I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while now, and in light of Jonathan Demme’s passing yesterday, it seemed only right to finish it. I really feel that this sort of piece would work better in the form of a video blog, but for now screenshots will have to do.
The Silence of the Lambs is a film about the eyes: what the eyes see, what they choose to avoid, windows to the soul. Demme’s penchant for full-frame and centered closeups on actors is used to maximum effect in this film, often having their eyes looking directly at the camera. There are so many levels to the ways eyes and voyeurism are used in this film, but one example stuck out at me.
The film serves as a commentary on feminist issues and the struggle of being female in a male-dominated field of work. Clarice Starling is framed in ways that emphasize her juxtaposition against a patriarchal world throughout the film.
This framing is powerful, but never used in an exploitative way. By this I mean she is never framed in a way that presents her as a sexual object of male pleasure for the audience; the concept of the male gaze, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey.
The interesting thing about The Silence of the Lambs is that is uses a more literal male gaze in the film, in which we can see various characters examining Starling in a sexual or demeaning way. Throughout the film, male characters make flirtatious or debasing comments towards Starling while looking her right in the eyes, causing her to break eye contact, if only momentarily.
First with Dr. Chilton commenting on how attractive he finds Starling:
Then with Hannibal Lecter examining the various fragrances she wears:
And again, when Sherrif Perkins examines Starling in light of Jack Crawford’s comments about her being unable to stomach sexual violence:
In each of these scenarios, the male character and Starling are making eye contact, but she is made to look away.
It is only after examining these instances that the significance of Starling’s interaction with the cross-eyed entomologist Pilcher becomes apparent. At the start of their examination of the death’s-head hawkmoth, Starling is focused on the insect cocoon. However, as Pilcher’s comments becoming increasingly flirtatious, Starling looks away from the procedure and maintains eye contact until Pilcher is the one to break it, rather than her.
This is an odd but extremely effective visual metaphor. Starling is not intimidated by Pilcher’s comments because he is literally incapable of exercising the male gaze due to his crossed eyes. It could be that Demme was using this scene to represent growth for Starling’s character, or some other meaning I am unaware of. Even if I don’t fully understand why this symbolism is being used here, it’s clever as hell. Jonathan Demme, you will be sorely missed.