Eyebrows were raised when the Cinémathèque Française announced its October – January exhibition ‘Brune/Blonde’, so Jen Wallace decided to pay a visit to see if hair in Cinema really was the cultural-talking point that the exhibition claimed it to be.
Throughout cultural history, hair is something that has always defined an era and played an important role in more richly developing the physical appearance of any female character. Greek tragedies, Pre-Raphaelite painters and Shakespeare all made references to women’s hair, showing a fascination and an appeal that has lasted for centuries.
Hence, for the ‘Brune/Blonde’ exhibition the Cinémathèque Française has dedicated an entire floor of artistic examples to the subject, ranging from film clips and sculptures to paintings and magazine covers – all exposed in various themed rooms. The Cinémathèque offers insightful spaces designed to reflect the hair-themed ‘message’ of the works included, from red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers for the 1950s star studded musicals such as Gilda, to hairdressing salons presented in Arabic, Asian and African-American styles.
Aside from obvious links to sensuality and darker sexual themes of fetishism, the Cinémathèque has picked examples where hair can seem to symbolize more fundamental human issues in Cinema.
The strongest message of the exhibition seems to be that hairstyles reflect trends of an era, and can tell us something about the position of women in society at that time. Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth are elegantly coiffed in the Hollywood musicals of the 40s/50s, creating the glamourous idealisation of the star system. The exhibition juxtaposes these classic Hollywood representations with photographic works by Shirin Neshat and Marc Garanger, who portrayed Arabic women posing with their heads covered, or not. There is even a ‘global’ view of hair in Cinema, with a world map designed to show us the different hair styles at particular countries.
Another representation of hair comes from its use as a plot device. Transformations of female characters are often represented by changes of hairstyles, so that she can take on a new identity, either willingly or not. In Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, Penélope Cruz’s character tries on a variety of wigs to mimic famous actresses – and this character transformation is used as major plot device.
In the final space, the exhibition tries to put forward the idea of hair as an abstract notion; hair as an artistic method of creating a cultural piece. There seems to be a lack of examples of this concept, except for sculptures made of real hair by Jannis Kounellis.
Although these sculptures were the only examples of real hair that I could see throughout the exhibition, it was clear that the Cinémathèque is trying to create a multi-sensorial experience. As you wander through the spaces, various fabrics and long, thin strands of material continuously entice you to touch them.
For me, the highlight of the exhibition was the 6 short films shown in a small viewing room, which last for approximately 30 minutes. These were varied shorts from all over the world, the theme of hair and the female protagonist being the clear link between them. I felt like I’d finally got my 6.5€ admission fee’s worth.
Hitchcock himself said that ‘the perfect woman of mystery is one who is blonde, subtle and nordic’, and whilst this may have been his own very narrow minded view of hair, the exhibition makes a worthwhile attempt to show the variety of cinematic treatments of the subject. All things considered, a very pertinent cinematic theme is reflected accurately in this tactile exhibition.