Film Critic Isabel Stevens shares her top ten films about the human body.
The General (1926)
Part of the joy of watching a Buster Keaton film comes from being awestruck by his acrobatic, death-defying body. A long time before CGI and stunt doubles made cinema safe, the silent comedian leapt down the facade of buildings and even had them collapse around him (he stood in an open window frame, and I guess, prayed). Adding to the pressure was the fact that he had to get the first take right (he might not be around for a reshoot, and they were too expensive anyway). In The General – a delirious train chase caper that nearly 100 years on is still the best comedy – Keaton was even knocked unconscious by a cannonball. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he’s perched on the front of a locomotive knocking railroad ties off the tracks. What makes his daredevil antics special though is his deadpan demeanour. There is the question of just how he maintained such a serious face, betraying no hint of fear. But also there’s the spectre of death that lurks in his large sad eyes, no doubt knowing that everyone will be laughing as they watch him.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece about an aspiring ballerina (played by Moira Shearer) in post-war London is all about the sacrifice and brutal discipline your body must be subjected to in the name of art. How the directors filmed the ballet sequences – a kaleidoscopic rapturous extravaganza of colour, hallucinatory sets and swirling camerawork – also convey the out of body experience of a ballerina in performance, when her mind is suppressed and her limbs takeover. And of course, the red shoes themselves are a potent symbol of female sexuality – of menstruation and lost virginity.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Edith Scob’s face, covered with a white mask, her wide eyes peering out, is surely one of cinema’s simultaneously most chilling and tender images. Chilling because Scob looks like an eerie doll. Tender because French director Georges Franju exposes the feelings of a reclusive teenage girl imprisoned by her obsessive, controlling father. Franju could have made a schlocky body horror out of the film’s premise: a mad plastic surgeon kidnaps young women to experiment on them with face transplants in order to graft a new face onto the daughter (Scob) who was injured in a car crash. But there’s no blood spilt. Instead, Eyes Without a Face is a surreal, philosophical and poetic musing on identity, misogyny and the horrors of Auschwitz.
Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962)
Throughout Agnes Varda’s classic of the French New Wave, Cleo looks again at her body as she awaits the results of a biopsy. It’s no coincidence Varda puts mirrors up everywhere for Cleo’s face to be reflected in. Many reviewers at the time dismissed the protagonist – a beautiful pop singer played by Corinne Marchand – as narcissistic, but they missed the point. Midway through the film Cleo suddenly wakes up to the fact that her body is not hers – it has been objectified all this time by men, and now its exquisite beauty may be decaying. An unusual gendered exploration of illness, particularly given that it was made in the early 1960s, Cleo de five a 7 is a film that only recently has received the acclaim it deserves.
Raging Bull (1980)
2019 will see Martin Scorsese return to the gangster movie with The Irishman, in which digital de-ageing techniques will be used to allow long-time collaborator Robert De Niro play his character across several decades. Quite a contrast to the pair’s Raging Bull, which saw De Niro embark on a pasta eating tour of Northern Italy midway through the shoot to convincingly portray boxer Jake LaMotta post prizefighting prime. De Niro’s body morphing performance is just one of several legendary elements in this classic film; glorious black and white cinematography, theme music from Pietro Mascagni and Frank Warner’s groundbreaking sound design add up to a sublime cinematic experience.
The Fly (1986)
George Langelaan’s short story The Fly was first filmed in 1958, but it is David Cronenberg’s eighties remake that stands as a masterpiece of the body horror genre. Eccentric scientist Seth Brundle, unforgettably portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, gets his DNA mixed up with a fly while testing a prototype teleportation device. Initial cravings for sugar and useful insectoid physical abilities give way to a gruesome wholesale transformation, despite Brundle’s attempts to preserve his humanity. Shocking scenes abound with brilliantly executed special effects but, beneath the gore, the central character’s doomed love affair with Geena Davis’ journalist is the real heart of the film.
Beau Travail (1999)
It would have been all too easy to select a war film for this list, so focused are they on the blithe destruction of bodies. But French director Claire Denis’ film offers an unusual alternative to trenches and bomb raids: legionnaires preparing for war. Set in a remote coastal outpost in the former French colony of Djibouti in Africa, Beau Travail focuses on an officer obsessed with being the perfect legionnaire and who becomes jealous of a new soldier who he feels may usurp him in his commander’s affections. How two women – Denis and her cinematographer, Agnès Godard – foreground male beauty, as they film the recruits’ sculpted bodies enduring arduous exercise regimes, takes this far beyond the average film about male camaraderie. Indeed, in this warped quasi-love triangle, the dialogue has very little role to play; the actors’ movements, gestures and glances reveal much more.
The Act of Killing (2012)
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s surreal and singular documentary we hear about bodies being strangled and stuffed into sacks or mutilated on rooftops and dumped in rivers. Torture and genocide haven’t been recorded on film quite like this before. Oppenheimer had extraordinary access to former Indonesian death-squad leaders, smiling gangsters who not only recollect their mass-killings for the camera but actually reenact them in outlandish melodramas and musicals. The Act of Killing is a vital film in acknowledging the role these men played in Indonesia’s little-known anti-communist bloodbath of 1965-66, when leftists and ethnic Chinese were slaughtered by the million, with the arms and connivance of the West, but it also raises many uncomfortable questions about these men who were complicit in atrocities and who went unpunished.
Free Solo (2018)
Pushing the limits of the human physique has long provided a rich seam of compelling material for filmmakers, so it is no surprise that this documentary on Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan, a 900m sheer rock face in Yosemite National Park, alone and without safety ropes has proved wildly popular. Stunning mountain cinematography conveys both the splendour of the challenge and the severe risk Honnold is willing to run to meet it. With death a mere missed foothold away, the climber’s body, superbly equipped for the rock face by genetic lottery and honed by years of dedicated training, works perfectly to achieve a remarkable feat.
A Deal with the Universe (2019)
Films about subjects such as pregnancy, birth and gender identity are hardly common. Jason Barker combines all of these little-discussed issues in his debut, a diary-esque documentary he compiled over 15 years. During that time Barker was transitioning, but when his partner Tracey was unable to conceive, he stopped taking testosterone and started documenting his own pregnancy instead. ‘The film charts how Barker feels about being a man and becoming pregnant – and how he is treated by other people too. “It is all about coming to terms with your body,’ says Barker. “I think with trans people that can be particularly poignant, but I think it’s also universal.”