Bodies on Film
The Flesh is Sad
In a useful, short article in the Guardian, Xan Brooks looks at nudity in film that isn't based on the body beautiful but the body bountiful, with Gerard Depardieu in Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York stripping naked for the leading role of a Dominique Strauss-Kahn-like figure arrested in New York after manhandling a hotel worker. The scene is part of what Brooks sees as a move in modern cinema to show the body old, wrinkled, worn and fat. "Naked bodies sell movies. It's a truism that goes right back to film's disreputable beginnings as a peep-show at the circus. It's the unspoken contract at the heart of arthouse cinema, with its habit of employing perky gamines to sweeten challenging drama. But now the old model is breaking down, outstripped by the new flesh of sagging torsos and dangling genitalia - what some describe as "horror nudity" and others as a different kind of beauty."
The body in many films is of course a commodified product, and whether it is Brad Pitt showing his six-pack in Fight Club, or Denise Richards going topless in Wild Things, the nudity is both central to the film's narrative and extra-diegetically useful for the film's publicity. Arthouse isn't impervious to this commercial imperative: Isabelle Adjani getting naked in One Deadly Summer and Emmanuelle Beart nude through much of La belle noiseuse doesn't damage the box-office. How many publicity shots from the latter film show an unclothed Beart, just as Fight Club's stills concentrate on Pitt minus his shirt?
Richards, Pitt, Adjani and Beart are examples we could say of the body happy, taking into account Agnes Poires' comment in the Brooks article, where she quotes the poet Mallarme's remark that "the flesh is sad". What is sad flesh in film, apart from Depardieu's display in Welcome to New York?
One uses the term sad flesh not to create some pejorative judgement about certain types of flesh in the movies, but to look at the range of flesh available in film, and to wonder how much of this is an especially contemporary phenomenon. If we look back at the eighties, for example, we can think of Greenaway films like The Belly of an Architect and Drowning by Numbers, both films with fleshy males displaying their parts just as Depardieu does in Welcome to New York. The bodies of the men in all three films are sad the way the mouth turned down rather than turned up looks sad. The flesh sags, loses its firmness and begins to decay. It is the body in retreat, where a young body is seen to be advancing, moving towards its optimum rather than away from it. It is extremely rare for a top sportsman to be over fifty, and while we can see impressive physiques from men or women in their-mid-to-late years, they are often presented not as beautiful bodies, first and foremost, but resilient one; not quite so much fighting fit as fighting the ageing process. A recent leaked un-bodyshopped photo of Cindy Crawford where her less than taut stomach was on show was seen by many as an act of bravery - a kind of twenty first century "once more into the breach." Jamie Lee Curtis might have quoted Keats' "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" when hearing of the Crawford photo, but it is Shakespeare's passage from Henry V that comes to mind. The modern equivalent of bravery in the societal upper echelons is to have one's cellulite announced to the world and remain silent about the exposure.
The Crawford revelation was not of her own making, where the flesh revealed in Welcome to New York was both more and less of an act of revelation. More because Depardieu agreed to play the leading role and in scenes where he would appear naked; less because it is not Depardieu who takes his clothes off but the character he plays. We cannot say for sure how much of the figure on show is Depardieu, though there seems little doubt that the flesh is his and not some CGI creation. Numerous pictures of Depardieu in recent years show a man of wide girth, so it is hardly like the fat suit Eddie Murphy encases himself within when playing obese in The Nutty Professor. Yet Depardieu is still playing a character, and here we might be reminded of, and wish to expand upon, a well-known formulation by Jean-Louis Comolli where he talks in Screen magazine of 'a body too much' in historical drama. Comolli reckons the actor's body imposes itself on the character's body, so that the more famous an actor happens to be, the more the character becomes secondary to the actor playing the role. As Comolli says in Screen magazine: "The body of the imaginary character is the image of the real body." ('Historical Fiction: A Body too Much') This would include Mel Gibson playing William Wallace in Braveheart, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. Of course the latter two were seen to immerse themselves much more in the role, and were admired (and Oscar-awarded) for their acts of self-effacement. But they were still bodies too many, actors with a status beyond the role that was in danger of dwarfing the personage.
Does something like this happen with the actor who takes his clothes off? When we perhaps should be thinking of the character Devereaux and his strip search at the hands of the New York police, instead we are possibly thinking of the sad flesh hanging off Depardieu's body, and the bloated belly that obtrudes. This isn't a documentary, but it possesses a dimension of it. The actor hides behind the role, but the role turns out to be but the flimsiest of screens and the actor is laid very bare to us indeed.
An ongoing question in film is how much of the actor is present on the screen. Comolli might note that if a professional actor plays in an historical drama then there will be an inevitable eclipse of the latter with the former depending on how famous the actor happens to be, and how immersive his approach to the role. Kingsley would seem to have created much less of an eclipse than Gibson because of his relatively unknown status at the time as opposed to Gibson's celebrity, and because he properly immersed himself in the part. "In his quest for authenticity, Mr. Kingsley not only shaved his head and lost 20 pounds on Gandhi's vegetarian diet, but he also studied yoga, began to meditate and learned to spin cotton thread on a wooden wheel, as Gandhi had done while holding conversations." (The New York Times) A variation on this often concerns an actor's body and weight. When Christian Bale appeared in The Machinist, he lost 60 pounds for the role, but how many people were thinking of the character's leanness or the actor's weight loss - not quite one and the same thing? This is a variation of a body too many as we have the character simply emaciated, and the actor professionally underweight. Casting a non-professional in the role that divide would not have been as readily apparent.
What we want to explore here are four approaches to the sad flesh in film, flesh that is not the happy flesh of an industry predicated on physical glamour, but one that occasionally acknowledges the importance of physical decay, as well as one that concerns the scarred, malformed and damaged. The first of these four approaches is the documentative; the second the augmentative, the third the inter-diegetic, and the fourth the prosthetic. Often we find a combination at work, as we will show in Raging Bull for example.
When thinking of the documentative we needn't mean necessarily a documentary; simply a film that acknowledges the documentative dimension to the actor's performance: a human fact of the actor, and yet that feels under no obligation to explain or explore this aspect. In Philippe Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare, the actor Yann Collette has a deeply indented face that is not at all pointed up by the film: it is an aspect of this actor's visage and the film doesn't use it as a dimension of the story telling. In Ratcatcher, the father (played by Tommy Flanagan) has scars running down both cheeks to the corners of his mouth. In The Angel's Share, the actor Paul Brannigan has a conspicuous scar down one side of his face - again nothing is made of it, though neither, as in the other examples, is there any attempt to hide it. In each instance the films are saying that the flawed feature needn't have narrative consequence. All the time on the street we see people whose face or body offer a back story that we have no right to enquire over. We accept the person's radical weight loss, their loss of hair, their lost leg, their missing arm, without the need to ask them exactly what happened. We might earn that right (as a friend, a lover, a doctor, a therapist), but the past is their own, and we must generally accept our ignorance of it, even if we happen to be curious. It is this type of respect we feel happens to be practised by the directors of these three very different films: the first an intimate account of love, the second a bleak look at a young boy's guilt after his friend dies in a canal; the third a semi-comedy about a whisky heist. The films are thoroughly different works, but on this documentative acknowledgement of a flaw, they are consistent. By refusing to narrativise the deformity or the scar, they not only dignify the actor's existence (by refusing to turn a physical flaw into a piece of back story), they also indicate the actor is entitled to a thespian future: that if they can play a part without the character feeling obliged to explain why they have a scar or a deformity, then why not many other parts too?
In each of our examples the actor creates an interesting variation of Roland Barthes' punctum. Talking of photography, in Camera Lucida, Barthes sees that the priority is the studium aspect of the photograph, what he calls the average effect. Here the photograph reveals the necessary: that this is Marlon Brando coming out of the premiere of On the Waterfront; that American troops hold Vietcong children at gunpoint. This is what we are all supposed to glean from the image. But what about the punctum? This is the detail in the photograph that isn't pertinent to the comprehension of the image, but that might lead to someone reflecting on a specific detail that many others would find unimportant. It might be a plaster on a child's finger, a necklace around a woman's neck. How does this connect to our examples from Ratcatcher etc? Instead of insistently foregrounding the scar, for example, as a detail relevant to the story (the studium we could say), it becomes no more than an incidental detail. The disfigurement is of no greater consequence to the story's telling than the shoes on an actor's feet, or the watch on his wrist. We might notice these items, but unless the shoes are important to the plot (do they suggest the person whose face we don't see but whose shoes we notice might be those of the killer; or the watch a device delicately spiced with special qualities in a lab by M in a Bond movie?), we can regard them of minor importance. We might notice them and choose to make something of them, but this is a product of our own digressive yen more than vital to the tale. This is how Garrel, Ramsay and Loach demand we respond to the particular deformity or scar: we can dwell upon it if we wish, but there is nothing in the film's diegesis that is asking us to do so.
In contrast, the large scar evident on Olga Kurylenko's back in A Quantum of Solace isn't one we find in any other film in which she has appeared, but it will be talked about as back story revelation when we discover how she got it. This is clearly not a documentative use of the sad flesh, but an obvious example of narrative prosthetics: a scar created for narrative purpose, and thus also of course pure studium and not at all punctum. In the examples from Ratcatcher etc. the scar is ignored and taken as simply a pro-filmic fact belonging to the actor: it remains documentative rather than narrationally pertinent. Of course numerous films rely on the documentative but perhaps we can say it is especially conspicuous when they are doing so if the sort of detail that jumps out at us in so many narrative films utilising prosthetic scars deliberately gets ignored.
A good example of the augmentative, rather than the documentative, comes in a cross-cutting sequence showing Brian Dennehy's character in Belly of an Architect. As it moves from Dennehy lying dressed in a hospital robe while he receives an endoscopy, the film cuts to his much younger wife in bed with her lover before then offering the briefest of montages showing the sculpted bodies at Tevi fountain. Old flesh is contrasted with young flesh, and the eternal body in art puts into perspective the other two. If we see that Dennehy's body is collapsing, the body of the young lover is narcissistic, as if unaware of itself and needs the work of a great artist to give it the necessary context. It is as though the entire film's purpose is to give dignity to the body not through a certain generosity Greenaway asks of the spectator (as we find for example in the documentative German film Cloud Nine about an old woman who has an affair whilst still married), but through a contextual dignity generated by other arts works. This is why we propose the augmented body. It is like a variation of Plato's forms. We accept that the body as flesh and blood is an imperfect thing tyrannized by time. The body in art is a thing that transcends time. Plato might have regarded representation as problematic (that if the things in the world were a dilution of the essential forms, then art works would then be a representation of a representation), but art can return things to their essential form rather than simply offering a dilution of it.
The third approach is the inter-diegetic, where the body on screen isn't just a documentative account of flesh, but a body whose flesh we have known and perhaps admired in the past. Depardieu could of course come to mind as we recall the actor youthfully naked in Les Valseuses and 1900 when we watch him in Welcome to New York, with Xan Brooks focusing on the Depardieu display as it happens to be such an exaggerated example of the flesh in decline. Brooks quotes Sight and Sound editor Nick James, "for anyone who encountered Depardieu when he was young, svelte and gorgeous, his current incarnation has to be viewed as a physical tragedy. It was impossible then to imagine how he would turn out, that awful self-creation." Helen Mirren was always an actress famous for getting undressed on screen, in Age of Consent, Savage Messiah and Caligula, but her display of flesh in Calendar Girls is the ageing actress 'commenting' on, and distinguishing from, her youthful self. Speaking in a Film Four interview, Mirren says that the film wasn't about how good she looked at fifty eight; it was a display of flesh as ageing, not especially as well preserved. "I think it's about force of personality, about character. I want to see my sex portrayed truthfully on the screen."
However, as with Depardieu in Welcome to New York, Mirren can't pretend that this is just a character up there on film; it is a fifty eight year old Helen Mirren also. The display of flesh might not generate the reaction Depardieu's does, but the flesh is no longer at its optimum either. It makes sense that it isn't about how attractive her body still happens to be; it is more a question of how inevitable happens to be the ageing process - even for striking celebrity actresses. If an older actor whose work we do not know takes their clothes off in a film, we call it documentative rather than inter-diegetic because it does not offer, in the evidence of the display, a contrast with a younger self. When in Carlos Reygadas' Japon, Magdalena Flores is seen naked, this isn't an interdiegetic moment where the scene can be compared to another, but a moment that stands alone. The interdiegetic is a variation of Comolli's a body too many: Flores has no other filmic body with which we can compare; Mirren and Depardieu do so. In Mirren and Depardieu's case of course there is the documentative, too, but there is a difference between the singular flesh that is Flora's, and the comparative flesh that is Depardieu and Mirren's.
Yet like Peter Greenaway, Reygadas is interested in the augmentatively naked, creating a context that says it is about more than the bodies on screen. When in Battle in Heaven he shows us the obese leading character making love to his wife, the camera moves in on a painting of Christ wounded on the cross. Here the flesh is flaccid but the soul has potential to be strong as the film goes on to show the chauffeur trying to make amends for various misdemeanours earlier in the film: at the end of it he will make a pilgrimage to Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his knees. If the documentative dimension to Depardieu and Mirren's nudity lends itself to the interdiegetic, the documentative dimension in Battle in Heaven and Japon (where Flores's name is Ascen, short for Ascension, and where after the lovemaking session a calm descends that seems more spiritual rather than merely satiated) is combined with the augmentative.
All of the films acknowledge the fact that they are profilmically presenting the actors' bodies, but we needn't assume they are presenting them in the same manner. An intriguing example of the determinately documentary meeting the interdiegetic is Richard Linklater's Boyhood. There is no nudity on display, but we do see the sad flesh developing as both Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette age over a dozen years on screen. Filming for more than a decade, with the director coming back each year and picking up the story, the film works well as study in boyhood as a preteen reaches late teens, but this is the flesh happy: the film's parallel narrative is about the parents' moving in the other direction. As Eliana Dockterman says in Time: "Her body weight fluctuates as the real-life Arquette becomes pregnant, gives birth and changes in size over the course of the 12 years. These weight gains and losses parallel moments in the film as she goes through marital problems, financial problems and divorce"
The fourth and final category is the prosthetic. Of course frequently our four categories contain an aspect of another, as we've noticed with the documentative meeting the augmentative or the inter-diegetic. Raging Bull shows Robert De Niro gaining sixty pounds to play boxer Jake La Motta in his middle years, but it also relies on a prosthetic nose quite different from De Niro's own. The nose is a minor adjustment but can nevertheless have a strong transformative potential. When one's nose is as pertly shaped as Nicole Kidman's the donning of a large conk in The Hours can seem like an act of enormous thespian self-sacrifice. It transforms her face from one of pleasing beauty to suggestive vulnerability. It doesn't make her look hard and cruel, but troubled and needy. It changes our image of Kidman, but it doesn't quite bury our awareness of Kidman in the role. Steve Carrell's prosthetic nose in Foxcatcher does exactly that. It might take a while for a viewer to recognize the actor from The 40 Year Old Virgin and Stupid Crazy Love. Playing a man from one of the richest families in America, Carrell's character helps finance the American wrestling team, all the while showing signs of low self-esteem and envy, and especially jealousy towards Mark Ruffalo's captain. It isn't only the nose that does the work: a shuffling demeanour and a halting nasal voice contribute too. But it is as if Carrell's John Du Pont is chiefly focusing the sad flesh on the nose. In De Niro's display the emphasis is on the girth; the prosthetic a secondary feature.
Occasionally the prosthetic becomes so complete that the actor doesn't immerse himself in the role with the prosthetic a minor prop, but gets buried in the make-up. Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor is a light version of it. Murphy plays various roles in a fat suit as well as playing the character Buddy Love as his slender self. Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal offered a lightweight role with heavyweight emotion. "I had no sense of where I ended," Paltrow says. "Being in the suit, it's like you have to create body language; fat dictates your body language. So once I found the center of gravity in the suit and didn't knock things over, then I had the physicality of it." She "had a thousand emotions. I was laughing and crying, and I was shocked and loved it," she says. "It was very intense." ( LA Times) Housed in a prosthetic that made her look like she weighed 350 pounds, the role was like a visual equivalent of a thought experiment: imagine the thin Paltrow as enormously obese, just as Little Big Man imagined Dustin Hoffman as a very old man. This is still however prosthetics as hypothesis: we imagine what the actor looks like as very overweight or very old. As Shallow Hal's designer said of Paltrow in the role: "It's a weird Catch-22, because you need for people to see her enough to know that it's her, but you need to bury her in it successfully enough so that it moves realistically." (LA Times)
In films like The Elephant Man and Mask, however, the actor is entirely buried in the prosthetics: nobody would recognize, physically, John Hurt or Eric Stoltz in the part. As Hurt said at the time: "At one point I became very depressed and felt that nothing I was doing was coming through on screen." (LA Times). Here the performance doesn't have a subjunctive, prosthetic dimension: we have no sense that this is what the actors would look like if their bodies had been transformed. The process is too complete for us to see the actor in the part at all. Hence Hurt's additional remark: "It seemed to me my stand-in could do it just as well as I." The way Hurt describes it this would be an example not of a body too many but a body too few, with the actor feeling that there is little he can add to the performance. While the prosthetically subjunctive can imagine Paltrow enormous and Hoffman wizened, part of the purpose of each film rests in seeing Paltrow and Hoffman as we could imagine them, being both themselves and radically different as they play characters who happen to be so. The prosthetically immersive doesn't allow for this possibility. The Elephant Man is an infinitely more interesting film than Shallow Hal, but the idea of seeing an actor at their 'worst', not in the sense of a bad hair day or a bad camera angle, but as a certain hypothetical possibility, hints at an interesting direction for the sad flesh. Imagine if when Depardieu was running around nude in the mid-seventies a director was looking at his lifestyle, diet and so on and thought: what would the result of this be like in body shape forty years later, then perhaps the prosthetic self, based on a possible self, would look like Depardieu's physique in Welcome to New York.
Brooks's purpose in the Guardian article is to indicate that old flesh on screen is new as he gives examples of the dangling male genitalia in Nymphomaniac, Sleeping Beauties and Welcome to New York. Ours has been to indicate that ageing flesh has been around for a long time, and in various manifestations including the four explored here. Indeed Harvey Keitel in Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant, from 1992, is a slimmer and younger undress rehearsal for Depardieu in Ferrara's Welcome to New York. The common denominator is that both films explore somebody in less than perfect health and going to seed. But more importantly our aim has been to break the sadness of the flesh down into various, often interconnected categories. Most films unavoidably possess the documentative (it is partly what Hurt mourns in his performance in The Elephant Man: the semi-irrelevance of John Hurt the actor documented on screen), and thus most films about aging show the very actors' flesh on screen whether it happens to be Stellan Skarsgaard in Nymphomaniac (echoing back to his younger self naked in Breaking the Waves), or Helen Mirren in Calendar Girls (perhaps bringing to mind her nude performances in Savage Messiah and Caligula). This documentative dimension may come with an inter-diegetic one: as we can see in the examples of Skarsgaard and Mirren. But it could instead or also possess an augmentative one, with the filmmaker drawing connotations with art or religion, as in Belly of the Architect and Battle in Heaven. The documentative can also still be present alongside the prosthetic: De Niro's 'real' weight gain accompanying the fake nose in Raging Bull. It can even possess a subjunctive dimension where the actor has to look like the actor would look if they gained weight even if the film utilises little more than a body suit, as we find in Shallow Hal.
The flesh is thus sad in many manifestations: all we have tried to do is work with the idea that the body once it moves outside the expectation of the perfect form allows it to come in various shapes and sizes, and different ages. It isn't so much a new representational image in film, but it remains a surprisingly rare one. The manifold nature of bodies we see on the street is hardly matched by those we see on the screen. The degree to which film is a medium of fantasy over an art investigating the real is undeniably partly to blame. To paraphrase David Cronenberg, long live the old flesh: let us have a range of bodies available and give proper weight, so to to speak, to what has, after all, often been called the silver screen.
© Tony McKibbin