PRINT April 2016


Xavier Dolan, Mommy, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 139 minutes.

FRANK TASHLIN’S The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) opens with a jape as brazen as the mock money shot in which a tightly attired Jayne Mansfield swivels past an awestruck milkman, prompting the phallic bottle he’s grasping to pop its top and gush its creamy contents all over his hand. Introducing the mammary-mad masterpiece, ’50s everyman Tom Ewell strolls onto a soundstage to inform us that Girl was “photographed in the grandeur of CinemaScope”—the relatively new wide-screen process devised by Hollywood in its attempt to woo viewers away from their television sets—even though the image Ewell occupies remains confined by the traditional squarish frame known as Academy ratio.* Tashlin wittily contrasts the old, uncool ratio, its boxy image connoting the preference of alpaca-wearing squares, with the rockabilly abundance offered by the ’Scope frame, by having an impatient Ewell nudge the image’s narrow borders until they unfurl to 2.35:1 fullness, the image extending to the promised, almost twice-as-wide, “grandeur.” As cheesy orchestral music swells on the sound track, Ewell coaxes the hitherto black-and-white picture into garish color, completing the pop-Brechtian maneuver.

Almost six decades later, movie-brat bricoleur Xavier Dolan repeated Tashlin’s trick in Mommy (2014). The twentysomething Québécois director forever ups the aesthetic ante on the elders whose work he marauds—Dolan compulsively reiterated Wong Kar-wai’s romantic use of slurred motion to redundant effect in Heartbeats (2010)—so it is no surprise that the director’s “homage to the square” in Mommy, which is shot in a 1:1 ratio, proved more literal and strict than any previous use of the old-fashioned framing. After almost eighty minutes of claustrophobic histrionics in Dolan’s chronicle of a working-class Montreal mom struggling to deal with her violent son, the troubled youngster urges the image’s narrow enclosure into the more conventional wide-screen 1.85:1 format with his hands, the opening intended to express his momentary sense of emotional release. Neither his bliss, accompanied on the sound track by Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” nor the pictorial amplitude it occasions lasts for long, the image soon shrinking back to its constrained frame. Dolan, predictably, cannot let this ratio play rest—the boy can’t help it—so, half an hour later, he once again expands the image for a dream montage in which the put-upon mom imagines her volatile son as normal and happy, graduating from school, marrying, settling down. The brief burst into wide-screen signals a departure into fantasy, but its sudden breadth also cruelly underscores the narrow conventionality of the mother’s aspirations. Dolan has scoffed at critical “overintellectualizing” about his use of aspect ratio in Mommy, whose square frame can be construed as a kind of formal incarceration, his characters’ hemmed-in lives materialized in the constricted image. Echoing British director Andrea Arnold’s rationale for shooting her similarly themed Fish Tank (2009) in Academy ratio—which she called “the perfect frame for a person”—Dolan instead suggests that he was searching for sincerity and intimacy with a “more humble and private format, a little more fitting to these lives we’re diving into.” But humility lies beyond Dolan’s ken, his film’s shrill, unremitting artifice, amplified by the airless compositions, giving rise not to empathy but to exhaustion.

Dolan’s manipulation of image ratio has august antecedents—Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso, 1956) thrillingly enlarges its 1.37 frame to CinemaScope three-quarters of the way into the film, impelled by the eponymous painter’s request for a larger canvas—as does his belated employment of the squarer frame. Both Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky reverted to the old ratio in the ’70s (in Le diable probablement [The Devil, Probably, 1977] and Stalker [1979], respectively); Hans-Jürgen Syberberg issued a stern on-screen directive that his Parsifal (1982) must be shown in the Academy format; and most of the late films of Jean-Luc Godard profit immensely from being projected at 1.37, even when a different ratio is prescribed. (JLG recognizes the fact, as his instructions to project Notre musique [2004] full frame—shot in Academy, it was often cropped to project at 1.85—and the 1.37 format of his recent DVD releases attest.) Indeed, Mommy (not to mention Dolan’s previous film, Laurence Anyways [2012]) merely picks up on a vogue for the Academy ratio that extends from Gus Van Sant’s lo-fi outsider trilogy—Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007)—through more recent films from contemporary cinema’s art-house pantheon: Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Miguel Gomes’s Tabu (2012), Pablo Larraín’s No (2012), Carlos Reygadas’s Post tenebras lux (2012), Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014), Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015), Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (2015), Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia (2015), and László Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015). Each of these auteurs employs the boxier image to different aesthetic ends: Gomes to pay homage to Murnau’s films, as evoked by his title; Costa to align his images with the photographs of the documentarian and social reformer Jacob Riis with which he opens his movie, and to show in his portrait of the dispossessed inhabitants of Lisbon’s Fontainhas “how the other half lives,” as Riis had it; Alonso and Reichardt to summon the compositions of classic westerns; Larraín to employ cumbersome antique means to seamlessly blend his own imagery with archival footage from the ’80s; and Nemes to capture the claustral hell of Auschwitz. However, the directors’ collective reversion to Academy ratio can be interpreted as a final redoubt against digital, even as the resisters, some of whom still shoot on 35-mm film, are inevitably forced to succumb to HD’s dominion. Larraín admits as much when discussing his intentions with No, which utilized Ikegami tube cameras from 1983, just as the director had tracked down a late-’60s Russian Lomo lens (reportedly once used by Tarkovsky) to achieve the blanched pallor of his previous film, Post Mortem (2010): “With an almost square aspect ratio, or 4:3, and a resolution that is unique in audiovisual technology, producing this film [No] with analog video cameras is also a statement against the aesthetic hegemony of HD.” Less stylistic affectation than romantic refusal, the Academy ratio then becomes a signifier of last-stand authenticity—though, ironically, digital formats make the use of 1.37 and the play with aspect far easier.

That a number of these films—most markedly Son of Saul—additionally employ extremes of rack, pulled, uneven, or shallow focus suggests that the archaic ratio might also be subsumed in an aesthetic of delimitation and estrangement. Like Larraín with his image-altering cameras, Reygadas developed his own beveled lens to shoot Post tenebras lux, which refracts and distorts the image, smearing the edges of exterior scenes into impressionistic blur. (Son of Saul depends largely on radical visual obscurities, which force the viewer in many harrowing sequences to rely on auditory cues.) Less aggressively cryptic than Post tenebras lux, though sharing its theme of patriarchs-and-offspring and its rugged setting, an ominous rural landscape replete with demons and operatic weather, Alonso’s Jauja conversely achieves its hallucinatory images through hyperclarity; its frames are square but rounded at the corners, perhaps to replicate the shape of daguerreotypes—the film is set in 1882—though Timo Salminen’s saturated cinematography gainsays that effect by conjuring the Technicolor splendor of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). (Jauja is, in part, an absurdist revision of Ford’s The Searchers [1956], even if Alonso claims not to have seen the original before making his film.)

The unlikeliest of auteurs to toy with aspect ratio, Jia Zhangke, brilliant bard of post-Mao China, and Hou Hsiao-hsien, poet supreme of Taiwan, the imperiled isle across the strait, have in their most recent films taken recourse to the stratagem. Jia’s Mountains May Depart shares an odd, no doubt inadvertent structural affinity with Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). In his employment of three different aspect ratios in Budapest, each representing an era in which the nested narrative transpires, Anderson indulges his antique-dealer’s connoisseurship (something he shares with that other enthusiast of Teutonic twee and outmoded ratios, Guy Maddin). Anderson’s Sacher-torte tale of an alpine-hotel concierge caught in a deadly feud over a dowager’s will in a fictional war-torn Mitteleuropean country in the early ’30s assigns a period-appropriate ratio to each of the film’s temporal settings: 1.85 for 1985 to the present; Anderson’s favorite, 2.35, for the ’60s; and 1.37 for the primary tale, set in 1932 (a year Anderson obviously chose, as critics love to point out,because it was then that the 1.37 ratio was codified by the Academy). For those who do not find Anderson’s relentless invention a rapid pall, this formal intricacy might prove enchanting. For others, his mountains may take an eternity to depart.

It seems unthinkable that Jia lifted the schematic structure of his film from Budapest—he is a politically committed humanist, while Anderson is a fey purveyor of postmodern confectionery. (Jia does, however, appear to take a page from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, delaying the titles for the film’s and director’s names for forty-seven minutes.) With grave irony, Jia applies three varying aspect ratios to his tripartite family chronicle—Oedipal enough to also be called Mommy—spanning from 1999 to 2025, from the 1.33 of the opening sequence, set in the director’s hometown of Fenyang, to the more spacious 1.85 of the middle panel, and finally to the 2.35 wide-screen sprawl of the futuristic (and unfortunate) finale. “We step proudly into the next century,” Jia’s wife and lead actress, Zhao Tao, sings on New Year’s Eve 1999, but after she chooses a rising businessman over a sweet-natured mine worker to be her husband, the new millennium delivers only divorce, dispersal, and death. Each expansion of the frame conveys increasing bleakness. Jia crams his initial, old-ratio images with gaudy color, music, and exuberant movement—the film opens with the camera peering through an aperture at Tao as she leads a hometown troupe dancing joyously to Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” which she again performs, sans conga line, disconsolate and alone in a wintry field at film’s close—while the magnitude of the ’Scope image in the third and final section emphasizes, with an Antonioniesque eye for modernist architecture, the arid expanse of Tao’s ex-husband’s glass mansion in Australia, where he rancorously secludes himself with his Google translator and his guns. (If Jia pessimistically inverts the conventional connotations of image ratio, he augments the irony by conceiving the near future as infinitely retro, accoutered with Plymouth Valiants, travel agencies, and vinyl records of vintage pop.)

Jia insists that he did not plan the ratio variations in advance, but arrived at the strategy post hoc. Not unlike Larraín in his desire to blend preexisting vintage footage with his new images in No, Jia wished to incorporate footage he had shot over the past two decades around Fenyang with digital cameras that used either a 1:33 or 1:85 ratio, “mostly,” he said, “because the images document the moment they were shot in a way that cannot be reproduced. The images capture something of the times, the emotions, the values, and the cultural tastes, even our physical characteristics.” Despite his experimentation with ratio, Jia remains a heartfelt traditionalist, connecting the diverse sections with symbolic objects and motifs—house keys, homemade dumplings, Sally Yeh’s Cantonese song “Take Care,” a halberd—that signify custom and rootedness, quickly disappearing in the anomic ruins of capitalist China. Oblivious to Tao’s grief after her father is found dead in a train station, rapacious workers eagerly inform her of the cost for transporting his body home by ambulance—“including the road toll, gas excluded.” So much for the new century she had once boldly anticipated.

Hou also finds the present wanting, his appraisal of modernity sometimes seeming punitive in such films as Good Men, Good Women (1995), Millennium Mambo (2001), and Three Times (2005). No such danger in Hou’s The Assassin, a wuxia set in the twilight of the Tang dynasty, which stars Hou’s enigmatic muse, Shu Qi—looking a touch goth in black longcoat and thigh-high boots, her topknot skewered by a spikelike shiv—as Nie Yinniang, a beautiful young woman raised by a nun-princess to use that weapon stealthily and without emotion. Mentored in murder, Yinniang is dispatched to her childhood home to assassinate the cousin to whom she was once betrothed; there she finds her resolve tested by untoward “human sentiments” for her intended victim and his family. The Assassin, anomalous for its auteur in many aspects—budget (big), setting (remote), genre (martial arts), editing (often quick), and sets (studio-built)—also departs from Hou’s previous work in that it was shot, except for one telling exception, in the 1.37 ratio. (Hou had experimented with replicating a silent-era film in the middle section of Three Times, but unlike Michel Hazanavicius in his insufferable faux-silent The Artist [2011], the Taiwanese director hewed to an anachronistic 1.85 ratio.) Hou, who had planned to shoot The Assassin with an antique Bolex camera before it proved impossible, has been vague about his choice of the square format, offering only that he likes “the standard; it is great to film people and the landscape with this format.” (In this he contradicts not only his earlier wide-screen work but also that of the Chinese master of wuxia, King Hu, who staged his feats of “martial chivalry” in 2.35, as have most of Hu’s adherents since, including Wong Kar-wai in The Grandmaster [2013].) It seems obvious, however, that Hou’s cloud-capped landscapes, which often situate people in the lower third of the composition with mountains, forests, and ravines rising majestically behind, along with the silver birch woods in which one combat eerily transpires, are derived from classical Chinese hanging scroll paintings, the verticality of which is more easily conjured by the Academy frame than by any wide-screen format. And like the formal, outmoded Mandarin diction imposed on Hou’s cast, the archaic format heightens the arduous aestheticism of the director’s approach.

Hou accentuates the retro ratio by shooting the opening sequences in black-and-white. (The first image of two mules cannot help but suggest the start of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar [1966], given Hou’s previous homage to Mouchette [1967] in his short film The Electric Princess Picture House [2007].) Like Jia in Mountains, Hou delays the appearance of the film’s title, saving it for his transition to color, in a mauve-tinted, watery aubade almost nine minutes in. Hou designs his visual motifs meticulously, like poetic refrains. That aqueous setting will reappear an hour later, aswirl in mist, just as a small, white-blossomed tree trembling in the breeze, isolated in the frame by shallow focus near the beginning, will find its counterpart in a similar image at the end, when the camera momentarily fastens on a lone, bare-limbed sapling, just before the nun tests Yinniang in a surprise attack. Hou and his customary cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, frequently use rack or restrictive focus to divide the image into planes of the discernible and not, and to subjugate figure to landscape, as when a cortege of riders on horseback is diminished by their placement in the frame, in the background and out of focus. In a work about enclosure and surveillance, the copious deployment of fluttering curtains and shimmering scrims that now reveal, now conceal in a teasing perceptual fan dance—their obscurities furthered by mirrors and candlelight stippling the image with multiple flames and haloes—turns the cloistered frame into a brocaded skein, as tricky to penetrate as it is to grasp the intricacies of the court intrigues that Hou elaborates. One may feel, as a guard proclaims to his master late in the film, “nothing is certain.”

The Assassin departs from the Academy ratio once, and then only momentarily. As Yinniang ceremonially bathes on her arrival home from exile, she remembers her mentor’s twin sister, the Princess Jiacheng, playing the zither, and the projected image suddenly widens, seemingly to accommodate the long, horizontal instrument. “In the flashback sequence, I use a 1.85,” Hou has said, demurring about its purpose and effect: “It depends on what I feel for a sequence, I don’t have any specific reason.” Yinniang recounts the tale that the princess told her as she plucked the zither, about a silent bluebird that the king induced to vocalize by setting a mirror before it, after which the creature sang its sadness and danced itself to death—a parable that the assassin later recognizes was the teller’s confession about her own nature. The transition to wide-screen might have proved Tashlinesque had it been engineered only to make room for the oblong instrument, but Hou ends the interpolated sequence with a lingering close-up of two white peonies that we later learn quickly wither, another of the film’s markers of evanescence—and one that is, perhaps, underscored by the very brevity of the film’s expanded field of vision. The somewhat perplexing flashback—Jiacheng is played by Sheu Fang-yi, the same actress who plays her sister, which recalls Olivia de Havilland’s twinning trick in The Dark Mirror (1946)—contrasts the look-alike siblings, one dedicated to values of aestheticism and political harmony, the other to austerity and violence. (Jiacheng is opulently attired, whereas her nun-sister dresses ascetically in life-denying white.) Rather than commingle past and present, the event and its recollection, in the shifting, indefinite manner typical of his early work, Hou here pedantically opens a space for memory, then just as abruptly shuts it. When Yinniang decamps for a simple life, escaping her deadly vocation at film’s end, the landscape on which the camera settles evokes other such panoramas in Hou’s cinema, but that very remembrance only intensifies the sense of diminishment apparent in The Assassin’s narrow confines.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.

*In 1932, after the end of the silent era, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences standardized film aspect ratio to 1.37:1 (width to height) in order to accommodate film’s new sound strip without creating a vertical frame. The new standard differed only marginally from the aspect ratio of silent films, which measured 4:3, or 1.33:1. The term Academy ratio is now widely (more casually than punctiliously) employed to reference both formats (i.e., 1.37 and 1.33), in contrast to the later wide-screen ratios, and I follow that usage here, for simplicity’s sake.