Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: Lost in Translation?

Erica Law

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: Lost in Translation?

Scarlett Johansson: Opening Credits of Lost in Translation

Scarlett Johansson: Opening Credits of Lost in Translation



Lost in Translation (2003), begins with a visual of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in pink sheer underwear and a sweater, a representation of woman as both spectacle, and mysterious object simultaneously. The voyeuristic nature of the opening credits (or pretext) of the film, shows this scene for close to 30 seconds, keeping our attention on Charlotte’s leg movements, and presenting a very raw display of her body in the film. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” illuminates our reading of this particular scene when she states, “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world” (711). Charlotte is gendered through their use of sheer pink underwear, and we are beholden to her identity due to her feminine physique, or what we might ascertain as “feminine,” and asserts that we partake in blatant scopophilia. We see Charlotte as a visual of this castrated woman, leaving us with the idea of the monstrous feminine throughout the film through Charlotte’s use of her intelligence (or what her husband might think to be as monstrous and castrating, the idea that she is perhaps more intelligent than others). The sheer underwear leaves little to the imagination, and while we could see more of Charlotte (Johansson’s body), it’s interesting that there is a blatantly voyeuristic scene, one in which she seems to be engaged in something other than laying around for our visual benefit. Furthermore, the fact that Charlotte, Johansson’s character, is a philosophy graduate from Yale also shows an interesting take on our analysis of Charlotte’s underwear scene. Mulvey states that, “woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it” (712).

Charlotte is often left to her own devices in her abandoned hotel room, from which John, (her husband) has left due to his job. At one point he asks her why she has to, “make everyone feel stupid.” To which she replies, she “thought it was funny.” John dismisses this, and tells her he loves her and rushes off. With this particular scene, Charlotte is painted as an educated young woman, and Kelly (Anna Ferris) is portrayed as an uneducated model, or “thing,” unable to correctly identify herself even through her anonymous name, Evelyn Waugh, to which Charlotte says that Evelyn Waugh was a male. In some ways, this film wants us to deconstruct Charlotte’s beauty, by first recognizing her as an intelligent, educated, woman, able to wear underwear and sweaters as a means to visually represent the “in-between” of hyper-sexualization, but on the other hand she is presented as a lonely wife, abandoned and cast off by her working husband.

What’s more—Charlotte longs to find her purpose, but is stuck in a hotel room waiting longingly (at times) for her husband to return. In some ways, her experiences represent the symbolic order, as she is left to discover her path through males (by her husband, and by Bill). As Mulvey asserts, “it is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it,” which is my main prerogative by writing about Charlotte’s sheer pink underwear (713). Charlotte plays the “person as object” at the beginning, because she is the object of femininity we are supposed to focus on. When we realize further on in the film that it is in fact Charlotte that is wearing the underwear in the beginning of the film, we are left to wonder how this representation of the woman is working within the sphere of the film. Mulvey states, “Although the instinct is modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object” (713). Charlotte could be a castrating female to men; therefore, she is posed as a sexual and intellectual threat to their very existence and their lives as they know it.


Closed vs Open Film Forms

Leo Braudy discusses the terms that he could use when considering open and closed films, and first states that he could simply call open and closed, “realistic and expressionistic” film styles (44). He also tells us that it’s important to not just look at one element of the film that we find promising or important, but to consider the overall effect of the film and the way it impacts our thoughts and impressions. Braudy also considers diegesis (or narrative) and states, “such a story becomes a film only because film is a prevalent medium of our time, not because any essence of the story is best conveyed by a film” (45). By presenting a diegesis in film form, the story becomes much more “realistic” and the world presented is exponentially more revealing and applicable to our own lives and narratives (Braudy 45). As a viewer of film, Braudy’s understanding of film is especially important because it illuminates the way that film is situated within constructed or realistic worlds so that the audience can best understand the narrative and present it in a way and medium that is relatable and understandable to us as contemporary viewers.

Braudy ultimately informed the way I watched the film (and clips) for this week. He explains in The Open and the Closed that “closed film” and that it can be defined as, “the world of the film is the only thing that exists; everything within it has its place in the plot of the film—every object, every character, every gesture, every action” (Braudy 46). The diegesis that is occurring within the film is only in that screen frame, “the screen totally defines the world inside as the picture does” (Braudy 48). We could think of the film, Beauty and the Beast (1991) as a closed film style because we don’t have any indication that there is anything happening before or after the events within the film occur. Beauty and the Beast (1991) only occurs within a small town and only within that town does a beast exist that has been turned from a man into a beast through the use of magic. It is also only within this reality that Belle is able to save him from his beastly destruction and turn him back into a human. This could problematize the way that we think about Braudy’s understanding of the closed film, in that it could be the beginning of an exploration within our class to discuss this idea as well. I would put forth the assertion that because Beauty and the Beast (1991) is animated, it does complicate Braudy’s closed film style definition because it extends our understanding of the world within the frame and the viewer has to first believe that an animated world is feasible in the first place and understand the context of that constructed world through animation.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) Taken from

Beauty and the Beast (1991) Taken from

While watching The Movies Begin, Vol. 1, I was struck by the way that the characters were partaking in, what Braudy coins as, an “open film” style (2.05-6:30) (Braudy 47). Braudy explains that open film is conveys the way that “the world of the film is a momentary frame around an ongoing reality. The objects and the characters in the film existed before the camera focused on them and they will exist after the film is over” (47). In The Movies Begin, Vol. 1, the series first shows a kiss, then serpentine dances, the Sandow strongman, boxing, cockfighting, a barber shops, and lastly, seminary girls moving about their common room. Furthermore, the reason that these particular sets of clips are open is due to their ability to show you a flash of action and then cut to another scene of action. (In this case, I would argue that they are all centered around different types of dancing and movement in some ways, but I digress.) Each individual clip shows the lives of people that are in different venues and life situations, but it shows them at a particular moment in time, reminding us of “open film” style, because we know that life is going on before these moments and their lives will continue after these moments, as well (Braudy 47). Braudy furthers the idea of the “open film” style, and pushes us to think about the ways that some films that use open film style are able to not present a happy ending, but an ending that is, in some ways, more realistic and more like our own world and our own reality. He asserts that “it is the open film that considers the truth of a world outside the self. The truth of the closed film is the truth of subjectivity” (51). We are threatened by the idea that we cannot know what will happen in open film styles, and he gives some examples, such as Lang and Hitchcock, which worry and scare us as film-goers. How might we categorize the clips we saw this week? Are they open film or closed film styles? Why does it matter if a film is a closed or open style? Are there ever ways in which films are both closed and open styles? Might these types of discursive terms limit film styles?