FILM / At long last, the look of love is back: Thomas Sutcliffe watches Architecture of the Imagination and finds steps in the wrong direction

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At a key juncture in Sleepless in Seattle heroine Meg Ryan's exasperated best friend chastises her for watching An Affair to Remember (again) and pedantically announces:'That's your trouble. You want to be in love in the movies.'

Well, who wouldn't? Sleepless, Nora Ephron's hit romantic comedy, artfully dissects and exploits the lure. It compulsively ponders 'the magic' of attraction, although none of the articulate characters can define the experience. Widower Tom Hanks fumbles closest when he says it's the million little things that feel right about the other person, the sudden sensation of 'coming home', the dizzy moment he first took his wife's hand and just knew.

But words fail magic; it wouldn't be magic otherwise. Unable to dent a mystery that poets, philosophers and Valentine card versifiers have been humbled by, Ephron wisely aims the camera and frames the enchantment, containing, not explaining, the moment when the love bomb lands and explodes into a thousand pink pieces.

This is what cinema does best. What a novelist could take pages, perhaps an entire tome, to conqure to life, the human face can express - as Sunset Boulevard would have it - with one look. Dialogue, simple, profound or witty, can only diminish the truth inhabiting an actor's yearning eyes (as Joan Crawford redundantly remarks to Van Heflin in Possessed,' 'I love you' is such an inadequate way of saying I love you.') Lit for longing, edited for maximum impact, scored to asurging soundtrack, audiences thrill to the primal glance that passes between celestial male and female, their private eyes made public, filling the screen, each and every shift, roll and blink gigantically enlarged, laid bare for eager inspection.

Proof positive: Tom Hanks is at the airport, having bid goodbye to a potential lover. Now he's embroiled in telling his uppity son that adults make do in matters of the heart, that there is no absolutely perfect person, no Mrs Right, no. . .

Meg Ryan ambles into his range of vision. Hanks torrent of talk to the small instantly ceases. He simply stares. The camera cuts from a mid-shot of his face (he's stricken) to a full length shot of Ryan, who is gazing around, collecting herself, blithely unaware that the man she's come to woo and win is a few steps away, positively enraptured. We see her as he sees her - an angel adjusting her hair.

The cut back to Hanks is a close-up dripping surprise and desire. And something. . . something else. When Ryan begins to leave, possibly disappearing from his life, Hanks big, boyish head swivels in panic. The sudden ecstasy evaporates, he grabs the child and he's in quicksilver motion, following his destiny.

One reason Sleepless's retro-romanticism works is because Ephron knows they did it better in the Good Old Days, when a peek and a peck was all the hero and heroine were ever likely to exchange. Today the first stolen glimpse is, inevitably, a throwaway prologue to the laborious making of the two-backed beast. Way back when the look had to be everything. Lust began and mostly ended with the dilated pupil, its lurking potency inadvertently triple-distilled by censorship's prim imperatives.

Hitchcock's Notorious is a classic case study. The point of no return is reached early on, when Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are flying down to Rio and each leans toward the airplane window to observe Sugar Loaf Mountain come into view. Bergman moves away from the window, Grant doesn't and she's suddenly contemplating another celebrated natural wonder - that famous dimpled chin. Hell, she could kiss him if she wanted to. The thought so rattles Bergman she executes an embarrassed double-take. The sexual electricity excites. The audience needs no textbook to know that, as soon as indecently possible, the duo will be to adopt the idiom of the hour, making whoopee.

Indeed, the audience becomes an eager collaborator, a player in the unfolding drama. We have witnessed what Grant hasn't; this too adds to the potency of the huge projected image. We are immediately protective: the world loves a potential lover. Even if the lover is a prostitute, as Jane Fonda is in Klute, and the look she casts policeman Donald Sutherland over the vegetable shopping might seem, under other circumstances, almost sneaky. Her need to belong is at war with her need to control.

Of course, actors adore doing the look. It has a history. Unimaginable upon the stage - we are never allowed near enough for such subtlety to command instantaneous empathy - the look pre-dates the talkies. The look belongs to a silent time when stars were literally worshipped and the human face was, as Barthes put it, comparing Garbo to Audrey Hepburn, an idea (an abstraction) as opposed to an event (a construction).

Anything more than the basic photographic ingredients of wet eyes, moist lips and becoming blush actually blights the moment, idly transforming the sacred into the profane - what the industry terms 'meet cutes'. Consider Tony and Maria's supposedly sophisicated West Side Story encounter - the converted gym fades along with the sound of chattering voices, the screen turns soft-focus, stars twinkle above and a heavenly choir is heard. Rank hyperbole. That's why the look is best left unadorned. Visual grammar tends to the basic, editing to the minimal. The camera remains almost static (adoration demands stillness). Muse upon Flesh and The Devil with Greta Garbo vamping John Gilbert or Julia Roberts letting her defences crumble and her warm brown eyes caress the sleeping Richard Gere in Pretty Woman - quiet excerises more than seven decades apart yet linked by a simple universial language.

Despite justifiable feminist criticism of the camera's gaze as being inherently male, penetrative and possessive - remember how James Stewart's point of view shots imply sole ownership of Kim Novak throughout Hitchock's fetishistic Vertigo? - the look of love tends to be mutual. Man and woman for once look one another straight in the eye, equally vulnerable, equally strong.

In The Way We Were, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford actually take turns with the look, she near the beginning, he at the very end. On both occasions it says the same things. When Streisand awakens the morning after the drunken night before to find Redford beside her, her fond observation mingles astonishment, tenderness and infinite regret; she realises the golden WASP is an unsuitable partner for a campaigning Jewish girl. As the final credits rush up, the positions are reversed. It's years later, they've married and divorced, and, as American critic Molly Haskell recounts, 'he stops and gives her this long look, so lost and attractive and appealing, and obviously wanting her back. And I felt a pang like I hadn't felt since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that she had really made a mistake, only she didn't it know it.'

If the look allowed the male any advantage, perhaps it was the traditional one of never having to verbalise inchoate feelings or to announce his intentions, honourable or dishonourable. Movie women bond with the first stare and, sooner or later, state; their hearts are finally in their mouths. Redford can't bring himself to say 'I still love you' and Notorious unreels and terminates without Grant delivering a similar sentiment, though he'll gladly endanger his life to rescue Bergman from the cluthes of a Nazi spy ring.

Sleepless, penned and helmed by a woman, strips away even this last defence. Hanks isn't exactly New Man incarnate, but he is presented as a caring single parent, a task usually associated with women, and thus a sort of honorary sister-under-the-skin. Ditto, he has little difficulty expressing his inner-most self. Tricked onto a radio show, the honesty of his loneliness will reduce Ryan to tears and provoke a deluge of date mail from listeners. Bearing all this in mind, and how assigned gender roles have changed, how the singles market has boomed, how Aids has made sex a risky business, perhaps Sleepless's success can be accounted for in strictly sociological terms.

Or maybe not. The look itself endures. That split second of connection remains strangely unaltered by the currents swirling around it; knowing and unknowable, open and secret, brazen and coy, the seductive sum of its come hither contradictions. But why try to reduce to a pat sentence? Words fail magic - it wouldn't be magic otherwise.

(Photograph omitted)

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