Performative Existence: Using Kundera’s Taxonomy of Looks To Examine Character Motivation and Nature
In his 1984 philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera gives an explanation of four categories of people. These categories are separated by the “kind of look [they] wish to live under.” This so-called taxonomy of looks is as follows:
“We all need someone to look at us. We can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. They are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. They are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. This happens to nearly all of them sooner or later. People in the second category, on the other hand, can always come up with the eyes they need. Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. Their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. One day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark. And finally, there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers.” (Kundera, 41)
The question is whether this taxonomy of looks can only narrowly be applied to Kundera’s characters and philosophy, or if it can be useful in looking at character nature across different films? Can looking at how someone is or wants to be perceived tell us about their nature? Kundera’s four categories of his taxonomy of looks from The Unbearable Lightness of Being make for a good starting point for understanding how people interact with the world beyond themselves. However, the categories are not as clear-cut as Kundera implies, as they may overlap or change over time. The taxonomy of looks also begins with the assumption that everyone wants to be looked at, or at least admits to themselves that they wish to be looked at, which is not true for everyone. This essay will use Kundera’s taxonomy of looks to analyze the nature of the main characters of the following films: The Conformist, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and Diva.
The main character in The Conformist (1970), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is Marcello Clerici. Marcello is a man who lives with a carefully constructed appearance: he joins the fascist secret police, he follows orders even when hesitant, and he marries Guila despite not having strong feelings for her, because having a wife and children is what is expected of a man. He does not speak about Lino, a man whom he nearly slept with and whom he believes he killed as a young boy, except to a priest, and even then he does not speak in detail.
Throughout the film, it is evident that Marcello is doing what he thinks he should – at times for a direct supervisor and at times for the general expectation of society – for fear of being different. Even at the end, he is left uncertain whether to come clean about his actions. He has changed alliances away from fascism, and has been living life as a father and husband. Even when he draws attention to himself at the end the attention is fleeting; he not a man anyone seems to look at very closely.
So, how does Kundera’s taxonomy of looks apply to Marcello? Well, Marcello is paranoid of the eyes which may or may not be watching him. He also craves the appearance of normalcy, he attempts to be what is expected of him by the general public and society’s eyes. In Kundera’s categories, he falls partway between the first and fourth. The first of Kundera’s categories is:
“The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public…people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. This happens to nearly all of them sooner or later.” (Kundera, 41)
Marcello does everything he can to appear normal, and act as expected to the eyes of the public, to the eyes of society. However, Marcello does not crave the eyes of society. He is almost tortured by the expectation constantly placed upon him by their looks. Thus, Marcello varies from Kundera’s definition, where the loss of the public is tragic, rather than relieving. Marcello’s fate is left ambiguous at the end of the film, with the question of whether or not he may continue his pattern of performing the expectation of society or not, and he seems bereft and changed. He would not, however, be sad to see the eyes of society leave him. He is simply afraid of what will happen if they look upon him and find him wanting or wrong.
Kundera’s fourth category may also fits Marcello in some ways:
“And finally, there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers.” (Kundera, 41)
Marcello’s fear of the public’s eyes can also be read as paranoia, a fear of the eyes of imaginary people who may do him harm if he strays from expectation. While this look by imaginary eyes is in line with Kundera’s fourth category, the idyllic dreamer of Kundera’s fourth category does not fit Marcello. In fact, Marcello fears the eyes looking at him; he is not a dreamer, he lives what could be considered a nightmare, hiding his implied sexuality, believing he has killed someone, and living a life he would not have chosen for himself.
The next film to be examined is Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), directed by Steven Soderbergh. While the film could be argued to have four main characters, we will focus our analysis on Ann, and to an extent, Graham. For Ann, similar to Marcello, Kundera’s starting assumption of “need[ing] someone to look at us” is not necessarily true. Ann is uncomfortable with being looked at. She is uneasy with sharing intimate details with her therapist, and is hesitant to be intimate with her husband. If pressed to choose one, the category which Ann most likely belongs to is Kundera’s third:
“Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. Their situation is as dangerous as…One day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark.” (Kundera, 41)
Ann is hurt that her husband does not want to make love to her anymore, and is even more hurt when she finds out he is sleeping with her sister. So, Ann could be argued to want to be looked at by the person she loves. In a way, her world does go dark when his eyes turn to another. She does move on though, and begins to date Graham, a new love to look upon her, and her life does not entirely go dark the way Kundera implies. She specifically invites Graham look at her, both physically and through his camera. Ann survives the eyes of her husband leaving her.
Graham is similarly hesitant to be looked at. He points his camera at woman, many women. He is not comfortable with eyes on him through; he cannot have sex with someone looking at him. He is still craving the look of Elizabeth, his ex-girlfriend. He is happy once he accepts the look of another, Ann, on him. After she turns the camera back to him, they are a couple at the end of the movie. He grows, changes from not wanting to be seen to wanting to be seen by Ann. Kundera’s categories do not account for this type of change and growth displayed by Graham and Ann.
Though not as central to the film as Ann and Graham, John and Cynthia could also be considered main characters. The category John most closely falls into a mixture of category two and category three:
“The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. They are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. They are happier…People in the second category…can always come up with the eyes they need. Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. Their situation is as dangerous as…One day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark.” (Kundera, 41)
John is married to Ann, but is sleeping with her sister Cynthia. Having one lover’s eyes on him is not enough, but he does crave the look of a lover, not necessarily others, as the respect of his clients and colleagues at work do not seem to be very important to him. In line with the third category, when Ann discovers his infidelity, both Ann and Cynthia seem to want nothing to do with him. The movie ends with his life, his marriage, and his career all on the verge of collapse.
Cynthia for her part seems to take some thrill in having John look at her, at sleeping with her sister’s husband. She enjoys having men look at her, if the tape she makes with Graham and Ann’s comments of her promiscuity are to be taken at face value. This also straddles the line between Kundera’s second and third categories of people. Cynthia does not crave the look of one specific lover, but also does not seem to need the looks or validation of multiple people. None of the characters of the film fit neatly into any of Kundera’s categories.
The third film we will look at is Diva (1981), directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. There are two main characters to analyze in this film: Jules and Cynthia. Jules is a young mail carrier with an obsession with opera singer Cynthia Hawkins. At the beginning of the movie, Jules falls into Kundera’s fourth category:
“And finally, there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers.”
Jules is a dreamer in a textbook sense, he dreams and thinks about Cynthia. He thinks about Cynthia so much, she may as well be an imaginary version of herself in his head. He steals her dress and asks a prostitute he sleeps with to wear it; he records her voice to listen to her songs as if they were only for him. Over the movie, he develops a friendship which becomes romantic with Cynthia. His enamoration of her does not lessen, but it does change. Jules moves from the fourth category, of living in the eyes of an imaginary Cynthia, to Kundera’s third category of living in the eyes of the person you love. He begins living in the eyes of the real Cynthia.
Cynthia, for her part, exists somewhere between Kundera’s first and second categories. She is a singer, but a very particular one. She craves the physical sight of her audience, her public. She refuses to record her songs, does not want to be an imaginary person built within the listeners’ minds. She wants to be looked upon by her audience, wants them to listen to her in person. But, she also wants to reach wider audiences, and it is mentioned in the movie that long, frequent tours are beginning to take their toll on her. Despite how she protests and claims not to care that less people with hear her voice, it is clear she is in denial of this fact. She is not in fact ready to lose her public reach. So, Cynthia falls between the categories of wanting to be seen by the public, and wanting to be seen by the known many. In her case, they are largely one and the same.
While Kundera’s taxonomy of looks can be used to evaluate the nature of characters outside his own novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it is not a tool to be used singularly, as it is not its most effective outside of its own novel. Looking at the movies The Conformist, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and Diva, the taxonomy of looks is unspecific in evaluating the nature of the main characters, as it fails to account for changes in character thoughout the film, or spaces where the categories overlap. Another failure of the taxonomy of looks is the beginning presumptions that a character may want to be looked at, and does not give a category for individuals who do not wish to be seen, but undoubtedly know that they are being looked at. In short, Kundera’s taxonomy of looks can be used, but if not the most useful tool for analyzing character nature outside of the book it originates in.
Beineix, Jean-Jacques, director. Diva. Compagnie Commerciale Française Cinématographique, 1981.
Bertolucci, Bernardo, director. The Conformist. Paramount Pictures, 1970.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Harper Perennial, 1984.
Soderbergh, Steven, director. Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Miramax Films, 1989.