To See or Not To See: Sights and Symbolism in SCENT OF A WOMAN
11 November 2012
During Christmastime in 1992, Martin Brest released his film Scent of a Woman, which received a warm response from audiences, but a slightly cooler reception from critics. The film features a commanding performance from Al Pacino, in a role earning him an Academy Award. Playing sightless veteran Frank Slade, the film attempts to communicate how devastating the loss of sight is to Frank through constant visual cues. However, while the film does cleverly communicate the theme of sight occasionally, Scent of a Woman does not maintain its focus on this theme—which is necessary to support the narrative—and ends up falling short of its potential.
Over Thanksgiving break, Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell), a modest prep school student, takes a job as an assistant to a blind veteran, Lieutenant Coronel Frank Slade (Al Pacino). Frank’s family, who he lives with, is traveling for the holiday, so Frank needs help getting by; however, when he took the job, Charlie had no idea what spending Thanksgiving with Frank would entail, namely a spontaneous, first-class trip to Manhattan. But, when Charlie realizes Frank’s lavish New York City escapade is a last hoorah (or, “Hoo-ah”) before ending his life, Charlie’s upstanding, loving moral character reveals itself fully, changing both his and Frank’s lives forever.
When the audience first meets Frank he sits in a recliner in his small living room. The room is dimly lit, but a strong beam of natural light shines through a window behind Frank’s chair and crosses his face. This eye-catching lighting is, perhaps, one of the most memorable in the film. It is unclear whether Charlie knows immediately that Frank is blind, or if he realizes during their initial conversation, however, what is understood from this defining use of light is how significant sight and seeing are in Scent of a Woman, and that the film, through its cinematic techniques, is trying to emphasize this. The natural ray of light shines directly on Frank’s face and illuminates him. Although Frank cannot see, he is being seen in this scene. In front of this stranger (Charlie), Frank is on display, faults, handicaps, and all. Conversely, even though Frank cannot see, literally, he senses Charlie; he visualizes him in his own way.
While this early use of light and its reinforcement of sight’s significant is promising, no other such play with lighting exists in the film. However, this initial use of natural light does introduce a motif that recurs throughout Scent of a Woman. Windows are loaded symbols, appearing consistently in the film, primarily in connection to Frank. In fact, in almost every shot of Frank a window appears in the frame. Similar to the window letting in the natural beam of light when the audience, and Charlie, first meet Frank, the windows surrounding Frank provide a constant reminder of seeing, telling and retelling the audience what Frank cannot physically do. Windows offer seers a view, ideally a picturesque vantage point to the outside world. Sadly, windows offer Frank nothing but a reminder of his handicap. And, the only view the windows offer the audience in Scent of a Woman is into the melancholy and troubled mindset of Frank, who finds it difficult to live life without sight, particularly because the accident he caused took his sight from him.
Moreover, windows, as a symbol, are generally negative, and can be seen as negative in Scent of a Woman. Through a window one only sees a partial view, one fitting a 2’ by 3’ opening. In addition, the view is obstructed by glass, so there is always a barrier between seers and seen. (Open windows may offer more to investigate, but there are no open windows in Scent of a Woman.) Considering the motif this way, the windows placed around Frank in Scent of a Woman highlight more than Frank’s sightlessness. Yes, the windows remind the audience Frank cannot see, but they also suggest the visual desires Frank clings to, such as in wanting to be adorned in elegant, custom suits, is severely limited and blocked by his handicap.
With this in mind, a scene toward the film’s conclusion, when Frank drops Charlie back off to school, becomes more significant. Surprisingly, Frank grabs Charlie’s face and feels its structure, identifying Charlie’s facial features. Figuratively, the window is broken in this scene; the limousine’s window is down, so Frank’s hands reach right through to grab Charlie’s face. The limited view and obstruction of glass from the window is set aside and Frank, although blind, finally gets to see Charlie. This brief moment is one of the film’s most positive, and one of its strongest shots.
Unfortunately, there is not enough clever cinematic communication like this in the film. In fact, Scent of a Woman is full of tight shots, medium and close-ups primarily. While these shots offer the audience focused attention in Al Pacino, they are static shots and undercut the film’s opportunities to communicate things like background action, size, shape, perspective, and setting. Additionally, and as many critics reviewing Scent of a Woman have pointed out, the film is lengthy, and most of the key scenes, such as Frank’s suicide attempt, Frank and Charlie’s ride in the Ferrari, and trial, run too long and arrest the film’s pace. During these lengthy scenes it seems Brest tries building the audience’s emotional intensity by using close-ups, yet what this actually does impede the film’s ability and puts most the film’s responsibility on Pacino’s performing shoulders.
Fortunately, Pacino can handle it. In fact, Pacino’s performance is the reason to watch Scent of a Woman. Without him the film could not stand on its own. Even though the window motif is clever, and supports the focus on sight established early in the film, Brest is inconsistent and does not seem to know how to develop and highlight the motif into its potential.