Ridley Scott’s first feature The Duellists is one of a handful of films that try to look like a series of paintings. They are nearly all period films, in which the different fashions and objects from a previous era provide the excuse for further visual stylization. Sometimes, when the subject of the film is an artist, that approach is justified by making the film look like the artist’s own work. (Lust for Life for example.) In the case of The Duellists, early 19th century landscapes and interiors are referenced vaguely to evoke the period of the story.
You need only think about it for a moment, however, to recognize that the goal of making a film look like a painting is doomed from the start for the simple reason that movies move. Realistic painting fixes a moment in time, from a single vantage point. It offers an ideal view, while film and video present a constantly shifting perspective. Furthermore, the amount of time spent to contemplate a painting is up to the viewer, whereas a film image lasts only as long as the director and editor leave it on the screen. Thus the filmmaker seeking a “painterly” style must find a way over time to achieve what a painter compresses into a single moment. The only exceptions are the occasional static images made to look like famous paintings in a kind of visual punctuation.
Thus, one of the most remarkable aspects of Scott’s camerawork in The Duellists (he was his own camera operator) is how fluid the film is. The Duellists manages to evoke paintings, but not by freezing into tableaux composed to resemble a familiar image. Its “painterly” qualities are largely a matter of lighting, materials and an attitude that allows images to sit for an extra moment or two, to soak into our imagination, and especially to move us emotionally through their sheer tactile sensuality. The “painterly” feeling exists only fleetingly, barely registering before disintegrating in the constantly shifting cinematic gaze.
All of this visual skill is supposedly in the service of an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story. Scott is nearly unique among cinematic stylists in his ability to express his visual sensibility without losing the emotional content people expect from a mainstream movie. The Duellists may be the least successful with this mix, however. Unlike his later work, we are impressed with the imagery a tiny bit more than we are concerned with the story. The bizarre situation, in which gentlemanly Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) has to deal with the blind, unwarranted hatred of Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) for fifteen years, certainly generates a fair degree of suspense. It’s just difficult to avoid the suspicion that their conflict exists as an excuse to make their clashes as ravishingly beautiful as possible.
NB: If you are interested in more about period films and painting, and are accessing the internet through an academic institution, you can read my essay “When History Films (Try to) Become Paintings” here.