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Eros & Thanatos

Eros and Thanatos

This essay will discuss sexuality in the films of Bobcat Goldthwaite and Luis Bunuel. This will be undertaken through an analysis of the life and death drives referred to, Sigmund Freud, as Eros (God of Love) and what post Freudian analysts have termed, the death drive of Thanatos (God of Death).

The Theory

Eros is the life force. This includes creativity, sexual instincts, and the ego instinct of self-preservation.  Thanatos, is the unconscious drive towards death and dissolution, eventually resulting in self-destruction via ego-splitting and conspiracy to annihilate anything of decency. Eros  is not simply a self-preservation instinct often confused with self-centeredness or narcissism (Coleman, 2006, p. 257). Eros encompasses the act of creation on every level.  The Eros life force propels one to leave a lasting legacy and to procreate.  This drives people towards sexual relations in that they not only want to live, but they want to continue through another. This is a simulation of creation. 

Thanatos corrupts Eros through the unconscious and masochistic need to destroy what one loves and/or desires (Coleman, 2006, p. 759) .  This is often in the form of fear of commitments, denial, dishonesty with oneself and recreating traumatic events.  This is a death drive because it cuts the flow of the life drive.

The Films

The films analysed are Luis Bunuel’s Belle De Jour (1967) and The Obscure Object of Desire (1977) as well as the Bobcat Goldthwaite[1] directed films Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009).  Each of these films examines Eros and Thanatos in varying degrees with the concepts of masochism, the Madonna-whore complex and masculine ego.

The Luis Bunuel films will examine these concepts from the masculine and feminine sides of Eros and Thanatos.  The Bobcat Goldthwaite films will focus on the dissolution of the romantic relationship in Sleeping Dogs Lie and the unconditional love of the Parent Child relationship in World’s Greatest Dad.  The films have been examined in this order to represent the Eros life force as an act of creation.  The ultimate act of creation being the child.

Thanatos can corrupt even the child in the development of his or her own sexuality. A good example of this is in the very brief scene of Belle De Jour where we see in flashback that Severine was created as a sexual object at a very young age.  This became part of her sexual identity.  This is often where it begins

Part One: Thanatos

Destruction of the Incomplete Feminine

‘Belle De Jour’ (1967)

Belle De Jour is about a young married upper class woman named Severine. Severine appears to be aware that she is incomplete.  This was her verdict of herself.  She wanted to function as other women do.

She has a successful husband, named Pierre, that she loves and is loved by. Pierre, is unobtrusive and appears to be sexually inactive, yet worships his wife.  In her mind, this makes her physically untouchable and undesirable. It is rarely, if ever that Severine makes physical contact with Pierre. To do this would be an act of liberation. Early in the film, Severine’s fantasy is to be tied to a tree and whipped. This represents a part of Severine that wants, or more to the point needs to be controlled and bound. When discussing sexuality and prostitution early in the film Severine said “It must be horrible with strangers.”  Yet, she was unable to engage in sex with her husband.

Severine’s basic need of the marital relationship is for the purposes of security and protection.  Therefore, sex with her husband is not unlike incest (Bunuel, Belle De Jour: Bonus Features , 1966).  She could not be intimate with a father figure and protector.  This was the beginning of Severine’s introjection[2] with the external world.  This manifests itself in her masochistic dreams and fantasies of being whipped, and of having manure thrown at her.  The masochism of Severine is the Thanatos aspect of this character. This is not so much about pleasure taken in sexual pain, this is more in line with her existential freedom. To partake in prostitution is to be bought and owned. With a client she is liberated of her own free will. Her desires and sexuality become irrelevant when she is on the clock.

 This is perhaps why her relationship to Pierre cannot be consummated. This would require Severine liberating herself as a free agent. This can be seen in the way she wears her hair tighter when alone with her husband. When she is at the clubs, in the brothel or even when sharing her scenes with Henri the hair is down.

Traditionally it is the men who are afflicted and are incapable of sex with those they love and loving those, they sleep with.  Judeo Christian sexuality is traditionally shared between the mother and the whore (Bunuel, Belle De Jour: Bonus Features , 1966). The mother side is purity.  Sexuality is removed with those that are respected and loved. The female equivalent of the Madonna-Whore complex appears to be in the juxtaposition of the kindness of one man and the nastiness of another.  This is the traditional bad boy. Some girls always fall for the wrong guy without understanding why. In Belle De jour the bad boy was a hot headed gangster. This is mostly present in the love triangle that exists between the kind husband, the prostitute and the bad boy.  There was sexual desire on Severine’s part for the bad boy but not for the husband.  The bad boy was the poorer choice and she will be worse off for this choice. Just like the man afflicted by the Madonna-Whore complex will be worse off for choosing to be with the whore.

Destruction of the Incomplete Masculine

‘The Obscure Object of Desire’ (1977)

In The Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, 1977) the Madonna-Whore Complex was presented from the masculine perspective. To look at Belle De Jour and The Obscure Object of Desire side by side they are working within similar themes of duality, the Madonna-Whore Complex and Masochism. The character Conchita from The Obscure Object of Desire is one person who represented both sides of the Madonna-Whore complex through two actors, and two very different characterisations.  There was the chastised Conchita. This was the pure version. Then there was the promiscuous Conchita. This was the impure version of the same character. There is unpredictability in Conchita and Mathieu appears to be aware that this relationship cannot work.  One Conchita loves him but wears a chastity belt. The other Conchita despises him and uses her sexuality to manipulate her environment. This Conchita goes out of her way to provoke Mathieu with sexual suggestion and has him buy her a house while turning abusive towards him at any given moment.

Eros is pushing Mathieu towards love and self-preservation by his sexual instincts of the libido.  He has no children.  His biological clock is ticking.  Therefore, it is natural that he would want a younger woman to carry on his seed.  By biological standards, it is easy to see why he wants Conchita.  However, the destructive force of Thanatos is also at work.  This is what drives him to keep returning to her like a dog to its puke.  One Conchita is Eros and the other is Thanatos.  They can only co-exist for brief period before one dominates.

In this case, the film ends in destruction.  He gets the pure Conchita and all seems good until the climactic explosion that ends the film.  Within the film, the basic explanation is that this was a terrorist attack.  This is a logical conclusion that ties in the terrorist themes of the film as well. Look a little deeper into the terror at hand.  The terror is the anxiety and fear of Mathieu.  When this anxiety and fear takes over for this character Nasty Conchita shows up and provokes him with her sexuality that he cannot have.  Nasty Conchita will always be present for Mathieu.

As good as his relationship with Chastised Conchita may be he does not know when the threat will arise. Therefore the threat is three-pronged: first there is the threat of being killed in a terrorist bombing, then there is the threat of never being loved or able to spread his seed, lastly there is the self destructive nature of Thanatos that propels him to return to what is bad for him.  Each of these threats will lead to death.

Living in a state of terror is a social death as it prohibits the autonomy of the individual.  Not having children is death as it is the biological death of the genes.  The self destruction is the most dangerous as this is the drive that propels to do what is not in your best interest. The self destructive instinct is always present and can cause dissolution of a relationship between even the most loving couple and happy couple.

Part 2: Eros

Eros as a Destructive Force

‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’ (2005)

Sleeping Dogs LieSleeping Dogs Lie (Goldthwaite, 2005) is an examination of the dissolution of a relationship and illusions of unconditional love. The film opens with Amy watching TV and in a spontaneous moment she decides to perform oral sex on her pet dog.  The film is about her crisis of conscience over carrying this secret for years until she reveals it to John; her fiancé.  This begins when John tells Amy about the dirty things he did when he was a teenager such as having to eat a ‘soggy cookie’ [3].  He explains what the game involves and this game is arguably more disgusting than the bestiality.  Yet, she repulses him and even her parents are repulsed once she is outed.

In this film, Eros compelled her to be honest which led to the destruction of her relationship.  However, this was not the specific cause of the dissolution.  John was the one who pushed her to confess and reveal her secret.  Pushing someone to be honest and reveal details that you may not handle is Thanatos in its nature.  John telling Amy about his sexual history was not an issue for Amy because she loved him and had very high interest in the relationship.

 This high level of love was not returned to her. On John’s side is where Thanatos existed.  Ultimately she just wanted to share the story about blowing her dog with someone she loved.  This was stated in the opening sequence. She knew it was disgusting but there was a part of her that thought it was funny.  The dog was not hurt and there was no serious violation.  It is nowhere near as bad as kicking or punching a dog.  It was in the end a harmless experiment. While her denial in the first act of the film and her secrecy for fear of social ostracism is also linked to Thanatos in one regard.  Her Eros nature pushed through this and prepared her for the mature and loving relationship with another man in the second half of the film.  Amy is in despair in the first 30 minutes of the film about what will happen if she is outed for performing a bestial act.  Yet, she still wants to tell the man she loves.  Her anxiety in the dream sequence where she imagines being at a cocktail party and using the icebreaker “Does anyone else know what canine semen tastes like?” is perhaps the most important scene in the film as this shows what Amy wants.

She wants acceptance for who she is and for all her flaws.  John claims that he loves her ‘for everything that made her’ and that she can tell him anything.  In the end these are just words and he cannot commit to this unspoken promise.  In all honesty, who could love someone unconditionally in this regard?  It is not exactly a lie to say you will love someone no matter what, but it is delusional.  This is Thanatos and it is rooted in humiliation of the male ego. Amy said in her opening montage that Men are insecure enough about their Penis.  This turns out to be true as Amy’s mother married Amy’s father under the pretence that she was a virgin.  In fact, the mother was a bisexual Roy Orbison, Elvis groupie.  John becomes more repulsed by Amy as the film moves along. Yet, he tries to continue in the relationship until they get back together.  The relationship is shown through a montage to be a happy relationship on the surface.  The relationship self-destructs about five seconds after the montage.  In this scene, Amy and John are being intimate when he asks her if he can watch her blow his pet dog Steve.

It was the belief that love is unconditional and John’s ego that caused the dissolution of their relationship. Therefore, a romantic relationship is conditional upon factors that those in that relationship may not be aware.  To say you will love someone no matter what is a nice thing to say but very few people can actually live up to such an agreement.  Sometimes being honest and revealing too much to even those that you love can be destructive. Even though the intent may be Eros the result may be Thanatos.

In the third act Amy finds new love in a less attractive, less successful older man named Ed she resists the desire to discuss what happened with John and why she repulsed her parents.  Ed hypothesizes that she must have had an abortion and Amy allows him to believe this. This is not unlike the example set by her mother of pretending to be a virgin.  Amy appeared to understand the fragility of Eros in the romantic sphere by the final act. The love between a parent and child is a stronger love as this cannot be broken. Parent and child is a relationship that exists independently of the factors that affect a romantic or sexual relationship. Bobcat Goldthwaite’s follow up film World Greatest Dad  (2009) is a black comedy that demonstrates this unconditional bond.

‘World’s Greatest Dad’ (2009)

This film is about Lance (Robin Williams) an unpublished writer and poetry teacher. Lance is the father of a fifteen year old boy named Kyle (Daryl Sabara) who is arguably one of the most repugnant teenagers in recent memory.  Lance was suffering from the delusion that it is wrong to dislike those that you love and does not understand the distinction between liking and loving a person.  Lance appears to feel guilty in the first act about not particularly like his son.  Kyle is disrespectful and demanding. Lance attempts to compensate his inadequacies as a father by giving into Kyle and overcompensating by buying him a new computer monitor. The new computer monitor was not good enough for Kyle as he wanted a new computer to go with it.  Thirty minutes into what appears to be an extreme reinvention of the American Pie gross out movie formula, Kyle dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation[4]. The computer screen is what Kyle dies in front of while watching pornography.  The guilt is doubled in Lance for disliking Kyle and for trying to not to dislike and discipline Kyle, as he probably should have when he discovered Kyle practices auto-erotic asphyxiation in the opening moments of the film.

Auto-erotic asphyxiation is the mixture of Eros and Thanatos. There is the sexual pleasure of cutting off ones oxygen supply to release a greater orgasm. In this regard Eros and Thanatos may not actually be enemies as one would assume but companions to each other. One cannot co-exist without the other.  Where there is life there is death.  They are not actually enemies in themselves but the drives that they manifest themselves through are often in contrast.  Auto-erotic asphyxiation is the tightrope between the two.

Lance’s Thanatos solution on discovering his son with a scarf around his neck, his pants around his ankles and pornography playing on the new computer monitor is in his idealized image of the deceased.  He makes the accidental death appear to be suicide and writes a well-constructed suicide note.  The suicide note is then published in the school paper.  While he was doing this out of love, he was also humiliated by his son and in denial about how to respect the dead.  He was destroying his son’s memory as a repugnant little pervert out of a need to preserve the memory of the son he did want as opposed to the one he got.  Out of a lie, Lance continues on to gain more popularity and in a Cyrano De Bergerac style twist wins over the woman he desires with poetry, poetry written in his dead son’s name.  This is the romanticization of death.

Unlike Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1956)[5], this is not a sexual obsession with the dead.  This is not necrophilia.  However, a sexual relationship emerges over death in a dishonest manner.  It should be noted, Lance was seeing this woman in the beginning of the film but her interest in him was waning and she was obviously attracted to and possibly sleeping with the new English teacher. Lance was able to reopen the relationship and reignite the relationship with the faux poetry.  This created a new sexual dynamic between the two.  On one level it is a sexual relationship, but on another level Lance was making his transitions through the grieving process by seeking warmth in her feminine sexuality.  However, the sexual bonding is formed over death.

Part 4:

Eros and Thanatos: Side by Side

Perhaps a more useful way of looking at Eros and Thanatos is not that people either have life or death drives but that they have both. It is easier to do the wrong thing and every person has the ability to be self-destructive and to burn their bridges. Some people may be more self-destructive than others such as Mathieu. Some may not want to be free such as Severine. Some may want to be free of the past such as John and Amy. Some may want to be humiliated by the past such as Lance.  Thanatos exists within all of these characters but so does Eros. The majority of people do not conform to one side or another but are forced to live with a combination of the two. There are instances where both of these concepts can be seen and observed within these films.

Of the characters discussed in these films, Lance is the only one that is a parent.  This is the natural progression of sexuality.  This is the life force of Eros. As can be seen these characters are walking a tightrope between Eros and Thanatos.  Severine is walking the tightrope with her masochism. Mathieu is walking the tightrope within the Madonna Whore Complex.  Amy and John walk the tightrope of Eros/Thanatos dynamics of relationship boundaries and the dissolution of a relationship due to being too honest. Lance walks the tightrope of respecting the dead for who they were not for how you want them to be.

These characters can be destructive but also loving and kind. They have to walk a tightrope between Eros and Thanatos. Sometimes they fall off and become suffocated by Thanatos like Mathieu and Severine. Sometimes they can fall into Thanatos and get back up like Amy and Lance. There will be days when average people do not want to live or consider giving up due to the hardships of life but the majority of the time they will find a reason to move forward. The reasons to move forward are primarily sexual reasons such as a new love or the love of one’s children which are the offspring of sexuality. This is the life force of Eros that moves them forward.


Bunuel, L. (Director). (1966). Belle De Jour [Motion Picture]. France: Studio Canal Blu Ray Collection.

Bunuel, L. (Director). (1966). Belle De Jour: Bonus Features [Motion Picture]. Spain: Studio Canal Blu Ray 2009.

Bunuel, L. (Director). (1977). The Obscure Object of Desire [Motion Picture]. Spain.

Cronenberg, D. (Director). (1996). Crash [Motion Picture].

Goldthwaite, B. (Director). (2005). Sleeping Dogs Lie [Motion Picture]. USA.

Goldthwaite, B. (Director). (2009). World’s Greatest Dad [Motion Picture]. USA.

Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1956). Vertigo [Motion Picture]. USA.

[1] Bobcat Goldthwaite was a comedic actor of the 1980s from the Police Academy films.  He moved on to directing highly acclaimed independent features in the last few years.

[2] Introjection: psychoanalysis, the internalization of the parent figures and their values; leads to the formation of the superego.

[3] A game where a group of men (at least 2) stand in a circle around a cookie placed on the floor in the middle.  They then have a race to see who can cum on the cookie the fastest.  The last person to ejaculate on the cookie must eat it.

[4] Autoerotic asphyxiation, also known as scarfing is the act of masturbating while cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain.  The objective is to release the scarf before ejaculation.  This creates a greater orgasm.

[5] Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1956) follows with the themes of death and desire as well.  There is Eros in the first and second act as Scottie develops his feelings for Madeleine, the second half of the film moving into a different gear when the death drive to destruction culminates with Judy throwing herself off the tower.  There are several things going on here.  First is the re-creation of a dead person.  This creates a living corpse.  Even though the living character of Judy loves him, nothing less than seeing the deceased woman he loved will satisfy him.  This is the obsession with death.  This obsession is sexual in nature.  This in itself is necrophilia.  It is an obsession with the dead that has an erotic nature.

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