Imagining the Balkans: A Slovenian Lacanian Gaze upon Ulysses’ Gaze

“We have a film. A captive gaze, as you called it, from the early days of the century, set free at last, at the end of the century. Isn’t that an important event?” The gaze as event. A journey. The gaze as captive. Nostalgia. The gaze mediated by film. Memory. The first gaze. A lost gaze. These are the preoccupations of Theo Angelopoulos’s 1995 film Ulysses Gaze (To vlemma tou Odyssea).

The film, depicting the sweeping Balkan journey of a Greek-American director, played by Harvey Keitel, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Keitel plays “A” (we never learn any more name than that, but it does not stretch the imagination to think it might stand for Angelopoulos). He is a Greek-born director who returns to his Balkan roots after years in America. He has heard of three lost reels of film made by two brothers in the dawning years of film and of the century and he journeys throughout the Balkans in search of the lost reels.

The search for the Manakias brothers films takes A from Greece into Albania and on to Bitola (Monastir), in Macedonia, where the brothers had their business (the brothers and their business in Bitola are historical fact, not of the fictional realm of the film), and from there to Bulgaria, Romania and up the Danube on a Lenin-bearing barge to Belgrade, finding himself at last in Sarajevo. The resulting gaze of the Balkans, as A searches for that elusive, lost, first gaze of the Manakis brothers, is the subject of this paper.

The gaze is a key element in the Slovenian redaction of Lacanian theory (and indeed, even in Lacan’s own writings), thus is it the perfect prism through which to analyze a film as preoccupied with the gaze as this one. In his book, Looking Awry, Slavoj Žižek says, “The gaze marks the point in the object (in the picture) from which the subject viewing it is already gazed at, i.e., it is the object that is gazing at me.” This creates a coincidence of our gaze with the gaze of the other. This paper will use Žižek and other Slovenian Lacanian theorists to explore how the gaze functions in the Balkans which are imagined through the gaze of Angelopoulos’ film.