Long takes and women
One thing the camera can’t do adequately is represent someone’s interior life – it can just hint that such a life exists. In some cases, this is even more powerful, because cinema evokes psychology through images of what we see every day. Much has been made lately about how novels help teach us to empathize, but I think cinema does the same, even without the arsenal of words and shifting perspectives that allow books to highlight interiority. However, through its ability to purely represent exteriors, cinema also demonstrates how humans react to the world through our bodies, not just our minds, and how interiority isn’t so separate from exteriority after all. Long takes are one of the best ways to bring these themes out.
We’re all used to the idea of the long take. There are some momentous and memorably choreographed ones, like the one in Altman’s the Player, for example. These impress viewers with the meticulous planning and execution that even make them possible, and they sure do look impressive. Then, there’s the kind of long take that is so static and extended it tends to make us squirm in our seats. Long static shots make audience members nervous, often on behalf of the characters in the frame. Why isn’t the camera moving? What’s going to happen? I find it especially interesting when the human face is the subject of shots like this. In his Screen Tests, Warhol seemingly tried to get to the bottom of this idea. Is there a certain point where the face breaks down and reveals a truer self? Often, these screen tests demonstrate the tremendous burden of the subjects to maintain a facade, whether it’s a pose, or some aura of character.
If you focus on a face for long enough on film, it can often become increasingly unclear what the person is thinking, if anything. The longer a camera lingers, the more closely the screen comes to resemble real life, and the subject becomes increasingly ambiguous. Much of film language that has developed over the years has been designed to make the face more legible. Certain editing styles are practically designed around the face – to make it talk, to make it see, to make its movements comprehensible. Editing typically imposes order, but a long shot embraces ambiguity and chaos – anything might happen.
Extremely long takes of the face are powerful, and when the subject is a woman, this technique takes on a deeper meaning. While shots of women tend to subjugate them to the male gaze, some directors use an extended shot of the female body or face to much different ends, especially if gender issues are on their radar. Some directors use these long takes to subvert this sexualization in an attempt to make us pay greater attention – not to the woman as an object – but as a complex subject. Often, women in these sequences appear trapped, unable to move or unsure of what to do next.
Jeanne Dielman: quiet devastation
There’s nothing sexy about the focus on Jeanne Dielman’s body, the titular character of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). This unforgettable film unfolds over a period of three days as Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) cooks meals, makes coffee, cleans and takes care of her teenage son. The long sequences of Dielman laboring over the kitchen stove are the most affecting in the film. It’s precisely their duration that makes them so moving. By the end, you’ve spent roughly 4 hours with Dielman. You may almost feel like you know her; I did. But parts of her always remain a mystery as well. Alongside Dielman, viewers experience precisely what she experiences: a meticulously ordered life, limited to the the small space of her apartment. Spending this much time in the vicinity of another human, we do feel like we understand Jeanne, even without a voiceover revealing her thoughts to us. Instead, we have the even more powerful experience of empathizing with her.
Dielman also takes payment for sex during the afternoon. This prostitution is just as run-of-the-mill and obsessively regimented as anything else that happens in her life. As a widow without a source of income, Dielman has found a way to make ends meet. Before each meeting with her John, she turns down the bed and carefully places a towel on top of it. When the act is done, she throws the towel in the hamper and adds the money to the ceramic pot on the dining room table.
For the first three days, it’s business as usual. But by the last day, her resolve begins to weaken, and the meticulous order that has governed her life and the movie for the past few hours begins to break down. She makes coffee twice, rather than once, and seems dissatisfied with the taste. She still performs her cooking and cleaning tasks, but less blithely. Finally, when she sees her client in the evening, she has an unexpected orgasm. This one moment changes everything, and introduces unexpected chaos into her day. She stabs the man with a pair of sewing scissors.
Why does she do this? The following sequence asks that we contemplate the answer to this question over a shot of long duration, the final one of the film. Dielman sits in the darkness at her kitchen table, marking the first time she has truly broken her routine. As we sit in the dark with Jeanne, we wonder what will become of her now. And we wonder what she’s thinking, but we also feel at a crossroads ourselves. What will happen to us now? The film is powerful, and once you’ve been in that dark room, you may feel as though part of you has never left it.
Claude Chabrol: filming the mind
Claude Chabrol is partial to making female-centered films, and he frequently uses long long takes, particularly on women. These shots also tend to come near the end of the film, right after some sort of dramatic event – which often happens to be the only significant activity in the whole film. Moreover, the ambiguity seems to increase the longer the shot goes on. Chabrol uses this technique to force the audience to reconcile the inner and outer worlds of a character. The trick is that we often find it impossible to do so.
Chabrol uses this approach many times throughout his career. However, my favorite iteration comes at the end of Le Boucher (1967). I can talk about this movie without fear of spoiling it because from the start of this film we know pretty much all there is to know. Helene, (Stephane Audran), a school teacher, and the town’s butcher, Propaul (Jean Yanne) develop an intimate, but chaste relationship. Meanwhile, brutal murders begin taking place in the town. The butcher is the one committing them. There’s no real twist here – just a haunting portrayal of desire and pain as two damaged people are thwarted in their attempt to make a connection.
Once again, gender plays a role. Helene intimates she has been hurt by men in the past, which makes her refrain from pursuing a fully romantic relationship with Propaul. In turn, Propaul’s murderous impulses seem linked to his sexual appetite. When Helene won’t sleep with him, he apparently consummates his desire with murder instead. These violent acts take place entirely off screen. On screen, Chabrol explores Helene and Propaul’s relationship, through their walks, picnics and activities with her school children.
Propaul’s final act of violence is directed toward himself. After leaving him at the hospital, Helene sits on a cliff looking out into the distance as the sun begins to set. Her expression is troubled. Clearly, Chabrol wants us to consider what’s going through her head, but there’s no real way to do this. There is a sense that she may feel responsible for all that has taken place. If she had loved the butcher in the way he wanted, would he still have been moved to violence? This is really the central question of the movie.
While the butcher appears to be the tragic figure, it is really Helene we feel for. In a way, her predicament seems very current. Her sensible decision to prevent herself further harm from men arguably causes Propaul’s murdering spree. By refusing to sleep with him, she becomes culpable not only for the murders, but the murderer’s death as well. She is responsible for violence she did nothing to provoke and it will be painted on her face forever. Her own happiness is no longer in her control, and she will be irrevocably changed by what has happened. The frame appears to ensnare her as she contemplates her fate, bathed in the headlights of the car that’s parked behind her.
Long static shots can be a powerful way to force the audience’s attention to subjects we may not look at the same way in real life. What is the appearance of a face deep in thought? A long shot of a woman’s face or body can be a way to demonstrate that a character is thinking without showing her thoughts. But it also accomplishes something else, that is, it brings the viewer’s thoughts to life and activates an at times frustrating feeling of confusion and wonder.