I have been busy working on “Husbands,” but finally finished the analysis of a film that has been on my list for a long time:
“Punch Drunk Love” (2002, directed by P.T. Anderson and photographed by Robert Elswit, ASC) is a case where every aspect of the filmmaking is calibrated to tell the same story. A substantial amount has been written about the visual design of this film, especially since many of the techniques are unsubtle and very easy to isolate and identify (principally the extremely limited color palette of the costume and production design).
Most of the analysis I read didn’t go very deep into the camera and lighting decisions, which is what I will attempt to do here. However, these decisions don’t exist in a vacuum (i.e. many of the compositional choices are firmly interlinked with production design ones), so the analysis can’t be totally exclusive.
Here’s the opening sequence of the film, which runs up to the opening credits:
(password is ‘cinevenger’):
The first shot of the film goes to great lengths to characterize Barry Egan. Showing him in an extreme wide shot in wardrobe that matches the color of the background gives the sense that he is comfortable receding into the environment, camouflaging himself in order to not stand out. This is an immediate hint at his anti-social personality.
Shortsighting Barry in the corner of the room gives the sense that he lives a confined and restrained life. The deep shadows on the top and right of frame contribute to this by constricting the frame even more, which also equates the idea of Barry’s comfort zone as a cave-like prison that he has constructed for himself.
As Barry crosses frame, the camera pans with him and enters a completely black void, which is finally perforated by the door opening. It’s as if Barry has left one world, travelled through infinite space, and entered another. It’s this first shot that introduces the idea of Barry’s safety cave and the exterior as two different domains.
The camera follows Barry out the door and pans left, an important camera move that will be used again several times to construct a fundamental web of meaning that sets the rest of the film in motion.
In the second shot of the sequence, the camera slowly dollies in through the gate and then pans left and witnesses a violent car crash. The similarity to the previous shot (a dolly through a portal) is not a coincidence… it presents the visual idea that Barry taking small subsequent steps out of his comfort zone (from the safety of his office cave, to the alley, and finally to the street) can have violent and anxiety ridden consequences.
After the harmonium is dropped off, the camera slowly dollies in to a close-up. This is a continuation of a visual motif: the previous dolly move ended with a violent crash, and this one ends with the harmonium, drawing a comparison between the two. In drawing the camera out to the street, far out of Barry’s comfort zone, the harmonium almost seems to taunt him with the prospect of more violence, causing him to retreat.
The subsequent medium wide shot of Barry is significant in its differentiation from the opening shot. By contrast, this shot expresses how the previous incident has resulted in a new vulnerability: Barry is now centerpunched, unable to hide off to the side of the frame as he did in the first shot. The image is brighter, without the sculpted shadows of the opening, diminishing the previously established cavernous sense of the space. The distortion of the image also contributes to a sense of exposure: the background seems to bend away from him, pushing him forward into the uncomfortable spotlight. Finally, the harsh lines of the background visually penetrate his head, adding a sense of looming violence to an otherwise banal moment.
As the shot continues, it follows a similar dolly move to the two previous shots in the film, exploring outwards from the cave, only to be presented with a new kind of anxiety or violence. In this case, the matching move serves to equate Barry’s meeting with Lena to the previous car crash:
A giant flare penetrates the lens, giving a sense of the overbearing anxiety and fear that comes with leaving the safety of the cave, and contextualizing Barry’s conversation with Lena as something that is panicked. The end result (as before with the harmonium) is a retreat back to his refuge, in this case shown as a deeply shaded corner that masks Barry’s identity in silhouette, camouflaging himself again into the background in an attempt to return to the safe environment depicted in the opening shot.
Once Barry musters up the courage to go retrieve the harmonium from the street, he is shown confronting it in a series of extreme wide shots from three different angles. This is the visual antithesis of Barry’s safe cavern: He is literally shown being exposed from all directions, supremely vulnerable to violence from all sides.
As Barry scrambles back to the safety cave with the harmonium, Lena’s car is placed compositionally in the foreground, equating Barry’s rescue of the harmonium with her, and working to further the thematic ties between the two.
We see a series of shots of Barry retreating back to his cave with the harmonium. Significant about these shots is the lighting: hot hits of bright light break up the dark frame, and reflections flare the lens. This gives a sense of the violence and anxiety of the exterior penetrating the safety of Barry’s cave, and shows the great risk he has taken bringing the harmonium inside. In this way, it’s really the visuals that begin to define the metaphor of the harmonium: it simultaneously represents both Barry’s need to confront his social anxiety, and also the amount of fear and discomfort that comes with taking even the smallest steps.
Finally, as Barry opens the harmonium, a golden light washes over his face, combined with a slow push-in. We see the payoff to his great discomfort: the possibility that bringing this foreign object (the harmonium, and later, Lena) into the safety of his cave could introduce something beautiful and wonderful into his life.
The harmonium has already been equated visually to both Lena and the violent car crash by creating an association between them with similar camera moves. Lena, the car crash, and the harmonium are now intertwined parts of the succinctly stated visual equation of this opening sequence: that Barry will cautiously step out of the comfort of his cavern and risk violent consequences for the chance of discovering love.
A side note about this shot, from a larger picture perspective of the film as a whole: in an already incredibly subjective sequence, this is perhaps the most subjective shot, as the light is used to personify emotion in a way completely unmotivated by anything realistic. A gamble is being made by the filmmakers that by this point, the audience will be invested enough into Barry’s personal struggle (and entrenched enough in the visual architecture used to portray it) that they will simply accept this moment as a natural and realistic part of the previously established visual grammar.
In a series of quick cuts, Barry’s intimate moment with the harmonium is violently disrupted. Blown-out sunlight invades the previously established safety of the dark cave. This is a continuation of the previously constructed metaphor for the harmonium: the fear that letting something new and potentially wonderful (the harmonium/Lena) from the anxiety-ridden world (wide/vulnerable spaces, penetrating flares, and blown out light) into his safety zone (the dark, cavernous office) will have violent and destructive consequences (the opening car crash, and later in the film, the car crash with Lena).