Silence of The Lambs screens on SBS Australia Friday 9 March at 9:45pm.
“Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body?” Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) asks FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) deep into Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs. She doesn’t respond, but Lecter, who has a matchless insight into human behaviour, knows the answer is yes. And after what we’ve seen of Clarice’s experience of her male-dominated world, we know she agrees.
Clarice is often the only woman in the room – a point strikingly made early in the film when she enters an elevator filled with men, interchangeable in red shirts, who tower over and literally look down on her. Like most of the men she encounters, they stare at Clarice in an inquisitorial and voracious way, as if trying to figure her out, belittle her and devour her body all at once.
Marked by an oppressive feeling of dread from start to finish, The Silence of the Lambs is a Hollywood film with a formidable legacy. It is the last film – and only the third – in the history of the Academy Awards to win the "big five": Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Adapted), Best Actor and Best Actress. Anthony Hopkins is unforgettably creepy as Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, every line delivered for maximum discomfort. But it’s Jodie Foster’s smart and fierce embodiment of Clarice – on the hunt for serial killer Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb (Ted Levine) – that is the main attraction.
"When Clarice exits a shot, the camera often stays with the man she is walking away from or running past so we continue to watch him looking at her as she goes."
She wasn’t Demme’s first choice – he wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, but she was troubled by the darkness of the material. But Foster was hungry for roles that would continue to push her out of her comfort zone after her Oscar-winning performance as a rape victim in The Accused (1988). As with all iconic characters, it’s now almost impossible to imagine any other actor but Foster as Clarice.
Clarice Starling marked a turning point in Foster’s career, but also in the depiction of strong women in movies, especially within the thriller and crime genre. Here, women were conventionally confined to roles as victims or sexualised and decorative sidekicks. Clarice resists all these labels. In addition, The Silence of the Lambs’ definition of strength isn’t one where women perform superhuman tasks in the manner of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien films or more recently Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
As Foster explained in a 1991 New York Times profile, The Silence of the Lambs was unique in its depiction of strength because it was grounded in reality: “It’s not about steroids and brawn, it’s about using your mind and using your insufficiencies to combat the villain.” Those insufficiencies Foster refers to are Clarice’s vulnerabilities, which Demme mobilises to reveal her real complexity. It’s those qualities that might be defined as weak by some – her empathy and veracity – that make her an outstanding agent.
In Foster’s capable hands, Clarice is not simply a cipher for either absolute force or weakness. We see this when she makes her first journey towards Lecter’s glass cage. She’s excited and tough, her decisive strides reflecting both her enthusiasm and confidence. But of course, part of Clarice’s excitement is also nervous – she knows the extent of Lecter’s depravity; she’s fascinated and appalled by what she’s about to get up close with. Later, when one of the other inmates acts aggressively towards her, her reaction when she returns to her car isn’t to maintain a façade of strength, but to reveal just how justifiably shaken she really is.
The Silence of the Lambs is a film about a FBI trainee and the two serial killers her professional life becomes entwined with – one she relies on for his chilling perceptiveness, the other she needs to track down before he kills another woman. That is its basic narrative outline. But it is also a film about looking and how we – especially women – are seen.
Clarice isn’t just any Quantico student. She is young, attractive and one of only a handful of women we see in this male-dominated space. Demme is sensitive to the particularly hostile environment within which he has Clarice test her strength. Male characters repeatedly engage with her at a surface level, assessing her abilities based on what they see. When Clarice exits a shot, the camera often stays with the man she is walking away from or running past so we continue to watch him looking at her as she goes.
Clarice’s walk towards Lecter’s cell is marked by unwanted, leering glances and lewd comments from other inmates. While Clarice is there to dissect Lecter, he starts analysing her immediately based almost exclusively on her appearance. Clarice has to remind Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald) when he flirts with her that what he sees is not indicative of who she is. “I graduated from UVA, Doctor. It’s not a charm school,” she explains. Even her mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), while the least distasteful of the bunch, misunderstands how important it is to let her be more than just a silent body in a room of men. “It matters.”
Demme connects the predatory looks Clarice is subjected to everywhere she goes with Buffalo Bill hunting his victims in night vision goggles. While one act is clearly not equivalent to the other, a line of misogyny is drawn between these male interactions with women’s bodies. As Clarice says of Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) televised plea for Buffalo Bill to let her daughter go, “If he sees [her] as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up.” Demme is creating a similar dynamic – pointing out how men’s objectification of woman leads them to be treated as less than human, by asking us to see Clarice in another way.
But Demme also embeds this idea that Clarice is under surveillance into the film through his camerawork and shot composition. From the film’s opening sequence, in which Clarice negotiates an obstacle course in the woods before being called into Crawford’s office, we are encouraged to look at her, too. Most strikingly, Demme uses close-ups with forensic precision to capture Clarice’s experiences and responses. While he does frame male characters this way as well – Lecter, especially, is ready to devour the screen with his enormous, unblinking, reptilian stare – the close-up shots of Clarice’s face create a very specific way for the audience to relate to her.
Firstly, they magnify her isolation. We understand that she is an outsider, essentially on her own. But we also understand that she, not Lecter or any other man, is the centre of this narrative. It is also a device that leaves Clarice exposed. She has nowhere to hide. She looks directly at the camera, and through it at us, where we are in the position of the men in the film who scrutinise her.
Demme wants us to look at Clarice and identify with her. But he also wants us to see what she sees and feel how she feels. Whether he intended to or not, Demme executes a powerful subversion here by letting Clarice actively look back. Her gaze, direct at the camera and direct at us in the audience is also a challenge to really look at her and to see what she sees. The camera follows her point of view closely, as if sitting on her shoulder. We see Lecter through her eyes. We see her reactions to events around her.
If male eyes on Clarice disempower her by always underestimating her, her ability to see what others can’t is her super power. Clarice’s gaze controls the narrative. She’s the only one able to get close to Lecter; she can decipher clues, follow leads and read a crime scene like others can’t. When Crawford asks, during a forensic examination, “What else do you see, Starling?”, we know the answer is that she sees more than most.
Watch The Silence of the Lambs on Friday 9 March at 9:45pm on SBS. Please note that the film will not be available at SBS On Demand after broadcast.