In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), a distinct film noir vibe hangs in the air. The lighting tends to be low-key and subdued, carrying a palpable flavour of intrigue and deception. In this shot, the lighting plays a major role in setting not only the scene but the mood.
By using either a focused light like a Fresnel, strong HMI lights, or a bare bulb, horizontal lines of light could be cast through the blinds and across the set. Based on those lines we can infer that the blinds have been mostly closed, concealing this scene from the outside world. Also, the angular nature of the light casts the scene almost on a tilt, as if to upset the scene further.
By lighting the scene as he did, we can also infer details about the characters. For instance, they might be trying to conceal their passion, casting a shadow of secrecy over the scene. Even at it’s most basic level, the use of such distinct lighting simply causes us to question the motivation of the scene, deeply affecting the mood of whatever might actually be happening in the scene by completely subverting it.
According to Filmmaker IQ’s video The Basics of Lighting for Film Noir, Film Noir tends toward using harder lights vs soft lights, which create well-defined shadows and deep contrast. The genre tends use shadows of people, props, or hard contrast to create greater depth within a scene. In this scene, they might have been using a cookie or gobo to create those horizontal lines, adding an extra layer of depth to the scene.
By adding this additional layer of depth to the scene, the lighting creates an extra layer of emotion in the scene. Without that light, the scene would be relatively low contrast and dimly lit. With the introduction of that light, the scene takes on much more depth, which cues us visually to a more dramatic scene.
After watching the whole film, it becomes clear just how much lighting really adds to the mood and emotion of a scene, as a lot of the film’s drama actually originates in the lighting. As each character is relatively subdued and mild mannered, and many of the sets are relatively simple and pretty, the lighting is what really sets the air of expectation and apprehension, as if something big could happen at any moment. By choosing to make the lighting so dramatic in comparison to the content of some scenes, the director does an amazing job of showing you what is coming instead of telling you or letting the script lead you to a conclusion on what will happen. There’s a constant expectation for violence and dramatic tension, which slowly builds over the course of the film.
In particular, this scene embodies that apprehension. While both characters embrace passionately, there is a subtext of infidelity, espionage, even hiding their passion from the curious maid in the other room. Using such solid horizontal lines of light at such a hard angle changes what could have been a scene of happy reunion to a moment of secretive, deceptive, and nervous passion.
F. (2013, May 11). The Basics of Lighting for Film Noir. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsmVL7SDp5Y
M. (2014, August 07). The Conformist ( il conformista ) Theatrical Trailer by Bernardo Bertolucci. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWZO1GLMD2Y