Time, body and experience in The Face of Time

Mette Bahnsen and Kirsten Sørensen

The Face of Time is a poetic film about time, body and experience. Consisting of 32 shots, its beautiful images and languid speed portray female life from the embryonic stage to old age. Filmed at a women’s bathhouse, it shows the female body at different ages and in various sizes and shapes.

We will examine three levels in the film that help create its high degree of complexity and brilliance: the symbolic, the physical/ sensuous, and the psychological/social and cultural.

Life and death

The film's narrative is structured over a cycle of life and death, which we will now investigate from two different angles.

The film’s first shot emerges from blackness and can be interpreted as that which comes before life. The next thing we see is a pregnant woman, standing in a hallway in the changing room in the bathhouse. This shot functions as an establishing shot, yet symbolically the hallway also comes to represent the path of life. The film’s last shot returns to blackness after the old woman has walked down the same hallway towards the camera. This shot thus comes to represent death and that which comes after life. Hence, the film’s framing adds a metaphysical level to the film as it marks a before and after to life. In this interpretation, all the shots in between the blackness before and after life represent life and its many stages.

At the same time, there is a symbolism in the film that opens up for another interpretation. In this perspective, the bathhouse can be seen as a metaphor for the world, and thus the place where you exist in the time between birth and death. This microcosm (the bathhouse) has many similarities with the pregnant woman’s womb (micro-microcosm), evoked at the beginning of the film. Both places (bathhouse and womb) are closed spaces where you are surrounded by water. You exist for a limited amount of time in this room while going through a metamorphosis and several phases of development. The conception and birth metaphors are visually played out in the first and last scenes, which as previously mentioned take place in the dark hallway in the changing room. Here the hallway represents the uterus, which both in connection with conception and birth marks the transition to new stages of development and of life. The children running towards the camera in the film’s first shot can be seen as sperm, starting life and the film’s narrative. The old lady in the last shot represents the end of the embryonic stage, and thus also of the film’s narrative. The blackness at the end of the film can therefore be interpreted as both the end and the beginning of life, life and death thus being closely connected in the film’s symbolic and visual structure.

Body and time

The narrative concept of the film is to portray the development and change of the body through time. On this level the focus is physiological: the bodies, hands, faces, eyes of women. Every shot deals with the changes of the body and how time leaves its mark on physiology.

The film also connects its representation of the sensual to the following: bodies touching, bodies in the water, eyes seeing, and hands feeling. In the beginning it is the baby’s physical contact with the mother, and next the children touching each other through their game. Later, during their teenage years, the girls/women direct their focus on their own bodies, combing their hair, letting the water flow over their bodies, and watching themselves in the mirrors. The grown women continue to watch themselves in the mirrors, drink the water, eat, smoke, bathe, and massage each other. The older women are characterized by no longer being in physical contact with anyone. Instead of acting on their own, they increasingly come to occupy an observing role.

Thus, different characteristics and patterns of action are connected to different ages, and the sensual perception of the world is used to describe this development. At this level each shot comes to represent time, with each transition adding years to the bodies.

This representation of time and thus of continuity in the film is also expressed in its visual style. The transitions between the shots are all fast dissolves and continuity between the shots is created in different ways. Sometimes it’s the movement of the camera, leading from one shot into the next. At other times, it's a movement within pictures that resemble one another, and are brought together by dissolves, making the visual structure the dominant principle for the transitions. This creates a visual flow in the film that parallels the time perspective, while the representation of the bodies that become progressively older creates a narrative flow. The film’s use of music and the sound of water as a recurring and connecting element is another means by which continuity is strengthened.


Whereas the previous narrative level deals with the material and physiological – the body, the senses and the natural – there is also a level in the film that deals with the social, the psychological and the cultural. This manifests itself in the way the bodies act and interact and how this communication develops as the body ages. From the first babies, just looking, the development and socialization of the child is shown through game, song and language. For example, in shot 8, two girls speak to one another in Polish in a playful way, pretending to be grown up women, thus both practising an adult language and attitude. In their use of language there is an accentuation on sound, intonation and rhythm more than on the content of what they say. Later, in shot 26, which can be seen as a varied repetition of shot 8, we again see two sisters, now adult. Here they are still speaking, but we no longer see the explicit emphasis on the form, showing that the use of language in the adult sphere is more concerned with content.

With the young women we see another form of bodily consciousness, and a focus on looks emerges. At this age embellishing and decorating the body and face are important. This is illustrated by the girl putting on mascara, the girl with the tattoo, and the girl with the facial piercing, all of which evoke the transition from childhood to adulthood. This is particularly evident in a series of shots where we see women watching themselves in the mirror, indicating the division that the look from ‘the other’ and the mirror represents.

The grown-up and older women continue to pay attention to their looks. In contrast to the younger girls’ focus on and experiments with their appearance, to the older women it is more a question of becoming aware of and investigating the changes in the body and face. There is a movement towards greater calm and maturity. The oldest women in the film are no longer as physically active. Parallel to the two babies at the beginning of the film, looking forward to life, at the film’s end we see two old women also looking ahead, but this time towards death.

The varied repetitions of narrative patterns in the different age groups and developmental stages indicate that we are not just seeing a progressive development. The repetitions concern needs and aspects that are common to all human beings and manifest at all ages, such as physical contact and belonging to or being outside of social groupings. In this way not just the differences between the age groups, but also the connections between them are emphasized, which is accurately expressed through the film’s use of the varied repetitions.

The film creates an overall connection between all the women portrayed, not only through the continuity of time, the flow of the visual style and the soundtrack, but also through transitions and continuity in the narrative. One example of a narrative transition is seen between shot 20 and 22. In shot 20 we see a young woman with shoulder length curly hair, lying in a sun-bed and wearing protective goggles. In shot 22 the woman getting up from the sun-bed and removing her goggles also has shoulder length curly hair but is obviously a few years older than the first woman. The two shots have a direct narrative connection with each other, and the physical similarity of the two women might indicate that they are the same woman, at different ages. Apart from creating a dynamic as well as a connection between the shots, this also emphasizes the connection between the women and the age groups, once again pointing out the film’s universal developmental perspective.

Embodied experience

The film creates a metaphysical level which portrays life and which contrasts life to that which comes before and after it. You can thus say that every shot at this level represents life. The second level in the film, the physiological level, portrays the change of the body in the development from fetus to extreme old age. Here every shot comes to represent time. The third level is what we are calling a psychological/social level, where the focus is the transformation of the individual in the development from childhood to adulthood and finally old age; on this level every shot represents experience.

Letting these two levels (the physiological/sensual and the psychological/social) run simultaneously, The Face of Time creates a fusion of body and consciousness. This is one of the pillars of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological thoughts and philosophy concerning the body. He states that consciousness is shaped through the body. The body is the subject of the personality, and it is through the body that we are present in the world, speak, experience, and are in contact with things; it is life itself. Hence, it is via the body that the individual becomes a consciousness or soul that believes it is something in itself.

The Face of Time deals with this process, as consciousness and experience develop simultaneously with the aging of the body. The film also focuses on the contact of the bodies with one another, with water and with other things. The film presents different shapes of bodies and consciousnesses, but they all experience the same development. Thus, each individual in the film has more of a metonymical function, in contrast to a metaphorical one, where each individual must be viewed autonomously. The narrative structure and the presentation of different individuals therefore do not emphasize individuality, but instead accentuate that some life processes are the same for everyone.

Translation: Susanne Stranddorf

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