Three Small Gestures

A general understanding of the gesture – its ideal proportion, the conventions and parameters of its normal usage, its relation to or putative origin in expression and feeling – is pointedly reflected in Hamlet’s address to the Players, who are preparing, he fears, to overdo it:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you,
trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do
not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all
gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say)
whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a
temperance that may give it smoothness. (III.ii.1-8)

Say what I said, speak with your mouth as I spoke with mine. Don’t make vocal gestures or play with your face, just do the lines. Keep your hands to yourself. In order to convey passion, once again, just read the lines; there is no need for you to become passionate. If there is emphasis, the lines contain it and do not require additional infusion from you. Just read the lines.

The prince is addressing gesture by means of a warning, pointedly intimating that unrestrained, unshaped, unmodulated – unreasonable – movements of the body might work to blot the clarity of meaning, mar circumstance, distract attention from the essential, indeed become the meaning themselves. The actors, Hamlet has every good reason to suppose, know how to shape a gesture and how to withhold one, how to sculpt the air and how to simply stand still. The actor’s body is not, at any rate, out of control. Nowadays, the body out of control is often diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, “characterized by an excess of nervous energy,” as Oliver Sacks writes,

and a great production and extravagance of strange motions and notions: tics, jerks, mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses, involuntary imitations and compulsions of all sorts, with an odd elfin humour and a tendency to antic and outlandish kinds of play. (p. 92)

Nor is the ticquer the only producer of overflowing physical signs. Since our first classroom stand-ups in elementary school, we have all been made seriously aware of the perils to avoid at all costs, the unwanted punctuational flotsam; rhythm-breaking stammerings, irritating um-ings, impossible droppings-off of vocal tone, unwarranted physicalities like not only tics but starings-off, self-touchings, prop fondling, inexplicable balance shifting, gaudy mispronunciation, and the like. Self-touching became widely known and valued as Michael Jackson weaved it into his performance routine.

The linguistic gesture, as we most fundamentally regard it, is a mode of emphasis for reducing verbal ambiguity, and of special highlighting for drawing to consideration a suggestion that will be unexpected or somewhat arcane to hearers: of course if that suggestion turns out to have been entirely expected and not at all arcane, the emphatic speaker becomes a fool. As to emphasis and flow, too much emphasis can quickly ruin a melody. Visually speaking, too much highlight or highlight too intense can ruin a picture. To frame an image is already a gesture of the camera, so that luminous ornamentation can sometimes just get in the way.

Ornamentation is what comes to mind when we encounter the gesture, broadly speaking. Tinging, magnifying, declaring a phrase, as though plain speech is too bare for the intended aesthetic effect. If thought colloquial and scholarly has been focused on the ornamental gesture, much less attention has been accorded the gesture as an expressive form in itself rather than an ornamentation of another (typically spoken) one, a way of conveying meaning that words cannot adequately express, a particular form of silence. Hamlet knows this, too, and would prefer that his rented actors, paid for one gig only, not be seen as the source of a significant expression he would prefer they merely hint at, since, when the time comes he will reveal (himself as) the source. By putting on the show, using these people, he is already committing a gesture to the court, and he does not want it washed away by excessive dramatizing.

In social situations both actual and represented, gesture as we have understood it has been limited inside the perimeter of the individual actor, an act committed through the body or some handy object the body controls: in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Moses causing the waters of the Red Sea to part by stretching out his rod with his arm – using that rod as an extension of the arm of power; in Shane (1953), the villain Wilson (Jack Palance) giving a reptilian smile before he shoots Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) into the mud – the mouth of violence. We can think of what Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone did with their swords, what Gregory Peck does with Ahab’s peg leg, what Elizabeth does with Essex, treating his entire person as merely a tool extending from hers. While the declarative body and stylish prop use do constitute gesturing, it may be unduly reductive to think of the gesture as being wholly and fully defined by usages so direct, simple, and exaggerated – exaggerated, I should add, for technical efficiency as much as narrative realism: Heston and the Red Sea are together in long shot and his arm needs magnification; Wilson is a bureaucratic, expressively neutral figure whose malevolence will come through only with the special emphasis of that grin; Robin Hood and Sir Guy want not only to kill each other but to signal their loathing; Ahab wishes to make repeated enunciation of his lameness; Elizabeth is flaunting supremacy. Yet are there other, more profound ways of using gesture to mean than having a body “dance”?

I want to suggest a broader and in some ways different approach, one that considers the cinematic gesture. Because of the powerful perspective offered by the camera and the screen, because telling close-ups are part of the language of the medium, because in cinema, by contrast with real life, a tightly designed relationship can be arranged between setting and action, and – vitally important in such a context – because, unlike most of us, actors are notably adept at controlling the musculature of their bodies before the camera, a gesture on and of the screen can be very slight indeed, even a mere nuance, while at the same time registering enormous narrative power. Robin Hood and Sir Guy’s swordplay, Ahab’s stumping, Moses’s outreach – none of these are slight, none exemplify the tiny motion with the gigantic effect that I seek to examine. Recall that beyond gesturing to mimic what viewers already know about communicational signing in the everyday, actors can employ variations and modulations far beyond what the untrained body manages. The tiny, delicate gestural moment, then. In an era of extravagant, magniloquent, bombastic, even explosive screen effects it can be salutary for us to examine the very subtle and very small. Beyond the actor, the scenic, narrative, and photographic design can conspire to produce gestural effects that are both ultimately stunning and perceptually tiny: the little expressive move that has huge consequence, rendered on film because of the way it is performed, the way it is turned out to the lens, the way the scene itself lends it special light.

I’m going to examine now three rather special cinematic gestures, with a view to showing how delicate and subtle each is, yet how it has the energy to rotate the massive wheel of the plot.

I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, Luca Guadagnino, 2009)

Antonio Biscaglia (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a handsome young man and friend of the mistress’s son, has interrupted dinner at the Recchi household in Milan to bring a cake for his pal, whom he has just defeated in a race.

In a perfectly normal, unobtrusive way, as Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) introduces her, his mother Emma (Tilda Swinton) is gracious and inviting, sweetly shaking hands with Antonio, cooing with appropriate admiration at his cake, then calmly turning to take her leave. Up the stairs to bed she goes, quickly glancing off-camera-left to be sure the party she has been hosting is trundling along nicely without her. Up, up, all the way up she goes. Antonio bids Edoardo goodbye, walks out into the snowy night.

But then:

From outside the house we glance up to see Emma briefly draw a curtain and peek at him through her bedroom window.

A quite perfunctory little gesture, this parting of the curtain, if not also a quite symbolic one, a penetration of the shield, an opening of the protective gates. The moment is almost a filmic afterthought, force of emphasis added only because, as we saw, in climbing that staircase Emma made no effort to turn back and look at the two young men in the atrium, indeed made no effort very distinctly, as she climbed, step after step after patient step. She could have been expected to look back, out of nothing more than natural curiosity, to steal a teeny glance, give an amicable wave: but nothing. She is a woman of purpose, then. She exhibits feeling when it is necessary but not casually. Yet here now, at the window and in retrospect, she is stealing that glance. Watching Antonio, when no one but the audience can see her watch, surely not him, and giving herself peeping space as though to make the open claim, “Oh yes, I did very much wish to look back at that boy, but on the stairs I prevented myself.” The constraints of her place at her husband’s side, and as her son’s mother, held her tight. Social form above everything. Though we felt a tickle of desire for her to pause and offer Antonio her beautiful smile again – a smile especially beautiful in its infrequency – she did stalwartly refuse, did, as it seemed, only carry on. And even now, gazing from without, should we be relieved to see her exercising curiosity we must also be a little disappointed to see her exercising it secretly. The secrecy is like a leash preventing action. As to Antonio – at this moment, we cannot possibly know. If there is frustration produced by this moment for him, or for Emma, or for the viewer, it will be resolved later in the film (and, with a profound emotional turn, we will see that it is).

Swinton’s special moment at the window: a moment entirely unremarkable in itself, except that it bears and enunciates an unstated relation with the neutrality that came on the staircase, and in the handshake, before. Thus, some of the power of that peeking is rhythmical, derived from its edited placement after the stair climbing, and this is achieved with practical moves: the methodical speed of her climbing up; the lingering pause before we shift outside; the manner of the shift, cultured to a degree by our new position in the utterly silent, snowbound, pitch dark courtyard; and the tranquil gentleness of her move as she parts the curtain. The look after Antonio is a cadence. “Physiological cadences create a fabric upon which all activity is inscribed,” writes André Leroi-Gourhan (p. 283). Given that the experiential gulf between people – here, between the mother and the son’s friend – cannot fully be bridged by conventions or social assumptions, our reading of Emma is possible only if she signals her stance, if she gestures in some way, and since we are (unhappily) aware of the navigational difficulty, the window gesture brings a delight. But if we look beyond Swinton’s window-gazing as stance and signal, we find considerable embedded nuance, all of which is to be sensed swiftly, before the scene fades away.

  • [1] Although Emma was content, indeed thrilled, that her son has a friend courteous and generous enough to bring him a gift, and sincere enough to make his way to the house to deliver it in person, still there is no reason for a woman in her social position to actually relate to her son’s friend. Her behavior is tactful (and tactical).
  • [2] In her eyes this friend is decorous, estimable, and talented (it’s a very special cake). He seems entirely appropriate as a friend. This means that as a mother she sees it as a responsibility, tied to her place in the family, to check up on the social status of the people her children meet. In a significant way their friends will be their culture, even their economy.
  • [3] At the same time she recognises that the relationship between this guest and her son is a private one, beyond her control and knowledge. What is the extent, the nature, the taste of the friendship? The guest is slightly alien in that respect, and perhaps attractive for that. But she can have no good reason for not taking her leave without further scrutiny. Her walking away could handily close the moment, so that if the scene dissolved here nothing illogical would be left hanging for the viewer.
  • [4] Yet something surely did happen when she looked at this young man, first, downstairs, extending her hand. Something secret and precious, as we vaguely intuit, becoming assured only afterward, when – release of the spring – she seizes the opportunity at the window for that watchful gaze. Something happened to her personally, not as a mother, not as a fixture in the Recchi household, not as Edoardo’s mother, but entirely unconnected to the young men’s relationship, indeed to all previous identities she could have recognised in others and in herself. Beyond everything in the world, it seems she is suddenly recognising she is a person, with a desire, a fountain of interest, a sense of comfort. That retrospective peek is clear indication she was attracted. And what is attraction, but an efflorescence of personhood? Perhaps heading for the stairs, we can now suspect, she didn’t at all want to withdraw but knew that propriety demanded.
  • [5] Emma would therefore not be dismayed if this young man turned and looked up to get a retrospective glimpse of her, confirming her as more to him, at the instant, than a chum’s mother. More and unexpectedly more, since he can have had no anticipation of meeting anyone but Edoardo in delivering his gift. Coup de foudre!, but the mother has moved to a position safely distant, very decorous, very correct. From his point of view, as we grasp it now, the magnetism has been broken. From hers, as we see in retrospect, the magnetism was carefully dampened. And we can wonder how real the magnetism is or was, anyway. What is the perceivable reality of magnetism? Finally, if she is feeling a spark of desire as she looks out the window, he quite logically does not turn to look up. At any rate she has the curtains to screen her from him, to screen him from her, to screen us from the feeling inside the film.
  • [6] But Emma: while she knew that the attraction, if it is that, must not, at this moment, lead to anything, still she might, reviewing Antonio from the window, hope. Hope, what is left behind when the whole world flies away. What kind of hope? Hope to register the young man’s presence as imprint, even as he disappears. Leroi-Gourhan again: “Affective acts expressing sympathy or aggressivity are entirely a matter of the connection between perception and the movements it determines, and integration in space exists only to the extent that the physical body perceives space” (p.282). Perception of space: the shot is a wide, long shot, showing the broad courtyard covered in snow, the dark sky, the dark side of the house, the light glowing through that bedroom window like the fire of a candle. Perception and movement: the young male body peacefully striding away, the curtain parting and body in the window at the same time. Though we see Emma’s gaze only as a flash, we have the immediate sense that she is perceiving, even measuring, not only Antonio and whatever trace memory she has retained of him but also the space between the young man’s vanishing body and her eyes, positioned up in the Recchi stronghold.
  • [7] Finally, the staircase itself: broad, ultra-modern, designed for Recchi as a monument to stolidity, propriety, reflection, sedateness, and honour. The stiff staircase as model for his stiff honour, which we will discover, to be sure. The ascent into an upper clime – an ethereal zone au delà. She climbed with an even step, dutifully if with a model’s grace. We had every reason to suppose that, with each step away from the people at the door, she was moving further and further into the privacy of self-reflection. But the tiny gesture in the window gives this the lie. Emma was not retreating into herself, she was trying to memorise the image of this young face, a face seen only once, only too briefly, but seen in what was for her some transformative light. The majesty of the staircase, a grand, a too grand feature, suggested that Emma has not yet overcome the sensation of living in a world grander than she is; a world established for others, not her, and this theme, too, will be developed. But the window gesture loudly speaks her own privilege, desire, agency. Her public display of good manners and restraint could have led us to suspect she had no inner life, but the curtains we see parting are parting upon her curiosity, which is the gateway to passion.

Since I Am Love will show a love affair between this young visitor and this unhappy wife; since the magnitude of the Recchi house and the proportion of the Recchi business interests it stands in for will play heavily on the outcome of the affair; since the young man’s special talents in cuisine will instigate, enrich, and finally explode everything; and since the hapless Edoardo, finally estranged from his mother by virtue of that love affair, will have a tragic death, at her side, this moment at the window anticipates the entire plot, although when we see it there is no clue that this is the case. The window gesture punctuates the staid silence of what came before, makes us visit it again. And as to the minuteness, the apparent effortlessness of that gesture, as Emma peeks down from above, a stunned goddess, the camera does not lean forward to saw the air, nor does Swinton. A tranquil long shot. Dark space containing a bright rectangle. Only enough room for her body to claim, “I am not satisfied yet.”

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Here is to be found a remarkable, somewhat incomprehensible, one could even say “queer” gesture from Fran (the very talented Karen Black). She is partnered with Adamson (William Devane) in both a marriage and a series of high-profile kidnappings for big ransoms. Now they have purloined a bishop, and here he is, drugged and quite unconscious – because they always take and return their captives doped – in the back seat of their town car. The car is in the garage. And suddenly, in a blithe cloud, in steps Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), a goofy clairvoyant who has been searching for Adamson in order to help him receive an enormous inheritance, for which labor she is to receive a finder’s fee of ten thousand dollars. In Fran Blanche couldn’t have less interest. Nor does she seem ever to have imagined this person, or that the beast she has been hunting might be coupled. For her it is Adamson, and Adamson only, she has chased and who now, like the great stag in the hills, catches her eye. As to Adamson: whether the sum of money he stands to inherit is greater than, lesser than, or the same as the amount he will realise selling the diamonds he gets in ransom for the bishop, we are never permitted to know – money, the lure that disappears while floating upon the surface of the deeper sea we are now to experience.

Adamson and Blanche are talking. Utterly confused – a quite magnificent expression of which state of mind is on Devane’s face – he thinks she is a threat: that she has somehow discovered his penchant for kidnapping and the gig is up. But now he is soothed and amazed, at once, to find she has no clue about that. She is eager only to help him (and help herself), with this mysterious inheritance. Meanwhile, we have Fran standing by, twiddling her thumbs – a beautiful directorial gesture: the character who is present but has nothing to do. Hitchcock has worked the scene to ensure that Fran, here now irrelevant, is here now visually significant.

Visually significant and nervous. One could even say, visually significant because nervous. It has been made clear that Fran and Adamson have for some time been living on thin ice. Seeing in Blanche only a strange outsider now present in her garage (the garage with the car, the car with the bishop), a weirdo gabbing with her mate about something she has never heard of before, Fran is eyeballing the car. (Make use of every moment!) And because she who seeks may find, suddenly Fran sees what nobody is supposed to see, here or anywhere, something we see just as she sees it but that blithe Blanche very clearly does not: a tiny wisp of the bishop’s scarlet robe sticking out from the rear door of the car, which has been clumsily shut upon it.

Black black black black car. Tiny tiny tiny tiny triangle of flaming flaming flaming flaming scarlet! Stain! Macula! The show of sin! Quickly clean, eradicate, erase, cover over, make pure again.

She quietly steps up to fix the situation. Sanctification.

But no! Catastrophe!!! Opening the car door she relieves the pressure that was keeping the bishop’s body inside, and he tumbles half-out, his head all adangle, so that now nosey Blanche cannot possibly avoid seeing.

What do we learn in seeing Fran commit this tiny corrective gesture, this little effort at clean-up, this nervous adjustment of the out-of-balance world? She could very well, spying the red garment, notice what we notice, that Blanche is not noticing. Yet who can predict the future? Something that is not happening might happen (a very frequent situation), action might suddenly emerge. But, too, any movement she makes is likely to seize Blanche’s attention. To act or not to act? It is the technicality of the door gesture that gained Hitchcock’s focus here, not Fran’s temperament, since she has already been established as emotionally sedate and removed from what goes on around. It is the mechanism, the outward show, that the camera can catch. Just walking up. Just touching the door handle (in preparation). Just opening the door. Just just just: just tuck that little bit of cloth back inside. It’s one of those horribly normal body moves, a person making a quick clothing adjustment because something is showing, a woman fiddling with a bra strap, a man reaching down to do up his fly. Nothing we should actually look at.

Viewers of this marvelous film will learn that this tiny gesture of Fran’s turns the entire story, and also brings threads together into a weave. Only reaching, touching, opening that door.

Here is what I think we catch:

  • [1] That Fran is obsessive about attending to all aspects of the kidnapping ritual, a business she has indubitably helped design and certainly helped execute, all aspects even the most perfunctory of them, including, notably, the placement of the victim when he is about to be returned. Obsessive, she has a will fixated on clean-up, order, keeping everything in its proper place (and from her point of view the back seat of this car is the proper place for this bishop at this time). But you cannot tidy the mess of this world.
  • [2] That Adamson, the kidnapping kingpin, has not noticed the fabric problem, confounded by Blanche the peeping intruder, agent of the law, then uncomprehending at first about the inheritance, then delirious and happy-go-lucky. Is he a man so very greedy that any mention of the ‘for him sacred’ trigger, money, can displace him from other thoughts, such as keeping the bishop’s body in the dark lest his identity as kidnapper come to light? If he is carried away by money, and since the ransoms for the kidnappings bring enormous reward, what else has Adamson turned his eyes from whilst fixating on the gleam of profit?
  • [3] That, notwithstanding the meticulous care with which Fran and Adamson have planned all their kidnappings so far, and notwithstanding the extensive calculations and preparations that have grounded the project, Fran somehow cannot perform one elementary calculation on the spur of the moment: that opening this car door could well let the body drop out. The fabric is visible already – we (a) see her seeing and then (b) see what she is seeing – but why need she act with such compulsion, with such mania to cleanse: is she a dotter of i’s and crosser of t’s? Why not gamble against probability? Eventuality and predictability entirely aside, can it be that for her the redness of the scarlet fabric is, in itself and of itself, an absolute guarantee that it will become visible? Not only the redness, as in red as a signal colour, red as a warning, red as an eye catcher but more: suddenly, even after knowing she has this particular man in custody, this
    man of all men on earth, here is the Church – the scarlet is the scarlet of the Church – always, inevitably, unpreventably in sight. Does the Church always appear? And does she want to set the image of the bishop free, if not the bishop himself? In any event, Fran is banking on her deftness defying gravity. And to defy gravity is to stand outside it, to be . . . unearthly.
  • [4] As to probability, a turn of the screw. Fran is canny enough to see that the potential observer here is not just anyone but another canny woman, at least a woman no less canny than she is, as far as she can know. What she has “just noticed” Blanche may also “just notice,” and so the wound needs immediate bandaging. Fran’s is the gesture of “just noticing.” Hitchcock knows his audience might “just notice,” too; just notice anything he puts before them on the screen. And of course here he has concocted a little “anything” that is grandiosely special.
  • [5] Or else, riddled with unresolvable guilt over the kidnappings, her not-so-successful marriage, the entire ultra-dangerous choreography with Adamson, Fran is quite unconsciously taking a step that will bring punishment upon them.
  • [6] Should she happen to be religious – as religious as Adamson (who knows that “the spirit is never at home”) or more religious than he is – this one kidnapping, unlike all the kidnappings that came before, has crossed a line for her. Seizing a wealthy magnate is one thing; barging into a cathedral and removing a bishop is something far greater, far closer to Divinity. Is her gesture of opening the car door nothing less than a Confession?
  • [7] When the bishop’s head tumbles out it is (shockingly) upside-down, the eyes, albeit drugged shut, vectored upwards in the direction of Fran. Does she imagine he is condemning her, the bishop himself an unwitting agent of a supreme Condemnation from on high?

This gesture of “just noticing” in Family Plot, involving not only performers (Black’s expression and alignment) but camera angles (the portrait shots of her, and of the car door), brings to a head a group of hitherto disparate plot skeins, one involving Fran and Adamson and the kidnappings; one involving Blanche and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), clairvoyance, séances, and the long scout to find the heir to the Rainbird fortune. In this scene Blanche has found success; but at the same instant, thanks to Fran’s teeny gesture, she has found a crime. And even if she’s in the dark about the kidnappings in general she does know how to recognise a bishop when she sees one, and knows that bishops don’t reside unconscious in the back seats of black town cars.

Something we should “just notice”: the delicious hesitation in Black’s move. The way she neutralises her facial expression. The magnificent slowness with which she approaches the car door, reaches out, touches before opening – like a model in a car commercial and also a reptile handler ready to grasp a viper. Then, to contrast with the delicacy, slowness, deliberateness, studiousness, and gentleness of her move the brutal shock when we are forced to “just notice” the problem she “just notices,” vibrant, screaming scarlet. And the even greater shock, the overwhelming shock, when the bishop, model of decorum, sloppily tumbles out: since the bishop’s scarlet is metaphorically the blood of Christ, here is a sign transformed into the thing of which it is a sign, the holy figure “bleeding out of” the body of the car. At the instant we are hearing Blanche expostulate, “Mr. Adamson!” – a vocal gesture to assure she is there only, only, only to make him a happy man, but when the bishop appears we catch a lingering echo of her tone: reprimand to a child: “Mr. Adamson!” (“Tsk, tsk, tsk!”) It is to the accompaniment of this equivocal music that Fran makes her gestural move.

How is Fran’s gesture, like Emma’s in I Am Love, a collaboration of the actor’s performative work and cinema production? First, her move reflects a scripting decision, thus addresses and reflects the film structure: Ernest Lehman invokes a bishop, not a lesser victim or one who wears duller garb. And the act is performed within a design. Robert Boyle’s garage set, even with a light on, is essentially drab, colourless, and disturbing, a functional ground against which the bishop’s flaming garment will leap out optically, even in the smallest fragment. The garage is designed from the outset to feature a tiny rectangle of scarlet. The expressive design and optical design are merged. The claim of dull normality on one side; the appearance of blazing abnormality on the other. But the entire film, in both of its stories, reverberates around the niggling distinction between making a claim and offering an appearance: the dominance of optical design over will.

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

Mrs Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) are having a love affair. She has left her husband and child at home not far away and come into town for the day, today as every Thursday in ever so many weeks. They are sitting, as they have routinely done, in the station tea room, awaiting their respective trains. But they are far from happy. Both are journeying, Laura back to her comfortable life, with a fire in the hearth, and Alec far, far away: he has accepted a posting in Africa. This is to be their final goodbye.

But their capsule of intimacy is invaded. Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg), insensitive gossipy clod of a chum Laura is so very unpleased to be seeing here now, has made the spot decision, having caught these two in the corner of her eye, that the proper thing to do is make herself visible as their surveiller, and of course there is nothing for it but to invite her to the table. Alec humanely steps up to get her a cup of tea. And he must then sit in silence, never,if he can manage it, taking eyes from the beautiful Laura, as Dolly gnaws away at her friend’s only biscuit of pleasure on earth.

We hear the fatal bell. Alec’s train is coming in.

“I must go,” he says: quietly, directly, unequivocally. He rises, gives Dolly the briefest of polite nods, and passes away from us all, the camera showing his back as he heads for the door, a back growing marginally smaller with every breath and every step.

But first, wait! As he moves to pass Laura, he pauses for the briefest of gasps and places a hand on her shoulder giving only so much pressure as to indicate unmistakably (to her and to the camera) that the touch is there. Only the touch, nothing but the touch, only, indeed, the idea of a touch reconfigured for the briefest duration into something material. And then it is all over, done, forever. Alec’s hand moving to touch Laura’s shoulder is seen in close-up.

What do we learn from this tiny gesture?

  • [1] That regardless of his own quite sensible moroseness he is sensitive – as sensitive as a person could be – to Laura’s easily damnable social position, thus aware that the two of them must behave all through the horrible encounter as no more than the casual acquaintances she has claimed to Dolly they are. (An irony: we have not previously met Dolly, but there is every reason to suspect Laura’s relation to her is that of a casual acquaintance.) Trevor Howard’s “sadness” on camera was also, one must think, the actor’s sadness: he had lost his brother Leslie not eighteen months prior to shooting this film (when the Luftwaffe shot down the plane in which he was a passenger).
  • [2] That Alec fully knows the extent of Laura’s love and need for him (yet also that she cannot ruin her marriage). He knows that at this instant she is longing with an unbearable ache for his touch, any touch, the true touch that is only him: longing across the chasm of decency. The camera’s repetitive show of Johnson’s utterly placid face is a taunt to us to provoke our sympathy.
  • [3] But also that Laura knows, just as he knows, that any touch or semblance of touch at this moment would have to last for all time, must, that is, be magnificent (and dangerously detectable) so must somehow be, if no more weighty than a drop of dust still, indelible (indelible just in the way that, because this is cinema, David Lean has ensured it will be for us). Quiet recursion.
  • [4] Indeed, Alec knows, and knows that Laura will know, that the very flatness, directness, brevity, and absolute finality of his touch will have meaning in themselves: that without warning the love story has jumped to an abrupt and cruel end; must have been fated to come to such an end just as it was fated to begin; and that no other pathway is possible for them if Laura’s family is to be preserved. The moral structure of the story is embedded in Alec’s touch.
  • [5] Silly Dolly must not detectably be disattended – she would notice. Yet she is of such trifling importance, this monitor. Emphatically unimportant, a speck of grit irritating the moment (like the speck of grit in Laura’s eye at the beginning of the film that Alec removed, that introduced the two of them to each other; the speck that was a spectre of their friendship; the speck that was engrossingly spectatorial).
  • [6] That all the rich and throbbing feeling of these two lovers longing for each other’s souls is now to be transmitted – is, in fact, transmittable – only through the palm of the hand, the palm resting briefly as in an accident, and resting upon a strip of clothing covering a shoulder. That hand began their relationship and now ends it.
  • [7] That in the world of this film, which is the world of Britain after the War, albeit tenderness has a very great deal of meaning, nothing is more critical than social propriety and etiquette. England is tiny, its population dense, especially near London. Courtesy and consideration are essential to peace and continuity here, so we can have no doubt that the overriding concern in this potentially explosive scene, far beyond passion and endearment, must be the marshalling of impressions. Store, hide, keep back feeling in the name of seemliness. Lean makes us loathe seemliness here, and makes it plain with Johnson and Howard’s help that Laura and Alec loathe seemliness, too. Yet seemliness is monarch.
  • [8] And that, as an expression of self, the simplest hand gesture can convey – will convey – all the feeling a person has in this life, in this case convey that the one chance at love, the magical moment, has passed. The hand can say everything.

Say everything or scream everything. And so we come full circle to Hamlet, who would worry as Alec does about sawing the air too much with that hand: it could destroy not only this genuine gesture but also this precarious moment, not only the intended meaning but also our willing interpretation, and Dolly’s. Here is a perfectly articulate, even – though it be silent – audible speaking of the speech in the most ordinary, the most evocative terms. How can the camera or the lens be gestural here, in this bold, painful acknowledgment that, as the curtain falls, Alec must disappear? The immense gestural power would be lost if the shoulder touch were included in a medium shot full of body parts; or spoiled through exaggeration if the close-up were too far in, or held too long, not quickly stolen away by his exit. Although the touch was in the script (by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame) the idea of the close-up was Lean’s. With it he permits the very slightest indication to show itself full of the very greatest meaning. But to be effective the close-up indication must still remain, in Howard’s action and in Lean’s visualizing, small. The action is the picture itself, not in the thing the picture contains.

Without Dolly Messiter’s ugly interruption (a directorial staging of a scripted intervention) there would have been no need for the simple (performative) hand gesture of Alec’s. Morally speaking, hers is the probative eye of society under the prevailing gaze of which all relevant action must be played out. Yet even Alec would doubtless have produced a gesture of proper touch in some variation, a gesture of conclusion; a cadence. He and Laura would have wept through their tea, she more than he, and when the awful bell sounded he would have stood and touched her in precisely this utterly irrevocable but utterly understated way. Now, however, with the incomparable Dolly in place (placed in the director’s compositions, executed in camera by Robert Krasker) we are witnesses to a tragedy, not because Alec and Laura will separate but because, the separation being inevitable as the clock ticks, they are denied their proper moment of preparation. The moment in which one can draw in that final breath, that closing scent. Lean has Krasker dim the light behind Laura as Dolly speaks, and sound editor Harry Miller bring Laura’s offscreen voice over the now-dimmed voice of Dolly, pulling us away from the specifics of the social situation and into the protagonists’ hearts.

That we may grasp the power of the gesture in Brief Encounter – indeed, that we may even see it fully – the link between the movement and the place, Gourhan’s “connection between perception and . . . movements,” must be established. Therefore one really depends on knowing something about British class behaviour, something about the working of the British train system, and something about middle-class propriety and its supreme place in the architecture of British society at the time (this film was made for a British, not an international audience). All of this is made explicit not by the dialogue alone and not by any body in itself but by the expressive body in the tearoom setting, where all of these factors have been introduced earlier and where they resonate now, like the bell of an incoming train. The tearoom as cultural nexus, not a background but a foreground. The pungent silences of Laura and Alec are necessary to make Dolly’s gabbing seem so intrusive and dissonant while also being grotesquely normal in such a room.


Three very small gestures, then. A hand placed upon a shoulder. A hand opening the rear door of a car. A hand drawing back a curtain for a glimpse. I would argue that not only these three films but films altogether are composed of moments and gestures like these, tiny moments, tiny gestures, yet gestures at the same time fully potent, upon which the whole structure of a film might stand. I Am Love, here for but a second giving us a glimpse of Emma’s hunger will finally come to depend on it. Family Plot will be filled with sudden appearances from the dark, just like the bishop’s; appearances and disappearances; awareness floating in the air, like a phantom. And Brief Encounter will depend upon the brevity of Alec’s gesture, a token of the brevity of the love story, the brevity of friendship, and, in a world organized by the constant movement forward of people who hardly know one another (that the train system represents), the brevity of experience.

(for Vladimir Nabokov, whose classes I missed)

Works Cited

André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech. Trans. Anna Bostock Berger. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York: Touchstone, 1998.

About the Author

Murray Pomerance

About the Author

Murray Pomerance

Murray Pomerance is an independent scholar living in Toronto. He is the author of The Film Cheat: Screen Artifice and Viewing Pleasure (Bloomsbury 2020), Grammatical Dreams (Green Integer 2020), Virtuoso: Film Performance and the Actor's Magic (Bloomsbury 2019), A Dream of Hitchcock (SUNY 2019), and Cinema, If You Please: The Memory of Taste, the Taste of Memory (Edinburgh 2018), among many other titles. He edits the "Horizons of Cinema" series at SUNY Press and the "Techniques of the Moving Image" series at Rutgers, as well as co-editing "Screen Decades" and "Star Decades" at Rutgers.View all posts by Murray Pomerance →