More than just a line of sight: cinematic windows and their significance

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The World through a Frame – the Significance of the Window in Film

    “Consider a window. Is it simply a void traversed by a line of sight? No. In Any case the question would remain: what line of sight – and whose? The fact is that the window is a non-object which cannot fail to become an object. As a transitional object it has two senses, two orientations: from inside to outside, and from outside to inside. Each is marked in a specific way, and each bears the mark of the other. (Lefebvre, 1974/1994: 209)

    As a cinematic object the window has many different manifestations. The physicality of the window-frame offers a correlation to the frame of the screen and has been utilised as such in Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). The window has also formed the architecture of the scene in many memorable examples.

    One thinks immediately of the windows in film adaptations as diverse as Wuthering Heights (Wyler, 1939) and Room with a View (Ivory, 1985). In the former the window is an important threshold between the wildness of the natural world and the Heights, the window evokes the cruelty of this world when Cathy’s hand is maliciously rubbed against the broken pane by Mr Lockwood, and later leads Heathcliff to open the window and call out to Cathy (‘My heart’s darling!’). In Room With a View, the all important window presents a view of the Arno and sets in motion the freeing of Lucy from the restrictions imposed by Victorian society having been exposed to a freer sensuality with her holiday in Italy. Although both novels and film adaptations are very different, the striking connection between the two is the way in which the window is metonymically representative of a libidinal economy on the part of the characters. To approach this from the perspective of cultural geography, we might argue that this is a type of character-environment interaction wherein the character is expressing their desires through the precise meeting point between the inside and outside. The non-object as described by Lefebvre in fact seems to condense all expectations around death, desire, longing and social conventions. Framing the lovers in the window – as they are in Room with a View – with the rooftops of Florence as the backdrop – is the ultimate in cinematic romantic imagery. More recently the window is used by Steve McQueen in his film Shame (2011) in a scene which literally lays bare the central character’s ‘sickness’ - addiction to sex with strangers. The floor to ceiling windows of the hotel room where Brandon has sex with a prostitute up against the glass as the traffic races past below, creates a visual motif where the aberrant nature of Brandon’s desire is made visible even as he seeks to conceal his addiction from his peers.

    In tandem with literature, film and television in particular have made significant use of the railway window with its ever changing view, having been readily exploited in a host of films from Anna Karenina (for example: 1935/1948/2012) through to Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Train journeys in film are of course invested with narrative significance, and the window is often marked out as having special significance. One thinks of the famous scene in The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1938) when Iris Henderson glimpses Miss Froy’s name written on the window which is proof afterall that the charming little old lady was on the train.

    Ian Sinclair and others have noted the social impact the view from the windows of nineteenth century trains as the railways which cut through the slums and industrial areas of cities like London brought previously unseen sectors of urban life and squalor to the fore. The device of the view from the train has become a commonplace one, at once distancing the writer and character from the scene depicted, and simultaneously suggesting a communion of observation with the reader or viewer. Orwell’s famous description of the young woman clearing a blocked drain witnessed from the train as it left the industrial wasteland of Wigan is a memorable example. It deploys the complex narrative and descriptive possibilities of the situation very effectively. A film like Suo Masayuki’s Shall We,Dance uses the relation between the commuter’s view of the city and the regular passing of the train carrying the salarymen and women in and out of Tokyo with the dance studio, serving as both object and vantage point in a reciprocal aspirational view. Forming a unique ‘two way view’, at once exposing the occupants of the carriage as the train slows up, and revealing the built and natural environment the train moves through, the railway carriage window provides an aspirational symbol alleviating the daily routine.

    This paper seeks to trace the impetus and significance of the window in film. Beyond the symbolic, the window also has a narrative significance that has been critically neglected, and it is this critical neglect that we seek to address with this paper.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationDedans Dehors
    Subtitle of host publicationApproches Pluridisciplinaires de la Fenêtre
    EditorsKarolina Katsika
    Place of PublicationFrance
    PublisherPresses universitaires de Franche-Comté
    ISBN (Print)9782848676616, 2848676612
    Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2019
    EventWindows: Openings & Perspectives - Universitaire Franche-Comte, Basencon, France
    Duration: 23 Jan 201524 Jan 2015


    ConferenceWindows: Openings & Perspectives


    Dive into the research topics of 'More than just a line of sight: cinematic windows and their significance'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this