David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV

Home

Blog

Books

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'National cinemas: Denmark' Category

Stuck inside these four walls: Chamber cinema for a plague year

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).

Privacy is the seat of Contemplation, though sometimes made the recluse of Tentation… Be you in your Chambers or priuate Closets; be you retired from the eyes of men; thinke how the eyes of God are on you. Doe not say, the walls encompasse mee, darknesse o’re-shadowes mee, the Curtaine of night secures me… doe nothing priuately, which you would not doe publickly. There is no retire from the eyes of God.

Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman (1631)

 

DB here:

We’re in the midst of a wondrous national experiment: What will Americans do without sports? Movies come to fill the void, and websites teem with recommendations for lockdown viewing. Among them are movies about pandemics, about personal relationships, and of course about all those vistas, urban or rural, that we can no longer visit in person. (“Craving Wide Open Spaces? Watch a Western.”)

Cinema loves to span spaces. Filmmakers have long celebrated the medium’s power to take us anywhere. So it’s natural, in a time of enforced hermitage, for people to long for Westerns, sword and sandal epics, and other genres that evoke grandeur.

But we’re now forced to pay more attention to more scaled-down surroundings. We’re scrutinizing our rooms and corridors and closets. We’re scrubbing the surfaces we bustle past every day. This new alertness to our immediate surroundings may sensitize us to a kind of cinema turned resolutely inward.

Long ago, when I was writing a book on Carl Dreyer, I was struck by a cross-media tradition that explored what you could express through purified interiors. I called it “chamber art.” In Western painting you can trace it back to Dutch genre works (supremely, Vermeer). It persisted through centuries, notably in Dreyer’s countryman Vilhelm Hammershøi (right).

Plays were often set in single rooms, of course, but the confinement was made especially salient by Strindberg, who even designed an intimate auditorium. For cinema, the major development was the Kammerspielfilm, as exemplified in Hintertreppe (1921), Scherben (1921),  Sylvester (1924), and other silent German classics. Kristin and I talk about this trend here and here.

In the book I argued that Dreyer developed a “chamber cinema,” in piecemeal form, in his first features before eventually committing to it in Mikael (1924) and The Master of the House (1925). Two People (1945) is the purest case in the Dreyer oeuvre: A couple faces a crisis in their marriage over the course of a few hours in their apartment. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem available with English subtitles.) But you can see, thanks to Criterion, how spatial dynamics formed a powerful premise of his later masterpieces Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).

Dreyer wasn’t alone. Ozu tried out the format in That Night’s Wife (1930), swaddling a husband, wife, child, and detective in a clutter of dripping laundry and American movie posters.

     

Bergman exploited the premise too, in films like Brink of Life (1958), Waiting Women (1952), his 1961-1963 trilogy, and Persona (1966). (All can be streamed on Criterion.)

Chamber cinema became an important, if rare expressive option for many filmmaking traditions. Writers and directors set themselves a crisp problem–how to tell a story under such constraints?

The challenge is finding “infinite riches in a little room.” How? Well, you can exploit the spatial restrictiveness by confining us to what the inhabitants of the space know. Limiting story information can build curiosity, suspense, and surprise. You can also create a kind of mundane superrealism that charges everyday objects with new force.

On the other hand, you need to maintain variety by strategies of drama and stylistic handling. Chamber cinema–wherever it turns up–offers some unique filmic effects, and maybe sheltering in place is a good time to sample it.

Herewith a by no means comprehensive list of some interesting cinematic chamber pieces. For each title, I link to streaming services supplying it.

 

Bottles of different sizes

From David Koepp I learned that screenwriters call confined-space movies “bottle” plots. There’s a tacit rule: The audience understands that by and large the action won’t stray from a single defined interior. In a commentary track for the “Blowback” episode of the (excellent) TV show Justified, Graham Yost and Ben Cavell discuss how TV series plan an occasional bottle episode, and not just because it affords dramatic concentration. It can save time and money in production.

Usually the bottle consists of more than a single room. The classic Kammerspielfilms roam a bit within a household and sometimes stray outdoors. But their manner of shooting provides a variety of angles that suggest continuing confinement. Dreyer went further in The Master of the House. He built a more or less functioning apartment as the set, then installed wild walls that let him flank the action from any side. Then editing could provide a sense of wraparound space.

     

The variations in camera setups throughout the film are extraordinary. Dreyer would create more radically fragmentary chamber spaces in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), while his later films would use solemn, arcing camera movements to achieve a smoother immersive effect. (For more on Dreyer’s unique spatial experimentation, here’s a link to my Criterion contribution on Master of the House.  I talk about the tricks Dreyer plays with chamber space in Vampyr in an “Observations” supplement on the Criterion Channel.)

Likewise, Koepp’s screenplay for Panic Room allows David Fincher to move 360 degrees through several areas of a Manhattan brownstone. The film also offers a fine example of how our awareness of domestic details gets sharpened by a creeping camera.

     

Trust Fincher to find sinister possibilities in a dripping bathtub leg and a kitchen island.

 

Confined to quarters

Detective Story (1951).

Many chamber movies are based on plays, as you’d expect. Unlike most adaptations, though, they don’t try to “ventilate” the play by expanding the field of action. Or rather, as André Bazin pointed out, the expansion is itself fairly rigorous. They don’t go as far afield as they might.

Bazin praised Cocteau’s 1948 version of his play Les parents terribles (aka “The Storm Within”) for opening up the stage version only a little, expanding beyond a single room to encompass other areas of the apartment. This retained the claustrophobia, and the sense of theatrical artifice, but it spread action out in a way that suited cinema’s urge to push beyond the frame. The freedom of staging and camera placement is thoroughly “cinematic” within the “theatrical” premise.

     

Depending on how you count, Hitchcock expanded things a bit in his adaptation of Dial M for Murder. Apart from cutting away to Tony at his club, Hitchcock moved beyond the parlor to the adjacent bedroom, the building’s entryway, and the terrace.

     

     

An earlier entry on this site talks about how 3D let Sir Alfred give an ominous accent to props: a particularly large pair of scissors, and a more minor item like the bedside clock.

Hitchcock gave us a parlor and a hallway in Rope (1948), but when Brandon flourishes the murder weapon, the framing audaciously reminds us that we aren’t allowed to go into the kitchen.

     

Bazin did not wholly admire William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), despite its skill in editing and performances; he found it too obedient to a mediocre play. True, the film doesn’t creatively transform its source to the degree that Wyler’s earlier adaptation of The Little Foxes (1941) did; Bazin wrote a penetrating analysis of that film’s remarkable turning point. Detective Story is more obedient to the classic unities, confining nearly all of the action  to the precinct station. Although I don’t think Wyler ever shows the missing fourth wall, he creates a dazzling array of spatial variants by layering and spreading out zones of the room. In his prime, the man could stage anything fluently.

     

As Bazin puts it: “One has to admire the unequaled mastery of the mise-en-scène, the extraordinary exactness of its details, the dexterity with which Wyler interweaves the secondary story lines into the main action, sustaining and stressing each without ever losing the thread.”

Some films are even more constrained. 12 Angry Men (1957), adapted from a teleplay, is a famous example. Once the jury leaves the courtroom, the bulk of the film drills down on their deliberation. Again, the director wrings stylistic variations out of the situation; Lumet claims he systematically ran across a spectrum of lens lengths as the drama developed.

     

But you don’t need a theatrical alibi to draw tight boundaries around the action. Rear Window (1954), adapted from a fairly daring Cornell Woolrich short story, is as rigorous an instance of chamber cinema as Rope. Here Hitchcock firmly anchors us in an apartment, but he uses optical POV to “open out” the private space.

     

     

With all its apertures the courtyard view becomes a sinister/comic/melancholy Advent calendar.

Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) denies us this wide vantage point on the outside world. This space seems almost completely enclosed. But Fassbinder finds a remarkable number of ways to vary the set, the camera angles, and the costumes. We’re immersed in the flamboyant flotsam of several women’s lives. The result is a cascade of goofily decadent pictorial splendors.

     

     

It’s virtually a convention of these films to include a few shots not tied to the interiors. At the end, we often get a sense of release when finally the characters move outside. That happens in 12 Angry Men, in Panic Room, in Polanski’s Carnage (2011) , and many of my other examples. Without offering too many spoilers, let’s say Room (2015) makes architectural use of this option.

 

On the road and on the line

Filmmakers have willingly extended the bottle concept to cars. The most famous example is probably Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), which secures each scene in a vehicle and mixes and matches the passengers across episodes. The strictness of Kiarostami’s camera setups exploit the square video frame and  always yield angular shot/reverse shots. They reveal how crisp depth relations can be activated  through the passing landscape or in story elements that show up in through the window.

     

Perhaps Kiarstami’s example inspired Danish-Swedish filmmaker Simon Staho. His Day and Night (2004) traces a man visiting key people on the last day of his life, and we are stuck obstinately in the car throughout. This provides some nifty restriction, most radically when we have to peer at action taking place outside.

     

Staho’s Bang Bang Orangutang (2005), a portrait of a seething racist, takes up the same premise but isn’t quite so rigorous. We do get out a bit, but the camera stays pretty close to the car. I discuss Staho’s films a little in a very old entry.

Like autos, telephones provide a nice motivation for the bottle, as Lucille Fletcher discovered when she wrote the perennial radio hit, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” The plot consists of a series of calls placed by the bedridden woman, who overhears a murder plot. The film wasn’t quite so stringently limited, but the effect is of the protagonist at the center of several crisscrossed intrigues.

A purer case is the Rossellini film Una voce umana (1948), in which a desperate woman frantically talks with her lover. It relies on intense close-ups of its one player, Anna Magnani.

     

It’s an adaptation of a Cocteau play, which Poulenc turned into a one-act opera. In all, the duration of the story action is the same as the running time.

I wish Larry Cohen’s Phone Booth displayed a similarly obsessive concentration, but we do have the Danish thriller The Guilty, where a police dispatcher gets involved in more than one ongoing crime. We enjoyed seeing it at the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival.

And of course car and phone can be combined, as they are in Locke (2013)–another play adaptation. Tom Hardy plays a spookily calm businessman driving to a deal while taking calls from his family and his distraught mistress. Those characters remain voices on the line while he tries to contend with the pressures of his mistakes.

 

House arrest, arresting houses

Sometimes you must embrace the chamber aesthetic. In 2010 the fine Iranian director Jafar Panahi was forbidden to make films and subjected to house arrest. Yet he continued to produce–well, what? This Is Not a Film (2012) was shot partially on a cellphone within (mostly) his apartment.

Wittily, he tapes out a chamber space within his apartment. Then he reads a script to indicate how absent actors could play it and how an imaginary camera could shoot it.

     

But his imaginary film still isn’t an actual film, so he hasn’t violated the ban. So perhaps what we have is rather a memoir, or a diary, or a home video? Panahi’s virtual film (that isn’t a film) exists within another film that isn’t a film. Yet it played festivals and circulates on disc and streaming. The absurdity, at once touching and pointed, suggests that through playful imagination, the artist can challenge censorship.

Panahi slyly pushed against the boundaries again with Closed Curtain (2013, above). Shot in his beach house, it strays occasionally outside. Next came Taxi (2015), in which Panahi took up the auto-enclosed chamber movie, with largely comic results.

More recently, he has somehow managed to make a more orthodox film, 3 Faces (2018), which considers the situation of people in a remote village.

The chamber-based premise needn’t furnish a whole movie. As in Room, Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) is tightly concentrated in its first half. We are in two enclosures, a house and a train. The film then bursts out into a rushed, wide-ranging investigation. Large-scale or less, the chamber strategy remains a potent cinematic force.

They say that the last creatures to discover water will be fish. We move through our world taking our niche for granted. Cinema, like the other arts, can refocus our attention on weight and pattern, texture and stubborn objecthood. We can find rich rewards in glimpses, partial views, and little details. Chamber art has an intimacy that’s at once cozy and discomfiting. Seeing familiar things in intensely circumscribed ways can lift up our senses.

 

So take a break from the crisis and enjoy some art. But return to the world knowing that for Americans this catastrophe is the result of forty years of monstrous, gleeful Republican dismantling of our civil society. Rebuilding such a society will require the elimination of that party, and the career criminal at its head, as a political force. This pandemic must not become our Reichstag fire.

Yeah, I went there.


Thanks to the John Bennett, Pauline Lampert, Lei Lin, Thomas McPherson, Dillon Mitchell, Erica Moulton, Nathan Mulder, Kat Pan, Will Quade, Lance St. Laurent, Anthony Twaurog, David Vanden Bossche, and Zach Zahos. They’re students in my seminar, and they suggested many titles for this blog entry.

Bazin’s comments on Detective Story come in his 1952 Cannes reportage, published as items 1031-1033, and as a review (item 1180), in Écrits complets vol. I, ed. Hervé Joubert-Laurencin (Paris: Macula, 2018), pp. 918-922, 1059. My quotation comes come from the review, where he does grant that Wyler is the Hollywood filmmaker “who knows his craft best. . . . the master of the psychological film.”

The tableau style of the 1910s probably helped shift Dreyer toward the chamber model, which he learned to modify through editing. I discuss Dreyer’s relation to that style in “The Dreyer Generation” on the Danish Film Institute website. Also related is the web essay, “Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic.”

Some other examples could be mentioned, but I didn’t find them on streaming services in the US. It would be nifty if you could see the tricks with chamber space in Dangerous Corner (1934); fortunately it plays fairly often on TCM. There’s also Duvivier’s Marie-Octobre (1959), a tense drama about the reunion of old partisans.

I especially like the 1983 Iranian film, The Key, directed by Ebrahim Forouzesh and scripted by Kiarostami. It’s a charming, nearly wordless story of how a little boy tries to manage household crises when Mother is away. It has the gripping suspense that is characteristic of much Iranian cinema, and the boy emerges as resourceful and heroic (though kind of messy). Kids would like it, I think.

Also, I’ve neglected Asian instances. Maybe I’ll revisit this topic after a while.

P.S. 1 April 2020: Thanks to Casper Tybjerg, outstanding Dreyer scholar, for corrections about the nationality of The Guilty and the Staho films.

Gertrud (1964).

Vancouver 2019: Some final observations

It Must Be Heaven (2019).

We wrap up our coverage of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival with a joint entry on movies from around the world.

 

Kristin here:

Out of Tune (2019)

Danish director Frederikke Aspöck has created a prison film with a seamless combination of humor, social commentary, and a subtly disturbing undertone.

Markus Føns arrives in jail, awaiting trial for corporate fraud. As a result of his popular financial advice books, he is notorious for having caused many to face financial ruin.  He runs into the thuggish brother of a man who has lost a huge amount through Markus’ advice. The brother insists that Markus is owes the brother the full amount he lost. He dismisses Markus’ point that all investments are a gamble and, along with his gang, beat Markus up.

Terrified of further violence, Markus voluntarily transfers to the solitary-confinement wing,  joining rapists, child molesters, and others who fear being attacked by other inmates. The prisoners in this wing are not really isolated, however. They’re let out to do chores, to sing in a choir, and to earn a bit of money by making pom-poms for local schools and celebrations.

The choir members (above), led by Niels, prove an engaging bunch, and much humor is generated by their disagreements about which songs from a collection of Danish classics they should sing. Markus initially sticks to his cell but finally joins the group. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Niels insists that Markus is not a tenor but a bass, forcing him to sing in a range that clearly is not natural to him.

One of the rules of solitary is that the prisoners are not allowed to reveal or discuss their crimes–though Markus is famous enough that all the others know what he did. Simon, a genial young black man, admires Markus and increasingly becomes his ally against the dictatorial Niels.

Gradually the tone darkens, however, as it is revealed that two of the main characters, including Niels, are pedophiles. Markus declares that his white-collar crimes are less heinous than child molestation. The others, however, including Simon, declare Markus’ crimes worse. At that point he decides to take his revenge on the group and especially Niels, by seizing the leadership of the choir.

This balancing act between humor and drama works well, with Aspöck managing to make the pedophiles somewhat sympathetic and amusing characters without excusing their crimes. The satire on how upper-class celebrity criminals like Markus manage to become objects of fascination is effective without becoming heavy-handed.

 

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

I am a fan of the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, who manages to make autobiographical feature films at wide intervals. I am particularly fond of Divine Intervention (2002) and I also like The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee, which we saw in Vancouver in 2009.

It Must Be Heaven does not quite achieve the excellence of those earlier two films, being a bit uneven. Still, it contains many excellent scenes and gags, and it was among the best films I saw at this year’s festival.

The earlier portion sets up Suleiman’s sense of unease about the events that surround him in his native Nazareth. A running motif has him peeping timidly over his back wall as his neighbor’s son without permission picks lemons from his trees. Gradually the man takes over the care of the whole orchard.

Eventually Suleiman goes abroad, and we soon learn that he is seeking funding for his next film, presumably the film we are now watching.

Two of the funniest scenes take place in the offices of the producers Suleiman visits in Paris and New York. Both end in failure, but the huge number of international companies and funding agencies listed in the credits suggests that the director’s efforts must have been complex, lengthy, and, in some cases successful. The scene in New York involves a cameo by Gael García Bernal, who has an offer on a Mexican project of his own, but he obviously has little control of that project, let alone the ability to aid his friend Suleilman. The one in Paris has Vincent Maraval, of Wild Bunch (one backer of the film) playing a producer who rejects the project as not Palestinian enough.

Other than visiting producers, Suleiman wanders the streets of Paris and New York, observing incongruous events around him. Some of these are very amusing, others simply odd.

Comparing It Must Be Heaven to Suleiman’s earlier “autobiographical” films, the basic problem here becomes apparent. While Suleiman (or an actor playing him as a child) wove in and out of the action, participating in it, here many scenes involve him as a largely passive observer of events that have little or nothing to do with him. In one such scene, he sits at a cafe table, watching as four police officers carefully measure the spaces of the outdoor tables before pronouncing them compliant with regulations (see top).  In Palestine he walks in the country and observes a Bedouin woman with a novel way of transporting two large vats of liquid. In Paris he observes police on Segways performing a search in the street below in perfectly choreographed loops. At times he is more affected by the action, as when a tattooed muscle-man stares at him threateningly in an otherwise empty Métro car.

Suleiman is an engaging performer, but watching him stare in bemusement at the odd behavior that he encounters in each place he visits grows a bit old. Nevertheless, there are many funny or just bizarre scenes in the film, including a lengthy tussle between Suleiman and an invading sparrow determined to perch on his keyboard. The visit to Paris, in which Suleiman somehow got the streets emptied so that he wanders completely alone through them is both impressive and somewhat disconcerting (above).

Suleiman is routinely compared to Tati and Keaton, but his work is similar to that of  Roy Andersson too,  is equally apt, although Andersson does not assign a single character to be an observer. Here to a considerable extent Suleiman keeps to the long-shot framings that are familiar from his other films, but there are also more close-ups, in particular of his face as his reacts to what he sees.

It Must Be Heaven suggests that wherever Suleiman goes once he leaves his Palestinian home, he sees the same sorts of odd behavior, especially the violence that has become endemic everywhere. (A particularly hilarious episode shows Suleiman shopping in New York and noticing that everyone around him, including babies, is carrying some sort of weapon, from pistol to bazooka.) I suspect, however, that most viewers would fail to catch the political points Suleiman claims in interviews to be making.

 

DB here:

Oh Mercy (Roubaix, une lumière)(2019)

Arnaud Desplechin regards his previous films (Esther Kahn, Kings and Queen,  A Christmas Tale) as “a fireworks of fiction,” as he explained in a Q & A session. His latest, Oh Mercy, is based on fact. The screenplay dramatizes criminal cases that took place in Roubaix, the impoverished town Desplechin grew up in. The result is an unusual policier, which twists some crime-movie conventions in intriguing ways.

As we expect, the cops form a team. The emphasis is divided between the young and eager Louis Coterelle and the experienced chief Daoud. But Coterelle is an ascetic young man, reminiscent of Bresson’s country priest. Daoud, rather than being the tough boss who has to make his staff shape up, is an eerily quiet and sympathetic professional. Cast out by his family, he devotes his life to his work (and the occasional horse race). These characters keep surprising us. It’s the pious Coterelle who, pushing to make his mark, bullies suspects, while Daoud’s gentle ways eventually tease the truth out of them.

The police procedural typically shows several cases worked at once, with some minor ones and others explored in more detail. Desplechin’s film does the same, as an automobile fire and a petty robbery introduce us to the main cops. To help a friend, Daoud must also investigate a runaway teenager. Soon there’s a building fire, and then a murder on the same block. Gradually it becomes clear that these two crimes are connected–another convention of the genre.

It’s the nature of the connection, though, that reveals Desplechin’s originality. About halfway through the film the police commit their energies to questioning two women, Claude and Marie, who share an apartment. In a string of riveting interrogations, the film shows Coterelle and Daoud, each in their own way, peeling back layers of the women’s relationship. It’s a tour de force relying on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and it reveals as much about the cops as it does about the sad, confused lovers. Even the reenactment of the crime, another staple of the genre, avoids sensationalism and achieves a mournful gravity.

Most cop movies make justice a matter of vengeance (“This time it’s personal”), so it’s rare to find one about pity. The lies and mistaken memories that prolong the investigation are accepted by Daoud with quiet compassion. A gradual-revelation film like this, impeccably plotted and directed though it is, depends crucially on performances, and the principals (Roschdy Zem as the patient Daoud, Léa Seydoux as Claude, Antoine Reinartz as Coterelle) are extraordinary. Above all I will remember Sara Forestier as the skittish Marie, perpetually corrugating her forehead, always a beat behind in appraising how much the woman she loves loves her.


Once more we thank Alan Franey, PoChu Auyeung, Jenny Lee Craig, Mikaela Joy Asfour, and their colleagues at VIFF for all their kind assistance. Thanks as well to Bob Davis, Shelly Kraicer, Maggie Lee, and Tom Charity for invigorating conversations about movies. In addition, we appreciate the generosity of Arnaud Desplechin in answering questions about his film.

Oh Mercy (2019).

The camera as perpetual motion machine: Jeff Smith on BREAKING THE WAVES

Jeff Smith’s analysis of von Trier’s film has been posted on our series on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. Here, as is his custom, he offers more insights into this extraordinary work.

I still remember the shock I felt watching Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves for the first time. Some of it was undoubtedly a response to the film’s emotionally unsettling narrative. Yet I also wasn’t quite prepared for the caught-on-the-fly quality of Robby Müller’s handheld cinematography.

Was this the same director who had created such striking, high-contrast, black and white images for Zentropa?

Was this the same Robby Müller who composed the austere, yet stylish landscapes shots in Kings of the Road, Paris, Texas, and Down by Law?

In contrast to the very controlled look of those titles, the prologue to Breaking the Waves establishes a more muted visual style. Interior spaces look washed-out and the color is drained from the beautiful Scottish landscape. This effect was created by shooting on 35mm, scanning the negative to video, and transferring the altered footage back to film.

The camera also moves constantly. It anxiously follows action as it unfolds to capture a sense of both intimacy and immediacy. In Zentropa, the actors mostly were subsumed into the overall visual design of the image. In Breaking the Waves, the specific choices in editing and cinematography were subordinated to the actors’ performances. For Trier, this choice was partly dictated by the material. He wanted to preserve a sense of existential mystery about the film’s events. The decision to shoot in a raw, naturalistic style was necessary to keep the film believable.

Breaking the Waves also laid down a marker in terms of von Trier’s commitment to the dictates of the Dogme 95 manifesto. Although the film departs from those principles in significant ways, it previews the even nervier approach von Trier takes in The Idiots.

Yet elements of pictorial stylization are retained in Breaking the Waves, and they foreshadow the formal tensions that characterize much of von Trier’s later work. In Dancer in the Dark, the juxtaposition of stylization and naturalism is evident in the way Bjork’s musical numbers provide escape from the grim misery of Selma’s daily existence. Antichrist opens with luminous black and white imagery in super-slow -motion that directly contrasts with the slightly more desaturated color seen in the rest of the film.

     

Melancholia begins with fantastic, colorful, almost still tableaux accompanied by an excerpt from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This differs markedly from the rest of the film which is shot in the semi-documentary style seen in Trier’s Dogme work.

     

In what follows, I trace the way Breaking the Waves’ dialectic between naturalism and stylization is expressed in particular visual motifs. I also show how these techniques reinforce some of von Trier’s larger thematic concerns. Warning: some spoilers ahead.

 

Camera playing catchup

Robby Müller’s handheld cinematography in Breaking the Waves fulfills a number of different objectives. First and foremost, the constant, restless movement adds a visual dynamism that contrasts with the locked-down camera frequently seen in “slow cinema.” Secondly, the association of this style with documentary adds a jolt of authenticity to the scenes of Jan aboard ship and the various emergencies that occur at the hospital. Lastly, the “caught on the fly” quality of the images lends a sense of intimacy and immediacy to the character’s interactions.

Breaking the Waves’ most common technique involves the use of rapid pans to convey a feeling of imminence–the sense of pushing us toward what is just about to happen in the scene. Those anticipatory pans pans serve a number of storytelling functions.

They’re often used during dialogue scenes as a variant of more conventional shot/reverse shot techniques. In the hospital, when Bess and Dodo discuss Jan’s sick fantasies, the camera swivels between the two speakers some eight times.

     

The entire conversation is handled in five longish takes instead of the dozen or so shots we’d get if von Trier had used shot/reverse shot.

More commonly, von Trier’s dialogue scenes use quick pans to capture another character’s reaction before then cutting back to the other speaker. Near the midpoint of Breaking the Waves, we see Richardson rifling through the pages of Bess’s file. Richardson asks Bess about her care under another doctor. The camera swings swiftly over to Bess who professes ignorance of this prior episode.

     

The camera then pans back to Richardson.

He acknowledges that her treatment was related to her brother’s death before von Trier eventually cuts back to Bess. Given the emphasis on performance during shooting, these panning movements keep the actors in the moment, enhancing the impression of dramatic intimacy and visual energy. But the style also enables Trier to shoot coverage so that he can select between different takes during editing.

In some instances, these rapid shifts from one character to another preserve the interactions of the ensemble within a single take. This occurs, for example, as the wedding party reacts to the sudden appearance of rain. We see it again later when Jan and his buddies pass around a flask of booze.

In still other cases, these rapid pans enhance the dramatic impact of eyeline matches. The viewer is often cued to these moments by a character’s glance offscreen and their facial expression. The camera then pivots to reveal what is in the offscreen space. A fairly early instance of this is when Dodo returns to Bess’s house to find her sitting quietly and Bess’s mother asleep.

     

Later Trier uses Bess’s glance offscreen to cut during a whip pan to a rabbit on the side of the road.

     

The moment serves as counterpoint to what we’ve just seen. Bess has vomited in disgust after a sexual encounter on a bus. The way she wrinkles her nose at the bunny reminds us of her childlike naiveté.

The panning motif pays off during the inquest into Bess’s death. Dr. Richardson testifies that Bess died because of her inherent goodness. Unsurprisingly, this claim is met with skepticism from the magistrate presiding over the hearing. Von Trier then cuts to a close-up of Dodo.

The camera tilts down and pans right as she grasps someone’s hand. It then tilts back up, to reveal Jan seated next to her.

     

The revelation comes as a bit of surprise because Trier has omitted the narrative action that connects the hospital scenes to the hearing. As mysterious as Bess’s death is, Jan’s recovery prompts even deeper questions. How is it that Jan survived when it appeared that his own death was imminent? More pertinent, how was his paralysis cured? In exploring the nature of the miraculous as part of the everyday, von Trier presents us with an enigma that he refuses to explain. It is here that we first begin to grasp the meaning of Bess’ religious faith and the impact of her self-sacrifice.

 

Are you there, God? It’s me, Bess.

Another important visual motif involves the long takes used for Bess’ talks with God. For the most part, Breaking the Waves’ average shot length is relatively short. But Trier sets off these moments of prayer by shooting them in a markedly different style.

More often than not, Müller’s camera photographs Bess in close-up or medium close-up to focus our attention on her face. Emily Watson uses the simplest of means to indicate the two sides of her dialogues with God. She shifts her gaze either upward or downward and changes her style of speech. Notably, in a suggestion of the degree to which Bess has internalized the church’s doctrines, her vocal impersonation of God sounds uncannily like one of the church elders.

     

These shots of prayer often unfold in real time lasting a minute or more. Their duration and more static framing convey both a sense of intimacy and important information about Bess’ motivation. Her imagined conversations with the heavenly father help to explain her actions in what would otherwise seem like wildly improbable changes in character.

These scenes also invite the viewer to consider Bess’ mental stability. Because of her childlike nature, Bess’ belief that God talks directly to her initially seems delusional. Yet, as the film goes on, Bess’ devotion to both God and her husband introduces the possibility that her actions are divinely inspired. By demonstrating her selfless love for Jan above all else, including her own safety, von Trier suggests that Bess’ sacrifice might be the reason for Jan’s recovery.

Or it could all just be a coincidence. Jan’s recuperation might not have any explicable cause, either physical or spiritual.

 

An energetic but casual style: raw immediacy as studied nonchalance

Throughout much of Breaking the Waves’ running time, von Trier’s narration seems to be rather communicative. The relentless camera movement and frequent cutting suggest a desire to capture the story as it unfolds and to transmit the most narratively salient material.

At key moments, however, the film’s visual techniques prove surprisingly reticent. Significant plot developments are sometimes handled in an offhand fashion. This strategy seems to be an extension of von Trier’s interest in making the film’s melodramatic narrative seem plausible. (Indeed, Breaking the Waves plays as a sort of Magnificent Obsession for the art film crowd.) More than that, though, this restraint also encourages viewers to form their own conclusions about the events depicted.

Consider Jan’s observation that Bess has blood on her wedding dress after consummating their marriage in the bathroom of the reception hall.

Another director would likely cut to an insert from Bess’s pov to underscore this image. It would serve as a symbol of her loss of innocence and as a grim foreshadowing of her ultimate fate (i.e. love as a form of blood sacrifice). But Trier refuses to force that interpretation on the viewer. Instead, by showing Bess calmly rinsing out the stain, von Trier allows the moment to resonate more organically.

This motif reaches a kind of apotheosis in the shot of Jan standing on crutches at Bess’s gravesite. The whole story has built toward this moment. Yet Trier treats it in a pointedly cursory fashion. Jan is photographed in long shot. The camera’s distance mollifies the character’s evident grief and refuses the viewer the kind of emotional catharsis we commonly associate with such rituals.

Jan’s silence also preserves the sense of mystery about how this turn of events occurred. Is Jan’s ability to walk evidence of the hand of God? Perhaps. Yet it might also be seen as a kind of cosmic joke, proof that humanity’s existence is ruled by forces of Kierkegaardian absurdism.

 

Rendering the kitsch sublime

Breaking the Waves’ most striking shots appear in the film’s chapter titles. Von Trier worked with the artist Per Kirkeby to create these images using fairly simple computer animation tools. Early in the production, they were described as merely panorama shots. But as the work developed, Trier described them as natural landscapes that evoked the Romantic tradition. This picture-postcard imagery is simultaneously both beautiful and banal, sublime and kitschy.

These more conventionally picturesque shots are further differentiated by Trier’s use of music. Each chapter title is accompanied by a different seventies classic: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way to Memphis,” Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” The combination of music and saturated color enable these proleptic titles to function as the antithesis of the film’s handheld camerawork. As Kirkeby himself explained, they contrasted with Müller’s “tropistic intimacy.”

By using these titles to structure the narrative, von Trier preserves the opposition between naturalism and stylization until Breaking the Waves’ final shot. After Jan and his pals give Bess an impromptu burial at sea, they awaken the next morning to the sounds of bells ringing. We know from the scenes of Jan and Bess’ wedding that the source of the sound can’t be the church. Rather miraculously, the bells ring in the clouds unmoored from any terrestrial structure.

Von Trier denies us narrative closure by refusing to explain the meaning of Bess’ actions. But he gives us a kind of formal closure by synthesizing within a single image the different styles of cinematography seen throughout Breaking the Waves.

 

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma 

Breaking the Waves has always fascinated me as a study in contradictions. The film is about a miracle, but it is rendered in a style that seems wholly naturalistic. The cast was encouraged to improvise to create the desired sense of spontaneity. Yet Stellan Skarsgård reported that the actors mostly stuck to the script because the dialogue was so good as written. The plot hinges on an answered prayer, but the outcome is such a cruel twist of fate that it leads the viewer to doubt the nature of divinity entirely.

Even the central characters are defined by contradictions. Jan is a worldly outsider whose passions and joie de vivre raise the hackles of the strict Calvinist community where the principal actions take place. Bess was raised inside this overtly patriarchal structure, but she displays such childlike innocence that the inherently sinful nature of humanity somehow eludes her. Only von Trier would make a film in which a character’s adultery and debauchery are construed as holy acts of spiritual self-sacrifice. Bess might seem like a secular saint. But her sainthood is achieved by almost completely abasing herself.

This sense of contrast and contradiction also extends to Trier’s sources for Breaking the Waves. Much of the inspiration for Bess came from a children’s book entitled Gold Heart. The title character is a young girl who enters the woods with bread and other foodstuffs in her pockets. By the end of her journey, she is left naked and empty-handed. Her innate goodness and generosity makes her vulnerable, almost to the point of self-destruction. To quote von Trier, “Gold Heart is Bess in the film. She is goodness in its most absolute gestalt.”

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, though, von Trier incorporates ideas drawn from the films of his Danish predecessor, Carl Theodor Dreyer. The original title of Breaking the Waves was “Love is Everything,” the aphorism that Gertrud’s protagonist wanted as her epitaph. The basic dramatic situation is also reminiscent of Ordet. Like Inger, Jan is bedridden and near death. Like Johannes, Bess is the holy fool whose insistence on faith acts as a counter to science and rationality. And as in Dreyer’s work (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Day of Wrath) a woman’s decisive actions put her at odds with a community steeped in religious dogma.

Breaking the Waves accent on contrasts is perhaps best epitomized in one of the film’s lighter moments. During Jan and Bess’s wedding reception, Terry and the Chairman of the church elders chug their beverages.

     

A close-up shows Terry crushing his beer can in an homage to a similar contest of machismo in Jaws.

     

It takes a rather dark turn, however, when the Chairman breaks the glass he’s holding with his bare hand.

Although the scene is a bit of a throwaway, it in many ways epitomizes the tonal shifts that mark von Trier’s work as a whole. All of his films contain moments of bleak humor, episodes where laughter slightly obscures the stories’ violent undertones and dark menace. To quote the spirit animals in Antichrist, “Chaos reigns” in the von Trier universe. And whether it is death, nightmare visions, or the literal end of the world, the prototypical von Trier hero confronts this chaos mindful of the immense absurdity of the inexplicable.


Thanks to Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Peter Becker, and the whole Criterion team for their superb work on the video. A complete list of our FilmStruck installments is here.

Several different editions of Breaking the Waves have been released on home video. I recommend the Criterion dual-format edition. As one would expect, it contains lots of goodies in the extra features. These include deleted and extended scenes, interviews with Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, and selected-audio commentary by von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle.

The published screenplay from Faber & Faber includes introductory essays by von Trier, artist Per Kirkeby, and Swedish film critic Stig Björkman.

Collections of interviews with Denmark’s enfant terrible can be found here and here. There’s also a good online interview with von Trier about Breaking the Waves.

The quote from Stellan Skarsgård can be found at Mental Floss.

I also want to thank the film faculty at the University of Copenhagen and Lars von Trier himself. I had the rare privilege of hearing the director discuss his work after a special screening of Antichrist that was arranged for attendees of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image conference in 2009. I learned a lot from the experience, especially about von Trier’s fondness for mixed pictorial styles within his films.

Breaking the Waves (1996).

Wisconsin Film Festival: Confined to quarters

12 Days (2017).

DB here:

I try to watch any film at two levels. First, I want to engage with it, opening myself up to the experience it offers. Second, I try to think about how the film is made, why it’s made this way, and what those practices and principles can teach me about the possibilities of the medium. That second level of response, not easy to sustain in the thick of projection, comes from my research interests, something spelled out as the “poetics of cinema.”

Most critics, particularly those reviewing films on a daily basis, don’t have the time or inclination to reflect on that second level. I’m lucky to have the leisure to mull over what this or that film can suggest about film in general. When a new release points me toward something I think is intriguing, I’ll go back and watch it again. I saw Zama three times last year, and Dunkirk five times. After three viewings and getting the Blu-ray, I think I’m ready to write about Phantom Thread fairly soon.

Several films at the festival set me thinking. Vanishing Point (1971), which I hadn’t seen in a long time, confirmed my idea in Reinventing Hollywood that 1940s narrative strategies resurfaced in the 1970s. (Whew.) We get a crisis structure motivating a flashback, which itself embeds further flashbacks, everything tricked out with plenty of road rage.

Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day (L’Amant d’un jour, 2017) reminded me of how important coincidence is in narrative, particularly the accidental discovery of an important item of narrative information. You know, like coming home just as somebody’s about to commit suicide. Or discovering on your way to the WC that your lover’s having sex with someone else. I began to wonder if the episodic nature of art films, which are built more on routines than on sharply articulated goals, gets away with such handy accidents by suggesting that with so many characters drifting around, they’re bound to intersect occasionally. Realism once more becomes an alibi for artifice.

And I was happy to see American Animals (2018), an amateur-heist movie that uses my friend the flashback in a way that cunningly misleads us. I will say no more, except to refer you to other reflections on caper movies, and to express my hope that Ocean’s 8 will offer some fresh twists too.

All of these films employ what we might call omniscient point of view. The film’s narration shifts us among many characters in many places and times. Herewith, though, some thoughts on two films that tie us down.

 

Elbow room

The Guilty (2018).

One of cinema’s great powers is its ability to shift locales in the blink of an eye. Unlike proscenium theatre, bound to drawing rooms or perspective streets, a film can carry us from place to place instantly. Novels can do this too, of course, and so can certain theatre traditions, such as Shakespeare’s wooden O. But cinematic crosscutting swiftly from one line of action to another and back again is such a powerful tool that many theorists identified it as part of the inherent language of cinema. The medium seemed wired for camera ubiquity.

At certain periods, though, filmmakers kept to single spaces. Early cinema’s one-shot films locked us to a single view, and in the 1910s, long scenes would play out in salons and parlors. Even after the arrival of crosscutting and other editing strategies, some filmmakers embraced the kammerspiel, or “chamber play” aesthetic popularized in Germany. Lupu Pick’s Sylvester (1924), Dreyer’s Master of the House (1925), and other silent films built drama out of micro-actions in tight spaces. Later Hitchcock took this premise to an extreme in Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and to some extent in Dial M for Murder (1954). Rossellini’s Human Voice (1948) is another instance which, like Rope and Dial M, was based on a play.

The confined-space option reemerges every few years. Put aside Warhol’s psychodramas, so well analyzed by J. J. Murphy in his book The Black Hole of the Camera. Most of Tape (2001), Panic Room (2002), Phone Booth (2002), Locke (2013), and Room (2015) follow this formal option. Two striking films from our festival show that this strategy still holds a fascination for directors. They know that spatial concentration can shape the audience’s experience in unique ways.

In The Guilty director Director Gustav Möller ties us to Asger, a Danish policeman assigned to answering calls on an emergency line. A woman caller tells him she’s been kidnapped, and he tries to locate her while also giving her advice on how to protect herself. In the meantime, he summons police units to track the car she’s in and to investigate the household she’s left behind. In the course of this, we come to understand that he’s grappling with his own problems. He’s about to go before a judge for an action he committed on duty, and his partner is going to testify about it. The whole action takes place in more or less real duration, in eighty-some minutes of one night.

The Slender Thread (1965) similarly includes longish stretches confined to a suicide-hotline agency, but it supplies flashbacks that take us into the caller’s past. Here, we stay in place with Asger. By confining us to what he hears, and what little he sees on his GPS screen, the narration obliges us to make inferences that seem reasonable but that turn out to be invalid. I can’t say more without giving away the twists, but it’s worth mentioning how keeping major action offscreen enables the film to summon up the Big Three: curiosity (about the past), suspense (about the future), and surprise (about our mistaken assumptions).

The Guilty is a sturdy thriller, and it certainly works on its own terms. While restricting us to a character, it doesn’t plunge–as many films would have been tempted to do–into his mind, by means of flashbacks or fantasies. These would have “opened out” the film, but lost the laconic objectivity of the action we get.

The film coaxed me to reflect on how the reliance on the conversational situation allowed for a certain looseness at the level of pictorial style. Once we’re tethered to Asger at his workstation, not a lot hangs on choices about camera placement or shot scale. As long as his face, gestures, and body behavior are apparent, niceties of framing count for less. His reaction can be signaled adequately from many angles. He’s so stone-faced that even a 3/4 view from the rear suffices.

               

In other words, I can’t see that the situation is submitted to a stylistic pattern that would add another dose of rigor to the filmic texture. The style, I think, works to adjust our attention in the moment, in the manner of what I’ve called “intensified continuity,” rather than building longer arcs of pictorial interest. While the plot constraints are strict, the visual style seems less so.

What would be a way to make pictorial style more active? Well, the obvious cases are Hitchcock’s long takes in Rope and optical point-of-view in Rear Window. (And, I’d suggest, his use of 3D in Dial M.) Dreyer did something similar in The Master of the House, in which editing patterns activate a range of props and bits of setting. Films like these benefit from including several characters onscreen, providing details of setting and building up spatial “rules” that channel our vision. Or think of Kiarostami’s auto trips (I almost said “car-merspiel”), which limit camera setups pretty stringently. Ditto Panahi’s ways of stretching the notion of “house arrest” in This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), and Taxi (2015)–films that tantalize us with the possibility of glimpsing the world outside.

Möller chose, with good reason, to rivet our attention on two basic elements: the calls and Asger’s responses. The cop’s interactions with others in the office are minimal, and there’s almost no play with props or setting, apart from a moment when Asger decisively snaps down the windowblinds. Our attachment breaks off only at the end, at the conventional moment when the protagonist turns from the camera and walks away.

The tight concentration enhances both plot action and character revelation, and we’re obliged to listen more closely than we do in most movies. Along the way, blinks and eye-shifts and finger-tapping become major events. Still, The Guilty reminded me that every choice cuts off others, forces new choices, sets up constraints–and new opportunities. Film art is full of trade-offs.

 

12 Day wonder

12 Days (2017).

A more “dialectical” approach to confined space is on display in Raymond Depardon’s documentary 12 Days (2017), probably the most emotionally wrenching film I saw at our fest. The situation is a similar to that in his Délits flagrants (1994), which recorded police interrogations of suspects. The official procedure captured here is a hearing, mandated within twelve days of a patient’s being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. A judge reviews the case to determine whether the patient should be set free.

Sessions with ten patients take us along a spectrum of disturbance, from a woman believing herself persecuted in her office to a man whose inner voices commanded him to stab a stranger. The last petitioner, a woman sufficiently aware of her illness to admit that she can’t care for her baby, makes a lucid case for being allowed to visit the child occasionally.

All these encounters are shot in a simple but strict fashion. In three reverse-shot setups, we see the petitioner, the judge, and a wider view of the petitioner and the lawyer who states the case.

          

This neutral approach, far less free-ranging and nerve-wracking than the shots in The Guilty, doesn’t try to amp up the suspense with cut-ins or zooms or pans. It throws all the emphasis on the interchange. Call it Premingerian, if you must.

Sandwiched in between these inquiries are shots of the hospital itself. We’re still confined, in that we never leave the grounds, but these let us breathe a little. Sometimes these interludes are simply quiet tracking shots down empty corridors; sometimes we hear wails and cries behind locked doors; sometimes we see the patients in a rest area, smoking or pacing or simply staring.

By respectfully observing the surroundings, Depardon lets us into a bit of the texture of the patients’ lives and makes us understand that this hospital, while apparently not very oppressive, is still far away from freedom.

Confronting 12 Days we on the outside are forced to balance compassion with prudence. Should a calm, polite man who believes he beatified his father by killing him be allowed free access to our world? Most of the patients we see are remanded for further treatment, but one leaves the judge ambivalent, to the point that we aren’t told of the final decision. We’re left to reflect that to become wholly human, we must confront madness in our midst. As the opening quotation from Foucault has it: “The path from man to true man passes through the madman.”


Thanks as usual to our Wisconsin Film Festival programmers: Ben Reiser, Jim Healy, Mike King, Matt St John, and Ella Quainton. Thanks as well to Tim Hunter for giving us access to Vanishing Point. In all, it was a swell event. See you there next year?

12 Days reminded me that one of the less-known examples of early Direct Cinema was Mario Rispoli’s Regard sur la folie (1962), which presents afflicted patients and their caregivers with a surprising lack of sensationalism.

We’ve written a fair amount about site-specific narratives. I discuss the crystallization of the trend in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, and I consider its recent revival in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. On the blog, we’ve discussed Panic Room, Dial M for Murder, The Master of the House, This Is Not a FilmClosed Curtainand the Kammerspielfilm. And on coincidence, you can drop by here.

12 Days.

David Bordwell
top of page

have comments about the state of this website? go here