Cinematographer spotlight: Bruno Delbonnel
Emily Rizzo looks at the work of supremely talented yet often and unfairly neglected cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel
While many will recognise the visual style of filmmakers such as Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, there is much to be said for the seemingly lesser-known cinematographers. For example, it may not be immediately apparent that the individual who captured the distinctly foggy London in Joe Wright’s 2017 Darkest Hour likewise painted the vivid colours of Amélie’s Paris. The range shown by Bruno Delbonnel can only testify to his immense talent in cinematography.
Having played a significant role in creating three of 2021’s most famous films (The Tragedy of Macbeth, The French Dispatch, and The Woman in the Window), this cinematographer’s name should be on everyone’s mind. Still, it may be the fate of someone in his line of work to go unnoticed.
It is worth looking closer at his projects, however, if only to marvel at the way his brilliance traverses genres and fictional worlds.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Delbonnel creates a distinctly ominous atmosphere through his stylistic choices. The director’s priority was to exalt Shakespeare’s language and the incredible acting from its leads, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. This focus led to the complete stripping back of the set, leaving a black-and-white image in a boxy format, whose sharply contrasting shadows are reminiscent of the stage that the play would have initially called home. The bare-bones setting and acute chiaroscuro usage detach the narrative from reality, achieving a sense of theatricality which earned Delbonnel a nomination at the 94th Academy Awards and the BAFTAs.
This bleak play adaptation could not be more different from one of his earlier films: Amélie (2001).
Amélie is a fantastical Parisian romance whose vibrant fairytale reds and greens complement the story’s exploration of life’s small pleasures and the budding love between Audrey Tatou and Mathieu Kassovitz’s respective characters. The doll’s house-like imagery gives the film a warmth and nostalgia of a bedtime story. Moreover, while Amélie does reflect more modern themes, it reels from French cinema history and is an excellent introduction to French filmmaking and the techniques of the Nouvelle Vague.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Moving to the other side of the Atlantic, Delbonnel puts his magic touch to good use when creating a portrait of New York in Inside Llewyn Davis. With the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album directly inspiring the Big City’s distinctive 1961 winter gloom, the dulled greys and browns surround Oscar Isaac’s character, reflecting this struggling musician’s messy life. The Coen brothers based this film on the autobiography of folk singer Dave Van Ronk and received much critical praise and high-ranking accolades for their work. A must-watch collaboration between Delbonnel and the Coens.
Darkest Hour (2017)
To continue the theme of dim lighting and characters drowned in shadow, lest we forget Darkest Hour for its superb portrayal of Winston Churchill and the battling light and dark sides of his personality. In this instance, Delbonnel expressed how important it was to use the lighting to mirror the character’s duality – sometimes hiding him in complete darkness and soon after flossing him in light. But, unsurprisingly, despite the film’s 23 wins and 71 nominations, Bruno Delbonnel received no recognition.
The French Dispatch (2021)
As a final viewing suggestion for audiences looking for a pop of colour, The French Dispatch may quench the thirst for a bright palette. As with all of Wes Anderson’s films, framing and symmetrical composition please the eye as we follow three narratives set out in the newspaper of a small French town. While the many big names – including Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan – may attract viewers to this film, most will have stayed for Delbonnel’s remarkably magical cinematography. Delbonnel makes every shot a work of art, from colour and black-and-white to his ever-shifting aspect ratios.
While this article may be limited in its exploration of Delbonnel’s work, it provides a good starting point for those intrigued by the artistry behind cinematography and how it works in subtle yet powerful ways. In short, keep an eye out for this master’s future projects because they are sure to bring the world of cinema into the ranks of high art.