Punch-Drunk Love: Probing Love with Lacan

Barry and Lena kiss in a silhouetteImage from Wikipedia

Punch-Drunk Love” is a film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) with original music by Jon Brion. I first saw this film while living in South Korea and something about it moved me very much. I later revisited the film while in the United States and finally, I have re-re-discovered this film while living in Japan. This film is about Barry Egan (Sandler) who suffers from the trauma of social interaction while dealing with ‘rage’ issues, which we see is greatly due to the intense pressuring and verbal bullying by his sisters (he has seven sisters). The film unfolds along four lines. First, we see Barry fighting the pressure of his sisters. Second, we find Barry battling a phone sex mattress man along with his goons. Third, we find Barry engaged in a ‘healthy choice’ deal and finally, Barry learning to love as he meets Emily Watson’s character (who we find has grown up an only child). The convergence of these four lines is a celebration of the power of love and Barry’s struggle to overcome his fear of social interaction and channel his rage.

Visually, this film unfolds with great audio and color contrasts. Near the beginning of the film we find a harmonium randomly dropped off in front of Barry’s office building. Suddenly, a truck crashes and rolls over. This scene goes from almost near silence to the deafening crash of twisted metal. Clearly, we are experiencing the scene from Barry’s inner perspective, a world suffering from the intensity of events. Also, when we are in Barry’s office (a warehouse), we are confronted with the stark darkness of his warehouse and the blinding light of the outdoors, a pure white light. Again, we see and feel the intensity of Barry’s world.

From the Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, we find an interesting description of “love”: “Love is directed not at what the love-object has, but at what he lacks, at the nothing beyond him. The object is valued insofar as it comes in the place of that lack.” In this film Punch-Drunk Love Sandler and Watson’s characters are near opposites. Again, Sandler grew up with the pressuring of his seven sisters, while Watson an only child. What is it that Watson’s character finds so interesting in Sandler’s character? For Watson, Sandler’s character is visibly suffering. She can see it in his communication with his sisters and with his communication with himself (the restaurant scene where Sandler is so very uncomfortable that he destroys the bathroom). I think that we can easily read the love relationship between Sandler and Watson along Lacanian lines. That is to say, Watson sees in Sandler the insecurity and helplessness that is lacking in her life and the helplessness that is lacking in her own. To connect with Sandler’s character is to connect with that part of herself that is not yet in existence, that part of herself that she wishes to bring into existence. For Sandler, it is the same. He sees in Watson the image of a powerful and secure human being, one who is able to leap off to Hawaii for a business trip and one who is not afraid of giving her keys to a stranger (the beginning of the film). That is to say, one who does not fear social interactions and who is not as powerless as Sandler.

Moreover, the battle between Sandler and the phone sex mattress man situation can be read as Sandler’s struggle to fill this lack of security. He finds his very world shattered by the intrusion of the obscene phone sex situation, however, it is only through this problem that he overcomes his struggles with coming to protect his love with Watson. This mattress man is a necessary obstacle in his battle of fulfillment. To free himself, he must overcome himself.

I am not a master on Lacanian psychoanalysis, so any feedback or references to Lacanian work on “love” is appreciated.