5×2 (2004) – The Space around Love

Characterisation is a funny thing. Characters obviously have no inner lives and no existence beyond the indentations they leave on a text and yet a well-drawn character can seem human enough to warrant an emotional response from the audience. Characterisation works by tapping into the various short-cuts humans use in social interaction; As humans, we can never know what another person is thinking or feeling but we can infer their emotional state by considering their behaviour and comparing it to what feelings we think might prompt us to act in a similar fashion. Characterisation can thus be thought of as the art of building an evocative human shape from a series of descriptive passages. Strike the right poses at the right moments and a character will leap off the page but fail to make a character’s poses recognisable or fail to make those poses coherent and you will be left with a character that seems lifeless and inhuman.

Different cinematic traditions have different standards of characterisation. For example, travel back to 1930s Hollywood and it was still quite common for directors to use voice-overs and have their characters tell the audience what they were thinking. Fast-forward to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters and you find directors relying quite heavily on audience-recognisable character types whose inner lives are made accessible through a combination of unambiguous musical cues and absurd theatrical gestures including sinking to their knees and bellowing ‘Nooo’ into a rain-filled sky. Thankfully, not all cinematic traditions are as heavy-handed; Cinema originating in cultures with low-levels of emotional disclosure is far more subtle in its emotional topography and so audiences are forced to pay closer attention and approach scenes in different ways in order to catch the poses that might allow them to infer the presence of an internal state or collective vibe. The subtlety of character beats in Japanese film also explains its long-standing relationship with a European art house tradition in which directors seek to deliberately attenuate their characterisation in a bid to create characters that seem more complex and ambiguous. However, despite European film’s desire to keep its characters aloof, the last fifty years have still seen the emergence of not just stock characters but stock poses that serve as short-cuts in films that should not be about the easy answers. How many times have you seen art house films in which characters stare into the middle-distance impassively? How many times have you seen art house films in which a character fails to react to some devastating event and yet winds up over-reacting to some seemingly unrelated incident? As a general rule of thumb, if you are an art house director and your characterisation techniques are showing up on Mad Men then it is time to get yourself some new techniques… which is where François Ozon’s 5×2 comes in.

 

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The Hollow Men – Negative Space and Characterisation in Existentialist Fiction

There are times when our critical vocabulary is all too shallow.  There are times when our critical vocabulary becomes so deep as to be impenetrable.  There are also times when our critical vocabulary is reduced to the status of the mantra; sentences and judgments, once meaningful, loose their potency through endless repetition.  First they move from insight to cliché and then they move from cliché to mantra.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly meaningless.

One such mantra is the assessment that a writer is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at characterisation.  These sorts of evaluations pop up in all forms of criticism and yet they are seldom unpacked.  What makes a good character?  What makes a bad character?  When does a writer cross from one category to another?  What takes place when a writer fails to engage in ‘good’ characterisation?  Literary theory is frustratingly evasive on this question, all too often ‘good characterisation’ is defined in terms that offer little penetration and little insight beyond the obvious synonyms.  Consider, for example, the famous distinction drawn by E. M. Forster in his collection of lectures Aspects of the Novel (1927) :

The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.

So a ‘round’ character is convincing while a ‘flat’ character is not.  This advances us precious little.  What makes some characters more convincing than others?  Which techniques reliably produce rounded characters?

One place to find inspiration is the visual arts.  One of the most important concepts to the analysis of visual composition is the idea of negative space.  Negative space can be described as the space that exists around the foregrounded object, but it can also be quite a bit more.  Indeed, when an untrained photographer takes a picture of something, they tend to see everything that is not a part of that something as mere background.  However, by focussing solely on the object itself, unskilled artists will frequently produce a picture that seems somehow wrong.  Aesthetically imbalanced.  Strangely ugly.  Frequently, this is because of a lack of attention to the space surrounding the foregrounded object.  Indeed, in order to force their students to take negative space into account, composition teachers will frequently ask them to draw not the object itself but the space surrounding that object.  It is only by balancing the use of positive space with the use of negative space that elegant composition can be achieved.

This principle also applies to characterisation.

 

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