Sunset Boulevard

Last week, my “Television-Film Aesthetics” class screened Sunset Boulevard (1950), which I was eagerly looking forward to. I had seen it before, but was now able to pick up on the nuances through an academic setting. This film plays with the histories of some of its star-studded cast, and subtly uncovers the artificiality of Hollywood. Before I get into my notes on some of the film’s motifs, I would like to briefly talk about the mise-en-scène. French for “placing on the stage,” the mise-en-scène is purely visual: it includes the entire set, lighting, costumes, décor… the list goes on.

The film uses classic noir lighting (chiaroscuro and deep shadows), extreme camera angles, and framing used especially for emphasis. Other techniques include filming night for night, the use of extreme weather (in this case, a rainstorm), and urban settings. The flashback structure is vividly put into effect here, in order to describe a fatalistic and non-linear narrative.

Mirror Image: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a movie star on the verge of being forgotten, obsessively lingers over her Silent Era past. Her gestures are expressive and she behaves the way she would act in a silent film. The first onscreen appearance of Norma shows her looking down from her balcony, which immediately positions her power over Joe Gillis (William Holden), who stands below looking up. She’s wearing sunglasses—an early indication that she is not who she appears to be. More clues to support this can be found during the scenes where Norma stands before a mirror (used as a motif), which reflect on her dual personalities. Noticeably, she wears a lot of leopard print clothing that seem to depict her predatory and sensual aspects. Not to mention, Norma is completely driven by the story of Salomé (in fact, she has spent years writing a script for it), which foreshadows Norma’s femme fatale side.

The House: For a good portion of the movie, the setting takes place in the confined home of Norma Desmond. She keeps herself inside her dilapidating house, reclusive from the reality of the outside and ever-changing world. The barred front doors evoke a prison-like feeling, and Norma’s depressive décor (topped with seemingly hundreds of framed photographs of herself) serve as a reminder of how dark and watchful the house is. You could even say that the house represents Norma herself. For instance, on New Year’s Eve, Joe tries to leave the home while wearing formal clothes (reminiscent of the Silent Era) that Norma has bought for him. As he exits the front, the barred door latches onto Joe’s pocket watch. At first, I saw this as a portrayal of how Joe doesn’t fully belong to a past era that was forced upon him. He isn’t used to carrying a pocket watch around or the style of clothing he now wears, and there’s a sense of clumsiness that comes with it. But then I see that the house is practically grabbing at him to prevent his leave, which parallels Norma’s actions of finding ways for Joe to stay.

The Curb: Another thing to note is the curb, which is the first image shown on screen. Not only is it significant to the title, but also its location. “Sunset Boulevard” appears in stenciled capital letters—stark white against the dull and dirty grey. But why film the curb and not a street sign? While Hollywood is thought of to be a glamourous place, the concrete symbolizes the grittier side of Hollywood—another concept of dualism. “Sunset” also indicates the end of a day, which subtly refers to Norma’s age and the end of her silent film career.

That’s it for my notes I’ve hastily scribbled in the dark theater, but before I end this post, I cannot forget to mention seeing a talking Buster Keaton on the big screen! Regardless that he only had about five seconds of screen time (and said just one word), it was a great moment for this little admirer to behold.

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