Camera look

gaze camera means, during the shooting of a movie, the crossing of the opposite one of the actors, or possibly several, with the optical axis of the apparatus shooting. This crossing is either involuntary, it is then a fault of game and the director must register another catch of this plan; is voluntary and occurs at a special moment in dramaturgy, and its role is then to emphasize this moment. It generates a specific relationship between the character and the future audience, since this look in the optical axis of the shooting, will be later in the optical axis of the projection on the big screen that will be targeted by the optical axis viewing of each viewer. The audience will then have the illusion that the character plunges his eyes into his own.

The main function of the camera is to take the viewer to witness, to seek his complicity. This interpellation is illusory, since a film is a recorded performance, but the audience feels at the sight of a projected film a sensation of reality such as it makes plausible this meeting, however impossible.


The aesthetics of primitive cinema is a mixture of both photography and music hall . The character or characters evolve along a line perpendicular to the optical axis of the camera. It reproduces the view of a spectator in front of a music hall number. It is, as the film historian Georges Sadoul calls it , “the point of view of the orchestra gentleman (the audience) who sees all the scenery, from the hanger to the ramp 1 . ” So the first films of cinema, those the first director , William Kennedy Dickson , running in 1894 – 1895 , were the subject of music hall numbers:Luis Martinetti , contortionist, Carmencita , Spanish dancer, Princess Ali , Egyptian dancer, Hadj Cheriff , knife juggler, Japanese Imperial Dance , Serpentine Dance by Annabelle Moore , emulator of Loïe Fuller , joined by subjects in the tradition of circus or trestles , Eugen Sandow , the strongest man in the world, Boxing Cats , Cockfighting , Bison Dance and Spirit Dance by the Buffalo Bill circus Indian troupe , etc.2 . All these artists exhibit as they would on stage, before the goal of the kinetograph , the first camera that made its first film reels in 1891 . This is Thomas Edison , inventor and owner Laurie Dickson, adopting for the first time the word “movie” to describe the exposed film. Some artists, like the dancers, look towards the camera, taking up a tradition of the music hall, a generally silent dialogue between the artist and his audience, which passes by the look, the wink that wants to be charmer and partner in crime.

It should be noted, however, that the gaze of the subject directed towards those who are watching exists even before the photograph. It is the basis of the painted portrait as found in the highest antiquity, when the subject represented is supposed to fix the viewer to testify of his authority on the place when it is about a distant monarch or of his survival in the hearts when it comes to a deceased person.

In 1895 , Louis Lumière made his first “animated photographic views”, as he calls his bobineaux, and in his first fiction, the famous sprinkler watered , the little dogger takes to witness the public, staring at the camera. and laughing beforehand at the joke he’s going to play at the gardener. This tradition is even stronger in Georges Méliès’s filmsthat it comes directly from his theater of illusion where he performs tricks of magic. In his early films, he always starts by greeting his audience (camera gaze), and constantly draws his attention, as he usually did on stage. At the end of the “number”, he greets again with a very strong camera look. In some of his films, we even see a curtain opening and closing. The camera look is a way to captivate the future audience of the film by doing everything to give viewers the illusion of a live show .

The viewing of the films takes place in a setting that has nothing to do with the movie theaters that we know, which will multiply later, in the 1910s . To present to the public the films produced by Thomas Edison and first made by Laurie Dickson, rooms are open, the Kinetoscope Parlors , where individual viewers watch the films on offer, through the eyecup of a kinetoscope . Other places welcome the films of early cinema: the basement of the Grevin museumhouses the Optical Theater of Émile Reynaud , who presents his luminous pantomimes , the first cartoonsof cinema, drawn directly on the film, and projected on big screen since 1892 . The Lumière brothers also show their films in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris. Very quickly, their main customers are the showmen who project under canvas tent. The cinema is thus struck from birth to the seal of the most popular shows. And one of the “tools” of choice of artists who reign in these shows is the interpellation of their audience to ensure its connivance and complicity.

Transposed to the cinema, this “tool” is the camera look.


The technique of the camera gaze is precise as to the direction of this gaze. The actor must look exactly at the center of the front lens of the lens, and not vaguely toward the camera. A look at the compendium of the camera (the sun visor of the lens), or on the body of the camera, gives the screen a different look.

The camera look is present in the cinema from the first movies. It is routinely avoided by filmmakers when it comes to unfolding a dramatic plot that the public wants to take full advantage of. An adventure film usually has to do with a camera that would interrupt the fascination of the show and especially the identification with one of the main characters, including the hero or the heroine. In the viewer’s mind, a camera look imposes the following equation: “The character is looking at me, so I’m not him. I remain simple spectator.

Collusion Gaze

The camera look of the films that we call today “documentaries” plays on the contrary with the equation: “the character looks at me, he takes me to witness”. In 1896 , Alexandre Promio , one of the operators of Louis Lumière , brought back from Jerusalem what the Lyon brothers named in their catalog a “Panorama Lumière”, which is in fact a traveling shot before the letter. Alexandre Promio perched his camera in the back of a wagon and filmed the departure by train from Jerusalem . On the platform, those who accompanied him and others greet him with a gesture as the train moves away. All these looks are focused on the camera,”This salute comes back to the public who discovers the spectacle of those who are filmed and the fact that the operator is also a show for those he films, establishing through the camera a connivance between the viewer and these people from the other side of the world 3 . ”

Similarly, in 1900 , a director of Thomas Edison , James White , began making a panoramic vertical (from bottom to top and top to bottom) on the Eiffel Tower , during the World Fair , Panorama on the Eiffel Tower . James White dares here a shooting that any good operator proscribed at the time: to direct the objective towards the sky. Indeed, the photosensitive emulsion used in the cinema was of the orthopanchromatic typewhich made the color red in neutral gray (which explains why the actors of the primitive cinema – men and women – made up their lips in black, so that they can be distinguished) and the blue in a faded white. The sky was avoided, which gave a solid white (the clouds were therefore invisible), considered unsightly. But the American operator absolutely wanted to immortalize the famous tower, which was to be dismantled after the Exhibition. Installed in the Champ de Mars , he takes his shot in two stages. When the camera shows twice the bottom of the tower, visitors look towards the lens (at the time, a camera is a spectacle in itself). One of them, even, respectfully raising his boater to greet the operator 4 .

Complicity by the camera look is not always conducive to civility. In Breathless , Michel Poiccard ( Jean-Paul Belmondo ), driving a stolen car, addresses the viewer via the camera, to give a thought: “If you do not like the sea … If you do not like the mountains … If you do not like the city: go fuck yourself! “. The intention of Jean-Luc Godardis likely to make his character rather nice. However, immediately after, when Michel discovers a gun in the glove box, the film turns to tragedy because the small delinquent will kill in cold blood a biker of the gendarmerie who wanted to control it. Later, the film reveals other negative aspects of the character. Michel is a car thief, the viewer learns from the beginning of the film, who does not hesitate to offload a friend too confident of a few big bills, who knocks a quidam in the toilet to rob him … A dialogue with a certain Tolmatchoff completes the portrait,”When the two men list some names, which is Montagnais sheet, Antonio Berrutti that” works “always, we understand that Michel Poiccard is not only a marginal casual but a real thug 5 . ”

In the same way, the beginning of the film directed by Andrew Niccol , Lord of War , shows the main character, a weapons dealer, played by Nicolas Cage , standing among ruins, on a carpet of casings, which delivers his philosophy of life and commerce by fixing on the viewer a benevolent camera look. “In the world, one man in twelve has a weapon. The problem … is to arm the eleven others. ” Reflection that wants to be witty but hides the hero’s gangster morality. The generic, which takes place after, appears on an original background: a subjective planwhich makes viewers share the “vision” that a rifle bullet would have during its manufacture and use. A worker even stares at her (camera eyes) to check the conformity of the product. The ammunition travels in cash, various customs or soldiers open the lid and inspect the loading with complacency (camera looks). A rifle, in which the ball and the public’s vision are loaded, propels the plane towards a human target during a war in Africa. The subjective murderous plan reaches a young black man in the head. In voiceover , the trafficker cynically concludes:”Unlike combatants, weapons have many lives, when a conflict is over, and the dead are buried, they can serve.” The film dismantles the mechanisms of this gigantic, deadly and endless traffic 6 . ”

Call to witness

In the fictional films, the camera look was taken to a higher level by the burlesque films of the tandem Laurel and Hardy . Oliver Hardy’s camera looks are there to tell us, “See what I have to endure! When Stan Laurel behaves with a certain debility that seems to be natural to him. To take the audience to witness is also what Charles Chaplin does with the character of Charlot. As soon as he risks a bad blow or an arrest, he casts a camera and”His actions are metamorphosed according to circumstances with a deceptive fluidity. The blow sent turns into ballet figure when the victim is threatening hand détrousseuse surprise robbed by abandoning its original purpose and becomes insignificant gesture to remove a little dust, a hair on the clothes 7 . ”

The call to witness also came out of the tragedy. At the end of François Truffaut’s film , The Four Hundred Blows , the character of Antoine Doinel , played by the very young Jean-Pierre Léaud , escapes from the observation center where he was interned, and, continued, he starts running on a beach to reach the sea he discovers for the first time. When he comes into contact with the water, he turns around and looks straight into the lens of the camera. A freeze frame freezes this look. By this means, does Antoine appeal to the spectators’ compassion?

Tragedy again, which is also at the end of a story, that of Breathless , after the death of Michel Poiccard, when Patricia, who denounced it, asks the police what were his last words. “He said, you’re really disgusting,” the young American looks straight into the lens and asks, “What is it, disgusting? But she probably already knows the answer, because she knows she betrayed a love she refused. This awareness, she shares with the public “The young woman puts the thumbnail of her thumb on her half-open lips, a familiar gesture of Michel, when he looked at himself in the mirror trying to understand who he was 8 … ”


The camera gaze is also the consequence of the principle of realization of a subjective plan , which imposes on the spectator what one of the characters sees. “In 1947 , in the movie The Lady of the Lake , the American actor Robert Montgomery tries an original experiment: he takes the character of Philipp Marlow, the detective invented by Raymond Chandler , and tells a complex story of adultery, crime and disappearing he builds on the sole basis of subjective plans, borrowing throughout the film the eyes of the famous private. The film is built on several flashbacks, announced several times by Philipp Marlow who is looking straight into the lens of the camera, as a TV magazine presenter 9. ”

In 1963 , comedian Jerry Lewis recounts a parody and yet fantastic variant of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel , The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , under the French title of Dr. Jerry and Mister Love ( The Nutty Professor). Julius Kelp is a teacher in a college he is laughed at. A ridiculous, child-like character, he falls in love with a student and develops a drink that should make him an irresistible seducer, Buddy Love. The first time the charming monster appears is through a subjective plan where the viewer is in place of Buddy Love who advances in the street, causing the turn of all the people who fix it in look at camera, sometimes with stupor, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with fear. The reverse of this subjective shot shows a Julius Kelp become an unbearable fop who will subjugate everyone 10 .

In 1999 , the film directed by Sam Mendes , American Beauty , begins with a subjective plan, giving the viewer the vision of a character he has not yet seen, but the disillusioned girl who looks at him a look camera, seems to know well since she entrusts to this mysterious interlocutor the secret of her heart: she hates her father who courts girls of his age. The voice of the unknown, in off, asks her if she would agree that he rid her of this father whose sexual deviation she reproves (unjustly, as the rest of the story shows). The viewer is in principle in the shoes of a future assassin, but it is a dramatic lure (in English red herring) because the murderer will not be the one who says he is ready to kill.

In the film of Ingmar Bergman , Monika and desire , conducted in 1953, right in front of Harry, fixed a look heroin camera Godard analysis: “You have seen Monika just to those extraordinary moments when Harriet Andersson , before going back to bed with a guy whom she had plastered, stares at the camera, her laughing eyes clouded with confusion, taking the viewer to witness her self-contempt of involuntarily opting for hell against the sky. This is the saddest plan in the history of cinema 11 . ”

Notes and references

  1. ↑ Georges Sadoul , history of world cinema from its origins to today , Paris, Flammarion,, 719  p. p.  29
  2. ↑ Sadoul 1968 , p.  16
  3. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  45
  4. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  98
  5. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  510
  6. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  425
  7. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  369
  8. ↑ Marie-France Briselance and Jean-Claude Morin , Performer, the “Great” history to fiction , Paris, New World Publishing,, 436  p. ( ISBN  978-2-36583-837-5 ) , p.  305
  9. ↑ Marie-France Briselance and Jean-Claude Morin , film grammar , Paris, New World Publishing,, 588  p. ( ISBN 978-2-84736-458-3 ) , p.  426
  10. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  424
  11. ↑ Jean-Luc Godard , ”  Monika  ” Arts , o  680,reissued in Jean-Luc Godard , The Years Cahiers , Paris, Flammarion,st  ed. 1985), p.  146-148

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