Identifying with a film’s central character; Starling in ‘Silence of the Lambs’

How does the director encourage us to identify (align ourselves) with the character ‘Starling’ in the opening sequence of ‘Silence of the lambs’?jodi_foster_as_clarise

The director within the opening sequence of the film wants us to identify with the main character, Starling. Many critics believe that if you do not feel for/align yourself, in the first 12 minutes, with the film’s central character, then it is not effective in terms of creating an emotional response. At the start, we see Starling alone, through a long shot, emphasizing the sense of loneliness, appearing as if she is in pursuit or in fact being chased, as she climbs up a hill with a rope, showing her as a possible victim. The very isolated Gothic setting of the autumnal woodlands adds to the same effect of victimisation and the high-angle adds to the effect of her seeming vulnerable, without power. This scene also conforms to our cultural expectations of seeing a lone woman in the woods, as this is a generic convention within horror.

We see her running with a determined look on her face and the diegetic sound of her breathing heavily as well as the fog/mist within the woods is again similar to classic horror conventions. The idea of her running, theoretically could signify her as a character who is running away from something deep within her past and that she wants to rid herself of anything that would obstruct her goals in life. Not only can we hear the diegetic sounds of birds but, the name ‘Starling’ is an actual name of a bird, which is small and delicate yet very ordinary. However, this image of Starling as seeming vulnerable is subverted, when it is made clear she is testing herself physically on a FBI assault course. We then cut to the next shot which features sign posts on a tree that read ‘Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love It!’ obviously it is a motivational sign but it does link to the twisted logic behind a serial killer’s psyche. The image itself is a central image for Starling as we can see her struggle, with the signs linking to the many aspects of her life and her current ambition to get where she wants to be as she climbs up the ranks of the FBI, therefore it suggests that the opening of her climbing up a rope had symbolic connotations.

We then cut to Starling going into the FBI Academy building where she has been requested to see Crawford. Through out, we now see Starling as a victim of being within a male dominated industry/sector. We see her enter an elevator with her male colleagues towering over her wearing the same red uniform. The use of mise-en-scene through her costume/clothing is key here as the colour grey highlights that she is the only woman within that lift, but she stands firm and proud so that we align ourselves with her strength of character but it can be said that the fact that her size and costume is shown in such a way, it show that she struggles to gain respect from her colleagues. Whilst in Crawford’s office, we see how vacant her facial expressions actually are as we cut to her point of view as she reads the past newspaper articles regarding the serial killer, ‘Buffalo Bill’. Notably, the music starts when we cut to the P.O.V shot which, acts as a narrative cue for the audience, the main focus of the film’s overarching narrative. However, in the book, this particular scene begins with Crawford looking at the news articles with Starling looking in at him. Again, the director’s choice of changing the roles of the characters within the scene, shows, Starling as being vulnerable, she is being watched, the director has purposefully chosen to have such a voyeuristic shot.

Her clothing within this scene, is still unchanged, she is still wearing her sweaty, outdoor clothes. This shows that she is not a stereotypical woman, as she does not bear any superficial qualities within her, she is not phased by her appearance, however she is wearing pearl earrings which does hint at her slight femininity. When she is talking to Crawford about her previous experiences/achievements within the FBI, she is quick to correct him regarding her academic abilities, stating that she got an A- rather than a high A-grade. This proves how precise and self-motivated she is, she constantly wants to better herself, plus it shows that she is self-effacing which invites yet more admiration of her by audiences. Here we could say that Starling has a mental toughness when talking about the murders but as soon as Crawford mentions that she has to interview Dr. Hannibal Lector, she repeats and whispers his infamous nickname, ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’, interestingly here at the end of this sequence she is seen to be a victim of her own vulnerability to Lector before she has even met him, because of her familiarity with him.

We then cut to yet another Gothic setting which is an Extreme Long Shot of the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital. The old architecture contrasts to the FBI building which was modern and clean, so by cutting to the outside of the building immediately after referring to Lector, it is a narrative cue by having a negative image to correspond with the negative character.  Also the cut is fast from the scene prior when we hear Chilton talking about Lector, stating to Starling that ‘he’s a monster!’ The close up of Chilton’s face is quite intrusive as his facial expressions gives us the sense that he is quite an edgy, corrupted character as he talks to Starling quite suggestively, which highlights his attempt to sexualise Starling, showing her as vulnerable. The next cut is so that we see Starling wearing smart, professional clothing, which is seen to be quite a masculine attire however her blouse is silk and she is wearing a necklace which are simple touches by the director to still give her central character some form of femininity.The variety of close-ups of Chilton’s facial expressions show the extent of his provocative dialogue towards Starling because he is trying to sexually objectify which creates a contrast to Lector as being a threat to her gender whereas Lector is a general threat to society. The neatness of his desk speaks that he is a man that has very little to do signifying an ambiguous side to his character. His office is darkly lit which is yet again a Gothic element.

Once Starling rejects Chilton’s provocative insinuations he briskly walks away, making her having to follow the male and through the high-angled shots, it emphasizes her vulnerability in her power. We follow both of the characters as they descend further down into the institute with the bars stating how maximum the security unit is, foreshadowing they we are about to meet Lector with the eerie lighting again cleverly lit red, to signifying the danger of Lector as well as empowering the scene, creating a highly unnerving atmosphere. The director’s choice to have a slow, panoramic shot of the office in the unit allows the audience to again see the extent of security measures the officers have to take, by seeing weapons on the wall.

After Starling has spoken to really the only friendly face in the institute, we then cut to her waiting for the bars to unlock which signifies the gates of hell opening. Again the use of an Extreme Long shot as well as the low key lighting emphasizes the Gothic element of the cells appearing like a medieval dungeon. The pace of editing here is slow to create more and more suspense as Starling walks towards Lector’s cell as she paces the criminally insane inmates behind bars like animals, bearing witness to vulgar insults, here she is extremely vulnerable. Through the slow panning we then see Lector stood in the middle of his glass cell as if he was already waiting for her which adds to the disturbing atmosphere. His tone when talking is mysterious but yet polite and civilised and his facial expressions again through close ups, similar to those of Chilton, shows that his eye contact does not move from Starling throughout.

After Lector’s ambiguous introductions, Starling makes a remark about how he ate his victims which as we can see cuts Lector quite deeply in which he changes his behaviour drastically, becoming threatening and disturbing, clearing having an effect on her. Again, through a close-up Lector is seen sniffing, almost like a predator, as he is able to detect Starling’s perfume and skin cream scent. His advanced sense of smell makes Starling extremely vulnerable as he is picking up intimate details about her, intruding on her personal life. In a way the roles are reversed between the two characters, it is as if Lector is psycho-analysing Clarisse, he is asking her all of the questions. ‘Fly back to school little Starling’ clearly shows has he is now mocking her, as he has been able to manipulate the interview for his own satisfaction, referring to her name as a little, inferior, weak bird, obviously mocking her.  He then turns animalistic when he mentions how he ate one of his victims liver in which he starts to violently shout at her to leave. She is traumatized by her encounter with Lector as she then walks fast towards the exit. Within the next two shots, we see inmate throw semen at her; here she is a victim of both the case, but more significantly Lector as she has let him get to her, allowing him to talk about her childhood in Virginia. Before she leaves, Lector shouts at her to come back telling her to ‘search deep within herself’. She then leaves the asylum. After this intense and emotional scene, we as the audience need a comedown to calm our emotions where the film cuts into a flashback sequence, showing us a glimpse of her childhood in Virginia with her father.

Throughout the opening sequences of the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ we go from seeing her appearing as if she is strong, brash women fighting for respect within the FBI, but as we can see in the scene with Lector, she is extremely vulnerable and she is emotionally conflicted with her past/childhood. The director has intended to apply this contrast within the central character of the film so that the audience can align with both sides of her character; she has two sides to her personality, masculinity and femininity however she is both vulnerable as well as being a victim.


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