The film opens by posing the terrible question of what happens when human relationships are simply boiled down to dealing with the mundane bare essentials, such as bowel movements and periods? In other words, what happens when the body is reduced to its strict, basic needs, to its own real dimension? What if the body is seen as just a piece of meat, like a bag of organs that, as in the film, no longer function. Put another way, if all that remains are these purely organic considerations, then there is no room left for the subject - that subject we hold so dear, that subject in each and every one of us who is forever at the ready to rise up in revolt, to cry out should we ever we neglect him, ready to say no and make his disapproval heard, so that we finally take him into consideration, listen and recognize him. The symptom is also what speaks out on behalf of the subject. It arrives on the scene like a messenger to announce that something isn’t right, to flag up a problem - the spokesperson of the subject’s truth
If you look back through history, to Antiquity for example, it would appear that the subject was traditionally always free to express himself spontaneously. It was only when Descartes introduced the notion of reason that truth was identified as being a logical, mathematical and rational process. In other words, it marked a turning point in history where the subject, along with all his expressions of emotion, all his feelings, impressions, states of disorder and symptoms, no longer had his rightful place in the equation. From then on he had to be brushed aside, given that he was no longer appropriate. From Descartes onwards, the subject’s place prevented him from existing on the world stage, and forced him to place himself “beneath” at the “bottom”. And here you find the Latin origin of the word subject: subjectum, means “thrown beneath”. It denotes everything that should be kept out of the equation, everything you should steer clear from, in other words the unconscious. But in some circumstances you simply can’t keep a lid on the subject: sometimes the subject can’t always keep quiet. Rather, he needs to pipe up and give his view on things, and loudly so, violently rushing back to the fore, rebelling with a force on a par with the degree of brutality to which he has been subjected by those attempts to silence him, to keep him in line. And you can see this uprising at work in the main character of the film, the young girl. She pulls no punches. She is upfront, speaking out frankly, unbothered by coming across as unconventional and not pandering to the norm. She rocks the boat. She shakes things up in the mental institution where she has been admitted, she shakes things up within her family, within society as a whole…. Why? Because the subject needs subtlety, finesse and attention.
What’s so interesting about this film is that it very intelligently conveys the fact that anorexia is not a dietary symptom. If you treat anorexia as being a problem with food, then you are completely missing the point. You’re failing to grasp the fundamental message it is giving out, that truth which lies beyond the notion of food, a truth that represents a vast, enormous, massive and decisive expanse. So to reduce anorexia and bulimia to being about having a problem with food, to sum it up in such simple terms is a mistake of modern society. That’s not where the real problem lies. And we need to locate it, hear where it’s coming from and how it expresses itself. And this is something we have learnt by reading texts written by mystical anorexics for example. What do they tell us? What do they say about their condition? What do we learn from them?
When you look closely at how the subject works, you can see that there are two decisive drifts, two crucial pillars, two key elements which operate together, yet at the same time radically contradict each other. Freud came up with a term to combine both of these ideas: Wunsch, ‘wish’. Then Lacan took Freud’s term and located within it two distinct notions: demand and desire. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to make your desire heard directly. Yet desire is what drives us, what fuels our existence, gives us a perspective and a reason to live. It’s like a glowing light on the horizon, a source of hope. Nothing concrete can actually satisfy that desire. Desire is a movement that angles itself towards a target, but a target which is systemically without any object, because it is a yearning that isn’t based on anything material. Desire is all about being carried away by a wave, by an arrow pointing upwards, it’s about being swept away in life! Ever since Spinoza we have known that desire is a particular feature of mankind. But how do you take it a step further and convey the fact that we are possessed by that desire?
Because what’s particular about desire is its hunger to be recognized: its longing for recognition of the fact that the subject is driven by a desire. Desire is not characterized by any object in particular. What’s specific about desire is that it’s not looking for an object, but looking to be identified, to ensure that we are know that the desire exists. That’s what the subject wants. The subject wants others or the big Other to know that it is imbued with a desire, and it is going to make that known indirectly. In other words it’s going to go down the route of demands! Because unlike a desire that lacks its own object, demand can focus itself on something that can be labelled and articulated: I’d like this… I’d like that etc. That’s how desire can express itself through demands, but without ever being confused with those demands. The whole problem hinges on how to respond to those demands. If you refuse to hear and recognize the desire and also love underpinning and driving those demands, meaning you strive to meet those demands ‘to the letter’ by providing the object supposedly so ‘longed-for’, by systematically serving up exactly what has been requested, then you are heading for a subjective catastrophe. Why? Because we overload the subject with responses by drowning him under a tide of objects. We ignore the search for love and desire, and therefore make a mockery of that desire which is trying so hard to make itself heard. By repeating this same mistake of ‘overresponding’ to the subject’s demands, the subject then goes into denial, stops making any demands at all, or rather only asks for impossible objects that no-one can give him. He demands nothing. He shuts down and no longer eats anything, or wants anything or expects anything.
His whole approach is therefore given over to the notion of nothing, which is incompatible with the notion of life, and therefore a position that is unsustainable in the long term. And why does he do that? Why does he embrace nothing? For a very noble cause which is to save his own desire. He’d rather sacrifice his own life to save his desire, because the subject sees that desire as being the most precious thing he has. The subject shows considerable courage here. He’d rather die than have to sacrifice his own desire. On that count, a psychoanalyst and a person with anorexia, such as the girl in the film, share a sort of natural affinity. Both of them are infatuated with the notion of desire. Both the anorexic person and psychoanalyst take a major interest in desire, more than anything or anyone else.
So anorexia as a symptom is there to express this ultimate truth that belongs to the subject. That truth being that the subject prefers desire above all other things, and that desire can only exist if we don’t meet all its demands, demands that the subject uses as a vehicle to try to convey its desire. Obviously, you can force someone to momentarily renounce his or her symptom through coercion, intimidation, threats with blackmail or fearmongering through scare tactics. But that is no cure. That’s just using prison-like methods to obtain a degree of normalization, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem or solve anything. It doesn’t enable the truth of desire to be known, recognized and accepted by all. As we all know, these methods only make things worse and actually further exacerbate the symptom. Because sooner or later the subject takes the upper hand again, proving himself once again as the one on top, each and every time.
Just a word about the role of the young man in the film. I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that music is the starting point of all the threads in the story. As you know, the reason why we are so drawn to and deeply moved by musical instruments, and in particular wind instruments, and why they have such a strong emotional impact on us is that they are substitutes for the human voice. A musical instrument sounds like a person’s voice. And the human voice is the first thing that a baby perceives when he comes into the world. It’s what he hears inside his mother’s womb, before even understanding what the words mean. The voice constitutes the primitive imprint of mankind. So in the film, you have this young man going about with his musical instrument on his back, and in a way his tuba is the voice that speaks out before him, and he can only really express himself fully through the sound of that instrument. And that tuba is what immediately humanizes the relationship between the young man and the young girl from the outset. It manages to tame the girl’s wild side. As we all know, anorexia is typically a young girl’s issue, and associated specifically with young girls with a slightly fierce and wild streak who step into the world and find themselves confronted with the notion of semblance, of the lack of authenticity apparent in the social forces at play, that layer of foolish stupidity constantly overshadowing the world … And then the instrument pipes up, and you hear its voice speak the language of love before it’s even possible to express it in words.
Because if you look at the very beginnings of their relationship, it all starts off on quite a coarse, blunt note, driven by basic instincts. There is a purely genital drive at play here and not yet a truly amorous relationship. There is arousal, but not yet the notion of sexuality and all the sacred and symbolic associations that go with it. They haven’t yet reached the stage of shyness, shame, modesty, a need for discretion and intimacy. What’s lacking here is that they haven’t established the gap needed for desire to emerge. They haven’t gone through the stage of taking the time to get to know each other, of talking to each other and missing each other. And don’t forget, desire is a fragile thing. You have to make sure that all the right conditions are in place in order for it to bloom. But then there comes a wonderful and surprising turning point in the film where the ‘human voice’ of the musical instrument has entered on the scene and managed to soften the tone and calm things down, a space finally opens up where the two can truly ‘meet’ each other and create a link. And then follows the first romantic kiss, and both of them enter a whole new arena. That delightful moment when love and the meeting of two minds can finally take up its rightful place. The young man finally takes a risk by daring to articulate his attachment to the girl. He turns to words, starts the narrative and speaks to her with genuine sincerity. The subtlety of this film is clearly shown here in the way it depicts the young girl experiencing a real conversion when she manages to overcome what had previously appeared to her insurmountable. By the end of the film it’s the male character who is the one shut away, and she is the one who comes to visit him, because she hasn’t forgotten him, as the title suggests. And she speaks to him of marriage in a light-hearted way, in terms brimming with humour.
Just one final remark on a funny point before I conclude. You get the impression that the film is winking at us, the viewer, by demonstrating that the symptom is absolutely everywhere! It’s not just reserved for people shut up in mental institutions. Take the example of the model who comes to the hospital on a self-promotional visit to spend an evening with the young girls and boost her own profile – she herself is also completely anorexic! Yet by comparison she isn’t half as human or endearing as all the other girls. Why? Because she sees herself as completely normal, and yet she is utterly self-absorbed and intoxicated by her own image, wrapped up in her own narcissism. She is there to remind us that we shouldn’t look at these symptoms from the standpoint of a psychiatrist. We shouldn’t analyse that universe as if we were scientists examining the world through a microscope. We too are equally part of this world, and we are no better than the characters in the film, and certainly not safely on the outside, shielded from their issues. The symptoms we see here are not just confined to the patients of long-term care facilities. No, when attempting to treat someone and help them through a difficult stage, the first step one should take is to start by recognizing that whatever the issue or problem, it concerns all of us, and first and foremost ourselves. And on that point, I am sure you know the Latin quote from one of Terence’s plays - “Homo sum : humani nihil a me alienum puto” (I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me). Let us not forget it.