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A gendered rewatching of The Silence of the Lambs

FBI agent Clarice Starling enters a race against time to catch serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Twenty five years after winning the ‘Big Five’ at the Oscars, this film remains a landmark cinematic achievement.

Demme immediately posits Clarice (an outstanding Jodie Foster) as a brave, strong, and resourceful protagonist – the film opens with her powering onto the screen as she tackles an assault course. Indeed, despite the vulnerability suggested by Foster’s petite frame, Clarice is tough, underlined through Demme’s close-up of her hands as she climbs over obstacles. Rather than the sexualised images of the female body that routinely dominate cinema, Demme instead showcases female power, and establishes how the film will relentlessly rewrite the dominant gendered characterisations of the action genre.

Clarice uses this resilience to navigate the FBI, which is immediately established as a ‘macho’ domain through the sign on the assault course that reads, “hurt, agony, pain: love it!” Demme repeatedly underlines Clarice’s status as outsider and intruder in this masculine world by framing her alone alongside male colleagues, all of whom tower over her and scrutinise her through their gaze.

Indeed, one extraordinary element of Demme’s direction is his use of extreme close-up point-of view shots, to foreground Clarice’s obectification. As men leer at Clarice, the audience is also forced to become a victim of the assessing and objectifying viewpoint, a position that male viewers are rarely placed in, in society and in Hollywood cinema, which subsequently highlights the subtle, yet relentless ways in which patriarchal society exerts sexual pressures on women. It is these barriers that Clarice forcefully overcomes over the course of the film.

These extreme close-up, point-of view shots are at some of their most powerful and memorable during Clarice’s interviews with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), theinfamous cannibal psychiatrist who becomes her unlikely aid in the hunt for Buffalo Bill. Their first meeting is one of cinema’s greats, as Clarice boldly confronts Lecter’s gaze, causing him to blink and look away first.

From its unforgettable characterisations of Clarice, Lecter and Buffalo Bill, to its innovative camerawork and thrilling plot, over 25 years later, Silence of the Lambs remains unsurpassed in the action genre. As Lecter tells Clarice, “the world’s a more interesting place with you in it,” and the same resoundingly applies to Demme’s masterpiece.

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