Analyzing and Evaluating Films 
as Works of Art 

Part 3 of a 3-part series

Read part 1 or part 2

Copyright (c) 2006 Dianne Durante

Before I discuss standards for judging films esthetically, as promised in last month's column ("Best Picture - Says Who?", one reminder. Esthetic standards aren't the only ones by which a film can or should be judged. Quite a lot of viewers look at the moral and political implications of the Best Picture nominees rather than at artistic quality, or begin by eliminating films based on gut reactions. To me, however, a Best Picture nomination implies a certain level of esthetic quality. Only after you eliminate artistically inept efforts do other considerations come into play.

The purpose of a film

To evaluate a film as art requires knowing the purpose of a film, and then judging how well the basic elements of the film work together to achieve that end.

What does a film do? It tells the viewer that a certain issue, event, emotion or principle is worth thinking about and perhaps fighting for or against: love, hate, courage, the Civil War, the individual vs. the state, and so on. Director Sidney Lumet says the theme is the first thing he identifies when he starts to work on a film: "The theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie)." (Making Movies, p. 10).

Evaluating a film esthetically means looking at the "how" of the movie. Do all its elements work together to convey the theme? There may be subplots, plot twists, flashbacks and dream sequences, but once you've watched the end of the film, you should be able to analyze how every gesture, every line of dialogue, every costume and every camera angle contributed to the theme. To put it negatively, nothing should be inexplicable or pointless, and nothing should be confusing unless (as in many mysteries or thrillers) confusion is necessary at a certain point in the plot development.

Analyzing vs. reviewing

Analyzing a film is much more time-consuming than writing a review. A reviewer aims to tell potential viewers whether a film's worth seeing. At minimum, he should give the plot-theme or premise of the story - a brief statement of the main characters and conflict. (See my Chronicles of Narnia review). If the film has noteworthy acting, special effects, music, and so on, the reviewer should mention them. His one inviolable rule must be never to ruin a potential movie-goer's enjoyment by revealing the ending. Most reviewers see a movie only once, and that's usually adequate.

Analysis, on the other hand, is the study of how all the elements in a film combine to reveal the theme. You can't analyze a film without discussing the ending, because the ending is a crucial part of the plot, and the plot is what reveals the theme. Analysis requires that you watch a film several times: once for first impressions of the plot, mood and theme, and at least once more to study the means by which the theme was conveyed. First content, then style; first the what, then the how.

Analysis: structure

Without a system for analysis, you risk ignoring subtle but important elements. On the other hand, if the system is too complicated you won't be able to remember and apply it. The method outlined in this column is based on the stages of making a film:

As in all analysis (be it of sculptures, stocks or computer failures), the most difficult task is not finding the answers but finding the right questions. I hope to delve into this more deeply in a future essay. For this column I've chosen instead to compare a short exchange from two film versions of the same story, in order to show how minor details can change a viewer's interpretation. (By my count, I've looked at each of these scenes nine times over the past two weeks. For most of us non-professionals, only crucial scenes in our most beloved films merit this kind of attention.)

Pre-production: before the camera rolls

1. The script

The script is the most fundamental element of a film. By rights it should have the longest discussion in this column. However, a script is a subcategory of literature, and can be analyzed according to the same principles: theme, plot, characterization, style. (See Ayn Rand, "Basic Principles of Literature," The Romantic Manifesto.) The bottom line is that in a film, as in a well-constructed novel, every scene and every line of dialogue must advance the plot (hence show the theme) either by action or by revealing motivation.

Let's see how that's accomplished in two versions of one brief exchange in Cyrano de Bergerac, in the films starring Jose Ferrer (1950) and Gerard Depardieu (1990). The 1990 version is in French with subtitles. The 1950 version uses Brian Hooker's accurate and evocative translation.

In Rostand's 1897 play, this 36-line exchange in Act V, scene 4 is a turning point. Cyrano reads aloud a farewell letter he wrote to his beloved Roxane fourteen years ago, on behalf of handsome but empty-headed Christian, whom Roxane believed she loved. Roxane found the letter in the pocket of the dying Christian and treasures it as Christian's final words. When Cyrano reads the letter, Roxane finally realizes that it was Cyrano's words and soul she fell in love with years ago. Cyrano attempts to deny that he loves Roxane and that he once spoke and wrote for Christian. When he finally admits it, he justifies his silence after Christian's death on the grounds that although the tears on the letter were his own, the blood was Christian's. At this point Cyrano's friend LeBret rushes in to tell Roxane that Cyrano is mortally wounded.

In the 1950 and 1990 film versions, this exchange takes about 2.5 minutes. What did the screenwriters do to Rostand's original?

Script of the 1950 version

The 1950 script includes all but one of Rostand's lines, as translated by Hooker. Missing is Roxane's "How many things have died … and are newborn!" Elsewhere only half a dozen minor alterations are made - so slight that they might merely be chance variations by the actors.

Script of the 1990 version

The 1990 script cuts two lines in which Roxane expresses amazement that Cyrano has pretended to be merely a friend for fourteen years. It adds a poignant three words just after Roxane asks Cyrano how he can be reading the letter, since "Il fait nuit" ("Night is falling"). Cyrano repeats, "Il fait nuit," which has a much deeper significance for us than for Roxane, since we know Cyrano is dying.

The use of Rostand's original lines is a major asset in the 1990 version - like all great poetry, the original is infinitely better than any translation. Alas, most Americans don't understand French, and the English subtitles are rather clunky. They're not wrong, but they lack the beauty and nuances of Rostand's original or even Hooker's translation. Rostand's Cyrano says, "Roxane, adieu, je vais mourir!" ("Roxane, adieu, I'm going to die" - i.e., "I'm in the process of dying"). Hooker's translation is "Farewell, Roxane, because today I die," which makes the time more specific than Rostand did. The subtitle on the 1990 version says flatly, "Roxane, farewell, for I must die" - which almost implies that Cyrano intends his death, rather than that it will just happen today. Another nuance vanishes when Roxane, enlightened, says "Les lettres, c'était vous," translated by Hooker as "The letters - That was you." The 1990 subtitles say, "The letters were yours" - much less personal and immediate.

2. Production design (Art design)

Production design sets the visual style of the movie. (See Lumet, Making Movies chapter 6.) It can include:

Production design in the 1950 Cyrano

Since the 1950 version is in black and white, there's no color palette. In our exchange, Roxane's high-necked gray dress has a white collar that recalls a type of clergyman's collar - very severe, suitable for convent wear and mourning. Her hair, elaborately curled, is half-covered by a lace scarf. Cyrano is in black, relieved only by a white collar and the white plume on his hat.

Significantly, the Hooker translation ends with Cyrano claiming that he dies with one thing untouched: his "white plume." In the translation this harks back to Act IV, scene 4, when Cyrano reminds De Guiche (who, to avoid capture, tossed away the scarf indicating his rank) that Henri of Navarre, even when outnumbered, never flung away his "white plume." Until he falls dead to the ground, Ferrer's Cyrano resolutely keeps his grip on his plumed hat.

The background to this exchange is very low-key. Cyrano and Roxane act against man-made tree trunks with a faint, unobtrusive texture.

Production design in the 1990 Cyrano

Roxane wears head-to-toe black, but her dress is rather low-cut and her veil is lace. Not a curl escapes from beneath her veil. Even dressed so severely, Roxane remains strikingly attractive. Seeing her, we are reminded that black is the color of deepest mourning. In contrast, the 1950 Roxane, gray-garbed and elaborately coiffed, seems less grief-stricken.

Cyrano's hair is heavily streaked with gray; he looks much older and more fatigued than when we first saw him. He, too, wears black, right down to the feather in his hat. Only a white neck scarf relieves the somber outfit. I thought this might be meant to recall the scarf De Guiche lost at Arras in Act IV, scene 4, but Le Bret and Ragueneau soon enter wearing precisely the same sort of neck-scarf.

Why doesn't the 1990 Cyrano have a white plume? In Rostand's original and in the dialogue of the 1990 film, De Guiche threw away "une echarpe blanche" ("a white scarf," worn as a sash or belt across the chest, signifying rank). Cyrano reminds De Guiche that Henri of Navarre never let fall his "panache blanc." A "panache" was originally a very noticeable group of feathers on a headdress or helmet; by extension, it came to mean flamboyant confidence. At the end of Rostand's play and the 1990 film, Cyrano says he is dying with his "panache" untouched. There's no plume on Depardieu's costume, then, because his Cyrano is not talking about a plume.

In the 1990 version, the exchange is set in a sunny garden full of bright greens. After Roxane approaches Cyrano to tell him it's too dark to read, the background colors fade from vivid green to greenish-gray and gray (see Camera work below), and the mood becomes somber.

Production: capturing it on camera

3. Acting

The goal of the actors should be to portray characters who are consistent and well motivated, via their dialogue, gestures and actions.

Acting in the 1950 Cyrano

Ferrer's interpretation of Cyrano in this exchange is very restrained. As he reads the letter, he gazes into the distance rather than at Roxane. We watch him struggle for control, and sense that only by not meeting her eyes can he continue to deny his feelings - especially when he exclaims, "No, no, my own dear love, I love you not!" In fact, once he has taken the letter from her, he doesn't meet her eyes again until 70 lines later, when Le Bret and Ragueneau are present to provide an emotional buffer.

Roxane, meanwhile, progresses from startled (as Cyrano begins to read), to agitated, to almost happy as she realizes her beloved is still alive.

Acting in the 1990 Cyrano

Roxane in this version stands motionless, thinking intently, during the first part of the scene. Then she starts to smile, and ends up kneeling by Cyrano, pulling his arm insistently as she tries to make him admit he loves her.

Depardieu's Cyrano (like Ferrer's) is very restrained, keeping his face down, avoiding eye contact, struggling for control. I love what he does with the added line (see Script, above): "Il fait nuit" ("Night is falling"), which has a double meaning for those who know he's mortally wounded. Depardieu delivers the line while looking up slowly, sadly, away from Roxane. Then he returns to the conversation, continuing the pretense that nothing's wrong.

He does look at Roxane, kneeling beside him, when he delivers the line, "Non, non, non, mon cher amour, je ne vous aimais pas!" (Hooker's "No, no, my own dear love, I love you not!"). The only quibble I have with Depardieu's Cyrano in this exchange is that I find it difficult to believe he could look into Roxane's eyes and deliver that lie. Ferrer's refusal to look at Roxane seems more believable.

4. Camera work

Like good production design, good camera work makes its point without drawing attention to itself. Consider:

Camera work in the 1950 Cyrano

At the beginning we see Cyrano and Roxane in alternating shots, close-up or at medium range. The lighting is particularly strong on Roxane's face as she realizes that Cyrano wrote the letter - the light is dawning, literally as well as figuratively. Her face is still strongly lit even when she tells him it has become too dark to read.

After Roxane approaches Cyrano to ask, "How can you read now?," the two of them remain in the frame together. Cyrano, however, is closer to us, so we tend to focus on him although we can also watch Roxane's reactions to his words, and observe her face when she speaks. The camera stays still from then until Le Bret enters, not zooming in or out, focusing our attention on the characters' faces.

Camera work in the 1990 Cyrano

In this version the camera shifts much more frequently, zooming in for close-ups and tracking Roxane's agitated movements. When Cyrano begins to read, the camera shows only Roxane, as she listens to his voice and speaks to herself. Since it was his voice rather than his face that gave Cyrano away, showing only Roxane works very well. After she turns to speak to Cyrano, the camera alternates between the two, until they both appear in the frame as she kneels beside him to pull at his arm.

At the beginning of the exchange, sunlight pours down on trees and grass behind Roxane. When she turns to Cyrano, the lighting changes. The camera zooms in and turns away from the sun, so that only dappled semi-darkness appears behind the two, and the mood turns somber.

Post-production: after the shooting's over

5. Editing

"Only three people know how good or bad the editing was," writes Lumet; "the editor, the director, and the cameraman. They're the only ones who know everything that was shot in the first place." (Making Movies, p. 155) As a non-professional, I focus on what's visible in the completed film: the rhythm of the cuts (when one camera angle shifts to another) and the images that are juxtaposed before and after the cuts.

Editing in the 1950 Cyrano

In the 2.5-minute exchange, this version has six cuts. All occur in the first half, and involve switching from Cyrano to Roxane and back. After that Cyrano and Roxane are in the frame together.

Editing in the 1990 Cyrano

In 2.5 minutes, this version has no less than thirteen cuts. For the first third, the camera is on Roxane as she listens to Cyrano. In the second third the shots alternate between Cyrano and Roxane, roughly as each speaks. In the final third the two are together in one shot until the camera follows Roxane as she rises abruptly and moves away, while asking Cyrano why he has been silent for fourteen years. The abrupt movement of the camera echoes Roxane's sudden shift of mood.

6. Audio

Like every other aspect of a film, if the audio is done well you'll barely notice it. Audio falls into several categories:

Audio in the 1950 Cyrano

Cyrano's letter-reading is backed by violins overlaid with faint chanting - melancholy music suited to Cyrano's statement that today he'll die. When Roxane approaches Cyrano to tell him it's too dark to read, the music livens and a flute creeps in: Roxane is hopeful. At the point where she insists that he must be in love with her, the violins come back and the tempo slows, preparing us for Cyrano's explanation of why he didn't proclaim his love, and for Le Bret's arrival with the news that Cyrano is mortally wounded. The music stops dead when Le Bret arrives.

I have little tolerance for "music" without melody, so it was instructive for me to note that the film score in this exchange has no melody. It's there to set a mood, not to carry on by itself, although it's so loud I find it impossible to ignore it.

Audio in the 1990 Cyrano

When Cyrano begins reading the letter there's a melancholy thread of music, so faint I had to strain to hear it. It fades away by the time Roxane realizes she's heard Cyrano's voice before, and the rest of the scene runs without musical accompaniment. The dialogue is so moving that I didn't even notice the lack of music.

Evaluating a film esthetically

Now, finally, we return to the question of how to evaluate a film. The minimum requirement for a film that's good esthetically is that it have a theme which is presented clearly via every cinematic means available: script, production design, acting, camera work, editing, audio. A viewer should be able to look at the film scene by scene, even frame by frame, and know exactly what purpose any element serves, and how it contributes to the film's theme.

Is the 1950 Cyrano esthetically better than the 1990 version? Since I haven't analyzed the two films in detail (except for the one exchange discussed above), I won't venture to say. For my own edification, I looked at the 1950 and 1990 films act by act, and saw many excellent aspects of both, and many instances where one or the other was definitely superior.

Suppose we narrow our focus from the entire 1950 and 1990 Cyrano productions to the two scenes I looked at in detail. Is one of them notably better, in esthetic terms? The way the exchange is framed in the 1950 version, with Roxane and Cyrano together in the second half, is very effective. On the other hand, the use of Rostand's original lines in the 1990 version is a definite plus - assuming you can understand spoken French. So is the lack of music - by contrast, the music in the 1950 version seemed loud and cloying. Yet the fact that Depardieu's Cyrano looks into Roxane's eyes while he vehemently denies that he loves her strikes a very false chord.

The ultimate test of each exchange is how it fits into the context of the whole film. Is the characterization consistent? Is the rest of the film structured so that this scene and its every detail seem inevitable - but only after you've seen them?

Other types of evaluation

As I said at the end of my column on the Academy Award for Best Picture, the fact that we can't numerically quantify the various aspects of a film doesn't mean we can't objectively evaluate them. It's not a quick or easy process, but we can sort out which aspects do their job superlatively well, and which might have been improved.

Studying the details of a film systematically also makes it easier to discuss other types of evaluation. If you yearn to discuss the political or moral content, you'll be more adept at identifying the scenes where it's expounded or implied. If you want to discuss your emotional reaction, you'll be able to state precisely what you're reacting to, rather than just stating what you kind of think you feel. In other words: analysis is a starting point, not an end.


Recommended readings & commentaries: see the end of my essay on the Chronicles of Narnia and writing reviews.