an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 3, January 2006, ISSN 1552-5112
Winner of the 2003 Irish Film and Television Awards for best Irish film and best director, Intermission was one of the most successful Irish films of the last few years. Damien O’Donnell, maker of the recent Irish film Inside I’m Dancing, describes the importance of Intermission as follows:
What was great about something like John Crowley’s Intermission was to open people’s eyes to an Irish film by an Irish director about an Irish subject. That, I think, has been the most important Irish film in recent years. I think Intermission was as important a debut Irish film as My Left Foot was, but for different reasons. Intermission was a film that I heard people talking about on buses. (MacCartaigh 2004, 16)
Although Intermission did enjoy some international success, aided in no small degree by its high profile cast that includes Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney and Cillian Murphy, Damien O’Donnell rightly assesses its significance as something more than that. An unusual entity in Irish film, it is not obviously marketed for a British, European or American audience. Perhaps because of this fact, the common motifs of Irish film like religion, rurality, inter-generational conflict and politics are almost non-existent.
Through Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and
postmodernism, this article analyses Intermission
as an example of how the enormous social, cultural and economic changes of the
last two decades have resulted in a dramatic shift in how the Irish identity is
constructed. The Lacanian subject is a
socially determined being, structured by the laws and language of the symbolic
order. He explicitly states that the symbolic
order is not an overarching structure applicable to every individual. On the contrary, since the symbolic is
derived from social and familial contexts, there are differences between
cultures, societies and individuals. The Lacanian
Other is a part of the symbolic order that can be represented by an other
person in the imaginary sense, but which is ultimately derived from the order
itself. In this sense, the Other is how
the symbolic is manifested for a particular individual. As the Lacanian subject is in this way
symbolically-determined, changes in the symbolic order effect change in the
individual subject, and this I argue is a way of understanding changes in
individual and national identity that have occurred in recent years. Jean-François Lyotard makes a similar
argument for the importance of language in determining behaviour, and
consequently, as an object of study.
Echoing Lacan, he states, ‘even before he is born, if only by virtue of
the name he is given, the human child is already positioned as the referent in
the story recounted by those around him in relation to which he will inevitably
chart his course’ (Lyotard 1984, 15). A
film like Intermission is valuable
because it provides a barometer of that change.
If people were talking on buses about Intermission, it is because it is the first high-profile Irish film
to accurately reflect the urban and suburban life of Dublin and its lower
middle class and working class inhabitants, and also because it is one of the
first films to show how much these strata of society have adapted to social
change. It is also a film that portrays
The ostensibly indigenous quality of this film is
paradoxically contradicted by the film’s director, John Crowley, who states
that ‘the script…was quite influenced by American models, and
The production is not the only aspect of this film
that is indicative of the transitional nature of Irish society. The film consists of a number of different
stories which are cleverly interwoven.
Almost all of the characters are at a pivotal juncture in their lives in
relation to work and/or love. As Richard
Gorelick points out, ‘[t]he title…refers to the transitory state that most of
the characters find themselves in. Jobs
have just been lost or are in grave peril, relationships are ending, have just
ended, or are slowly beginning’ (Gorelick 2004). The multiple perspectives of the story adhere
to what Lyotard describes as a characteristic of postmodernism: that which
‘puts forward the unpresentable in the presentation itself’ (Lyotard 1984,
81). Joyce does this through a plethora
of literary styles of writing, which affirm the impossibility of a full and
unified narration. In Intermission, the
same effect is achieved through the variety of perspectives. While many Irish filmmakers rely on
historical narratives for their subject matter,
The film opens with Lehiff, the character played by Colin
Farrell, entering a bakery and chatting up the young, attractive sales
assistant behind the counter. They
flirtatiously discuss the unpredictability of love, and Lehiff states, ‘love is
not somethin’ you can plan for, is it?’ (Crowley 2003). This sense of chance and randomness
characterizes the film as a whole and is indicative of the post-Catholic
culture that is being depicted, in which many of the characters in the film
engage in promiscuous sex with people they meet in bars and nightclubs. Linked to a sense of liberation from a
destiny controlled by the Church, is how freely characters adopt personas and
identities. Lehiff foregrounds this in
the opening sequence, when he tells the sales assistant, ‘[a] fella like me
could be just a bit of fun in the sack, or, or,
and it’s not that crazy, I could be your soulmate. Or…I could be just a thief or somethin’, some
villain…just waitin’ for the chance to [he punches her] smack your jaw and rob
the register’ (Crowley 2003). The shock
of this unexpected violence underscores how identity is always chosen to some
extent, which means, as Lehiff states while he is making off with the cash from
the till, ‘you just never know…what’s gonna happen’ (Crowley 2003). Lacan claims that the individual participates
in the creation of linguistic meaning, and consequently, in the structuration
of subjectivity. While this
determining ability is a characteristic of subjectivity in general, it has been
enhanced by the climate of personal sovereignty in which we now live in
is the pivotal character in the film, as it is through him that the lives of
the other characters cross paths. While
he displays a degree of personal autonomy, it is evident later in the film that
he is also programmed by the symbolic structures which surround him. Lehiff, in his early twenties with a thick
Lehiff’s only option is to fulfill the role he has been given by society to its ultimate potential. For him, the desired objet petit a is a position of status in society, which he only attains through its loss in his total disregard for the law, cutting himself off from the community entirely, but paradoxically, earning a degree of autonomy. Lacan coined the phrase le pére ou pire to describe this forced choice, which means the father or worse: the choice is not one between good and bad, but between bad and worse. Lehiff cannot escape symbolic construction and so his choice is not a choice at all. Lehiff can either choose to submit to the Name of the Father and repress his desire, or chase his desire, his objet petit a, and position himself outside of the community. From a Lacanian point of view, the song that plays over the opening credits, The Clash’s ‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’ is highly appropriate: the subject has always already chosen to submit to the law because there is no other alternative.
Lehiff’s desire is primarily for respect and status
in society, because this is what has been denied to him. He gains this respect from a certain portion
of the community through criminal acts, but still wishes for precisely what his
own choice has rendered impossible: a stable domestic base. At several points in the film, Lehiff’s
fascination with woks is alluded to, which serves as a shorthand for
domesticity. Interestingly though, in
keeping with the exogenous representation of Irishness in the film as a whole,
it is a cosmopolitan domesticity influenced by the Orient. He mentions it to the sales assistant in the
opening scene, later he is seen circling woks in a catalogue while staking out
a bank, and at the end of the film, he questions the girl who he is holding to
ransom in her home about the utility of her wok and the best kind of oil to
use. Lehiff epitomises the teleological
illusion. The subject has always already
been structured by the symbolic, which demands that they accede to an
intersubjective position in the first place.
As Žižek states, ‘Lacan’s exposition of the way a letter arrives at its
destination lays bare the very mechanism
of the teleological illusion’ (Žižek 2001a, 9-10). The destination of the letter is ultimately
the Other. Because of this, imagining
that a subject has control over their fate is ultimately false, since they can
only think this because of their
place in the symbolic. Lehiff believes
that he chooses to break the law, but has already been decided by his symbolic
position. His desire for a home life is
also a symptom of his position within the structures of desire, which is always
directed towards an unattainable object.
Through his portrait of Lehiff,
Two other characters who are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are John and Oscar, both of whom work on the shop floor of the local supermarket. Their overbearing boss, Mr. Henderson, makes their lives almost unbearable by his constant bullying. John has recently broken up with his girlfriend Deirdre, and is heartbroken. On discovering that Deirdre has moved in with an older man only a few short weeks after their split, he barges into her house at the end of his tether: ‘[y]ou don’t just hook up with the next fella that walks by – the only reason you do that is if you never cared in the first place…that is the behaviour of a whore!’ (Crowley 2003). John has no idea how to discuss his emotions without becoming at best defensive, or at worst, aggressive.
A possible reason for John’s behaviour is the shift in gender roles in contemporary Irish society, and the difficulty he experiences adjusting to them. While there is still inequality between the genders, the divide is certainly lessening. The number of women in the workplace has more than doubled in the two decades between 1976 and 1996, and although this is only one aspect of moving towards equality, it does indicate a significant social and psychological change. If, as Lacan maintains, subjectivity is constructed in the intersubjective space between self and other, then it is logical that if female subjectivity has changed radically, then so has male. Previously, men were expected to be emotionally strong, perhaps in order to fulfill their primary role as providers. Now, the list of desirable characteristics for heterosexual men has changed considerably, with a concurrent shift in stereotypes of masculinity in the media. From a male point of view, this means that men now take more responsibility as carers of children and are also expected to be comfortable articulating their emotions: a trait previously regarded as feminine. John is an example of an individual who has not completely adjusted to this change, and who is suffering the consequences. His friend Oscar is going through romantic difficulties also. Unable to find a girlfriend, his sexual frustration has become such that he confides in John in the pub that he is unable to orgasm: ‘I’m at a stage where I can’t even wank, d’ya know? Pullin’ away like a madman…couple of occasions, I wept like a woman man, with the fuckin’ frustration’ (Crowley 2003). His equation of crying with femininity, and his horror of crying in public (later in the film the audience see him reduced to tears after failing to orgasm watching a porn video, alone in his flat) makes evident the fact that social and symbolic change does not happen in one movement that sweeps every subject into its wake: change will always encounter resistance.
This paradox is evident from the point of view of the women in the film also. To some extent, their self-worth is still predicated on their romantic relationships with men. Noeleen, a woman in her forties whose husband leaves her after fourteen years provides a good example. She is distraught at his departure and feels that it is somehow her fault for not being a good enough wife: ‘[i]s it my age, huh? Is it something I wouldn’t do? Is it my look, huh? Don’t you fancy me anymore?’ (Crowley 2003). Her husband Sam leaves her for a woman in her twenties, Deirdre, the erstwhile object of John’s affections. Deirdre too espouses a traditional ideal of a man’s role as provider when she tells her mother that they are moving in together, defending her decision on the basis that he is well off, reasonably attractive and has a high status job as bank manager. However, at the end of the film both women reconsider these traditional positions. Noeleen rediscovers her sexual attractiveness and reasserts herself in a fling with the frustrated Oscar. Deirdre too decides that compatibility is more important than money at the end of the film and leaves Sam, who finds her decision incomprehensible in another instance of male resistance to change in gender roles: ‘I pay rent here. I pay your rent as well as my own. I give you money; I treat you well. Is that not enough?’ (Crowley 2003). It is not enough for Deirdre, who rekindles her relationship with John, after he realises that all he needed to do was tell Deirdre how he was feeling.
The transitory status of male and female inter-subjective relations is enacted in the film and it is obvious that while stereotyped gender roles still have a certain currency, this is beginning to change. It is obvious too that neither men nor women are conditioned by religious sexual morality. The film shows scenes of adultery between Sam and Deirdre and casual sex between Noeleen and Oscar. It is significant that while difficulties exist in negotiating the complex territory of heterosexual relationships, there is no indication that religion has any influence on sexual choices. The absence of religion is also evident in the characterization of authority figures in the film.
In every symbolic order and every society, the power
bestowed on figures of authority derives from a shared agreement on the value
of the ideology that they represent. For
example, the former Taoiseach of Ireland, Eamon De Valera frequently used
religious imagery in his speeches and often invoked familial metaphors, because
in the symbolic order in which he lived, these were things which were assumed
by the population to be unquestionably worthy of respect. These are master signifiers, which Bracher
describes as ‘simply accepted as having a value or validity that goes without
saying’ (Bracher 1993, 25). It would be
logical to conclude that an examination of the ideology of the authority
figures in this film, Henderson, the supermarket manager and Detective Jerry
Lynch, might be enlightening as to what has replaced the master signifiers of
the old Irish symbolic order. Henderson,
or ‘Henno’ as John and Oscar call him, asserts his authority at every available
opportunity. He catches the two men
taking a break soon after starting work, and tells them to ‘get back on that
floor, youse little pups’ (Crowley 2003).
He gives each of them a strike, three of which will result in
dismissal. This strike is John’s second
If, as I have argued, factors like class affect the
Other of particular individuals, then it is probable that there may be
discrepancies between these different strands of society in relation to the
rate of change. One of the bleakest
messages of Intermission is that
social, economic and cultural change has been slow to impact on the working
classes. Lance Pettitt has noted that
contemporary Irish film often focuses on these marginalised groups, describing
it as a ‘cinema of the have-nots and the left-outs, the criminals, loser and
misfits’ (Pettitt 2000, 268).
Furthermore, Henderson is an exemplar of one of the major themes in this
film: the assertion of power to make up for inadequacy, which reveals itself in
the relationships between Noeleen and Oscar, Detective Lynch and Lehiff, and
Ben and his boss, who are discussed in the following section, and Henderson and
John. The final scene of the film shows
The authority figure who is explored in the greatest
detail in the film is Detective Jerry Lynch, played by Colm Meaney. He is approached by a young television
producer, Ben, who wants to make a documentary film about his work, an offer
that Lynch greets with unveiled arrogance.
Lynch revels in his image as a tough detective who is unafraid of
physical violence. He tells Ben that ‘my
only really human quality to speak of is a fondness for Celtic mysticism’
(Crowley 2003) and goes on to name Fáinne Lasta, Rainneach and Clannad as
‘artistes’ whom he admires. Lynch’s
admission is striking because it is so incongruous with his image, but also
because it is soon apparent that these bands are just a symbol of an entire
ideology in which Lynch has invested.
The music has a vague association with pre-Catholic
The heroes that he identifies with are those of Irish
folk tales, represented for him by the music of Celtic mysticism. Such identifications are revealed as an
effort to fill the void in being, or manque
à être, that characterises subjectivity.
It is no surprise that in contemporary
Lynch’s machismo is constantly threatened by the lack of respect his superiors give him. He is seen in his car staking out a drug dealer on a street corner with Celtic music playing to get him in the mood for the ensuing arrest. He pulls up in front of the dealer with a dramatic shriek of brakes and proceeds to chase him on foot through a block of flats. Lynch eventually catches him and as he suspects, finds drugs on his person and arrests him, but when he returns with the handcuffed dealer, he finds his car has been stolen and is enraged when the dealer sniggers at his predicament. Feeling rather demeaned, Lynch handcuffs the dealer to a pole and rings the station from a public phone, but is informed that there are no available cars to collect him and he is humiliatingly forced to order a taxi. When Ben calls to tell him that his boss has rejected his film idea, Lynch is at a low ebb indeed, and asks, ‘[h]as nobody any balls these days? Faggot’ (Crowley 2003). Having bragged to his work colleagues about his forthcoming television appearance, the potential embarrassment is likely to be enormous. Lynch retorts in the only way he know how, which is to brand Ben’s boss a homosexual, which allows him to remain in his position as macho maverick hero. Later, Jerry accompanies two of his colleagues to view a burnt-out car that has been abandoned on some waste land, and discovers that it is his own. When the two men mockingly ask, ‘are you gonna put this in your film, Jerry?’ (Crowley 2003), Lynch decides that in order to save face, he must convince Ben to join him in rebellion and make the film without his boss’ consent.
Ben agrees and shadows Lynch on his daily
rounds. Lynch introduces him to drug
users, drug dealers and criminals under surveillance, all of whom he treats
with the same contempt. Entering the
flat of one man,
All three men get out of their cars and through Ben’s camera, the audience see the ‘mythic’ shot of Lynch. This has been foregrounded earlier in the film, when Ben oversees the filming of an interview with two local heroes and insists that the cameraman perform a mythic shot, which is a shot from the ground that points upward at the person, making them look taller, more powerful and more heroic, so when it happens again at this stage of the film, it is an index of how Lynch sees himself. Lynch confronts Lehiff about stealing his car and worse still, his music, but the latter retorts by saying that Lynch’s Celtic mysticism CDs are ‘shit sounds’ (Crowley 2003). An argument explodes as the two exchange insults:
Lynch: The power of certain artistes is beyond the ken of cunts like you. You don’t have the requisite Celtic soul, man.
Lehiff: Yes I do.
Lynch: That’s a brave fuckin’ statement. Would you like a chance to back that up, wha’? (Crowley 2002)
Lynch takes off his jacket, places his gun on the bonnet and challenges Lehiff to a fist fight, saying that if he wins, Lynch will let him go, adhering to the code of heroic honour and fairness that he believes himself to be an exponent of, and telling Ben that this episode will be called ‘Personal Justice’ (Crowley 2002).
soon as Lynch is far enough away from the car on which his gun rests, Lehiff
takes a gun out of his pocket, points it and shoots and the last shots of the
scene, from the perspective of Ben’s handheld camera, show the camera falling
onto the grass. The duel between Lehiff
and Lynch connects
Both are ideologies which subjects cling to in order
to fill the vacuum of being that is the result of their entry into language,
but they simply do not work in contemporary society, as Lehiff shows when he
pulls out his gun, after agreeing to a fist fight. Lynch may be operating in accordance with a
Celtic code of honour, but others are not and it proves impossible to transpose
an ancient set of values onto a modern society.
Moreover, the heroic ideal that Lynch invests in is as elitist and
hierarchical as the modern class structure, which becomes obvious when he
accuses Lehiff of not having the requisite Celtic soul to appreciate his
music. The knowledge that Lynch thinks
he as possesses about Celtic Ireland is in the postmodern sense
‘delegitimated’. As Lyotard states,
‘[t]he grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of
unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a
narrative of emancipation’ (Lyotard 1984, 37).
Finally, these scenes also serve to defeat the urban/rural divide that
has been at the heart of Irish literature for decades. Rural
Although these insights are revealed to the audience, Lynch continues to identify with the Celtic warrior as a way to cover over his lack, and is delighted when the media report the incident with him as the conquering hero. At the end of the film, he walks in on Ben who is looking back over the video, and the audience realises that Ben saved Lynch’s life by shooting Lehiff. ‘The way it was told is the way it has to be’ (Cowley 2003), he tells Ben, giving him his Fáinne Lasta CDs as token of his respect and admiration. Their parting words are so choreographed and clichéd that the effect is comical:
Lynch: You’ve earned ’em – a warrior soul Ben, a kindred soul [they hug]. We’ll meet again, no doubt.
Ben: On the streets, yeah?
Lynch: On the streets.
Intermission examines numerous aspects
of the contemporary Irish subject. Its focus
is on urban identity with particular emphasis on the lower classes. Its shows that in spite of economic
prosperity, there are many Irish people who have a poor quality of life, few
prospects for the future and who live in areas with little if any amenities. It also depicts in a bleak but humorous way,
the realities of drugs, crime and violence on
1993. Lacan, Discourse and Social Change:
A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism.
Clash, The, 1979. ‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’, The Clash. Epic.
Gorelick, Richard, 2004. ‘Irish Kiss’ in City Paper Online.
1987. The Seminar. Book 1. Freud’s Papers
on Technique, 1953-4. Translated by John Forrester, with notes by John
1989. Écrits: A Selection. Translated
by Alan Sheridan.
Jean-François, 1984. The Postmodern
Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature, Vol.
10). Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian
Michael, 2001. Changed Utterly:
2001a. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan
2004. ‘One Flew Over My Left Foot’ in Film
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 3, January 2006, ISSN 1552-5112
 Lacan states that ‘for every human being, everything personal which can happen to him is located in the relation to the law to which he is bound. His history is unified by the law, by his symbolic universe, which is not the same for everyone’ (S1, 197, my italics)
 A list of such films with Irish themes from the last few years includes Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999), Peter Sheridan’s Borstal Boy (2000), Jim Sheridan’s In America (2002), Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002), Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002) and Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy (2003).
 As illustrated in the graph of desire (E, 335) meaning is produced après coup by the subject through the retroactive nature of punctuation (the second point of intersection) in the subject’s enunciation. However, the subject is also produced by signification, as the meaning of the signifier at the first point of signification is a differential meaning, not an inherent meaning. This means that the subject must choose from a selection of signifiers that are available to him/her, which themselves shape and define the signified. Collectively, these signifieds construct the world that the subject inhabits, and so construct subjectivity itself. For Lacan, there is an unending flux between the subject and signification.
 In 1976 there were 212,000 women in the workplace and in 1997, the figure had reached 488,000 (O’ Connell 2001, 149).