The Actor’s Face at Rest

Cinema, Television April 21, 2017

It is never quite clear to me what the actor does.

What she does, when I discern something like doing, seems to hover between great style and great anonymity.

The style of some actors reveals itself in vocal and somatic stillness.

Others, through a clipped or frenzied movement.

In neither case do I receive the actor’s work as a full expression. Full as in the purported aptitude of form to enact (perfectly) a content. The notion that an actor might communicate with precision an inner sorrow, joy, or turmoil is to me absurd.

The silent and frenetic actors whom I enjoy never entirely convey their characters. There is too much that cannot be seen or heard. So the actor’s presence is a shape: a gravity, a sonority. Her personality resists novelization.

In this sense, style—or stylization—is a kind of anonymity. Actors of camp are virtually unrecognizable, as actors and as quotidian subjects.

I think that when style increases, anonymity increases also. But I also think that anonymity increases when style decreases. Anonymity always increases.

It would seem that this thinking, not unusual by any means, is counter to prevalent notions about character acting in Anglophone cinemas. The character actor is one who checks off a list of attributes through the performance of dialect, idiolect, accent, gesticulatory quirks, costume, and bodily transformation. The conventionally gorgeous actor who puts on weight, shaves her head, goes without makeup, wears unflattering prosthetics, or agrees to be clad in rags is to be congratulated for making these gestures toward the real. In this manner, the actor deposits her character onto the screen. We may then view it under a microscope and dissect it for sophomores.

This revelation of subjectivity is apparently a form of realism. But the constraints of character acting in fact constitute a lack of restraint. The significations are overly mathematical.

The seduction of character acting, if one is seduced by it, is an exigence to gaze, to inhabit the subject of one’s gaze. The commanding actor commands. There is no looking away of the sort that would deepen the sensorium or aid thinking.

The psychology of the character is written on and broadcast by her body. All interest comes to the surface, but the surface isn’t interesting.


In his Notes sur le cinématographe, Robert Bresson advocates for the use of models instead of actors.

ÊTRE (modèles) au lieu de PARAÎTRE (acteurs).


Mouvement du dehors vers le dedans. (Acteurs : mouvement du dedans vers le dehors.

[BEING (models) instead of APPEARING (actors).


Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)]

For Bresson, too much from the theatre has invaded cinema. Cinema must strip away its theatricality.

L’acteur se projette devant lui sous la forme du personnage qu’il veut paraître ; lui prête son corps, sa figure, sa voix ; le fait asseoir, lever, marcher ; le pénètre de sentiments et de passions qu’il n’a pas. Ce « moi » qui n’est pas son « moi » est incompatible avec le cinématographe.

[The actor projects himself before himself, in the form of the character he wishes to appear as; he lends him his body, his face, his voice; he makes him sit, stand up, walk; he fills him with emotions and passions that he himself does not possess. This “I” which is not his “I” is incompatible with cinematography.]

Bresson’s models frequently appear wooden and impenetrable. Like animals, one never knows precisely what they are thinking or feeling. But they act and they move, and one is moved by their actions and their movements.

Bruno Dumont, thought to be a present-day disciple of Bresson, also tends to pick models for speaking and non-speaking parts. He shares Bresson’s talent for finding the right face against the right landscape.

Emmanuel Schotté has just one acting credit: l’inspecteur de police Pharaon De Winter, charged with investigating the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl in a village in northern France.


Generally speaking, models aren’t right for genre movies. But the genre movie isn’t a masquerade of realism. It revels in its formalism.

For weeks now, I’ve been thinking of Daniel Kaluuya’s face.

I’d seen him in bit parts on the odd TV show, but I first became mesmerized by his work as the protagonist of Black Mirror S01E02. Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series that tells tales of “techno-paranoia.” In this episode, titled “Fifteen Million Merits,” Kaluuya plays a young man in a world that appears to enslave all of its youth. They ride stationary bikes for merits (virtual currency) and the only way out of this drudgery is to get onto a reality TV show (TV screens are everywhere in this nature-less world). Kaluuya’s character is silent for the first fifteen minutes or so of the hour-long episode. He seems blank and withdrawn from the world around him. Through a series of joyful and terrifying events, he’s brought to act upon and against the dystopia in which he lives.

The intensity of this expenditure—physical, psychological—is powerful partly on account of Kaluuya’s deep reserve of silence early on in the narrative, the very minor flickers of expression indicating to us his sentience and the unknowability of that sentience. The character is affected by his environment and the volubility of his affect is finely calibrated to the environment’s evolving features. Subjectivity is understood as a series of encounters in a series of territories.

This year Kaluuya appears in the much discussed horror film Get Out. It’s the kind of horror film that reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s “The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.” Director Jordan Peele tells the story of a black man visiting his white girlfriend’s parents in the suburbs. What begins as racial discomfort and so-called micro-aggression ends as the disclosure of full-blown racism and violent subjugation by the superficially progressive suburb.

Horror movies frequently invite the viewer to inhabit horrific or horrified subjectivities: one is the monster, one is the victim, or one is both. But I don’t imagine that this is quite what Get Out does. Perhaps it depends on one’s place in society, one’s own racial identity.

As a brown, un-American woman, it’s not my place to “experience” the black characters’ persecution in this film, though it’s certainly asked of me to cognize that position—viscerally so.

Watching the film on a Saturday morning, in a fairly empty mall theatre, I felt myself moving through various subjectivities rather than identifying with just one. This is unusual for mainstream cinema.

There are numerous explanations for this, but one of them has to be the actor’s face at rest: his purposeful remove, irony, and repressed humor at various blatant or covert instances of racial aggression. It allows the viewer to recognize his recognition of the situation, to recognize his decision to withhold a direct response, without necessarily (mis)recognizing an access to interiority. That is to say, the viewer recognizes a situation, even a situation she has never “known.”

If I think of irony not as a posture but as a technique that dramatizes distance, it is Kaluuya’s use of irony that fulfills his final, devastating inarticulacy in the face of certain horror.

Maybe it’s the case that what is made manifest by models is withheld by actors. Whatever that is, it makes movies watchable for me.


Clips, in order of appearance:

Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium, 1975)
Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in the TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited (UK, 1981)
Patrick Dewaere and Marie Trintrignant in Alain Courneau’s Série Noire (France, 1978)
Divine in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (USA, 1972)
Antoine Monnier in Robert Bresson’s Le diable, probablement (France, 1977)
Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (USA, 1976)
Anne Wiazemsky and Walter Green in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (France, 1966)
Emmanuel Schotté in Bruno Dumont’s L’humanité (France, 1999)
Daniel Kaluuya in the TV series Black Mirror (2011, Season 1 Episode 2)


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