On Tenderness: Girls

Published in Transit: cine y otros desvio, July 2012.


“I know of nothing more utterly moving,” wrote Jean Epstein in 1928, “than a face giving birth to an expression in slow motion. A whole preparation comes first, a slow fever, which it is difficult to know whether to compare to the incubation of a disease, a gradual ripening, or more coarsely, a pregnancy. Finally all this effort boils over, shattering the rigidity of muscle. A contagion of movement animates the face. The eyelash wing, the jaw a spur, begin to stir too. And when the lips finally part to herald the cry, we have attended the whole of its long and magnificent dawning.”[1]

Two faces. A mother and daughter, a faint trace of the older woman’s face hovering over the younger’s. We are at the end of Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010) when Aura (Lena Dunham), exhausted after an unsettling sexual encounter, climbs into bed with her mother (Laurie Simmons). Aura confesses she’s been reading her mother’s teenage diaries. “I don’t care,” her mother says. “Who was Ed?” Aura asks, “Who was Phil?” “If film making doesn’t work out,” Aura’s mother tells her, “You could always become a massage therapist. You’ve got very intuitive hands.”

Throughout the exchange, which runs for several minutes, the camera stays close, floating just above the coverlet, tilting on the cut between the two faces. The scene is not in slow-motion, but the stillness of the frame and the slowness of the conversation focuses our attention on the expressions. Every slight movement of the face is registered, making up a catalogue of minute shifts and tiny muscular spasms. We see the grey roots under Laurie Simmons’ red hair, the way her gaze darts back and forth, and the way the edge of her nostril flares slightly as she breathes. The depth of field is low and the shots are framed so that the top of both heads are cut off, trapping the actors’ energy in the frame and drawing our gaze into the face. It is a moment of pure tenderness in a film that has mostly filled out its running time with wittily defensive dialogue and awkward jokes. Through the extended presentation of the face we are invited in. It is a powerful gesture.

This image is flipped and repeated at the beginning of Dunham’s recent television series, Girls, which premiered on HBO in April 2012. This time, Dunham is Hannah Horvarth and it’s not her mother she’s spooning but her friend and housemate Marnie (Allison Williams). The camera glides along two pairs of entwined legs and comes to rest on the two girls’ faces. They are asleep, dressed in childish pajamas. Marnie has her teeth in a retainer. A few moments later, we are given our first glimpse of Jessa (Jemima Kirke), also asleep in the back of a taxi, her head resting on a pile of Vuitton suitcases.

Through these close-ups, an image of tenderness emerges that distinguishes Girls from the main body of television comedy. While other shows provide heart in the form of pathos – just think of Gerry in Parks and RecreationGirls fumbles toward Epstein’s cinematic ecstasies through extended close-ups and the frank presentation of the body in motion. Faces here are mutable, forever threatening to collapse into tears or laughter. They teeter anxiously in a state of becoming, eyebrows unsure, mouths wavering. The characters talk, and talk, and talk, as if language might somehow free them from the uncomfortable sensation of embodiment.

The third episode, titled ‘All Adventurous Women Do,’ begins with a close-up of Marnie. She is smiling, her fingers pressed over her eyes. “Open them,” Charlie says off-screen, and her eyes stretch open. The camera stays fixed on her face as her smile fades. We hardly need to see the reverse shot of Charlie with his head shaved. The dynamic of their relationship is neatly expressed with that simple shift from anticipation to dismay. A moment later Marnie voices the question central to Girls, that of the link between identity and the body. “Touch it,” Charlie says, leaning his shorn head toward her. “No,” Marnie replies, “I feel like I don’t know you anymore.”

At the very beginning of the show Hannah tells her parents, “I’m busy, trying to become who I am.” For the rest of the season, this becoming will be rooted in the body. Over the next ten episodes, Hannah will have her belly shaken by Adam (Adam Driver), receive some extreme eyebrows from a workmate, and wander around in pajamas so worn and shapeless you can almost smell the sweat on them. Like Marnie, Hannah struggles to negotiate the slippery bond between things and their appearance. When she decides to tell Adam that she wants more than sex, that – without actually saying it – she likes him, the struggle between her feelings and her desire to maintain her cool are played out on her face. As she stands in Adam’s doorway, framed from his point of view, the camera very slowly zooms in, so that by the time she’s done speaking she is framed with her quivering chin jutting against the bottom of the frame. Her dramatically painted eyebrows rise to the upper edge, a jolt of a joke in an otherwise serious moment.

Whenever she tries to talk tough, Hannah’s body betrays her. In the fifth episode, ‘Hard Being Easy’, Adam takes her at her word and turns down her offer of sex. In an attempt to provoke him, she tells him she almost slept with her boss “to just be an asshole.” But a moment later we see her slumped on the toilet, face quivering as she tries not to cry. Afterward, she finds Adam jerking off in his room. “Does it turn you on,” he asks, “to watch me touch my own cock? Or does it disgust you?” This porous border between arousal and disgust is played out over and over in Girls. Here, Hannah begins playing along. Standing in the doorway watching Adam, she agrees. “It’s pathetic and bad and disgusting and weird and lazy,” she tells him. She lifts up her skirt but he stops her, and the confusion of what she feels for Adam and what she thinks he feels for her overwhelms her. She stops playing the game. “I want cab money,” she says. But then, when he incorporates her request into the game, keeps playing as she takes money from his drawer. When he finally comes, he lets out a huge whooping laugh. “Shake my hand,” he says. For Adam, the body is a source of continual delight.

Dunham has been both praised and belittled for displaying her body in all its unkempt glory. Her resolutely earthbound presence is a central part of her performance but it seems to be less about smashing stereotypes of representation and more about depicting the awkwardness of trying to catch up with one’s fully grown frame. Girls is a tremendously physical show. Adam’s irrepressible nakedness, Jessa’s endless mane of hair and Hannah’s slump shouldered shuffle transform the cast from a set of characters into a constellation of hurtling bodies. There is a trace of the physical cinema of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in some of the action. Wheeling through the night after the warehouse party, Hannah is flung from the front of Adam’s bike like a rag doll, an echo of her collapse in the first episode, where she crumples before her parents in a desperate display of childish panic. This episode also features a Mack Sennet style chase, when Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), high on crack and not wearing pants, runs away from Ray (Alex Karpovsky) like a mechanical doll.

Early cinema’s fascination with the unbreakable body also marks Girls’ chaotic, flailing sex. The joining up of limbs – Adam thrusting away over Hannah’s trembling belly while conjuring up a universe of kooky fantasies; Jessa and an ex-boyfriend plunging against the window while Shoshanna looks on, simultaneously repulsed and riveted; Marnie wanting to seduce Charlie but leaving her bra on while they have sex – is always as triumphant as it is unsure. They’re resilient, these characters, and after each stumble, they get back up, dusty but not done for.

At the end of the season, we are left with Hannah waiting for a train. The camera hovers beside her face. The gentle, hand-held rocking is the visual incarnation of the body’s wavering motion. As the train approaches the platform, Hannah’s hair blows back as if in slow-motion, and then she moves, at the same low speed, onto the train. She slumps her head against the window and closes her eyes. She sleeps to the end of the line.

The last few shots are devoted to Hannah’s body. Her bare feet walking across the sand; her back and the top of her head from above, with her shadow a magnified twin stretching across the beach. In the final image she is eating cake. She licks her fingers, a parting gesture of fleshy desire, shown simply, with immense tenderness.


[1] Jean Epstein, ‘Bonjour Cinema and other writings’ in Afterimage (Autumn, 1981) p.24.