Mother: Of course you want something. You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.
Sam: No, nothing. Not even dreams!
In this movie, Sam fumes that his mother is using her pull with the Deputy Minister of Information to get him a more visible position in the government bureaucracy. Sam, although quite bright and capable, just wants to be left alone with his fantasies. He speaks the above line immediately before a scene with his super-heroish winged dream-self and a beautiful woman.
This dream-self is a good example of the Lacanian “ideal ego,” as is the movie of the relation between this ideal and the society in which it develops:
By entering into the symbolic order (with its laws, conventions, and images for perfection), the human subject effectively divorces him/herself from the materiality of his/her bodily drives
The culture in the film worships images of physical beauty; cosmetic surgeons have salons and act like – and are treated like – celebrities.
The scene I quoted takes place in a posh restaurant where Sam’s mother and her friend, Mrs. Terrain, discuss their doctors and gush about medical gift tokens as “the most wonderful idea for Christmas presents.” Here, we get a good idea of how the symbolic order to which these characters belong feeds their narcissism. A bomb explodes, and the uninjured patrons continue to eat as the Maitre’d and waiters set up folding screens around the tables.
As Slavoj Zizek puts it, "through fantasy, we learn how to desire" (Looking Awry 6). Our desires therefore necessarily rely on lack, since fantasy, by definition, does not correspond to anything in the real. Our object of desire (what Lacan terms the "objet petit a") is a way for us to establish coordinates for our own desire. At the heart of desire is a misrecognition of fullness where there is really nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections. It is that lack at the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire.
In Sam’s bedroom, the two most prominent decorations are movie posters. (We see them in the first shot of his apartment – their legends, “screen play” and “movie world” are shown behind his waking self. (We see later that the posters are of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.) The film thus expresses how
we are not even in control of our own desires since those desires are themselves as separated from our actual bodily needs as the phallus is separated from any biological penis. For this reason, Lacan suggests that, whereas the zero form of sexuality for animals is copulation, the zero form of sexuality for humans is masturbation.
When Sam sees a woman who looks like the one in his dreams, he accepts the unwanted position at Information Retrieval and risks everything to pursue her. He is emotionally stuck in the narcissistic stage of “the Imaginary Order,” a realm through which we all pass before entering the Symbolic. Although often angry at his strong-willed mother, he is still much attached to her, as is shown by another dream sequence in which he calls to her, she turns, and her face is the face of his love interest. This effectively illustrates the idea that:
The act of sex for humans is so much caught up in our fantasies (our idealized images of both ourselves and our sexual partners) that it is ultimately narcissistic.
Eventually, the ruthlessly censorious culture which Sam had been supporting pushes him so far into his fantasies that he becomes incapable of coping with either the Symbolic or the Real, even on the most superficial level.
My summary doesn’t do this stunning film justice. Unfortunately, we didn’t heed its warnings, and our own culture has become frighteningly similar. As Mrs. Terrain would say, “our complications had complications” — perhaps some fault of Information Retrieval.