This is part of an occasional series I'll be doing about little connections between films – scenes that echo each other in some way, even if it's a couple of fleeting shots that may have been conceived as a tribute (and even if it's all only in my head!). Apologies if this sounds film-schoolish – that isn't the intention. Just being self-indulgent really, and sharing an aspect of movie-watching that I personally find rewarding.
There’s a playful scene in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, which reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt. (As mentioned in this post, Scorsese admits to being a big fan of Godard's movie.) The Contempt sequence, quite a famous one, has a nude Brigitte Bardot lying on her stomach – she plays Camille, the wife of the film's protagonist Paul, and they are in bed together. As they talk, she asks him to look at various parts of her body and assess them. “Do you like my ankles? My knees?” “What do you think of my behind?”
The back-story is that Godard was instructed by his producer to include a few nude shots of Bardot (what's the point of having Bardot in your film if she's covered up?) – something he was reluctant to do because it was such an obvious sop for the mass audience. Eventually, he retained some of his integrity by coming up with a scene where the sex symbol deconstructs herself (or her screen image) by explicitly drawing the viewer’s attention to parts of her body. The idea was to de-eroticise Bardot, though I'm not really sure that happened: I think the scene is still quite sexy in its own way, partly because of how it suggests the relaxed intimacy between a married couple who are very familiar with each other's bodies – it just isn't sexy in the way that more typical Brigitte Bardot films tended to be.
Now for a scene in Mean Streets, made a decade later. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is in a post-coital moment with Teresa (Amy Robinson). They banter, he gets defensive about something, she gets annoyed, jumps out of bed and stands at the window naked. They fool around some more, and Scorsese fools around too; when Charlie forms a gun with his hands, points it at Teresa and pulls the “trigger”, we hear a real gunshot on the soundtrack.
Then she starts to get dressed and tells him not to look. Charlie obeys, but after putting his fingers over his eyes he splays them so he can see her. He moves the hand covering his right eye from a vertical to a horizontal position and spreads his fingers out again – it's like a film’s clapboard opening and closing. Effectively, he's changing the angles, like a camera shifting perspective. (It reminds me of Godard's use of colour filters while photographing Bardot in that scene in Contempt.)
Finally there comes a moment where Charlie, still looking through his fingers, contemplates Teresa's bare bottom (partly covered by her shirt) from an unusual side-angle – there's nothing erotic about this image, in fact it's faintly ridiculous, and Charlie can't stop himself from giggling at the sight.
But the undercurrent to this lighthearted scene is that Charlie knows he’ll never be able to marry Teresa (his family has warned him not to get involved with her, and he’s an obedient, partly repressed Catholic boy). Being aware of the barrier between them, he keeps trying to distance himself from this girl. In this scene, I think the detachment takes the form of his “fragmenting” Teresa, so that he can view her as a set of dissociated parts rather than as a whole woman, a person with feelings. And it’s typical of Scorsese that he pays homage to a favourite film in such a way that he enriches his own movie in the process. There’s nothing gimmicky or derivative about this scene – it’s an echo, but it works perfectly well on its own terms.