Spatial Relations among Bodies in Movies: The Duchess

In Saul Dibb’s The Duchess (2008) Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is married to the duke (Ralf Fiennes). Georgiana is at an advanced stage of pregnancy and they are having dinner in Still 1. From what is seen in this still, a close approximation of this dinner scene, what do you think about the relationship of this couple?  Are they happy? Are they intimate? How is the emotional gap between them?

Still 1. Space between the couple

The dinner table in the huge but mostly vacant is at the center and it occupies most of the frame. It represents the gap between the husband and the wife, who have been pushed to the either end of the table on the left and right margins of the frame. The gap is further filled by ornate candle stands, fruit baskets wine bottles and other food items, which can be afforded only by the affluent.

In fact, the duke is sexually promiscuous and in desperation to have a male heir he marries women in series. In this very dinner scene, a girl child whom the duke fathered and whose mother has died will be brought in to be introduced to Georgiana and she will live with them in the house with several vacant rooms.

2.1. The duke with his wife and her friend on his either side

Thirty minutes into the film, in a party scene, Georgiana wittingly befriends Bess Foster (wife of another promiscuous and wife-beating husband), a woman who denied the duke when he accosted her a while ago. Thirty-five minutes into the film, on another day Georgiana takes Bess home and they have dinner with the duke (Still 2.1). This scene opens on the duke eating at the dinner table. The shot cuts to a close one of the three (unlike the earlier dinner scene described above) on a different table (a round one this time) in another, cozier room with candle lights, with the duke’s black back—the most dominant figure in the frame—imposingly turned toward us and the two women occupying the spaces on his sides on the left and right of the frame. The effect is that it looks like the duke presides over the dinner, and he has the two women on his sides. The scene would have had an altogether different effect if it had Georgiana in the middle, visually separating her husband and Bess.

Still 2.2: Bess thanks the duke, her friend’s husband.

Over dinner Georgiana tells her husband that her friend does not have anywhere to stay before she goes to London. The duke self-consciously says why she does not stay with them at least for a while. Bess happily thanks him, and you will see the less than innocent expression on her face (Still 2.2).

Still 3.1: The trio at the theater. Bess between the couple.

Bess stays at the couple’s house. Thirty-seven minutes into the film, later that night, the trio watch a play from the theater balcony (Still 3.1). Now in this scene, Bess sits between the couple, separating them like a wedge. (Notice also that Georgiana’s expression is light—she is smiling, but the faces of the duke and Bess are tensed.)

Still 3.2: Bess shoots a quick glance at the duke

This change is more than significant. In more than a couple of shots, we she Bess shooting a quick sideways glance at the duke every now and then (Still 3.2). This glance is furtive and she does it without Georgiana knowing it as is seen in Still 3.3. Still 3.3 is interesting, because while it is Georgiana who occupies almost the entire of the frame it is contextually Bess only the half of whose face is visible on the left extreme of the frame that does the action crucial in this shot—her one eye in the frame is turned toward the duke. She does that from the dark, furtive corner, and she does it perfectly.

Still 3.3: Bess’s space little, but she does excellently from that almost invisible corner.

Fifty-nine minutes into the film, we come back to the same huge dining room mentioned above. Almost everything remains the same—the same room, the same table, nearly the same sets of foods, candle stands, and attendants. But unlike the earlier scene approximated by Still 1, this one (Still 4) has Bess occupying the middle position separating the duke and his wife sitting at the either end of the long rectangular table spanning from the left frame to the right frame. A lot has happened between Still 1 and Still 4. As the events develop, the duke and Bess have got into an affair, which is not that secret any more. In fact, forty-five minutes into the film, the duke had sex with Bess.

Still 4: In time, Bess has occupied the space between the couple more steadily.

The positional arrangement of characters in the physical setting of a movie is not usually accidental—this is deliberate and part of the mise en scène. The physical relations of the characters in the spatial setting of The Duchess evolve in an interesting way, and such is attained only through meticulous planning.

ঙরাংগি হরাউ মথোই

নোংজুনা চামথোকখ্রবা অহিংগি অমম্বা
তৈরে অয়ূক য়েন্দাগি অচীকপা মায়থোংদা–
কাউথোক্লম্বগুম মপোৎ মরল অহিংনা,
মৎহৌরগুম অহিংগি ময়ূম অয়ূক্না,
থোরকপগুম তূমশীৎ ফাদ মীৎকপ।
ঙরাং অহিংগি হরাউ কূমহৈ, হরাউ মথোই
অয়ূক্কি লৈমায়দা চাইরম্লে লীক্লা ইচোৎ চোৎ, ইচীক চীক,
ৱাইশীৎপগি শুমজীৎতা য়াথোক, ওন ওন্দুনা ঊফুল্লক
চেথী চেগুম, অমোৎ অকায় ।


I am interested in how the bodies of people interact. Strangers bear their bodies with respect to each other differently than how they do it with their friends and acquaintances. Strangers usually sit far apart from each other in an empty auditorium while friends sit together in normal circumstances. When strangers sit on a same empty bench, they usually sit on its extreme ends, but friends sit closer to each other. When at a place where people share seats, I always look at and study how they sit, bearing their bodies in peculiar ways with respect to each other.

Guwahati Airport. I focused my camera on these two strangers sitting back to back. When pressed the shutter button the light went off all of a sudden as if in response to my button pressing. Reviewing the shot I came to know that the light had went off a few fractions of seconds before I pressed the shutter button. Fortunately, I had set the ISO at a high value because the two guys sat somewhere very dark for an airport.

Yes, the light came back immediately, but the younger guy stood up, perhaps in expectation of somebody. The lucky shot I took in the dark was all I had, and I decided to increase brightness later, which I have done now, thought the resolution came out low.

Used Boots and Crumbs of Memories

He sleeps like a man dead with his eyes half open
Who does not seem dead on a baroque couch.
What he has seen, a lot–accreted on those eyes
Like a civilization–don’t let the snow-laden eyelids close fully.
A headful of life to sleep away, and a few crumbs
Of new memories to pick up from under life’s table,
Under meaty munches and hearty laughs
Among fidgetting fashion boots and colorful stilettoes.

When you’re broken and can’t fix it at all
You want to throw away life like used boots.
But you ain’t that hard, are you? Your life becomes
A town you built, brick by brick, one after another,
A town you hate now, but one you can’t ever leave.

Heavy Foreign Coins

Thirsty city steaming after a long foreign rain,
The warm wet streets throwing its colorful neon lights
Back up into the thick night. Greetings, laughters, cries,
Indistinct weather chats, swears, sirens, horns,
All kneaded into a thick air going in and out of everybody,
Threading the towering black buildings through their bright eyes,
Threading in and out of hotel rooms
along dark and half-lit gullies smelling of urine,
Slow stilettos and boots giving momentary lives to puddles
That live quick colorful lives.

I languish wandering about the city with the languid wind,
My pockets full of heavy coins with foreign heads
Which I have long stopped throwing at the counters.

Diarrhoea after eating a stollen fruit

A leap off a cloudy cliff
And I fell into this coffin.
Life, I don’t throw all my coins for it
For all its daily pollution,
But death, despite this constant smart,
I am not at that hurried trot
To slide into on a greasy glass.
So I wait for my time beyond
Where the fire is lapping the wasted wind
As will consume my greasy waiter waiting to
Put counterfeit coins on my dead eyes.

Is death weightless, like dream,
And not subject to gravitation?

Singing Back into the Silence

In silent communion, with only a low
whisper or two sparsely stirring the air dead like
set in cold stone, they surrounded her too thickly
for her soft breath to surf away through in a soft
draught into the lemon orchard in mellow bloom.
There must have been an escape up into the air
That smuggled the pirouette away through the walls—
What used to be life lay limp in its still remains.

Strokes All Over

The shimmering summer day cooled itself down
Into that still-life evening when a breeze–
The fringe of a small eddy–strayed in
Through my window tinkling the wind-chime loth,
To freeze in its lark, be surprised and belong.

Paints, brushes, canvas and easel–after so long
My felf-conscious fingers felt the grains of the paints,
The texture of the cloth when the wet hair
Rubbed its rough thirsty skin.

My strokes dissolved into a damp blur,
Stopping where I did not recognize it–a blurred landscape,
A strange land with no landmarks.

Dry brushes, dry paints, a blurred canvas,
A crampy easel, all as still as the blur.
I’m not yet done–I am still painting.
The dry world stands there in its blurred cramp,
A blurred river of colors, I wash through the canvas–
Stroke by stroke before it, across it, and after it,
Stroke by stroke all around it. Overflow.