As one of the several fascinating sequences of Silence of the Lambs, the one where Clarice and Lecter meet for the first time is interesting for the way it – through a gradual shift in the power dynamics at play- arguably negates the ideas of cinema apparatus and spectatorship explored in Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier.
As the narrative unfolds, I, the spectator, by now sutured snuggly into Clarice’s place within the film’s universe, keenly await the spectacle of ubiquitously encountering a serial killer and, though intrigued by the extreme safety measures and warnings, imagine nothing but remaining in control and gaining insight into Lecter’s mind. It goes without saying, the last thing I expect is for Lecter to direct his gaze back at me or get under Clarice’s skin. This assumption ties in with Metz’s notion of the “all -perceiving subject” who gets to remain the sole perceiver of everything projected onto the screen. Everything but one: her own self, as if looking through a glass but never into a mirror. (215) “It is always the other who is on the screen; as for me, I am there to look at him. I take no part in the perceived, on the contrary, I am all-perceiving [… and] all-powerful.” (۲۱۶)
Furthermore, in a Scopophilic context, I expect to enjoy what Metz calls the “segregation of spaces” (۲۱۷) just like is formally conveyed in the film, where – mirroring me as the spectator – Clarice seems safe thanks to the several gates and a final sturdy glass screen separating her from Lecter’s reach. I too get to stay unexposed in my solitude, “simultaneously quite close and definitively inaccessible” (۲۱۷) to any potential vulnerability.
The sequence of events that follow, however, reveal a power dynamic bizarrely contradicting Metz’s theories. As Clarice makes her way over to and stops in front of Lecter’s cell, the editing and cinematography techniques quickly proceed to depict an evenly weighed power play, with a series of over the shoulder shot, reverse shots that are more or less equally paced. What was positioned as a self-assured observation into a mentally ill mind is unexpectedly brought to a halt at the sight of Lecter’s contrastingly calm, composed and charming demeanour and turned instead into an equal exchange. This in turn gives way to Lecter’s eventual shift to a position of dominance, initiated by the moment he looks down as he cleverly processes the brief encounter and the accreditation details to conclude that Crawford has sent him an inexperienced trainee. The shots that follow contain several formal elements that point to this shift of power. Clarice is asked to sit down while Lecter remains standing and begins to dominate the screen through increasingly lasting ECU shots as the camera draws the spectator closer in on his sharp gaze, as if to echo his earlier utterance of the word ‘closer’.
As the spectator, I am sequentially terrified, captivated and disarmed by Lecter’s gripping gaze and shrewd perception, paralleling the way in which the narrative leads Clarice to open up to him. While she is closely observed and examined through the telling holes on the glass screen (perhaps a reference to the voyeur’s keyhole), Lecter’s teasing gaze is aimed back at me so vividly, it briefly renders him live, present and fully capable of looking back. It is him – not me or Clarice – that manages to transcend the fourth wall (thanks to the holes in an appropriately transparent screen), coming to life momentarily, undermining the idea of the ‘segregated space’ and poking holes in what Metz describes as the actor’s absence during the projection stage. (216)
Christian Metz, “The imaginary signifier,” in The Film Studies Reader, Ed. Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings, and Mark Jancovich (London: Arnold Press, 2000)