Sensuality floods frame in ‘Tamara,’ ‘Love’

Cinematographers play with the senses

Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe” opens with the vision of a muscular, shirtless hunk splitting wood as the sun rises over rolling pastures and the music of chirping birds fills the air. In the next scene, however, said hunk doesn’t rendezvous with his milkmaid plaything for a roll in the hay; instead, he walks past the writers who have come to this bucolic retreat to find their muses, and one of them promptly writes him into her pages.

“I think at the time (Frears and I) thought it was quite funny to throw the audience with this opening shot,” admits “Tamara Drewe” cinematographer Ben Davis. “It set you up to think you were gonna see some kind of amazing Thomas Hardy period piece, and in fact the film is a parody of that.”

These are the sorts of post-modern touches Frears and “I Am Love” director Luca Guadagnino have incorporated — attempting, perhaps, to temper the almost ostentatious beauty of their films, but as their two cinematographers discovered, sometimes mother nature just has to show off.

Based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel that is, in turn, loosely inspired by Hardy’s novel “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Tamara Drewe” is set in Dorset, England, which Davis acknowledges is “probably one of the most beautiful counties in England.” In addition, filming happened during Indian Summer. Paradise, right?

Well, yes, except for the fact that the story takes place over the course of a year, and they had six weeks in which to capture every season.

“It’s more of a triumph over logistics and budgets, really,” insists Davis modestly. “We didn’t set out to make a beautiful film, we set out to make a film that told a story.”

The cinematographer says his main directive from Frears was to honor the look of the graphic novel, as opposed referencing the classic 1967 film of Hardy’s book, starring Julie Christie: “This film is a comedy; it didn’t warrant that sort of camera language … I wanted it to be joyful, the way the camera behaved.”

In the film’s most talked-about scene, Gemma Atherton’s Tamara Drewe stops by as the writers are enjoying an evening cocktail by the cow pasture, wearing the teeny-tiniest possible pair of denim cutoff shorts. This cheeky costume — terrible pun intended — comes straight from the graphic novel. “She has to make an incredible impact on that group of people,” Davis points out — although he concedes with a chuckle that “the shot from behind, the long-range shot, was a bit more spontaneous.”

The key scene in “I Am Love” takes place at a Milanese restaurant table where Tilda Swinton’s Emma Recchi tastes a hint of the sensuality and bliss her life has been lacking up to this point. Her dining companions fade into shadow, and she and her perfect little pile of prawns are spotlit as though the heavens were shining down upon her. The rapturous look on Swinton’s face as she consumes the succulent little critters prompted the media to coin a new term: prawnography.

As for the cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, his experience was a little less ecstatic. “For me this was a nightmare!” says the French d.p. “To light prawns? If you take the thing the wrong way it could be a commercial, you know?”

But, he adds, because the scene was so pivotal and because Guadagnino wanted to be so overtly cinematic about it, they were able to create something that doesn’t remotely resemble the Food Network. “It’s a very strong idea,” says Le Saux, “and that’s why I love Luca.”

The pair looked mostly to paintings for inspiration, from the high society portraits of Giovanni Baldini to Rembrandt, whose dark palette influenced the more somber moments in the Recchi home. These are in stark contrast to later scenes with Emma and her lover Antonio, which are a veritable bacchanal of light, skin, grass, flowers and insects — no mistaking the symbolism here.

“This was her first moment of truth,” says Le Saux. “That’s my interpretation. Before she was not happy so for me she was sleepy or lying, and this time she was burning in the light, the truth.”

Le Saux says the original idea was to shoot “maybe two or three flowers,” but the mood created by Guadagnino gave way to the ripe sensuality of the moment. “We were open to take risks and try things. ” he says, “so everybody is better in a way.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematography
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