Hero, Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner, Pan’s labyrinth, In the mood for love, House of flying daggers, Raise the red lantern … all absolutely beautiful films to watch, all with a strong visual signature, an extraordinary use of colour and an inspiration for us photographers. But, now, there’s a new kid in town which, to me, trumps them all: Joker!
Now, for obvious reasons, I can’t reproduce images from the movie on this page. One kick in the bum from the movie’s legal department would send this blog to the moon and back. So you’ll have to make do with some of mine, with a vaguely similar vibe. And, anyway, this is a short post.
Let me just explain why I think the photography in this movie is so brilliant.
(1) Composition is so perfect it almost feels like the artistic team did it for their own personal pleasure (although it serves the storytelling at all times). The movie alternates between dynamic action and what really can be assimilated to still photography. In those stills, the use of crystal clear composition is so striking it gave me goosebumps. Centric composition (rare, but so boldly executed, as when Arthur is alone at the back of a bus), offset compositions (many close up scenes from outside buses, trains, at the mental health institution, talking to the civil worker …), frames within frames (at the hospital, visiting Penny). I’ve rarely seen a film with as much formal attention to beautiful composition. The team goes as far as often losing the main protagonist in a sea of ‘other stuff’ people, junk, garbage, so as to reinforce his solitude, seemingly mocking the concept of composition while composing masterfully. It almost feels like an inside joke 😉
(2) The use of colour is subtly exquisite. I mean, to me, Saul Leiter takes some beating. But this is right up there. This film is simply extraordinary in its deliberate use of colour universes that subtly reinforce storytelling. In a scene where Arthur talks to his mother through a door, the two rooms are completely different colour universes. Each with a incredibly consistent palette, but with a different mood and energy. In compositionally centric frames, Arthur’s face is sometimes surrounded by two different colour schemes on either side. In one, in the mental health institution, this is reinforced by two very different sub-compositions on either side (receding lights on one side, flat scene on the other), probably to reinforce the sensation of mental imbalance, the struggle between moving on and stagnation / self-pity (this reminded me of some religious paintings where Christ is represented with different background landscape types on either side). Light is sometimes soft and warm, sometimes much bluer, sometimes hard, neutral and dynamic. And all this blends in without ever jarring or feeling forced. Stylistically, this is pure genius.
(3) Intent and humility are everywhere. Many films with similar attention to photography are spectacular. At no point in Joker do you feel the brilliance is self-serving, artificial, or used for Wow-effect. Every compositional and lighting detail contributes to a feeling, to a mood, to a logical hinge between phases. The story is a prequel / repositioning of the main character compared to the previous films. The vibe and intent are different, although the facts are consistent. You’ll like that or not. But I can’t think of many films in which photography serves the storytelling as powerfully yet as subserviently. It must be a very fine balance to find.
That’s it from me. The movie has been out for some time now, but I only managed to watch it a few days ago. It had already been downgraded to a smaller room in the local cinema. You know what? I think it was better this way. This film has the feel of an intimate masterpiece. Something along the lines of the best Woody Allen, Godard and Casavetes. It’s such a refreshing change from the loud blockbuster and so much more engaging.
Let me leave you with this video from Go Creative. I’ve only viewer a bit of it but it seems to provide interesting insights into the intentions of the artistic team.
Go and see the film 10 times and forget about the comic, the political context and the impressive acting, for now. It will have cost you 100 €/£/$ and nothing I can think of can come close to the visual impact and formal training the experience would offer, for that sort of money. Masterclasses of that level don’t often come that cheap.
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