In my movie production classes at the University of Minnesota I was trained how to look for those more subtle details which contribute to scene building aesthetics. While some of this background mechanics might not make sense to all but a few rabid movie connoisseurs, I still think it is a good read and might help you catch some of the finer nuances of the craft as you watch. I’m offering this piece because I love to examine key dynamics in powerful scenes in great film. One movie I have a passion for and have seen more times than I can count is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I personally think it is David Fincher's crown jewel, but that can be debated.
The plot depicts Benjamin’s unique condition where a person ages backwards. The film opens with Benjamin’s birth on the last day of the Great War and ends with his death close to the new millennium. This tale is fundamentally a love story between Benjamin and a female he has known his entire life named Daisy. After flirting with the idea of being together for years, Benjamin and Daisy finally end up as a loving couple. The particular scene I am going to analyze is when Benjamin and Daisy are in a hotel bed together discussing how things in life never stay the same as a thunderstorm rages outside. This scene is one of my favorites (it is hard to choose when there are so many great ones) and one that has many applied aesthetics to be discussed.
First on the menu is the lighting. The lighting director used a method called chiaroscuro to add to the drama of the scene. The chiaroscuro lighting in this scene emphasizes organic (everything looks natural) and emotional aesthetic functions. The emotional function is especially important as it shows the love these two have for each other. The overall lighting for the scene is low key and selective. The single light source is especially apparent and effective when the characters turn their faces away from the light showing the source is highly directional. This single light illuminates the bed and characters while leaving the background purposely darker. The low key lighting causes faster falloff on the characters' faces. This helps define the texture in their faces, especially the wrinkles on Daisy’s face. This is particularly significant as they are discussing how she only has two wrinkles.
The single light source is from a bedside table giving off warm yellowish-orange lighting to the bed. The color radiating from the lamp creates a sense of calm and desaturates everything it touches. The desaturating effect from the lamp makes the colors seem dull or bland and can help convey a sense of tranquility. The dark, saturated cool colors around the windows, door, and edge of the room convey energy and intensity which is heightened by the pounding thunderstorm. The lightning from the thunderstorm is used as a dramatic agent to intensify the chaos outside and emphasize the calm these two lovers share together, sheltered from the storm’s wrath. The warm colors surrounding the bed invite the viewer into the characters affection for each other.
Another aspect is the perfected use of sound in the scene. As the scene starts, the audience can hear the sound of the rain on the roof. As the dialogue picks up, the rain remains but effectively slips to the background allowing focus to shift to the character’s exchange. As the couple continues their discussion of the uncertainty of the future, the storm continues to rage. The use of a sound bridge is used to help the editing appear seamless. The thunder clashes as the shot switches from the characters to the door and windows being rattled by the whipping wind. The shot then cuts back to the characters with the sound of the whipping wind bridging the changed shot. The sound decays as the camera moves closer to the characters and away from the storm. It is almost as if the characters cannot hear the sound of the loud thunderstorm when they are lost in each others’ embrace.
This is emphasized as the shot leaves the comfort of the bed to the door as it rattles and the storm crashes. After the shot flashes back to the bed and its inhabitants, the melody of the score begins to overwhelm even the storm as the characters continue their conversation. Their conversation concerning the uncertain future is portrayed by the outside thunderstorm. The two are perfect in bed with each other, but the storm represents the future and all its unpredictability. Benjamin says, “Nothing lasts,” to which Daisy responds, “Some things last.” The piano melody is soft as the characters begin to embrace. I think this shows certainty in their love and that whatever the future brings these two will always have each other.
The last concept I am going to highlight are the vectors in the scene. The characters looking into each others’ eyes as they talk is an example of an index vector. The characters' index vectors are telling the audience where to look. These vectors are acting as a force to pull the audience’s attention into the characters gazing into the others' eyes.
Daisy then moves and lies on top of Benjamin’s back as he gazes into the distance while thinking. Daisy is looking directly down at him as he is thoughtfully pondering how “nothing lasts.” My eyes are draw to Benjamin because Daisy’s index vector draws me to his thought even though he is staring off camera. The scene also features graphic vectors. The graphic vector that stood out to me most is the horizontal lines of the bed (though the bed does have vertical bed posts). The characters are lying on the mattress immediately drawing my eyes to the horizontal graphic vector they rest on, and then the characters themselves. Along with the warm hues and soft music, this horizontal vector also gives off a calm feeling surrounding the bed.
This film is full of beautiful aesthetics distinguishing it as one of the best of 2009. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is some of David Fincher’s best work as a director. The same can be said for Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt and their acting performances. I could discuss this movie at length all day long, which is why it is one of my all time favorite movies. Check out my full review of the film here.