Pretty Messed Up #5: Kidman-Kuleshov Theater

In the 1910s and 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov investigated the power of film editing in a series of now famous experiments. He played around with different configurations of the same footage and examined the influence this had on the interpretation by the viewer. Most famously, he combined the same shot of an actor with a neutral expression with three very differing shots: a plate of soup, a beautiful young lady and a girl in a coffin, respectively. The audience’s reading of the actor’s expression changed with these combinations: the same look was alternatively labeled as hungry, aroused or sad.


Cut to 2004. Jonathan Glazer’s film Birth features a long take (give or take two minutes) of Nicole Kidman in a theater. The camera moves in on her expression, holding her gaze in close-up for an unusually long spell, never cutting away. The changes in her expression are subtle, leaving room for interpretation. Kidman’s performance was singled out for praise and for awards consideration.


But how much of this performance is Kidman’s, and how much is our own projection? This mash-up by Peet Gelderblom applies Kuleshov’s strategy to Glazer’s footage to call into question how affect is created in Birth’s famous scene. Gelderblom intercuts the long take of Kidman with theater scenes from wildly differing movies. Involuntarily and inescapably, we read Kidman’s minimal facial expressions as reactions to the spliced-in footage, even if we are fully aware that these universes don’t belong together. Are we that desperate to discover coherence that we are willing to doubt our own eyes?

This mash-up is part of a series of similar efforts, Pretty Messed Up, the brainchild of Dutch director Peet Gelderblom. Catch up on the other episodes in this series via these links:


Pretty Messed Up #1 | Waking The Frog
Pretty Messed Up #2 | Horror Has A Face
Pretty Messed Up #3 | Heading Towards Certain Death
Pretty Messed Up #4 | Steve’s New Car
Pretty Messed Up #6 | God vs. Satan


You may also know Gelderblom from his side-by-side montage that pitted Hitchcock against De Palma in a Split Screen Bloodbath. His Director’s Cut of Raising Cain was approved by De Palma himself.

This video essay includes clips from:


Birth [feature film] Dir. Jonathan Glazer. Lou Yi Inc. et al., UK et al., 2004. 100 mins.
The Red Shoes [feature film] Dir. Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger. The Archers et al., UK, 1948. 134 mins.
Bronson [feature film] Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn. Vertigo Films et al., UK, 2008. 92 mins.
Mulholland Drive [feature film] Dir. David Lynch. Les Films Alain Sarde et al., France and USA, 2001. 147 mins.
All That Jazz [feature film] Dir. Bob Fosse. Columbia Pictures Corporation et al., USA, 1979. 123 mins.
Love Actually [feature film] Dir. Richard Curtis. Working Title Films et al., UK et al., 2003. 135 mins.
Carrie [feature film] Dir. Brian De Palma. Red Bank Films, USA, 1976. 98 mins.
Young Frankenstein [feature film] Dir. Mel Brooks. Gruskoff/Venture Films et al., USA, 1974. 106 mins.