Enclosing a character within a contrasting zone

The screen can be divided in bright and dark areas, allowing characters to nest into one of those. Besides, the unoccupied area naturally accentuates the effect of the other by way of contrast, compressing the character into a squashed frame. In fact, we have already seen this effect in action with Sherlock in Image contrast to emphasize speech, where the character stays confined to the darkest part of the screen, using the contrasting area to empower his speech.

 

Under the spotlight

Near the end of Jacob’s Ladder (A. Lyne, 1990), Louis — Jacob’s chiropractor and best friend — raids the hospital to free Jacob. The screen has been subdivided in three parts, two dark areas compressing a bright one where Louis is standing. His threatening attitude is emphasized by the bright window in the background. This is the crisis part. At the same time, the dark areas literally push on the bright one from both sides to sandwich the character, restricting his moves. And that is the pressure part. So contrast is twofold here. The character’s figure contrasts with the bright area which itself contrasts with the dark areas. Crisis meets claustrophobia.
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Alone in the dark

Near the end of 9½ Weeks (A. Lyne, 1986), Elizabeth decides to leave John but he wants her to stay. John is a tormented character. Although his words are kind, his perverse mind is naturally depicted by the dark area he is stuck on. At the same time, the dark area is compressed by the bright one thanks to the contrasting subdivision of the screen. And like mentioned above, contrasting areas tend to deprive characters from their freedom of movement. The big bad wolf is confined to its den.
9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

JOHN
“I never counted on loving you so much.”

And here comes the reverse shot. Elisabeth has undergone John’s perversion for weeks. Although she loves him, she’s now craving for lightness. She just wants out. But she hasn’t left yet, and so her figure is still stuck in the shade, torn between the bright and dark subdivisions of the screen. Both characters remain entrenched in their positions.
9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

 

As a matter of fact, it’s common for John’s character to be stuck onto a dark screen subdivision in 9 1/2 Weeks. Indeed, the story is entirely wrapped around the concept of light vs darkness. As a result, this technique is extensively used throughout the film.

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NineAndAHalfWeeks_1986_005515_mini

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A dark figure on a dark background filling the entire screen looks as though he was in his element (read more in The dark side of light – Someone’s lurking). When the dark background is restricted to a smaller surface surrounded by contrasting regions, the character seems to be in connexion with our world, something of the monster in the closet. The difference is subtle but substantial.

 

What’s up?

Dividing the screen into big contrasting regions help confining characters to a background that brings out their psychological state. The surrounding areas put extra pressure on them, limiting their freedom of movement. Compressed bright backdrops make for highly charged crises, whereas compressed dark backdrops make for a monster in the closet effect.

 

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