film posters and tableau vivant

Recently, I was reading an account of the Lindsays, the great artistic and literary dynasty. It showed photos of them at their family home performing tableaus. The tableau — or, more strictly, the ‘tableau vivant’ — was a popular nineteenth century entertainment, in which actors dressed up as historical or mythological costume and then arranged themselves in motionless poses that suggested their characters’ narrative. The form enjoyed a certain revival as pornography (or, at least, erotic entertainment) since the censors banned nudity on stage only if there was movement involved — if a naked woman stood in a tableau, it was art, not smut.

Anyway, it suddenly struck me that the tableau persists in film posters. That is, your average film billboard consists not of a scene from the movie nor of an abstract image suggestive of its themes but of the characters arranged in a static display meant to indicate something about the role each plays in the narrative. Here’s a classic example.


It’s not an image you ever see in the film: it’s a tableau in which the pose of each character tells you their narrative function. Here’s a more recent instance.


Now, it’s not a movie I can claim to have seen but one guesses it’s not about Matthew McConaughey’s inability to walk. Again, the pose is a kind of static narrative: a classic tableau. But it’s not just about narrative. Presumably, in the film, Sarah Jessica Parker wants McConaughey to leave home or grow up or something; one further presumes that she’s frustrated about his unwillingness to do so. Yet, rather than depicting her looking frustrated, the poster has her grinning inanely, even though the expression makes no narrative sense. Why? The tableau also indicates the genre. It’s a romantic comedy, and Parker’s expression is thus not that of her character but rather of the implied audience. The suggestion is not that Parker finds McConaughey’s failure to launch side-splittingly funny but that you will.

So why does this largely forgotten form linger in film posters and nowhere much else? You don’t see similar images on books, for instance — or, rather, if you do, it’s only on the trashiest of trashy novels. Why are we so comfortable with it in film and not anywhere else?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Don't you think it's odd, though, that films — that are focus-grouped to all fuck — are more old-fashioned than books?

  2. I'm thinking it's about genre. That is, it's a form you see on sci fi book covers, romance novels, action & scif and rom com movies. You get it for musical theatre etc. But not 'literary' or 'arthouse' forms. It's not so surprising that focus-grouped-to-all-fuck (patent that phrase) films are more old-fashioned and conservative. These posters are partly code for: you are going to have a predictable, good, non-challenging time with a formulaic convention you already know and love. The Harry Potter posters are certainly like this. (I want to see Failure to Launch – the entire look of the film, including the title, and indeed, the poster, suggest to me that it's about Mcconaughey's failure to get it up. I find it totally snigger inducing).

    I saw Public Enemies last night and was struck by the posters for that. Instead of going tableau it's dramatic shots of individual performers – Depp and Cotillard – looking like movie stars from the 1930s (as, indeed, they look in the film). Nonetheless the graphic approach is much more modern. MIchael Mann saying 'this is a new type of approach to an old-fashioned film'.

    This may not be one of the pressing issues of our day, but I am fascinated by these things.

  3. At the risk of sounding a bit ignorant — what would be an alternative? A shot from the movie? For Hollywood movies, I think it sounds easier to have a photo shoot and then construct something artificial that can both advertise the stars as well as give a sense of the film. Indie movies probably make less use of the tableau vivant for posters.

  4. Persists in films too. Mrs Henderson Presents with Dame Judi Dench.
    Also Stanley Kubrick declared that his nudes were not obscene (weird, maybe). In The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut nudes are often present tableau vivant – his little joke obviously.
    As for posters, just probably a part of cinematic trope that has persisted.

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