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Charlie Chaplin

To invent those we love or to see them as they are? Love in two of the movies' favorite scenes


Both ‘Vertigo’ and ‘City Lights’ expose love for its simple and simultaneously contradictory nature.

So much has been said already, of “love” that it’s difficult to add anything, much less something new. It’s possible, though, perhaps because even if you try to pass through the sieve of all our reflections, something of love always escapes explanation or reasoning. It’s something fascinating, something that keeps love alive, and at the same time, it’s something that attracts and seduces us. That’s why we can’t stop thinking about love, writing about it, reading about it, and trying to understand it, to live it even by any other means.

One way, indeed, one of the most privileged ways to do this is through the movies. They are perhaps the vehicle par excellence for the representations of love made in any given era, or by any given society or culture. From the classics of the golden age of Hollywood to the most avant-garde of experimental films, love is, as in other fields, a recurrent theme.

For this very reason, we might cite many entire films or loves scenes. But on this occasion, we chose to speak of but two which share the singular characteristic of showing love at two of its best-known stages: those of falling in love, and then, at the revelation of true love.

The first of these scenes comes from Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, in which James Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson. A former policeman, Scottie becomes a private detective due to his fear of heights. He’s hired by a businessman to follow Madeleine, the businessman’s wife. In the process, Scottie ends up falling in love with the woman who, tragically, dies under mysterious circumstances.

In one of the film’s multiple high points (Hitchcock is, after all, a master of suspense), we find Scottie meeting Judy Barton, in a hotel room. An ordinary woman, she nevertheless bears a striking resemblance to the deceased Madeleine. In the days since he’s met her, Scottie has courted her up to this point where he asks her to dress and to make herself up like the other woman he’d fallen in love with.

Described thus, crudely, the scene might sound impossible, and typical only of the movies. But in truth, at times we’ll do this with love. It will proceed in its way; we’ll change it into something more real and more common than we think. Often upon the end of an enchantment, we realize that the person we’d said we loved was a disappointment. Like Scottie, instead of allowing love to germinate on its own terms, we’ve forced it to relentlessly adjust itself to that which we’ve already known, to repeat what we’ve already lived, and for all of our many reasons, to a love that we still can’t shake off.

At another extreme is our second scene: from the end of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). In these last moments, the flower girl and the tramp reappear. He who had so longed for her and she who doesn’t know that it was he who’d restored her sight. He, who throughout the film, she’d believed to have been a generous millionaire. The girl, seeing the man so poor, calls him to give him a coin, and though he initially refuses to approach, he can’t resist: he can’t resist that it was she who’d called for him. He extends his hand, and she gives him the coin, but when he touches it, she recognizes him (that is, she understands). “You?” reads the intertitle. And although Chaplin responds with a gesture, the following intertitles are even more eloquent: “Can you see now?” he asks. “Yes. Now I can see,” she replies.

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