People like to talk about the “magic of cinema” as a transcendent, overwhelming experience. It’s a neat metaphor, or at least it was before it got tired. Now it’s a cliché, one of those things that fall flat and evoke memories of a bad Academy Awards montage. It also makes it rhetorically confusing to talk about actual magic in cinema, which is one of the more interesting ways to introduce and discuss the work of award-winning cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. So take a second, shake off the overplayed metaphors, and start thinking about a wizardry more definable than this now-pablum “magic of cinema.”
Delbonnel does not work very often, especially compared to other highly respected cinematographers. In the twelve years since his breakout, “Amélie,” he has shot only nine feature films and one short. This choosiness regarding projects makes it all the more fascinating that so many of them involve either quite literal magic or a larger sense of fantasy. “Faust,” which opens this weekend, is only his most recent encounter with the supernatural. He shot Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” and scored an Oscar nomination for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” That’s three consecutive films that involve a significant amount of computer generated magic, four if you count that crazy LSD sequence in “Across the Universe.”
It’s hard to say what attracts him to this material, but that’s irrelevant. The fact is that he’s really good at handling the unavoidable collaboration of vision that comes in the age of CGI. His whole career, actually, offers a fascinating lesson on the role of cinematographer as magician. In “Amélie” and to a lesser extent “A Very Long Engagement” he was the principal actor in creating the sense of fantasy on the screen, which he did with a clever approach to color and lighting. With “Faust” and “Half-Blood Prince,” on the other hand, he takes a step back and cushions the entire film to complement its supernatural qualities.
“Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” unsurprisingly, have very similar palettes. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after all, is a somewhat singular voice. Yet finding a common visual romance in both World War One and the contemporary romantic comedy is not exactly a straightforward task. Delbonnel keeps everything warm. Close-ups, in particular those of Audrey Tautou, have a golden glow to them. Colorful objects become the central point of a shot, as he zooms in to emphasize the boldest, simplest beauties. The sum total of these images, dresses and fruit and the warm yellows and browns of the countryside, is a world in which love is a kind of logic.
Towards the end of “A Very Long Engagement” there is a shot of Tautou on the rocks by the sea, blowing into a euphonium. The colors are muted, the light oddly comforting for such a conventionally harsh place. Her brief music is in tune with the film around her, a blend of monochromatic landscapes and unique objects that feel almost like visual talismans with hidden enchantments.
Interestingly enough, many of the browns of the two Jeunet films carry over into the cinematographer’s most recent works, “Half-Blood Prince” and “Faust” (I’m not counting “Dark Shadows” because the whole movie is hideous, for which I blame Tim Burton). Yet the lighting in these films dulls the colors, taking the life out of them. He places J.K. Rowling’s witches and wizards into a surprising landscape that rarely shimmers or bursts into excitement. Anticipating the bombastic magical images of the Harry Potter franchise, the almost dulled frames in the film’s quieter moments lay an important foundation.
Rather than over-saturating the experience with bright lights and colors, Delbonnel blurs and subtly muffles. The final act is then all the more dramatic, the quest for the horcrux and the confrontation in the tower cast in equally lifeless but beautiful blacks and grays. Continuity is sacrificed for the sake of climactic beauty – the light of the moon is either brown or gray, depending on where in Hogwarts you’re standing. The cinematographer’s wisdom is in his restraint, refusing to play his hand too early or too dramatically.
The final triumph, however, is Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust.” This muddy medieval picture also uses plenty of digital special effects, including not only the supernatural activities of Mephistopheles (Anton Adassinsky with jet-black eyes) but also its sweeping landscapes, reminiscent of Dutch Renaissance painting. Delbonnel’s contribution is a fascinating example of audacity through ostensibly humble means. Sokurov is not at all interested in pretending that the historical period in question was anything other than wretched and dirty. The corresponding lighting effects range between a little bit dull and very, very dull. The result is that the devil becomes earthly, in the filthiest of ways.
Moreover, there are distortions of image that tend to accompany his mundanely ominous presence. The film itself, actually, is meant to be presented in an odd fashion: a 1:1.33 aspect ratio, pillar-boxed and screened through a 1:1.85 lens. In a way this reminds us of the relative powerlessness of all of these characters, Mephistopheles included. This is a petty universe in which magic only seems to mix the mud around a bit.
Its final sequence, set on an enormous rocky coastline, liberates itself from these restrictions. The scope widens outward, replacing the claustrophobic images of an ugly pre-modern landscape with the overflowing hot springs of Iceland. Delbonnel’s camera embraces the seismic flow of the place, almost ebbing with the waves. This finale, a supernatural change of location and style is neither colorful nor extravagant, but it is audacious and visionary. The final pan back away from the wandering doctor meets Delbonnel’s style with an engineered landscape, one that could have been lifted right out of Herri met de Bles.
The cinematographer’s earlier commitment to more humbly effective images makes this last sequence possible. His restraint, not only in choosing projects but in executing them, is the mark of his brilliance. Cinema, after all, begins with what we’ve often described as an inherent magical quality. Why overdo it? Instead, Delbonnel plays the part of the quieter wizard, attuned to the rhythms of light and color rather than their occasionally excessive moods.
"Faust" is currently in theaters.