Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Face of Garbo

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes says that Garbo in Queen Christina "represents this fragile moment when cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces."

That may be. But the film feels more like a defense of the star system as monarchy.

"The people follow blindly the generals who lead them to destruction. Will they not follow us, who lead them beyond themselves where there is grace and beauty, gaiety and freedom?"

"Europe is an armed camp, your majesty."

Well yes, in 1933 it was headed in that direction. But I hardly think monarchy was the solution.

"Must I smile for the masses, chancellor?"

No, Greta, you can just sit there and look gauzy and ethereal.


Yeah, we get it--she's an icon.

But uh oh! She falls in love with the Spanish ambassador. Forbidden fruit, y'know.

And because the Swedish people love her too much to allow her to pollute her pure Aryan blood by marrying a filthy spick, they storm the palace.

This is the part that I think is interesting. She stops them with the power of her gaze, in extreme close-up. This is the tightest shot in the film.

"No petition? No speech? You come then just for a glimpse at me?" Well actually, that's what monarchs are for. It's all a performance.

Her argument here is this: "I don't come down to the smithy to tell you how to be a blacksmith, so don't come here to the palace to tell me how to rule. My father was good at it, so therefore I'm good at it too." And they accept this. No matter that it's already been established that the peasants don't particularly LIKE being sent off to Germany to fight in a pointless war, all for the glory of the monarchy and the church. They are a mob, and so they have no political will. They are ultimately insubstantial and indistinguishable, just like their shadows:

Crisis averted! Whew, that was a close one. Good thing they don't know about democracy. Don't question your rightful leaders! And don't stop worshiping your movie stars! Only problem is it turns out she doesn't actually WANT to be queen.

"I'm tired of being a symbol, chancellor. I long to be a human being."

See, stars deserve their privacy too. She abdicates.

And rides off into the sunset.

But does that look like a "mortal face?" Not really--the director had to create a special filter to get the most flattering shot possible.

One interesting note: the famous scene when she walks around the room in which she's trysted (as they say) with the Spanish ambassador--the scene Bertolucci quotes in The Dreamers--was so strictly planned that she did it to a metronome. (This is according to IMDB.) So at precisely the point when the character has escaped most thoroughly and feels most free, the actress is most strictly controlled.


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