Double feature: Here are two ravishingly beautiful, radiantly intelligent films whose beauty and brains are in large part due to their shared attention to the details of domestic life.
Both “Bright Star” and “The Earrings of Madame de…” draw you into their rarefied worlds by offering an intimacy – immediate, deepening, but ever discreet – with the atomized components of their characters’ homes. From the start, the closet interiors and staircases that both films linger over are presented as not just background to, but actors in, their unfolding stories.
The importance that both filmmakers place on these inanimate objects is mirrored by the importance their protagonists place on them. In both films, characters invest not only the actual artifacts of their romantic relationships (jewelry, love letters,) but even the quotidian objects a degree or more removed from them (walls, doors) with profound emotional value. In both films, these objects become substitutes for the absent beloved; passive recipients (and receptacles) of un-dammed, un-dammable affections.
Despite their swoon-inducing visuals, both films do justice to their literary origins with their wit, attention to structure, and steadily accumulating power. Like a classic novel or a thoughtful letter, they break their bad news indirectly and verbally, even though their medium would allow them to show it in head-on imagery.
Like a masterpiece, they are sensitive – and thus inspire our sensitivity – to their minor characters as well as their protagonists. That some of their minor characters happen to be things rather than people makes these films even more extraordinary.
For a marathon: Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” shares with “The Earrings of Madame de…” detailed visual splendor and a similar tone of simultaneously witty and melancholy wisdom. “Mysteries of Lisbon” shares with it an acute attention to narrative structure.
Follow both films’ (over)investiture of objects with importance to its logical extreme with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Visually dazzling in a completely different way, it is, among many other things, a thought experiment about placing too much on the shoulders of the inanimate.
(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “arguer” and “Chiot’s Run” at Flickr)