29 January 2019
How Wilder Displays Norma Desmond’s Tragic Downfall in the End Sequence
Billy Wilder, in his film Sunset Boulevard, creates an interesting character who is stuck in a delusional world that she has created. Norma Desmond, the film’s antagonist, is a washed – up movie star who is portrayed as desperately holding on to the last, fleeting strings of her once successful acting career. This sequence on its own is pivotal to wrapping up the story, as the viewer can witness the end of Norma Desmond’s life played out on screen. By utilizing cinematographic techniques, Wilder successfully creates a mise-en-scene to close the story of Sunset Boulevard and establish the tragic downfall of Norma Desmond.
The costume selection is one element in this sequence that heavily builds upon the mise-en-scene. In this sequence, Norma Desmond is seen wearing a lavish, shiny dress as she approaches into frame to descend the massive staircase. In films, actresses usually wear such dresses to display their beauty in front of the camera. In the past, Norma would often go through a procedure to make herself look “camera ready”. In almost an ironic twist, Norma is in fact about to be put in front of cameras. However, she is not being placed in a film, she is being taken to prison. This is an important technique because throughout the course of the film, Norma is a character who is both self-absorbed and obsessed with herself. This is displayed by the picture frames that she has of herself all around the house. In a way, she must establish herself as being the star of the show, regardless of what that show may be. In this case, her artificial beauty sharply contrasts the horrible deeds that she has just committed. She has just committed murder, possibly the most heinous crime one can commit. Through this specific costume choice, Wilder successfully juxtaposes beauty with wickedness.
The décor that creates the background of this sequence is also an important element of the mise-en-scene, which is also used to create a deceptive reality. Norma Desmond’s house is not of the average. It is a mansion. The mansion is not only massive, but it is filled entirely with pictorial representations of Norma, whether they are in picture frames or on the big screen. Max, her former husband and present butler, declares to Norma as she descends the stairs “this is the staircase of the palace” (Wilder, 1950). Through this, Max successfully creates a set within the scene. The staircase seems to leave reality just for a moment, as Norma descends them. The camera men, the investigators, and the police all become her audience. In a way, Wilder demonstrates how Norma has dived head first into her own delusion, and the viewers are able to take part in the fantasy. However, in contrast, Norma is quite literally, descending from the greatness that once was....