I’m getting so creative with these throwbacks, huh. This is actually a paper that College Freshman SM wrote in December 2009 (5 years ago, holy moly), for the film class I was taking in my very first semester as a co-requisite for the screenwriting class I was taking at the time as well, since the Intro to Creative Writing class had filled up before I could register for it. (Ain’t college requirements great?)
This paper came up in conversation this week because I was having a little argument with a friend after he asserted that I have great taste in people, great taste in TV shows, but terrible taste in movies. I was like, “Nuh uh, I do too like good movies! Here’s a paper I wrote about a good movie. Boom.”
Actually, it didn’t happen like that because it was a phone conversation and also I couldn’t find the paper on account of it being buried in a drawer amid my massive stacks of papers (I may have a slight hoarding problem). But today I dug it up, read it over, then found it on my computer, and BOOM. Paper.
Take that, Stefan.
I don’t know how much sense it will make to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, because it is extremely specific in its analysis of things like shot composition, framing, lighting, props, angles, etc. But it’s a really good movie — I had to write a paper on it and I still like it, that’s how good it is — so you should probably go watch it and come back here.
Film Technique in “An Education”
An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig, is a coming-of-age story about an isolated, precocious British schoolgirl in the 1960s who learns several hard lessons that can’t be taught in school: the value of simplicity over the temptations of extravagance, the importance of making her own decisions, and the fact that people are not always who they appear to be. The filmmakers’ choices of mise-en-scene, shot framing, types of images, point of view, lighting, locations, and use of color/black and white all help to underscore these themes. The film also offers some social commentary on the power dynamics of May-December romances, patriarchal family structures, teacher-student relationships, and racism, which are subtly depicted through use of camera angles and camera placement, though sometimes the camerawork is misleading, emphasizing that not all is as it seems.
Camera Angles Typically, a low camera angle conveys power, a high angle conveys vulnerability, and identical angles indicate equal authority. Sometimes, An Education follows these rules, but often it bends them. For example, Jenny, the protagonist, and David, her far-too-charming older lover, are often shown in identical eye level angles. This gives viewers the impression that the power in the relationship is shared, but this is not the case—David is taking advantage of Jenny. On the other hand, standard use of camera angles is employed in several scenes to accurately convey the dynamics of this relationship and others. A hotel room scene begins with Jenny in low angle to show that she holds all the cards, but once David persuades her to expose her body to him, the angle shifts higher because she has lost power. A scene of Jenny arguing with her teacher begins with Jenny in slight high angle, which shifts to eye-level as Jenny gains the upper hand. A woman later revealed to be racist is shown looming over David’s African-American “clients” in low angle, hinting at her attitude.
Camera Placement Authority and power is further conveyed in camera placement. To capture the impression of a male-dominated family unit in a scene where Jenny and her mother are arguing with Jenny’s father, the father is shown in tight close-ups, while the women are in medium shots, giving them less presence and less power. In a scene with her principal, Jenny argues vehemently in medium close-ups, and the nearly speechless principal reacts ineffectively in medium shots. Later on, after Jenny has been humbled by David’s dishonesty, she returns to ask the principal for a second chance. In this scene, Jenny is further from the camera, sitting timidly in medium long shots. In Jenny’s scenes with David, equal distances are employed along with the aforementioned equal angles, augmenting the illusion that the two are on level footing. Camera distance also conveys ideas other than power: the development of Jenny and David’s romance is hinted at in their very first scene in his car through the use of claustrophobic close-ups to indicate intimacy, and Jenny’s isolation after dropping out of school is shown in an overhead shot from afar.
Mise-en-scene Viewers are given additional clues about Jenny’s mindset through the film’s mise-en-scene. The central conflict of simplicity vs. decadence is displayed through Jenny’s clothes—she begins the film in school clothes and her outfits get fancier and more extravagant as the story progresses, but in the final scene she has reverted to pajamas. Her surroundings also reflect the conflict: her parents’ house is modestly furnished with very few artistic touches, whereas the apartment where David and his friends spend their time is glamorous and crammed full of art objects. Jenny’s teacher’s house is not nearly as lavishly decorated, but warmer than Jenny’s parents’ house, which is vital to Jenny’s realization in that scene: “That’s all you need.” Jenny’s innocence being at odds with her newfound worldliness is also implied through props: a white coat and a black purse. There are several scenes where Jenny’s feelings that she is a prisoner to societal expectations are communicated through the mise-en-scene: we observe her twice through a grate on her window as she studies. As her attitude toward schooling changes, we see her pacing a corridor that also seems jail-like with grates on the windows, but a door in it is ajar, implying freedom to come. Lastly, the idea of choices is shown near the end through an interesting use of angled mirrors—viewers see two Jennys, representing two divergent paths, and though some skillful coordination, when the real Jenny moves, one reflection is obscured, indicating that she has run out of options.
Shot Framing Of course, most if not all of these decisions regarding mise-en-scene would be wasted without good shot framing. The “jail” feel would not have been achieved if the grates were in the background of the shot. Similarly, Jenny’s black purse would have seemed to be only a detail if it had not been placed prominently in the foreground of one particular shot. But framing is important regardless of props. Twice, it shows Jenny’s struggle against manipulation by others through use of shots where Jenny is sandwiched between two other characters as they exercise their influence over her. The first of these is with her parents, the second with David and David’s friend Danny. This second one is framed much more tightly with no extraneous space between the actors, because their influence is so strong. Jenny’s parents’ influence weakens so much as the film goes on that eventually they are relegated to the background in their scenes with Jenny. Shot framing also sets Jenny and David up as couple by pairing them in a two-shot immediately after a two-shot of Danny and his girlfriend, Helen. Off-center framing is used at the beginning of the movie in shots of Jenny and a lot of empty space, illustrating her isolation.
Camera Movement The camera movement in this film serves mainly to highlight the allure of David’s exciting world in contrast to Jenny’s apparently empty one. The camera is mostly static in Jenny’s home and school, apart from a few obligatory tracking shots here and there, but when she’s with David, the camera swoops and circles as she absorbs the totality of her new experiences. Swish pans add danger to the scene where David and Danny steal something, and give a dreamlike quality to the montage of Jenny in Paris. Pans and tilts of the camera can guide the eye from one item to another and connect the two: a pan from a shadow to Jenny singing implies that all is not right in this seemingly cheery scene, and a tilt from Jenny’s black purse to her face indicates loss of innocence.
Point of view The reason Jenny doesn’t realize all the negative things that are happening to her is because the film is told almost entirely through her point of view. Almost, but not quite. We see her delighted reactions to the new world she encounters, we see her exasperation with her parents, and we see how she looks at David, completely taken in by his charm. But every so often, the camera becomes the narrator, and we see how David looks at her, which is very unsettling. Since these are not Jenny’s POV shots, she remains oblivious to his intentions, while the viewers know that what she sees is not what she’s getting.
Light/Shadow Lighting in An Education is sometimes used deceptively, to develop this theme of appearance vs. reality, though at times the lighting is “honest.” Some of Jenny’s scenes with David are extremely well lit, such as those in Paris and those in Danny’s apartment, giving a false impression of security, but some are appropriately dark: their nightclub visits, their first kiss, David’s late-night meeting with Jenny’s parents. The dark and the light are muddled together, characters’ faces are often half-shadowed, explaining why it is so difficult for Jenny to tell the good from the bad. But when Jenny learns David’s secret in the dead of night, there can be no question of which is which.
Spaces/Locations Again, this element is used deceptively, tempting us and Jenny to want what isn’t necessary. Jenny’s home seems cramped; the rooms are small, and frequently characters spread out through two or more rooms as they conduct a conversation. Compare this to Danny’s apartment, or to Paris, where everything is wide open and airy and far more inviting. Jenny’s teacher’s house strikes a balance, being spacious without being too gaudy.
Color/Black and white Color is also often used to confuse the viewer by making the wrong things seem attractive. Drab, dull colors fill Jenny’s home and school, but David’s world is full of glitzy, candlelit nightclubs and the scenery on their trip to Oxford is astonishingly green. When Jenny later sneaks away to an equally green riverbank to tell her friends about David and her upcoming trip to Paris, the pretty colors distract us from the fact that David is not good for Jenny. Jenny wears a black dress at one point—black has been established though dialogue as a rebellious color, so her wearing it has added subtext. The title sequence is a series of simple black-on-white instructional diagrams which then fade in to a world of color where nothing is that simple.
Types of Images (also Visual Symbols) The title sequence diagrams directly contrast the art collected/stolen by David and his gang, further emphasizing the conflict Jenny is facing: should she stay on the black-and-white straight and narrow road of her education, or plunge into this beautiful, colorful, enticing new world? When she sees a painting by one of her favorite artists in her teacher’s house, she realizes that she can in fact do both.
There is a little known Jewish interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis which states that before the sin of the forbidden fruit, all that was good in the world was beautiful, and all that was bad was ugly. After the sin, it all got jumbled together and life became that much harder. An Education illustrates this difficulty quite well. Using many techniques explained above, it expresses many ideas, none more so than the fact that all that glitters is not gold.