Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Power couple

There is plenty of comment available online as to the historical accuracy of The Young Victoria (2009) or its qualities as a romance. I just want to briefly note that when it comes to trying to depict the intoxication of infatuation, so many filmmakers turn to the vocabulary of Max Ophuls.

Ophuls is, if nothing else, the master of the moving camera, mixing theatrical trickery with camera choreography. Young Victoria uses two marvelous Ophuls-like devices in a single sequence, the pivotal meeting of Victoria and her true love, Albert. First, you have to forget Victoria as the squatting humorless priggish widow one connects with the word "Victorian." Young Victoria (and this is according to my readings in history, and not just this admittedly romantic film) was a lovely young woman ready to be in love.

Victoria enters the sumptuous ballroom in a ball gown suitable for a Cinderella and is literally transported across the room toward her love. That is, without moving her feet, she sweeps toward us and toward her love, floating into a close-up--all before we even see the beloved, Albert. They join hands and dance, and as their faces and bodies grow close, the sound begins to echo and repeat into a chamber, like the dizziness you feel when you know your life is changing in that very instant. It is utterly enchanting, and carries the film through a certain amount of 19th century political positioning chatter. (There is even discussion of tariffs, which has to raise a giggle with anyone who has seen The Deal.)

The film is one of the finest demonstration of the creative use of shallow focus and the rack-focus shot. Film critics love deep focus, possibly because it was generally the exception in 35mm cinematography and mise-en-scene, and it does permit the actor to control the pace and energy of a scene, rather than the director and the editor. As the use of HD Video increases, the use of deep focus is increasing, as it is much easier to execute in digital. But shallow focus has its uses and is a uniquely cinematic tool to direct the audience's attention with precision. Thus cinematographers shooting in HD often emulate 35mm and adapt the lens so as to shorten the depth of field.

I recently saw a good example of how depth of field can be misused in the film Local Color, which I will be writing about soon. A very young man walks into frame standing behind a woman he is attracted to, but who is a bit older and who is recalling the tragic loss of her child. Although the young man is attracted to this woman, given the difference in their life experience and the emotions she is feeling at that moment, a romantic overture would be completely inappropriate and probably out of character for this sensitive young man. But a faulty choice of a long lens makes it look as though he is inches behind her or perhaps even less. Only when the scene cuts to an alternate angle one can see they are actually separated by several feet. It is possible that the director made that choice of a long lens deliberately to create an ambiguity, but if that's true it was a tonal error rather than a technical one, but an error nonetheless.

The result of director Jean-Marc Vallee's photographic choices is to convert the usual stuffy politics and hand-kissing that goes on in these movies into a story of the joining of two souls that is, if you understand the nature of true romance--not the soupy Hollywood version--a rather sexy story.

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