Discussing the esthetics of film can be a challenging task, especially when the term can refer to several issues. In a broader sense, it is a sort of philosophy of art, dealing with the judgment of taste and authentic artistic values. This series deals with the cinematic world; it will explore the concept of esthetics in two ways. The first one refers to the strong connection between art (in this case cinema) and sensation, while the second one looks at how esthetic categories are used as rules for certain cinematic discourses.
The esthetic categories explored in this series include beauty, the grotesque, kitsch, camp, and the sublime. The articles will cover the historical definitions of these categories and the filmic concepts related to them while also giving various cinematic examples.
Film Esthetics 101 is divided into five chapters:
Film Esthetics 101: Beauty and Truth
Film Esthetics 101: The Grotesque
Film Esthetics 101: The Cheap Pleasure of Kitsch
Film Esthetics 101: Camp and Performance
Film Esthetics 101: Obscure Echoes of the Sublime
Film Esthetics 101: Beauty and Truth
Beauty is probably the quintessential esthetic category. Some of the first attempts to assign meaning to it offered a sexual/erotic explanation: attractive/beautiful people are fit for reproduction. However, over time, social and political interpretations have been explored and beauty developed as a favorite subject for philosophers. Due to the visual specificity of the medium, beauty as an esthetic has also had a significant impact on cinema as an art form.
The idea that beauty was synonymous with erotic attraction started in Ancient Greece and further developed over the years. And of course, because the majority of philosophers were male, the concept became associated with the female body. These ideas can be found even later: “There is a certain standard of grace and beauty which consists in a certain relation between our nature, such as it is, weak or strong, and the thing which pleases us” (Pascal, 1941, p. 6). The French philosopher goes on to make a list of pleasing things, including the woman.
However, probably the most important theory on beauty came from the combination of esthetics and ethics. While Ancient Greek philosophers considered beauty to be closely related to love, they also valued the search for truth and virtue. “Eros can thus be described as the desire for unity, for completeness, for true being” (Harries, 2012, p. 6). Finally, Christianity had an important contribution to this treatment of beauty. The religion transformed Eros (passionate love) into Agape (universal love of God) and claimed beauty as a concept closely associated with kindness and righteousness. However, it also paved the way for the departure from physical beauty, which would bring about the esthetic exploration of inner beauty.
Beauty in Film
The cinematic image seems to combine the two theories presented in this article. On the one hand, it offers compelling stories that go far beyond the appearance of the characters, while, on the other, also glamourizing the actors' faces. However, cinema not only creates a fetish out of actors and actresses. It can also distort the truth. For example, producers may cast attractive people to portray horrendous characters. This dichotomy of outer beauty and inner ugliness is representative of the fact that old concepts about the esthetic are treated with more nuance in the visual medium of cinema. Moreover, cinema can also play with an aspect of the environment, create intense chromatic experiences and manipulate an image to express a plethora of sensations. Beauty (physical or otherwise) plays an extremely important role in film and has been used to tell compelling stories and create authentic characters.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) is a cinematic allegory that tells the story of a visitor, who suddenly appears in the lives of a typical Italian upper-class family. Slowly, he starts seducing the members of the family. Pasolini explores the historical connection between beauty and attraction. The visitor is played by a young Terence Stamp, whose bright blue eyes act as an essential part of the film’s visual style. At times, he almost looks like a Roman Emperor’s statue, consolidating the classical treatment of beauty. Additionally, the camera work follows the central character around and acts as the gaze of the family members, who are clearly attracted to the visitor.
The protagonist is not only attractive but also caring. He helps each family member with their specific hardships, without asking for anything in return. His kindness seems to be almost divine and it closely resembles the Christian concept of inner beauty. Pasolini’s visitor acts as a form of discourse in discussing themes such as the importance of spirituality. However, his treatment of beauty also explores the idea that powerful esthetic experiences can lead to truth.
With In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-wai transformed the beauty esthetic into a separate art form. The film tells the story of two neighbors who form a strong bond after realizing that their spouses are having an affair. They develop feelings for each other but agree to keep their relationship platonic. While the film’s premise seems quite simple, it is the interplay between the immaculate colors and intimate camerawork which creates a gripping sexual tension. Even the movements of the characters form a beautiful dance that tells its own story. “Their proximity itself becomes a torment, haunting them and us with increasingly sensual possibilities” (Thompson, 2021). In the Mood for Love is a profoundly erotic film about a platonic relationship, which uses the esthetics of beauty to create a collage of intense sensations. It is a testament to the connection between art and senses and to the mastery of Wong Kar-wai, who chose to reveal the beauty of human interaction.
Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) tells the story of Bess, a spiritual young woman whose husband is paralyzed after an accident. This event prompts Jan, her husband to urge her to have sex with other men. She feels guilty for his accident, but she slowly starts complying with her husband’s wishes, while believing that God will heal him. This film represents a total rejection of outer beauty and eroticism, mostly because the protagonist’s sexual encounters are cruel and difficult to watch. Moreover, the cineastes (filmmaker) processed the image to deaden its color and avoid superficial beauty. ”Much of these jarring visual choices were brought over from von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, which focused on eliminating the artifice of production value in films for the sake of emotionally honest storytelling” (Olsen, 2021). In Breaking the Waves, Trier wants his spectators to focus on Bess's inner beauty, which is represented by her capacity for sacrifice. In his constant pursuit for controversy, the Danish director transformed Eros, or passionate love, into an appalling act, for the sake of Agape, which translates as her devotion to Jan and her faith in God.
The treatment of beauty has been developing ever since the beginning of thought. Philosophers and artists have treated this compelling esthetic category in various ways, always trying to find the truth within it. Nowadays, cineastes explore the concept of beauty and its relation to art and sensation, while also using it to tell enthralling narratives about human interaction, spirituality, and authenticity.
Harries, K. (2012). Lecture on History of Aesthetics. Personal Collection of Karsten Harries, Yale University
Olsen, C. (2021, August 1). How 'Breaking the Waves' Evokes the Spiritual Through the Natural. Collider. shorturl.at/oBK36
Pascal, B. (1941). Pensees. Translated by Trotter, W. F., Modern Library
Thompson, A. (2021, March 29). “In the Mood for Love” is a masterclass in cinematic yearning. The Spool. https://thespool.net/features/fotm/in-the-mood-for-love-wong-kar-wai-retrospective/