From Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman to Amelie: The pleasures of a well-crafted opening credits sequence
Opening credits isn’t just about fun or glamour. If done right, it sets up – stylishly – the tone of the film that follows.
When we think of title sequences, we recall the ones Saul Bass made for Hitchcock, or the ones in the Bond films, which I never tire of watching (the credits stretch of Skyfall is a favourite). But the opening isn’t just about fun or glamour. If done right, it sets up – stylishly (meaning, in a stylised manner) – the tone of the film that follows.
Which opening sequences in world cinema are a favourite? Let me list a few, beginning with the title sequence from Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The story is about a Chinese chef, and here, we see a master of his domain whose only way of truly communicating with his daughters is through elaborately prepared traditional meals.
There’s more of a “plot” here than just the man’s mastery. For instance, we’ll see later that his youngest daughter works at a fast food restaurant, which serves cuisine from the other end of the culinary spectrum. The contrast is a hint of the clashes to come. I couldn’t find the titles sequence of René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley – but there, too, we find hints of future plot. The names appear as signatures, because the protagonist (antagonist?) is a forger. But I did find the titles sequence from Anthony Minghella’s lush Hollywood version, released in 1999.
The films are a fascinating study in contrasts (which I’ll take up in a future column). Minghella sees Ripley as a more sympathetic figure than the French version did, as is evident in his titles sequence. We first see slivers of a face come together – a hint that Ripley never reveals his full self to anyone. Then, note the many adjectives that pass by in a blur before the title settles on “talented.” Ripley is many things, too. The music is sympathetic, and the shot is from the film’s final scene, where the camera does a 180-degree move around Ripley’s face, moving from light to the shadows that will now define his world.
We don’t know this the first time we see the film, of course. Titles aren’t explanatory. They’re more suggestive. The impact is meant to be subliminal – even when the effect is as in-your-face as in this stretch (video below) from Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009). Scott Tobias wrote, in The A.V. Club, that the film is “an acid-soaked phantasmagoria that employs the... first-person, tilt-a-whirl camera technique for a full 137 minutes... a trance-like experience, feeding the shimmering neon of Tokyo at night into a spectacular hallucinogenic head-trip.” Well, that’s exactly what the titles sequence tells. It isn’t information – the names aren’t even readable. It’s about the experience.
Almost five decades before Enter the Void, Jean-Luc Godard did something similar in Une Fmme est une Femme (A Woman Is A Woman, 1960) – again, on a black background. He threw in names of cast and crew (none with a descriptor that said what they did, so if you didn’t recognise the names, you were as clueless about the contributors as at the beginning of Noé’s film). And he interspersed these names with words describing the film (“musical,” “sentimental”). Then again, Godard never had much use for the rulebook, and the titles sequence of Contempt (1963) is even more unique.
We’re in a studio. A narrator (Godard himself) narrates the credits, as a shooting is in progress. (“It features Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli.” “Raoul Coutard did the photography.” And so forth.) The on-screen camera (operated by Coutard himself), finally, turns to the off-screen camera, the one that Godard is filming this stretch with, and locks eyes with us, the audience. Not only is the fourth wall being demolished (this is not the way a conventional film “invisibly” lures us into its world), there’s so much about the plot itself (for instance, it’s a movie about the making of a movie) that analysing this stretch is almost as much fun as analysing the film.
The mother of all “analyse-able” credits sequences (aka You Can Write a PhD Dissertation On Just The Credits Sequence Alone; see above) is, of course, the one in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
But let’s look at something less intimidating.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie (2001) is about a quirky, whimsical, introverted woman, and we see her, below, as a quirky, whimsical, introverted girl who wears cherries as earrings and caps her fingers with strawberries. The warm-toned cinematography warms us to this girl, and to this movie, which is about pursuing happiness. The grown-up Amélie wants for others the same pleasures she experienced as a child (in the titles) – say, while slurping up the last drops of milkshake.
The titles sequence (below) of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) gives us a very different kind of heroine, one who’s introduced professionally, through her business card. Through the sequence, she assumes a number of roles – for instance, after handing over her card, she gets on a scooter, sees an ad on the side of a truck, and she transforms into the girl in that ad, and then she transforms into the girl in the beer commercial, and so on. And this is what the Inception-like anime film is about. A doctor uses “dream therapy” to treat psychiatric patients, and the girl we see (Paprika) is actually this doctor’s alter ego in the dream world.
I could go on, but I’ll leave you with the titles sequence from La Belle et la Bête (1946), Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. We spoke, earlier, of Godard’s fourth-wall breaking, and here’s the same technique being used. (The clip below has only a portion of the sequence; the entire thing can be seen on the TCM web site.)
The names are written with chalk, on a blackboard, but then, someone steps up with a clapper board, and the director yells, “Action! Rolling.” A note from Cocteau follows, where he requests from the grown-up audience some “childlike simplicity,” and a wide-eyed belief in the story that’s to come. In other words, he alludes to the artifice of cinema (with the clapper board) and then instructs us to have faith in a fairy tale, which, in many ways, is even more “unreal” than cinema.
What lies ahead isn’t just a story. It’s magic.
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