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Close-Ups: The French New Wave and the Face

by Iain Morrisson -- page 4 of 4
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Nana's Face
As the opening credits of Vivre Sa Vie roll, we see four close- ups of Nana (Anna Karina); one from the back, one from the front and one from either side of her head. In the front-on shot she looks into the camera and nothing is said. There is no background within which we can situate her and so there are no clues offered as to whom or what she is.

Anna Karina as Nana in Vivre Sa Vie.

In this sequence, Godard gives us the image in its pure form. It is the final step in a sequence of images of the face that started with transparency (traditional), moved to images that capture us because we are jarred (Antoine) by their referent, on to images that arrest us because we are unsure of that to which they are referring (Michel). In this case we have absolutely no idea as to what it is the face refers. The image merely refers to itself; to its own beauty-- the shapely mouth, the soft skin.

The opening sequence from Vivre sa Vie.

How is this usage of the image different from a traditional usage wherein the Hollywood actress is represented merely as an object of beauty? The difference is subtle. In the traditional representation of the heroine, beauty is objectified in a way that allows us see through the surface to our own desire. We see in her the fulfillment of our own sexual and emotional desires. Her beauty is presented as an answer, something to be looked for. She is presented as a solution to the problems of the male characters. In this way, her beauty is merely a vehicle used to reveal her as an object that satisfies our needs. Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) provides us with a good example of this as the average male viewer can't understand the idea that she might not fulfill the needs of the Stewart character. She is a solution to all problems if he would just open his roving eyes.

Godard does not present Nana as a solution or fulfillment. Her beauty is opaque, it represents nothing beyond itself. There is no context in terms of which we can place this image and thereby give it meaning (i.e. make it represent something). If Godard had started with the image of a man looking at something and then cut to Nana we would see through her beauty and refer to it in terms of her significance for this man. This possibility is not afforded us by Godard. Rather, we must face the image in and of itself : we are asked to enjoy it merely as an aesthetic moment.

These three films all utilize the image of the face in new and innovative ways. They share in common the rejection of the use of the image as a transparent vehicle for the expression of something about the character. What is unique to Truffaut's usage is that the image serves new narrative purposes. In the case of Godard, the close-up is used as a means for investigating representation and cinema. Godard always leaves us guessing as to what it is that is being represented in the image of the face.

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Iain Morrisson is a graduate student at the University of Texas.



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