Body Language, Lines and Costume Design: We Can Tell Who You Hate

In my second post, while exploring the use of natural light in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, I mentioned that we would be able to dissect the use of body language, body lines and their costumes later.

Cinematography has the color,the lenses and light, but it also goes much deeper than those things, there is more aesthetic value which provide more insight to a true shot. Cinematography has a bit of a geometric background to it as well; with the use of body shapes and color, we are able to interpret these things at a basic child-like instinct. As children we were taught how to define shapes and lines, as well as the color they were labeled. For some upbringings, including mine, we were asked to identify a shape with an emotion, i.e, a red triangle looks angry, why? Because a triangle is often linked to the occult, the Illuminati, warning signs and just overall uneasiness; while red is commonly linked to passion and anger.

For my first exploration of the use of body language, line and costume design in a film to attribute it’s shot’s message to convey to the audience, we will revisit a scene from Barry Lyndon.

Cinematography by John Alcott Image provided by Toddalcott
Cinematography by John Alcott
Image provided by

Let’s look at the stance of all three characters, look at their clothing and the colors they represent. We’ve got poor Barry standing awkwardly on one side of Nora while she stands in the middle between the two men. Barry is wearing earthy colors, mostly all brown; Barry is portrayed at the beginning of the film as a naive, wide-eyed country boy who just wants to fit in. Nora is wearing fresh, light colors to portray purity and femininity with her body towards Barry, hands carried by one another and almost a sullen bow in her head as if she’s guilty or apologetic. Also, notice how Nora is slightly closer to John Quin, this is how the viewer can tell that in this conflict, she’s standing by her fiancee rather than her cousin. John Quin’s stance is masculine, mostly hard lines emphasized by his coat, his hand on his hip and his aggravated body tilt. Lastly, Captain Quin is wearing his English Army attire which is notably red, which he can’t help, but still, in this particular scene, wearing red speaks volumes during conflict.

The next film we will explore for this post is the stunning Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall and starring my favorite contemporary Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi. Memoirs of a Geisha is a phenomenal movie with everything you could hope for in a film: exploration of a different culture in a different era, music, art, romance, hardship and the disastrous affects felt by World War II. Zhang Ziyi stars as Chiyo, a village girl sold along her big sister to a life of service due to her family’s state of poverty. Chiyo’s sister is sold as a prostitute while Chiyo is sold to an okiya, a house of Geisha and maiko’s. Chiyo endures a hard childhood as a foster child hoping to one day be a maiko, a Geisha in training, to then become a famous Geisha. However, Chiyo screws up and is stuck as a servant paying off a debt, until a famed Geisha, Mameha, comes years later and takes her under her wing and transforms Chiyo into Japan’s most famous Geisha, named Sayuri.

c4b2a8d1237809229a730f233835eae1 Memoirs-of-A-Geisha-Image-Source-gabtor

Cinematography by: Dion Beebe Images provided by: The ASC
Cinematography by: Dion Beebe
Images provided by: The ASC

These three cinema-graph’s taken from the movie depict the three stages in Chiyo turned Sayuri’s life in Memoirs of a Geisha, These three shot’s speak volumes on where she is at in her life and how the cinematography changes along with her journey. The first shot depicts Sayuri, still as Chiyo a sad little girl who is hopeless as a servant for the beautiful Geisha and without her sister for comfort. The image shows Chiyo hunched forward, in grief, surrounded by the shoes of maiko and geisha. Her hands are placed between her legs which is a common body sign of shame, embarrassment or melancholic feelings. The color palette of the first image proves that the color theory of the movie is portraying the first phase of her life as sad, washed out, and gloomy. Chiyo is also wearing servants clothes which coincide with the color palette of the scene, a dull gray smock she is wrapped in with no color.

The second image provides Chiyo as a transformed beautiful Sayuri, becoming a Geisha. The two women in the back are Sayuri’s guardians and owners of the okiya. Instead of berating or instructing her, they have their heads bowed in respect. They are no longer her boss to tell her what to do; with bodies hunched forward a curved stance, their backs lean forward. The woman sitting across from Sayuri is Mameha, the famous Geisha of Japan, who has saved her from a life of debt and helped train her into becoming a Geisha. Sayuri and Mameha’s body language has a straight line of respect where their backs are. Their chins are up and they are gracefully meeting each other in the eyes. Sayuri is now adorned with the classic Geisha head jewels and colorful outfit. The cinematography palette and lighting makes Sayuri the focal point of the image where she is finally happier and at peace with her new life.

The third image is the pivotal turn in Sayur’s life. Sayuri is now the most famous Geisha in all of Japan due to her first stage performance, every training Geisha must do to present herself to all of the elite. The bottom half of the shot provides the silohoutte of the attendees in awe of Sayuri, she is the main focus again with the shot, intensely performing and hunched forward. Hunching forward is often a submissive stance, with a curve of the back, and her hands in front while carrying the umbrella, Sayuri is submitting to the world of elite Japan to dictate what this performance says about her career. Her facial expression provides that she is in control and sure of the positive reaction the audience will think of her. Lastly, Sayuri’s outfit is grand and lush, showcasing her immediate wealth and transformation as a geisha. The white snow resonating with the white in her outfit prove she is still pure and ethereal, yet the stark red contrasting in area’s of her dress and ribbon in her hair state she is powerful and a passionate force to behold.


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