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Smile like you mean it

“With a camera you can go into the stomach of a kangaroo,” mused Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. “But to look at the human face, I think, is the most fascinating.” It is hard to contest Bergman’s claim that “the great gift of cinematography is the human face” – or at least that it is one such gift. The face has long been an important subject in painterly and photographic portraiture, and it surely plays an important role in many forms of theater. Through its capacity to capture movement, to frame the face with unprecedented intimacy, and to render drama through facial expression, however, the art of film subsumes and intensifies the ancient artistic preoccupation with the face.

Denis Lavant in Rabbit in Your Headlights (Jonathan Glazer, 1998).

It is not all about expression though. Often enough, the sheer look of a face is enough to capture our attention, from the varieties of beauty the world of filmmaking constantly parades before us, to the equally compelling focus on the memorably idiosyncratic faces that also grace our screens (consider the magnificently weird visage of Rossy de Palma – flanked here by María Barranco and Antonio Banderas – for example, or the rough-hewn landscape that is the face of Denis Lavant). The great Hungarian scenarist and film theorist, Béla Balázs, was the first to explore this feature of the new art of film in depth, extolling its capacity to illuminate the “microphysiognomy” of the face.

Rossy de Palma, María Barranco and Antonio Banderas in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988).

Cinema is a product of the late nineteenth century, and the facial close-up emerged as a central filmmaking device soon afterwards. The same period saw the formation of psychology as a scientific domain, and the impact of Darwinian ideas on both science and culture in general. Darwin’s third book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), forms a fascinating link between the apparently separate worlds of art and science. For in this classic work, Darwin not only made extensive use of cinema’s sister art, photography, to support and illustrate his investigation into the forms, functions, and evolutionary origins of emotional expression, he also laid the foundation for a theory of emotion which greatly illuminates our understanding of facial expression in the arts. This, at least, is one of the hypotheses of my Film, Art, and the Third Culture, in which I seek to synergize the creativity of filmmakers working with the face and the dramatic expression of emotion, the insights of scientific psychologists unearthing the laws of emotion, and the interpretive skills of the critic – along with the theoretical acumen of the philosopher in showing how these superficially disparate elements, in the words of Wilfrid Sellars, do in fact “hang together.”


Darwin; The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Consider the smile. On Darwin’s view, a smile is a way one individual conveys to another their positive state of mind to one or more other individuals. It is, precisely, an expressive behavior – revealing in behavior an individual’s current emotional state. So far, so familiar: like other expressions, a smile points inwards and outwards, conveying the happy state of mind of the smiling individual to the world outside. In this way, emotional expressions perform the critical function of socially co-ordinating individuals. But as Paul Ekman – perhaps the most eminent neo-Darwinian psychologist of the past fifty years – argues, smiles come in various shapes and sizes. Alongside uncomplicated smiles of joy, there are smiles of relief, pained smiles, rueful smiles, embarrassed smiles, and sadistic smiles, to name but a few variations. Though arguably all of these variations depend on the felt, happy smile as a basic template, we cannot rest with the adage: a smile is a smile is a smile.


Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo smiles sadistically in Fargo (Noah Hawley, 2014).

Arguably the major distinction to mark among smiles – in Dacher Keltner’s words, “the first big distinction in a taxonomy of different smiles” – is that between the smile of happiness and the social smile. Among specialists, the former is known as the “Duchenne smile,” after the nineteenth-century French physiologist Duchenne de Boulogne who discovered the distinction (and upon whose photographs Darwin drew for his Expression of the Emotions). In a Duchenne smile, the muscles around the eyes are active along with the those that pull the sides of the mouth into the familiar upwards curve (the crow’s feet wrinkle and the eyes narrow); a social smile is, roughly speaking, only half a smile, the orbicularis oculi around the eyes remaining unresponsive.

Clarissa (Salome Kammer) gives a reassuring “social smile” to her mother in Heimat 3 (Edgar Reitz, 2004).

The social smile is as important as the felt smile, in life and in film, and insofar as we cannot take a social smile at face value, it opens up a world of complexity. In this scene from The Affair, Alison briefly adopts the smile we see here.

Alison (Ruth Wilson) in The Affair (Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, 2014).

Isolated from the unfolding action and abstracted from the moving image, it is difficult to identify this as a social smile, but in context it is clear enough to any attentive viewer. In the midst of sexual foreplay, Noah notices some marks on the inside of Alison’s thighs. Alison’s mood abruptly changes (“Hand me my fucking dress!”), and we understand that what Noah has discovered are the scars of self-harm we have witnessed Alison inflicting upon herself in flashbacks. Then the smile: a smile meant to reassure Noah even as she withdraws from sexual activity with him. Ekman suggests that an adopted expression like this will often be compromised by the “leakage” of felt emotions onto the face, and will lack “smoothness in the way that it flows on and off the face.” Alison’s smile is certainly only fleetingly adopted.

Alison (Ruth Wilson) in The Affair (Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, 2014).

As social creatures, we are highly sensitive to the subtle variations in emotional expression exemplified by the smile. Filmmakers use their craft to streamline and sculpt the expressive repertoire of the human face in different ways for different aesthetic ends. And so the play of emotions on the human face becomes part of the fabric of film.

Featured image credit: group photo by Creative Vix. Public domain via Pexels.

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