FQ columnist Manuel Betancourt ponders the power of the cinematic close-up in an era when the screened face is a ubiquitous presence on phones in selfies, front-facing videos, and Zoom grids alike. Taking Roland Barthes and Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s reverence for the faces of the silver screen sirens of Classical Hollywood as his starting point, Betancourt discusses the focus on the face in two recent films: the Mexican film Dos estaciones (Juan Pablo González, 2022) and the Chilean film Vendrá la muerte y tendrá tus ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes, José Luis Torres Leiva, 2019). Although they have little in common thematically or aesthetically, both films share a focus on older queer female protagonists along with the visual grammar of the face, allowing Betancourt to appreciate the power of the close-up anew.
In his oft-cited essay “Garbo’s Face,” Roland Barthes put forth a provocative provocation. By his estimation, the face of Greta Garbo, that slippery silver-screen siren of the early twentieth century, represented a transitional moment. Her visage harked back to antiquity but located its viewer firmly in modernity. That is, she stood for a moment when that which her near-mythic facial expressions could emote and represent would be replaced by a more grounded (more “substantial,” he writes) kind of face. The Hollywood firmament, by the time Barthes was writing in 1957, had come down to earth. “Garbo’s face is an Idea,” he concludes, “[Audrey] Hepburn’s an Event.”1
The Roman Holiday star made for an all too apt foil for Garbo. In Barthes’s estimation, she felt much closer. Argentine writer (and, like Barthes, an avid movie fan) Manuel Puig agreed; his writing is littered with the conviction that those actresses from the 1930s and 1940s (including, yes, Garbo) were out of this world: “For me it is the fantasy that stars embody,” he once wrote. And with Garbo, “it was different [still]: I didn’t admire her; it was more like being in the presence of a god.”2 Hepburn, though, was no goddess up on high. For Barthes, there was an immediacy to her image, to her persona. There are endless reasons for what the French writer was diagnosing; the novelty and mystique of the talkies was wearing off, the industry’s star system was rapidly changing and adapting to a new era, television was pioneering a new kind of screened intimacy. This may further explain why Puig, who’d adored so many studio starlets, was despondent over the actresses who were gracing the silver screen decades later. He famously called Meryl Streep, Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh, and Glenn Close—the bona fide American stars of the eighties—“The Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse.”3
I’ve been thinking a lot about Barthes’s and Puig’s claims about why audiences were first drawn to the face of someone like Greta Garbo. I wonder what the two would make of contemporary cinematic faces. After all, like it or not, one now lives in a world where the screened face, the face in close-up, is a ubiquitous presence, not just blown up on a theater screen but seen ephemerally on everyone’s phones in selfies, front-facing videos, and Zoom grids alike. Today, the entire relationship with what the recorded face can represent (emulate, instill, even demand) is light-years away from the kind that Barthes and Puig had in the mid- and late twentieth century.
This is not to say the close-up has lost its luster, or that its raison d’être has all but vanished. There is still something quite captivating about being called upon to stare at an actress’s face, in anguish, in glee, in pain, even in terror. But it has little to do now with being called to think of those actresses as goddesses, as figures propped up on high to conjure different, distant worlds.
I offer these thoughts because, while watching Juan Pablo González’s Dos estaciones (2022), I kept thinking about what to expect of faces when they become all one is expected to look at, to stare at, to ponder. The Mexican production focuses on María García (Teresa Sánchez), the owner of an eponymous tequila factory. As financial woes and a few natural disasters threaten her standing as the sole local tequila producer amid Jalisco’s increasingly foreign-investment-driven liquor industry, María is forced to grapple with what it might mean to finally let go of her once thriving business.
The film won Sánchez a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award in Acting at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Calling her performance “a total standout,” juror Frances Hui wrote that Sánchez—already known for her work in Lila Avilés’s La camarista (The Chambermaid, 2018) and Mexico’s recent Oscar submission, Tatiana Huezo’s Noche de fuego (Prayers for the Stolen, 2021)—had crafted a “nuanced performance [that] embodies toughness, loneliness, a yearning for love, and an ignitable rage that brings the character fully alive and [makes the character] infinitely fascinating to follow.”4 Indeed, she commands attention in every frame, even as there’s a contained (repressed, even) sensibility running through her portrayal of a laconic woman who can’t seem to make her fears, her needs, her wants, and herself known to others, and least of all to herself.
In the kind of rare coincidence I’m more used to experiencing at film festivals (they so seldom happen elsewhere), I caught Dos estaciones not soon after catching up with the Chilean film Vendrá la muerte y tendrá tus ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes, José Luis Torres Leiva, 2019). These two projects, focused as they both are on older queer female protagonists, made for an inadvertently potent double feature. Torres Leiva’s and González’s films have very little in common thematically or aesthetically—except for a scene in both in which the protagonist becomes enraged when the road ahead is blocked by an unsuspecting vehicle (a tractor in the first, an SUV in the second). Moreover, both scenes are shot almost identically by a camera resting in the backseat, looking ahead through the windshield to the road ahead, keeping audiences boxed in as the scene unfolds. Catching those two films in such proximity made me keenly aware of the way that their respective visual grammars selectively privileged a sustained focus on their actresses’ faces.
Dos estaciones, perhaps owing to González’s start in nonfiction filmmaking, at times feels like a documentary. Its opening shots of a worker in the field harvesting agave plants and its later scenes of touring the tequila distillery feel like vérité sequences in what might well be an intimate look at how tequila gets made in rural Mexico. The exacting formalism of González’s approach means cinematographer Gerardo Guerra’s long, steady shots encourage viewers to concentrate their observation in the unlikeliest of places. In the film’s first shot, when María first comes on-screen, the camera is inside the vehicle (as it is in the sequence when she’ll lose her cool upon being boxed in by an SUV that bears the logo of one of her competitors). The driver’s window serves as an added frame around the audience’s focus: you first see her in full profile, far away from the car, as she moves across the frame and eventually makes her way toward the car/camera, coming ever closer. The audience is almost like a waiting copilot for González, who constructs an impersonal kind of intimacy that renders the moments when he rests his gaze on María’s wearied face all the more revelatory.
There is no better example than one memorable scene where María heads to her usual place to get her hair cut. An unfussy woman by nature, she keeps her hair short, for her style is workmanlike in all senses of the word. As she’s getting her hair cut, the camera lingers on her. Placed as if it were the mirror into which María avoids looking, the camera remains still for the entire span of this interaction with her stylist. For a full minute, you just watch María. In silence. She seems pained. Out of sorts. She’s uncomfortable, too, maybe with the vanity required to get her hair cut but likely also with the financial woes that become apparent later.
The vérité nature of this specific shot, which also echoes a talking-head type of framing, got me thinking about how faces are apprehended by cameras and audiences alike in contemporary cinema. Dos estaciones at this point in its narrative has not yet telegraphed the bulk of María’s issues; it will be another half hour, for instance, before her repressed and unexpressed same-sex desires come into play at all. That withholding of information makes this quiet, introspective moment all the more revealing—except that the reasons for such feelings reveal themselves only later, not in this moment. There may be anguish there, but you cannot unpack it in the moment. González doesn’t arm his audience with enough knowledge to truly understand it until much later in the film.
At a time when selfies and Zoom grids render the face overdetermined, I found this oblique kind of intimacy with Sánchez reinvigorating, as if she and González were rewiring the way I’ve come to read my own face and that of others when filtered through a lens. Perhaps this is what the face of a capable actress can do in 2022: teach you new ways of seeing—not by looking at the stars, as was the case with Garbo, but by looking across them. Dos estaciones offers up a reminder that the screen is a kind of mirror, even if it is one that many would rather look away from lest they be face-to-face with themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, adapting and expanding his own short film (El sueño de Ana, 2017), Torres Leiva crafts a melancholy tale of loss that begins as a dour adult drama only to unravel into an ever more dizzying blend of daydreams and parables. Ana and María (Amparo Noguera and Julieta Figueroa), a longtime couple, have received an unwelcome prognosis: María doesn’t have long to live. She’s refusing care and opting, instead, to live out her last few months alongside her partner, moving to a remote house in the country. As the threat of María’s impending death looms ever closer over the couple, she and Ana begin bonding in the unlikeliest of ways: by retelling well-worn stories to one another, wisps and whispers of tales that straddle the line between family history and fabricated fables.
In one such tale, as the two lie together in bed (with the camera above, framing their faces up close, blotting out everything around them), María reminisces about her uncle and a brief, steamy and dreamy tryst he had with a young man in the middle of a forest decades before. Torres Leiva actually dramatizes this memory-cum-story, taking the audience along to imagine that hazy day when a random encounter happened away from anyone’s prying eyes. Where González’s formalist frames made the audience focus on the emotional turmoil transpiring just under the surface of his protagonist, Torres Leiva’s sexually charged close-ups (of necks and back muscles, nipples and belly buttons) in this nestled narrative helped contextualize what one took away from these shots of grieving and aggrieved faces.
Dos estaciones is a study in restraint, whereas Death Will Come is awash in emotions. It’s not just that María and Ana shed plenty of tears, as they do, but that the film relishes its ability to wring all emotional outpouring (sadness, yes, but also fear and desire, as its nestled stories suggest) out of its characters, and audience. Again I was reminded of what the power of the cinematic close-up can be: the chance to see the face up close, and not in the self-conscious way it now appears on my camera roll or social-media feeds (where such closeness is consciously curated to demand its own legibility). This power is conveyed in the way that Torres Leiva, working with cinematographer Cristian Soto, lingers and fragments his actors’ faces, pushes them into uncomfortable closeness in bed (one in profile, one facing the camera), creating a lopsided balance, or blurs the foreground so much that a face far away is what comes into skewed focus, as in one scene in the forest. Torres Leiva and Soto (both of whom work alternately in fiction and nonfiction projects alike) are committed to the full emotive potential of the face. But they refuse to offer it up simply, as if the only way to reacquaint viewers with its power is to defamiliarize it completely, to create a touching kind of impersonal intimacy.
There are, no doubt, many films all over the world doing this kind of work, diligently pushing back against the tyranny of the selfie as an inescapable template of twenty-first-century visual culture. And it does not escape me that it was two queer stories that got me harking back, not just to Garbo and Hepburn, but to those two gay gods Barthes and Puig as well. The promise of the face—what it can hide and project, desire and renounce, elicit and rebuke—has, after all, been an integral part of queer visual culture. A look, a gaze, a smirk even, have needed to convey, covertly, so much for a rapt audience of one for so long that it’s not surprising to find such thrilling examples of what faces and close-ups can accomplish on film in stories that today can call up queer characters to illustrate their full expressivity.
Dos estaciones and Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes handily suggest that today’s cinematic faces can, in fact, offer something other than mere moments. At a time when I feel I’ve spent the better part of two years being bombarded with close-ups of faces all around me (including my own!), I found myself mesmerized by what these films accomplished. They made me watch the women depicted there anew. This probably speaks to my own moviegoing habits as of late, my own way of missing the big screen and appreciating long, sustained close-ups that blew up an actress’s face in a fashion that reminded me of the smallness of my television or my own laptop screen. But rather than nudge me outward to a glittering firmament where goddesses may well reside, they anchored me firmly on the ground—not just in those agave fields of Jalisco or that Chilean countryside, but in my own body. Perhaps this is how to rebuke the selfie as a mode of seeing: by looking once again at the face, but not as a conveyor of emotions (how trite) or as a repository of aspirational feelings (how démodé). Not even as an event or an idea. But as a landscape, a place where finally I could lose and then find myself anew.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies: The Complete Edition, in a New Translation, translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (New York: Macmillan, 2013), 75.
Quoted in Suzanne Jill Levine, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 33.
“2022 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL AWARDS ANNOUNCED,” Sundance press release, January 28, 2022, www.sundance.org/blogs/2022-sundance-film-festival-awards-announced/.