Within a scene, a character’s attempts to camouflage their true intentions are futile in the face of the camera’s unique ability to eliminate deceit. In Lorene Scafaria’s film Hustlers (2019), the overarching themes of dependence and solidarity are revealed by the camera as the women work to restart their life with a deceptive scheme. To account for the relationships between Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), I will put forth contrasting views from Jean Epstein and Béla Balázs taken from Critical Visions in Film Theory vol. 1 (2011) on exactly what work of the camera portrays their dependence most honestly to the audience, through movement or close-up on gesture and faces. To provide a basis for the discussion of these views, the scene where the women cheer “to sisters” before drugging the first man in their scheme will be analyzed. While both Epstein and Balázs converge on the ideal use of the film medium to reveal these intricacies, in the “to sisters” scene Balázs’ account of the close-up furthers the psychological dependencies and performances of the human face that Epstein leaves behind. Balázs’ account reveals the role of unadulterated expression in Hustlers and how these close-ups unveil the friendship that must remain for their plot to succeed.
The scene chosen is the representation of the group’s pinnacle of success following the 2008 financial crisis. It begins with a medium close-up of Mercedes cradling the face of the man the group intends to swindle, and it’s clear by his gaze that he is enraptured. She glances over his shoulder to greet “her sisters,” and the camera quickly pans over to a long-shot (the only of the entire scene) of Ramona, Destiny and Annabelle walking in formation over to the couple, with Ramona in the lead. Already they stand out from the other patrons in the bar, both in attire and how they carry themselves. They greet each other fondly, and once Ramona has shaken the man’s hand, she makes quick work to order a round of drinks while Mercedes, Destiny and Annabelle work to hold his attention. In one frame, the man is looking over to Ramona to see what she’s doing, and Mercedes physically turns his head away with her hands. They compliment his handsomeness, cradle his head between their hands, lay a hand on his shoulder; all very physical gestures to both distract and make him comfortable. The girls are all smiles, and the dialogue moves quickly and feels natural and flirty. When the time comes to toast “to sisters,” the girls are no longer looking at the man, but smiling brightly at each other. The camera moves back to reveal them positioned across from other bar patrons, who are in business attire, seem less engaged with each other, and are in small pairs; unlike the configuration that Ramona, Mercedes, Destiny and Annabelle are in.
What makes the scene, though just over a minute long, move so fluidly while conveying without words the larger motivations behind the women’s plot? Epstein’s fascination with film’s work to represent reality beyond human perception points to the movement of the images on screen as a basis for this polished performance. Using a medium specificity argument, Epstein posits that “by developing the range of our senses and by playing with the perspective of time, cinematography renders perceptible through sight and sound individual beings we thought invisible and inaudible and divulges the reality of certain abstractions,” (Epstein, “Photogénie and the Imponderable”, p.255). To apply this, it is important to consider the group’s position in the bar in stark contrast to the other customers. The man the group is swindling doesn’t exist to the viewer until he is made present by the women, and even then, he seems secondary to their larger goal. He is the first of many men in this plot, and his reaction to the women’s attention seems masked by how effortlessly the women interact and work together. The shots actively engage the viewer to move with the camera, and the women control this movement from the entrance of Ramona, Destiny and Annabelle, to Mercedes moving the man’s head. Time seems sped up, as the dialogue is quick and simple to prevent any serious contemplation on the part of the man, and to keep moving toward their larger goal of leading him to the strip club. The medium of film and the camera work that speeds up pacing as directed by the women allow the viewer to see the hidden intentions behind every gesture.
Not only does the cinematography work to expand the viewer’s senses to be able to perceive those subliminal messages, but the medium also works to unmask the intentions of characters. On Epstein’s account, the camera produces a reveal-response action that engages the viewers with the text. The camera works to present characters objectively and has the power, beyond the capabilities of the naked eye, to reveal layers to plot through expressions and gestures. And in those mechanisms, “there the most alluring falsehoods lose their forces while the truth bursts forth on first sight, strikes the spectator with the unexpectedness of the evident, and arouses an aesthetic emotion, a sense of infallible wonderment and pleasure,” (Epstein, p.257). The man’s perception of the women’s interest in him seems plausible, but the viewer notices that through quick panning, close-up shots of the women’s faces, and the hidden form of Ramona preparing drinks, the women are not in fact interested in the man at all, but in the opportunity he presents. The women instead engage more honestly with each other, and the superficiality of their interactions with the man is made evident to the viewer. While this describes the revelation that the camera works to produce, the reaction by the viewers to this scene can be one of disgust when thinking ethically, but more of fascination when considering their performance. Their movements around each other and the quips back and forth seem too real to be rehearsed, yet the viewer is privy to the knowledge that this is part of a larger staged plot. What Epstein argues is that the camera works to make this deception cohesive and unfolding too quickly to be stopped, which engenders an almost engrossed response to a creation that only the film medium can provide.
While cinematography works to unveil the motivations of characters, there seems to be a certain shot that can reveal the psychology of actions, not thoroughly investigated by Epstein, better than any other. While Balázs finds similar ground with Epstein in the medium specificity realm, he posits that the close-up is that camera action that works most efficiently to unveil those aspects that are unobvious and unknowable in any other form. From the very beginning of the “to sisters” scene, it can be argued how “the close-up can show us a quality in a gesture of the hand we never noticed before when we saw that hand stroke or strike something, a quality which is often more expressive than any play of the features,” (Balázs, “‘The Close-Up’ and ‘The Face of Man'”, p.128). Specifically with Mercedes’ gestures, she leads the man the group and leads the effort in his distraction with the repetition of cradling his face between her hands. It’s oddly intimate for a first-time meeting and doesn’t seem to fit within the context of their relationship and that of the other bar patrons, but it works sufficiently to achieve her goals. The gesture comforts and guides within a new, unsafe territory unbeknownst to the man, and the new meaning given to this gesture can only be achieved and revealed, according to Balázs, through the close-up.
In addition to the focus on gestures and movement, the scene being discussed features close-ups that work to define the relationships and boundaries that the women make in order to achieve their goal. While Balázs argues one close-up may be used to focus a viewer’s attention to a single interaction, “A multitude of close-ups can show us the very instant in which the general is transformed into the particular. The close-up has not only widened our vision of life, it has also deepened it,” (Balázs, p. 129). The close-ups of Annabelle, Mercedes and Destiny as Ramona is preparing their drinks show comfortable interactions among friends, but also the very beginning and crucial moment to discharge their plan with precision. While the scenes that follow seem to blur the images of the men to the point where they are unrecognisable, this scene makes the point to concentrate the women’s efforts in the very first step of their plan. The women are shown to look repeatedly to each other, finding comfort in one another and the strength to go forward. Balázs’ close-ups admit a weakness in their confidence, in that they depend on each other for the plan to work, as they are aware of the risks and larger awards that the plot can lay upon them, and that the medium and the choice of this camera shot is the ultimate detector for this kind of psychological rapport.
The scene in which the group toasts “to sisters” implicates each one of the women in the plot to steal the man’s money, but also links them to a greater cause of companionship and escape from financial hardship. Ramona, Destiny, Mercedes and Annabelle all work together to put on a facade of interest and flirtation to distract the man, and through playful gestures and body language they have him in their trap. But what Balázs’ theory on the close-up puts forth is a more subjective ambition than what Epstein’s fluidity of cinematography can explain and frames each woman’s personal performance within the larger collective ambition. Balázs’ theory puts the scene in more critical context within the narrative and brings truth to expression in the face of the character’s direct attempts to subvert honesty.
by Lauren Mattice
Lauren Mattice is a junior at the University of Southern California studying film and philosophy.