Roland Barthes describes the magic of an image as punctum, the moment when some essence or detail punctures the surface of the photograph, capturing the viewer.  Somehow, Bettina Hoffmann has made this breach a two-way conduit. We the viewers seem to be inside the still image, moving through it with ease. But where is that essence we are searching for?
The camera proceeds at a smooth, measured pace around the frozen bodies of its subjects, never stopping to frame an individual face or detail. In a breakfast scene where several generations of a family are gathered generic cartons of milk and juice at the centre seem to be the camera's only focus as it sweeps around and around the table. We grasp at each face as it passes across the screen, hoping for an insight. Who are these people? What are the relationships between them? Nothing is revealed.
A series of similar vignettes follow. Each time the picture fades to black, our expectations are frustrated. Trained in the strict cues of narrative cinema, we want the plot to move forward. Tension builds and is sustained. Two couples in a small, bare apartment – a continuous soundtrack seems to stretch out the moment just before a dramatic event, never coming to a resolve. Elements in the room – piece of clothing draped across an old kitchen chair, a pair of wine glasses – cut across the screen in turn, but no object is telling enough to let us in on the situation.
Laura Mulvey compared the role of the camera in traditional cinema to that of an invisible guest – a perspective of privilege and satisfaction. Hoffmann's camera though, does not occupy this pleasant role. Instead it delves into the darker, voyeuristic tendencies Mulvey sees at the root of traditional cinematic structure.
The exacting loops through each scene in La Ronde take on an obsessive quality with each precise repetition. In the split screen of Décalage, the camera scans each body with a thoroughness that becomes invasive, passing slowly over chests, thighs, and faces. The camera is not merely a passive observer, but a controlling force – the bodies of Hoffmann's subjects are trapped as the camera moves around them.
Hoffmann is not just exploring control in a metaphorical sense. She has not created the illusion of frozen bodies with digital manipulation, but simply asked her subjects to remain still, without even blinking as she completes each shot of 30 – 90 seconds. This realization makes the lack of information even more strange. Surely one of her subjects must have made some minute, accidental movement, but none is revealed. Even the homes used in each scene seem inhumanly clean and ordinary, without any murky corners.
Hoffmann has trapped both her viewers and her subjects in a slick automatic feedback loop of audio and visual cues. The tension is never released. The secret is never revealed. Meaning is never made and this product is never really consumed. Or is it? Like a department store window display at night, the promise of empty pleasure is suddenly replaced with an opportunity for self-reflection. Why did we need to know? What made us expect that these stories, these bodies, these people, should be ours for the taking?
Jennifer McVeigh is a writer based in Calgary, AB.
1 Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Noonday, New York, 1981.
2 Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen vol. 16, no. 3, 1975.