A few days ago I went to see the latest Clint Eastwood film, Hereafter. I had heard mixed reviews of the film, but that never puts me off. I have yet to find anyone whose tastes in film match mine exactly, as expeditions to Blockbuster with any group amply demonstrate. So much depends on the mood I’m in. It was enough in this case to see Matt Damon and Cecile de France were in the film; sufficiently idiosyncratic casting to pique my interest.
And so off I went, and I did quite enjoy it. Quite a lot, in fact. Not so much for the storyline (“A drama centered on three people — a blue-collar American, a French journalist and a London school boy — who are touched by death in different ways”) but more for the surreal experience of seeing three aesthetic expressions in one film.
I have long been fascinated by the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of different film cultures. No surprise there, I suppose. It’s the same drive that makes me aware of the stage set and lighting of a theatre or opera production as much as the acting. But I have never tried to articulate these different cultural aesthetics. For a start, I am wary of generalisations. I suspect I have a very subjective response to this aspect which may or may not be shared by others depending on how visually sensitised they may be.
Here’s a rough attempt though. The ‘look’ of French film is just so, well, French. A warmth, a lightness, a carelessness and a very expressive manner of film. The surroundings are invariably beautiful but it’s a beauty attenuated by chic edginess. English films are quite the opposite. They have a cold rawness. Bleak, harsh lighting. A gruffness. They are often painful to watch even when they are suffused with a warm, honest and optimistic acceptance of life’s blows. And American films? Glossy, fabricated, smooth, professional, seamless. And I saw all three running in parallel in Hereafter.
I often used to wonder whether these differences were simply the natural consequence of prevailing culture, and how hard it would be for a director to pass off a film in a different cultural form and ‘look’. In the old days, the film stock used must have had a lot to do with it, and in this age of infinite variety of digital filters, it is probably even easier to attach a ‘look’. But I still think it’s a challenge, and what intrigued me so much about Hereafter was the flipping back and forth between these three parallel aesthetics. The greatest challenge came at the end when the protagonists all ended up in London. At this point, despite being set in England, the film sort of lost its English aesthetic, but wasn’t quite Hollywood. Matt Damon looked a touch out of place despite his extensive global travel experiences through the Bourne trilogy, and Cecile de France looked completely abandoned in a very French way.
I tried to find clips to show what I meant, but sadly failed, and the official trailer doesn’t do this aspect justice. So I’ll have to make do with three stills. I hope you get the opportunity to go and see what I mean if you haven’t already seen the film. And if you have, do let me know whether you sensed the same thing.