I started discussing awards where the glass ceiling is still very much intact one of last month’s New Shows + Movies by Women. One of these is cinematography, where only one woman has been nominated by the Oscars. That’s only one nomination since the award was first given out in 1929.
That nomination went to Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound” in 2017. It was well deserved for a beautiful looking film. Morrison’s also been cinematographer for “Black Panther”, “Dope”, and “Fruitvale Station”.
It’s one thing to say more women have deserved this or that award. That’s obviously a true statement, but it fails to highlight the specific people who deserve it. So let’s do that, starting with my favorite cinematographer: Natasha Braier.
Argentinian cinematographer Natasha Braier is as dynamic as I can name. She filmed “The Milk of Sorrow”, a painterly Peruvian film that was my choice for Best Film of the 2010s. She shot “The Neon Demon”, a film that might best be described as sumptuous toxicity. She filmed “The Rover”, an Australian movie that treats the apocalypse as a banal descent into violence where only systems survive.
She has a rare eye for those scenes when a private moment for a protagonist meets the gaze of those who will never recognize how crucial it is. That private moment becomes something held between the character and audience. She highlights raw performance as a moment to find what’s common between actor and viewer, to hide both in that space even as the world around it continues in a clinical, procedural way. She makes scenes into air bubbles, the only place character and viewer alike can breathe. She does this in wildly different ways, across an incredible range.
The Milk of Sorrow
The opening two shots of “The Milk of Sorrow” might be my favorite in cinema.
We hear singing over a black screen for the first minute. When we finally see someone, it’s an elderly woman in bed. The age lines are highlighted on her face as she rests on a faded, floral-print pillow. The edge of it is worn, the seam folded near coming apart. The paint on the headboard behind her is webbed with cracks. It rests against a faded, floral-print wallpaper. As the camera ever so slightly tilts up, the edge of the wallpaper gives way to blank wall, the seam coming apart
This woman sings about the trauma she sustained in civil war – her rape and the loss of her husband. She pauses for just a moment, long enough for us to worry about whether she’s still alive. It’s just enough time for a second voice to join. It’s that of her daughter, Fausta. The timing of Fausta’s voice suggests that it’s the daughter’s devotion keeping her mother alive. It’s enough to re-spark the mother’s song again.
We cut to the second shot. We see the open window of the bedroom, the town beyond, a hill beyond that, the mountains further, a corner of sky. The empty space in the upper right is reflected here as well. The camera slowly dollies in, as if the universe knows what’s about to happen before Fausta does. She crosses from her mother’s side of the bed to the window side, singing as she does. She prompts her mother again: just Fausta, the window frame, and the town beyond in shot now.
The story of “The Milk of Sorrow” involves Fausta taking work in order to pay for her mother’s funeral, having done something medically horrible to herself out of fear of her mother’s songs, and having her art stolen through colonialism that still oppresses the indigenous population of Peru.
“The Milk of Sorrow” examines how trauma echoes itself into new generations. Everything in the first shot, that fractal repeat of age to flowers worn at the edge – serves as a metaphor for where the film delves.
Fausta’s crossing from her mother’s side to the open window, a life she’s been sheltered from waiting with all the fear that’s been drilled into her, tells us about her character and describes the story we’re about to witness.
Everything in “The Milk of Sorrow” is like this – thick with description and a quickly established visual metaphor that increasingly veers into magical realism. The experience of watching a film so thick with detail evokes reading a novel.
Obviously, this isn’t all a result of Braier’s cinematography. It owes to writer-director Claudia Llosa first and foremost. It owes to art directors Patricia Bueno and Susana Torres. It owes to Magaly Solier, one of the most overlooked actors working today.
Yet there’s an eye that brings it all together, that captures the edges that need to be caught, the corners that need to be seen encroaching, the natural light that gives it all context. That slow dolly as dramatic irony, telling us of the mother’s death right before Fausta realizes, immediately describes an authorial tone. “The Milk of Sorrow” wants us to know we’re being told a story, not pretending to “witness” one. In doing so, we’re not part of Fausta’s story, and we’re asked not to pretend as if we are. We’re part of that world outside. We’re that horror in layers, taught by story and song, waiting alongside the author for Fausta to realize what we already suspect.
Throughout “The Milk of Sorrow”, Braier’s camera makes us part of that outside world even as it lets us into Fausta’s guarded inner world. It makes us question what parts of our culture justify Fausta’s fears and colonize Fausta’s world.
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” is a completely different experience, a giallo/commentary about an underaged model who becomes the sexual target of seemingly everyone in the industry. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival simultaneously received a chorus of boos and a standing ovation. Based on the history of the festival, it’s fair to wonder if the boos were because they thought it was a bad film or because they felt specifically called out.
It’s a film that takes pains to be consciously obvious with its style, and in so doing achieves a dreamlike state where timing feels off. Dialogue can feel noncommital, characters often talk past each other to no one in particular. Environments are either frozen in time or so overtly slick they become wildly off-putting.
Much of this giallo-style is due to the Italian filmmaking that first propelled the genre in the 1960s and 70s. Actors often came from various European countries – this resulted in many reading lines in languages they didn’t know (the most famous example of this is Dario Argento’s 1977 film “Suspiria”.) They often didn’t know precisely what they were saying or what was being said to them. A dialogue could feel like two people awkwardly giving each other space for their intersecting monologues. Art design and gruesome set pieces were prized above dialogue scenes, complex sets needed to be filmed from certain angles creating a stagy feel, different countries censored a variety of scenes from many giallos, and dubbing in that era was often cheap and unfeeling.
The genre started off interested in unsettling atmospheres and surreal expressions of violence – all these technical issues only served to make the experience of watching them even more dreamlike. That’s what a modern giallo like “The Neon Demon” pursues with elements of deliberate line-reading, over-pronunciations, over-repeated reaction angles, intentionally disruptive visual and audio interludes, and editing that can sometimes feel like a scene has been prematurely cut. We often see a dialogue scene evolve through shot choice to bring us closer or further from the characters across a scene. “The Neon Demon” and giallo as a whole undermines many of those typical comforts. If actors don’t take that last step on making a character feel natural, if we don’t get the in-scene shot and editing evolution we expect, then we’re left with something we as viewers need to start defining or trying to place context onto. That can vary by viewer and that involvement in trying to define the surreal, organize the disconnected, and make what’s unnatural feel natural is what gives us that out-of-place, dreamlike feel.
That can offer the misconception that giallo is then easy to accomplish – just do a slightly bad job at everything. Yet it takes very conscious choices and technical coordination to create this off-putting environment in a way where what’s unsettling is consistent for two hours at a time. Everyone needs to be contributing to what feels unreal in the same way.
Refn is famed for his visual sensibilities and experimental storytelling, while also being justifiably criticized for prioritizing those visuals over any real storytelling. I find Refn’s ego and taste dominate his films and often obscure their points. “The Neon Demon” can walk a line where you’re not completely sure if it’s criticizing certain things or taking part in them.
It obviously calls out a largely male-run modeling industry’s targeting of underage models. Elle Fanning (17 at the time it was shot, playing a 16 year-old) essentially plays prey, a target moving through the film who everyone else is relentlessly focused on.
There are moments where it pointedly highlights the portrayal of dead women in high fashion as selling a social fantasy about the murder of women. If fashion photography idealizes the portrayal of women as gaunt, starving, unhealthy, and suffering violence, all without commentary, then fashion photography communicates this as a desirable norm. Refn makes this the other part of his target, ostensibly in a film about violence toward women.
This gets us into the territory any modern giallo like this faces – in a genre that’s historically relied on plots about violence aimed at women, how do you present a modern version? It’s crucial that Braier is the cinematographer here. This would have been a mess with a male cinematographer sexualizing the moments where Fanning is perused and assessed by others. Instead of observing those making the assessments, we would have been observing her, taking part in what the film seeks to criticize in the first place.
Giallos have often been a place where technical crew are highlighted – art directors, costume designers, choreographers, cinematographers. When some elements are made to feel underbaked or over-deliberate, it puts the onus on other elements to succeed at taking huge risks. In “The Neon Demon”, Braier presents a stunning, giallo-esque film world without losing track of women’s perspectives in it.
“The Neon Demon” becomes less about the violence itself – a place where Refn is happy to get lost and treat as thrilling in many of his other films. Uniquely in his repertoire, it becomes a reflection of what it’s like to fear that violence, to recognize the impending nature of it and progressively lose yourself either in legitimate, constant fear of it or by normalizing its presence in order to cope. Ultimately, the world of “The Neon Demon” is one where many of the women learn to normalize the presence of that violence, to redirect it at others in order to preserve themselves, and in so doing to enable it or even take part in it as the cost of having a successful career.
CW for following scene: off-screen sexual assault
The most unforgettable moment in “The Neon Demon” involves Fanning’s Jesse narrowly dodging a sexual assault simply because she gets to her deadbolt in time. She then overhears the man – a co-worker – choose the neighboring room instead. She overhears his assault of the 13 year-old staying there. That pan across the mirror is haunting because of what it says about Jesse’s experience being reflected back at her. Her silhouette listens at the wall, growing distant, fading at the experience. There’s something rarely captured about the feeling of trauma in this moment, and Braier’s work thankfully keeps it close to Jesse’s perspective.
Braier creates a darkly-lit, off-kilter giallo environment – an environment that’s often been predicated on and defined within the genre by the sexualization of violence toward women. She’s able to visually remove precise elements from that for criticism, while shifting the perspective away from the sexualization of violence to a fear of both that violence and the normalization of it. If this were easy, it wouldn’t be such a major component of giallo to begin with. If this was purely due to Refn’s work, then he wouldn’t be Refn to start with. He obviously does a ton of work on making the movie what it is, but it’s Braier doing the heavy lifting on the film’s perspective and how the film is coded.
It’s important to note that “The Neon Demon” is Refn’s 10th feature, but just the first one on which he’s worked with a woman as cinematographer. I don’t think there was another option if he wanted to do this remotely right, and that speaks to just how much Braier had a hand in shaping the film.
“The Neon Demon” is still controversial, because it participates in much of what it’s criticizing in order to make that criticism. There’s a tightrope to walk – don’t make it all the way, and elements that are meant to critique misogyny risk simply presenting it. “The Neon Demon” goes pretty far in making that critique, but whether it lands that last, most important step is a legitimate debate.
Finally, you have Australian slow apocalypse film “The Rover”. As the world falls into disrepair and depression, a gang of thieves run their truck aground. It belongs to Guy Pearce’s Eric. He’s obsessed with getting it back. He chances into one of the thieves’ brothers – Robert Pattinson’s Rey. The younger man gradually becomes worshipful of Eric’s misanthropic attitude and violence. He idealizes Eric, even as Eric has nothing in particular to live for past getting his car back.
It’s a short story premise writ long in curt but meaningful conversations, in memories of a world that will never return, and in finding granular purpose when you know what you do no longer matters. It’s written and directed by David Michod. Its cut-out-the-heart prose is directed beautifully, and Pearce and Pattinson both gave Oscar-worthy performances in it.
It’s Natasha Braier who paints its diminishing world. She films Eric like he’s moments from becoming part of it, in sharp contrast to Rey’s verve, fright, eagerness, everything felt as much as possible. Pearce plays Eric as all but gone, Pattinson plays Rey as desperately wanting to mold himself after anyone, and Braier films each speaking to the other across an achingly large divide in a dying world. The only time Eric is lit more brightly than Rey is when Rey looks at him, engages him, sees this dangerous shell of a man as an icon. These are the first 11 minutes of the film.
Every exterior is too much light, washed out, dusty. Every interior is dim, shadowed, worn. Every time we see the outdoor world through a window, violence descends. It’s a film about men murdering the hope within themselves, within each other, and Braier knows how the world looks at them – as acts of violence that never see accountability, that when recognized are idolized. Her slow apocalypse doesn’t look that different from now when it’s just more of the same.
The visuals of “The Rover” might get dismissed as being dusty and dreary, but it’s the most practical and realistic presentation of an apocalypse I’ve seen. Michod’s screenplay sees systems survive even if humanity doesn’t, our trying to keep hierarchy and order over caring for others. It sees humanity in everything but people. Braier matches that. Where she presents fear, colonization, authorial presence in “The Milk of Sorrow”, where she connects on wild visuals and perspective-switching re-codifying of a genre in “The Neon Demon”, here her cinematography is patient, still, systematic, documentarian without playing at verite.
In just these three films, she is three completely different cinematographers, three completely different creative voices working within genres as opposite as could be. She gives voice to three extremely different directors by developing separate visual codes for each.
Natasha Braier also shot “Honey Boy”, “Gloria Bell”, “XXY”, and a number of other films. She’s shot music videos for FKA Twigs, Rihanna, The Weeknd, David Byrne & St. Vincent.
She deserves Oscars. She deserves the analysis and discussion that moves film ahead, and if we fail to recognize and listen to women when we move art ahead, then we’re not really moving it much of anywhere. I don’t want to highlight her as a woman cinematographer, I want to highlight her as one of the best and most overlooked cinematographers, period – but the reality is that she isn’t valued as much and we don’t get to see everything she can do because women cinematographers aren’t celebrated, recognized, sought out.
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