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Intimacy in Cinema

Critical Essays on English Language Films


Edited by David Roche & Isabelle Schmitt-Pitiot


Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2014

Paperback. viii+235p. ISBN 978-0786479245. $45.00


Reviewed by Sébastien Lefait

Université de Corse


Intimacy in Cinema is a collection of seventeen essays drawn from papers presented at the 2012 SERCIA conference on the topic of “Cinema of Intimacy and/or the intimacy of Cinema in English-speaking cinema”. As is perhaps clearer in the conference title, the volume tackles how film both represents close relationships between characters and uses its apparatus to create the very same kind of relationship between a cinematic universe and an audience. As the book’s excellent introduction clarifies, soon after a very useful literature review and a no less valuable selection of definitions leading to a presentation of the paradoxical aspects of the notion, a comprehensive study of the topic has been missing from the shelves for too long. Indeed, the relationship between intimacy and audio-visual media has received new topicality in the current context, where we seek the help of filmic devices to communicate with members of our “community” and turn them into our intimates. This observation also applies to people’s growing tendency to display intimate details about themselves, using selfies, webcams, or YouTube to do so. In this respect, as noted in the introduction, a study of intimacy in cinema runs the risk of being outperformed by studies that deal with the status of intimacy under the regime of more intimate media, such as television (and TV series in particular) or the Internet.

Bearing this in mind, managing to gather a comprehensive and consistent collection of essays on the topic is no mean feat. Still, I share in with the editors’ perceivable sense of disappointment that most contributors chose to tackle films that deal with intimacy diegetically as opposed to analyzing cinema as an intimate medium—and may I add, as the medium that has most widely affected our conception of intimacy. In this respect, the introduction by David Roche and Isabelle Schmitt-Pitiot is of the kind that should feature in all collective works. It presents all the issues related to the topic in a way that helps the reader locate the most interesting ideas from the papers that follow. More importantly, the introduction makes the most of its limited space to tilt the scales back towards explaining why cinema is an intimate are form. For this purpose, the editors bring in their own set of examples, the relevance of which makes the reader wish some of the contributors had selected them for their essays. This introduction is also valuable in that it neither feigns to ignore the limitations of the volume nor blindly falls for the latest trends in film theory—for instance when the editors rightly note that theories that favor “touch rather than sight (…) are not without their own share of limitations” [4].

As the introduction already includes an analytical presentation of the included essays aimed at bringing out how they contribute to advance our knowledge of intimacy in cinema [9-12], my own presentation here shall focus on each article from a different perspective than the one offered by the editors. Thomas Elsaesser’s opening essay entitled “Touch and Gesture: On the Borders of Intimacy” is most valuable, in my view, for the way it takes account of present-day media and screen societies to explain why intimacy has become so important in recent films. Elsaesser is one of the few contributors to note the crucial fact that the art of film suffers from competition by more intimate media [31]. In addition, he is the only one with Baillon to suggest that the pervasive presence of surveillance in contemporary societies at once alters the conditions for our intimacy in real life, but also, since surveillance is filmic in its nature, the conditions through which film may act as an intimate medium [25]. The second essay, “Exposing and Threatening Female Intimacy and Sexuality : How Traffic in Souls (George Loane Tucker, 1913) Depicts the White Slave Trade in New York”, by Clémentine Tholas-Disset, starts with a stimulating history of film as “an instrument of unveiling”. It then analyses the 1913 film Traffic in Souls as an instance of how intimacy is an instrument in the subjection of women by men, mostly from a diegetic point of view. It cleverly concludes that the film’s diegetic representation paradoxically draws its efficiency from cinema’s ability, as an intimate medium, to “attract large audiences” [43]. In the next chapter, “Fictions of Intimacy and the Intimacy of Fiction : ‘Going into People’s Houses’ and the Remediation of 1920s Film Reception”, Fabrice Lyczba focuses on “Hollywood’s intimacy project” [48], and persuasively resorts to the concept of remediation to show how cinema drew from the intimate nature of other media to make its own place in American homes. This perspective is so convincing that it leads the reader to regret that the author should offer no comparison with contemporary Hollywood strategies. In the next contribution, “The Impossible Sex Life of Couples in the Screwball Comedy”, Grégoire Halbout presents how a few Hays code screwball comedies were compelled to invent metaphorical ways of expressing intimacy between man and woman. The censorship-evasion strategies described here are admirably dissected, although some of them are quite well known. Perhaps this chapter would have gained from a more extensive analysis of how resorting to innuendo affects the intimate connection between a film and its audience—an aspect that is broached in the (short) final section.

Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard’s essay, “Intimacy Shared in Laughter and Tears : Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) and The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)” implements a comparative approach. By treating The Seven Year Itch as a parody of Brief Encounter, it points to evolutions in our idea of intimacy, from sacred notion to increasingly common fact. The next essay, by Christophe Gelly, is entitled “The Intimate Gaze : (Deviant) Uses of the Subjective Camera in Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, 1947) and La Femme défendue (Philippe Harel, 1997)”. It is one of the few in the collection to systematically connect diegetic intimacy with the transdiegetic aspects of the notion. Through another comparison, Gelly subtly introduces the technique of the subjective camera as a key element in the construction of filmic intimacy, based on the observation that a primary subjective shot makes the spectators intimate with the character through whose eyes they watch the film. He also evidences evolutions in the concept, linking them to our “cultural position as spectators” [92] and thus taking into account the share of technology in the practice, conception, and awareness of voyeurism. The following two articles tackle aesthetic forms that evince a lower degree of fictionality, which seemingly ranks them among the most intimate of film types. In “Shooting Stars and Poet Friends in my Bedroom : Domestic and Poetic Intimacy in Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, 1959)”, Céline Murillo considers Pulls My Daisy as a home movie, reading it through the lens of Tisseron’s version of the Lacanian concept of “extimacy”, a concept that comes with a number of drawbacks.

For one, seductive though it may sound, this derivative is used with various degrees of relevance in the book. Besides, several different definitions of the concept are scattered throughout the articles, so that the reader is sometimes confused at realizing that “extimacy” does not mean exactly the same as in in the previous chapter. An index entry for the term would certainly have helped the reader find bearings among those different perspectives on “extimacy” (incidentally, the index is otherwise extremely complete and usable). Another issue related to the authors’ frequent use of “extimacy” is that, besides the fact it conveys the feeling an article tackles a topic opposite to the one at hand, it is mainly a psychological notion. As such, it tends to encourage the confusion between characters and real people, and may have favored the study of films about intimacy, as opposed to Intimacy in Cinema, that I have mentioned above. This said, however, most contributors do a great job at avoiding this pitfall, which the concept of intimacy in itself naturally induces too. I must say that in my view, Tisseron’s adaptation of the concept is more useful in the context of film analysis, but only so when the film medium is used as a way for subjects to “expose part of their inner life”, as Murillo asserts [100].

As for the following essay by Zachary Baqué, “Public Confessions in American Revolution 2 (Howard Alk and Mike Gray, 1969)”, it deals with a documentary that, as Baqué explains, exploits the portability of modern cameras to create a sense of intimacy, which subsequently helps construct a community around a political ideal. The next essay is a perspective on hypermasculinity in science fiction through the lens of “scenes of intimacy” [131], by Marianne Kac-Vergne. It is entitled “The Limits of Hypermasculinity : Intimacy in American Science Fiction Films of the 1980s”, and underlines the lack of compatibility between enhanced masculinity and the very notion of intimacy. In the next contribution, “ ‘I’ve Got You under My Skin’ : No Exit from Insane Intimacy in Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)”, Christophe Chambost focuses on the “topography of intimacy” [135] and on the overlapping areas between the intimate and the obscene. The author establishes a thought-provoking connection between hyperbolic intimacy between the film’s characters and their state of delusion. In his essay “Filming Fantasy, Imitating the Intimate in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)”, Yann Roblou convincingly studies Eyes Wide Shut as a “metafilmic reflection on the act of seeing” [154]. He starts with the detailed analysis of a short scene to extend his reading of intimacy not only to the whole film, but also to cinema itself. The next contribution, by Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris, “J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011) : Staging Secrecy” is one of the few to clarify that the concept of intimacy works as a pair with publicity [160]. The essay also subtly applies the notion of making intimacy public to the biopic genre, the ambiguities of which are thus exposed.

“Intrusions of the Other : Intimacy in the Films of Atom Egoyan”, by Jean-François Baillon, elicits the share of reality-capturing devices in our perception of intimacy, through a demonstration that may be hard to follow for those who do not perfectly know the films of Atom Egoyan. In the next essay, Wendy Everett focuses on intimacy as an important theme in the works of Terence Davies. Her contribution, “Hidden Worlds and Unspoken Desires : Terence Davies and Autobiographical Discourse” is the only one to reflect on intimacy with respect to film adaptation, in ways that could have been complemented with reflections on adaptation as filmic intimacy with a literary author’s work. In “ ‘Extimacy’ and Embodiment in Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) and Shame (McQueen, 2011)”, Isabelle Le Corff links intimacy to the current prevalence of hyper-visibility, to show that the condition of being permanently watched may have turned intimacy into a figment. The next essay is a bit perplexing in its premise according to which actress Keira Knightley has extremely “kissable” lips. This proposition tends to suggest that many other movie actors/actresses of her age and beauty do not. Once past this puzzling starting point, Adriano D’Aloia’s “Keira’s Kiss : The Affordance of ‘Kissability’ in the Film Experience” offers a stimulating interpretation of how kissing scenes rank among the main scene types through which a film interacts with its spectators in physical ways. Finally, in “Melancholy, Empathy and Animated Bodies : Pixar vs. Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)”, Richard Neupert delves into different types of animation films. He explores the strategies such films implement to take up the challenge of making the audience intimate with characters that look obviously unreal.

To conclude, I would say that Intimacy in Cinema is of outstanding quality overall. It includes no misprints and very few mistakes (for instance, Tisseron’s L’intimité surexposée is referenced as L’intimité exposée, and one parenthetical reference is not matched with a bibliography entry). In my view, it deserves only one minor criticism, which applies not to this volume in particular, but to all collections of conference proceedings, and perhaps to all film academics, including myself. Reading the volume, one sometimes gets the feeling some contributors brought their pet themes, films, or directors with them, some of which may not have been perfectly suited to a reflection on intimacy in cinema. This is not, however, a major blemish here, for two reasons. The first one is that this is probably what it means to be a cinephile, so that each contributor’s choice of works to deal with speaks volumes, at least implicitly, about what it is to be intimate, as an academic, with a film, a director, or sometimes a whole movie genre. The second reason is that the same is true of most collections of essays. With this in mind, and knowing from experience how hard it is to counter this heterogeneity when publishing (and selecting) conference papers, I must say that the contributors and editors have done a lot to erase this difficulty. The result is the most consistent and relevant volume of this type I have read in many years.


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