Eye-catching: the art of cinematic glances


Isn’t your heart beating a little faster when you make eye contact with someone you don’t really know? Looking into someone’s eyes can be a very personal experience, and even more so insightful. Eyes can tell a few things about the person you’re encountering, cues which you might otherwise miss. Whether someone is hiding under a mask, lying, or trying to have a certain effect on you, can sometimes be uniquely identified through their eye movement and expressivity.


Beside the emotional insight that they provide, eyes are also reflective of an aesthetic. A pair of eyes is a pretty thing to look at: their deep contrasts, special combination of lines, dots and colours and the dark pupil in the centre create a nice-looking image. Their chromaticity makes them both fascinating and gloomy, achieving the kind of mysticism one might feel when thinking about black holes, sirens or the sound of whales. Fascination arises from their abyss, beauty, abundance, and mystery, partly shown, partly concealed, and has been experienced in the dreamier minds and exploited in the artistic spheres. Each pair of eyes is unique and permeated by the particularities of their possessor. In Murakami’s book “South of the Border, West of the Sun”, Shimamoto’s portrait provides some insights into her internal structure: “Sometimes, I looked deep into her eyes, but all I could detect was a gentle silence. As before, the line of her eyelids brought to mind the horizon, far off in the distance. Shimamoto had her little world within her. A world that was for her alone, one I could not enter.”.


In cinema, many directors have charged glances with symbolic meanings, giving the audience access to the true emotional or psychological state of the characters through extreme close-up shots of their eyes. Even when actors’ eyes were not filmed per se, they made the most out of it and learned how to sometimes exaggerate their eye mimic to create the desired effects. Many artificial tears were used in the process.


Detaching myself from any normative judgements about the inadequate representation of women in these films, the “femmes fatales” of the early Hollywood years have used eye acting to create desire, mystery, and adoration with a huge success. Take the biggest sex-symbol of all times, Marylin Monroe, who crafted her eye game strategically, to obtain a certain seductive gaze that widely contributed to her allure. Her technique can be noticed in films such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like It Hot” and had been refined visibly over the years. Her habit of raising her brows, blinking more than necessary, and keeping her eyes wide open, followed by a sudden relaxation of her face and the transition to the “sleepy eyes” creates the appearance of a seductive, enchanting, or hypnotising look.


Using a different technique, Laurel Bacall managed to create a similar effect. According to Charlotte Chilton, during the screentests of “To Have and Have Not”, Bacall tried to hide her nervousness by pressing her chin against her chest and looking directly to the camera, tilting her eyes upwards, which came to be known as “The Look”: a bold, sharp, and invasive gaze.


So, while Monroe’s needy and lost eyes might trigger one’s protective instincts, Bacall’s glance destabilises and intimidates her audience, swept up by such an unapologetic boldness and force. Comprising sensuality among other characteristics, eyes have become an umbrella-symbol used to portray the complexity of womanhood, encompassing kindness, love, and compassion in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Agatha’s eyes), mystery, wisdom, spontaneity, and beauty in Alphaville (Natacha’s eyes) or anger, pain, power, passion, and a pleasure for revenge in Kill Bill (Black Mamba’s eyes).


Filmmakers also use eyes to reflect the mental distress of a certain character. “The Kubrick’s stare” is a term for a shot recurrent in the director’s work: “Kubrick indulges in his favourite closeup, a shot of man glowering up at the camera from beneath lowered brows”, tells Roger Ebert. This specific stare signals that the character has gone mad and that his psychological transformation has been completed. The gaze is usually accompanied by a chilling smile which illustrates the character’s psychological torment. Non-Kubrickian movies which use the eye close-up in relatively similar ways by displaying very powerful, violent emotions are Whiplash, Get Out, Fight Club, Game of Thrones (TV series), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Taxi Driver or The Black Swan.


Eyes can also be used as a double-lens: mirroring one’s experiences and their reaction to them. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Bowman’s eyes in the final scene are used to mirror the galactic tunnel he was entering, while bringing to a focus the terror in his eyes. There is a special interaction and synchronism that takes place, getting to see an experience and the character’s reactions to it at the same time.


Without having any expectation that the interpretations presented above are an exhaustive list of what eyes as an artistic tool can do for a film, they have proven that looks can become expressive cinematic sources of emotional insight and symbolism. If eyes on screen were limited to their biological function, they would not have much artistic potential. Permeated with emotion, they can achieve so much more. When Scarface said: “The eyes, chico, they never lie”, he was probably right. Watch one of these films and check your pulse. Your heart might beat a little faster.


Image: v2osk via Unsplash



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