Shadowvision: “GRAND PIANO”
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
One of the more fun aspects of this column is re-examining a modern film that prominently pays tribute to its multiple cinematic influences. This is even more delightful when the filmmaker at hand is skilled enough to maneuver between his influences and craft something that’s excellent without being derivative or repetitive. What’s most fun is to watch the change of focus in the modern films, as attention previously devoted to colorful art direction now is redirected towards performance, shadows and, most importantly, story.
It’s exactly these reasons why the superbly talented Eugenio Mira and his GRAND PIANO was selected for this week’s Shadowvision column, as this taut thriller makes spectacle out of simplicity. Of course, any self-respecting genre fan can see the multiple influences Mira puts on display, whether it be GRAND PIANO’s Hitchcockian story, the De Palma-style editing, or the Argento-esque production design. Yet Mira also slips in off-beat humor and an innate understanding of suspense, keeping all homage as only added stylistic flourish to his own unique sensibilities.
When the color is stripped from the film however, there is almost a complete shift in narrative mechanisms that takes place as GRAND PIANO becomes more about the psychosis of Elijah Wood’s Tom Selznick over the cat-and-mouse game between Selznick and his potential assassin. In color, GRAND PIANO has a classical atmosphere informed by the lush, grandiose design of the concert hall, as well as Mira’s seemingly always moving POV. Without color, this atmosphere changes and GRAND PIANO feels like a lost TWILIGHT ZONE or ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episode, revolving around the psychological buttons which the killer can push on Tom as the stakes become more and more personal.
Even the presentation of Mira’s homage shifts once color is removed from the equation. For instance, Unax Mendía’s cinematography is more reminiscent of Luigi Kuveiller or Ronnie Taylor’s output for Dario Argento, which creates larger-than-life dread out of old architecture and a hard red-and-yellow color palette. Without color, the shadowing changes completely, turning yellows to bright white and reds to deep darkness. Now reminiscent of Hitchcock regular Robert Burks, this creates a suspenseful aura from the unnatural lighting patterns. Furthermore, the various experimental angles and edits that Mira wields throughout GRAND PIANO—often associated with early Brian De Palma—no longer have the benefit of the colors to emphasize the gorgeous, unsuspecting world around Tom Selznick.
Nevertheless, the black-and-white exhibition of GRAND PIANO does do wonders for the brilliant script by Damien Chazelle and the innovative eye of Mira. With focus diverted from the fantastic visuals to the completely devoted performances, the characters are much easier to become entranced by, with Tom’s palpable anxiety now enhanced by an inherent voyeuristic empathy. Mira’s construction of the film, from his seemingly long takes to the off-kilter smash cuts, is still engaging, so much so that GRAND PIANO feels like a comfortable and organic presentation even without color. And GRAND PIANO is also aided by Chazelle’s clever, old-fashioned screenplay, delicately fitting in simplistic moments of character development between every twist, turn and obstruction along the way.
The performance appear appropriate to the black-and-white version of GRAND PIANO as well. Whereas in color, Elijah Wood’s character is motivated by fear and anxiety, the alternate highlights Wood’s selflessness and wit, as well as potential insanity in the doubt that Wood expresses ever so subtly. Additionally, black-and-white visuals also emphasize Kerry Bishe and Alex Winter as more than just pawns in this deadly scheme, especially with the former becoming a symbol of Selznick’s life outside of the piano and the latter as a surprisingly frustrated murderer. It’s John Cusack’s Clem that benefits the most from the monochrome GRAND PIANO, as his voice feels more calculated than casual, and when he finally shows his face, his anger is not brutal but rather strategic, which allows the exceedingly Hitchcockian climactic rafter sequence to feel all the more earned.
Despite all of the accentuated aspects in a black-and-white presentation, I could only cautiously recommend watching GRAND PIANO in this altered state. In the many films I’ve covered in this column, GRAND PIANO seems to be one of the most intentionally connected to its color scheme, and the visual grandeur of Mendia, Mira and production designer Javier Alvarino suffers when translated. For those wanting to see Chazelle’s screenplay in a visual style reflective of the era it evokes, GRAND PIANO is worth a watch, but for all its worth, it certainly won’t supersede Mira’s gorgeous and satisfying intended presentation.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption: Maybe.