Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle | 1hr 34min

There is a bitter contempt that burns through Trainspotting’s opening narration, moving with such repetitive vigour that it takes us a second to catch up to its derisive ridicule of middle-class Britain’s comfortable, monotonous lifestyles.

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, choose a big fucking television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.”

There is no waiting around for any opening credits or title cards here. In the very first seconds, we meet heroin addict Mark Renton on the run from security guards, spitting scorn at the pre-set pathways for conventional, material lives that have been drilled into his head from childhood, and which he and his friends now disdainfully reject. Ewan McGregor’s thick Scottish accent and heavy slang are steeped in the socioeconomic implications of lower-class living, and Renton isn’t one to keep quiet either. This voiceover runs all through Trainspotting like the first-person narrator of a novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given its literary source material. In this way, Renton is written like a more realistic variation of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, typifying a specific offbeat subculture of antisocial delinquents relishing freedom and spurning anything vaguely mainstream.

One of the great in media res movie openings, whisking the camera along with Renton and his friends as they run from security, and his cynical voiceover burns over the top.
Ewan McGregor gives one of the best performances of 1996, at times moving at 100 miles per hour and then pulling it all right back in moments of bleak despair and sobriety.

And like Stanley Kubrick’s own disturbingly uncompromising aesthetic, Danny Boyle does not hold back from indulging in his own audacious style to match Renton’s edgy manner, interrupting brisk camera movements around his characters with erratic freeze frames, and flashing their names up onscreen as introductions. Sick Boy, Spud, and Mother Superior are his mates, while Tommy and Begbie, an aggressive alcoholic, hang on the outskirts of the circle, abstaining from illegal drugs. “No way would I poison my body with that shite,” the latter declares with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Boyle’s humour is often amusingly dark, and this talented cast of young British actors capably deliver it with a sting of irony, recognising the inherent comedy in the reckless overconfidence of these wild, young men.

Freeze frames punctuating Boyle’s brisk pacing, jumping out of its flow as characters are introduced.
Though the editing and camera movements may be Trainspotting’s primary strengths, Boyle still finds the time to insert these wide shots of his characters against gorgeous backdrops, grounding them in the rundown urban setting.

The string of vignettes that lead this small ensemble through petty crimes, surreal trips, and devastating deaths may offer Trainspotting a loose formal structure that complements the drifting uncertainty of its characters, but it is in Renton’s troubled rehabilitation that it develops a more sincere forward momentum. The carnal temptation of one lifestyle versus the clear-minded stability of the other is a constant battle for him, and Boyle’s frantic editing often cuts right to the agitated centre of it, amplifying each injection and simmering solution with brief sound effects and close-ups not unlike the rapid drug montages of Requiem for a Dream, sensitising us to their immediate physical effects. Match cuts eagerly whip us between scenes in peppy transitions, impatiently leaping forward in time towards the next big hit or escapade, and in one scene that sees Renton, Spud, and Tommy each go home with a woman at a club, Boyle efficiently intercuts between each sexual encounter back home. While Spud daftly falls asleep before even taking off his clothes, Tommy and his girlfriend panic that their sex tape has disappeared, making Renton the only one to successfully bed a woman, Diane – only to disturbingly discover the next morning that she is underage.

Transitions driven by the movements of his actors – a fall at the end of one scene turns into Renton landing on the ground at the start of the next.

To an extent, the kinetic pacing and intoxicating highs of Trainspotting are simply distractions from the crushing despair that lies just outside its bubble of energetic thrills. Perhaps more than anyone else, Renton holds the most self-awareness of where he stands in relation to this divide between reality and mind-altering distortions of it. More specifically, he recognises the cultural forces that drive him to occupy this lowly place in society, where such diversions are necessary to avoid living with the shame of his own identity.

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth, the most miserable, wretched, servile pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation.”

By pulling us between such extremes of tragic realism and light surrealism, Boyle tempts us to look away from Trainspotting’s more harrowing scenes, such as that in which Sick Boy and his girlfriend, Allison, discover their baby has died in its cot due to negligence. Rather than pushing them to reconsider their lifestyles though, it has the opposite effect, as Allison joins Renton in his next high to dull the trauma. In contrast, another drug-induced dream early in the film hazily slips from the extreme decrepitude of the “worst toilet in Scotland” into a blissful underwater fantasy, revealing the full power of these substances in putting a shine on even the vilest circumstances.

Literally submerging us into surreal interludes, challenging the realism of the setting with the detachment of Renton’s mind under the influence.

Bit by bit though, Boyle turns Renton’s hallucinations against him, sinking him into a grave-shaped hole in the carpet during a particularly bad trip, and eventually pushing him into a full-blown nightmare when his parents lock him in his childhood bedroom and force him off drugs cold turkey. As McGregor writhes in agony, the dimensions of his wallpapered room stretch and compress, and Boyle presses his wide-angle lens right up against his face in distorted close-ups. In the background we can hear dance music pounding to the illusory manifestations of his most shameful insecurities, as Diane sings to him, his friends taunt him, and up on the ceiling Sick Boy’s deceased baby crawls and spins its head like the demon from The Exorcist.

Wide angle lens distorting Renton’s face in close-ups and the dimensions of his childhood bedroom, as we disappear into the darkest hallucination yet.

Even once Renton is sober, Boyle’s editing finds a new language to express this strange shift in momentum, centring the reformed addict in a bar that moves around him in a time-lapse while he sits motionless, far from the dynamic, erratic force he previously personified. The journey to this new sort of freedom does not come easily, as old friends return and tempt him back to his abandoned life, but grounding him in his renewed purpose is also a recognition of their inherent selfishness, holding him back from becoming a version of himself he might actually like.

A sober Renton has all the energy sucked out of him, as he sits inert in a bar that moves in a time-lapse around him.

From the inside of a locker lined with mirrors that multiply his face across the screen, his future looks prosperous, and later the camera is tipped completely off its axis as he leaves the world of drugs and delinquency for the last time. For all of its fast pacing and vigour, Boyle still finds the right moments to inject Trainspotting with a dose of striking visual beauty in his blocking and backdrops, underscoring Renton’s search for health, stability, and self-assurance with a rousing wonder that makes all of life’s trials worth the pain.

A brilliant composition as Renton finally starts to get his life together, filling the frame with reflections of his face.
Boy tips his camera to the ground on its side as Renton enters a new world – a hopeful future, even if it is still a little scary.

Trainspotting is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick | 2hr 50min

Violent imagery does not always go hand in hand with the stream-of-consciousness editing and lyrical, whispered voiceovers we associate with Terrence Malick, but it is exactly upon this jarring contrast which The Thin Red Line hinges its condemnation of war as an ugly stain on the natural world. To call it an aberration wouldn’t quite be correct though. This brutality is just as much in humans as it is in the wild plants and creatures of the South Pacific islands where Private Witt and his Infantry Division have been stationed. When his superior, Captain Staros, is relieved from duty following a refusal of orders to lead men into a suicide mission, the gruff Lieutenant Commander Tall reprimands him, comparing his own unforgiving ideology to their lush, untamed environment.

“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the trees, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”

But this is no Werner Herzog film, cowering beneath the monstrous overgrowth of rainforests and gazing with terror at churning, brown rapids. Malick’s reverent adoration of nature is the driving power behind his extraordinarily beautiful cinematography, and it is consistently evident that his style of shooting is far from perfectionistic. His camera remains largely improvisational as he captures natural light softly diffused across oceans and rolling, grassy fields, letting the beauty of his locations emerge organically and capturing those special moments whenever they choose to arise.

It goes without saying that any of Malick’s finest films are landmarks of natural lighting, but it is worth pointing out here just how beautifully it diffuses across oceans and hillsides.

With an abundance of coverage to draw from and a script that relies heavily on voiceover, Malick grants himself the freedom to play with the rhythms of his editing, stringing together images through long dissolves, montages, and cutaways that provoke a deep sensitivity to the film’s poetic musings. The nourishing beauty of the natural scenery gracefully arises in a small trickle of water in a stream, a breeze rippling through a cluster of leaves, and owls, bats, and lizards passing glances at our characters marching by, but Malick also spares the time for a baby bird crawling from its egg, badly wounded from the war unfolding around it. It is one thing to shoot the desolate destruction of an entire village, with the verdant greens of the landscape being washed out by the grey smoke hanging in the air, but his eyes rarely wander from the tiny devastations of the environment for too long, echoing the trauma of humanity’s ruthless conquest across macro and micro representations of life. In the thick of battle, Malick’s editing moves far more briskly, following in the school of Sergei Eisenstein with some shots last a mere couple of frames, and yet the way his camera glides also imbues the visual style with an elegance that can never quite be wiped out by even the most ruthless displays of cruelty.

Desolation wreaked across these villages, smoke filling the air in these heartbreaking images.
Malick employs cutaways with symbolic care, referring to these tiny creatures as representations of innocent witnesses and victims.

Most significantly, it is the recurring low angle regarding the light filtering through the dark imprints of forest canopies which sets up a stunning symbolic conflict between nature, signified by trees, and grace, as represented by the gentle sunrays. This motif reverberates all through the film, as even when days come to an end, Malick still emphasises the presence of a moon shining down upon the soldiers like a constant blessing. Immediately after the death of one young man, we cut away to three large, decaying leaves hanging from a branch, perforated with tiny holes through which the sunlight strains, framed as if we are glimpsing the heavens to which his soul is heading. With such incredibly impressionistic imagery opening us up to Malick’s contemplations, the film develops into a delicate meditation, drifting between sincere sentiments led by his own transcendental wonder.

Jaw-dropping photography also becomes a robust formal motif here, weaving these shots of sunlight and trees all through the film.

These affecting expressions of spirituality are similarly integral to the narrative’s grounding in Christian archetypes, threaded through the depiction of Guadalcanal, the island Witt has run away to, as an Eden-like paradise. In this small, idyllic corner of the Pacific untouched by war, there is no pain or suffering to be found, and Malick’s camera relishes diving beneath the ocean waves to watch the children play and the sunlight refracting through its surface. The next time Witt returns to this island, the dynamic has shifted drastically. With the introduction of human conflict, there is little peace to be found in the day-to-day interactions between locals, who now turn against each other and eye off Witt like an unwelcome stranger. Sin has crept into this paradise, and with this seal broken, there is no turning back.

War represented here quite literally as a stain on the environment, with half the hillside drained of its colour.

Malick’s allegory is built out further in the reflective voiceovers of his ensemble, passing through characters like a shared prayer for answers, wrestling with their own purpose and conflicted ideals. If war is a process of spiritual corruption, then there must be some source through which it infects the minds of the innocent, and from there it is only a short leap to draw parallels to the Christian concept of original sin.

“This great evil, where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What sees, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

Almost as if in direct response to Witt’s ruminations, Malick cuts to Private Dale taking sadistic pleasure in the slow torture and murder of a Japanese soldier.

“I’m going to sink my teeth into your liver.”

Meanwhile, Private Bell dreams of his wife back home, and just as Witt ponders the origins of sin, so too does he carry similar introspections.

“Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.”

None of these deliberations have straightforward answers, but it is very much evident that there is something inherent in humans giving birth to both the best and worst of everything they face. If the earth is nature and the heavens are grace, then to Malick, we are caught in between, presented with a moral struggle. The justification felt by the men of The Thin Red Line in taking the lives of others amounts to little in the face of this divine reckoning, as in one almost surreal sequence that sees Witt discover the half-buried face of a fallen Japanese soldier, a new voiceover is born, belonging to the deceased.

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you lived goodness? Truth?”

Deeply spiritual yet melancholy imagery, as Malick gives voice to the deceased speaking from the other side.

As Witt wanders a burning village of Japanese men and women being rounded up and dehumanised, the sound design fades away to be replaced by the horns of Hans Zimmer’s swelling, sombre score, ringing through the air like a mournful eulogy for the countless lives lost at the hands of fellow humans. For some, like Sergeant Welsh, it is simple enough to reason one’s involvement in this carnage. The shrewd pessimism that Sean Penn carries as the voice of despair is set up well against Jim Caviezel’s gentle, softspoken Witt, whose blue eyes do not so much pierce the camera as they inspire a sense of wonder, constantly looking just past the lens is if awed by something we cannot see or comprehend.

A strong performance from Sean Penn, setting his character up as the voice of despair whose heart may be swayed.

In Witt’s early recollections of his mother’s peaceful manner in her final days of life, he likens her graceful exit to a form of immortality he longs to discover, and it is this which motivates him all through The Thin Red Line to uncover whatever secret provides this key to this “calm”. Whether it is through the connection he feels to the natural world, or his selfless sacrifice which lets others live on in his place, we can see in the last few seconds that awed expression once again pass over his face, not unlike the mystical lights caught in Marie Falconetti’s eyes in The Passion of Joan of Arc. That calm has arrived, and along with it comes the motif of heavenly sunlight through trees, as well as a fleeting return to Guadalcanal where Witt now swims in the water with the children.

Jim Caviezel’s awed gaze – simply haunting.
Malick’s camera is organic and intuitive, letting his actors play in the waves while he sits just below and watches them in these stunning shots.

Immortality manifests metaphorically in this imagery, but it is also present in his legacy, as we see something change in Welsh upon the sacrifice of his comrade. Having witnessed true selflessness, the constraints, malice, and lies of the military are more apparent to him now. With a single sacrifice changing the hearts and minds of the living, Malick frames Witt as Christ-like figure, and he conclusively reveals the primary advantage that spiritual grace holds over the ruthless carnage of the natural world. Just as the sunlight will persist long after the forest trees have rotted away, there is an eternality to humanity’s selfless compassion and sacrifice within The Thin Red Line, persisting long after our violent quests for total domination have faded into the depths of history.

Few people shoot natural scenery like Malick, whether his camera is up close focusing on tiny details, or basking in these picturesque establishing shots.

The Thin Red Line is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Delicatessen (1991)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro | 1hr 39min

It isn’t enough for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro to build a fully expressionistic vision of dystopian France, cluttered with decrepit décor and thick with a yellow smog that hangs ominously through its streets. They then go on to push the limits of Delicatessen’s outlandish set pieces to ridiculous heights, warping its sepia-tinted grotesqueries even further into a dark breed of absurdist humour that underscores the nonsensical hellscape, throwing all reason out the window. It is not surprising that the marketing at the time of the film’s release played more into Terry Gilliam’s association with the film than the independent creativity of its then-unknown directors, given its similarities to Brazil. Were it not for Jeunet’s illustrious later career proving his own artistic capability, it would have been tempting to assume that Gilliam played a part in more than just the film’s distribution. Despite his lack of direct involvement though, it is still his cinematic footsteps which Jeunet and Caro are effectively following in, constructing a meticulously fantastical world that, while unsettling in its decaying Gothic visage, savours the traces of wonder and innocence that seem to exist on the verge of total extinction.

An eerie, yellow dystopia set up with these wide shots gradually narrowing in on this lonely apartment building, founded atop a delicatessen.

Delicatessen’s premise is set up swiftly and suspensefully in the prologue, the camera tracking eerily past crumbling structures towards an apartment building founded upon a tiny butcher’s shop. It continues moving through pipes and passageways, all while the ever-present sound of sharpening knives rings ominously in the background. The source of the noise is Clapet, the butcher in question who invites and then kills new tenants so that he may sell fresh meat to the rest of the building’s inhabitants. His most recent victim has figured out the plot, and yet despite the young man’s best efforts to disguise himself among the trash and hide in a garbage bin, he is not quick enough to outsmart his hunter. Right after Clapet lifts the lid to his hiding spot and before he brings his meat cleaver down, he opens his mouth in a wide, gaping laugh – a caricature of a facial expression which we later learn he spends his spare time practicing, consciously aiming to draw out visceral reactions of terror from his victims.

This is expressionistic, silent film acting – it is almost as if these actors have been instructed to twist their faces into the most inhuman expressions possible.

Jean-Claude Dreyfus is not the only actor with a striking appearance to match Jeunet and Caro’s heightened style though, with virtually everyone in this cast possessing cartoonish faces that brilliantly twist into amplified expressions of horror, shock, adoration, and glee. Dominique Pinon’s simple-minded, unemployed circus clown, Louison, who becomes the butcher’s main victim in Delicatessen is no exception with his peculiar protruding jaw, and neither is Marie-Laure Dougnac’s romantic cellist, Julie, with her innocent, wide-eyed gaze. Together, both become a force of sweet, sincere love fighting Delicatessen’s misshapen world. Just as high, low, and canted angles exaggerate perspectives of Jeunet and Caro’s cluttered architecture, so too are they used to frame close-ups of their actors’ contorted expressions, further driving up the psychological insanity of this darkly comedic setting.

Jeunet and Caro are no doubt magnificent production designers, but their framing of close-ups are worth studying too. A significant influence from Gilliam in the angles, lighting, makeup, and costumes here.

With imagery as provocative as this, there is no need for Jeunet and Caro to lay into the blood and gore one might otherwise expect from a story about a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic butcher. Neither is social commentary their primary concern here either, though there is plenty to pick apart in regards to the use of food as currency and the crafty, brutal methods lower classes must resort to if they are to survive. At the forefront of the directors’ minds is building Delicatessen’s idiosyncratic, tactile world with brazenly maximalist stylings, absorbing us into the currents and cadences of these characters’ eccentric routines. Through a masterful combination of snappy editing and enthralling camera movements, Jeunet and Caro breathe life into this dilapidated complex, transforming its rooms, hallways, and sewers into visual reflections of their oddball inhabitants.

Each apartment reflecting the idiosyncrasies of its inhabitant, though all bound together within this dimly lit green and yellow world.

Rhythmic montages especially become a source of tender amusement in Delicatessen, becoming almost dance-like after Louison fixes a neighbour’s creaky bed and then sits on it with her, bouncing in time to a Hawaiian song playing on the television. The gentle pacing of this sequence exists in contrast to another more agitated one from earlier, which layers the sounds and images of characters all through the building playing a cello, beating a rug, clacking knitting needles, working a mechanical machine, pumping a bike tyre, and painting a ceiling. With each line of melody and percussion moving in unison to the editing’s gradually accelerating tempo, Jeunet and Caro build them all to a climax that sees them dramatically break down in frantically comical fashion. The scene is delectably exciting in its peculiar vigour, but even more significantly, it informs our understanding of every major and minor character present in the story, uniting them together in a broken society that condemns them to meagre, repetitive lives.

A feat of editing from Jeunet and Caro, crafting rhythmic montages that are purely absurd and simultaneously dedicated to world building.

The singularly greatest achievement on display here though is the compositional madness that is Delicatessen’s colourfully expressionistic production design, foreshadowing the whimsical designs that soon become Jeunet’s instantly recognisable trademark. Like Amelie, there is a consistent dedication to a specific colour palette, with murky shades of yellow sinking itself into almost every corner of the mise-en-scène while letting through traces of green, red, and orange. Rather than smoothing it over with a glossy sheen though, its texture is saturated with dirt and grit, seeping with the sort of moral corruption that thrives in this bleak city.

The sewers stand out as a particular well designed set piece with pipes crossing the frame in cluttered Sternbergian compositions, and the golden lighting bouncing off their wet surfaces.
Surrealism and expression are inseparable for Jeunet and Caro.

Every piece of set dressing here serves to crowd out the physical presence of the characters, as the bizarrely twisted angles formed by stair bannisters and sewage pipes obscure brilliantly cluttered compositions. Surreal anarchy is pervasive in these designs, right down to the disjointed function of two taps that can only be turned on by each other’s handles, and wearing away at the structure of the building until it is utterly destroyed in the final act, collapsing its floors in a display of total visual chaos.

The apartment building is its own character, crumbling away by the end of the film like its inhabitants.

In this way, it is only in demolishing the physical and social structures preserving humanity’s barbarity that Louison and Julie find any sort of peace in this nightmare. It is a sad state of affairs indeed that impoverished men and women are driven to savagely kill their neighbours just to get by, and although there are no pretensions that the ills affecting this world’s economy have been solved, Jeunet and Caro do relish the small wins for humanity’s kindness. Having survived an army of bloodthirsty neighbours, the two young lovers sit beneath red umbrellas atop the roof of their now-defunct apartment building, playing their unlikely pairing of instruments in a strangely romantic duet. As the cello and the musical saw ring out across the lonely wasteland, the yellow smog slowly begins to clear to reveal the dawn of a new day, finally shedding a hopeful light upon this small but meaningful victory for pure, unselfish love.

Perhaps the brightest shot of the film, as the yellow smog clears away to reveal this sweet, innocent love carving out its own place in the world.

Delicatessen is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Edward Yang | 3hr 57min

The fact that the title of this Taiwanese film, A Brighter Summer Day, comes from an Elvis lyric underscores a notable cultural incongruity that is fundamental to its characters. The social and political turmoil laid out in its opening text telling of how millions of Chinese Mainlanders fled to Taiwan after the Communist Party’s civil war victory sets the scene for a culture ready to adopt the idealism of the West, and thus the song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ becomes not just a symbol of hope, but an active obsession for one aspiring young singer, Cat. Through much of the film we find him translating its lyrics in hopes of eventually recording his own version, and up on his walls we even see Elvis posters plastered like venerated icons of worship. It is particularly that one line that he gets caught up on though, picking apart the melancholic recollection of some beautiful past era where young people might have thrived.

“Does your memory stray,

To a brighter summer day…”

As it is though, the teenagers of A Brighter Summer Day do not live in an Elvis song, but within the reality of 1960s Taipei, where tensions between Taiwan’s native people and Chinese immigrants run thick, splitting their young people up into gangs that offer security and identity. In this way, these groups essentially become buffers to the existential loneliness that eat away at their margins, which Edward Yang affectingly reveals in claustrophobically framed compositions.

A powerful opening frame, not of Si’r, but of his father meeting with the schoolteachers and learning of his son’s low test scores.

Though he is constructing a crime epic here as sprawling and dense in detail as The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, he is not aiming for some grand, mythological rendering of history based in legendary archetypes. The settings, characters, and relationships of A Brighter Summer Day are all extremely grounded in social realism, calling attention to those mundane lives that don’t necessarily define national cultures, but which rather slip by unnoticed right up until they inevitably make themselves known for the wrong reasons.

Strong form in returning to this school basketball court several times, a setting of competition of rivalry, but most importantly revealing the worn-out infrastructure of the school – peeling paint and ill-fitting uniforms visually rooting the film in realism.

The more personal story that Yang is exploring here is of the slow, bitter corruption of one teenager, Xiao Si’r, who comes from a family of Mainlanders yet winds up in a gang of native Taiwanese youths known as the Little Park Boys. The inspiration for this character comes from Yang’s own memories of a senseless murder that took place in his own community, though it isn’t until the final minutes of A Brighter Summer Day’s epic four-hour runtime that this event takes place. The rest of its lengthy narrative is spent seeking to understand the social, cultural, and economic forces that warp Si’r’s innocence into something ugly, all starting with his acceptance into a night school for struggling students. His father’s concerns that he might encounter some bad influences are initially brushed off by the staff, but they do serve as an ominous warning of what awaits his son just a little down the road.

As Si’r finds himself gradually absorbed into the gangster lifestyle, we discover a sizeable Goodfellas influence at play here, though Yang never lets us forget that these young men are still children, immature in their attitudes and egos. Their discoveries of emotions more complex than those from their childhoods arrive in the form of romantic attraction, sex, and hatred, and the lack of guidance they receive neglects to keep any of these under control.

Light and shadow composed perfectly through the fence slats at a train station where the Little Park Boys plot the massacre of the 217s.

The most important relationship present within this group is that between Si’r and Ming, the girlfriend of the Little Park Boys’ leader, Honey, who starts the film in hiding after killing a member from rival gang, the 217s. There is a sweet tenderness to Si’r’s support of her acting aspirations, and one movie studio set proves to be a source of soothing idealism for the two of them. As their relationship grows in affection, Yang hangs on a gorgeous frame of light pouring through the giant soundstage door into the pitch-black movie studio, silhouetting their figures as they dreamily wander the space. Above them, the wooden rafters prove to be a suitable hiding spot for these young dreamers, offering high and low angles that separate the distant worlds of disadvantaged students and successful actors.

Doorways are used to frame Yang’s characters all through A Brighter Summer Day, but few shots touch his wonderful manipulation of light here as Si’r and Ming visit a movie soundstage set after hours.

Throughout much of A Brighter Summer Day’s first act, Honey’s presence hangs in the air as an almost mythical figure, so much so that we might begin to fear what sort of fury he might besiege upon Si’r for taking his girlfriend. When he does finally appear an hour and half into the film, he does indeed strike an impressive figure, setting himself apart from the other Little Park Boys in his oversized navy coat and sailor hat, but he does not carry the same volatility as his second-in-command, Sly. Even Yang’s camera holds him in great esteem, reverently following him through a gorgeous pastel-coloured ice cream parlour and keeping his face obscured from our view, waiting for him to finally turn to us. That he only lasts twenty minutes before being brutally killed by the leader of the 217s comes as an utter shock, but it is also this murder which triggers the Little Park Boys’ massacre of their rivals, and subsequently Si’r’s total indoctrination into their violent methods.

Meeting Honey in the pastel-coloured ice cream parlour sets him apart from every other character right away, and then the staggering of actors in shots like these go further to draw our eye to him.

From there, it is only a descent into even deeper emotional isolation for the young gangster, his aggression growing with Ming’s revelations that she is seeing other men, leading to further violent outbursts and eventually expulsion from school. His own disconnection from his family often manifests visually in the placement of a wooden beam slicing meal times right down the middle, severing his connection to his parents and siblings. In this way, we begin to see how the careful arrangement of Yang’s mise-en-scène around him lets that isolation take hold, closing Si’r within halls and doorways directly reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s own geometrically precise visual style.

Yang slicing Si’r’s family dinner with a wooden beam, creating division.
Si’r’s father faces his own troubles being questioned by authorities for past connections to the Chinese Communist Party, and so he too becomes the subject of Yang’s isolating imagery in this superb arrangement of the mise-en-scène, stretching across the whole depth of field.

It isn’t just that Yang’s characters appear so tiny and shrunken within these barriers, but the frames themselves tell vivid stories of each environment. From the peeling green and white paint outside Si’r’s classroom, to the grid of elegant window glazing bars looking out to his family’s garden, and the wooden cased opening in Ma’s house opening onto a display of elegant painted flowers, Yang’s sheer attention to detail remains consistently remarkable between each composition, masterfully reflecting his characters in rich visual designs.

It isn’t just enough for Yang to insulate his characters in their staging, but the detail of the frames within which they are caught are just as important.
A grid of glazing bars opening Si’r’s family home up onto the garden, with a door opening right in the middle. Yang returns to this many times to create perfectly Ozu-like shots in their precise geometry.

Then there are those shots which let the camera drift entirely away from Yang’s characters altogether, letting their disembodied conversations continue while the worn-out architecture swallows them up. At one point, a close-up of a lacquered, white door catches just enough light for the reflected silhouettes of Si’r and Ming to bounce off its surface, reducing them to indistinct shadows within their school grounds. Through the lens of a Taiwanese society that pushes the issues of its youths off to the side, this is the visual manifestation of their neglect, robbing them of the physical space they inhabit.

Squint and you can catch the two silhouettes of Si’r and Ming reflected in this lacquered door, holding a conversation.
Another conversation carried out with one person out of frame entirely, simply represented by his voice.

There is often a distinction though in Yang’s cinematography when he begins to shoot them in larger groups, building out entirely organic environments with a marvellous depth of field reaching across layers of the frame. Even in those instances when the personal drama of primary characters is allowed to unfold in the foreground, the ensemble can often be found in the background playing games and occupied with other tasks, refusing to let the broader world fade from view. It is also in these thoughtfully composed scenes that Yang occasionally lets tones clash in jarring contrasts, particularly when Ming and the Little Park Boys mourn the recent death of Honey to the backdrop of their school marching band playing obnoxiously bold tunes. Eventually they are forced to shout over the music just to be heard, being denied the proper time and space to grieve their deceased friend.

Stories playing out in the background entirely independent of our characters in the foreground, building out a world where they aren’t the only people with fully vivid lives.

With the exception of the slow, methodical pans and dollies interspersed through the film, Yang largely comes at A Brighter Summer Day with a largely static camera, resisting the urge to cut to conventional close-ups on key emotional beats. The choice to maintain this distance is carried out with great formal rigour, leading us to the most impactful shot of the film in the seconds that immediately follows Si’r stabbing Ming in an outburst of anger. Yang sits at a wide of the Taipei street for almost an entire minute, centring a blood-soaked Si’r standing above Ming’s crumpled body, gradually coming to the realisation of what he has done. Behind him, locals conduct business as usual along a row of city storefronts, until one by one their heads turn to face the tragedy, projecting little more than confused intrigue in their expressions. The society that has failed to reign him in is there to bear nonchalant witness to the consequences of their neglect, seeing several lives destroyed in a single flash of violent anger.

A devastating culmination of two character arcs, witnessed by nonchalant strangers in the background.

Without the four hours of A Brighter Summer Day that preceded this scene, Si’r’s full, heartrending transformation simply would not be felt as acutely as it is, especially given how much it is tied to the social strife and degradation present in virtually every frame, whether explicit or implicit. Yang’s clear mastery over his craft as a cinematic realist is absolutely essential to the profound authenticity of this piece, carefully examining his nation’s overlooked adversities through a lens that seeks genuine understanding of its aching shame and sorrow.

Shame and sorrow in a single image, hiding their faces from view.

A Brighter Summer Day is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Light Sleeper (1992)

Paul Schrader | 1hr 43min

Between the two lonely, embittered night workers of Light Sleeper and Taxi Driver who resentfully lament the decay of New York City yet actively contribute to its moral degradation, it is notable how distinctly Paul Schrader writes both on inverted paths. Where Travis Bickle’s discontent manifests as a dark irony simmering through deluded voiceovers, here it becomes a hopeless, self-aware melancholy for Willem Dafoe’s drug dealing insomniac, John LeTour, reconsidering the unsavoury direction his life has taken. Years ago, he was among those helpless addicts itching for their next hit, but while he was able to eventually sober up, he was not able to depart from that world entirely. Now, he and his supplier, Ann, run a steady but shady trade, dreaming of turning it into a cosmetics business that might pull them out of the squalid pits of American society.

Matching Schrader’s austere character study is a dedication to darkly lit environments and grimy textures painting every surface of this city, illuminated only by the white beams of headlights and streetlamps that glance off rain-glazed windows. The choice to shoot on location imbues the setting with an unmistakably authentic urban grit, which is only further underscored by the piles of trash mounting on kerbsides as monuments to human filth. Like Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper is set at the peak of a garbage strike, leading us to consider what poor working and social conditions reach across the lowest rungs of society beyond LeTour’s immediate view. Corruption runs deep in Schrader’s superb visual direction, wrapping up these characters in a foul, contaminated bubble that sees a steady decline in any possibility of escape or, at the very least, regained honour. 

Schrader highlights the dinginess of New York City in its harsh street lighting, decor, and textures – a true visual accomplishment to go with his superb screenplay.

Stuck in a rut of self-disgust, it takes a chance meeting with his ex-wife for LeTour to start climbing his way out of his mental grind. Years ago, he and Marianne shared an intensely unhealthy relationship, both hooked on every drug they could get their hands on, and now with their paths crossing again, old feelings and habits begin to resurface. Given the way he records her name on her voicemail and plays it on repeat like an addiction, we can understand the sort of co-dependency that they once shared, and which now threatens to rear its head again. Still, there is no getting past the giant barrier which lies between them, which Schrader manifests visually in the architecture of a hospital café where they meet, dividing the frame right down its centre with a wide pillar that situates them on opposite sides. 

Direct inspiration from Antonioni’s L’Eclisse in this visual divider dominating the frame with a huge mass of negative space.

DaFoe’s usually expressive face is notably sullen here as LeTour, tempered by years of soul-sucking routine and little to show for his work. Like the few other actors fortunate enough to have landed a lead role in a Schrader-written film, he is given a wealth of emotional complexity and substance to work with, especially in voiceovers that sprout melancholic reflections from his diary entries. From within a messy apartment, he sits and writes under the dim light of a lamp, spilling out those private confessions and deliberations in voiceovers while we watch his interactions with clients and associates. 

This is one in a long line of Schrader character studies picking apart masculinity, guilt, and corruption. Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke, and Oscar Isaac have all given some of their best performances with his intelligent screenplays, and Willem DaFoe is no different in Light Sleeper.

Schrader goes on to layer LeTour’s characterisation even further with a sharp intuition as well, not just in the faith he puts in the guidance of spiritualists, but also in his observations of others’ behaviours. The camera matches this with its own focused tracking shots moving through scenes like an acutely observant eye, studying the details of each environment and informing his gut instincts. Early on he picks out one undercover cop at a bar with ease, and later when a tragic death is officially ruled as a suicide, his suspicion that the blame lays at the feet of one his clients saves his life in a deadly confrontation.

The framing of the doorway paired with the blocking and lighting, projecting rays down from the ceiling – a thoughtful composition directing our eyes to DaFoe in the background.
This soft, natural light washing over New York’s graffitied walls and dirty streets could be a shot straight out of The French Connection.

As sharp as LeTour’s mind is though, Schrader hangs a constant cloud of drowsiness hangs over his head, with a lonely saxophone haunting Michael Been’s music score and long dissolves blurring transitions between scenes. It takes something drastic to motivate him to make any sort of move that might break this detachment from reality, but when it does arrive the moment is heralded with a new day dawning, and the garbage strike coming to an end. Quite literally, the streets are being cleansed of its scum, just as LeTour comes to a decisive conclusion about the course of action he must take. Travis Bickle might have come to a similar conclusion in Taxi Driver, but in place of corruption darkening LeTour’s soul, Schrader earns his protagonist a redemption arc that delivers the spiritual and moral resolution he seeks, even as he is damned in the eyes of the public. 

Long dissolves transitioning between scenes, creating dreamy imagery like this – New York City contained within LeTour’s diary.

Like the ending to Schrader’s later film, The Card Counter, the physical prison that his protagonist winds up in is insignificant compared to the emotional freedom he has won, and the close-up he holds on through the closing credits does well to illustrate the purity of that. Though not explicit within the text, Schrader’s Christian faith underlies the grace of LeTour’s redemption, recognising it not as a singular act but rather a process of constant atonement. The New York City of Light Sleeper may be caught in mindless cycles of transgression and shame, but for as long as there is the motivation of love to set things right, the path to reformation is always open.

Lingering on this final shot as the credits roll, not in a freeze frame, but rather letting the actors hold the pose – an image of redemption through love.

Light Sleeper is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

Luc Besson | 1hr 50min

What does it take for a man who surrounds him with death to develop a taste for life? For hitman Léon, it is an image of innocence tainted by the world’s depravity, trying to become an adult at age 12 without realising how much of a childhood she is missing out on. Mathilda has never particularly cared for her abusive, drug dealing parents, but when her little brother is tossed aside as collateral damage in a bust by corrupt DEA agents, she becomes fixated on a mission of revenge, particularly directed towards the sinister, deranged Norman Stansfield. 

Léon may be the perfect man to help her manifest these goals, but Luc Besson does not condescend to his audience with such straightforward characterisations in Léon: The Professional. The dramatic interactions he delivers are instead equal parts thrilling, heartfelt, and thorny, unfolding a complex relationship between a hitman and orphan that ultimately offers them both steppingstones towards greater self-realisations. 

The cinematic high that Besson captures in his opening set piece may not be reached again, but the dexterity with which he directs Léon’s invisible takedown of an entire gang is nevertheless a captivating introduction for a man who lives life on the fringes of society. Rather than placing us in his point of view, Besson looks through the eyes of the thugs being taken out one by one in a grand hotel. The whole scene may as well be a short horror film with Léonas the shark from Jaws, going completely unseen and leaving merely the handiwork of his murders behind as the only evidence he was ever there. Eventually as he approaches the last one still alive, he emerges from the darkness like a bogeyman, striking an intimidating figure in his circular sunglasses and short, black beanie. 

It is a sudden shift in perspective that takes place immediately after this. The fear and tension built around the Léon we met at the hotel dissipates the moment we see him in broad daylight from his own viewpoint – a man living on his own, going to the grocery store like anyone else, and leading a meagre life.

It shouldn’t speak to the quality of Jean Reno’s involving performance that he comes off third best in this superb cast. There is something both tragic and magnetic about 12-year-old Natalie Portman when she first comes onscreen as Mathilda, holding onto a cynical wisdom that far transcends her years. Beneath the young girl’s talk of sex and murder is a mournful bitterness about her own lost childhood, activating a survival mechanism that forces her to live in a world of adults. 

It is evident though when she does come face to face with Gary Oldman’s chilling DEA agent that it is not something she is ready to handle at all. She may see herself as ruined, but Stansfield is a truly insidious and unpredictable force. He will pleasantly speak of his love for Beethoven as he murders a family in cold blood, before flying off the handle in uncontrollable fits of anger. Every so often, Oldman will pause to crack his neck mid-scene without explanation, and the effect is unsettling. Our two protagonists may be corrupted to some extent, and yet in placing them next to a villain as unredeemable as Stansfield, Besson thoughtfully lights up their individual paths to redemption. 

Even beyond the thrillingly staged action set pieces, Besson proves himself to be a skilled director of quieter dramatic beats, crafting a healthy balance of drama and dark comedy in montages that see Leon and Mathilda break into strangers’ houses to harmlessly practice assassination techniques. As the two social outcasts walk the streets of New York City, Besson’s telephoto lens compresses them against a blurred urban environment that barely pays them a scrap of attention, insulating them inside a bubble of both sharp pain and tender support. 

The pot plant metaphor which Besson closely identifies with Mathilda may be a little over-explained, but it nevertheless builds to a gratifying pay-off by the time she recognises her need to grow roots in an environment that can properly nourish her. It similarly holds symbolic significance for Léon as he grows to understand the value of tiny, delicate things which possess neither brute force nor indomitable will-power, but which hold great potential in their youth and malleability. A heavy aura of death may hang heavily over Léon: The Professional, though it is in Besson’s quiet celebrations of life where he lands his greatest emotional punches.

Léon: The Professional is currently streaming on Stan and SBS On Demand, is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

La Haine (1995)

Mathieu Kassovitz | 1hr 38min

The explosions of violence that take place in La Haine are not cathartic releases of tension. Even after they are set off in riots and beatings, resentment continues to simmer between police, immigrants, and skinheads, so lacking in focus and direction that the inciting motivations seem to be entirely lost. Its momentum is unstoppable, like a man falling from a building, reassuring himself “So far, so good”, yet failing to see the ground rapidly rising to meet him. This is the metaphor that bookends La Haine in voiceover, describing a modern society blind to the inevitable consequences of its own actions. This, along with the time stamps marking key points within the 20 hours this narrative takes place, instils it with an urgency that might as well be a countdown to the final collision between the falling man and the earth.

La Haine comes only six years on from Do the Right Thing, and yet the influence of Spike Lee’s fervent cinematic politicising can already be felt in its thematic and stylistic composition. The wrestle between love and hate that Radio Raheem described seems to be resolved even before this film opens – the French title directly translates to “Hate” in English, and it is that ideal which eats away at the remains of civility and compassion in these projects just outside of Paris. It fizzles with an indignant energy infused right into Mathieu Kassovitz’s dynamic camera movements, at its most vigorous flying through the sky around apartment buildings, and at its quietest restlessly panning around a discussion between characters at its own pace, anxiously anticipating the turning point. As the disillusioned immigrants whose paths we trace through this story stand atop a balcony, Kassovitz even warps the space around them in a mind-bending dolly zoom, compressing them against the streets and city buildings in the background.

A dolly zoom overlooking the city, compressing our main characters against the background.
Skilful camera movements all through La Haine, among the most prominent being its flight above the apartment buildings of this French suburb.

This electric energy extends to La Haine’s editing as well, frequently punctuating harsh transitions with the sound effect of a gunshot or punch, and thereby emphasising the raw brutality of such violence. The effect it has is severe, separating the vicious attacks exacted by and upon our main characters from those which define the broader French society, as sketched out in the opening montage of archival footage which lands us in the thick of furious riots. It is there that expressions of outrage coalesce with the naturalistic urban scenery, instilling the film with an organic authenticity that continues to flow through its wandering narrative.

Because in spite of Kassovitz’ wild flourishes of style, the aching social realism of La Haine just keeps bleeding through, disengaging from any traditional notions of plotting so we may instead sit in the mundane conversations that separate one burst of climactic anger from the next. It is especially there where Vincent Cassel excels as Jewish immigrant Vinz, seeking out vengeance for his friend, Abdel, who has been hospitalised from beatings he received while in police custody. The young actor is a loose cannon in this role, always appearing to be a few seconds away from flying off the handle. When he is alone, he squares up to a mirror and recites the unhinged “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver, like a wannabe Travis Bickle trying to prove his own toughness. And yet there is also a deep tragedy to Cassel’s performance, exposing a wounded man who knows no other way to deal with the awful hand society has dealt him, and who gradually realises the futility in his directionless anger. Like an addict though, Vinz keeps falling back on that rotten hatred, pulling him closer to the ground that he will inevitably meet with full force.

Cassel reciting the “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver, an image of toxic masculinity.
Vinz hides his wounds with shows of toughness and strength, but those moments where we see his vulnerability are deeply affecting – a real accomplishment of acting from Cassel.

Along with his friends Hubert, an Afro-French boxer, and Saïd, a North African Muslim, Vinz becomes a primary subject in Kassovitz’s monochrome portrait of disillusioned youths, whose most hopeful prospects are that they might eventually be able to escape the projects where they live. His blocking of them all across layers and levels of the frame forms some affecting character compositions, and he especially forges a tight emotional connection with them in those shots where they direct lines right into the camera.

There is always a sense of isolation between the friends in these compositions – as much as they share common experiences, they are also emotionally segregated from each other, these divisions captured in Kassovitz’s blocking across mirrors, levels, and layers of the frame.

Even while we watch them aggressively provoke strangers, we still can’t help but feel attached to them through their plights, as well as great concern for their safety as tensions ramp up. A literal Chekhov’s gun is established early on when we discover that Vinz has stolen a gun from a police officer at a riot, and each time he pulls it out as an assertion of his own masculinity we feel even more certain that it will be fired before the end of the film. When the time comes for our suspicions to be answered though, all we are left with is an ambiguous stand-off that refuses to reveal which side is on the end of the bullet’s trajectory. On a broader societal level, it may not even matter. With each senseless killing only going on to spur more of its kind, the rundown French suburbs of La Haine become a breeding ground for bitter hostility, perpetually plunging towards the ground, and blindly, vainly reminding itself – “So far, so good.”

A continued despair through Kassovitz’s staging. La Haine is a violent film, but it also lingers in those quiet moments where characters wallow in sorrow and contempt.

La Haine is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The final part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy would also be the final film of his career. He announced his retirement after Red’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, and then two years later he passed away, leaving behind a confounding masterpiece that pays off on stylistic fascinations and fatalistic meditations threaded all through his work. The set of circumstances which bring young model Valentine to the door of Joseph, an elderly retired judge, are about as arbitrary as those which keep her separated from Auguste, the law student whose life is locked in a tangential criss-cross pattern with hers. Formal parallels abound between characters, and Kieslowski lays heavily into the dramatic irony of their hidden interconnections. Fraternity is his focus here, the third part of France’s national motto, and it is undoubtedly a powerful force within this small ensemble, pulling individuals together into an invisible club they don’t even realise they are part of.

Out of all Red’s characters, it is perhaps Joseph who possesses the clearest understanding of this fraternity. From his living room he taps the phone calls of all his neighbours so that he may spy on their private affairs, and as such it is reasonable to consider him the closest thing to an omniscient God figure, bridging gaps between strangers. At the same time though, Joseph is decidedly flawed, and just as prone to the whims of chance as anyone else. The story he tells Valentine of how he passed his studies after his dropped textbook opened to the page that would be relevant in his final exam directly mirrors what we witness happen to Auguste earlier in the film. In fact, the similarities that emerge between both men might as well make them the same person separated by a few decades, so that Valentine’s friendly relationship with Joseph essentially becomes a stand in for her potential relationship with his younger counterpart.

Irene Jacobs returns from The Double Life of Veronique to collaborate with Kieslowski once again. She plays kind and compassionate wonderfully without ever being dull to watch.
Two men associated with telephones, spending time inside these dark red offices – a superb formal connection between Joseph and Auguste.

In Kieslowski’s fluid tracking shots, he traces the gaps between both Valentine and Auguste’s paths, elegantly craning and panning his camera to observe their unwitting entwinement through the streets and shops of Paris. Virtually everything that he is formally setting up here points them in the direction of a fated relationship, and while we eagerly anticipate their eventual collision, such gratification does not come easily. In fact, it is arguable whether it comes at all. There is no logic in assuming that just because the two share similar qualities and frequently rub shoulders that they should eventually fall in love, just as there is no logic in Valentine and Joseph being born several decades apart. Perhaps if he was younger their relationship would blossom into something romantic, as it might with Auguste if she knew of his existence. Such is the nature of life’s fickle obstacles keeping us apart from our potential futures that they go entirely ignored until the right paths happen to line up, and we wonder “Where would I be if that one small thing never happened?”

A breath-taking dedication to a colour scheme – red lighting and decor dominate this film.

Despite all these missed connections between individuals, Kieslowski still delights in imbuing his film with an abundant warmth. Shades of red saturate his mise-en-scène with a deep passion, uniting each character inside the cosy embrace of his décor and lighting. In the very first shot as we speed along red telephone wires running through the ocean and ground to connect complete strangers, the colour is immediately associated with the hidden interrelations ridden all throughout the film, and it doesn’t end there. In brake lights, slot machines, wallpaper, and theatres, scarlet hues continue to dominate Kieslowski’s gorgeous compositions, and in the most striking visual display of colour in the film, it becomes the visual foundation of Valentine’s bubble gum ad, plastering her face up on billboards around the city. In returning to this image several times she becomes more than just the protagonist in our story, but also in her surroundings, unconsciously touching the lives of virtually everyone who passes by.

People passing Valentine’s poster every day on the streets, including Auguste. Fate and chance are threaded all through Kieslowski’s direction and screenplay.

Slowly, the scope of consciousness for these characters begin to expand, and as they do we find Kieslowski returning to the motif of glass, often intact when barriers remain up, and broken when individuals reach out to lives beyond their own. Specifically, it links Joseph and Auguste via smashed windows, fractured beer glasses, and broken ornaments, often being given specific focus in Kieslowski’s symbolic diversions from the main narrative. Rather than his usual cutaways though, instead he will often drift his camera away from his characters to linger on these thoughtful representations of broken boundaries.

Still, it is almost impossible for anyone living inside Kieslowski’s world to fully understand the complex connections that link them to each other, spanning beyond the peripheries of the film to glimpse characters from the rest of the Three Colours trilogy, united in the final minutes by a freak accident. Whether it is chance or fate, seeing the full structure of this interconnected fraternity might take the perspective of an all-seeing God – or at least a philosophical filmmaker with a pensive, wandering camera.

Kieslowski’s camera often dollies away from Valentine to other characters and tiny symbols – the broken glass here at the bowling alley, for example.

Three Colours: Red is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi, and available to rent on iTunes.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 32min

At Karol’s lowest, white is the colour of bleak desolation, encasing him in a snowy garbage dump flooded with seagulls. What changes in Three Colours: White is not Krzysztof Kieslowski’s stylistic palette, but rather our perception of it. As Karol claws his way back up the ranks of society that his ex-wife, Dominique, banished him from, an alabaster bust bearing a likeness to her becomes a reminder of his end goal, a pale hotel room becomes an image of privilege, and when the two make love, Kieslowski fades to white right over her orgasm. The middle colour of the French flag, as it stands in the second instalment of Three Colours, is equality – a neutral mix of hues that restores balance where justice cannot be found, and which lends itself perfectly to the softer tone of this relatively light-hearted narrative.

An alabaster bust is the key symbol in White, carrying through a reminder of Karol’s past and future in its resemblance to Dominique.
Bleak snowy landscapes infested with pollution and dirt at Karol’s lowest.

Kieslowski calls back in Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr from Dekalog: Ten as brothers once again, playing to the former’s comedic strengths in scenes that see him resourcefully make use of what little he has to overcome obstacles. To get back to Poland from France, he smuggles himself inside a travel bag, and yet awkwardly finds himself being stolen by a group of thugs looking for money. His plot to finally get back at Dominique pays off on this ingenuity as well, involving a complicated fabrication of his own death that frames her as the murderer.

Given the vaguely comic sensibilities of White, Kieslowski does not indulge so frequently in those symbolic cutaways that he often uses to momentarily remove us from the immediate narrative, and yet when they do appear they leave a mark. Most gratifying of all is the close-up image of Karol and Dominique’s grasped hands, finally making contact again after months of separation, and this time very much as equals. It sets an even playing field for Karol’s final power play, sending her to the pits of society where she once left him to waste away. Even so, there is a sense in the final shot of Karol’s teary face that this exile may only be temporary – vengeance is only so useful in restoring balance before reconciliation organically emerges between both parties.

Kieslowski cutting to this key image of equality – two people finally on an even playing field, shot against white curtains in the background.

As we glimpse in flashbacks to Karol and Dominique’s wedding day shot through a dazzling, bleached filter, there is a pure happiness that once existed between them, as Kieslowski’s point-of-view shots gaze at her smiling face with adoration. It is misty, dreamy, and far removed from the modern day where Kieslowski’s colour scheme emerges in the architecture of train stations and courtrooms, each location carefully selected for its visual impression upon Karol’s journey. In expansive snowy landscapes, even the sun shines a plain white light across the clear sky, mirroring the pale ground in an image of equal counterparts.

Kieslowski carefully selects his locations for their decor and architecture, as they conform to his stunning white palette.

Whether through retribution or through exoneration, Kieslowski seeks a similar balance in Karol and Dominique’s contentious relationship. He deals out justice in his narrative not with emotional passion, but rather with a cool, fair judgement, finding poetic irony in the eventual reversal of fortunes. Wedged in between two more serious films in the Three Colours trilogy, White can easily be overlooked for its lighter thematic material, and yet as the centrepiece it also appropriately offers the same balance that it examines, holding them all together as a comical yet uniformly profound equaliser.

Even the sun and sky is completely white in these wonderful establishing shots.

Three Colours: White is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The Three Colours trilogy is not the first time Krzysztof Kieslowski has woven cultural ideals deep into the structure of his cinematic work, and nor is it the first to shift styles so dramatically between each part. But where his Dekalog series took the Ten Commandments as its the foundation, it is the French values and flag colours which he takes particular interest in here, centring his first instalment, Blue, on the virtue of “liberty” as laid out in the motto of the French republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. This is not a revolutionary or political liberty, overthrowing some oppressive elite, but rather an emotional liberty seeking independence from the chains of past trauma. The blue palette that pervades this film in every shade imaginable sinks it into a deep melancholy, as one woman, Julie, tries to build an entirely new life to move on from the loss of her husband and daughter in a fatal car accident. 

Kieslowski’s blue hangs in the evening sky, gently tinting it with a pale shade of indigo. It artificially lights up an entire swimming pool, encasing Julie in a royal azure that leaves her paralysed with grief. It is also suspended in tiny sapphires that dangle from a mobile her daughter once owned, refracting light through its shards. While she goes about destroying every remnant of her old life, trying to free herself from the depression, she can’t quiet bring herself to part with this glittering memento. She is entranced by it, and in close-ups Kieslowski obstructs her face entirely by its delicate beads. 

Kieslowski uses the full spectrum of blues in his lighting and decor, exploring their subtle distinctions and emotional implications.

The use of glass as prisms through which light is distorted is infused with Kieslowski’s filmmaking right down to his lens flares, dancing flashes of blue around Julie at her lowest moments. In one moment that seems to hit like an epiphany, he even passes a close-up of Julie’s face through an intense cobalt filter. Such skilful manipulation of colours makes for a sensitive framing of Juliette Binoche’s devastating performance, within which we witness a swirl of powerfully conflicting emotions that can’t quite break through the all-consuming numbness. Sleeping with her husband’s old musical collaborator, Olivier, doesn’t do much, nor does she find success in trying to erase memories that only bring pain. 

A quick, sharp flash of blue, hitting like an epiphany.
Blue lens flares delicately dancing around Julie’s face. Even when it isn’t in the production design, it is there in Kieslowski’s lighting.

But every so often, something does find its way through to move her on some level. Kieslowski’s trademark cutaways to tiny symbols of larger ideas flourish in Blue, not just in those representations of the distinct colour scheme, but in small displays of Julie’s overwhelming emotional state. In one shot as she tunes out of her immediate surroundings, she lightly dips the corner of a sugar cube into her tea. Kieslowski only holds on this for five seconds, but it is enough for us to see it absorb the brown liquid before she drops it into the cup. Perhaps Kieslowski is painting out an image of Julie’s gradual succumbing to her depression, or perhaps it is more positive in elucidating her need to re-join society. Either way, these impressionistic close-ups draw us into a mind disconnected from the larger world, searching for meaning and beauty in the smallest, most fragile objects we typically look over. 

Shallow focus in these extreme close-ups of significant symbols – both Kieslowski and Julie’s focus on these objects are intense and purposeful.

The motif of incomplete orchestral music composed by Julie’s late husband, Patrice, also cuts through to her closed-off soul, though rather than wilfully applying her precise focus to it, it haunts her everyday life like a stubborn ghost, arriving at the most unexpected times. The reminder is enough to cripple her physically, and often Kieslowski will also fade his screen to black as if mentally blacking out before returning to the exact same scene, disorientating our perception of time. It mostly manifests in her head, though there is something fatefully mystical in the way it emerges within the melody played by a random street busker who claims to merely be improvising. 

The glittering blue mobile continuing to hand over these scenes even when it isn’t the focus, a reminder of Julie’s deceased daughter.

It would seem that Patrice’s half-written choral composition cannot be put to rest until it is finished, and for as long as Julie denies her connection to the music, she cannot find peace with it. Although Olivier is the one taking the lead on this project, it is evident only she, the one who was married to Patrice and knew him better than anyone, who can understand his legacy in a meaningful way to let it keep on living. 

Wonderful form in the use of Patrice’s orchestral music like a ghost that needs to be put to rest, returning at unexpected times and mentally destroying Julie.

This is but one level of her reintegration back into society though. While Julie runs from the past, she also meets new people in need of emotional support much like her. The boy who witnessed the crash and now needs closure from its sole survivor, a neighbour who has been ostracised from others in the apartment block due to her sex work, Patrice’s mistress who is pregnant with his baby – the ways that Julie touches these lives is not always fully planned or conscious, but in the small ways she has turned her grief into compassion, she incidentally obtains a healing within herself.

The graceful montage that ends Blue drifts the camera past all their faces, finding completion in their own stories as Patrice’s finished piece of music plays out operatically over the top. In finding reconciliation with the colourful and musical displays of melancholy that Kieslowski embeds intohis film, there is still ultimately some closure to be found for Julie – not in banishing these ghosts entirely, but rather in making wistful companions out of them.

An elegant montage of all the people whose lives Julie touched to end the film, luxuriating in blue lighting.

Three Colours: Blue is currently available to stream on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.