I saw Bruno Dumont’s 1997 film The Life of Jesus and liked it, but shortly afterward grew tired of Western European filmmakers showing me how awful the world was, and how awful I was for living in it. (I also grew tired of them citing Bresson.) Years later, Dumont’s Outside Satan didn’t change things. In one scene, a woman tells a man he can have her, then strips naked in full view and lies down, vagina facing the camera. It’s sex, folks, and he goes for it, which means we do too. Then he strangles her. What does that say about us?
Yet what’s so irritating about Dumont’s film is the way that it wastes not just time, but also space. Over and over we see people walking through vast, empty fields, their bodies either filling the frames like giants or lost as tiny pale specks among a sweep of bright green. But the grass, trees, rocks, and lakes are ultimately parts of the background here, impassive, indifferent observers to the monstrous human drama. The film isn’t alive to nature’s movement, and by shooting in the 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, Dumont has given himself a lot of space to do nothing with. Life may suck, but it’s never empty. The best widescreen films and filmmakers know how to fill their frames with detail.
This doesn’t only mean crowding them with objects, as Wes Anderson does. It can also mean a clean, straightforward arrangement of lines. An imprisoned young man in the new German film Breathing waits for an employee of his juvenile detention center to give him information. He hunches a little, waiting, on the left side of the frame, in front of a brown wall, with a cabinet additionally framing him on either side; the right half of the frame is a long, open, white corridor, and the adult takes his time walking up.
Karl Markovics’s film is full of moments like this, contrasting the freedom that others so casually enjoy with Roman’s utter lack of it. It’s a widescreen coming-of-age story, an unexpected combination that shows the boy’s isolation through gestures both simple—Roman (a wonderfully open-faced Thomas Schubert, making his feature debut) walking through an IKEA store alone in an in-focus foreground, a vast crowd of people streaming out of focus in back—and more complex. Roman, locked up for killing another boy (“I didn’t murder him. He died at the hospital”), works with a morgue pickup crew as part of his parole. While his fellow adult employees appear in front of hard steel doors as they deal with a body, he stands against a softer green background; two shots later, he’s diving peacefully into deep pool water of a similar blue-green shade; soon afterward, inside a blurred, steel-colored locker room, a swimming instructor reduces him to tears.
Markovics allows Schubert many close-ups, and the wide screen shows lonely blank space on either side. Yet Roman makes an effort to connect. He meets an American girl on a train (she’s listening to rock music), and they share both beer and a frame before revealing his secret, after which they each retreat again into their own separate shots. After leaving the train, he waves goodbye to her, and follows the train car. A man chasing a woman as her bus/train/plane leaves—we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? But those movie scenes usually play off the joy of the man’s discovering love; what’s unusual this time is the heartbreak. Roman stays cramped in the left corner, the train filling the rest of the shot, his steps slow and chunky, the train speeding up; as it goes, the camera follows it, leaving Roman behind, until it vanishes with a cut to the bland white of his life back at the center.
Genre expectations demand he see her again. I won’t say whether he does. I’ll say, instead, that Breathing brilliantly fuses pop and art-house filmmaking, which means it’s full of surprises. It does so much more than simply saying Roman is lonely; through the use of its active, meticulously composed visuals, it shows a boy slowly integrating himself into the world, and the world, much more slowly, learning to take him back. The film shows many different kinds of loss (loss of life, loss of love, loss of family, loss of legal rights, loss of time, loss of innocence), but it also gives you something.
That something is hinted at in a late shot. It starts with Roman in a cemetery, looking at his victim’s gravestone, with a photo on it; as he turns and walks away, the camera gradually moves back to show other people in the cemetery, then upward past all the graves, all the trees, past the city and all its roads and buildings, up through the sky, into the clouds. The moment captures the mood of one of James Joyce’s stories: No one is alone, everything is connected, all of us together, both the living and the dead.
The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.