelets for any of their essential properties, than for the way they seem to mark the field of Lohan’s desire: the boundaries of the monstrous Lohanian “Thing”.
Coppola allows for a certain amount of conventional meditation on what makes the teenagers vulnerable to pursuing their desire so destructively in this way (alienation from peers, crazy religious home-schooling and so on). But over the question of what, in the first place, makes the celebrities want the stuff the teenagers subsequently want it is brilliantly silent. When one of the teenagers ends up in a cell previously occupied by Paris Hilton and next to the currently-incarcerated Lindsay Lohan, the difference between being beautiful, hedonistic and absurdly rich, and being beautiful, hedonistic and not all that rich, becomes less clear, as various commentators have noted. Whatever the reputations of Fellini’s and now Coppola’s films for glamourizing vacuous celebrities and their most committed admirers, what is most remarkable in their films is actually their commitment to the monstrous vacuity of all desire. Whether exemplified as a beached fish or a washed-up actress, the motivation for desire exposed by the two films’ respective finales is, supremely, the monstrous vacancy of the Lacanian “Thing”.