Per Jean Epstein, a vital figure in the avant-garde movement that dominated France from 1919 to 1929, close-ups are the soul of films whose essence manifests in the form of the photogénie, which he defines as “any aspects of things, beings, or soul whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction…the purest expression of cinema” (Epstein 314). Photogenic shots are attached a sense of urgency, as the camera fights against space and time to fleetingly capture a single moment of integrity, soon to be buried by a future that constantly crouches into the present. Such tension makes photogénie a paradox, for insofar as it defines artistic perfection, it cannot be pinpointed in stasis. To fully appreciate its delicacy, we must feel and not just watch a film. We must enable the anxious disequilibrium of movement, imbalance, and crisis to hypnotize our senses. Epstein illustrates such experience in Magnification, where close-ups of a man’s forehead, chin, and mouth make verbal confessions obsolete. In Epstein’s words— “I can see love” (Epstein 238). No words needed.
While traditional close-ups use a dramatic nature to exhibit character psychology, contemporary works feature ambiguous close-ups where character sentiments are less clear cut. Both tactics enable audience identification in the split instance of photogénie yielded by ever slightly evolving changes in the character’s face. Such micro-movements qualify the liminal area between expectation and action, where suspense crescendoing into the climatic outbreak of emotions reveals more photogénie than the outbreak itself. On one hand, dramatic close-ups allow viewers to sympathize with specific emotions characters endure. On another hand, ambiguous close-ups lead them to sympathize with the complex web of contradictions they know not how to reconcile. The uncertainty carried across such ambiguity relates another dimension of audience identification that does not involve finding a solution. In this essay, I will evidence how both genres of close-ups advance a photogenic experience that capacitates audience identification.
DRAMATIC CLOSE-UPS: RESTORING REALITY
With the constant evocation of sentiments, dramatic close-ups enable us to experience realism, not only through elaborate sets, but also through fits and starts across micro-movements of the actor’s face. Resisting fixation, photogénie seems less an expression than a protest of that which is inexpressible, constantly hidden and finding refuge in mobility. On this regard, dramatic close-ups most conspicuously manifest photogénie by transforming rather than replicating the object which they seek to represent, the process of which uneasily hinges on a rift between resemblance and difference. Erik Bullot describes photogénie as “both a gain and a gap between the object and its reproduction” (Bullot 248). The mobile point of contradiction containing photogénie imposes both surprise and anticipation, as an image strikes dissimilarity without rupturing its resemblance to the referent. To Bullot, this phenomenon is “the ability to bestow form on a substance and contradictorily, the resistance of that substance to this very transformation” (Bullot 245). The resulting gap between referent and reproduction would transfigure the latter from a simplistic replica and to a truth truer than truth, restoring realism.
To fully understand the intimacy between dramatic close-ups and sentiments, I must mention D.W. Griffith, who though did not invent close-ups, was the first to conglomerate shots—especially close-ups— taken from various camera distances into a sequence to convey a holistic narrative. Such breakthrough is important because without a logical flow, the audience cannot be emotionally involved in the story. Karel Reisz sums him well: “By splitting an event into short fragments and recording each from the most suitable camera position, he could vary the emphasis from shot to shot and thereby control the dramatic intensity of events as the story progressed” (Reisz 5). To Griffith, subtle changes in camera angle and distance are central to character development. By incorporating close-ups into a comprehensive filmic entity, he creates for spectators, an “illusion of watching a seamless flow of reality” devoid of unnatural edits pinpointing the presence of film mediums (Griffith 4). He refers to objects placed in front of the camera as “profilmic”, which alludes to a similar gap between reality and recreation in that objects acquire new meaning once they are enframed on celluloid. Otherwise put, the original would change for the better with a recreated interpretation (usually it would be the other way around), since close-ups acquire meaning when they are placed into a sequence that bestows upon them, a symbolic weight carrying the director’s message.
A perfect rendition of this concept is found in Le Jour Se Lève. This film marks the apex of poetic realism—the act of filming at a stylized and studio-bound set that exquisitely recreates reality. In André Bazin’s words, the film “is perfect in that its symbolism never takes precedence over its realism, but rather the one complements the other” (Bazin 10). A streamline close-up of Francois’ face right before he commits suicide epitomizes his confusion and desperation against a hostile world. Nervous suspension emerges amidst the inherent photogénie in his diluted gaze, objectifying the deep, crescendoing sense of entropy streaming from within. “Reality fulfills itself in terms of reality” as close-ups reincarnate his internal as well as external conflicts (Bazin 12). Once close-ups lock us in an increasingly claustrophobic mise-en-scène, Francois’ fictional struggles become more tangible than real ones. Because Carné cuts the present with structurally integrated flashbacks, close-ups gain prestige by meshing a confluence of space-time variations, through which they self-position in a meticulously poetic sequence. By making “perceptible the inner sensory state of the actor”, Carné purifies the working-class demise by relating its struggle to the singularity of Francois’ gaze (Christophe Wall-Romana 58). Referencing Epstein’s earliest definition of photogénie—a recreated reality enhancing the actual thing—Carné’s close-ups fulfill exactly so, the object of photogenic transposition being reality itself.
Indeed, close-ups enable good editing to generate photogénie using the mobility of space and time, which merge “through acceleration and slow-motion” across “the consumption of space by light” (Ludovic 323). In Le Jour Se Lève, the past and present mutate space as events from the past accumulate connotation leading into the present. Both Francois’ gaze and the room from which he gazes possess contextual importance in explaining how he got to where he is. Burdened by past trauma, Francois’ final moments of contemplation as displayed in the close-ups sequence above would seem to be empty of emotions had it not been placed in the context of a trying relationship. A difficult love life coupled with the working class demise has benumbed him to emotions. With nothing left to hope, Francois abruptly commits suicide--right before the police throws a gas device into his room, suggesting that society was ready to suffocate him had he not already suffocated himself.
In his article Criterion Close-Up: Dreyer’s ‘Passion of Joan of Arc’ vs Hooper’s ‘Les Misérables’, Landon Palmer juxtaposes past and present attempts to use dramatic close-ups as conductor of a film’s emotional arc. The two films similarly portray physical and psychological struggles of oppressed women through dramatic close-ups. Both generate discomfort in the performer and the spectator by forcing them into “a deep emotive place and making that place transparently evident to the audience in a way that conventional framing and editing techniques shy away from” (Palmer). The claustrophobic camera angle zooms us into the character and out of distraction. Epstein details this process as one where “the close-up limits and directs the attention”. Exemplified through a magnified telephone, Epstein perceives it as “a monster, a tower, and a character” whose impact is infinitely enlarged by disproportionate proximity (Epstein 239). In stylistically recreating real sentiments of pain, dramatic close-ups identify us with characters not by explicitly tracing back to reality but resembling it enough for us to believe that whatever stands before us is real. Documentary and fiction differ most not in the sheer fact that one is true and the other not, but that the fabricated qualifies reality without becoming one.
Both Passion of Joan of Arc and Les Misésables use dramatic close-ups to convey tension, bringing out the dirt and ugliness of reality that reality fails to admit. That Carl Theodor Dreyer refrains from having his cast wear make-up creates a staggering result where creases in judges’ faces and Joan’s flesh grow immune to forgery, as if Maria Falconetti is suffering at our gaze, as she experiences her trial in real time. Dreyer goes as far as to invest in an expensive set seldom visible in the close-ups dominated film, for the sole purpose of immersing his actors in a 15th century space where Joan is supposedly burned. Doing so allows the actress to not only perform but become her role, as the process of manifesting is more important than manifestation itself. As Epstein puts it, “even more beautiful than a laugh is the face preparing for it…the mouth which is about to speak but holds back” because photogénie does not collide with the present but runs after future spontaneity (Epstein 236). In his discourse Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer justifies close-ups: “All these pictures express the character of the person they show and the spirit of that time”, hence the process of manifesting, and “in order to give the truth, I dispensed with beautification”, hence his decision to skip make-up.
Insofar as Dreyer drills over the nervous nature of Joan’s trial, Hooper frames his close-ups with wide-angle lenses whose visual effects keep character and context in play. Consequently, the power of close-ups is diminished by contextual distractions that make it difficult for viewers unfamiliar with Victor Hugo to fully appreciate the film. Despite Hathaway’s Oscar-winning performance in I Dreamed a Dream, for which she purposely dropped 25 pounds to echo Fantine’s desperate circumstances, Hoover’s decision to show the setting makes his shots less claustrophobic and more difficult for us to concentrate on. In Dreyer’s terms, it is better to “interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life”, as successfully yielded by his close-ups, in lieu of cataloguing “the year of the event” which seems as “inessential to [him] as its distance from the present” (Dreyer). On this note, however, yet another difference parting the two films would be sound. While Les Miserables has a grandiose playlist, The Passion of Joan of Arc is free of sound and music. Dreyer believes that the addition of sound would prevent Falconetti’s face from speaking the experience. By focusing on her gaze, Dreyer encapsulates the essence of close-ups and their ability to transmit intense emotions in the absence of externalities.
Anne Hathaway’s performance in I Dreamt a Dream culminates Fantine’s suffering in an act of uttermost despair. Through close-ups, we witness the filth and oppression that leach through the misery of 19th century women. Dreyer on the other hand, builds an elaborate yet barely visible set in The Passion of Joan of Arc but to assist Renée Jeanne Falconetti in reproaching the real Joan as she crouches to her death. Close-ups are one of the greatest product of cinema in that while they constitute a high execution of film form, techniques dissolve as the subject overwhelms us with communicative potency. Consequently, we are so immersed in the film that we forget that it is merely an illusion. It is therefore sublime artificiality that showcases the best of reality, as “immobile discontinuities” in close-ups form the foundation of continuous mobility in emotions (Cortade 161). There is a genuine effort to fully represent reality, the essence of which is purified by close-ups, whose filmic mobility elevate reality to reach its unimaginable potential.
AMBIGUOUS CLOSE-UPS: EPITOMIZING SUSPENSE
If dramatic close-ups restore realism by extracting its essence and communicating sentiments, ambiguous close-ups produce photogénie by shedding light on suspense. While the purpose of dramatic close-ups is to align viewers with emotions that words cannot express, ambiguous close-ups enable another type of audience identification. Unlike dramatic close-ups, which tend to reveal extreme pain that characters suffer leading to some ultimate trials, ambiguous close-ups capture a stage in character development whereby conflicts await resolution while the audience awaits a sense of closure. Films of this genre are reflective of the transitionary time period where they emerge, since ambiguity prevails when new practices have not completely taken over while old practices are certainly fading away.
The fifties leading into the sixties, for instance, perfectly encapsulate such transitory momentum as may be seen in Breathless (1960). The story, that details the murky days in the lives of two erratic young lovers, might have implications beyond the frenetic fashion of their love affair. The flaky way by which they interact with each other conveys a vastly complex comprehension of youth that at once traces to the past and moves away from it in the absence of an adequate replacement. Such tension creates a void devoid of morality concerned with eroticism. M. Belmondo and his pensive girlfriend both shed an impudent, arrogant, sharp-witted and alarmingly amoral light. Uncertainty towards a world whose future they cannot predict has propelled them to abandon moral standards and societal duties for a journey whose destination is to be determined. Mr. Belmondo thinks nothing more of killing a policeman or dismissing the pregnant condition of his girlfriend than he does of pilfering the purse of an occasional sweetheart or robbing a guy in a gentlemen’s room. The inability to cope with a society of incomprehensible tendency has left him without a clear sense of his own morals.
Ambiguous close-ups embody this societal disillusionment. For example, the scene where Michel drives north to Paris filters out any notion of time as jump cuts prevent the soundtrack from giving us any sense of the distance that was travelled. Such pictorial cacophony works in conjunction with its musical counterpart to generate a stressfully rough evolution from traditional France to the exoticism and eccentricity attached to modern metropolitan life. Geographically, Paris as a city in sync with this evolution is growing into a hybrid of modern architecture and cultural relics. Consequently, people lose track of basic decency as they lose track of their own identity. Ambiguous close-ups at the end of the film demonstrate such loss as Patricia fleetingly confronts Michel’s death with indifference. We as an audience do not know whether she feels hateful towards the filthy name by which he calls her right before dying or senses a tinge of remorse for indirectly killing Michel. Her unfocused eyes paired with an unfocused speech magnify the extent to which nothing is resolved in the film’s denouement, as if Patricia has not developed at all from the shrewd and self-defensive animal that she was at the beginning.
In the final close-ups sequence, photogénie manifests not only in fits and starts across subtle changes in Seberg’s facial movements, but also as a progression from the minor shock that she initially feels, as Michel takes to the ground, to the utter indifference with which she walks away after thumb-lining her lips. The arrière-plan is blurred to emphasize her lack of reaction towards what would normally be considered a traumatizing experience, alluding to the chaotic nature of French society at the time. It seemed like anything was possible in the context of a war-torn country, Americanized to the point that ordinary French people no longer knew how to react. From the Schumann Plan to the increasing prevalence of American merchandise, French society was losing its individuality. With little remaining to safeguard, moral standards began to fade away as the invasion of American lifestyle took over French traditions. Casting Seberg as the expatriate American journalist studying abroad in Paris could at once constitute Goddard’s conscious choice to criticize American influence and his inability—on behalf of the French society—to cope with the interference of her entire species.
Another example of ambiguous close-ups is displayed in the final scenes of La Boum, a highly Americanized French film directed by Claude Pinoteau. The movie follows a pretty 13-year-old Vic through the first of what will undoubtedly be many romances. The film has an entirely English soundtrack, Vic’s best friend claims to see 10 American movies per week, and Vic keeps a Muppet poster on her bedroom wall. With this strong American undertone in mind, La Boum intersperses Vic’s romantic development with that of her parents’ failing relationship. As Vic grows closer to her first love interest Matthieu, her mother would find out that her father has been cheating on her. That being said, Vic does not react aggressively upon learning her father’s affair. Instead, she is primarily concerned of how her parents’ separation will affect the “boum,” or teenage party that she has been planning. Without explicitly stating implications of American influence, the film infers that it has at least partially contributed to the moral insensibility of the new generation. At one party for example, the host teenager yells at his parents upon catching them sneak into the kitchen, complaining that the presence of grown-ups will disrupt the “coolness” of his party. The need for “coolness” has overshadowed the need to maintain basic moral standards which in this case constitutes parental respect.
The sequence above depicts the moment when Vic abandons her original love interest Matthieu to dance the floor away with her new “love at first sight,” whom the film does not even bother to give a name. In addition to constantly zooming in and out, left and right or up and down, the camera alternates between extremely high and low exposures every split second. Such technique does not only represent the club setting where the dance takes place, but also symbolizes the societal noise that disrupts Vic from reconciling with herself. In this sense we can live through her vicariously. In a world that is changing faster than she can catch up, Vic could seldom reflect on what she really wants when so much is going on. In the end, viewers partake in her experience as the camera purposely prevents us from understanding Vic with close-ups that do not fixate enough for us to enter Vic’s internal activities. Instead of gazing into the no-name boy that she has just “fallen in love with,” Vic does not confront the camera by staring into the ceiling. Similarly, she refuses to confront viewers as her mind has already drifted somewhere else.
EMPRESSES IN THE PALACE (甄嬛传) (2011)
The theme by which close-ups are used to convey ambivalence in a series of contradictory emotions extend beyond French cinema. In the following close-ups extracted from a renowned Chinese TV dramas Empresses in the Palace (甄嬛传) , the protagonist Zhen Huan (甄嬛), who would later become the Empress Dowager to Emperor Qian Long（乾隆）, just succeeded in an intricate plan to assassinate Emperor Yong Zheng (雍正). She was then faced with the difficult task of announcing his death. While she should technically be happy for accomplishing her goal of killing the man who killed the man she loved, her “pokerface” broke into large streams of tears. Truth is, she loved the emperor until he completely disappointed her. It was then that she fell for his brother. Upon finding out her love affair, the emperor ordered Zhen Huan to kill his own brother, using their son as a threat for noncompliance. As a result, Zhen Huan sought to revenge but when she finally did, she was not happy. Nothing could be drawn from her diluted and watery eyes, as if her entire soul was hollowed from within in a self-imposed act of murder.
It was fully under expectation that Zhen Huan would grow from the innocent teenager that she entered the palace as to the heartless manipulator that she later became. Had she not toughened up on herself and everybody else, she would not have survived and risen to a high position amongst the emperor’s concubines. Because the emperor was the only man in the entire palace, each wife had no choice but to endlessly exploit the misery of other wives in gaining his attention. Concubines of low rankings were not even allowed to raise their own children, who must be handed as sons and daughters to concubines with higher rankings. In this context, the only way for each wife to survive was to fend off “enemies” in the form of other wives. Luckily for Zhen Huan, she won this long and tenuous fight. Yet at the end of the day, she was not happy. The lack of triumph in the close-ups demonstrates her conflicted emotions towards the king’s death. Despite revenge, she lost another person who significantly shaped the trajectory of her life. While defeating him brought her victory, it did not bring her joy because to feel joy, she must first feel morality, which due to the demoralizing palace ambiance, she could no longer feel.
The Outsiders takes place in 1960’s Oklahoma, where two gangs or social classes named “greasers” and “socs” are at odds with one another. Greasers are the poor gang living on the east side of town while the socs are the rich gang living on the west side. One of socs’ favorite pastimes is to casually go to the east and beat up greasers, who under most circumstances, would be forced to take the blame. Such a dynamic is disrupted when the protagonist Ponyboy goes out with Sherry, the girlfriend of the head soc Bob. In learning this love affair, Bob attempts to drown Ponyboy in a fountain, but instead the latter stabs him to death. To avoid liability, Ponyboy elopes with his greaser friend Johnny and hides in an old church away from town. Temporarily taken out of the context of a hostile environment where the greaser label prevents him from enjoying respect, Ponyboy uses the serenity of the church neighborhood as an opportunity to introspect. At home, that he is an orphan living with two older brothers in a despicable part of town has blinded his community and himself from seeing his passion and talent for literature. Despite so, Ponyboy is a good student. That he is misaligned with his own label, the identity as which he has been perceived, makes him even more disillusioned with himself.
The close-ups sequence above is when he finally comes to terms with the reality that he does not fit into the construct that he has been pressured into becoming. He is not a greaser at heart and does not rejoice in endless robbing and violent fighting. One night during his church refuge, he recites a few lines from the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost while watching the sunset with Johnny, who is amazed by his sudden outburst of wisdom. Ponyboy, on other hand, also realizes that Johnny is just like him in that they could both understand literature and appreciate the beauty of nature. Since conflicts have yet to be resolved at this point in the film, Ponyboy recites more out of confusion than affirmation that he has found his true self. In the final shot of this sequence, Ponyboy turns away from the camera as he finishes sighing the golden phrase. The ambiguity in his face demonstrates that while he has many visions in mind, he does not know what to expect and how to become a truer version of himself going forward. His loss of direction would dissolve near the end, when a dying Johnny leaves him with a note that reads “stay gold”. It is not until then that Ponyboy finally realizes that Johnny wants him to be honest with himself and pursue his dream as a writer.
Close-ups are a medium by which viewers may live a photogenic experience through characters. En route the journey of a film, dramatic close-ups enable character identification by restoring realism in a recreated reality, such as in Passion of Joan of Arc and Le Jour Se Leve. While the former uses highly contrasted lighting to dramatize the pain in Joan’s sufferings, the latter progressively lets in light as Francois nears shooting end his life. Les Miserables, on the other hand, wants close-ups to somehow co-host context and content. But in my opinion, the choice of wide-angled lens inevitably detracts from viewers’ ability to identify with Fantine, though Hathaway’s remarkable performance is convincing enough that I have still given in to the suspension of disbelief in which the essence of reality is illuminated.
Meanwhile, ambiguous close-ups produce another type of photogenic experience. Instead of aligning viewers with characters’ clear-cut emotions, they align us with confusion and disillusionment. This kind of close-ups is often used in films produced during eras of societal instability, like in Breathless and La Boum. Such time frames are defined as the period between the past and future, whereby the past is receding but the future has not taken over, making for a decapitated and vacuumed present. Consequently, people also can no longer pinpoint a functional value system, without which they become immoral and indifferent to the harm they impose on themselves and others. Empresses in the Palace demonstrates a historical scenario where a toxic palace environment forces every innocent girl into a master manipulator. Finally, The Outsiders use ambiguous close-ups to reconcile the displaced protagonist with himself, where the prospect of something unknown but better propels him on.
Dramatic or ambiguous, close-ups make us buy what we see and fuel identification by triggering emotions amongst viewers. In this light, films are a magical process where differences dissolve in shared emotions. No matter how distinct we are from characters on screen, we may still cross-identify with them through feelings, close-ups being the means by which to do so.
Epstein, Jean and Stuart Liebman. “Magnification and Other Writings.” The MIT Press, Vol. 3 (Spring, 1977) pp. 9-25.
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Cortade, Ludovic. Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations. Chapter: Le Cinéma du diable (1947) Amsterdam University Press, 2012. JSTOR Web. 19 Oct. 2017.
Wall-Romana, Christophe. “Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations.” Thoughts on Photogénie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics. Amsterdam University Press, 2012. JSTOR Web. 19 Oct. 2017.
Kirtland, Katie. “Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations.” The Cinema of the Kaleidoscope.. Amsterdam University Press, 2012. JSTOR Web. 19 Oct. 2017.
Bullot, Erik. “Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations.” Thoughts on Photogénie Plastique. Amsterdam University Press, 2012. JSTOR Web. 19 Oct. 2017.
Dreyer, Carl Theodor. “Realized Mysticism in the Passion of Joan of Arc.” Criterion. www.criterion.com/current/posts/69-realized-mysticism-in-the-passion-of-joan-of-arc. Accessed Oct 19 2017.
Palmer, Landon. “Criterion Close-Up: Dreyer’s ‘Passion of Joan of Arc’ vs Hooper’s ‘Les Miserables.’ https://filmschoolrejects.com/criterion-close-up-dreyers-passion-of-joan-of-arc-vs-hooper-s-les-miserables-7c148104a5b7/. Accessed Oct 19. 2017
Reisz, Karel. “The Beginnings of Film Narrative: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation”.
Bazon, Andrés. “Le Jour Se Lève: Poetic Realism”.