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.

Orlando (1992)

Sally Potter | 1hr 34min

Orlando slips through identities with nonchalant grace, about as effortlessly as Sally Potter flits through the centuries that her narrative is set over. Time barely leaves a scratch on our young protagonist, and so rather than marking years solely with numbers, themes are instead embedded in chapter titles as a means to separate one period of Orlando’s life from the next. “1600 Death” delivers a lesson in mortality with the passing of Queen Elizabeth I. “1650 Poetry” sees a blossoming interest in the writing of sonnets and verses. “1750 Society” is the period within which they fully comprehend the gendered politics of human civilisation, when they suddenly transform from a man into a woman. While it is a change that causes great confusion within the rigid boundaries of English society, Orlando’s reception of it goes by with little fanfare.

“Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.”

Tilda Swinton’s androgynous presentation has never been put to as brilliant use as it is here, playing both male and female identities of a single character.

It isn’t hard to see why this particular Virginia Woolf novel was considered nearly impossible to adapt to the screen. The difficulty isn’t just in the need for intricate and elaborate production design that shifts dramatically with each new chapter, but also in the lead actor’s ability and confidence to convincingly pull off the many layers of Orlando’s characterisation, including that pivotal sex change. Potter accomplishes the former with magnificent flair, collaborating with costume designer Sandy Powell to curate the deep, royal reds of Queen Elizabeth I’s bejewelled court, as well as the many colours of Orlando’s dynamic self-expression. The achievement of the latter though belongs largely to Tilda Swinton, whose striking androgynous style has rarely found a better fit than it does here.

Potter curates superb production design in each era, starting here in Queen Elizabeth I’s court with the rich red and gold colour palette, and crowding out the mise-en-scène with flowers and candles.
Even without relying on the period decor Potter crafts some some stunning compositions, here emphasising the blacks and whites of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
The use of colours always feels like an expression of Orlando’s shifting identity through the decades and centuries.

It is a wonder why so many other directors she has worked with haven’t recognised the great potential of close-ups in capturing her sharp facial features as well as Potter does here, as she always seems to find the most perfect meld of lighting, angles, and framing to form a direct connection between Swinton’s face and the camera. Every time she whips her eyes towards us, the impact is electrifying, as with each new incarnation there is a change in her iris colour that pierces the fourth wall with blues, ambers, browns, and greens. This fixation on Orlando’s physical appearance continues to extend to the rest of their body as well, as in one scene Potter’s camera traces the outline of their naked legs, hips, and torso in tight close-up against a black background, studying each curve with utter enthralment, as if trying to decipher the key to their eternal youth.

Swinton’s face seems meant for Potter’s close-ups, always using the lighting and framing to emphasise her striking eye colours.

Perhaps we might find more answers in Orlando’s direct addresses to the audience though, which contribute addendums to their own voiceover, revealing a person fully conscious of their unique place in history, though lacking any desire to assert themselves as anything more than an open-minded human. They move through time like an embodiment of time itself, though one that is trapped in a human body and subject to the petty judgements of society.

Orlando’s journey through the film is largely defined by its restlessness and acceptance of an unpredictable future, forever living like a young person with their whole life ahead of them, and Potter’s energetic synth score blends tremendously with this characterisation, invitingly beckoning them into the future. As they run into a magnificent hedge maze after rejecting a proposal, her music propels them down its narrow, green trails, this set piece becoming a tremendous visual metaphor of their navigation through the complicated labyrinth of human history. They disappear around corners and into clouds of fog with great urgency, trying to find an exit, but even in the frustratingly limited options laid out for them there is a still joyous freedom in the ability to choose their own path. Orlando may be a being of fluidity with an indestructible youth and vigour, and yet through the ever-shifting annals of human history that Potter so smoothly flips through, they are also ironically the only constant.

A labyrinth of endless corners and thick fog, an apt visual metaphor for Orlando’s navigation through human history if there ever was one.

Orlando is currently available to stream on Stan and Mubi.