Noa Steimatsky’s intriguing book The Face on Film oscillates between straightforward history of various cinematic tropes of the face and theoretical treatise on modernity and then postmodernity’s grasp of the human face. Her study charts the transformation of mythic faces of cinema’s past into a complex commercial image and existential unintelligibility within postmodernity. Refreshingly, the book offers a history of performance disguised as high theory and will pique the interest of film and cultural theorists and performers and artists alike. The book persuasively argues the importance of the face in film in such notable works as Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, 1928), Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju, 1960), The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956), Outer and Inner Space (Andy Warhol, 1966), and Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966). The author traces the different lineages of cinema’s fascination with the face: from auratic cult value in early film to its mass-produced, commodified status. The author rides high modernist waves with the likes of Dreyer and Eisenstein, and then gets down and dirty with Warhol and then turning to Bresson with a fractured, brilliant take on Euro auteurism. Steimatsky almost always uncovers something new about these classics and their takes on human faciality, the filmmakers’ worldview and its relation to the face, especially when focusing on Bresson’s transcendent style, Hitchcock’s misrecognitions and failures of face-to-face dialogue, and Warhol’s penchant for delay and chic death. Each chapter develops a historical period but also asks the big question (“What is a face’s purpose on film?”) afresh. From silent film to modern Hollywood, perhaps more than any other body part, the human face has been processed by multiple cultural periods and movements and greatly influenced the history of the medium.
The first chapter examines some major theories of the face and their applications to (mainly) silent cinema, which has the ability to bring about the full, material presence of the face. Epstein’s elaboration of photogénie, a superadded quality produced by the “intelligence of a machine”, has an immediate and direct applicability to the topic of the face. For Balázs, identification is at the root of the cinematic apparatus and the phenomenon finds endless resources in human expressivity. For Deleuze, the affection-image and ideas of personhood realised through facialisation required a dialectical approach to film form. Thus the importance of Kuleshov’s argument that the image of the face carries multiple meanings through a juxtaposition of images, a theory that became the basis for Eisenstein’s dynamic approach to film editing with intellectual montage. In Eisenstein, we see how contrasting and expanding the face produces a rich array of meanings, often best illustrated in his films’ play between foreground and background, high and low. Eisenstein wants viewers to face the revolutionary spirit itself in Battleship Potemkin (1925) and other works by giving all screen material a dynamic face-like power. With The Passion of Joan of Arc, we get a sense of the gravity of words in the film’s complex technique of intertitles, mouthing of words, and repetition. Words have a weight in the Dreyer film as faces shake, suck, and cry. The gravity of Falconetti’s face, for instance, contrasts perfectly with the blank and empty screen spaces, emphasising the split between body and spirit.
The second chapter examines Roland Barthes’ shifting attitudes toward the photographed face. Barthes’ immensely influential writings on popular culture, including cinema and stardom, took a quasi-anthropological view of human representation, especially in his observations on the mask in Mythologies. In his early writings, Barthes expresses outright fascination toward the cinematic face, as in the case of Greta Garbo. Barthes criticised the stultifying mythology that turned people into enduring types, while also publicly expressing his pleasure at cinema’s ability to smooth out the wrinkles and create an image of enduring beauty. Bazin’s essay on the ontology of film is drawn upon to explain the way faces are mummified, forever preserved and seemingly made sacrosanct. Insofar as it celebrates an icon, the Garbo essay in Mythologies is an outlier. As much as Barthes derived pleasure from popular culture artefacts, like Garbo’s films and the Folies-Bergère girls, he could be scathing when he got a whiff of bourgeois ideology at work.
On the Harcourt actor’s studio in France, Barthes wrote, “[T]he Harcourt photograph is an initiation rite for the young player, a guild diploma, his real professional carte d’identité.” (p. 21)1 He deplores the myth of the Harcourt actor that creates a lame-brain bourgeois outside of work and a naturally gifted performer when on the stage. For him, the Harcourt actor is a mysterious luxury item. Women are angels (effervescent) while men are silent but godlike (virile). From this delicate dance between high art and commerce emerges a more careful examination of Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) than Barthes would have dared. The conflict between authentic intellectual and fashion model is played out and synthesized in Donen’s musical, where Audrey Hepburn’s bookish Jo becomes a glamorous Paris model: the film tracks the transition from person to image as Astaire’s character cuts and enlarges her face, making it light as air and public, too. Steimatsky immediately contrasts Funny Face, which she greatly admires, with Godard and Gorin’s militant lesson in image semiotics, Letter to Jane (1972), where the “thinking model” Jane Fonda is condemned as an empty signifier of liberal attitudes toward the Vietnam war and indeed all struggle. The question of the actor’s mythic qualities paired against their interior life resounds throughout the study and comes back in full force in the chapter on Warhol.
Chapter three, the most focused and original of the book, performs close analyses of unintelligibility, misrecognition, and other failures of communication in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, most notably The Wrong Man. The author begins by framing the film with Godard’s 1957 Cahiers du cinéma review, “Le cinéma et son double,” where he extols the acting skills of Henry Fonda, celebrating the performance as a documentary/fiction hybrid. Stoic and hardened, Fonda’s face is devoid of emotion or even acting, and announces itself as an authentic face where interiority and truth seem to have been exteriorised completely rather than suppressed. This gets at the root of the film’s suspense: what does facially expressing innocence look like? Should the character show more emotion, and is he guilty because he does not perform as the wrong man? Close analysis of the misrecognition scene at the insurance office and Fonda’s incarceration and trial comprise some of the book’s most penetrating and incisive criticism. The book as well as the film argues that it is easier to contain the modern individual in a system of surveillance than to see them in their true and complex light. This results in the right man maybe even being recognised as the wrong man, and so on and so forth. The chapter ends with another example of the face-to-face’s misfires in Vertigo (1958), wherein James Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy never identify the other’s minimal true self.
Chapter four looks at the screen test, that little seen yet hugely important bit of behind-the-scenes industry footage that pivots around the face and its ability to be read as character. The screen test blurs distinctions of subject, actor, character, and role – any one moment can be a moment of transformation. Steimatsky’s examples of the decentring of the self via the screen test come from high modernism and the postmodern mainstream. Her main points of reference are Antonioni’s Il provino (The Screen Test) from the 1965 omnibus I tre volti (The Three Faces) and Andy Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space. In the Antonioni short starring Princess Soraya, a former consort of the Shah of Iran, everything from makeup, lighting, costume, performance, and angles create the character—the actor’s “process” is on full display. The gradual, slow construction of the character is perhaps no better demonstrated then in the screen test, argues the author, which is now a staple of DVD bonus material, yet it remains an under-theorised genre of filmmaking.
The face loses its auratic elements in the era of popular culture. Warhol’s painting Marilyn Diptych (1962) evokes themes of glamour and death at once. The face in Warhol is under transformation, an existential filmmaking. In the mise en abyme mise en scène of Outer and Inner Space, Edie Sedgwick undergoes a transformation into multiple versions of the self. At any one moment, we cannot be certain if we are seeing Edie play a role, a star, an amateur, or something altogether different. Warhol’s is an art of delay wherein the subject goes from present and iconic to iterable and corpse-like. His many screen tests with other people are hinted at, but a fuller study of them is still needed. The author’s claim that the failure to achieve an integral self in post-modernism is well illustrated in these pages. In counter-distinction to Barthes’ mythic, essential Garbo, the author sees the modern actor as more of an unintelligible, decentred subject capable of feats of mythic reverence, cold materialisation of the body (which connotes Christ-like values), and pure celebrity construction, but always transitioning.
Up until this point, for much of the book, Steimatsky, has focused primarily on the singular human face as the canvas on which filmmakers have explored various modernist themes. Refreshingly, she opens the discussion onto other material and non-human actors in the final chapter. Always seen vis-à-vis the human face, this chapter looks at how in Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) and Au hasard Balthazar silence, darkness, letters, animals come to challenge the human face’s predominance. Steimastky’s argument and examples are as subtle as Bresson’s films themselves. In a Bresson film, all the parts—image, sound, acting, camera work, editing—are disintegrated, assembled seemingly in a vacuum from each other, giving the final work a fugue-like quality. There is thus an equality of things in Bresson that is especially felt in the films’ treatment of his models’ faces. The animal face finally makes an appearance too at this point but there are no ethical questions raised from it. Indeed like all of Bresson’s actors, the animal lacks interiority and, according to the author, the images of animals connote reticence.
The Face on Film could have studied various other faces, such as the heavily-coloured women and nymphomaniacs of Fellini or the alternately stern and emotive faces of Ingmar Bergman. The book may have also benefited from an examination of television, especially the modern reality TV star, where the face is a piece of fleshy meat destined to extract value from a superficial personal drama. However, the cinematic face as radical other, which we encounter in an ethical yet violent spectral face-to-face is not grappled with. While it is true that we do not look at faces in the same way throughout film history and genres, Steimatsky seems reluctant to investigate the abject, dangerous, or otherwise radically other faces that also surely populate cinema history and our imaginations. A discussion of cinematic faces that reject identification and appropriation, like those in horror and B-movies, could have nicely followed the chapter on Hitchcock, for instance. Still, it is a pleasure to read a work that does not want to be an encyclopaedia of cinematic snippets but prefers to carefully look at a relatively small sample of faces on film.
Noa Steimatsky, The Face on Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
- See Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979). ↩