MA Research paper: Mental Space on Screen

Mental space on screen: through the examples of Last year in Marienbad, Stalker and Lost Highway. (pdf)
MA Research Paper, Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, December 2010.


In Cinema 2, Deleuze introduces the concept of ‘time-image’, a type of cinema that depicts ‘purely audio and optical situations’, where objective and subjective are no longer distinct, real and imaginary become indiscernible, true and false can no longer be decided upon. Characters, no longer able to decide on a course of action, wander aimlessly in ’empty and disconnected spaces’. Such spaces are, as Anthony Vidler says of the uncanny, ‘a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity’. I call ‘mental space’ such a space that is a projection of the character’s mental state. 

This paper explores how the different elements of a film work together to depict the mental space of the characters. Through the examples of Alain Resnais’ Last year in Marienbad (1960), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), I show how similar techniques recur in films made in completely different cultural contexts, but that have in common to picture the subjective world of the characters. These techniques are: narrating events as the characters think about them, remember them or imagine them rather than how they actually happen; a labyrinthine set design where the inside and the outside contaminate each other; lighting and colours that reflect the mental state of the characters; rhythm that traps the viewer inside the characters’ subjectivity and, finally, sound that creates a mood of its own rather than illustrating or simply enhancing the images, with sparse dialogues becoming an integral part of the sound design.

When all these elements are combined, we get what Deleuze calls a ‘conscience-camera’, that is a camera that ‘subordinates the description of a space to the functions of thought’ and ‘enters’ inside ‘mental relationships’.

Keywords: space, subjectivity, cinema, cinematography, sound

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