Saturday, April 14, 2012

Jan Vermeer and the Deep Blue Sea

If you have the opportunity to see Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea on a big screen, go for it! It might not be around too long, even though it only opened in the US about two weeks ago. This 2011 adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play is clearly among my favorite films of the last few months and one of the most beautiful love letters to the power of cinematic storytelling. Cutting almost half of Rattigan’s dialogue and replacing it by musically structured flashbacks, Davies took me on an emotional ride through postwar London that couldn’t be more different from standard British period pictures.

I could go on and on about this film and Terence Davies’ highly personal style. But since I have very little time to blog these days let me just throw a glance at a visual detail.

In an elaborate Notebook interview by Michael Guillen Davies talks extensively about the way he re-created the drab but warm England of his childhood and specifically mentions the lighting:

We talked about the textures. I told them, "I want lots of pools of light and relative darkness."  Because that's what it was like. If you were lucky, you had electricity downstairs.  Upstairs there was no electricity at all. You took up candles or just moved in the dark; but, there were pools of light.  Sometimes just light from a fire, which I've always loved

At least since The House of Mirth (2000) Davies has been obsessed with Dutch painter Jan Vermeer who also reportedly worked very slowly and only produced a relatively small amount of works almost all of which depicted interior scenes of middle class women. Davies’ love for Vermeer even shows in his autobiographical working class features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), mainly in their use of chiaroscuro indoor cinematography.
Simon Russell Beale in chiaroscuro lighting (production still from The Deep Blue Sea)
The press release for The Deep Blue Sea contains the following paragraphs:
But despite the drab surroundings of much of the story, Davies was keen to infuse the film with a rich visual texture. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister created a look of which brought pools of light and textured shadow into the film.
“I’m obsessed with Vermeer,” says Davies. “I love the glow you achieve when you switch on a red light in a drab room - you get a wonderful glow.”

Since I’m not able to take any screenshots yet, one of the production stills (not completely replicating the film’s particular style but coming fairly close) will have to do for the comparison.

I didn’t have to look very far to find Vermeer paintings that reflected Davies’ use of light and color in this film.

Woman holding a balance (1664, Jan Vermeer) - Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) in The Deep Blue Sea

Windows have always been important in his films and The Deep Blue Sea is no exception. In both pictures the main source of light on the woman is daylight coming through a window. Warm artificial light is relatively low in comparison and closer to candle light than to modern lightbulbs.

Hester in the dreamy haze of memories (in what seems to be an actual frame enlargement).

Soft focus, grainy film stock and a veil of cigarette smoke create a look that comes even closer to 17th century painting techniques than the production stills can recreate.

In the original play, Hester tries to make a living by selling self-made paintings (to her ex-husband of all people). Terence Davies completely omits this aspect in favour of a new scene that takes place in an art museum where the differences in taste and worldviews of Hester and her young lover Freddie come to light. It's no coincidence that Davies also leaves the pictures they are looking at to our imagination.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Great post.

Went to a talk he gave once. A brilliant, unassuming man.

Will try to catch it. You have made me want to see it now.