What are you looking at?
A laptop, a tablet, a smartphone? Whatever you’re reading these words on, it’s probably a rectangle, framing the text and the images and this article in a standard space. This shape is familiar from TV screens, paintings and even the paper we write on. But how did it become so ubiquitous? The cinema standard is 1.85:1 – or 2.39:1 for the even more ‘cinematic’ widescreen effect – yet Xavier Dolan’s new release Mommy is just one of a long line of films that bucks tradition to reframe the world and say something new about how we look.
In Mommy, hyperactive lead Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is constrained by the unfamiliar boundaries of a 1:1 frame, a move that closes in the walls around him, attempting to stifle his natural exuberance and showing that the society he lives in is trying to control him. They are trying to restrict him, to dull him down; quite literally, to turn him into a square. 1:1 is a format not popular since the days when pictures hadn’t yet begun moving, but Dolan’s choice of aspect ratio isn’t a reference to past glories, but the sharpest edges of modern media.
As many reviews have pointed out, 1:1 is the aspect ratio of Instagram, an apt comparison for such a brash and branded personality as Steve. Always ready to put himself out there and share, no matter the reservations or anxieties of those around him. And what shape are the profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter if not tiny 1:1 squares, each incarnation of social media fragmenting us closer and closer towards being just one more individual pixel amongst a screaming web of ‘social’ media. This is how we present ourselves now, so it only makes sense that film echoes the way the world and the web are turning.
Dolan is not the only filmmaker to have challenged the default format of the cinematic aspect ratio in recent times. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel notoriously toyed with boxes within boxes, each variation in aspect ratio a calculated move to reflect a different time in the history of both the Grand Budapest Hotel and cinema itself. 2.35:1, 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 – all just numbers in a sentence, but they mean such different things when translated to the screen and our eyes.
Anderson has always been a canny manipulator of aspect ratios, but usually in a less brazen way. Whilst most of his films stick to a familiar 2.35:1 ratio, he often reframes his characters within his sets. He offers a succession of boxes, connected by a spirit of magic realism in his final coup de cinema in The Darjeeling Limited. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou he displays a living blueprint of the submarine Belafonte in a visual that like much of his work feels at once hyper-realistic and impressionistic. Most commonly, he blocks his action via doorways and walls, creating the ‘dolls house’ effect that he is so renowned for.
The effect is voyeuristic, travelling through every inch of a building and examining the rooms within, like a quirky architectural version of a microscope. Using a set’s natural layout to frame a shot is hardly a new innovation, with directors from Yasujiro Ozu to Stanley Kubrick establishing a kind of secondary, diegetic framing using everything from a shōji to the pillars and corridors of the Overlook Hotel.
One recent director to rely on a similar technique is Lena Dunham, who habitually frames herself (as Hannah Horvath in Girls) within doorways. Most often these doorways look into bedrooms, the most private of spaces, where we can see just a glimpse of Hannah and her interior thoughts. The voyeurism of this technique is exacerbated by its self-reflexivity. When you consider that as both actor and director, the person we are spying on and the spyer themselves are one and the same it creates a fascinating play between narcissism and self-expression, particularly in the context of the regular critical scrutiny Dunham withstands for her meta creations.
Whenever an aspect ratio deviates from the norm, it makes you wonder: why is that the norm anyway? Look around you. We see the world as a circular field of vision, so why are our frames of images even rectangular? What is it about 16:9 that has destined it to be the TV standard, like 4:3 was before it? Why have cinema screens grown from the early 1.33 images defined by nothing more than chance to the panoramic 2.35 vistas we often see nowadays? The answer is generally commercial or technical as cinemas pushed to offer greater spectacle to compete with television. But why were the first moving pictures in 1.33:1? Because photographs before them used roughly that ratio. And why were photographs rectangular? Because so were paintings before them.
It’s a question of practicality more than anything. Staring out at a beautiful landscape, you can’t capture everything that the eye sees within one frame. The endless sky and grass and miles of horizon would require endless paper and paint, so when we try to capture nature or humanity we frame it, and in doing so set limits. We cordon off a certain space and we categorise it, saying that everything inside is good and everything outside is bad.
All we are doing when we change our aspect ratio is changing the limits of how we define what is good or bad. A 1:1 ratio like in Mommy prioritises the body and the face over the surrounding environment. Imagine a close-up of a face in 1:1 – there’s barely a hint of blank space around the edges, yet all of the head and shoulders are retained. The same shot in 1.85:1 or wider would bring in, at the least, glimpses of the subject’s environment, glimpses that would alter the meaning of each shot.
Equally, 1:1 changes the most basic grammar of film directing. How can you use such traditional editing patterns as an over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot when the frame doesn’t allow you the space? In Mommy, this is yet another way in which the framing is used to comment on Steve’s personality, showing how hard it is for him to communicate with anyone, at least not in the reciprocal way the aforementioned editing suggests. His conversations are face-to-face, full-on and confrontational.
In many ways, the path cinema has taken from its roots in the established image-making art of painting is a strange one. Out of the two traditional perspectives of portrait and landscape, cinema has chosen that which appears to reject and isolate people. Really it’s the opposite, because cinema, like any form of storytelling, isn’t about people, it’s about the relationships between people. Portraits on the other hand, just like 1:1 profile pictures, are all about the individual. If changing ratios echo changing times then how will our films adapt to a new way of looking, with more films than ever being watched outside of their intended cinema homes? Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: our screens are a far more fascinating place thanks to directors like Anderson, Dunham and Dolan who are prepared to do what so many are afraid of and think outside the box.