Stepping Out: On Watching Women Walk

<div>Stepping Out: On Watching Women Walk</div><div></div>

Walking, like breathing, is something we do without thinking, an activity so commonplace that pedestrian has as its second meaning uninspired, ordinary, dull. Movies, however, reveal this action as more than just the original mode of getting from here to there; it is a language inscribed on the screen. There is a special pleasure in the kind of traveling shot that follows an actor on foot, when the camera glides along at the pace of someone’s stride or saunter, taking in the world at eye level. These passages represent cinema at its most human—mimicking our daily experience of the world—and humans at their most cinematic. They harbor the ghost of Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion” studies, which first solved the mysteries of how we move, showing what is known by the body but invisible to the eye.

Each person’s gait is unique, like a fingerprint, and movie stars tend to walk like themselves no matter what role they are playing. Jean Gabin always rocks a little from side to side like a sailor on dry land; even in modern dress, Toshiro Mifune always stalks like a samurai. Robert Mitchum, who had the best walk of any man in the movies—a slinky panther tread whose movement rolls through his massive shoulders—and who was a far more analytical thinker about his craft than he usually let on, once explained in an interview that one of the secrets of movie acting was to “set the pace of the pictures.” He both moves and speaks behind the beat, the way Sinatra sang, and the unhurried pace is deliberate: by moving more slowly than the action around you, he theorized, you dominate it. Other stars march to different tempos: James Cagney’s is allegro con brio, poised on the balls of his feet and propelled by the forward tilt of his body. Fred Astaire’s easy, swinging rhythm, accented by one hand in his pocket, creates its own music wherever he goes.

Plenty of female stars have captivated with their walks. Barbara Stanwyck’s long, springy stride is boldly assertive and sleekly alluring; she is “built for speed,” as Ralph Meeker, more than a decade her junior, admiringly purrs in Jeopardy (1953). Of Ginger Rogers, James Harvey has written that her “stroll is one of the glories of film history,” noting how her squared, tensed shoulders form “a counterpoint to the fluid line and motion of her lower body.” Garbo’s rangy, slouching lope is all the more powerful for being slightly clumsy. But beyond the delights of individual gaits, and the pure cinematic pleasures of humans in motion, films that devote time to watching women walk are troubled and enriched by a further, inherent complexity. A female pedestrian can be seen, like a cubist figure, from different angles at once: as spectator and spectacle, subject and object, consumer and commodity, free agent and fair game. She trails behind her a history of hard-won female mobility—of foot-binding and hobble skirts, evolving public spaces and behaviors—and its reflected progress in art, literature, and cinema.

In movies, the walking woman comes in many guises. In the twenties, silent pictures, especially comedies, exploded with jazzy kinetic freedom: women in their new short skirts run, skip, scamper, and kick up their heels. Thirties Hollywood brought fast-walking dames like Rosalind Russell who swagger into offices with their heads thrown back, leaving doubters to eat their dust. Emerging a few years later, the reigning queens of film noir—Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Ida Lupino—walk with similar brazen assurance, but cross over to the dark side of the street, where their high heels echo on wet pavement. Here, women are stalked through nightmarishly empty streets, like the fragile girl chased by a knife-wielding killer in The Seventh Victim, but they can also do the menacing, like Ella Raines in Phantom Lady (1944). Dressed in a filmy white raincoat and armed with an unnervingly baleful glare, she follows a bartender (trying to intimidate him into changing his false testimony in a murder case), through studio backlot streets that are eerily depopulated. Her heels ring loudly in the quiet, and the air is thick with humidity and risk; at any moment, hunter and quarry might change places.

Femmes fatales on the prowl hypnotize their prey just by entering a room. Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944) is doomed from the moment he stares at Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet as she enacts the greatest staircase-descent since Duchamp. In Out of the Past (1947), Jeff Bailey describes the way Kathie Moffat bewitched him: “Then she walked in out of the sun,” “Then I saw her walking ahead of me in the lights,” “Then she’d come running up, like school was out . . .”

The balance of power changed in the 1950s when the spotlight moved to women like Marilyn Monroe, with her “jello on springs” wiggle, shaking her money-maker with each step, and Jayne Mansfield, whose every pneumatic sashay across the screen was treated as a punchline. The sixties and seventies brought a different kind of hyper-sexualized walk. In Taxi Driver (1976), all the women in the streets look like Saul Steinberg’s legs-up-to-their-necks cartoon hookers, strutting in miniskirts or hot pants and go-go boots, looking powerful when they are actually powerless. What a relief and joy to arrive at the galumphing gait of Sylvie (Christine Lahti), the restless, lonely, free-spirited hobo in Bill Forsyth’s 1987 Housekeeping, who instructs her shy niece not to mind if people stare because they are different. Lahti has said she developed the character’s space-devouring walk with the image of each step taking in the curvature of the earth.

The extent to which time and place shape styles of walking is even clearer when you look at films from other countries. The title character in Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952), played by Kinuyo Tanaka, locomotes in the manner imposed on Japanese women of the feudal era by tightly wrapped kimonos, flopping sandals, and social expectations: delicately, deliberately, sliding her pigeon-toed feet across the earth, bending forward and modestly shielding her face with a scarf or veil. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Oharu padding daintily along a street in a wisteria-patterned kimono; we discover at the end of this scene that she is an aging prostitute vainly trawling for a customer. But after two hours of harrowing cruelty and humiliation, the film ends with a stately lateral traveling shot that follows Oharu, now an itinerant Buddhist pilgrim, spiritually liberated from a life of suffering and exploitation, as she patiently, serenely puts one foot in front of the other. This, perhaps no less than Sylvie’s mannish stride in Housekeeping, is the walk of an emancipated woman.  

The Life of Oharu

It is not surprising that France, the nation that coined the term flânerie for a distinctively modern mode of urban wandering, also captured some of the greatest cinematic documents of this activity. When it came to women walking, French directors and actresses distilled the essence of a particular kind of solitary female perambulation. Eric Rohmer, for one, seemed always interested in the interplay between liberation and loneliness as represented by a woman in transit. His early short Nadja in Paris (1964) follows a foreign university student as she explores the city, floating with balletic lightness and poise along the trottoirs, walking and watching other people walk. Two decades later, the heroine of Le rayon vert (1986) meanders around France in its August lull, simultaneously aching for companionship and evading every effort made to connect with her. In the examples that follow, women walk alone for many different reasons, and the films capture the complicated, dynamic ambivalence of this radical act.

Above: Elevator to the Gallows; top of post: La notte

Walking After Midnight: Jeanne Moreau

Few actresses could do more with just ambling around than Jeanne Moreau. Whether she is strutting along the promenade in Bay of Angels (1963) or floating through the moonlit meadows in The Lovers (1958) like a ship in full sail, she is mesmerizing to watch. Very different from, say, Stanwyck’s, Moreau’s walk is sensually feminine—she takes small steps in her high heels, swinging her hips just enough to be provocative without being obvious—but there is also pride, elegance, and a touch of insolence in the erect carriage of her spine and the lift of her head, the way her arms hang, at once loose and controlled. Her gait has a rhythm; as Terrence Rafferty wrote in a tribute following Moreau’s death, she was another who “altered the tempo of films all by herself.” Moreau often played idle, bourgeois wives with time on their hands, women whose lives revolve around love—lost or found. But she remains, always, a singular presence on-screen, moving through the world like a woman who has everything, and nothing.

The film that fully established Moreau as a star is Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and its centerpiece follows her character, Florence, as she wanders Paris all night alone, searching for her lover, Julien (Maurice Ronet). (They were supposed to meet after he carried out their plan to murder her husband, but he got trapped in an elevator when the power was shut down.) The sequence is famous for Miles Davis’s score—an exhalation of peerless cool that blows through the film like a night breeze—and for the cinematography by Henri Decaë, who broke ground by using only available light from streetlamps and store-windows. But Moreau’s presence is so expressive that the music seems to emanate from her (Davis, in fact, improvised as he watched the footage), and the grainy shadows and hazy smears of light seem to be filtered through her numb, shattered exhaustion. As she moves toward the camera, at times she passes in and out of focus, suggesting the drift of her mind between sharp pangs of anxiety and trancelike despair.

Elevator to the Gallows

Returning to the film, I am always surprised by how brief Moreau’s sublime nocturnal ramble is—it has expanded in my memory—and the way it is broken up by extended scenes following other characters. But she is able, through the short separate vignettes, to create a sense of duration, of the length of the sleepless night and the toll of her fruitless search. At first her steps are brisk and purposeful, but as she fails again and again to find news of Julien, she starts to move more slowly, more aimlessly, muttering to herself so that passersby eye her suspiciously. She reaches out to touch parked cars as she passes, lightly caressing one in which she saw a man she fleetingly mistook for her lover. Her eyes begin to look slightly mad, gazing inward. Much of the time, the camera frames her from the shoulders up, and moves with her so that she stays in one place while the background scrolls behind her. She is alone in her anguished absorption, drifting haunted and unseeing through a world that has become senseless.

As Moreau observed, Elevator to the Gallows manages to suggest a powerful physical connection between the lovers Julien and Florence, who are never on-screen together except in still photographs seen at the very end—their happy romance frozen in the past. Their bond is underlined by a series of rhymes in their gestures and their environments. Julien is trapped in a small space while Florence roams, constantly in motion, but when she rattles the locked gates outside the building—a sound he hears like an echo of his own frustration—it underlines the sense that they are both caged, unable to reach one another. The lovers’ passionate attraction is also there in the way she walks: she speaks to Julien not only in a hushed internal monologue, but with her body; its sultry but contained sensuality is not a come-on to passing men but an expression of her longing for one man. When menacing rumbles of thunder give way to rain, she lets it drench her, streaming down a face that is now drained and abandoned.

Moreau takes another solitary stroll in Antonioni’s La notte (The Night, 1961), this time wearing a leaf-patterned sundress and drifting through the streets of Milan on a hot, sleepy Saturday afternoon. Her character, Lidia, slips away from a crowded, tedious book party for her author husband and meanders idly, first through downtown crowds, then along quiet, deserted streets. The spaces she strolls through are bland and impersonal, stripped of character and emptied of life. The urban fabric is a battleground on which glassy high-rises loom triumphantly above the defeated ruins of an older city, gravel lots and crumbling shells of churches and factories. In one of the most striking shots, Lidia appears ant-sized on the edge of the frame, dwarfed by a vast, blank white wall.

In her famous (or infamous) essay “The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” Pauline Kael wittily mocked Moreau’s promenade in La notte, writing of how the camera repeatedly watches her from behind and quipping, “Is the delicate movement of the derrière supposed to reveal her angst, or merely her ennui?” But this is unfair: Lidia watches more than she is watched, and La notte is structured around and directed by her dark, intense gaze, by turns dissatisfied, curious, amused, accusing, tragic. As she prowls the streets, she inverts expectations by eyeing men—who seem, on the whole, oblivious to her. She passes a security guard leaning against a wall eating a sandwich, and pauses, regarding him fixedly until he looks up; later, she stops outside a plate-glass window and unnervingly stares at a man working at his desk. She takes a taxi out to a weedy field next to a derelict factory, where she sees a group of young toughs gathered in a ring around two combatants, and rushes in recklessly to stop their brutal fistfight. Then she goes and observes some other young men shooting off rockets that soar into the air with a whoosh and a coiling trail of smoke. Later, at an all-night party in the sleek, modernist villa of an industrialist, Lidia stays apart, prowling around the outskirts of the action, watching the crowd of revelers moving together like a school of fish. From a terrace she looks down at her husband kissing another woman, but rather than seeming diminished, she always seems, thanks to her unblinking gaze and her self-directed movements, to be the one in control.

La notte

Antonioni wrote, “I find that the feminine sensibility is a far more precise filter than any other to express what I have to say. In the realm of emotions, man is nearly always unable to feel reality as it exists.” In La notte, Lidia’s husband, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni)—a celebrated writer adrift in self-doubt and apathy—is typical of the director’s men, whose entitled self-absorption and thoughtless sexual opportunism only accentuate how weak and childish and lost they seem. They lack the women’s ability to be alone, the clarity and directness of their relationship to their surroundings. The men respond to alienation with vague but frantic grasping, like insects bumbling against a pane of glass; women respond by taking a walk, letting reality brush against them like the breeze stirred by their movement.

The traditional view of the movie-watcher as a static, disembodied gaze, a voyeur, should give way to the concept of the spectator as a voyageur, or voyageuse, “a body making journeys through space,” argues Giuliana Bruno in her essay “Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image.” Architecture and cinema, she writes, are both “practices that engage seeing in relation to movement.” Thinkers from Walter Benjamin to Antonioni have explored the ways that traveling through the spaces of modernity shapes the experience of modern life. Contradicting the facile assumption, most influentially articulated by Laura Mulvey, that women in film are always passive objects of the male gaze, Bruno shifts the fundamental experience of watching a movie from one of consuming an image to one of inhabiting and traveling through space. Her thesis that “The language of cinema was born not out of static theatrical views but out of urban motions” finds an echo in the works of some women filmmakers who look at, and through the eyes of, female walkers in the city.

Cléo from 5 to 7

She Is a Camera: Women Filmmakers and Flânerie

“She becomes a woman who sees, not a woman who is seen as in the first part,” Agnès Varda says of the title character in her breakthrough film Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), speaking in her final, posthumous documentary Varda by Agnès (2019). This statement sums up the arc of the movie, which follows in more or less real time two hours in the life of Cléo (Corinne Marchand) as she waits for the results of a biopsy to learn whether she has cancer. When we first see her, leaving a fortune teller’s office and walking through the crowded streets of Paris, she is the object of gazes—the camera’s, the audience’s, and especially her own. She is an eyeful: strikingly tall and statuesque, wearing a tight-fitting sleeveless dress with large black polka dots, and an absurdly elaborate upswept blonde hairdo. (Halfway through the film, this is revealed to be a wig when she startlingly rips it off to reveal a short, equally blonde bob.) She is constantly seen around mirrors; pausing to admire herself in the first scene, she muses, “Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m more alive than the others.” The camera sticks close to Cléo, who thinks only about herself and her fears. Everything is a blur around her: the streets are cluttered with buses and cars, vendors and shop-signs and reflections in store windows, but nothing comes into focus.

An example of Varda’s love of sly wordplay, the title alludes to a French expression: the “cinq à sept” (five to seven) winkingly refers to the hours when lovers tryst before going home to their spouses. But Cléo’s love affair is with her own image, until the pivotal moment when she starts to look outside herself. This shift occurs precisely halfway through the movie, after Cléo, a singer on the cusp of minor stardom, storms out of a session with her songwriters, who openly view her as spoiled, shallow, and mediocre. After changing into a black dress—she is not so distraught that she neglects to select the right accessories before setting off—she leaves her apartment, and the camera carefully follows her progress down the stairs, across the courtyard, and along the street, marking the beginning of her real journey. Her staircase descent echoes the one at the beginning of the film, in effect starting over again. She pauses in front of yet another mirror; this time, troubled by what she sees, she takes off her silly, conical fur hat. (A little later, she will, with rather obvious symbolism, drop and break a small mirror.) Donning dark sunglasses, she starts to look at other people. She is fascinated and repelled by the exhibitionism of street performers: a man who swallows live frogs, another who drives a skewer through his arm. In a café, she regards couples bickering, old women gossiping, men reading. In the streets of Paris, Cléo sees death—a crowd gathered around the spot where a man has been murdered—and birth: a newborn being carried in an incubator like a tiny glass coffin.

Cléo from 5 to 7

Cléo from 5 to 7, like Wings of Desire and Four Nights of a Dreamer, is a film that embodies the pleasures of flânerie, that particular style of urban walking invented, or at any rate named, by the French in the mid-nineteenth century. The flâneur doesn’t walk to get somewhere, but to observe the passing scene; he is a consumer of images, responding to the world as if it were cinema. In “Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris” (“What one sees in the streets of Paris,” 1858), Victor Fournel writes of  “Going on infinite investigations through the streets and promenades; drifting along, with your nose in the wind, with both hands in your pockets, and with an umbrella under your arm, as befits any open-minded spirit; walking along, with serendipity, without pondering where to and without urging to hurry . . . giving yourself over, captivated and enraptured, with all your senses and all your mind, to the spectacle.” This experience of wandering city streets would become the organizing principle for modernist classics like Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and would inspire the genre of “city symphony” films (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, Rien que les heures, Man With a Movie Camera) that revel in the camera’s ability to swim with the ebb and flow of urban life. 

Flânerie, in the beginning, was almost exclusively a male pursuit. Women could not inhabit public spaces with the same freedom; the fact that calling a woman a “streetwalker,” or saying she “walks the streets,” means she is a commodity for sale, explains in large part why. (The old term tramp similarly links walking, vagrancy, and sexual availability.) “How many irritations for a single woman! She can hardly ever go out in the evening; she would be taken for a prostitute,” Jules Michelet wrote in La femme (1858–1860). “Should she find herself delayed at the other end of Paris and hungry, she will not dare to enter a restaurant. She would constitute an event; she would be a spectacle.” In Elevator to the Gallows, Florence is approached by a young man (played by director Louis Malle) who seems to mistake her for a lady of the pavements; and the night ends with her being arrested, along with some hookers, simply for being abroad in the wee hours without identification. The writer Georges Sand sallied forth dressed as a man, and exulted, “No one paid attention to me, and no one guessed at my disguise . . . No one knew me, no one looked at me, no one found fault with me; I was an atom lost in that immense crowd.”

Varda’s film expresses a complex, ambivalent view of what being seen means for a woman. Cléo goes into an art class where her friend is posing nude, ringed by students staring at her as they chisel away at their sculptures. When Cléo says she would be embarrassed in that position, afraid people would find flaws in her, the friend explains that the sculptors aren’t seeing her as a person, adding that she is “happy with her body, not proud of it.” But Cléo is proud of hers, part of why she is so upset about her possible illness—cancer is a flaw, to be sure. Walking alone in the Bois de Boulogne in the last section of the movie, she starts singing a song about her irresistible allure, striking seductive poses as she sashays down a staircase, vamping for an imagined audience. A woman walking in public is often treated as a spectacle, a provocation, a moving target for men’s eyes (like Oja Kodar parading through the streets in the “girl-watching” segment of Orson Welles’ F for Fake). Jeanne Moreau enters this darker territory at times: in Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid she models tight lace-up boots to please her aged, foot-fetishist employer; in Bay of Angels, her gambling-addict character dons an evening gown so tight at the hem that it forces her to adopt a hobbled, mincing trot that epitomizes her self-imposed degradation. 

Cléo wants to be noticed, to be admired, but in the end she gets something much better, someone to walk with her, to talk and listen to her. A voluble, kind-hearted soldier she meets in the park (Antoine Bourseiller) volunteers to accompany her to the hospital to get her test results; with his return to the Algerian war imminent, he too faces the real threat of death. Short, ordinary-looking, far removed from the artsy glamour of her world, he is the kind of person she would never ordinarily meet or give the time of day to—the stranger as savior. Throughout this final section, the camera falls into step beside Cléo and Antoine as they stroll and chat, finally tracking away as they walk slowly through the hospital gardens, as though drawing back tactfully from their newfound intimacy.

Twenty-three years later, Varda would make a very different film about a walking woman: Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), which she described as “a portrait in the form of a discontinuous traveling shot.” As Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), the titular drifter, hitchhikes around rural France, the camera repeatedly follows her with a gliding lateral movement, then loses her, suggesting how easily a woman who chooses to live “without roof or rules,” as the original title has it, can disappear. Mona defiantly rejects expectations of female behavior; she smells bad, she never says thank you, she resists settling down, she shoulders a heavy pack and sleeps rough. But she is no feminist role model: lacking any sense of purpose, she gradually disintegrates, the way her boots fall apart, flopping around her ankles. She ultimately falls in with a druggy crowd of petty criminals who loiter around a train station, and stumbles toward a lonely death in a ditch—where the movie regards her in its opening image, looking like a body from Pompeii. This film about vagrancy opens and ends with frozen immobility.

In Chantal Akerman’s Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a young filmmaker travels alone from one European city to another, presenting her movie. Almost every scene is set either in a hotel, a railway station, on a train, or in a taxi. The film opens with a series of extended, static shots, symmetrically framing a train platform or the sliding glass doors of a hotel; Anna (Aurore Clément) enters and exits these shots without fanfare. Then, in her first hotel room, she walks the length of the windows, pulling back the curtains, and the camera follows with a discreet sideways movement. This pattern continues throughout the film, alternating patiently immobile shots—often of Anna gazing out of windows or simply staring into space—with tracking shots as she walks down a street or a hallway or through the waiting room of a terminus. Sometimes, the camera stays put and watches as she walks away. She carries a single small duffel bag, and wears the same clothes throughout. Her gait is plain, utilitarian, with a slight slump in the shoulders; the rhythm of her clomping heels becomes a metronomic underscoring.

Though she is often in motion, the overwhelming impression she creates is of stillness; she is contained, muted, frozen. Her pale, delicate face looks like a medieval Flemish portrait; the few times Anna smiles—when she is with her mother, or after singing for her lover a song about a couple who commit suicide—the warmth is surprising, like the first flowers breaking through wintry ground. Anna has various “rendez-vous”: with an alarmingly blond German man she meets at a film screening; with a stranger in a train corridor; with a family friend between trains. All of them, with the exception of the meeting with her mother, are characterized by disconnection and incompleteness. Anna does not seem lonely, exactly—she is sought after, successful, loved—but somehow cut off from life. She travels, but every place looks the same. “What do you see in the street?” her lover asks, as she stands gazing out a hotel window in Paris. “Cars,” she answers.

Les rendez-vous d’Anna

Two years earlier, Akerman had made News from Home (1976), another film about a woman out on her own in the world. Here, the walker herself disappears, and all that’s left is what she sees. Constructed entirely of shots of Manhattan—streets, subways, store windows, endless pedestrians—it is a kind of city symphony, but the mood is very different from the usual celebration of urban vitality, bustle and flow. New York, in these images, seems oddly hushed, even when midtown crowds are swarming through the streets. Kids play stickball and open fire hydrants; men spade pizza into ovens; well-dressed women pace subway platforms. But they are all somehow like sleepwalkers, and the city itself, with its soft, saturated colors and abraded surfaces, looks like a dignified ruin, a place in quiet mourning for its lost glory. 

Akerman and her cinematographer, Babette Mangolte, plant themselves in subway cars and on street corners and the corridors of Times Square station, but—this being New York—for the most part no one looks at them. We never forget who the walker in the city is, though, because Akerman reads, in a rapid, hushed voice-over, letters from the mother in Belgium. They are all the same, letter after letter complaining that her beloved daughter does not write often enough, nagging her for more news, insisting that she is not going to be the kind of selfish mother who stands in the way of her child’s freedom, but then lamenting her own loneliness and fretting over her little girl’s welfare: “I’m worried about you all alone. I wish you could just be home with us.” The mismatch between the visuals and the words captures, better than anything could, the alienation of the expatriate, the voyageuse, and in particular the divided consciousness of a woman whose independence is shot through with guilt and still tethered to family and home.

The last part of the film uses various means of urban transportation to create traveling shots, harking back to the earliest days of cinema, when cameras were perched on locomotives to create “phantom rides.” Endless rows of buildings scroll past a train window; the straight ribbon of an avenue unfurls from the back of a car; the island of Manhattan recedes into gray spires from the rear of a ferry, until it becomes a place where there are no streets. News from Home is about being far away, about distances that can’t be crossed on foot. It is also about a woman looking, unblinking, at the world around her, enjoying her own invisibility, which tastes of loneliness and also freedom.

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