With the recent rerelease of Mad Max: Fury Road in monochrome, it seemed as good a time as any to delve into other successful modern uses of this aesthetic form. So, here are my 5 favourite modern monochrome movies:
5) A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
I’m a big fan of the Iranian New Wave. I love the rough, low-budget, documentary feel of movies like Ten, A Separation, The Apple and many more Iranian international film festival contenders. So, if like me you’re used to the subtle, allegorical Iranian cinema, made to slip through the tight censorship set up by the right-wing theocracy, then this film will come as a huge shock to you.
This film is an expression of the wish of Westernisation for young Iranian women. Through the use of Western-sounding music, Western style, and the vampire movie genre (a genre associated with the West), the desires of the young are signified throughout. The lack of expression allowed for these youths is shown through the use of monochrome. They want to dance, wear nice clothing, wear make-up, explore their sexuality and be liberated. However, society, or at least the old who control it, oppress the young and their expressiveness. The lack of colour shows this battle for individuality and self-expression, which director Ana Lily Amirpour fights through the use of Western conventions and her construction of strong female characters who silence the patriarchal males who seek to exploit and persecute them.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a brilliant subversion of both Western and Iranian film conventions and a wonderful attempt to fight a society much in need of modernisation. Amirpour’s wonderful visuals function symbolically, signifying the need for courageous young women to combat the unfairness society has thrust upon them. We are not born oppressors, and Amirpour wants to empower both women and men and to change a cruel system.
4) Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith’s grungy, downbeat Clerks ushered in a new era of cinema. It’s low budget aesthetic and oftentimes outright disgustingness is evened out by the film’s authenticity and charm. This truly was a landmark moment in indie cinema, revolutionising slacker flicks. This piece of counter-culture is all about non-conformity, and it achieved this through its deliberate shoddiness.
Here, unlike the other films on the list, monochrome was not a stylistic choice. Due to budgetary constrictions, Smith couldn’t shoot in colour. This works extraordinarily well though, enhancing the smutty, dirty, lazy feel of this film. The lack of direction in the plot, which boils down to a man going to work when he shouldn’t have, the seemingly aimless dialogue, grungy soundtrack and the lack of any real acting make this the greatest slacker film of them all. It lacks any real substance or any real pathos, but that’s irrelevant. Smith just wanted to show that cinema doesn’t always have to revolve around high drama. Instead, Clerks meanders along and eventually ends. Everything feels slightly chucked together, and yet feels right.
Whilst definitely not perfect by any means, Clerks’ flaws only seem to add to its charm. Without its imperfections, it would not have had nearly the same cultural impact. Monochrome, whilst only one of a number of subversive filmic elements on show, played its own crucial role in enhancing the film’s unique and, most importantly, intentionally lethargic and plodding tone.
3) Control (2007)
Control is an exceptional film. It delves so intimately into the life of Ian Curtis, and this is explained by establishing the director. Anton Corbijn was originally the Joy Division photographer, which explains his rich visuals and insight into the functioning of the band and its key players. His use of monochrome is used in conveying the mindset of its protagonist and the gritty nature of his surroundings.
The film follows Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) and is an examination of his personal life and psychological state. Riley is revelatory. He clearly spent so much time analysing Curtis’ mannerisms, and therefore he mimics him so accurately. This emulation helps us to become immersed and aids the realist feel of the film. Whether it be his premature, failing marriage, his inability to balance his personal and work life, his affair, his deteriorating mental and physical health, or his failure to adjust to the limelight, Riley, as well as Corbijn, always portrays it in such a true to life manner.
No one else could have made such a personal portrait, and no one else could have so faithfully captured the Joy Division aesthetic. The visuals capture both the bleak mood of both the band’s musical style and Curtis’ state of mind. The monochrome here functions on a symbolic level, whilst also giving rise to some beautiful, yet sombre cinematography. This is one worth watching whether or not you’re a Joy Division fan. This melancholic portrait truly is as dismal as the tragic life of Curtis himself.
2) La Haine (1995)
When you think of whimsical, tourist like French cinema, one of the first movies to come to mind will be the wonderful Amelie. However, a film like this threatens to sideline other sides to Parisian life. Whilst Paris is seen as being a rich, middle-class city, things like unemployment and poverty are very real. And who better to direct a film displaying the unexplored side of Parisian life, than Mathieu Kassovitz, a star of Amelie.
This film is vital. We have to remember that society is an unfinished project and that millions of people are consigned to poverty from birth. Kassovitz’s story follows a group of unemployed youths, forced into a life of crime due to their lack of opportunities and the prejudices against them from those in higher places. Even Hubert, an intelligent and aspirational young man, can’t escape the life society has chosen for him. Despite his best efforts, he’s dragged into a life of crime. The use of monochrome reflects the lack of light and hope in the lives of these downtrodden youths and displays the harsh life that many Parisians live, but no one hears about.
This is essentially the French version of City of God, exploring a previously uncharted and sidelined societal terrain. Society has never been so unequal, regardless of where you’re from and the connotations of that location. This is a cinematic revolution, combatting the French national identity. This is a battle aided through the bleak, symbolic visuals, which help to convey the grim nature of reality.
1) Ida (2013)
Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is a tastefully shot tale of a young girl discovering herself both physically and genetically. Through finding out about her past, she also finds out a lot about herself. It explores the concept of identity. It asks to what degree we are defined by our past and searches for a way to move on from traumatic experiences and reinvent ourselves.
Ida is about a young girl, Anna, on the verge of becoming a nun. However, she is found by her aunt and must reconsider the course of her life after discovering her Jewish lineage. Her family died whilst attempting to hide from Nazi’s, and Anna goes on a journey to find their graves but also to find herself. Her sexually liberated, alcoholic aunt shows her a way of life she was hidden from as a nun. The monochrome represents both her bleak past, but also the passion and joy extinguished by her strict religiosity. She has a night of passion before finally becoming a nun. Anna pays respect to her family by briefly discarding her Catholic ideals. Her aunt, however, can’t let go of the past. She squanders her career through her alcoholism and commits suicide after helping to briefly liberate Anna. They both represent the two manners in which we deal with traumatisation. You either adapt or you die.
Ida successfully conveys both the harrowing nature of Nazism, but also explores how we can move on from such horrific incidents and reinvent ourselves. The monochrome visuals add to the sense of sombreness, helping to emphasise Pawlikowski’s directorial intentions. Like the other films on the list, the cinematography functions symbolically. Whilst it is important that we respect our pasts, it’s equally significant that we also respect our own paths.