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Art of the Close-Up

Added on by David S. Hooker.

American actor and director John Cassavetes once said that “the greatest location in the world is the human face.” Such admiration and respect for the endless potential of the close-up shot can be seen throughout cinema, most notably in Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of the Joan of Arc” (1928) which utilizes such framing to express subtle and complex emotions without dialog, with the same being observed in recent films such as Sally Potter’s “Orlando" (1992) and Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix" (2015). In “Orlando,” we see the close-up used to frame the ever-growing personality of the titular character that doesn’t shy away from challenging social norms, reflecting the aversion to said norms via its Mise En Scene. In “Phoenix” similar use of composition helps communicate the struggle to rediscover who one is after everything has been destroyed. By harnessing the camera to paint internal landscapes, these films create a cinematic language that, like Dreyer’s emotion without dialog, communicates more than just what is being said.

When Orlando’s affluent family sits down to eat dinner with the Menshikovs, a royal family visiting from Russia, we are given a sense that Orlando is more interested with princess Sasha than Lady Euphrosyne, his fiance, well before such is vocalized. As the dinner scene begins we watch the camera pan into Orlando as he is formally introduced to Sasha. Quickly thereafter, it cuts to Sasha sitting across the table from Orlando, between two stately dudes (Lord of Moray & Lord Vere). Sasha says something in Russian, then French, to nothing besides shrugs. Finally she says “enchanted” in English and everyone finally understands. Once Sasha finishes introducing herself the camera cuts to Orlando; “Enchante,” he says, the camera zoomed so close his face takes up the entire frame. A conversation in French takes place between the two, Sasha and Orlando, as this close-up, shot-reverse-shot pattern becomes the mainstay framework for their conversation. Such framework is a masterful choice as it condenses the physical space between the two characters. As aforementioned, the two are sitting at opposite sides of a table, essentially separated. What the mise en scene does is bring them into a closer, more intimate setting without ever moving them in the physical space. We see their connection as well as hear it in the form of the French language, already vivacious with love. What’s more, during this exchange, we are given a quick close-up of Lady Euphrosyne’s face, who appears less-than-enthused if not slightly disgusted, either by her lack of understanding or by Orlando’s blatant gaze transferring. Whichever the case, Lady Euphrosyne’s face alone conveys much more than words can describe.

Juxtapose this conversation with one which occurs in tandem further down the table, between someone from Orlando’s ilk (communicated through his clothing/speaking language as no name is given) and a Russian Ambassador. The Englishman is rambling on and on to the translator, who stands between the two men, to tell the Ambassador about the frost the region’s had as The Russian Ambassador sits quietly, looking a tad confused and annoyed (Orlando). While both men sit on the same side of the table, and are in closer physical space than Sasha and Orlando, the camera doesn’t pan any closer than a medium shot from them. This, with the added touch of the translator standing between them, communicates the emotional distance between the two men as not only can’t they communicate because of a language barrier but because of a cultural one as well. Meaning that whereas Sasha and Orlando share mutual understanding of French and are both educated, the two men falter because they lack such common ground.

This cultural distance is further communicated in the following scene when the two families are dancing on the frozen pond. Orlando’s family performs a formal dance, with rigid, precise movements on a rug laid across the ice while Sasha’s ilk skates freely around them. The camera cuts to Lady Euphrosyne and Orlando, Euphrosyne expressing worry and frustration as Orlando’s attention drifts toward Sasha. One can interpret the formal dancing, and the rug itself, as the closed off world within Orlando sees himself as trapped. With such a world going against nature (i.e. dancing on a rug on the ice rather than just skating), it alludes to Orlando being against his own nature within that world’s rigid formality. Yet, despite being warned by Muray and Vere that he’s “throwing away a great career,” Orlando still maintains eye contact with Sasha. The camera closing closer to their faces with each cut until we’re almost in the same intimate space we occupied at the dinner table. However, just as the camera equals such framing, Orlando breaks away from the dance and joins Sasha on the ice. This moment perfectly symbolizes what Orlando does mentally, which is break away from the formal, “closed-off” social constrains of his world and sets his own path to search for who he really is, not what the world or society expects from him.

Similarly, within the frames of “Phoenix” we find a search for the self, yet, unlike Orlando, Nelly doesn’t search for what she can discover but for what she has lost in the Concentrations Camps of Nazi German. This idea is best delivered in a scene in which Lene, Nelly’s friend, takes her to see her old home. Nelly leaves the car and approaches a large pile of rubble where the building use to be. Nelly walks up the pile, the camera cuts to two shards of glass in which Nelly stares blankly into. Within each shards is a reflection; the shard on the left of the frame has Nelly’s head cut off and the shard on the right shows she newly reconstructed face. Such symbolism alludes to Nelly’s lost pass, how the left shard conveys a fragmented Nelly whose face, and person-hood, is destroyed along with the ash and rubble of her old home. Whereas the right shard represents the newer Nelly, no longer in pieces, split from the older version and raising from the dirt. This imagery is subtle and foretells Nelly’s journey to the audience visually. What’s more, Nelly only partially vocalizes what this images suggests as she goes into a state of shock upon seeing her reflection (the first time the audience is shown her doing so in the entire film), runs back to the car and states to Lene that she “no longer exists.” What she means here without realizing is that her previous self no longer exists and, from this point forward, she searches for what she’s lost only to build upon it. So not only does the glass shard image foreshadow but also marks the starting point for Nelly to become anew.

Such visual foreshadowing occurs throughout “Phoenix,” including a dream sequence in which Nelly, still wrapped in bandages, walks into darkly lit room with wood paneling. Only much later into the film do we find out that the room shown in the dream is an actual place where Nelly hid away from the Nazis but was discovered and arrested. This nuanced detail assists the audience in empathizing with Nelly by forcing us to focus on small details in a manner similar to how Nelly has to pick up on tiny hints and suggestions from others as she pieces together who she was. Such mental work is overwhelming and, much like the previous visual hints, doesn’t always come right away. Often, one must watch “Phoenix” multiple times in order to pick up on its symbolism and metaphor. Likewise, Nelly has to repeat these aspects and details in her mind, much like her “practicing” how to write her name, before sense can be made from them (if at all). We see Nelly doing such as she asks Johnny about “his wife,” saying to him that it would be “understandable” if he gave her up given the circumstances and so on. Such rationalizing on her part, in addition to the introspective facial expressions she gives as people discuss the past with her, suggests a deep inter-monologue. This mirrors Lene’s introspective glances and meditative habits, how she often can’t make eye-contact with Nelly when talking of past friends and places. Essentially Lene chains herself to the future as it’s too painful for her to look toward the past. The result is that where Nelly is collecting herself and tries to come to terms with the past in order to walk toward the future, Lene is too guilty to come to those terms and tries to escape (at first to Palestine, then, ultimately, by suicide).

Such subtlety echoes in “Phoenix” until the very final scene in which Nelly and Johnny perform “Speak Low” for their group of “friends,” having reunited to see Nelly who, think believe, has just left the concentration camp. Johnny begins to play as Nelly softly speaks the words. Her eyes closed at first slowly open as the song progresses, only to finally look directly toward Johnny and begin singing beautifully. Upon singing the words “Tomorrow is near,” Johnny stops playing and his face expresses shock and realization that the woman who stands before him is Nelly. At which point Nelly continues with, “Tomorrow is here.” This reveal, in sync with the lyrics, is masterfully executed and this particular moment marks Nelly’s ascension from the ashes of her past as she not only confronts them directly (literately in front of everyone who turned her in) but sees her rediscover her voice.

Much like “Phoenix,” “Orlando” also foreshadows itself in its use of repetition, one example being a piece of dialog which comes toward the beginning and middle of the film. When Princess Sasha asks Orlando why believe she belong to him, he replies, “Because I adore you.” Later, after Orlando becomes a woman, Archduke Harry proposes to Orlando marriage, saying that he “is England” and that Orlando is his. When Orlando asks on “what grounds,” the archduke replies, “Because I adore you.” (Ain’t the male-gaze grand?) In this situation, we see Orlando experience objectification on both sides, having objectified Sasha and then having been objectified by Archduke Pastel Pants. Much like the visual cues in “Phoenix,” this repeated dialog helps convey Orlando’s introspection, growth and eventual epiphany. This is further illustrated in actor Heathcote Williams playing both poet Nick Greene as well as the publisher that Orlando brings her novel to. Having the same actor play two literary characters which Orlando seeks approval from, we see Orlando's writing prowess improve alongside her life experience (being shot down at first as his journey just began, only to be told her novel was “brilliant” later on).

In all, Orlando and Nelly share a common desire to endure others expectations. Orlando falls in love and peruses another despite being engaged to someone he doesn’t love, assimilates seamlessly into foreign culture, refuses to kill during war and becomes a woman who calls out the misogyny of her former counterparts. Nelly, expected to died in Auschwitz, survives to find her husband and friends who turned her in to the Nazis, pieces herself and history back together, and sings “Keep Low” with Johnny (something she admits she always wished to do again) which reveals to him that she’s the real thing and not an impostor. Both characters strive against the grain and complacency of their respective worlds and comes out as fierce and elegant as a Phoenix or Falsetto singing Angel.

Works Cited
Orlando. Dir. Sally Potter. Perf. Tilda Swinton and Heathcote Williams. Sony Pictures Classics, 1992.
Phoenix. Dir. Christian Petzold. Perf. Nina Hoss. Indigo/Janus Films, 2015.