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In a major revision of feminist-psychoanalytic theories of film pleasure and sexual difference, Studlar's close textual analysis of the six Paramount films directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich probes the source of their visual and psychological complexity.
Borrowing from Gilles Deleuze's psychoanalytic-literary approach, Studlar shows how masochism extends beyond the clinical realm, into the arena of artistic form, language, and production of pleasure. The author's examination of the von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations shows how these films, with the mother figure embodied in the alluring yet androgynous Dietrich, offer a key for understanding film's "masochistic aesthetic."
Studlar argues that masochism's broader significance to film study lies in the similarities between the structures of perversion and those of the cinematic apparatus, as a dream screen reviving archaic visual pleasures for both male and female spectators.