Posted on February 4, 2022

By Matthew Skala

The Horseman on the Roof

In 1996, Thierry Arbogast was trusted to shoot the most expensive film ever to be made in France. His canvas was the French countryside and his tireless efforts garnered him a Cesar award for Best Cinematography. Two beautiful humans were in front of the lens— Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche—and the film was directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau. And the American title is The Horseman on the Roof.

This is part two of The first Cinematographer I studied three issue series on DP Thierry Arbogast.

The film takes place during a time of war and cholera in 1830’s France as Italians revolt against Austrians to gain their independence. It follows the adventures of a revolutionary horseman–Angelo–as he travels through the countryside raising money for the cause. But his efforts are thwarted at every turn, forced to evade capture and disease while falling in love with a married woman–on an adventure of her own to find her missing husband.

Even in its most horrific moments the film is breathtaking—often referred to as gorgeously picturesque, sumptuous, and idyllic by international critics. For me, it’s a cinematic masterwork—every shot and sequence impeccably designed—fully exploiting the most sophisticated and effective techniques in the cinematic arts.

Pre-electric period pieces are often magical experiences. It’s hard to go wrong with the soft glow of candlelight and the atmospheric rays of daylight that penetrate dark interior spaces. For sensitive filmmakers who insist on being authentic to the period and subject matter—lights and other tools are all subservient to naturalism and are only used to enhance or emulate. Locations are carefully and deliberately scouted. Schedules are arranged to accommodate for the time of day so that scenes can be shot under the best lighting and weather conditions. Yes, there is always compromise, but not before dedicated efforts are made.

The Cinematographers job is to focus the audience’s attention on the things that matter most–in ways that are comfortable to consume. In this film, Arbogast uses a lot of frames within frames to guide our eyes.

Long before cinema, proscenium arches were used to frame and focus the action on stage—containing the audience’s perspective so that their eyes didn’t wander. When cinema began, the camera was placed as if it were a member of an audience with a full view of the action on stage–no panning, no tilting, no additional angles–just a static wide shot. The language of Cinema hadn’t been developed yet and early conventions dictated a full head-to-toe view of the characters at all times. But a breakthrough didn’t take long–camera movement began to evolve between 1900 and 1912 and gradual experimentation with camera placement and character blocking came shortly after–while the proscenium concept endured and evolved along with it.

In Horseman, we can see how the proscenium concept evolved–trees, buildings, passageways, and interior embellishments constantly frame the action.

The Horseman on the Roof frame within a frame 1 The Horseman on the Roof frame within a frame 1 The Horseman on the Roof frame within a frame 3

Arbogast adds a layer of sophistication by using the technique to enhance the drama–guiding us subtextually through the character and story arcs.

The Horseman on the Roof story arcs 1The Horseman on the Roof story arcs 2The Horseman on the Roof story arcs 3

Depth is another technique Arbogast uses to focus our attention. Once again, in the pre-cinematic era, there was a painting technique known as Aerial perspective—background features in landscapes were muted to enhance the perceived distance, creating a 3D effect.
Evidence of this technique is seen in frescos dating back to 30 BCE. Leonardo DaVinci embraced it in paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Rembrandt used it in group portraits to add depth between the foreground and background characters to focus attention on the main character.

In cinema, we can use actual distance but lens compression often reduces the effect. So, using fog, haze, or soft focus in the background stands in for muting colors. When using a painted or CG background the same old painting technique applies. And oftentimes we take advantage of natural occurrences.

The Horseman on the Roof depth by fog 1The Horseman on the Roof depth by fog 2The Horseman on the Roof depth by fog 3

Shot composition and blocking also play a role in depth. An angle looking down an alleyway garners added depth when a character begins approaching the camera from far in the background. Stages and sets often lack such depth, so taking advantage of this while on location helps to add more dimension to the scope and grandeur of a story–the antithesis evoking claustrophobia.The following frame grabs are from a single shot–as Martinez approaches from the distance, the camera moves in.

The Horseman on the Roof depth with distance 1The Horseman on the Roof depth with distance 2

For Arbogast, these techniques also help express tone and mood–grounding the audience in the film’s unfolding emotions.

It looks like he used a combination of lens diffusion and haze throughout the shoot—this is fairly typical for period films. There is also a consistant textural quality in the sets and locations–no shiny metal, reflective glass, or bright colors. Everything is dull, gritty, and earthy–contrasting nicely with Binoche’s pearlescent skin, augmenting the romance.

The visual references we have from this period are paintings and drawings which naturally come along with certain textures. And in our psyche, this is what life looked like back then. So if a filmmaker wants her audience to relate to the images on screen and be comfortable with them, it is in her best interest to emulate a painterly aesthetic.

The strategies for this have evolved as imaging technologies have become sharper, clearer, and cleaner. In the 35mm film days, techniques included shooting on smaller formats such as 16mm and 8mm, then optically transferring that to 35mm for added texture in the final image. Using nylon stockings behind the lens or filtration in front of the lens was a common practice for softening the image. Such techniques are used today but not as often. An exposure technique known as flashing would fade and age the negative as it was exposed in-camera but that can only be done with film.

In the digital era, simply shooting on 35mm now has a perceived painterly look when compared to 4k and 8k capture, and image manipulation in post-production is very common–we can even add grain, sourced from scanned film.

To more firmly orient the viewer in this painterly world we’ll go as far as to design shots that nearly mimic a popular classic painting. Choosing one that expresses the same emotions we want our audience to feel, regardless of the exact time period. The one that stood out to me in this film was a shot of Binoche as she sits at a small desk bathed in window light writing a letter. This shot resembles some of the most famous paintings by Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. See a comparison below.

The Horseman on the Roof Painting Reference

On the left is Vermeer’s Painting, ‘Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid’, c.1670-71. And on the right is a frame grab from the film. If you dig a little deeper into Vermeer’s work, you’ll also notice that he often used blue for his subject’s clothing.

But there is something about this film that gives me pause—should a depiction of the Cholera epidemic be so “sumptuous?” It reminds me of Photographer Sabastaio Salgado—who’s known for making fine art out of the worst human conditions. His work is outstanding—yes—but should he be depicting acute malnourished children with a romanticized black and white aesthetic? Is it honoring the subject or falsely representing the subject? I’m still trying to figure this one out. I suppose it could be an allegory for life in general–the sufferings that humans endure while also being able to live exciting and fulfilling lives. Maybe such hardships don’t necessarily make life ugly–for without the ugly, how would we know what beauty is. If everything were beautiful there would be no emphasis on beauty and if everything was bliss, there would be no emphasis on bliss. It seems yin and yang are just playing their roles. What are your thoughts?

The horseman on the Roof is currently available to purchase on Amazon.

BD – Dubbed in Spanish
DVD – French with English Subtitles
USED – Ebay – mostly DVD’s for players in the US.Additional versions are available on Amazon France. Make sure your player is compatible with the disc region.

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