Feet Conveying Emotion
As everyone knows, the emotional state somebody is in manifests itself in the person’s facial expression, whether they try to hide it or not. There is in fact an entire science dedicated to microexpressions and gestures. Oftentimes, though, as the characters’ hands are occupied with an action, directors opt to substitute a character’s feet for their face to convey their present state.
Of course, one would not need to look any further than auteur Quentin Tarantino. With exception (Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained come to mind), Tarantino is known to feature very loving shots of his female characters’ feet. A memorable scene is when Vince Vega (John Travolta) meets Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) for the first time in Pulp Fiction (1994). Vince arrives in the Wallace’s household and is told to wait by Mia until she comes out as she finishes her dose of cocaine. Vince then occupies himself with a scotch and a song on a record. We don’t see Mia’s face at all as she comes out; instead what we see are her bare feet as she walks toward Vince. She stops to take the needle off the record. She then puts her right foot behind her left and tells Vince, “Let’s go.”
As she walks, the tone is somewhat intimidating. However, when she finally meets Vince, we can see that Mia is conveying both a sentiment of impatience as well as flirtatiousness. We know that without seeing Mia’s face at all. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t be surprised if this shot took multiple takes before Tarantino was happy with the orientation of Uma Thurman’s feet.
Tarantino may have a raging foot fetish, but like all great directors, he made sure that everything in his shot compositions served a very specific purpose. As Django Unchained shows, Tarantino isn’t one to insert foot shots at random, even if he has female cast members to work with.
Another master of mise-en-scene is Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. The scene that comes to mind with him is when we meet Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi) in 2046. We see her feet as she tosses and turns, attempting to sleep through the ruckus coming from Chow’s (Tony Leung) room.
We don’t need to see Bai Ling’s face at all to recognize her discomfort. It’s all too obvious when we see the moving around of Bai Ling’s feet and the ambient noise. Director Wong always had very vibrant color compositions in his movies. We see how Bai Ling’s blood-red nail polish stands out against her off-white skin, which itself stands out against her drab apartment. We can see the wall shaking in the background, but the camera’s attention is squarely focused on Bai Ling’s feet.
Bernard Gray, in Retribution, had an interesting contrast in his use of his characters’ feet. At the beginning of the film, we see Marcus (Walter DeShields) kill his latest victim (Tiffany Webb) in his love-inspired murders. Likely due to budgetary constraints, Gray opted to show the victim’s feet as she squirmed (and eventually stopped) as opposed to explicitly depicting Marcus stabbing her.
Later on in the movie, we meet Jill (Siying Chen). When the scene cut back to Marcus’ apartment, the camera follows Jill’s feet as she walks toward Marcus. It’s clear that unlike the victim, Jill is in a position of power over Marcus. Both the height of Jill’s heels as well as the unsettling sound they make against the wooden floor with every one of her footfalls convey that.
As you may recall, I saw The Living recently. After the widower (Danny Plaza) had his confrontation with the magician (Michael Stinton) who made his wedding ring appear in his hand, he frantically searched for the ring as it had been dropped on the ground. The date (Chen again) tries to calm the widower down, but he brushes her off. Feeling frustrated, she turns around and walks off while the widower continues his search for the ring.
These were but a few instances of directors using characters’ feet to substitute for their faces to convey their emotional state. I can think of quite a few more, such as Jenny (Robin Wright) popping a heel out of her shoe when discussing her lack of direction with Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks). Especially in a movie like The Living, which was silent, it is an example of the director having to show without telling, and being further handicapped by not showing the character’s face onscreen. Care has to be taken, but it is a technique that proves effective, ultimately.