A hundred years ago the relationship between people and the technology of creation was different. In the early 1920s moving pictures had only recently evolved from silent to talkies. Film was wildly popular despite depicting the world in a palette limited to greyscale monochrome. Film makers had to find their colour – metaphorically and literally – in the subtle play of light and shadow.

The actress Greta Garbo was one of cinema’s earliest stars. She was one of the few actors to begin in silence and survive – thrive – in the brave new era of sound.

Garbo belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when audiences literally lost themselves in the human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition. Hers was indeed an admirable face-as-object.

In Queen Christina – a film still shown now and then in discerning festivals celebrating early exemplars of the silver screen – Garbo’s make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone – black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive – are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face – as presented by Garbo’s art – is not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and friable, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral. It comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his  totem-like countenance.*

Now the temptation of the absolute mask (the mask of antiquity, for instance) perhaps implies less the theme of the secret (as is the case with Italian half mask) than that of an archetype of the human face. Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt. It is true that this film (in which Queen Christina is by turns a woman and a young cavalier) lends itself to this lack of differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism; she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her wide-brimmed hats, the same snowy solitary face.

The name given to her, the Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person, descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. She herself knew this: how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty. Not she, however; the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.

And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when the clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.

Viewed as a transition, the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm. As is well known, we are today passed the other pole of this evolution: the face of Audrey Hepburn, for instance, is individualised, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, woman as kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it, but is constituted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions.

As a language, Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, a chance coalescing of cloud form and onlooker projection. Hepburn has many faces, innumerable aspects, as her generous force of being accretes and recasts moments of time to the psychogeography in her orbit; very much on the ground, of the earth, tangible marks on your calendar and in every way: the Event.

Today is the first day of 2022. There are no more Garbos or Valentinos, and Hepburn is different. Bogart in the words of Faulkner has given way to Clooney in the style of Nespresso. The “Idea” is too challenging for a culture of narcissist self-obsession and we’re too lazy to chase an unpredictable source when the next echo has already swiped our attention and we can’t afford to leave a slience unfilled else it might be invaded by wonder.

The Idea is deceased. The Event is a simulacrum, these days a coarse version of 20th century Hepburn: a reality show poly-menstrual poly-amorous, animated by transparent stochastic avarice instead of the nebulous attraction of individual charm.

“Modern media makes us insatiable and unremembering, like a baby in a hall of mirrors depicting mothers, an infinity of warm and milky nipples, too much succour, too indiscriminate to leave us even a mote of freedom in our choice of where to suckle though we know all ways lead.”

“Youth has many advantages. Youth is Kandinsky; nurtured – or violently neglected – but in any case launched at the adult world smooth-brained and unknowing, searching for the answer to ‘is he/she the one??’ in every parallel experience with every new human being.

And the answer, by the way, is always no. Obviously. But hope springs eternal – while enough time remains; and there’s a lot can be done with faith, hope and… Well, perhaps not so much charity.”

* Chaplin might be perceived as Garbo’s male contemporary. Their origin stories are strikingly similar, as was their transition from  silent star-quality to even greater success in the nascent talking pictures of 1920s/1930s Hollywood.