Punch-Drunk Love

A Post-Romance Romance

How to Cite

Fuller, G. (2007). Punch-Drunk Love: A Post-Romance Romance. M/C Journal, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2660
Vol. 10 No. 3 (2007): 'complex'
Published 2007-06-01

For once I want to be the car crash,
Not always just the traffic jam.
Hit me hard enough to wake me,
And lead me wild to your dark roads.
(Snow Patrol: “Headlights on Dark Roads”, Eyes Open, 2006)

I didn’t know about the online dating site rsvp.com.au until a woman who I was dating at the time showed me her online profile. Apparently ‘everyone does rsvp’. Well, ‘everyone’ except me. (Before things ended I never did ask her why she listed herself as ‘single’ on her profile…) Forming relationships in our era of post-institutional modes of sociality is problematic. Some probably find such ‘romantically’ orientated ‘meet up’ sites to be a more efficient option for sampling what is available. Perhaps others want some loving on the side. In some ways these sites transform romance into the online equivalent of the logistics dock at your local shopping centre. ‘Just-in-time’ relationships rely less on social support structures of traditional institutions such as the family, workplace, and so on, including ‘love’ itself, and more on a hit and miss style of dating, organised like a series of car crashes and perhaps even commodified through an eBay-style online catalogue (see Crawford 83-88). Instead of image-commodities there are image-people and the spectacle of post-romance romance as a debauched demolition derby. Is romance still possible if it is no longer the naïve and fatalistic realisation of complementary souls?

I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film Punch-Drunk Love with the above rsvp.com.au woman. She interpreted it in a completely different manner to me. I shall argue (as I did with her) that the film captures some sense of romance in a post-romance world. The film was billed as a comedy/romance or comedy/drama, but I did not laugh either with or at the film. The story covers the trials of two people ‘falling in love’. Lena Leonard (Emma Watson) orchestrates an encounter with Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) after seeing a picture of him with his seven sisters. The trajectory of the romance is defined less by the meeting of two people, than the violence of contingency and of the world arrayed by the event of love. Contingency is central to complexity theory. Contingency is not pure chance, rather it exists as part of the processual material time of the event that defines events or a series of events as problematic (Deleuze, The Logic of Sense 52-53). To problematise events and recognise the contingencies they inculcate is to refuse the tendency to colonise the future through actuarial practices, such as ‘risk management’ and insurance or the probabilistic ‘Perfect Match’ success of internet dating sites (mirroring ‘Dexter’ from the 1980s dating television game show). Therefore, through Punch-Drunk Love I shall problematise the event of love so as to resuscitate the contingencies of post-romance romance.

It is not surprising Punch-Drunk Love opens with a car crash for the film takes romance on a veritable post-Crash detour. Crash – novel and film – serves as an exploration of surfaces and desire in a world at the intersection of the accident. Jean Baudrillard, in his infamous essay on Crash (novel), dwells on the repositioning of the accident:

[It] is no longer at the margin, it is at the heart. It is no longer the exception to a triumphal rationality, it has become the Rule, it has devoured the Rule. … Everything is reversed. It is the Accident that gives form to life, it is the Accident, the insane, that is the sex of life. (113)

After the SUV rolls over in Punch-Drunk Love’s opening scene, a taxi van pauses long enough for an occupant to drop off a harmonium. A harmonium is a cross between an organ and a piano, but much smaller than both. It is a harmony machine. It breathes and wheezes to gather potentiality consonant sound waves of heterogeneous frequencies to produce a unique musicality of multiplicative resonance. No reason is given for the harmonium in the workings of the film’s plot. Another accident without any explanation, like the SUV crash, but this time it is an accidental harmony-machine. The SUV accident is a disorganising eruption of excess force, while the accidental harmony-machine is a synthesising organisation of force. One produces abolition, while the other produces a multiplicative affirmation. These are two tendencies that follow two different relations to the heterogeneous materialism of contingency.

Punch-Drunk Love captures the contingency at the heart of post-romance romance. Instead of the layers of expectation habituated into institutional engagements of two subjects meeting, there is the accident of the event of love within which various parties are arrayed with various affects and desires. I shall follow Alain Badiou’s definition of the event of love, but only to the point where I shall shift the perspective from love to romance. Badiou defines love by initially offering a series of negative definitions. Firstly, love is not a fusional concept, the ‘two’ that is ‘one’. That is because, as Badiou writes, “an ecstatic One can only be supposed beyond the Two as a suppression of the multiple” (“What Is Love?” 38). Secondly, nor is love the “prostration of the Same on the alter of the Other.” Badiou argues that it is not an experience of the Other, but an “experience of the world [i.e. multiple], or of the situation, under the post-evental condition that there were Two” (“What Is Love?” 39). Lastly, the rejection of the ‘superstructural’ or illusory conception of love, that is, to the base of desire and sexual jealously (Badiou, “What Is Love?” 39). For Badiou love is the production of truth. The truth is that the Two, and not only the One, are at work in the situation. However, from the perspective of romance, there is no post-evental truth procedure for love as such. In Deleuze’s terminology, from the perspective of post-romance the Two serves an important role as the ‘quasi-cause’ of love (The Logic of Sense 33), or for Badiou it is the “noemenal possibility [virtualite]” (“What Is Love?” 51). The event of the Two, and, therefore, of love, is immanent to itself. However, this does not capture the romantic functioning of love swept up in the quasi-cause of the Two. Romance is the differential repetition of the event of love to-come and thus the repetition of the intrinsic irreducible wonder at the heart of the event.

The wonder at love’s heart is the excess of potentiality, the excitement, the multiplicity, the stultifying surprise. To resuscitate the functioning of love is to disagree with Badiou’s axiom that there is an absolute disjunction between the (nominalist) Two. The Two do actually share a common dimension and that is the radical contingency at the heart of love. Love is not as a teleological destiny of the eternal quasi-cause, but the fantastic impossibility of its contingent evental site. From Badiou’s line of argument, romance is precisely the passage of this “aleatory enquiry” (“What is Love?” 45), of “the world from the point of view of the Two, and not an enquiry of each term of the Two about the other” (49). Romance is the insinuation of desire into this dynamic of enquiry. Therefore, the functioning of romance is to produce a virtual architecture of wonder hewn from seeming impossibility of contingency. It is not the contingency in itself that is impossible (the ‘chaosmos’ is a manifold of wonderless-contingency), but that contingency might be repeated as part of a material practice that produces love as an effect of differentiating wonder. Or, again, not that the encounter of love has happened, but that precisely it might happen again and again. Romance is the material and embodied practice of producing wonder. The materiality of romance needs to be properly outlined and to do this I turn to another of Badiou’s texts and the film itself.

To explicate the materialism of romance is to begin outlining the problematic of romance where the material force of Lena and Barry’s harmony resonates in the virtuosic co-production of new potentialities. The practice of romance is evidenced in the scene where Lena and Barry are in Hawaii and Lena is speaking to Barry’s sister while Barry is watching her. A sense of wonder is produced not in the other person but of the world as multiplicity produced free from the burden of Barry’s sister, hence altering the material conditions of the differential repetition of contingency. The materialism in effect here is, to borrow from Michel Foucault, an ‘incorporeal materialism’ (169), and pertains to the virtual evental dimension of love. In his Handbook of Inaesthetics, Badiou sets up dance and theatre as metaphors for thought. “The essence of dance,” writes Badiou, “is virtual, rather than actual movement” (Handbook of Inaesthetics 61), while theatre is an “assemblage” (72) which in part is “the circulation of desire between the sexes” (71). If romance is the deliberate care for the event of love and its (im)possible contingency, then the dance of love requires the theatre of romance. To include music with dance is to malign Badiou’s conception of dance by polluting it with some elements of what he calls ‘theatre’. To return to the Hawaii scene, Barry is arrayed as an example of what Badiou calls the ‘public’ of theatre because he is watching Lena lie to his sister about his whereabouts, and therefore completes the ‘idea’ of theatre-romance as a constituent element (Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics 74). There is an incorporeal (virtual) movement here of pure love in the theatre of romance that repotentialises the conditions of the event of love by producing a repeated and yet different contingency of the world. Wonder triggered by a lie manifest of a truth to-come.

According to Badiou, the history of dance is “governed by the perpetual renewal of the relation between vertigo and exactitude. What will remain virtual, what will be actualized, and precisely how is the restraint going to free the infinite?” (Handbook of Inaesthetics 70). Importantly, Badiou suggests that theatrical production “is often the reasoned trial of chances” (Handbook of Inaesthetics 74). Another way to think the materiality of romance is as the event of love, but without Badiou’s necessary declaration of love (“What Is Love?” 45). Even though the ‘truth’ of the Two acts as quasi-cause, love as such remains a pure (‘incorporeal’) Virtuality. As a process, there is no “absolute disappearance or eclipse” that belongs to the love-encounter (“What Is Love?” 45), thus instead producing a rhythmic or, better, melodic heterogeneous tension between the love-dance and romance-theatre. The rhythm-melody of the virtual-actual cascade is distributed around aleatory contingencies as the event of love is differentially repeated and is therefore continually repotentialised and exhausted at the same time. A careful or graceful balance needs to be found between potentiality and exhaustion. The film contains many examples of this (re)potentialising tension, including when Lena achieves the wonder of the ‘encounter’ by orchestrating a meeting. Similarly, Barry feigns a ‘business trip’ to Hawaii to meet up with Lena. This is proceeded by the increased urgency of Barry’s manipulation of the frequent flyer miles reward to meet with up with Lena. The tension is affective – both anxious and exciting – and belongs to the lived duration of contingency. In the same way as an actual material dance floor (or ‘theatre’ here) is repeated across multiple incorporeal dimensions of music’s virtuality through the repotentialisation of the dancer’s body, the multiple dimensions of love are repeated across the virtuality of the lovers’ actions through the repotentialisation of the conditions of the event of love.

Punch-Drunk Love frames this problematic of romance by way of a second movement that follows the trajectory of the main character Barry. Barry is a depressive with an affect regulation problem. He flies into a rage whenever a childhood incident is mentioned and becomes anxious or ‘scared’ (as one sister described him) when in proximity to Lena. He tries to escape from the oppressive intimacy of his family. He plays with ‘identity’ in a childlike manner by dressing up as a businessman and wearing the blue suit. His small business is organised around selling plungers used to unblock toilets to produce flow. Indeed, Barry is defined by the blockages and flows of desire. His seven-sister over-Oedipalised familial unit continually operates as an apparatus of capture, a phone-sex pervert scam seeks to overcode desire in libidinal economy that becomes exploited in circuits of axiomatised shame (like an online dating site?), and a consumer rewards program that offers the dream of a frequent-flyer million-miles (line of) flight out of it all. ‘Oedipal’ in the expanded sense Deleuze and Guattari give the term as a “displaced or internalised limit where desire lets itself be caught. The Oedipal triangle is the personal and private territoriality that corresponds to all of capitalism’s efforts at social reterritorialisation” (266). Barry says he wants to ‘diversify’ his business, which is not the same thing as ‘expanding’ or developing an already established commercial interest. He does not have a clear idea of what domain or type of business he wants to enter into when diversifying. When he speaks to business contacts or service personnel on the phone he attempts to connect with them on a level of intimacy that is uncomfortably inappropriate for impersonal phone conversations. The inappropriate intimacy comes back to haunt him, of course, when a low-level crook attempts to extort money from him after Barry calls a phone sex line.

The romance between Lena and Barry develops through a series of accident-contingencies that to a certain extent ‘unblocks’ Barry and allows him to connect with Lena (who also changes). Apparent contingencies that are not actually contingencies need to be explained as such (‘dropping car off’, ‘beat up bathrooms’, ‘no actual business in Hawaii’, ‘phone sex line’, etc.). Upon their first proper conversation a forklift in Barry’s business crashes into boxes. Barry calls the phone sex line randomly and this leads to the severe car crash towards the end of the film. The interference of Barry’s sisters occurs in an apparently random unexpected manner – either directly or indirectly through the retelling of the ‘gayboy’ story. Lastly, the climatic meeting in Hawaii where the two soon-to-be-lovers are framed by silhouette, their bodies meet not in an embrace but a collision. They emerge as if emitted from the throngs of the passing crowd. Barry has his hand extended as if they were going to shake and there is an audible grunt when their bodies collide in an embrace.

To love is to endure the violence of a creative temporality, such as the production of harmony from heterogeneity. As Badiou argues, love cannot be a fusional relation between the two to make the one, nor can it be the relation of the Same to the Other, this is because the differential repetition of the conditions of love through the material practice of romance already effaces such distinctions. This is the crux of the matter: The maximum violence in the plot of Punch-Drunk Love is not born by Lena, even though she ends up in hospital, but by Barry. (Is this merely a masculinist reading of traditional male on male violence? Maybe, and perhaps why rsvp.com.au woman read it different to me.) What I am trying to get at is the positive or creative violence of the two movements within the plot – of the romance and of Barry’s depressive social incompetence – intersect in such a way to force Barry to renew himself as himself. Barry’s explosive fury belongs to the paradox of trying to ‘mind his own business’ while at the same time ‘diversifying’. The moments of violence directed against the world and the ‘glass enclosures’ of his subjectivity are transversal actualisations of the violence of love (on function of ‘glass’ in the film see King). (This raises the question, perhaps irrelevant, regarding the scale of Badiou’s conception of truth-events. After Foucault and Deleuze, why isn’t ‘life’ itself a ‘truth’ event (for Badiou’s position see Briefings on Existence 66-68)? For example, are not the singularities of Barry’s life also the singularities of the event of love? Is the post-evental ‘decision’ supposed to always axiomatically subtract the singular truth-supplement from the stream of singularities of life? Why…?)

The violence of love is given literal expression in the film in the ‘pillow talk’ dialogue between Barry and Lena:

Barry: I’m sorry, I forgot to shave.
Lena: Your face is so adorable. Your skin and your cheek… I want to bite it. I want to bite on your cheek and chew on it, you’re so fucking cute.
Barry: I’m looking at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze you, you’re so pretty…
Lena: I wanna chew your face off and scoop out your eyes. I wanna eat them and chew them and suck on them…
Barry: [nodding] Ok…yes, that’s funny…
Lena: Yeah…
Barry: [still nodding] This’s nice.

What dismayed or perhaps intrigued Baudrillard about Crash was its mixing of bodies and technologies in a kind of violent eroticism where “everything becomes a hole to offer itself to the discharge reflex” (112). On the surface this exchange between Barry and Lena is apparently an example of such violent eroticism. For Baudrillard the accident is a product of the violence of technology in the logistics of bodies and signs which intervene in relations in such a way to render perversity impossible (as a threshold structuration of the Symbolic) because ‘everything’ becomes perverse. However, writer and director of Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Anderson, produces a sense of the wondrous (‘Punch-Drunk’) violence that is at the heart of love. This is not because of the actual violence of individual characters; in the film this only serves as a canvas of action to illustrate the intrinsic violence of contingency. Lena and Barry’s ‘pillow talk’ not so much as a dance but a case of the necessary theatre capturing the violence and restraint of love’s virtual dance.

‘Violence’ (in the sense it is used above) also describes the harmonic marshalling of the heterogeneous materiality of sound affected by the harmonium. The ‘violence’ of the harmonium is decisively expressed through the coalescence of the diegetic and nondiegetic soundtracks at the end of the film when Barry plays the harmonium concurrently with Jon Brion’s score for the film. King notes, the “diegetic and nondiegetic music playing together is a moment of cinematic harmony; Barry, Lena, and the harmonium are now in sync” (par. 19). The notes of music connect different diegetic and nondiegetic series which pivot around new possibilities. As Deleuze writes about the notes played at a concert, they are “pure Virtualities that are actualized in the origins [of playing], but also pure Possibilities that are attained in vibrations or flux [of sound]” (The Fold 91). Following Deleuze further (The Fold 146-157), the horizontal melodic movement of romance forms a diagonal or transversal line with the differentially repeated ‘harmonic’ higher unity of love. The unity is literally ‘higher’ to the extent it escapes the diegetic confines of the film itself. For Deleuze “harmonic unity is not that of infinity, but that which allows the existent to be thought of as deriving from infinity” (The Fold 147, ital. added). While Barry is playing the harmonium in this scene Lena announces, “So here we go.” These are the final words of the film. In Badiou’s philosophy this is a declaration of the truth of love. Like the ‘higher’ non/diegetic harmony of the harmonium, the truth of love “composes, compounds itself to infinity. It is thus never presented integrally. All knowledge [of romance] relative to this truth [of the Two, as quasi-cause] thus disposes itself as an anticipation” (“What is Love?” 49). Romance is therefore lived as a vertiginous state of anticipation of love’s harmony.

The materiality of romance does not simply consist of two people coming together and falling in love. The ‘fall’ functions as a fatalistic myth used to inscribe bodies within the eschatological libidinal economies of ‘romantic comedies’. To anneal Baudrillard’s lament, perversity obviously still has a positive Symbolic function on the internet, especially online dating sites where anticipation can be modulated through the probabilistic manipulation of signs. In post-romance, the ‘encounter’ of love necessarily remains, but it is the contingency of this encounter that matters. The main characters in Punch-Drunk Love are continually arrayed through the contingencies of love. I have linked this to Badiou’s notion of the event of love, but have focused on what I have called the materiality of romance. The materiality of romance requires more than a ‘fall’ induced by a probabilistic encounter, and yet it is not the declaration of a truth. The post-evental truth procedure of love is impossible in post-romance romance because there is no ‘after’ or ‘supplement’ to an event of love; there is only the continual rhythm of romance and anticipation of the impossible. It is not a coincidence that the Snow Patrol lyrics that serve above as an epigraph resonate with Deleuze’s comment that a change in the situation of Leibnizian monads has occurred “between the former model, the closed chapel with imperceptible openings… [to] the new model invoked by Tony Smith [of] the sealed car speeding down the dark highway” (The Fold 157). Post-Crash post-romance romance unfolds like the driving-monad in an aleatory pursuit of accidents. That is, to care for the event of love is not to announce the truth of the Two, but to pursue the differential repetition of the conditions of love’s (im)possible contingency. This exquisite and beautiful care is required for the contingency of love to be maintained. Hence, the post-romance problematic of romance thus posited as the material practice of repeating the wonder at the heart of love.

Author Biography

Glen Fuller