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🎬 #25 The Spaces Film Makes.
Spaces in film are the ‘landscapes’ the story takes places in. Whether it’s an intimate one setting, two hander, or a grand epic filled with huge vistas. They are one of the biggest creative decisions the team can make. The choice of a space can make an intimate conversation feel huge or a battle scene feel hemmed in. The production design has a huge impact on the execution of the story. In fact, the feeling, mood and cinematography are kind of shaped and framed by it. The selection or creation of these spaces are a big part of what makes a film unique - even the New York of a Woody Allen film is different to the New York of Luc Besson’s Leon.
Theses choices add up to the ‘stage’ the filmmakers have created - both a product of, and a shaper of the story. And one that we, as an audience, can take a tour through. Or even get lost in.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: THE CONFORMIST
1970 Dir Bernardo Bertolluci
I’ll be honest - I really enjoyed this film, but not necessarily just for the story. I was taken back by how Bertolluci and Storaro used and designed the spaces to the point that it almost overwhelms everything else. It might be the most powerful use of setting that I can remember seeing in a film. Because it elevates the subject matter to something almost mythic. It makes the powerful forces guiding the film’s central character feel all the more powerful, as if they’re something he could never escape. His weakness is exaggerated by the scale of the spaces he finds himself in as he tries to arrange the assassination of his former teacher.
This is a directorial decision in its clearest light. Because you can clearly imagine how another filmmaker would handle this simple story totally differently - setting it in small dingy backrooms. But Bertolluci and team put it instead on a huge canvas - that in places feels almost like a science fiction setting.
The grandeur and power is evident in every stone laid - these spaces represent order and control. People are just pawns inside them, being moved from one place to another by the whim of the fascist regime that maps out their missions. The scale and blankness of the spaces dehumanise the characters and make them look like figurines to be placed where they’re needed.
The real facist sites and buildings that are portrayed in the film add historical weight to the narrative and render it all the more compelling. The reality of the decisions and work that was done in these vast rooms make the narrative all the more haunting. Even something as vast and uncontrollable as a Sun is no match for the design of these spaces. The light is carved into blocks and arranged in orderly lines. Nothing can escape control and you’d be foolish to think otherwise.
Even spaces that are usually designed to bring people together are used to keep them apart. The protagonist of the story - Marcello is always depicted as a figure on the outside by the places he finds himself in. This is a powerful film about someone who feels powerless. It’s a film brave enough to make the environments as big as any character or story point. Enjoy the brutal beauty of control, and conform.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 53 mins of my precious life watching this? Weave your way through Bertolluci’s maze as an inept man attempts to navigate a fascist world that wants him to kill his old school teacher.
*Available for a very small rental fee on Google Play and YouTube.
Fact: Francis Ford Coppola sites this film as the reason he wanted Vittorio Storaro to shoot Apocalypse Now.
FILM TWO: UNDER THE SKIN
2013 Dir Jonathan Glazer
As Glazer has talked about on many occasions - the biggest challenge in making a film where an alien is your central character, is to create a visual, a space that feels truly, well, alien. By our nature we’ll put our human preconceptions into an ‘alien’ design. We find it hard to escape the compulsion to put our own worldview onto something that has to feel totally unlike it.
To avoid this, Glazer created spaces in Under The Skin that are purposely void. The main space that recurs throughout the film is pictured above. A literal black void that escapes any human meaning placed onto it because of its focus on absence. The void’s ‘floor’ transforms from solid to liquid, defying our typical view of reality. The opening of the film [first image] which almost acts as a prologue, is purely shape based, if these are meant to be craft they are rendered without any such orientation - they occupy a space that has no sense of scale or placement in relation to anything else. This is a perfect introduction into the alien world that we get glimpses of throughout the film.
In total contrast, we have ‘our’ world that the protagonist finds herself in. The starkness of the juxtaposition between a highly designed space and the natural, everyday spaces all of us recognise creates something that is truly unsettling. It’s the clash of precision production design with the everyday-ness of an on the fly documentary set in the very real, even, banal world. Indeed Glazer and his crew achieved the street scenes by resorting to a documentary approach, hidden cameras, none actors, found locations, all lend a naturalism that is often hard to pin down in cinema.
The moments set in the void are as enticing as they are anxiety inducing. The none-space, the feeling that it’s either infinite or unknowable puts us on edge. There is no design element to suggest that its intentions are evil, in fact the numbness, the clinical-ness make it feel all the more terrifying. Its lack of human orientation creates an atmosphere of indifference - it’s unfortunate that you find yourself here but it’s nothing personal, it’s like an ant caught in a swimming pool. It’s just the way it is. Enjoy the intoxicating nothing-ness and a haunting use of space that is unlike anything else.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 48 mins of my precious life watching this? Glazer’s most recent film shows why he takes so many years between projects - there is a vision at work here that is scarily unique. And this is perhaps his most audacious one to date. Enjoy, squirm, and fear as Scarlett Johansson’s alien goes on an odyssey into banality and tries to get to grips with what it is to be human.
*Available for a small rental fee on Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Sky Store, Amazon, Curzon and BFI Player.
Fact: The script was adapted from the book and written by Walter Campbell - a copywriter who was part of the team behind one of Glazer’s most famous commercials for Guinness - ‘Surfer.’
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