Chapter 3: Cinema as Mirror – Face and Close-Up

Persona – Béla Balázs – Close-Up and Face – Face as Mirror of the Unconscious – Christian Metz – Jean-Louis Baudry – Apparatus Theory – Early Cinema and the Close-Up (Tom Gunning) – Reflexive Doubling in Modern (Art) Cinema – Mirror Neurons – Paradoxes of the Mirror

We see glimpses of a small film projector, running, followed, in a rapidly edited sequence, by an image strip made up of old silent films, children’s hands, a lamb being slaughtered, nails driven into hands, a scorpion, trees in dirty snow, the corpses of two elderly people, a child in bed, the same child trying to touch the large, blurry image of a face of a woman with alternately open and closed eyes. By making the projector and the film strip visible, the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (SE 1965) draws our attention to the fact that we are about to see a film: a technology and an artefact which should not be mistaken for real life. Furthermore, the close-up of the woman’s face projected onto a translucent surface and tentatively touched by the boy, pictures an archetypal relation enacted by the cinema: that of serving as a mirror. The many ways of theorising this moment, when we are confronted with an image as if with our own reflected self, will be the focus of this chapter.

Persona, a film in which the mirror motif is intensely deployed, revolves around the emotionally fragile actress Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who, after having suffering a nervous breakdown on stage, finds herself placed in the care of nurse Alma (Bibi Anderson). The ensuing rapprochement and eventual closeness between the two women gives rise not only to intimacy, but also to tensions and conflict, depicted as a temporary blurring of their identities – to such a degree that even the spectator can at times no longer be sure to tell them apart. At one point, a composite face is generated by combining one half of each actress’ face, looking into a mirror – or is the face looking at us?1 When studying Bergman’s filmography, one realises that several film titles announce the centrality of mirrors and faces in his oeuvre: Ansiktet (SE 1958, The Face), Såsom i en spegel (SE 1961, Through a Glass Darkly), Ansikte mot ansikte (SE 1976, Face to Face), Karins ansikte (SE 1986, Karin’s Face).2 But what exactly are the implications of the spectator looking into the eyes of a face that is larger than life? Should it be interpreted in terms of phenomenology, psychoanalysis, or neuroscience? Approaches from all these disciplines have been brought to bear on the question.


1 Gilles Deleuze cites Ingmar Bergman’s joke that this confusion of identities was something the actresses themselves had to grapple with: “We left the film on the editing table, and then Liv said: ‘Did you see how ugly Bibi is!,’ whereupon Bibi said: ‘It’s not me that’s ugly, it’s you. . . .’” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam(Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1985, orig. French 1983), 103.

2 More on the importance and accumulation of faces and close-ups in the films of Ingmar Bergmann can be found in Deleuze, Cinema I, 99ff. and 105.

Kevin Lee: The Spielberg Face

Already a classic of the video essay, Lee’s study of Spielberg’s use of the expressive face is a well-balanced example of how the direct evidence of the audiovisual material can get married to the analytical and theoretical insights of film studies.

Ian Magor: PsychoFace (also relevant to Chapter 6)

Two central scenes in Psycho (US 1960, Alfred Hitchcock) are internal monologues, by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) respectively. The essay juxtaposes both images in split screen and removes the voice-over, effectively casting into doubt the relation between exterior expression and interior movement.

Catherine Grant: Mirror Visions in Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey, 1966)

Catherine Grant, of Film-Studies-For-Free-fame, dissects this quintessential 1960s film by collecting all the shots containing reflections – from mirrors to glass and water. The collision between the illusion of depth and the highlighting of the picture plane is further emphasised by the usage of graphical compositions underlining the op-art-quality of the film (see the accompanying essay on La furia umana:

Der Student von Prag (GE 1913, Hanns Heinz Ewers / Stellan Rye, The Student of Prague)

The comic mirror scene, as can be seen in The Floorwalker (US 1916, Charlie Chaplin), Seven Year’s Bad Luck (US 1921,Max Linder), Duck Soup (US 1933, Leo McCarey / Marx Brothers), and Total Recall (US 1990,Paul Verhoeven)

The Bell Boy (US 1918, Fatty Arbuckle / Buster Keaton)Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (GE 1920, Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari)

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (GE 1920, Paul Wegener / Carl Boese, The Golem: How He Came into the World)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (FR 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc)

Le sang d’un poète (FR 1930, Jean Cocteau, The Blood of a Poet)

Orphée (FR 1950, Jean Cocteau, Orpheus)

Vertigo (US 1958, Alfred Hitchcock)

Persona (SE 1960, Ingmar Bergman)

Vivre sa vie (FR 1962, Jean-Luc Godard, My Life to Live)8 ½ (IT/FR 1963, Federico Fellini)

Le Mépris (FR/IT 1963, Jean-Luc Godard, Contempt)

Blow-Up (GB 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)

Angst essen Seele auf (GE 1974, Rainer-Werner Fassbinder, Fear eats the Soul)

Zerkalo (SU 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror)

Ansikte mot Ansikte (SE 1976, Ingmar Bergman, Face to Face)

Suture (US 1993, Scott McGehee / David Siegel)

Face/Off (US 1997, John Woo)

American Psycho (US 1999, Mary Harron)

Mulholland Drive (US 2001, David Lynch)