June 05, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of To the Wonder by Terrence Malick

Few days ago I had the opportunity to watch again To the Wonder, a film by Terrence Malick who needs no presentations: The tree of Life, The thin red Line, The new World, Badlands are some titles of his filmography. It was a great delight to enjoy once again the work of one of the best cinematographer of the present time: Emmanuel Lubezki.

The plot. An American falls in love with a divorced girl living in Paris. She follows him and settles in Oklahoma but problems arise in their relationship. Meanwhile, a priest struggles against his faith.

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Camera: Arricam LT, Arriflex 235, Panavision, Red MX,
Lenses: Arri Zeiss Master Prime
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Format: 35mm, 65mm, Redcode RAW
Film Stock: Kodak 5218 500T, Kodak 5217 200T, Kodak 5219 500T

Terrence Malick relies once again on the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki whose filmography is quite extensive ( Ali, The New World, Sleepy Hollow, Meet Joe Black, Y tu mamá también...). As he already did it in The Tree of Life, the mexican cinematographer only makes use of natural light for filming To the Wonder, using just bouncers and blockers. According to him, "natural light is more complex than artificial light and once you master it, it is hard to go back and illuminate a scene artificially". He not only did an excellent job with that but also taught (or reminded) everyone that everything has to serve cinematography to visually tell a story in the best way possible: not only trough light, costumes design and colours, lenses and camera movements, but even trough the film stock, the camera itself and the format used.

Throughout the film, Lubezky always seeks back-light; in the exterior shots the sun is always low in the horizon and quite often in frame, he plays with it, positioning the actors between it and the camera, avoiding the silhouette and shooting them shadow free, and looking for light spills and flares every time they move, overexposing some areas of the frame. In the shots taken indoors the back light is more extreme: he uses doors and windows as light sources and the actors are dense black silhouettes. Shooting indoor must have been complicated: with light changing constantly Lubezki only had few useful hours in every location. They shot fast and they shot a lot, because they didn't have to "waste" time moving lights, and probably shot some hours in a house and some hours in an identical one but architecturally different to take advantage of the entire shooting day.
In the few night time shots, available light of lamps is used: they are always in frame and overexposed, creating great contrast in the scene.

Five different cameras were used to shoot To the Wonder. The film starts with some images of the couple in a train taken with a digital camera full of digital artifacts but it does remind a super-8 camera and the feeling of holiday and happy memories, like the beginning of a relationship. When Marina (Olga Kurylenko) goes back to Paris, Lubezki follows her alone in the street at night using a Red MX, giving a sense of modern and urban life (in contrast with the Oklahoma surroundings) as well as a sense of cold solitude. All the rest of the film is shot in 35mm apart from the scenes where Ben Affleck starts a relationship with an old friend, Rachel McAdams: here the 65mm negative is used. This relationship is less romantic but more stable than the one with Marina: for Lubezki the 65mm reflects this more realistic stability.
Camera is rarely static: always flowing with the characters, mostly following them, on a steady-cam or hand-held, and always going forth, suggesting the idea that life always goes on. Lubezki chose, as in The Tree of Life, Master prime lenses which offer a very clean and sharp image, mostly using wide angle lenses, achieving a very great depth of field which suits perfectly Malick's way of directing especially because the director rarely leads the eye of the spectators toward the actor, and offers them the whole frame instead.
Terrence Malick is a peculiar director with a peculiar style pretending to make poetry with images. You can like his style or hate it. And To the Wonder is no exception. The movie was shot without a script, almost has no dialogue and no plot nor action: it is absolutely visual, showing moments of the life of a couple and it's up to the spectator to shape a story. Whatever you like his style or not, To the Wonder is a cinematographic piece of art which confirms Lubezki as one of the best living cinematographer capable of creating stunning beautiful images and a visual storytelling second to none. To the Wonder is an exquisite visual experience, completed with great music and editing,  that will undoubtedly be in this year top five best cinematographies.

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