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The power of POV: five films that put you in the shoes of otherwise unrelatable characters

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator holding a gun
Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984). TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

The point-of-view (POV) shot is a filming angle that is usually used to put the viewer into the rigid perspective of how a character sees the world, either for a few scenes, or in some cases, the whole film.

Used well, it can be extremely effective, presenting an entirely new way of looking at a character or their motivations. This can be very useful for filmmakers depicting difficult characters, like murderers, machines or monsters.

Here are five films that have used POV to depict difficult or inorganic characters in convincing ways.

1. The Terminator (1984)

James Cameron’s classic dystopian sci-fi film is about a cold killing machine hunting a woman to win a future war. Viewers learn early into the film that the killer cyborg (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) “can’t be reasoned with” and “doesn’t feel pity, remorse or fear”.

At several points, we are shown events through the eyes of the mechanical killer – witnessing the world through its confined lens. A red filter replaces natural colours, while numeric data and targeting systems remind us of the unnatural objectives programmed into this machine.

Cyborg POV scenes in The Terminator.

Viewers do not inhabit the cyborg’s gaze for long, but experience it often enough to differentiate between the war on humanity as seen from killer robotic eyes and everybody else’s.

Robocop (1987) later took this format and added an element of victimhood to it, using POV to signify a character who had human vulnerability mixed in with their mission as synthetic executioner.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Julian Schnabel’s biographical drama about Jean-Dominque Bauby’s experience of locked-in syndrome is a harrowing film of vulnerability told through a single working eye.

Bauby wrote his memoir (of the same name) using the only part of his body that he could control, his left eye. Using structured blinking patterns and a complex alphabetical chart, his eye became his only means of communication.

The trailer for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Schnabel’s film uses POV to present the extreme discomfort of this condition. Lopsided imagery of medical staff, therapists and loved ones enter our vulnerable and immobile gaze, flooding our field of vision without warning. The camera movement used is ironically more active than most POV films, as shots rapidly scan the room with intermittent blackouts to emphasise blinking and optical hysteria.

In one of the most difficult scenes, an operation is carried out on the right eye to seal it shut. A piece of latex covers the lens, making the viewer feel and experience the pain of each stitch.

3. Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s darkly controversial film about voyeurism and scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) brought his directorial career to a premature conclusion in 1960.

The film’s subjects – sex, trauma and murder – were met with scathing critique from audiences who were not yet ready for such themes, particularly from a director who made more palatable films like The Red Shoes (1948) or A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The trailer for Peeping Tom.

Peeping Tom opens with a two-minute unbroken POV sequence in which camera-obsessed Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhn) approaches a sex worker while covertly filming her. Following her up to her flat, he murders her with a concealed phallic spike protruding from the camera apparatus.

The Freudian message is clear, as too is the challenging way that Powell lambasts viewers for watching. Lewis explains that his obsession is a consequence of his own father (played by Powell) constantly training a camera on him, allowing the killer and victim gaze to overlap. However, the opening sequence is purely killer vision, shown through a viewfinder reminiscent of a hunting rifle, as predator stalks its prey.

4. Dark Passage (1947)

POV is used in the first third of Delmer Daves’s experimental thriller to tell the story of escaped convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), who is arrested for murder. After Parry’s escape, we learn that he has been framed. In order to clear his name, he undergoes plastic surgery with a sadistic doctor. His vulnerability is emphasised through the use of POV.

The POV surgery scene from Dark Passage.

The doctor looks down on us and cuts the viewer during a POV shot. As Parry’s new identity heals, so the spectator has the opportunity to look at him rather than through him. He is no longer a killer or victim but rather an innocent hero setting forth to clear his name, embodied in the guise of charismatic Bogey.

5. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Spike Jonze’s experimental film adopts POV scenes to give viewers a unique way to experience everyday life as a passenger inside the head of an unsuspecting John Malkovich.

Awkward puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers a portal to Malkovich’s subjectivity and hacks in permanently to make up for his own shortcomings in his failed life. POV is used to emphasise Schwartz’s awkwardness, which is a recognisable trait within other films and television programmes.

A POV scene from Being John Malkovich.

The sitcom Peep Show (2003-15) frequently incorporated this shot style into early episodes, to show the awkward perspectives of its two misfits, Jeremy (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell). And Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967) uses an extensive POV shot during a pool scene from anxious protagonist Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) to emphasise his sense of isolation.

The final scene of Jonze’s film, also at a swimming pool, is hauntingly reminiscent of Braddock’s alienation as Schwartz is left trapped and forlorn, imprisoned in a POV gaze that he can no longer control.

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