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Christian Metz’s Imaginary Signifier Essay

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Updated: Apr 21st, 2022


Christian Metz was a very important film theorist who made a significant contribution to the art of cinema by his theories on cinema studies. He defines the cinematic signifier through a thorough analysis of the imaginary signifier. This is a broad topic that he set out to analyze in order to explain the elements that affect and greatly influence the art of cinema. He used a psychoanalytical approach to cinema studies.

He explains it as an imaginary factor, which is meant to replace or account for the fact that there is an absence of elements. These elements are time and space which are made transparent by the imagination.

In this topic, the main emphasize will be on desire as a necessity, spectator identification which focuses on semantics and identification with both the camera and the characters. The cinematic signifier is an imaginary element that is absent, but despite its lack, its realization is still evident.

Desire as a commodity

Metz analyses the cinematic signifier from the viewpoint of the Freudian aspect on desires. These desires he believes when incorporated together make a combined set of aspects that are different from other art forms. This element must be well understood before the cinematic signifier can be dwelt on.

Desire for the ego

He views the cinema signifier as perceptual. This is because it stimulates more senses than any other art form. The sense of sight is satisfied by the fact that it is a visual medium. Everything we see from the shots, actors, actions and scenes is visual. This is the biggest sense that cinema aims at satisfying as this can go a long way in ensuring ones cinematic experience has been realized.

The sense of hearing is because of the fact that it relies on the aspect of sound. Sound has gone through various stages of evolution in relation to cinema. This is from the silent era to the other periods that saw the necessity of other aspects of sound. Sound plays a crucial role in influencing perception. The incorporation of sound is in the dialogue, sound effects and choice of music.

This is an advantage that cinema has over other art forms. It can simulate the senses as opposed to the different art forms that stimulate one sense e.g. Music relies on the sense of hearing whereas reading relies on sight.

An important difference between cinema and other art forms such as theatre or the opera is the time and place factor. Despite the fact that these art forms are also perceptual that is stimulating the same senses i.e. Visual and auditory such as cinema they take place within real space and time.

The actions and dialogue are all performed in front of the audience at the same time the performance is taking place. In cinema, this is different as the actual content is recorded at a different time and location and then shown to the audience through a screen. The audience does not get to see what is unfolding at first hand.

Cinema in a way can also stimulate the other three senses of smell, taste and touch. Taste can be brought out in the way the food is made to look. The use of things like colour, presentation and even the actions and words of a spectator can bring out this sense. Smell can be brought out through the words, actions and facial expressions of the characters.

The sense of touch can be communicated to the spectator through how the surface looks i.e., if it is smooth or rough or through the words, actions and emotions of the spectators. Cinema can be used to bring out all these senses despite the fact that it is not happening in real space and time.

He also argues that the perceived is not the reality but acts as a kind of mirror to it and this aspect is unique to it in comparison to the different field of arts. He uses the example of a child held up to a mirror in which the child comprehends his or herself as being held by the mother who he describes as “its object per excellence.”This leads to the child to perceive his or her identity, which makes the child to form an ego.

The difference, however, between cinema and this deduction is that cinema is not an actual perception of the person. The viewers’ personal experience is not the centre of attention. The viewer instead relates to something different that is governed by aspects that in a way are close to reality. It is a mirror to a different reality.

The second desire achieved through cinema is the desire to desire. This refers to the passion to perceive. Most art forms utilize this factor of distance. E.g. In music it is received at a distance in relation to where it was recorded and where it is heard, even in theatre the performance is at a distance from the audience. This element of distance is explored by these art forms, but what stands out is the element of lack.

Since what is portrayed in the films is taken from real objects, which existed in a different time and space the spectator is still in a way removed from them. Despite the lack of the actual immediate experience, the spectator still gets to perceive what is contained in the final product hence still receiving the full experience. This desire is associated with voyeurism.

The third desire is the desire for an object, which is satisfied by fetishism. This is in the fact that the audience knows what they are viewing is not real but they still want to watch it. That is why it is important to make the spectacle as real as possible through factors like the unfolding of events.

They audience is aware that the characters, plot and story is fictional. They are aware that what they are seeing is not real but they knowingly filter out this factor so as perceive what is before them as real. (McCabe, 1974)

He views the spectator as an artificial construct. This is because cinema can be used to bring out or make certain effects in the viewer such as causing some emotions in the spectator. The courses of renunciation as well as refutation are the procedures that are considered vital in the apprehension of the need. The film spectator exists in a state that is dreamlike.

The spectator at one point believes that the story, plot and characters are real. This is still considered despite the fact that the spectator is fully aware that it is just a movie. This he attributes to disavowal. This he compares with fetishism and the castration anxiety of a child. Freud described disavowal as “a way of the subject refusing to acknowledge reality due to a traumatic event or other factors associated with it” (McCabe, 1974, p.44).

This explanation is on child development. When a child perceives that the mother does not have a penis, he gets a fear of being castrated. The child believes that at one time, the mother also had a penis but due to reasons that he cannot comprehend has lost it.

This gives the boys a fear of castration. The boy will then develop a way of forgetting what he has seen to deal with the trauma, and this can lead to the development of a fetish to try to cover up the trauma.

This realization of a lack of in the child will make the child to develop two opinions. This factor is what Metz puts as the spectators ability to have two different experiences.

In one the spectator knows that what he or she is seeing is fiction, while in the other case the spectator believes that what he or she sees on screen is real. Metz believes that for a good cinematic experience to be realized there must be back and forth shifting of consciousness and belief.

Cinema as a technique of the imaginary

Cinema has characteristics that are capitalistic and in line with the social industrialized epoch. The capitalistic aspect being that film relies on pictures and sounds this he describes as photography and the use of a phonograph. These he sums as the factors that are combined to lure ones ego and eventually end up satisfying ones desires.

Cinema depends on key areas for its realization. These are the cinema industry, which is the recording of films to make profits, and the audiences desire to watch movies. The second characteristic dwells on the necessity and aim of film, which is to satisfy the viewers’ desires.

The cinema industry serves to finance a film as well as to research and modify various areas to satisfy the needs, taste and to bring something different to the spectators.

This leads to the production of good films through the coordination and understanding between these sides hence making sure that the moviegoers continue to go to the cinema halls. The cinema writers, film historians, theorists and critics also contribute and influence a lot on cinema.

Spectator identification with the camera

The spectator identifies with the device that projects the image on the screen, which is the projector, the camera and lastly the screen. Metz stated, “The projector in context just duplicates the act of perception” (Metz, 1982, p.54). Vision has projective characteristics and characteristics that one acquires subconsciously, the spectator projects what he or she sees and then the data is translated back in a way that the spectator feels.

Cinema just serves to duplicate this experience; the screen just records what is seen. Metz sums this up with the statement that the spectator is the projector receiving the information, the spectator is also the screen, and with the combination of these, the spectator is the camera, which is pointed and still recording. (Metz, 1982)

Metz argues that the spectator identifies with the camera to a big extent. The spectator is in a way not in the screen but the fact that he or she is watching it and perceives it the cinematic signifier is realized. Spectators when watching a film become so focused in the film that they may not even be aware of themselves. This makes one identify with the camera completely. The cameras movements become the spectators’ movements.

When the camera pans to the left, the spectator moves to the left and when it pans to the right so does the spectator. The tracking shots also become the spectators’ movements and turns. Using different camera angles and movements, the spectator can be made to either be present or absent in the film.

Spectator identification with the character

Though the spectator knows what is unfolding before him or her is fictional, a feeling or form of connection is still made between the spectator and the character. The spectator connects with the character emotionally even when the character is not at the same place and time. The characters feelings become the spectators.

The emotions shared become mutual between them. When the character is happy the viewer is also happy, when the character is sad the viewer also becomes sad and so on. This can only be realized through self-identification of the viewer first due to perception then after the spectator gets to identify with what is on the screen before identifying with the character (Lacan, 1989).

Psychoanalysis, structure and the linguistic theory

Metz adopted a lot from the field of semiotics. He focused on how cinema can be used to signify or make the spectator to come up with meaning. The process of signifying depends on certain aspects which are mostly material signifiers these include images, words, titles, music in line with connotative and denotative meanings. He referred to the signifying practice as the way stories were told in movies.

He evaluated cinematic equivalents that could be used to stand in for language and this made him to define codes that he believed worked in cinema. In order to understand text one has to break down these codes of signification or the meaning would be lost (Rushton, 2009).

The different camera angles and shots also have various meanings, as a shot can serve to communicate meaning to the viewer, whether they know it or not. E.g. a close up can be used to highlight an important element that is being focused on in the film (Lapsey, 1989).

Metz states that the analysis of cinema from a linguistic or semiotic angle is possible as it can be used to communicate. However, He maintained that in the language of cinema there is no intercommunication. There is uni-articulation and it is a replication of reality as opposed to the unmotivated arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified.

The language of cinema comprises of both words and other smaller units. The smaller units are meant to bring meaning to the overall message or signification. Lapsey stated, “The narrative syntax is divided into eight parts ranging from the smallest segment to the largest part, which is the sequence” (Lapsey, 1989, p.37).

Dreams and Fantasy

This is focused upon in line with desire because although a spectator should always perceive the difference between a film, and dream, daydream and fantasy this aspect is important as through this desire the cinematic signifier is realized.


The imaginary signifier is what Christian Metz used in the understanding of the cinematic signifier. He stresses on points such as identification, perception, lack and other factors in the understanding of the cinematic signifier. He describes and analyses the need for the element of desire as an important aspect in cinema. He focuses on the three types of desires.

The first one is the desire for the ego, which is perceptual and is analyzed from the viewpoint of the characteristic of cinema of satisfying the sense of sight and hearing at the same time. The second desire he dwells on is the desire to desire.

This is when the spectator overlooks the fact that there is the element of lack in the film and instead just enjoys it. The third is the desire for an object. The spectator experiences this through the fact that despite he or she knows that what is being viewed is not true in a way he or she still gets to enjoy it and perceive in some instances as if it is true.

The role of the film industry as a whole makes a big contribution to cinema. The spectator gets to identify with both the camera as a medium and the characters on screen largely. Cinema relies on the use of signs; different things are put in a scene to mean different things.

The use of semiotics has been used and is evident through the careful analysis of the titles, words etc. The absence of time and space is an important aspect in the study of the cinematic signifier. The cinematic signifier is a key element in the study of cinema.


Lacan, J 1989, Ecrits: a selection, Routledge, London.

Lapsey, R 1989, Psychoanalysis in film theory: an introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

McCabe, C 1974, From realism and cinema, Longman , New York.

Metz, C 1982, The imaginery signifier, Macmillan, London.

Rushton, R 2009, Film, theory and philosophy, Acumen, Durham.

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