Nicole Kidman belongs to our moment in cinema when the human face can cause such consternation that, instead of “plung[ing] audiences into the deepest ecstasy,” as Roland Barthes said about Greta Garbo in “The Face of Garbo,” the face repels, turns us away, rejects our need to connect with character and story and, rather, moves us into a material reality suggesting that in this new age the human flesh has, unlike Garbo’s case, no “absolute state, which could not be neither reached nor renounced.”
“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.” Nicole Kidman’s face is just the opposite; it’s an overstatement of sexuality — or perhaps better said, it’s an overstatement of a production model of sexuality imposed on women, on all of us. It is, in fact, an extremely distracting amplification of denial — the denial of age, of nature, of evolution. As a denial — Nicole Kidman’s face as the denial of the inevitable — we see ourselves: the terminal, the rejected and the confused and the beleaguered; we see our false and ironic attempts to control the natural. Like in Garbo, Kidman leaves no doubt, then.
But maybe, in Garbo we begin to see, to notice this transition into the face of Kidman. Barthes tells us that “her face [Garbo’s] was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.” Ubiquitous plastic surgery over signifies deterioration; in the disfigurement, as in Kidman’s lips — and face — we see not youth, but rather the decline. If, again, as Barthes says that, “A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony,” the privileging of the Kidman lips suggests disharmony, a throwback to the mask. Suddenly the Greek mask is melded to contemporary cinema, resulting in a perversion of both.
To mark the transition from Garbo to Kidman, Barthes speaks about Audrey Hepburn,whose
face, he says, “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 constituted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions.” The form and function of the face has been changed, then; the Garbo face has morphed into the Hepburn, bringing us closer to what Barthes calls the Event. “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.”
With Hepburn, we move closer to our own age where we don’t have actors any more, we have stars, celebrities that exist in a cross-section of reality and neon — the Kardashians are the prime example: over sexualized women in a post Sex in the City venue that conflates a squeaking intelligence of everything pop with an expression of classical voluptuousness. These kittens bite.
Caught in all this is Nicole Kidman, struggling to survive in a celebrity culture that disowns the aging, but tragically, her face is such that, while beauty is there, the possibility, as it was watching Garbo, to lose oneself “in a human image as one would in a philtre,” as Barthe contends, is there — but it cannot be sustained because post-Hepburn, we have the loss of the Event, we have a face that is but an idea of the face, an interruption — a disrupting face, a face that disrupts, a face that pushes the viewer away from the flow of the narrative.
I tried watching a wonderful film, Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. The screenplay is an adaptation by David Lindsay-Abaire of his 2005 play of the same name. Kidman produced the project via her company, Blossom Films.
The film is moving, very well done, and, I dare say, it’s probably one of Kidman’s best roles. But, the unfortunate thing is that I couldn’t take my eyes off her lips and how her entire face has been changed (perhaps more plastic surgery here?). It was distracting. Thus, while the narrative, Kidman’s acting and context of the drama all drew me in, I could only come in part way since I was left confused by the meta-narrative surrounding her lips. The narrative drew me in, Kidman’s lips pushed me away, representing, not the “absolute state of the flesh,” a la Barthes and his study, Garbo, rather it shows the transition state of the flesh — and our ephemeral lives. This is the opposite of film’s location in our culture, which is made to ensure longevity, endurance, the possibilities in enduring dreams, of dreaming. Kidman takes the dreaming away.
While Garbo became more and more obscure — until we found Hepburn, the Event — Kidman, in her plastic lips, is gradually obscuring herself before our eyes until she becomes unrecognizable — as is Cher. Thus, Kidman — and the likes of Cher — have re-introduced us to the “temptation of the absolute mask,” implying a new theme, a new archetype of the human face. This new archetype is a rejection of a Platonic Ideal and a privileging of a new and quite foreign aesthetic that, while over producing the sexual, becomes desexualized.
If Garbo is an Idea and Hepburn an Event, Kidman is therefore the Feigned.