Something odd happened during last year’s Cannes media screening of young Canadian Xavier Dolan’s film Mommy, which depicts the volcanic relationship of a mother and her emotionally troubled teenage son.
Some way into a narrative packed with fiery outbursts and screaming matches something led hardened critics to burst into applause.
The screen changed size.
OK, that doesn’t sound much to get excited about, but wait. Up to that moment, Mommy had been unfolding inside a literally square frame – an extremely cramped 1:1 format, new to cinema, that intensified the feeling these lives were hemmed in by circumstance and helped viewers to concentrate on the characters and not their surroundings.
But some way in to the film the mood of the drama starts to change and the central fiery relationship becomes a happy glow. So happy that in a sequence where the son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is skateboarding down a suburban street, he slowly reaches his hands out while looking into the camera and starts to seemingly push at the sides of the boxy screen until it gradually opens to become the wide screen format of 1.85:1.
And what that means in storytelling terms is that as the screen expands, suddenly we the viewers can see the world expanding around him. What had seemed like a cramped and uninteresting environment now reveals itself as a lushly verdant suburb, with attractive houses, trees and gardens.
Our male lead for the first time has space around him – both physical space, and by metaphorical extension, space to live his life. It’s an exhilarating coup de cinema. (It’s also not the only point at which the frame changes shape, but I’ll leave that for readers to experience themselves.)
I wasn’t at Cannes and couldn’t give the exact reason for the applause (it's described here), but I’d hazard that at least some of the audience members were responding to the sense of relief that Dolan had built into the film – not to mention his creative chutzpah.
Cinematic storytelling is full of visual metaphors of course, but here was one that had never been used before – at least not quite in the same way.
French director Abel Gance famously mounted three standard screens for his 1927 silent epic Napoleon, so that most of the film played out in the standard frame size of the time, the Academy ratio (4:3 - four units lengthwise to every three units of height). But with the aid of three projectors and three screens placed side by side, this became in effect a massively wide 4:1 for the climax. This was some 26 years before Hollywood studios leapt upon the new widescreen anamorphic process of CinemaScope as a way of fighting back against the new medium of television.
But if changing frame size within a single film has until now been extremely rare, it’s now becoming more common, with both Wes Anderson and Lars von Trier also playing with different aspect ratios in their most recent films.
Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a brief sequence filmed in the common widescreen frame of 1:85 about a revered author (Tom Wilkinson).
It then expands at the edges to the ultra-wide CinemaScope format (2.35:1) for the main framing story set in the modern day, where F. Murray Abraham’s hotelier tells Jude Law’s visitor a shaggy dog story about how he came to be the owner.
Then the frame narrows right down, taking the old-school Academy ratio for most of the remaining film - an extended flashback illustrating Abraham’s tale, set in what appears to be a fictionalised version of the 1930s. The Academy choice makes sense in that it’s the standard frame size used in the period when this long middle section of the film is set.
The widescreen format of the opening prologue helps to establish that this sequence has only a loose connection with the rest of the film. Overall, Anderson’s willingness to change the frame size serves to heighten the sense of artifice he so obsessively builds throughout his films, especially this one. He loves arranging his shots to look symmetrical, with every carefully posed before the camera. The frame shifts are yet another way of reminding the audience that this is a heightened, storybook world, not to be mistaken for a literal representation of reality.
Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac meanwhile plays out mostly in CinemaScope (the mighty letter box that is 2.35:1, meaning the screen is twice and a third as long as it is high).
Yet for a memorable sequence involving a confrontation between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character and the wife of the man she’s having sex with (Uma Thurman), the screen narrows to the merely-quite-wide 1.85:1).
In 2009’s A Serious Man, the Coen brothers also used a narrower frame for the film’s extended prologue (as, incidentally, did George Miller many moons ago with Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior for our US readers).
So what is going on? Just a bunch of filmmakers copying each other?
My guess is that this experimentation is going to intensify because we’re now in a world surrounded by a bewildering number of screens. No longer do we just relate only to screens at the cinema and a television at home. We have computer screens where we can edit our own photos into any type of frame that we think suits the image.
We have smart phones that take high–resolution photos in portrait or landscape. We also have digital tablets that enable the user to take photos in either widescreen format or the narrow “Square” setting (the same 1:1 shape used by Dolan – though he says his main inspiration in Mommy was the old format of vinyl LP covers rather than digital screens). The popular Instagram also uses a square format.
Everyday we’re reminded that images can be framed in all manner of shapes – and many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which images can be altered to suit the subject – and that means not just what’s inside the frame, but the breadth of the frame itself.
Aspect ratios can be a dry and confusing subject filled with sets of figures that will do your head in (don’t start me on the way 16:9 – used for modern widescreen digital TVs – looks almost identical to cinema’s 1.85:1). Pedants and geeks have a field day with this stuff, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Think of changing aspect ratios as another weapon in the imaginative filmmaker’s toolbox – something that has to be a welcome development.