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The Face of Garbo  

The Face of Garbo / Roland Barthes

Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face
still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost
oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face
represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither
reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was
causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly
Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.

It is indeed an admirable face-object. In Queen Christina, a film which has
again been shown in Paris in the last few years, the make-up has the snowy
thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster,
protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. Amid all
this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange
soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous
wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted
in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral,
comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark
vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance.

Now the temptation of the absolute mask (the mask of antiquity, for
instance) perhaps implies less the theme of the secret (as is the case with
Italian half mask) than that of an archtype of the human face. Garbo
offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which
explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving
one in doubt. It is true that this film (in which Queen Christina is by
turns a woman and a young cavalier) lends itself to this lack of
differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism;
she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her
wide-brimmed hats the same snowy solitary face. The name given to her, the
Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than
the essence of her corporeal person, descended form a heaven where all
things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. She herself knew
this: how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous
maturing of their beauty. Not she, however; the essence was not to be
degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its
perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal. The Essence
became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad
hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.

And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a
kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the
nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating
two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the
contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo's face represents this
fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an
essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal
faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism
of Woman.

Viewed as a transition the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages,
it assures the passage from awe to charm. As is well known, we are today at
the other pole of this evolution: the face of Audrey Hepburn, for instance,
is individualized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as
child, woman as kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique
specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it, but
is constiuted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions. As a
language, Garbo's singularity was of the order of the concept, that of
Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an
Idea, that of Hepburn an Event.

The Face of Garbo,  Roland Barthes (Düzyazı - Kısmi)
Kaynak: Net, Mythologies London: Vintage, 1993; pp. 56-7
Gönderen: Emre Sururi, 08/02/2001  

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