Before Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 opened here last month, it was heralded by a still of Zhang Ziyi espousing the kind of tantalizing erotic mystery that movies themselves seldom project these days. It might prove the most iconic image to have appeared since Marlene Dietrich was photographed leaning back on a beer barrel—to display a meaty thigh and her dreamy detachment from the febrile desire she elicits—during the winter 1929–30 UFA production of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.

Though it offers an invitation that cannot be fulfilled, the great Dietrich shot is, if anything, friendlier and more forgiving than that of Zhang’s nightclub escort Bai Ling, who aims her scornful stare at anyone with the gall to ogle or proposition her. Taken out of context, Bai’s defiance, its power enhanced by the low angle, could be invoked as a contemptuous post-feminist dismissal of the “controlling male gaze” identified by Laura Mulvey 30 years ago, though the movie itself reveals that Bai unconsciously desires to be trapped by her sadomasochistic longings for embittered playboy Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung).

There she stands then, in a spangled black cheongsam, a noirish totem of sexual aloofness, in her room, 2046, at Hong Kong’s Oriental Hotel. Her upper lip is cast in shadow as it separates provocatively from its neighbor. Her neatly coiffed head is cocked slightly to her left at an angle that would seem quizzical if it didn’t seem she knows all the damn answers (in fact, she has none). She has, meanwhile, arrayed herself in insolent contrapposto: Her right hand is spread on her right hip in such a way that it crooks the arm at a 90-degree angle at the elbow; her left hand caresses her abdomen with the scarlet-tipped fingers at 10 o’clock (much too early for bed in mid-’60s Hong Kong). This accentuates not the curve of her back, as the New York Times review headline euphemistically put it, but the prominence of her bust, which must be pressing painfully against her too tight sheath—a clear mark of masochism. The pose echoes Dietrich’s akimbo stances in The Blue Angel and especially Sternberg’s 1932 Blonde Venus. It’s an advertisement, a challenge, and a taunt.

Like the Dietrich photo, the Zhang still is not a film frame but a production shot. Taken by Wing Shya, the celebrated Hong Kong photographer and graphic artist who works on most of Wong’s movies, it was published in the Voice, the Daily News (a decision I was involved in as an editor there), and the Times, where it took up a whopping 115 inches of prime real estate on the first page of the August 5 Weekend Arts. It also graced the cover of the July–August issue of Film Comment and is one of 13 images collaged on the U.S. film poster, where it was reproduced in a panoramic version that shows more of room 2046 than that version offered to the press on the Sony Classics website. On the poster, it sits above another image of Bai looking out at the viewer, but this time lying naked in bed and looking suitably vulnerable after her seduction by Chow: The latter image delivers a sadistic lash to the Zhang fancier, but her haughty expression and fetishizing clothes in the top still draw the eye more than her glowing skin in the lower.

Bai’s shrouded eyes, announced by scimitar brows, stare imperiously down at . . . who or what? Chow, who in the movie peeps at her through a hole in the thin wall that separates their rooms? Wong? Wing? Us? All of the above, but most urgently herself. During the mesmerizing 27-second, eight-shot slo-mo sequence in the film (at the start of which Wing probably took the photo), Bai flits around her room getting ready to go out and earn her living. She adjusts the constricting collar of her dress, sips from a glass, puts on earrings, and assesses herself before mirrors. Her rapt narcissism, born of insecurity, and her na doom her to fall unrequitedly in love with Chow. An ominous counterpoint to her proud self-appraisal of her allure is Connie Francis’s aching 1960 rendition of the rumba “Siboney” that ushers in the sequence: Written in 1929 by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and also heard in Fellini’s Amarcord, the song is a lament for a departed lover— “If you do not come back I will die of love”—that augurs Bai’s journey into romantic torment.

Take a bullet train to the year 2046, or even to the next five
minutes, to recover the movie memories you’ve mislaid, and you may find yourself hurtling into a morass of self-deception. In cinema, as in life, the velvet light trap of the mind imperfectly recalls the images that flickered by at 24 frames per second so that we re member nothing we saw on-screen the same way twice, any more than we exactly remember experiences. As Mary Ann Doane wrote, interpreting Freud, in Femme Fatales (1991), “Memory is a palimpsest—the sum total of its various rewritings through time. The ‘event’ which is remembered is never really accessible as such.” We are our own Rashomons, our own Wong Kar-wais.

But a still photograph taken from a movie (or more likely on a movie set) can engrave itself in the consciousness—collective or personal—long after the film it touts has become a blur. David Thomson has written of Marilyn Monroe being “funnier, sexier, more mysterious and protected against being” in stills than on film. “And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of the media. For stills are more available to the imagination.” But memorable movie stills have been few and far between over the decades, perhaps because they counter the illusion of movement and, therefore, the oneiric spirit of cinema: You cannot freeze-frame a dream.

Unlike in moving pictures, however, the stasis in stills leaves the beholder to do all the work, as Bernardo Bertolucci recognized when he had the young Parisian movie buff Theo (Louis Garrel) masturbate over the Dietrich still in The Dreamers. The sight of that epochal image glistening with semen was sacrilegious, though not so far from the likely use of the Lola Lola postcards passed around by Professor Rath’s students in The Blue Angel. In any case, it caught the inviolability of Dietrich’s sublime indifference and the sadomasochistic passivity of Theo and Emil Jannings’s repressed Rath. Not that Dietrich herself thought much of the still. “Those pictures of me sitting on that barrel—they sell them all over the place and everybody’s mad about it and all the rest,” she groused in Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene.

The tension between disdain and come-on in the Zhang still crystallizes not only the film’s vision of her but also the irresolvable theoretical debate about images of beautiful women in movies that arose after Mulvey disparaged the patriarchal system’s promotion of the male gaze in her polemical 1975 paper “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” She argued that the objectified female’s lack of a penis implied “a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” for the male viewer: “Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men . . . always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.”

Mulvey added that the male unconscious deals with this anxiety either by demystifying the woman’s mystery, which “has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt . . . asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness,” or through “fetishistic scopophilia, which builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself” (and explains the cult of the movie star). Although this thesis has been challenged for not taking into account female or gay spectatorship, “fetishistic scopophilia” is very clearly a tool of both Sternberg (who turned Dietrich into “the ultimate fetish . . . in direct erotic rapport with the spectator”) and Wong, who in 2046 offers the voyeuristic Chow as an identification figure for male viewers gazing on Zhang as she preens solipsistically in her room prior to receiving her punishment through heartbreak.

But this is to talk about the movies, not the stills, which despite their fixity are as slippery as morals. Dietrich may seem pliant reclining on the keg, but she’s looking up and out of the frame at the unseen figure of the simpering Rath, whose humiliation and death she will inspire. Her sexual independence is not prideful, merely insouciant. Zhang, on the other hand, oozes sexual arrogance, but it’s a pose: Chow knows she has the emotional integrity of a kitten. The irony is that Dietrich’s Lola Lola, for all her tawdry lingerie, wears the pants (and the top hat); three-quarters of a century on, Zhang’s Bai Ling is an evolutionary throwback and a feminist’s nightmare— but still worth a look.

Graham Fuller is Sunday arts editor at the Daily News and film columnist for Interview