Considering Composition in Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return Through the Lens of Andre Bazin
Note: While there are no direct spoilers, some of the frame examples below give strong hints to certain plot events.
I recently watched Andrey Zvyaginstev's film The Return for the first time. It's a heartbreaking film about the need for family, the desire to connect, the limits of male emotional expression, and the contradictions of love. It's also gorgeously shot, filled with thoughtfully composed shots, unique angles, balanced and centered compositions, and the use of basic shapes to create frames within frames, to name just a few of the devices.
The use of such carefully composed, formal compositions got me thinking about the ways in which such compositions are often considered antithetical to naturalistic/realistic approaches to filmmaking. The story of The Return is realist in some ways, but is also heightened at times in its storytelling, and its journey structure allows for it leave a fully realistic world behind. Yet at the same time it's focused on a returned father and the two sons he has not seen in 12 years and is set in a sparsely populated natural coastline--a story that some filmmakers might feel calls for a more "realistic" or "naturalistic" approach to filmmaking, which often sacrifices composition in lieu of a wide angle, deep focus, handheld or steadicam style that in theory at least does not call attention to itself, instead allowing for the natural flow and movement of the characters (though I want to add that such an approach can still be highly and carefully composed, but often is not).
But I don't think a carefully or formally composed approach is antithetical to realism. In fact, I think a strong defense for considering carefully composed, beautiful images can be found in the writing of the most famous and well-known film realist: Andre Bazin.
In his famous essay The Ontology of the Photographic Image, Bazin makes a case for the distinct and unique power of photography to capture the world objectively, freeing painting from the burden of realism (what we now call photorealism). The fingerprint-like quality of the photograph creates a unique link to reality that Bazin argued was at the heart of photography's power, surpassed only by the capturing of reality through time of cinema.
The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking, in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its be- coming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.
Much of the language of his argument seems couched in the objective quality of the lens and the lack of intervention by a human agent. This assertion, in particular, seems problematic for a lot of people, who see it as repudiating the creative influence of the filmmaker .
For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed auto-matically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed .and by way of the purpose he has in mind.
But the focus on this section and wording fails to take into account a few important points. First, Bazin was a main influence on the development of the auteur theory and believed very much in the creative influence of the filmmaker on the meaning and look of the film. Second, the focus on the lack of creative intervention is meant in contrast to the specific creative work of the painter and the specific nature of the photographic image being created by light passing through a lens and making a mark on a photosensitive material of some kind.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the focus on the above quote fails to take into account the most mystical and beautiful passage of the essay:
The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities. It is not for me to separate off, in the complex fabric of the objective world, here a reflexion on a damp sidewalk, there the gesture of a child. Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled- up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, are able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love. By the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can know, nature at last does more than imitate art: she imitates the artist.
In essence, the photograph allows us to see the world as if for the first time, raw and virginal. Photographs and by extension movies specifically show us the world in ways that we are incapable of seeing in the objective world. Because the photograph or cinematic image has the objective power of the fingerprint, when we see these images presented to us we know we are seeing the objective world in which we live. But we are seeing it freshly without the baggage and distraction of preconceptions and distractions.
And that brings us to the carefully composed, beautiful image. More than the casual image, the carefully composed image creates the experience Bazin describes above. The use of unique angles, basic design elements, and other compositional tools help us see the world as if for the first time, without preconception, because we are seeing it uniquely, in a way we have never seen it before. In The Return our attention is brought to objects we have seen hundreds or thousands of times (people, trees, water, boats, sky). But because they are so uniquely and carefully composed, it is as if we are seeing them for the first time, and instead of carrying the preconceived notions of them from our everyday lives, they become distinctly meaningful, allowing us to see and understand the world in ways we might not have before. Additionally, those compositions compliment and add to the meaning developed by the narrative. Our connection to the objects shown becomes deeper, at times even spiritual. I think this truly what we mean when we use the term cinematic, and no matter how realistic or naturalistic the story is, if a storyteller chooses to tell it in film, tell it with cinema, then they are choosing to tell it meaningfully and spiritually. After all, what is the point of cinema if not to strip away all the dust and grime with which we usually see the world.