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Bodily Exultation on Screen: Branagh’s Aesthetics of Sensuality in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

frPublié en ligne le 18 décembre 2018

Par Pascale Drouet

Résumé

Cet article s’intéresse à la présence du corps, plus particulièrement à son expressivité jubilatoire, dans l’adaptation cinématographique que Branagh fait de Much Ado About Nothing en 1993. Y est analysée l’esthétique de la sensualité que crée le cinéaste à l’aide de plans rapprochés, de plans alternés, de ralentis et de fondu-enchaînés, et que renforcent le motif baroque de l’eau et son symbolisme – absents de la pièce de Shakespeare. Il s’agit également de montrer comment cette esthétique s’enrichit de références artistiques variées, telles que la peinture (Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette), l’opérette (Véronique) et la comédie musicale (Singin’ in the Rain), créant ainsi un jeu d’écho, un effet de palimpseste qui donne davantage de relief à la jubilation des corps – tout en introduisant une certaine ironie.

Abstract

This paper focuses on the bodily presence, expression and exultation that become so significant in Branagh’s 1993 screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It analyses how his filmic aesthetics of sensuality is achieved, first, with camera movements, editing and film techniques – such as close-ups, slow motions, crosscuttings and dissolves – and, second, with the introduction of symbolic elements absent from the Elizabethan script, like the baroque motif of water. Finally, the paper examines how this aesthetics is enriched by varied allusions to paintings (The Happy Accidents of the Swing), light operas (Véronique) and musicals (Singin’ in the Rain), which create artistic echoes and palimpsest effects, and suggest additional layers of bodily exultation – whilst also introducing critically ironical glances.

11988. While playing Benedick on stage in a Judi Dench production, Kenneth Branagh was already haunted by filmic images. He retrospectively explained, in his 1993 introduction to the screenplay of Much Ado About Nothing,

One night during Balthasar’s song ‘Sigh No More, Ladies,’ the title sequence of this film played over and over in my mind: heat haze and dust, grapes and horseflesh, and a nod to The Magnificent Seven. The men’s sexy arrival, the atmosphere of rural Messina, the vigour and sensuality of the women, possessed me in the weeks, months and years that followed.1

2For his 1993 screen production, Branagh moved the scenery from Sicily to Tuscany, “a lusher and more verdant” place, as he put it, to convey “a magical landscape of vines and olives that seems untouched by much of modern life”2 – or, as is depicted in the screenplay, a “self-contained rural Italian paradise.”3 Presented as such, the place is reminiscent of Mother Earth, a horn of plenty (grapes, vines, olives) that also evokes the spirit of god Dionysus, his unrestrained sensuality and bodily exultation – leading to ecstasy. According to Samuel Crowl, “Shakespeare is imagined here by Branagh as the first of a long line of English authors who send their characters to Italy to discover the joys of the flesh.”4

3In this paper, I will focus on the bodily presence, expression and exultation that become so significant in Branagh’s screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. I will examine how his filmic aesthetics of sensuality is achieved, first, with camera movements, editing and film techniques – such as close-ups, slow motions, crosscuttings and dissolves – and, second, with the introduction of symbolic elements absent from the Elizabethan script, like the baroque motif of water. Lastly, I will show how this aesthetics is enriched by varied allusions to paintings (The Happy Accidents of the Swing), light operas (Véronique) and musicals (Singing in the Rain), which create artistic echoes and palimpsest effects, and suggests additional layers of bodily exultation – whilst also introducing critically ironical glances.

I. Camera movements, editing and film techniques

Close shots and close-ups on radiant flesh

4Right from the opening sequence, when the camera, with a panning frame movement, reveals Leonato’s household sitting on the grass and basking in the sun while sharing an idyllic picnic, focussing closely on suntanned bare feet and legs (those of Beatrice perched on an olive tree), suggestive low-necks and cleavages (those of Margaret), and bare male chests. Such metonymic moments give us a glimpse of bodies, relaxing and living outdoor, leisurely enjoying the fair climate in Tuscany.

The suntanned leg of Beatrice (Emma Thomson) perched on an olive tree in Tuscany, like a natural entity participating in the various shades of brown

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

5The riders’ triumphant arrival triggers the bodies into action. The sensuality now suggested with the series of close shots and close-ups is of a different type, no longer languid but dynamic, showing the riders’ opening shirts, the women’s light sandals as they rush up the stairs, the male and female bodies washing. Although there are bits of dialogue before the two parties face each other in Leonato’s welcoming courtyard (the top shot of the “X” formation), physical movements and a focus on radiant physicality predominate.

The inviting chests of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and Don Juan (Keanu Reeves)

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

The top shot of the “X” formation

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

6The dynamics of close-ups and long shots in the opening sequence may be tightly associated with the dynamics of the inside and the outside or, to put it differently, the dynamics of the intimate (the flesh) and the external world (the countryside), so that an atmosphere of free circulation is created between the private and the public spheres – the free circulation of desire. A remarkable illustration of this occurs when Beatrice and Hero, both barely-dressed, open the window that looks over the Tuscan landscape and reveals a depth of field that seems to invite romping.

Barely-dressed Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale) before the window opening over the Tuscan landscape

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

7In this indoor scene, inner excitement is suggested with the swift movements of bustling women running, bursting into laughter and playfully crossing over beds. The screenplay reads: “Steadicam moving frantically in this large, uncluttered, cool, dormitory-style bedroom. Catching clothes as they fly through the air. Aching bodices being undone, female flesh released all over.”5 This whirlwind effect forms a contrast with the technique of slow motion, though both betray moments of high emotion.

Bodily exultation and slow motion: capturing the intensity of desire

8As Pierre Berthomieu observes, slowing down creates an increase of shared emotional time. At the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing, the slow motion on the riders who are back from the war produces three effects: an epic effect, a hyperbolical effect and an effect of temporal euphoria. The prologue (the opening sequence of the idyllic picnic) invites us to feel the sweetness of time; the credits invite us to feel its dynamic flow and the energy of the bodies.6 In slow motion, the energy of the bodies also translates as sensual presence, as suggested in the screenplay: “Chests heaving. Taut leather thighs against horseflesh. Deeply tanned biceps and pectorals.”7 Branagh makes us feel this arrival, both human and animal, with our senses. The slow motion is combined with close-ups of male chests, but also of the horses’ puffing and blowing nostrils and foaming mouths, of their powerfully galloping legs and hooves, which send lumps of earth splashing away, and whose drumming we can hear. Thanks to both close-ups and slow motion, we intuit that horses and riders are one and symbolically provide us with a representation of sensuality – “the animal nature of humans, especially as the source of sensual appetites and desires.”8

9The slow motion makes us see and feel, first, the earth that spatters from under the horses’ hooves, and, second, the splashing water, like a spurt of sensuality, when one of the riders leaps straight off his horse into the Wash House (slow motion is here used in association with a high angle shot – an association to be found again in the fountain sequence).

Slow motion combined with high angle shot

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

10The combination of close-ups and slow motion creates what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari termed a “haptic” space (as distinguished from an optical space), that is, a close-range, tactile space that the eye invites us to touch and feel.9

11Desire lies and intensifies in the anticipation of realization. The sensual tension between the subject of desire and the object of desire is built up with a series of crosscuttings and dissolves.

From crosscutting to dissolves

12Most of the film is based on crosscutting, alternately showing adverse parties, male and female. Its beginning is no exception, with the men energetically splashing each other in the Wash House on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the women having a sensual shower, with much soap, inside the house. As Evelyn Gajowski sums up,

Branagh’s opening sequence heightens the contrast between the two groups: he visually insists upon distinctions between the group of women and the group of men. Rapid intercutting between female and male characters in the bathing sequence suggests the separateness of the two groups – feminine and masculine, invaded and invaders – yet the intense sexual attraction of each for the other as they prepare to come into contact with one another.10

13

Rapid intercutting between female and male characters in the bathing sequence

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

14It is as if, in this crosscut bathing sequence and the following one (dressing up and getting ready for the encounter), men and women celebrated bodily health and the healthiness of desire, which can be read as a prelude to the amorous parade to follow.

15Later on, once Don Pedro’s “Hercules’ labour” – “to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other”11 – is in good progress, Branagh moves from crosscutting to a series of dissolves; he thus unites with overlapping separate moments and places, and distinct bodily exultations: on the one hand, exhilarated Benedick walking and splashing in the fountain, and on the other hand, Beatrice elatedly swinging in a bower. These different ways of externalizing high emotions bring the two characters together without their knowing it and suggest that the much-waited-for love encounter is imminent.

16

Dissolves and overlapping bringing together Benedick’s and Beatrice’s distinct bodily exultation

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

17With these dissolves and the use of slow motion, Branagh blurs references to the space and time, so as to suggest that the characters in love now experience time more subjectively than ever and are living in a world of their own. They seem to leave the element of earth as if in need of another, more sensual element, in keeping with their elation: Beatrice can feel the caress of the air as she is swinging while Benedick is dancing and splashing with water – an element carrying significant symbolic power.

II. Water and its symbolism

“There are no truer faces than those that are so washed” (I.1.25-26)

18In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, there is only one reference to ‘water’ (and a late one at that, and not particularly significant, in act V, scene 1). Yet in the opening scene, Leonato and the Messenger are commenting upon Claudio’s uncle’s reaction at learning how bravely his nephew behaved in war:

Leonato Did he break out into tears?

Messenger In great measure.

Leonato A kind overflow of kindness: there are no faces truer than those that are so washed. How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping. (I.1.23-27)12

19Tears are here associated, on the one hand, with excess (“great”, “overflow”), with a joy so intense that it cannot be physically contained and, on the other hand, with genuine feelings (“truer”). If Branagh did not include this innocuous conversation in his screen adaptation, it seems that he retained something of the expressive quality of water, a visual and tactile element symbolically externalizing intimate emotions.

Opening up to potentialities: symbolism and baroque motif

20Water symbolises purification and renewal, i.e. an awakening to new potentialities, to what lies in waiting – like desire. As Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant observe in their dictionary of symbols:

The undifferentiated mass of waters stand [sic] for the infinite nature of the possible, containing all that is potential, unshaped, the seed of seeds and all promises of evolution, as well as all threats of reabsorption. To immerse oneself in the waters and to re-emerge without having been utterly dissolved in them, except by dying a symbolic death, is to return to the well-springs and regain fresh strength from that vast reservoir of the potential [sic].13

21In the film’s opening sequence, water retains its literal function of washing bodies but it may also read as a baptism of desire, in keeping with the idea that “[w]ater is the symbol of unconscious energy, the formless powers of the soul, of hidden and unrecognized motivation.”14 This is illustrated with the spectacular high angle shot of the anonymous rider leaping into the Wash House.

22Then the fountain, in Leonato’s maze-like garden, plays a major symbolic part and it becomes clear that water has to do with the baroque motif that underlies the film from beginning to end with the “sigh no more” song. As Berthomieu notes,

Like the world, like water, emotion alters, metamorphoses, denies itself or wears a mask so as to be better filled with wonder at its revelation. The original song “Sigh no more”, a delicate hymn to inconstancies, enables Branagh to literally endow his film with a baroque aesthetics. The forms are shifting, curving, irreducible to stillness or steadiness, expressing a vision based on the awareness of the world’s vulnerability.15

23Benedick’s euphoria at believing himself loved by Beatrice is externalised in a reaction that might be termed indecorous, i.e. jumping into the fountain and splashing like a child. In so doing, he somehow defies the laws of gravity and generates new shifting forms –myriads of drops come up before falling down – thus contributing to the baroque motif. And so does Branagh’s camera with a combination of crosscutting, high angle shots and dissolves, which challenges the unity of time and space within the film.

Benedick splashing in the fountain: myriads of drops participating in the baroque motif

© Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

24We spectators are transported into this dream-like world of sensuality and exultation, which questions our rational, routine landmarks and generates (through the dynamic images of splashing water and swinging) “lines of flight”16 that invite us to extend the baroque motif and establish imaginary correspondences between Branagh’s film and other artistic creations.

III. Artistic echoes and palimpsest effects

Singing in the rain

25In 2000, seven years after his screen version of Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh adapted another Shakespearean comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, which he transposed into a romantic musical, replacing sonnets and other games of wit with songs, and thus paying homage to American classics by George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In so doing, he also took his hat off to both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Hence, retrospectively, it comes as no surprise to find, in his Much Ado About Nothing, a visual allusion to Gene Kelly’s famous splashing sequence in Singin’ in the Rain.

26In the 1952 musical, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), drenched to the skin, tap dances and sings in the rain that he’s “happy again” and “ready for love” – with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) – just like Benedick who, before jumping into the fountain and splashing about, enthusiastically declares: “I will be horribly in love with her” (II.3.226-227) Freely and unconventionally playing with water is a physical and sensual way to express the “happy refrain” of feeling oneself both loved and desired.

27

Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) splashing

© Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain, 1952; Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

28This filmic allusion to the famous 1952 American musical (directed by both Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen) is no new discovery and has already been pointed out by film critics and scholars.17 Examining the female counterpart of bodily exultation – swinging – may lead to less well-trodden paths.

Swinging in the wind (or the “escarpolette” motif)

29When Beatrice is sent to bid Benedick come in to dinner, she has a knife in hand. This is an illustration of her ironical answer to Benedick’s mistakenly flirtatious, “You take pleasure, then, in the message?”: “Yea, just so much so as you may take upon a knife’s point.”18 Then, after Beatrice’s eavesdropping and being “limed”19, the prop (a metonymy of her mood) radically changes: the knife is swapped for a swing; aggressiveness gives way to exultation.

30The sequence showing Beatrice elatedly swinging may be reminiscent of the French eighteenth-century pictorial genre of the “Fêtes galantes” (feasts of courtship), a genre cherished and explored by pre-revolutionary French painters such as Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), François Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). What particularly comes to mind here is Fragonard’s painting, Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette / The Happy Accidents of the Swing,dating back to 1767.20 This painting shows an erotic scene of “badinage”, of light courtship, fraught with details conveying a sensual atmosphere: the dainty shoe flying through the air, the voyeuristic male characters, the luxuriant nature in which the scene is set, the heavenly light, and the statue of Cupid ready to draw an arrow and inviting to silence and discretion – the statue was inspired from Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s 1758 sculpture L’Amour menaçant / Love Threatening.21

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Happy Accidents of the Swing), 1767, oil on canvas, 81 cm x 64,2 cm (3178 in ×  2514 in)

© Wallace Collection, London, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Jean-Honoré_Fragonard#/media/File:Fragonard,_The_Swing.jpg

31In the lush Tuscan landscape, Cupid is embodied by both Ursula and Hero and is impishly evoked in Hero’s heroic couplet: “If it prove so, then loving goes by hap./ Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.”22 Thus, recollecting Fragonard’s painting, which clearly captures a moment of seduction and desire, while watching Branagh’s swing sequence, may add to the sensual quality of the scene.

32In Much Ado About Nothing, the swing sequence is accompanied with the “Sigh no more” musical motif, musically exhilarating, yet the underlying idea behind it is that “men were deceivers ever,” that love may not be immune to deceit and indeed sighs. At this point, it may evoke a French 1898 light opera (“une opérette”) called Véronique (the name of the main female character) whose music was composed by André Messager, and whose lyrics were written by Albert Van Loo and Georges Duval.

Lithograph by René Pean, 1898

© Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra, Paris

33The story in the libretto is as follows. Florestan is to marry Hélène, whom he has never met before. The very day of his wedding (that is to take place in the evening), he comes across another young lady named Véronique (Hélène in disguise) whom he woos – although nearly a married man. Enjoining him to push on the swing on which she sits (a way to cool his ardour yet to create sensuality), Véronique grows mischievously flirtatious while making light of his lies and duplicity in a famous duetand refrain: “Poussez, poussez l’escarpolette” (keep pushing the swing).23 Like the play by Shakespeare and the film by Branagh, the light opera humorously conveys the unavoidable entanglement of desire and frustration, love and inconstancies, exultation and suffering. Interestingly, here, the remote musical echo increases the flirtatious and sensual atmosphere but also its unstable quality.

34Branagh’s screen adaptation adds to the original play as it creates, on the one hand, specifically filmic framings and motions that enhance bodily exultation, and, on the other hand, especially with water and the swing, visual echoes that contribute to the sensual atmosphere of the sequence and remind the viewer of the risks and tribulations that desire entails. His filmic aesthetics of sensuality works as an interesting counterpoint to the highly rhetorical quality of the play, a play about the war of the sexes, more particularly the unrelenting verbal jousting, the battle of wit between Beatrice and Benedick. In the end, it seems to achieve some reconciliation between mind and body, rhetorical skills and genuine feelings, intellectual constraint and emotional spontaneity.

35At the beginning of the story, the men are back from the war and, as Claudio puts it, “war thoughts/ Have left their places vacant, in their rooms/ Come thronging soft and delicate desires.”24 At the end, another war is over, that between men and women, between disdainful lovers at loggerheads or lovers who cannot be trusted: minds and bodies, intellectual control and physical spontaneity, are finally reconciled and united by requited love and marriage bonding in what seems to be the climax of exultation expressed through holding hands, dancing and singing. As the screenplay goes: “All the couples dance and sing merrily in front of us, and we see one joyous image of each of them”.25 The camera movements “catch the late afternoon sun, the sound of happiness floating on the air, and a breath-taking view of fairy tale countryside, which allows us to freeze and happily dissolve to black.”26 Yet the lyrics of the “Sigh no more” song, which cannot be dissociated from the final sequence, remind us that bodily exultation is only a moment in time, a moment of being, part of impermanence, “to one thing constant never.”

Notes

1  Kenneth Branagh, “Introduction”, in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie by Kenneth Branagh. Photographs by Clive Coote, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, p. viii.

2  Ibid., p. xiv.

3  Kenneth Branagh, “The Screenplay”, in ibid., p. 5. The film was shot in villa Vignamaggio in Greve in Chianti.

4  Samuel Crowl, “The marriage of Shakespeare and Hollywood”, in Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks (eds.), Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema, Madison, Teaneck, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002, p. 116.

5  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie by Kenneth Branagh. Photographs by Clive Coote, op. cit., p. 5.

6  See Pierre Berthomieu, Kenneth Branagh. Traînes de feu, rosées de sang, Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 1998, p. 29.

7  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay…, op. cit., p. 11.

8 Oxford English Dictionary on line, OUP, 2017, “sensuality, n.”, 1. a.

9  Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, transl. Brian Masumi, London/New York, Continuum, 2004, p. 543-551.

10  Evelyn Gajowski, “‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more’: Genesis Deconstructed in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing”, Journal of Theatre and Drama, vol. 5-6, n°5-6, 1999-2000, p. 108.

11  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay…, op. cit., p. 38.

12  William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, ed. A.R. Humphreys, London and New York, Routledge, The Arden Shakespeare, 1994.

13  Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, transl. John Buchanan-Brown, London, Penguin, 1994, p. 1081.

14  Ibid., p. 1089.

15  Pierre Berthomieu, Kenneth Branagh. Traînes de feu, rosées de sang, op. cit., p. 34 (my translation).

16  A phrase taken from Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, op. cit.

17  See, for example, Samuel Crowl, “The marriage of Shakespeare and Hollywood”, in op. cit., p. 119.

18  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay…, op. cit., p. 148.

19  Ibid., p. 50.

20  Jean-Honoré Fragonard, L’Escarpolette, ca. 1767, oil on canvas, 81 cm x 64,2 cm (3178 in ×  2514 in), Wallace Collection, London.

21  See, for a detailed description of the painting, Nicolas Sainte Fare Garnot, “Réflexions sur L’Escarpolette d’Édouard André”, in De Watteau à Fragonard. Les fêtes galantes, Ouvrage publié à l’occasion de l’exposition au Musée Jacquemart-André, du 14 mars au 21 juillet 2014, Bruxelles, Fonds Mercator, 2014, p. 28.

22  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay…, op. cit., p. 50.

23  Extract from the swing duet in Véronique.

24  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Screenplay…, op. cit., p. 20-21.

25  Ibid., p. 83.

26  Id.

Pour citer cet article

Pascale Drouet (2018). "Bodily Exultation on Screen: Branagh’s Aesthetics of Sensuality in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)". Shakespeare en devenir - Les Cahiers de La Licorne - Shakespeare en devenir | N°13 - 2018.

[En ligne] Publié en ligne le 18 décembre 2018.

URL : http://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/index.php?id=1499

Consulté le 18/01/2019.

A propos des auteurs

Pascale Drouet

Pascale Drouet is Professor in Early Modern Literature at the University of Poitiers, France and a member of the CESCM (umr 7302). Her publications include Le vagabond dans l’Angleterre de Shakespeare (2003), Mise au ban et abus de pouvoir (2012), De la filouterie dans l’Angleterre de la Renaissance (2013), Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2014). Her latest co-edition (with P. Grosos) was Shakespeare au risque de la philosophie (2017). She was textual editor for Norton Shakespeare Henry VIII (Third Series, 2015). She is the general editor of the online journal Shakespeare en devenir. She is also a translator of 20th-21st century drama (Howard Barker; David Greig) and poetry (Galway Kinnell; Emily Grosholz).

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