Roger Ebert Home

A Meditation on 2 Faces of Film

CANNES, France If Stephen Hawking had not already used it, A Brief History of Time would be the perfect title for a book about the movies. No other medium allows us to look more carefully into the human face, and to reflect on the way it records the passage of time.

It is rude, we are taught, to stare. But in the darkness of a movie theater we can stare without fear into the eyes of movie stars, because they do not even know we are there. Last week at the Cannes Film Festival, I was looking at Catherine Deneuve and Nastassja Kinski, and reflecting on the mystery of time.

Deneuve was the star of "My Favorite Season," the opening night film. She also appeared, as herself then and now, in Agnes Varda's "The Young Ladies are 25," a documentary about a movie she made 25 years ago. Kinski appears in a small role in "Faraway, So Close," the new film by Wim Wenders, which is a sequel to his "Wings of Desire," about angels who become human in Berlin.

The young Deneuve, seen in the old footage, approaches a kind of perfection. Her classic features, her mouth, so composed and grave, her wide-set eyes, make her seem complete and unapproachable. That was her image as the most famous French fashion icon of her time, and Luis Bunuel, that sly Spaniard, toyed with it in "Belle de Jour," which is still her best film. It was the story of a proper housewife, who was bourgeois and irreproachable in all things, except for a couple of afternoons a week when she worked as a prostitute - not for the money, but for the sensation. With another actress, the story might have seemed tacky. With Deneuve, whose face was a sort of flawless mask, it was fascinating: What was she really thinking?

Today, Deneuve is somewhere around 50 years old, and the years have been kind to her in two ways, preserving her beauty while at the same time endowing it with a more visible humanity. The mask has disappeared. She is a person now. In the Varda documentary, we see her in the 1960s, young, freshly bloomed, rehearsing a dance sequence.

And we see her today, revisiting those locations, musing about time. In "My Favorite Season," she is a matron with a grown daughter (her own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni). The hair is shorter and more sensible now. Sometimes she wears only a simple cotton pullover and slacks. She smiles easily.

There is a subtle difference: In her early films, she seemed constantly aware that she was under observation, that she was the object being regarded. In her later films, she is the observer. She is there, unhidden, and her greater experience of life has brought a humanity to a face that is no longer just a fact, but a mirror of a person. Look at her in last year's "Indochine," where she plays a character who ages some 30 years. In the earlier scenes she is not quite convincing, not because she looks too old - objectively, she looks young enough - but because she looks too wise. There is a certain complacency in the faces of the young that those who have lived longer do not find they can afford.

Kinski is older, too. I would guess she is around 30 now, which seems strange, because she became famous while still very young.

She became famous in a nude photograph by Avedon, a snake coiled around her body. Her lips were her trademark, full and sensuous, and there was no possibility that she'd improved them with collagen, because you could see the same lips on her father, Klaus Kinski, the icon of the great Werner Herzog films.

Now Klaus is dead, but with every year you can see more of his face in his daughter. The deep-set eyes. The hurt in the lips. Kinski has not "aged," but she has become a person, and not simply a phenomenon. It is significant that Wenders, in "Faraway, So Close," casts her as one of his angels. The movie is about angels who hover around the people of Berlin, observing their lives but prevented by their natures from participating in them.

A few years ago Kinski would have been cast as one of the humans. Now her face can reflect the sadness, the experience, the wisdom that allows her to be an angel.

Late on the night of this year's Academy Awards, I attended a party where Catherine Deneuve was present. I did not introduce myself or speak to her. What was there to say? That for a quarter of a century I have been meditating for five or six hours every year about the lessons of her face, and that, from what I can see, she has grown into an admirable person?

That's not the sort of thing we can say. It's the sort of thing we go to the movies for.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

MoviePass, MovieCrash


comments powered by Disqus