When the only just 18-year-old Uma Thurman arose from a shell as a flawlessly beautiful film Venus in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1989, it wasn’t necessarily foreseeable how persistently she would hold out her face for a system that is inadequately described by Hollywood, Miramax, Weinstein, and co. The fact that Uma’s face—her father sees her as a “reincarnated goddess”, and her name means “splendor” and “light” in Sanskrit, and is the epithet of the Hindu mother goddess Parvati—lent itself like almost no other as a projection surface and protective shield, because its smoothness apparently made it suitable for ascriptions of a tougher sort, is the result of how it was seen by Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, which expertly succeeded in addressing a wide audience with its calculated distance from good taste and by always going slightly further than the mainstream approved, was followed in Kill Bill by the actual, rarely achieved masterstroke: the creation of an icon. Here as the construction of an invulnerable face only to be adorned by every new blood splatter, whose immortality is demonstrated all the better for every new wound, and whose super-material purity radiates all the more through layers of dirt and spit. Supported by a perfect narrative of the avenging mother and merciless saint, it succeeded in superimposing the apparently irreconcilable: brutal violence and confident femininity, a vast capacity for suffering with vital sexiness, “natural born killer” and motherhood. The fact that behind this face on the big screen the head of someone like Harvey Weinstein could have its “private performance” in hotel rooms seems today like the sad downside of a perfectly staged win-win family. Hooray for Hollywood!
The question remained as to how the impossibility of improving on such an aesthetic could ever reach an end; even film scars don’t tear after the nth episode. This would require contingent facts, an incursion of reality into the filmic imaginary. A car accident, for example. The fact that this occurred during shooting in Mexico, interestingly as the result of a double change of cinematic perspective, isn’t the only irony of this behind-the-scenes story. Uma was supposed to drive in the opposite direction Tarantino had checked, lit by the sun, only seen from behind, accelerating fast enough for her hair to wave, goddess-like, in the wind. The physical and emotional injuries that Thurman took from the accident entailed a change in register: Uma’s face was set to become Thurman’s voice.
The incident only became known in February 2018, when Thurman made public material she had received from Tarantino, which had been held back by the producers, in connection with her interview “This Is Why Uma Thurman Is Angry,” on Weinstein’s sexual assaults, in the New York Times, not without having announced months previously to her Instagram community that words would soon have to be uttered, as the decisive thing could no longer perhaps be read from her face.
But the long latency period preceding the accusation in the NYT—which is also a confession of her own guilty silence—came to an end beforehand: in 2012 Thurman, having recently had another child, almost therapeutically found a voice for her long built-up anger in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Gossip from the set reads like this: “Uma Thurman was happy to scream like an animal ‘50 times’ for director Lars von Trier.” It is thanks to this new cinematic liaison that the primarily male view of the face can now shatter, in a remarkable scene—a film in film, as Thurman aptly notes—against screams of desperation. The face now appears both vulnerable and commanding in pain. Thurman’s role of Mrs. H, her performance as abandoned wife and mother of three sons, is emotionally complex and impressively realizes von Trier’s morally precisely calculated counterpoint to the lonely, cold, sex-addicted suffering of Gainsbourg in sound and image.
But working on the face is an endless task for an actor. Mustn’t the undead construction now be killed at last?
The first scene in von Trier’s most recent film, The House that Jack built, shows the main character (Matt Dillon) in a blood-red van on a forest road, and from his perspective a woman (Uma Thurman) standing at the edge of the road next to her broken-down vehicle with an equally blood-red jack in her hand. He stops and gets out. The first words are hers: “I’m standing here holding this jack. Crap’s not working. Do you … do you have a jack I could borrow? —No, I’m sorry. —No? —No. —No. —No. —Ahh. I thought everyone had a jack. —I don’t …” The annoying voice has already pronounced the word “jack” before her counterpart even begins to speak. For Jack isn’t Bill. The tool, which will become the first murder weapon, gives the man his name. And not only that: in the van she insistently prizes the murder out of him, as if Man himself were at the wheel. Paraphrasing Levinas it could be said that “the voice unmasks my freedom as murderous.” Be Jack! nags the voice, forcing the perfidious game. For minutes she insinuates that he is a serial killer, before taking everything back in the form of a complete insult: “No, no, no. You have not the disposition for that sort of thing. Way too much of a wimp to murder anybody.” We see the face broken with the jack in close-up. Three more times von Trier cuts in the dead countenance: completely distorted, pierced by a dark hole, as if the murdered face of Uma isn’t only meant to make Jack an artist as his first victim, but also to ensure Thurman of the power of her voice.