Review of The Face on Film by Noa Steimatsky
The central premise of Noa Steimatsky’s fascinating study is the multivalent, polysemous (chiefly) human face. This filmic face is moving in both senses of the word: cinema captures the face unfolding in time and this emotive image inspires a response in its viewer. Steimatsky plots a paradigm for thinking through the face, elusive and ethereal as it is, positioning her work in contemporary film-philosophical and cine-ethical research.
Beginning with a necessarily potted history of aesthetic images of the face from pre-cinema, 15th century iconic portraiture and daguerreotypes, through early narrative cinema, the book returns to these art-forms regularly, weaving their histories and affective potential into analysis of later film. It also hints towards a post-cinematic realm involving the dissemination of moving images of faces on multiple platforms. Within the strictly filmic realms, it ranges through classic Hollywood, silent Soviet, neo-realist, nouvelle vague, 60s avant garde and art-house films, and circles back via Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014), a recent film that arguably adopts, develops, and deconstructs a classic Hollywood genre-form.
When engaging with other media, the inter-historical examples are often still rooted in film, such as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962) and the photography of Richard Avedon, the muse for Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957). These various art-forms are utilised in explication of Steimatsky’s evolving thesis of the face as the focal point of transitions, liminal hesitations between an array of conflicting dialectics, such as life and death, subject and other, and presence and absence In Steimatsky’s theory, the face embraces oppositions and contradictions, speaking to a facial polyphonics (p. 33).
Steimatsky develops this amorphous notion, the face as a sign of paradoxical plenitude, in a prodigious range of close readings of faces in film. For example, in analysis of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), the eponymous passion is hinted at in Jeanne’sface, which becomes a medium of exchange between life and death. This ambiguity is also found, for the author, in the masks of the ‘models’ (the unknown, amateur actors) of Bresson’s films, as their faces simultaneously display openness and absence. These blank canvasses are investigated fully in the two films of which Steimatsky offers detailed readings, via Bazin, Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Au hasard Balthazar (1966). These analyses of faces become microscopic in the chapter devoted to Barthesian notions of star and glamour, centering on Josef von Sternberg’s close-ups of Marlene Dietrich, which speak at once to intimacy and objectification. In these readings – and also in films by Antonioni, Eisenstein, Godard, Hitchcock and more – the face is presented as an image that embraces dichotomies such as real and artificial, past and present, and solid and fluid matter.
Despite the range of works Steimatsky analyses and engages with, there is a distinct lack of reference to female filmmakers and thinkers in this study. This gives an overly male-centred perspective to the presentation of filmic faces, which positions the book outside of the lineage of feminist works (both philosophical and filmic) dedicated to deconstructing gendered hierarchies of object-subject, viewed viewer, and female-male. Considering Steimatsky’s central argument, that the face on film is an image that resists definition, and therefore possession, in the gaze of the spectator, this is a missed opportunity to explore questions about, and destabilise, gendered hierarchies. The same is also true about the seeming elision of Levinas for such a study. Steimatsky does cite his now prominent quote about the face not being contained in the plastic image: where the face of the Other ‘destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me’. However, the lack of analysis of Levinas’s complex and, sometimes, contradictory critique or suspicion of the ‘plastic image’ – the face of the other is a graven image in his works – suggests so much lost potential, where there are overlaps between Steimatsky’s intentions and his. Each works towards an enigmatic relation with the aesthetic image of the face, not least in the ethical question of ‘capturing’ the face of the Other. It is Levinas’s intention, as is Steimatsky’s, to allow the face its freedoms, identities and its perennial mutability. Levinas’s thought haunts the text, when, for example, Steimatsky suggests that “[…] as we live face-to-face with others, so we must lend them our regard” (p. 26). This echoes not only Levinas’s own theories but also interpretations of them by Levinasian scholars’ such as Cathryn Vasseleu. It is a notable absence, then, that there are no deeper, more explicit engagements with Levinas’s thought.
Despite these absences, Steimatsky’s notion of the face as Janusian nexus of multiple motions, moving each time it is scrutinised, metamorphosing at the same time as it remains (just) a face, is invigorating and timely. Steimatsky’s is a theory that is applicable beyond the examples she herself offers in the book, from Bette Gordon’s 1983 feature Variety, which places its female protagonist in a sleazy, blue movie theatre to reflect the male patrons’ shame back at them, to a more recent release such as Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), in which faces portray and betray much that is beyond their surfaces, resist easy classification, and challenge the definitions of the face gazing as subject and the face gazed upon as object.
 Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 2012, p. 51.
The Face on Film by Noa Steimatsky. Oxford University Press. 2017. 279 pp.