Whatever bad things one can say about French Theory, its more illustrious practitioners were both scholarly and inventive. They did considerable research and drew insightful conclusions, even if in many cases rendered less useful than they might have been by the temptations of mystification and snobbery—one more reason why the ideas of Girard, always clearly expressed, were rated lower than they deserved to be by the admirers of Lacan, Deleuze, or Derrida. Even at their worst, these thinkers had major redeeming features, which is by no means the case for those who pursue their political agenda today.
Cultural matters go all the way down, and at their deepest point we can rely only on our own self-reflection, without which sociological generalization is mere data collection. If Durkheim was able to theorize about suicide from a statistical study of national suicide rates, this is because he rightly assumed that we (that is, those of Western culture) cannot help sharing an intuition about what suicide consists of: what would it mean for me to want to kill myself? In this perspective, for example, the Japanese notion of honor-suicide falls outside Western self-consciousness, and one would expect that the statistical conclusions about European countries might not hold for Japan.
All the more so for the subtle feelings that lie at the base of statistics on, for example, box office receipts and book/CD/DVD sales. I’ll leave it to the big data people to draw conclusions about the population as a whole, whose significance can only reflect the analysts’ delicacy of judgment (what Pascal called l’esprit de finesse) as to precisely what parameters they are measuring. Like everyone else, I have a unique insight into the feelings that prompt my own esthetic judgments, an insight that by being made as explicit as possible should make it maximally accessible to my readers as well, insofar as humans are able to communicate such matters—which variety of communication their systems of representation were after all designed to facilitate.
In this spirit, I find significance in the fact that what I find most “cathartic” in the Aristotelian sense in most movies is the attractive presence of the heroine. Although it is no longer fashionable to write about such things, the salaries of beautiful actresses clearly reflect something other than compensation for a skill independent of their physical appearance. The simple denial that firstness can play a role in our judgments, particularly in such “unmerited” forms as physical beauty, is just that, denial. This is most egregious in the case of female beauty, which is cultivated as a value by most women to the extent that they can improve their appearance. It is childish and ultimately immoral to make light of being beautiful, or intelligent, or musically gifted, as simply an undeserved privilege of its beneficiary. Humans, even more than other species, could not have survived without the accumulation of such “unearned privileges.”
I think the beauty that film actresses share with the public is a wonderful gift we should all deeply appreciate. We are not slaves of our biology, but neither are we, as our “progressive” activists would have it, simply liberated from it. Women’s beauty is an effect of a cultural selection that members of both sexes can only be thankful for.
Back in 1995, I taught a course on “Ideas of Love,” as a result of which I wrote Chronicle 13 about Abélard and Héloïse, which led me to revise my perspective on the phenomenon of courtly love. I think we should understand this major cultural development of the Middle Ages as a complement, and in retrospect, an anticipatory reaction to the intellectual companionship embodied by this iconic couple. Insofar as in an increasingly literate society, women could more commonly attain social parity with men, the courtly love tradition tended rather to emphasize the différence of which the French are legendarily fond. The revelatory appearance, in both senses—as act and as state—of the beloved is the key moment of courtly love, in contrast to the essentially interactive Abélard-Héloïse relationship. In its purest form, such appearance cannot be staged, but only imagined, as in the poetry of the dolce stil nuovo; one can hardly imagine a filmed version of Dante’s Vita Nuova. Whereas the travails of the couple can indeed be filmed, notably in the appealing 1988 Stealing Heaven, where Derek de Lint and Kim Thomson have a most convincing chemistry. In effect, the visual scenicity of film combines these two modes of interaction in ways that not coincidentally reflect their intersection in the modern world. Arletty as the “woman on a pedestal” in an ironic scene of Les enfants du paradis is rather a sign of what the woman’s role in the modern world is on the way to being no longer.
To make a helpful comparison, in the last century’s twenties, women displayed their emancipation by “bobbing” their hair and wearing short skirts, and I think most significantly, by adopting a flat-chested garçonne look, and affecting—and practicing—lesbianism far more openly than in the past. Whereas it is notable that in today’s feminism, although its “anti-patriarchal” activism often involves verbal denial of the importance of female attractiveness, the sexual ambiguity of the garçonne is in no way dominant, either in real life or in film. Instead, without announcing it as a program, the movie industry has developed a number of particularly beautiful actresses, more I think than at any previous time.
As someone born in the “golden age” of Hollywood, I find with few exceptions that the actresses of our own era are not merely more naturally beautiful but are costumed and made up to be more attractive than any previous group. Yet most significantly, their beauty is rarely displayed in the spectacular, “marked” mode that one finds in Gone With The Wind or more emphatically in the films of Marilyn Monroe and her sexually charged contemporaries. In other words, these actresses’ beauty is not foregrounded as spectacle, yet it is nonetheless indispensable to their credibility as heroines.
I will illustrate this proposition by reference to a few films starring three of my favorite contemporary actresses: Greta Scacchi, Parker Posey, and Elle Fanning.
- In Country Life, a 1994 Australian adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Greta Scacchi plays Deborah, the beautiful young wife of an aging London literary man (a professor in the original), who has returned to his ancestral estate down under. The importance of her beauty is strongly marked in the play, in contrast to Sally, the litterateur’s daughter (Sonia in the original), whose plainness is likewise explicitly noted in the dialogue, though more in the original than in the film versions. Scacchi’s éclat (in my opinion, no actress has ever been more beautiful) plays an important role in our experience of the film; the contrast is not merely between her and Sally, but between the external element of attraction she embodies for all the characters and the dullness of life on the homestead.
In contrast, in August, a 1996 adaptation of Uncle Vanya by Anthony Hopkins, American actress Kate Burton plays the equivalent role. Burton is certainly a comely woman, but unlike Scacchi, she can only act the role of a young beauty without truly embodying it—allowing, as Hopkins clearly intended, his hyperactive “Vanya” character to maintain itself at the film’s center of attention.
Scacchi’s beauty is a key factor in virtually all her early films, notably the 1987 White Mischief, where, in the climactic scene, her cuckolded husband, played by Joss Ackland, having shot down her lover (Charles Dance), points his gun at her—but, in the film’s most memorable shot, unable to violate her beauty, he turns the gun on himself. Not many actresses of any era could make such a role convincing.
- Parker Posey has a far less resplendent beauty than Scacchi, yet in most of her films, she dominates the screen in a way that no male actor could hope to equal. I think this feature, which she shares with a number of today’s actresses, is not simply an effect of feminism. Plot-driven films still tend to be dominated by men, even if this is increasingly less the case. But in films that put a protagonist at the center, less of a plot than of a “showcase,” with the exception of broad farces, women alone can do the job, and in this I think Posey may be of all the most successful. Her screen presence is less an effect of what she does than what she is, or rather, wills herself to be.
In her 1995 signature film, Party Girl, she goes from night club hostess to librarian without for a second leaving center stage, and in the finale, Posey, bohemian friends, and librarians all disco together in a seemingly unending bacchanal. In what may be Posey’s best role, that of “Jackie-O” in The House of Yes, where she plays an unbalanced woman who thinks she is a post-assassination Jackie Kennedy, she adapts her characteristic preppiness to an idealized version of Jackie, far more magnetic—and beautiful—than the original. This is an example of beauty enhanced by intensity of will, a phenomenon virtually impossible to men (other than drag queens) in our culture, if not in that of ancient Greece. Historically, it is a transcendence of the self-assertive feminism of the 70s, as embodied in My Brilliant Career (1979), where Judy Davis is made up to look less attractive than in real life. By the end of the 20th century, the ideal of female beauty could be reborn as not subservient to male desire but dominant—even to the point of madness, as the conclusion of The House of Yes, where “Jackie” shoots her brother in the role of “Kennedy,” demonstrates.
- Of all movie actresses, perhaps of all time, Elle Fanning is the most transcendental, the embodiment of the fairy princess—a fact that has elicited widespread admiration, but not an abundance of truly appropriate roles. In the 2014 Maleficent (I wonder if the spectator is expected to recognize this name as an adjective), she indeed plays a fairylike princess. She does this quite effectively, but a CGI animation might have done nearly as well. In contrast, in 2016’s The Neon Demon, what begins as a quasi-realistic film about modeling is awkwardly turned into a horror movie, as though the transcendent quality of Fanning’s beauty could only be understood as demonic—a useful contrast with Posey, whose Jackie-O was convincingly demonic because its demonism came from within rather than being rather ludicrously imposed by the plot.
Having become a young woman by 2017, Fanning acquitted herself quite well in the role of Mary Shelley. But the one film, unfortunately not well known, in which Fanning best displays her unique persona is the same year’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties (see Chronicle 608), where John Cameron Mitchell casts her as Zan, a figure literally from another world. I cannot imagine any other actress, of any era, who could so convincingly play this role. Fanning is beautiful in a way that makes one avoid the thought of any but the most ethereal notions of sexuality. Yet in this film, playing an alien life-form, she unselfconsciously speaks lines about her lover Enn’s penis that I cannot imagine any other actress pronouncing credibly. We see, or rather imagine, the two engaging together in what she calls “incomplete sexual activity,” and only in a de-realized animated sequence do they exchange bodily fluids. As a result of this exchange, Zan becomes pregnant and can consequently cast the deciding vote to prolong the existence of life on her planet, where the adults were accustomed to eat their offspring, and the senior leader had decreed that, as a final act, after having eaten all the planet’s remaining inhabitants, he/she would “eat myself.”
In the genuinely touching epilogue, which takes place years later, Enn, having become a successful author of graphic novels, holds a book signing. Among the attendees in a group of five young people, whom he recognizes, by an extra-terrestrial symbol they wear, as his and Zan’s children. Cameron’s exquisite taste in avoiding anything erotically suggestive while at the same time putting life-affirming sexuality at the center of his plot—this is in no way a theme of the Neil Gaiman story that lends its title to the film—gives conclusive evidence of the fundamental authenticity of the oeuvre begun in 2001 with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
I hope these few examples, to which many could be added, persuade you that female beauty, grounded in biological necessity, but enhanced and refined by culture, is a privileged embodiment of what makes human culture a transcendence of the natural. Today’s victimary fashion for denigrating all affirmative aspects of the human is a caricature of Christianity that completely misses its point, which is that even though God knows we are all sinners, his love for us is transcendent—just as, in a less anthropomorphic vein, language and culture are transcendent in relation to nature.
The persistence of female beauty in the face of all this remains for me the surest proof of the continued survival of this transcendence. It is what principally allows me, despite the near-invisibility of the way of thinking I have spent half my life developing, to retain my faith in humanity’s future for the new decade.