Gone Girl and the Madness of the Symbolic Order

The controversy surrounding David Fincher’s film version of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl has been saturating the news of late; indeed, a mini mass hysteria has risen up around it. The knee-jerkiness of reactions is exemplified in Joan Smith’s absurd article in the Guardian, claiming in its header that Ben Affleck(!) (almost solely, with begrudging reference in the article to the ‘English[!]’ actress Rosamund Pike, and no mention whatsoever of Fincher) should have known better than to have made a film about a woman making false allegations of criminal activity against her, because in real life this is in fact ‘extremely rare’, according to a statistical report. The backlash in the comments section has been pretty unanimous. Logically, of course, rarity of something shouldn’t by that criterium alone preclude it being the basis for a film; indeed, by this logic, a film about someone wrongly accused who sits on death row would have to be deemed by Smith a ‘travesty’ due to the accused’s actual innocence having been found to be ‘extremely rare’ in such cases, which doesn’t seem to sit so comfortably with the touted politics she apparently bases the moral of her rant on.

She nonetheless sees this film as a recycling of misogynistic myths, and the ‘gone girl’ of its title as the encapsulation of all the evil and deviousness man has imbued the image of woman with at least since Homer proclaimed that a thousand Penelopes could not wash away the sin of a single Clytemnestra; yet, whilst there is of course something to this (thousands of years’ worth of something), on the feminist flipside it can be, and has been, argued that we have been given a female character here as evil – and as autonomously evil – as any malicious male villain, killer or ‘psycho’ in movie history: Pike indeed out-Anthony-Perkins Anthony Perkins in her performance, and undergoes transformations worthy of De Niro.

But it seems that if the issue of rarity is really at stake in the film’s plotline, then we’ve lost the plot somewhat. That is, the plot is patently absurd; the chances of its occurrence in real life are beyond ‘rare’: Amy Elliot Dunne’s disappearance becomes a national media circus not even overnight, but within hours, she eludes the grasp of the law in ways too extraordinary for even the dumbest of lawpeople (and there are some dumb ones among them in the film) not to pick up on, and she is even allowed to wander around unwashed head-to-toe in her ex’s blood from her ‘rescue’ to hospital to home… The characters are caricatures, the plot inflated beyond belief, and that is what makes the film such a success; it is poignant satire.

For what is really at issue here, it seems, is the symbolic order and its vicissitudes. This is indeed where a feminist critique seems to come in in the film, in fact. Amy appears as the most crippled and condensed product of the injunctions of patriarchy, and becomes the enactor of its superego: matrimonial sanctity is foregrounded over any ethics of not giving ground relative to one’s desire; the marital vows are ritualistically upheld to the last and tested against partitions of death; the ‘natural’ (i.e. ideological) inclination to bear a child is taken to its inhumane extreme; and the laws that bind these patriarchal tropes are made by her so categorically imperative that duty to them comes at costs too heavy for anything as wishy-washy as ‘human rights’ to possibly bear. The paradigm of her parents’ creation of the fictional children’s character ‘Amazing Amy’ – with all her social achievement and familial perfection, in contrast to the real Amy’s second fiddle – has left its mark, to say the least.

Jacques Lacan says that ‘the unconscious is outside’, and equates the unconscious and the symbolic order. In this film we see how the unconscious is violently ‘out there’, in – in psychoanalytic terms – a particularly American way. Lacan’s psychoanalysis set itself up against the abduction of Freud by ‘American ego-psychology’, in which the basic tenet was to adapt patients to society by matching their egos with those (purportedly perfected versions) of their analysts. In Gone Girl we see the standard symbolically set by an image (i.e. imaginary) of an ego, up to which Nick Dunne (Affleck) must match. In the eyes of the symbolic order, that – through incredulity to media ‘sincerity’ – he fakes a smile at the missing person’s press conference is jumped upon as murderous insincerity towards his wife; that he’s close with his sister, she becomes an incestuous accomplice; that he was cheating on Amy is undismissible evidence of his intent to kill her; that he does not know how to act – as it’s the first time his wife’s gone missing, and the advice of the media-savvy around him seems contrary to common or moral sense – is admission of guilt.

The sententious news presenter in the film, Ellen Abbott – based seemingly on ultra-right-wing pundits of certain US TV stations; Bill O’Reilly prime among them – is at the helm of this egoic enterprise. To her – and by transmission to her viewers – the entrenched ‘family values’ of the American way (those which ensure her show’s ratings and its station’s profits) are everything, to the extent that, like to how Amy operates, nothing – not even so opportunistic a thing as the truth – must get in the way of them. And her story goes only where this semblance, the ego, goes: if Nick starts to look the more moral in the matter the media is suddenly on his side, on Amy’s again as soon as her ordeal is presented as the greatest tragedy, and on their side, as a couple, when inextricable entrapment is able to return the aura of domestic bliss to the prying public, complete strangers and cathartic ‘well-wishers’.

In this, Gone Girl is a film that reminds us to be critically aware that the truth, in the madness of the symbolic order, is anamorphotic, and one that, if it satirises the state of media sensationalism, shows us also how close this inflation is to the current cost of living, and how symptomatic the symbolic state of our media is. Indeed, it shows and warns how constantly symptoms themselves are becoming conditions for the future.

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