In watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, I found it helpful to consider the ideas advanced in Gilles Deleuze’s book Masochism: An Intepretation of Coldness and Cruelty and especially Gaylyn Studlar’s pioneering essay “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema.” The latter essay notably advances the study of film beyond the orthodox understanding of the relationship between subject and object in cinema, between the viewer and what is being seen, which was set forth in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey’s essay is a landmark, but it is also highly constricting in the way that it identifies the cinema as primarily masculine and sadistic. Studlar’s article describes the importance of moving beyond this perspective, positing ways of understanding the multitude of ways both men and women view cinema: “The ‘masochistic model’ rejects a stance has has emphasized the phallic phase and the pleasure of control or mastery and therefore offers an alternative to strict Freudian models that have proven to be a dead end for feminist-psychoanalytic theory.” This alternative, “pregenital” interpretation of the pleasures of cinema is important because not only does it create space for understanding how women view film but it also goes beyond “control” and “mastery,” which (it should be obvious) are dead-ends for anyone who sees the cinema as potentially progressive and liberating. One can only imagine how we would be forced to see, and inevitably repudiate, a film like the hyperviolent Drive if we had no models for understanding our relationship to the film, as viewers, than the orthodox “sadistic” interpretation.
I consider the insights of Studlar and others—notably: Kaja Silverman’s “Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look, and Image”—to belong to a strand of film theory that, in my opinion, will be deeply important in the 21st century, forming one of our greatest tasks as lovers of film: truly understanding the multifarious ways we relate to the cinema as viewers, the ways meaning is created from the relationship between looking and being looked at. Part of this project necessarily involves the insights of the psychoanalytic tradition, from which Mulvey drew. Looking at Drive through this lens, the film might be seen as a quiet tedious rehash of the macho hyperviolence of a Sam Peckinpah, updated with a late 20th century/early 21st century taste for gore and splatter. While I think it’s wrong to dismiss the film as a “been there, done that” case of the emperor’s new clothes, a hollow heart lacking in “substance” but draped in style, the other side has been, frankly, just as bad, as amidst all the overblown hype, few have really paused to examine what is actually going on in this film. I don’t think the film offers up a fully coherent aesthetic, but the endless dichotomizing of style and “substance” (which, despite the word, seems like quite the insubstantial concept, at least as most deploy it) is genuinely choking our film culture and sapping it of joy, creativity, and significance. It is as if we should be ashamed of the very thing that generates more pleasure and meaning than anything else: style. I also don’t think Drive fully conforms to the frameworks given to us by Deleuze and Studlar, but on the other hand, the film’s blending of sadism and masochism seem, to me, too overt to ignore as simply the confused pseudo-fetishism of a “mere” pervert.
Key to understanding these two concepts, sadism and masochism, is recognizing Deleuze’s understanding of them as separate. In other words, he rejects the concept of “sadomasochism”; in the binary relationship of sadist and victim, the latter is most definitely not a masochist. She—and “she” may be a he, but there is always something feminine about this role—is simply a victim. Deleuze aligns sadism with the figure of the all-powerful father and the negation of the mother. Conversely, Deleuze understands masochism as quite bereft of both sadism and the violence the fuels the sadist. “Fetishization, fantasy, and idealizing disavowal replace the frenzied Sadian destruction of the female,” writes Studlar of masochism:
While Sade’s incessantly active libertines challenge the limits of human endurance and evil in endlessly repeated cycles of sex and violence, the masochistic world barely suggests sexual activity or violence… In the masochistic aesthetic, dramatic suspense replaced Sadian accelerating repetition of action, intimacy between mutually chosen partners replaces the impersonality of masses of libertines and victims, idealized eroticism replaces the obscenity that threatens to burst the limits of conventional language in an attempt to match the unattainable, destructive Idea of Evil.
Let me state, first off, that already, I would hope, a number of these concepts would seem to resonate quite obviously with Drive. But I also believe that this film, unlike the works of David Lynch for instance, mobilizes these psychosexual elements and narrative/formal structures in an unconscious way; Winding Refn is perhaps not quite consciously aware of their precise presence in his film, though the presence itself is undeniable. To quote Winding Refn: “I am a fetish filmmaker, so I don’t always know why I do what I do.”
In Drive, the protagonist, “Driver,” is played by Ryan Gosling, and it is from both this character and from Winding Refn’s presence as director that these sadistic and masochistic elements emerge. The most notable aspect of Gosling as an actor here is his boyishness. It is here that Winding Refn connects Driver with forms of masculinity that are currently desirable (i.e. men desire to be like Gosling) while at the same time diverging from the more macho and aggressive masculinity depicted in previous action films; even when Gosling becomes violent, he seems almost boyish. Gosling’s boyishness also aligns him, psychosexually, with the boy figure that is key to Deleuze’s understanding of masochism; the ideal woman to the masochist is the punishing mother, so the masochist himself must assume a submissive and passive, “boyish” role. This passiveness is embodied in Driver’s laconic soft-spokeness but also in the peculiar way, as many have pointed out, that he pauses for a good amount of time before speaking, especially when he is speaking to love object (and mother figure, literally) Irene (Carey Mulligan). Driver’s masochism is partly present in his part-time job as a stunt driver, in addition to his work as a getaway driver. The former quite literally puts him in mortal danger and involves him in a world of precise rules, much beloved by the masochist. The exhilaration and fear of being caught that characterizes Driver’s work as a getaway driver is masochistic in the same way that roller coasters and horror movies are; in fact, film theorists have frequently noted the masochistic nature of viewing horror films. The other side of the coin here is Driver’s sense of control, the way he orders these activities like a game with precise rules (involving exactly how to crash a stunt car or exactly how long a robbery must take) unmistakably brings to mind the rules of the masochist.
The other figure in the masochistic relationship, defined by Deleuze, is a woman. Usually, she resembles the punishing mother—a mother who collapses the roles of mother and father into one—or the so-called “phallic woman,” not in the sense of a woman with a literal penis but rather in the sense of one who taken the symbolic phallus (power). In Drive, there are two primary female figures, Irene and Christina Hendricks’ Blanche. At first, the casting here would seem to be confusing, a misstep on part of Winding Refn. Carey Mulligan is the complete opposite of the typical feminine ideal of the masochistic, while Christina Hendricks embodies that ideal with sublime precision. In fact, Winding Refn gives Hendricks’ Blanche two items of, in the words of Torkild Thanem and Louise Wallenberg, “fetish paraphernalia”: high heels and sunglasses (see their article, “Buggering Freud and Deleuze: toward a queer theory of masochism”). This characterization of Blanche is subtle, not overt, but when you’ve cast Christina Hendricks, you don’t really need to do much to imbue her character with the stature and charismatic (and controlling) power of the phallic woman. (The chemistry between Winding Refn and Hendricks suggests to me that the two should team up for a contemporary adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs.) Of course, Hendricks’ appearance in Drive is slight, but while she is there, her relationship with Driver is subtly inflected with masochism in the form of Studlar’s “idealizing disavowal.” Blanche betrays Driver, putting him in more danger, but it is danger he ably escapes from—of course it is: the escape involves driving! Blanche’s role in the film may be slight, but it is vital and potent, too much a part of the film’s psychosexual construction to ignore.
An alternative interpretation of Blanche’s role is this: she represents the ideal woman, a femme fatale type, that Driver must reject because the violence and dark sexuality connected to her. Following this interpretation, the rejection itself comes externally—a man working for the antagonist Nino (Ron Perlman) shoot hers from outside the motel room where they flee after the botched robbery. But this death arrives at an interesting time within the narrative, during a scene where Driver aggressively threatens Blanche for betraying him. It is as if the fabric of the film, out of which it is woven, denies Blanche as a love object of any kind and so annihilates her from the narrative. But I don’t wish to overstate this point too much: there is no hint whatsoever that Driver desires Blanche, except in so far as Winding Refn’s camera lavishes its attention on the undeniable Christina Hendricks. Yet it is important that the film’s violence starts to begin at precisely this moment when the two are alone together. Femme fatale types, themselves a legion of phallic women throughout the history of the cinema, often bring about, through nothing more than their proximity to the protagonists, violence and destruction. I think it is important, therefore, that Christina Hendricks, a woman overflowing with femininity and sexual charisma, is contrasted with Carey Mulligan, a quintessentially cute pixie girl, all the better to never tempt the protagonist with the dark undercurrent of sexuality that pulsates throughout his every activity, right down the obviously phallic overtones of car culture. Mulligan is almost a caricature of the good-natured woman, but the irony here is in how much this particular feminine type has gained currency within recent years, desired as they now are as an ideal of the mainstream (straight) male. Whatever the implications of this, I think it is a key aspect of a film that, rather subconsciously, stirs up quite a bit of thinking relating to gender.
In an interview, Winding Refn described the film this way:
Part of the movie was inspired by the sense of what it was like, me watching Sixteen Candles when I was younger. The notion of falling in love, and the purity of that love, he was able to capture in that movie. The first half of the film has to be about a man and woman who fall in love without the complication of the aftermath. The truth of love. The souls of love.
Hmm, fetishize much? Winding Refn’s obsession with this kind of purified notion of love, itself often a hallmark of the masochistic stance, gives a sense as to why Carey Mulligan is the nominal love object here. But for all her warmth and innocence, two things must be noted about her. First, she plays a mother, and because we know she got pregnant at a young age, she is able to simultaneously embody the innocence of youth within the role of the mother. Second, while she doesn’t match up with the classic female of the masochistic fantasy, she does unmistakably bring about very real danger for the protagonist. Without too much imagination, one might even construe her as a covert punishing mother. The wonderful thing about psychosexual perversion is the way it is simultaneously universal/archetypal, as well as personal and idiosyncratic; it is this quality that make perversion potentially radical and all-embracing (as well as liberating). We may see Driver’s relationship with Irene as the latest mutation of the time honored tradition of desiring a woman whose own purity is untouched by her surrounding chaos, which causes suffering for the protagonist and creates challenges that must be surmounted in order to win her. While this narrative is quite conservative, as well as uninteresting from my perspective, it does provide a fascinating glimpse of contemporary attitudes, and Drive’s central relationship is at least more interesting than the similarly patterned Blue Valentine, also starring Gosling. And importantly, one must note that the ambiguous ending suggests that Driver might just go on and leave Irene anyways.
We could also see the Driver/Irene relationship as a limp, unsuccessful attempt to inflame the truly radical masochistic passion the film often hints at. Consider one scene, in particular: the much talked-about elevator sequence. Driver admits that he helped Irene’s husband rob the pawn shop where he got killed. (The humiliation involved in pursuing a woman who is already married is noticeably masochistic in and of itself, but key here is the husband’s more traditionally “father-like,” dominant aggression, the image of what Driver cannot seem to be for at least the first half of the film.) Irene slaps Driver, a moment Winding Refn dwells on, longingly, lovingly. They enter the elevator where Driver sees another man with them, concealing a gun. Driver pulls Irene aside and kisses her—is it mere coincidence that the first and only kiss between the two occurs seconds after Driver is slapped by Irene? After the kiss, noticing the man about to make a move, Driver unleashes a torrent of sadistic, psychosexual energy and kicks the man’s head in. The audience I was in expressed astonishment with the intensity of this head-bashing. Before Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison, Driver’s relationship with her is sweet; if not masochistic, he at least obediently follows her command. (We must remember that Deleuze’s typology is one of pure extremes, and in real life, sadism and masochism manifest themselves in softened ways, often not even explicitly sexual ways.) After the return of the father, a literal and symbolic father, from prison, Driver begins to manifest a more sadistic side, yet this is always tempered by an innately passive masochism. Regardless of our characterization of the protagonist, the film itself seems to manifest these alternately sadistic and masochistic qualities.
This point, the way the film’s texture manifests its psychosexual content, is critical. Whatever the extent of the film’s sadism, particularly embodied in the character of Albert Brooks’ Bernie Rose (a classic sadist), the film’s style is imbued with an atmosphere reminiscent of Deleuze’s and Studlar’s description of the formal and narrative qualities of masochism. For them, masochism is about fantasy, the fetishistic, the supersensual, and perhaps above all, suspense. Suspense is quintessentially “masochistic”; what sadist would wait for anything at all? These are all noticeable formal elements of the film. Central to this is the film’s pace, which is slow not in the sense of the supposedly “slow and boring” art cinema but rather in the sense of a languorous, agonizingly drawn out ritual, the masochistic game that obsessively revolves around waiting. As Thanem and Wallenberg note, “In masochism, pain remains within the realm of possibility. Pain is never actually inflicted”; it is the waiting, along with the submission that waiting entails, that matters. Gosling’s tendency to draw out his silences, to carefully measure his movements and reactions, approximates this, as does Winding Refn’s direction, which at times uses glacial dissolves and an almost arch-theatrical approach to staging to prolong the game of its own narrative. In the film’s climax, Winding Refn cuts between shots of Bernie Rose assuring Driver of the terms of their deal—the lingering on the rules of a contract is supremely masochistic—with shots of Rose stabbing Driver, betraying that very contract (masochistic disavowal). The effect, especially when we see a placid and smiling Gosling, suggests Driver’s own measured anticipation of a betrayal he already anticipates (maybe even welcomes); the collision, through montage, of Gosling’s meek smile with images of him being stabbed, and betrayed, by Rose suggest a complex psychic play going on here, much too intricate for the conventional generic material Drive cloaks itself in.
The other component of the film’s psychosexual fabric here is its overt sadism, personified by Bernie Rose. Here is a man who lovingly cleans the razor blade he uses to savagely, but precisely, slice away at another man’s arm, and then puts it away in a luxurious, exquisite box, alongside other implements. Deleuze describes the “Sadian discourse” thus: “denotative, scientific, unblinkingly direct in its obscene imperatives and descriptions,” all of which characterize Brooks’ scenes as Rose. It is noteworthy that after Rose slices the arm of Driver’s mentor and father figure Shannon (Bryan Cranston), he takes pain to elaborate on the swiftness of the blow he just dealt, the speed with which it will bring about death. Rose’s surgical exactitude is classically Sadian, classically sadistic. The sadist seeks, through violence and pain, to open up his victim, both literally (as Rose does with Shannon’s arm) and figuratively (exposing the innards of physical existence as a way to dispel the mystery surrounding it). Winding Refn understands this, which is why the images and sound he gives us to experience these feats of sadistic violence are so methodically precise. Winding Refn’s mise en scène, we might say, is truly sadistic, even though, somewhat contrary to Deleuze’s understanding, it pivots back and forth between its sadism and its masochism. We might even want to interpret this fundamental psychosexual ambivalence as significant in and of itself; of what, it is not entirely clear, though it is certainly interesting to watch! This “now hot, now cool” ambivalence is itself present in the film’s visual textures, its rich, fiery reds and oranges, and cool blues (evoking the “coldness and cruelty” evoked in the title of Deleuze’s book on masochism). In the end, it seems that Winding Refn, always the impressive stylist, has at least begun to explore the meaningful underpinnings of his work, even if he has not produced the masterpiece that his stylistic expertise masochistically begs for. And the complex psychology behind the film, especially as embodied in the character of Driver, welcomingly advances the action genre’s exploration of violence and pain, bound as it is by the forces of sadism and masochism.
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