Written All Over Their Face

It’s surprising that more directors don’t explore the possibilities of telling their narrative through the use of close-up. More often we get only the reaction shot: brief, singular and expected, a single verb where one could relate paragraphs. Nowadays it is video game designers who are plumbing the depths of this lost art, in search of that last hurdle that will get them over that dreaded gorge that is the uncanny valley.

In fact, I tried to come up with at least five instances in recent cinema where it played an important part in telling the story. I had to settle for three and had to strain the definition of “recent” quite a bit. Near the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after Randle has set Billy up with a prostitute and hustled them off to be alone, there is a long take where Randle sits brooding staring at a window and the empty corridor until suddenly he breaks into a broad smile which invites the viewer to try to follow his train of thought. In Silence of the Lambs Lector and Starling’s reactions to one another are hugely important. Lector in many ways is trying to get Starling to “break,” Starling is alert to any inadvertent slip up that might indicate that he knows more than he is telling. Director Jonathan Demme keeps the camera front and center throughout since the drama is tied up in their strategies. A smile, a frown, a hiss: all feints, attacks and counterattacks. The last film that came to mind was Topsy Turvy, an imaginative reconstruction of the events that led Gilbert and Sullivan to produce The Mikado. After attending a Japanese exhibition, Gilbert childishly swishes around a sword he has acquired, muttering a gibberish approximation of the Japanese language. Suddenly he stops and we watch as his slow grin indicates that his mind is filling with characters and scenarios, yet to be fully formed, that will populate the play.

Of course it is Carl Dreyer who exhaustively explored the possibilities of using the human face to tell a story in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Now that Criterion has released his 1932 horror film Vampyr you can see the seeds of this approach in a brilliant scene between two sisters. As Leone lies in her bed, feverish from loss of blood, Gisele attempts to comfort her. Leone soon begins to despair for her soul when suddenly her gaze takes in her sister and you mark the transition from agony to desire as it is clear that Leone is beginning to consider what it would be like to have a quart of her sister’s blood for lunch.

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