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Close-Ups: The French New Wave and the Face

by Iain Morrisson -- page 1 of 4
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The faces of Antoine (Les Quatre Cents Coups), Michel (A Bout de Souffle) and Nana (Vivre Sa Vie) halt the casual indifference of contemporary movie watching. They are the three faces that haunt three of the earliest and most successful New Wave films. I fell in love with all three at a time when I didn't believe it was still possible to love someone on the screen. It was only recently that I figured out why the close-up images of these faces made such a powerful impression on me.

It is not that all three characters express the same sentiment through this look, but rather that Truffaut and Godard capture their faces in a way that lifts them out of the cinematic, as traditionally construed in Hollywood, and brings them to our attention in a dramatically new fashion. These directors use images of the face that break the traditional relationship between the audience and the film-star, creating something novel and wholly enthralling.

What can we say of the traditional cinematic presentation of the protagonist? Perhaps, the single most important principle in the traditional presentation of a heroine is audience identification. One of the goals of the filmmaker is to get the audience involved with the characters so they can identify with the heroine. This identification can take the form of our seeing in her traits or problems that we all share, merely as a result of being human, and thus siding with her through various dilemmas and being relieved and satisfied when things work out well at the end.

One of the central devices in the process of identification is the use of the close-up. The heroine stares out of a window or into space at moments of crisis and we identify with the look of anguish or loss on her face (Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind [1939], Ilsa in Casablanca [1942]).

Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa in Casablanca.

In this case, to identify with the look of anguish in the close-up is to see through it into the pain or suffering that we recognize as causing it. The image is merely a vehicle for the expression of some definite emotion and it is this emotion that we can identify with. The emotion is oftentimes so clear that we don't need to go to the image to figure anything out. In other words, we don't see the image of the face as a clue to the character, rather, we can see right through the image to the emotion that is being expressed. Loosely speaking, in most French and American cinema this had been the function of the close-up; it was there to facilitate access into the character's mind.

The first thing to note about the New Wave directors is that they make no attempt to simplify their characters. Rather than giving us strong narrative lines that clue us into exactly what it is the heroine is going through, the New Wave picture gives us diverse presentations of its characters through a number of loosely connected scenarios and thus we can form rich, multifaceted understandings of what these characters are like. Les Quatre Cent Coups gives us a good example of this as Truffaut presents different scenes from Antoine's life, some showing him to be innocent and good, others portraying him as feckless and cold. This richness of character is a factor in altering the usage of the close-up; now it is no longer a transparent image, through which we perceive the over-simplified emotions of the heroine. Instead, the image is arresting; it calls upon us to ask the question of the main character: "what is she thinking?" Truffaut and Godard use different methods to achieve this effect and we will see a progression in these methods towards a presentation of the face as face and nothing besides.

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