The Human Body and Context in Film

© Copyright 2018 Erin Bryans, Ryerson University

Within film, the human body can take on many different roles. These roles can transform the film and influence the reception by audiences. Nudity can take away from a plot, or add to it. In most cases, nudity can be used to portray a character’s vulnerability or humanity. The body can allow viewers to understand characters and the message of the plot can become more clear. The human body can transcend genres and interpret a directors vision. The human body in relation to multiple topics can allow a viewer to comprehend a plot and possibly relate to the characters. In the films discussed, the body is connected to identity, art, sexuality, trauma, the mind, and robotics. While these may not seem related, they answer the question; how is the human body portrayed through different platforms of film with different contexts? Viewers have experiences with the human body whether it be through sex, art, and more. Films are ways for creators to convey their visions and allow viewers to see and understand new perspectives. They let viewers relate to characters, feel less alone, and escape their reality. Through all of these films, the human (or robot) body is means to convey different perspectives and as different devices for each plot. One’s identity and self image will cause them to change, hate, or even love their body. In film, the most beautiful people are shown living beautiful lives, in which their identity matches their body.


When thinking of the body and identity, most thoughts lead to sexualities and gender. Some individuals may feel as though they are born with incorrect reproductive systems and identities. This group of people believe their bodies are incorrect and their identities not corresponding to the way they appear. The movie The Danish Girl (Hooper 2015) discusses the life of a transgender woman and her struggle to be recognized as a woman. Born male and married to a woman, Lili finds herself delving deeper and deeper into a female identity. Lili proceeds to wear makeup, dress as a woman, and eventually undergo the first gender reassignment surgery. It is the disconnect between Lili’s body and identity that cause her conflict. While Lili recognizes herself as a woman, her male genitalia are always present to contradict her. “Last night I had the most beautiful dream. I dreamed that I was a baby in my mother’s arms. And she looked down at me, and she called me Lili.” (Hooper 2015) She dreams of being born female thus ridding herself of the heartache and barricades of being a transgender woman. Lili’s wife struggles with her new identity, Gerda (Lili’s wife) married a man, and was sexually active with a man who identified with his male body. Gerda has trouble adapting to Lili because she was in love with Lili before her transition, not now. This film takes on the topic of transgender people and their life struggles, especially for the first person to ever take the step to making their body match their identity. This film, unlike others, shows perspectives of both the transgendered person and the people around them, adjusting to this new situation. The Danish Girl brought a new classic to the “queer genre” of film and brought a new perspective for audiences. While strongly critiquing the film an viewer writes “The Danish Girl strongly thematises Gottlieb’s increasing discomfort with Lili’s medical transition and life as a woman, while Lili’s subjective experience of transition is represented only through a series of highly recognisable transphobic stereotypes” (Keegan 2016). The author notes on the movies ability to emphasize Gerda’s experience but not truly Lili’s. The film succeeds in representing the body and the possibility of dissatisfaction with oneself. The Danish Girl is not the only “queer genre” film to incorporate the human body, many filmmakers use the body for symbolism and art.


In film, the body is most commonly portrayed as sexual. Some films use the body for art, or gore, while others see the true nature of beauty and sexuality in the human body. In the film Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino 2017), the characters are conflicted by their sexual attraction to each other. The movie uses the underlying discussion of statues and their figures to discuss the sexuality of humans and art. Elio’s father (Mr. Perlman) is a professor who is teaching Oliver of ancient Italian art and culture. Mr. Perlman discusses the body of these statues with such passion and sexuality to show the viewer the hidden sexuality in all art. While evaluating the statues Mr. Perlman says “Muscles are firm, not a straight body in these statues. They’re all curved, sometimes impossibly curved, and so nonchalant hence their ageless ambiguity as if they’re daring you to desire them.” (Guadagnino 2017). The statues are recreations of the human body, representing art and sexuality. Mr. Perlman is mostly talking about how sexual they truly are which is somewhat surprising to the other characters. These statues and their undertones represent the emotions of both Elio and Oliver. The film shows two individuals that are so sexually attracted to each other they completely submit to one another. The characters Elio and Oliver begin their relationship from a rough start but once they allow themselves to be free sexually they become more bonded. Elio allows Oliver to take control and show him what to do. The film uses long takes and panning shots of their bodies entangled and their arms wrapped around each other. The filmmakers show their love and sexuality through the shapes their bodies take and the embraces they share. Elio and Oliver experience love at its most physical form, they disregard their minds telling them no and allow each other to experience physical bliss. While these characters are led by their hearts, many can be influenced and led by their mind.

Flickr. “Marble statue of a naked Venus crouching at her bath, 2nd century AD (Antonine period), British Museum”. 14 May 2014, British Museum.


The mind is something with so many subtopics and phenomenons it would be impossible to discuss them all. The film Fight Club (Fincher 1999) shows the viewers a perspective from a truly warped mind and the trauma the body experiences. The main characters are putting themselves through extreme physical suffering and injuring their bodies beyond repair to settle their minds. The main character (name unknown) experiences issues of insomnia, schizophrenia, and depression which lead him to commit cruel acts upon himself. The filmmakers use incredibly close up and slow motioned shots to show the viewer the trauma and force these bodies are going through. Their bodies are their tools and seen as both weaknesses and strengths. The bodies in the film represent strength as they become more and more muscular throughout the film. While the narrator is strong, he is weak minded and a prisoner to his mental illnesses. In the end of the film, the narrator discovers it is himself that has created the personality of Tyler Durden and has been putting his body through immense pain on his own. The candidates for “Project Mayhem” put their bodies through hell to experience being accepted and part of something greater than themselves. Tyler is the leader and his requirements for joining are “All right, if the applicant is young, tell him he’s too young. Old, too old. Fat, too fat. If the applicant then waits for three days without food, shelter, or encouragement he may then enter and begin his training.” (Fincher 1999) Tyler forces the “applicants” to make their bodies weka, break them down into nothing before they can become something. Their bodies are their weapons and tools for destruction, they experience pain and harm their bodies beyond repair only to continue doing it for the freedom and bliss they experience. It is their minds controlling them, in an article discussing their bodies the author explains why she thinks they do what they do “To escape a life that is outwardly “complete” but inwardly numbing, the Narrator in the novel invents the community of fight club, where brutal fist fights, injuries, and pain instantly jolt participants back into an immediate connection with a primal, fully embodied, and, according to their principles, more genuine existence.” (Burgess 2012) she explains the effect the fights have on their minds and how putting their bodies through suffering allows them to truly be free. It is only through the great suffering and trauma that the narrator is able to cure his insomnia, rejuvenating his mind but destroying his body. While the characters in Fight Club experience degenerating of their bodies, some bodies cannot experience pain or degeneration.

Robot films find themselves able to create a life form that appears human but is not at all. They look, act, and talk like humans but lack the morals, suffering, or experiences to make them completely human. In the film Ex Machina the main character Nathan spends his life recreating human females in the form of robots. These robot are capable of influencing human emotion and recreating the human experience. The human body is scene as a work of science and technology, always expanding and improving. The robots, Ava and Kyoko, are prisoners in Nathan’s home and are taken apart and reassembled whenever they are deemed unsatisfactory. This is unlike humans in some ways, we have the ability to consent to alterations to our bodies and some even request it. The thing about Nathan’s robots is their design in an attempt for perfection. Nathan wants to perfectly recreate the female human, by designing them faces and creating Artificial Intelligence within his robots. 

Gustavo A. Casa. “We can see a NAO robot with its head open to facilitate refrigeration.” Own Work, 26 November 2015, Turkey.

The film notes on how impossible it is to fully recreate a human and Caleb (the one performing the tests on the robots) is shocked after the explanation saying “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.” (Garland 2015), Nathan has managed to recreate a human woman, complete with a face, sexual organs, and a consciousness. While only “god” or “gods” have managed to create a human, Nathan has too. The main issue is whether having a human body makes her human at all. She has the features, and her body is continuously undergoing modifications but it is her self-awareness that makes her human, not her body. The body is see as reparable and something easily recreated. In one of the final scenes, Nathan is attacked by Kyoko and ava managing to “kill” Kyoko but breaking off the lower half of her face. While Nathan is fighting Ava he breaks her arm off and her true robotics inside her are seen. Ava does not feel pain from the injury, but wires and sparks are shown, thus revealing her true lack of humanity and difference from the real human body. Her ability to mimic humanity is shown through her manipulation of Caleb, Nathan’s true intentions are explained in an article saying “Nathan wanted to see if his A.I. is intelligent enough to manipulate Caleb into betraying him. However, Ava’s manipulation of Caleb was so effective that he secretly reprogrammed the security codes, which enables her escape.” (Henke 2018). Ava knew what was happening all along and managed to manipulate Nathan and Caleb much like a real human woman could. Her humanity is visible in her face and actions while it is lost in her lack of empathy and inability to experience pain.

While the robots bodies are incapable of experiencing pain, everyone can feel it differently. The broken heart of Elio at the end of Call Me By Your Name is an example of pain and human emotions. It is only humans, that are capable of these experiences. The human body allows everyone to experience pain and pleasure. Through these films and different contexts the human body can have many different uses and meanings. The human body can be seen as art and beauty while others can see it as something completely sexual. In Ex Machina the human body is seen as needing improvement and lacking technology. Depending on the context of a film the human body can be seen is so many different ways. While Call Me By Your Name sexualizes the body through art, The Danish Girl distinguishes the separation between the mind and body. All of these films accomplish in portraying a new side to the human body. These films allow the viewers to experience the human body in ways they may have not before.



Burgess, O. “Revolutionary Bodies in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.” Utopian Studies, vol. 23 no. 1, 2012, pp. 263-280. Project MUSE,

Fincher, David, director. Fight Club. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Garland, Alex, director. Ex Machina. Universal Pictures, 2015.

Guadagnino, Luca, director. Call Me By Your Name. Sony Pictures Classics, 2017.

Henke, Jennifer. ““Ava’s body is a good one”: (Dis)Embodiment in Ex Machina” American,           British and Canadian Studies, 29.1, 2018. 126-146.

Hooper, Tom, director. The Danish Girl. Focus Features, 2015.

Keegan, Cá. “History, Disrupted: The Aesthetic Gentrification of Queer and Trans Cinema.” Social Alternatives, vol. 35, no. 3, 2016, pp. 50-56. ProQuest.