Hitchcock, Haneke and the Psycho-Sexual Voyeur Apparatus

by Ian Burkett

22 Jun 2010


“The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse, and they got no windows in the workhouse,” says Stella as she enters L. B. Jeffries’ apartment and catches him, confined to a wheelchair, spying on his Greenwich Village neighbors through the large window in his living room. “You know,” she goes on, “in the old days they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini-bombshells you’re always watching worth a red-hot poker?” Then, her society-gutting one liner: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.”

From the very beginning Rear Window forefronts voyeurism as its narrative framework, and in doing so, it “performs the metalinguistic dismantling of the structures of scopophilia and identification”, as Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson said in their essay, ““Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism”. That’s to say, Alfred Hitchcock, director of the 1954 thriller classic, is using voyeurism as a framework to deconstruct the cinematic apparatus. Where the “conventional” filmic apparatus attempts to suppress the audience’s awareness of itself, Hitchcock forefronts its participation within that framework.

Hitchcock pioneered the use of voyeurism as a means of deconstructing the cinematic apparatus. Following his work, there’s a whole slew of films indebted to Hitchcock’s genius; such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), to name a few.

More recently are Michael Haneke’s three films, Benny’s Video (1992) and The Piano Player (2001) and Caché (2005). Like Hitchcock, Haneke has developed a director aesthetic that is all his own, an aesthetic that is made evident by this trilogy. In all three of these films Haneke uses voyeurism to dismantle the space between the film and the audience, and in doing so, he takes advantage of what might be thought of as Hitchcock’s voyeur apparatus and forces the audience to question its place within the narrative.

A voyeur is “a person whose sexual desires are stimulated or satisfied by covert observation of the sex organs or sexual activities of other,” and scopophilia, which informs the act of voyeurism, is the “sexual stimulation or satisfaction derived principally from looking.” It’s not difficult, then, to understand the psycho-sexual implications of the voyeur apparatus. Like Stella says, Jeff hasn’t neglected to notice his leggy neighbor across the courtyard, the so called Miss Torso.

Haneke, following Hitchcock’s lead, explores the psycho-sexual implications of voyeurism in The Piano Teacher. Therein, the voyeur apparatus highlights the intrinsic sexual desire of the voyeur. Erika, a middle-aged classical piano instructor, fulfills this role, as voyeur and sexual deviant, as she spies on a young high-school-aged couple having sex in the backseat of their car while parked at a drive-in movie.

This psycho-sexual aspect is important, no doubt, but it’s not the most important thing going on when there’s a voyeur apparatus at play. What’s most important is the manner in which both Hitchcock and Haneke deconstruct the space between the movie and the audience, the spectacle and the spectator. To better understand this deconstruction, there are two main film theorist that need to be looked at—Christian Metz, author of The Imaginary Signifier, and Catherine Wheatley, author of Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image.

“The film knows that it is being watched, and yet does not know,” says Metz. “The one who knows is the cinema, the institution (and its presence in every film, in the shape of the discourse which is behind the fiction); the one who doesn’t want to know is the film, the text (in its final version): the story.” Metz’s assertion here is true. Since the inception of the medium, a primary, even fundamental, objective of the filmmaker has been to fashion as believable an approximation of “reality” as possible, yet the application of voyeurism as a narrative framework confuses the structure of “conventional” filmic apparatuses.

Films which make use of a voyeur apparatus, such as Rear Window and Haneke’s Caché, create a certain truncation of the reciprocal relationship between the audience and the film, the spectator and the spectacle. For example, in Rear Window the audience is made aware of itself as audience as Jeff is left to helplessly watch as Lisa, his beloved girlfriend, is caught snooping about the suspected murder’s Lars Thorwald, apartment. The audience watches as Jeff simultaneously plays the role of spectacle (of the film’s audience) and spectator (of Lisa’s encounter with Lars Thorwald), and they are forced to wonder at their own existence as spectacle.


From Caché

This moment is replicated in Caché, a shout out of sorts to Hitchcock from Haneke nearly 50 years after the release of Rear Window. Caché opens with an eerily lengthy shot that looks down an alley at the front door of duplex. Beyond the creeps, the audience thinks little more of this shot. That is, of course, until that same shot is seen being played on the television screen of the duplex occupants, Georges and Anne Laurent.

The two, along with their middle-school-aged son, Pierrot, realize they’re home is not only being watched but videotaped over extended periods of time, as they pop a VHS into their VCR and watch their own front door in a state of utter confusion. In this moment, the Laurents, like Jeff, are made to play the role of spectacle and spectator simultaneously. Much like Hitchcock, then, Haneke uses the framework of voyeurism to push the audience to take notice of themselves within the narrative structure, to push the audience to wonder: are we voyeurs too?

Like Metz has said, “the cinema manages to be both exhibitionist and secretive,” and the metalinguistic self-awareness that is pushed upon the moviegoer by such a voyeur apparatus is taken even further in Rear Window and Haneke’s Benny’s Video, wherein the audience is forced to wonder at its complicity within the narrative.

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