© 2015 ellathompson



Chosen scene: Opening restaurant conversation scene in Léon: The Professional (1994, Luc Besson).

I came across this scene and it immediately struck me because I’ve had a film idea for at least a year that is incredibly similar to this scene. This whole scene is shot in extreme close ups. I’m fascinated by the power of extreme close ups; for a very long time, I’ve been wanting to shoot an entire narrative – a single scene conversation, like this Léon scene – in extreme close ups. There’s something about revealing important details in fragments while concealing whole pictures (which may not reveal as much information as the tiny details do), and I think that’d be really interesting to experiment with in a narrative. I thought that I may as well analyse this scene, since its approach to coverage is something that will serve as inspiration for future projects. I also might even use this course as an opportunity to explore this area of interest.

The first couple of shots introduce the space and the characters to the audience. However, they don’t do this overtly. They do this by revealing detail after detail, clue after clue, and the audience’s understanding of the situation is gradually shaped throughout the scene.

The very first shot is a front-on ECU of Léon’s hands resting on a table, either side of a drink. This is the first clue of the space/setting: a restaurant. It is also a subtle introduction to the main character, Léon.

The next shot further introduces him and the space to the audience – it is an ECU of Leon’s left eye, or rather of his left sunglass lens, which reflects the table and its contents as well as the figure sitting opposite him. It almost acts like a wide shot. Well, not quite a wide shot, but it presents the widest view of all of the shots. It’s a clever frame within the frame. This shot also works to align the audience with Léon, the main character, since it is almost a POV shot – we see the space from Léon’s perspective.

The next ECU shot is a subtle tilt up from the boss’s (is he the boss? I’m going to call him the boss anyway) hands – as he lights a cigarette and smokes it – to his eye. Most of the frame is concealed in cigarette smoke, but we see his eye looking at the figure opposite while he talks. We see its little movements and expressions – blinks, glances – through the turbulent cigarette smoke.

An unusual element of this shot construction is the framing of the boss’s furthest (left) eye from the camera, rather than his closest eye (right) to match Léon’s framed closest eye. These repeating extreme close ups of their eyes work as shot / reverse shot. It’s interesting that the director didn’t go for the boss’s (right) eye that was equivalent to Léon’s (left eye). Maybe this choice was made to disorient the audience and heighten their sense that something is off/shady/underhand in the scene.

Again, if we compare the boss’s shot with Léon’s shot, the boss’s eye is revealed – despite being masked a little in smoke – whereas Léon’s sunglass lens conceals his eye/face/identity. Out of the two characters, Léon is more unknown, more unexplained, and more intriguing because there is more to discover. Audiences are attracted to what they do not know. Léon’s comparative concealment works to align the audience with him by promoting him as the most interesting character. It works to build him up as the ‘main character’.

The next shot (after the boss’s first shot) is another concealed shot of Léon. It is almost a dirty OTS ECU of Léon’s eye. Most of Léon’s face is hidden behind by abstract, out of focus, dark shapes reminiscent of a hand holding a cigarette and the back of a head.

Shots that follow are:

  • ECU boss’s silhouetted left eye – pan to mouth/hand as he takes another puff – end on right eye.
  • ECU boss’s fingers putting out cigarette in ashtray.
  • ECU boss’s mouth delivering line, “Let’s talk business.”
  • ECU photo on the table of a man.
  • ECU Léon’s left sunglass lens. This shot gives us the widest view of the setting – the reflection shows the table and its contents as well as both figures’ hands resting on the table opposite each other. Further aligns us with Léon’s point of view – reinforces that we are seeing the scene from his perspective.
  • ECU boss’s silhouetted left eye.
  • ECU photo on the table of a man.
  • ECU boss’s silhouetted left eye.
  • ECU Léon’s left sunglass lens. Longest shot, time-wise. We wait for Léon’s response / to hear his voice for the first time. When he finally delivers the line, “Yeah, I’m free Tuesday”, we are not shown his mouth. The camera stays on Léon’s reflective sunglasses.
  • ECU Léon’s hand picking up his drink.
  • ECU boss’s silhouetted left eye – its tentative expression as he watches Léon take a drink.
  • ECU Léon’s sunglasses / part of the glass as he finishes the drink.
  • ECU glass back on table.
  • ECU Léon’s fingers sliding the photo on the table towards himself.
  • ECU Léon’s sunglasses looking down at the photo as he slides it off the table (again framing this action in the reflection of the glasses) – ends on ECU Léon’s mouth when he lifts his head back up to look at his employer.

What is clever about the coverage of this scene is its approach to concealment. I’m a big believer in the art of concealment in cinematography. Concealment can often be so much more compelling – and more visually pleasing – than overtly revealing things in a clean shot. This scene uses extreme close ups to only reveal fragments of the larger picture. These extreme close ups also make normal objects appear as slightly abstract shapes within the frame; the audience has to work to decipher what they are. This concealment approach is enhanced by the shallow depth of field that is used to make objects closer to the camera dirty the frame with their out of focus, obscure shapes by occupying space that obstructs our vision of the frame’s subject. The lighting also works to conceal – shadows fall on the characters, occupying significant fractions of the frame. Even the cigarette smoke works as a swirling mask in front of the boss’s face.

The concealment approach to this scene alerts the audience to the fact that something clandestine is happening – something that could only be seen by looking at the details, rather than at the ‘bigger picture’. That’s why the coverage works so well for this particular scene. I also must mention that the dialogue works really well to balance the visual coverage and communicate more about what is happening.

Concealment within each frame endorses a sense of mystery in terms of the characters (particularly Léon), the situation, and what is to come. The audience is attracted to what they do not know. This, being the opening scene, plays with the allure of withholding information so as to engage the audience in a desire to discover.

I’d really love to make a scene that plays with concealment in its cinematography and/or to tell a story by revealing minute details through extreme close ups.

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