Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Directed by Robert Eggers
UK cinema release print.
Wow, okay. I really liked Robert Eggers debut feature, The VVitch (reviewed by me here) although, it has to be said, the film had the most kinetically violent audience reaction I’d ever been witness too (and the same thing happened to my cousin in Australia with the screening he went to, from what he’s told me). Eggers’ follow up feature, The Lighthouse, was certainly more sedate in terms of audience reaction but I did find it to be a little less scrutable and engaging than his first film.
What the film does have going for it, however, is two fairly strong lead performances from Willem Dafoe (always watchable) and Robert Pattinson (who I don’t usually get on well with as a performer but he holds his own against Dafoe fairly well here). More than that, though, is the extraordinary cinematography which is the one real thing which continues to hold the interest of the eye in a film which doesn’t give any easy answers as to what it’s actually about, even though the story is certainly pretty simplistic. If this movie is up for any awards then it certainly deserves to win for its astonishing camerawork and shot design. The film is shot in a very contrasty form of black and white (don’t ask me about the stock or the technology involved, I have no idea) and in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which is vertically thinner even than the old TV 4:3 ratio from decades gone past, making the full frame of this barely much wider than a square.
However, what Eggers does with this ‘almost square’ ratio is quite phenomenal in terms of the way the shots are composed and it’s a sobering reminder that, yes, while the widescreen format can make for some really interesting and dynamic compositions, you can also get some great results with older visual formats and, this is indeed a truly beautiful film to look at. For instance, there are quite a few shots where he’s run a big vertical split made from part of the set or people themselves, straight down the middle of the screen, splitting it in half to echo what a shot of the exterior of the lighthouse itself would do. Other times he’ll make use of the birds-eye view (or should that be gulls-eye view) to echo the circle of the exterior by making use of things like a spiral staircase. It’s a rich feast which is easy on the eye, for sure.
Which is just as well because the content is not completely interesting on its own.
The tale of two lighthouse people, or wickies (a term that originated for people who’s job it was to trim the wick in a lighthouse), who are purportedly waiting for a relief boat that never comes is one of those old style ‘cabin fever’ type films where they bond, turn on each other intermittently and you’re never really sure how any scene is going to go down. On the surface there’s not really much going on if you count certain sequences and moments as hallucinogenic or as hypnagogic but if you do so, as I did, then you probably won’t find the film as rewarding as if you were reading the barrage of images on a different level. Alas, my classical training isn’t good so the fact that the film is a metaphor of certain classical mythologies makes sense but was lost on me... although I did actually think of the thing I was supposed to be thinking when it comes to the final shot of the movie, it turns out. Alas, I was also thinking a lot of other things, mostly questions, during this final scene so, for me, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, so to speak.
But the film does look gorgeous and that was enough for me.
There’s an interesting thing going on in this. I’ve mentioned it before on here but in some Japanese movies, especially anime, I find the fight scenes between two major characters sometimes extremely problematic because they seem to take place in several locations at the same time. Like one minute somebody will punch someone in a cavern under the ocean and the other character might recoil from that punch while they’re both standing on top of the Eiffel Tower... that kind of thing. Over the years, since these fights seem to have no bearing in logic or the way in which they operate in these worlds, I’ve been forced to conclude that these kinds of conflicts are specific to Japanese cinema and are best seen as a metaphor, where the storytellers are trying to convey the ‘epic-ness’ of their battles by making them larger than life and spanning the globe in their importance in the plot. And that’s as far as I can decode those kinds of shenanigans... if anyone knows of anything that’s been written about this phenomenon, however, then please tag it in the comments section below or hit me up on Twitter... I’d like to know if I’m interpreting things correctly or not.
Anyway, the reason why I bring this up is that a couple of the ‘battles’ between Dafoe and Pattinson here do a very similar thing... but instead of changing location it’s the people themselves who seem to change or transform from shot to shot. I guess this dynamic kind of aggressive editing of the visuals in these action scenes should have tipped me off to the metaphorical nature of the film and lead me into decoding the rest of the narrative in less literal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get terms but I obviously didn’t and I was getting really sleepy at this point (although not as sleepy as the guy sitting next to me, it has to be said, who managed to spend three quarters of the movie soundly asleep... at least he didn’t snore).
The other thing which the director does here... and this is very similar to his previous film... is to use non-human actors to add a ‘layer of sinister’ to the proceedings. So in The VVitch we had the goat, Black Philip, who provided that feeling of the animal kingdom watching the world of humans... in The Lighthouse it’s a one eyed seagull and the gulls in general, who bring this malevolence into the film. It adds a little more interest to things and stops things from getting overly dull when added to the fine performances and the scintillating visual element.
Mark Korven’s score, because of the huge delay in releasing the film in the UK as opposed to other territories, is now extremely difficult for me to find on a proper CD so I can’t really add much here other than it works in the film but I’m not going to stoop to vinyl or even a crappy electronic approximation of the music in order to hear it away from the film. If I can somehow find someone who will ship the CD to the UK for me then all well and good... if not then I guess I won’t get to hear it away from the confines of the tale in which it is showcased (actually, in the few days since writing the first draft of this, I’ve ordered one to be sent to a friend who lives in New York as she’s paying me a visit in a few weeks... so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the right thing is sent to her address).
Other than that... nothing more to report on The Lighthouse. I left the cinema feeling a little disappointed by the film and I much preferred The VVitch out of the two films so far by this director... although The Lighthouse hands down wins out on a visual level, that’s for sure. Not something I would recommend to most of my friends other than those who are perhaps happy to feast purely on the shot compositions or those who are, perhaps, more in touch with Greek mythology and can recall the tales of Proteus and Prometheus but, yeah, this one probably won’t make my best movies of the year list, to be honest.