When I recently revisited Chaplin’s City Lights (this time on big screen—a rare opportunity, for which I’m extremely grateful), the film’s famous ending sequence struck a chord with me in a way that it had never done before. For most people, the single most memorable moment in this extraordinary film is the close-up of Chaplin’s face at the very end, the face that is at once so exhilarated and at once so melancholic. It is one of the subtlest performances captured on film, and this close-up has since become an iconography of a sort in cinema. However, what caught my attention this time was not Chaplin’s enigmatic smile, but the flower girl’s hand.
What could possibly be so special about the flower girl’s hand that it overshadowed Chaplin’s close-up? The significance of the hand becomes obvious with the reminder that City Lights is a silent film (a silent film made in the Talkie era). As a silent film, the world portrayed inside City Lights is mute and deaf. Here, the flower girl can neither speak nor hear due to the medium’s limitations, and, even worse, suffers from blindness. Her hands, therefore, become the sole means of communicating with her surroundings. And it’s precisely because of her hands that the flower girl recognises the Tramp who is virtually invisible to the rest of the world.
In a way, the Tramp is like an angel who belatedly arrives in a world that no longer believes in such a thing. The world captured in Chaplin’s camera relentlessly mocks the Tramp for his funny clothes and incompetence in the capitalist setting. Yet, he never fails to brush it all off, and continues to see good in humanity. A random confession: I don’t find Chaplin’s work funny in the same way I find, say, the work by Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati funny. For me, the foundation of Chaplin’s films is the sense of disappointment towards the cruel modern world. We ought to feel sorry for the world that reduces this angel to a nobody who is only good for some cynic laughter. Only the blind flower girl is able to ‘see’ him for what he is because her hand knows no prejudice unlike sight or hearing. She touches the angel, and proves to him that humanity is in fact capable of kindness—a miracle. This moves the Tramp so deeply, and he decides to reward her with the operation that would cure her blindness.
How ironic is it that the Tramp’s gift takes away from her the ‘eyes’ that see angels? When Chaplin’s persona reappears before the flower girl now with her sight restored, what she sees is no longer an angel, but a common tramp. Although she offers him a free flower and some money out of cheap pity, she is now part of the cruel world that mocks the angel. But, luckily, she has not completely lost touch with her innocent tactility. When the flower girl touches the Tramp, she is shocked by the sheer discrepancy between what her eyes see and what her hand ‘sees.’ “It’s you!” she exclaims. He responds with what seems to be a faint smile. Perhaps he smiles out of relief to see that miracles are still a possibility. Perhaps it is an attempt to stop the tears, for he knows that the hand that performs miracles is already on its course to decay. But alas, he’s got only himself to blame for all this. This is what makes City Lights ultimately a tragedy, not a comedy. It’s all in that hand.
(City Lights ending scene)
After thinking much about City Lights through the lens of the flower girl’s hand, a scene from Robert Bresson’s L’Argent comes to mind. In the film, Yvon commits few murders, and looks for a hideout in a suburban town. He stumbles upon a large estate resided by a widow and her family, and tells the widow about what he has done and asks her if he can stay. She accepts him, and spares him the stable. Next morning, she makes Yvon a bowl of coffee, and on her way to the stable for delivery, she is confronted by her old father who does not want the criminal in the place. He slaps her out of rage, and what camera shows is not the act of violence, but the close-up of her firm grip on the bowl.
This shot gives me the kind of resonance that the flower girl’s hand in City Lights does. The coffee, to me, reflects the woman’s somewhat naive belief in humanity. She believes that her act of kindness can transform a base criminal like Yvon into a decent human being—again, a miracle. We can see a noble, humanistic determination in her struggle to maintain a firm grip on the bowl of coffee so as not to spill the hope. Tragically though, the reverse shot to this act of great kindness is the shot of an axe covered with blood in Yvon’s hand: “Where is the money?” he screams. Like in City Lights, the hand that presents to us a dim possibility of a miracle is blatantly destroyed by the usual cruelty that prevails in our world.
The use of hand close-ups is Bresson’s signature aesthetic device. In many of his films, the graceful gestures made with hands elicit a human struggle for hope, spiritual liberty, and redemption. It is well known that Chaplin was a great inspiration for Bresson; I would like to put forward a theory that Bresson might have taken the idea for hands from City Lights. While in his early films like Pickpocket and A Man Escaped a series of the hand close-up’s ultimately guide the protagonists to redemption, in his later work (probably beginning with Mouchette, but especially his films in colour) the hands that strive for redemption only accentuate the tragedy of destroyed souls. As I wrote earlier, Chaplin’s enigmatic smile can be either the sign of relief to find that miracles are still a possibility or an attempt to disguise his devastation over its doomed fate. Perhaps Bresson saw the former in his career up until Au Hasard Balthazar, but turned to the latter as his final conclusion about the world, like in L’Argent or The Devil, Probably.