Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) is one of the films that really opened my eyes to what cinema could do. It’s a flat-out masterpiece, one of the best films of the 1990s, and one of my favorites ever. On the strength of that, I’ll watch anything the man makes. His Do You Remember Dolly Bell? is less political and certainly not as technically accomplished (no surprise: it’s his debut feature, made when the director was only 27!), but it’s a good window into the beginning of his style.
Dino (Slavko Stimac) lives in a small house with his domineering brother, alcoholic father, younger brother and mother. Amidst a naive, if not whimsical life, Dino is drawn towards petty crime, and indirectly towards Dolly Bell (Ljiljana Blagojevic), a lonely prostitute.
Though not so much with his later style, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? reminds me of the innocent looks at awkward adolescence that dominated some of the post-neorealist narratives of Olmi, De Sica and the like. Or perhaps even a young Milos Forman.
Kusturica works in a number of non-narrative ‘slice of life’ moments, frequently relying on wide-static frames with well-grouped characters occupying fore, middle and background. Here’s one example:
The frame is in deep-focus, where the narrative (the conversation at the table) occupies the majority of the frame, but the non-narrative (the two kids playing in the background) is equally important as it balances the frame. The scene continues-
Kusturica gives further precedence to the childhood innocence by blocking the characters at the table all to one side and giving us the father’s back. The frame is still well-balanced, but the the children in the background are no longer partially obscured.
Here’s a look at another scene. Dino’s mother is in the foreground. His brother walks off frame right. Dino stands in the background:
Dino’s father rises. Dino is partially obscured:
Dino (middle-ground) and his brother (relative background and frame-right) re-enter:
The boys sit. The parents dance:
Dino’s younger brother and sister enter frame:
And as the dancing couples move opposite one-another, the frame is rebalanced:
Like the first scene, this features one static shot, where the frame is occupied by various figures, making good use of off-screen space. Here, the narrative takes place at first in middle and foreground, between father and mother. As the father approaches the mother to dance and continue the conversation, the rest of the frame is given considerable, if lesser, weight, to speak not to the direct issue at hand, but to the mechanisms and cheer of the family.
It’s a less psychological usage of deep-focus than say a Welles or Polanski, and a less slapstick-comedic use of blocking and off-screen space than a Hawks or Wilder.
These examples are not to say that Kusturica falls into the “long, static take” aesthetic. He does sometimes, but he’s no Tsai Ming-liang. Kusturica employs coverage, moves in for close-ups, and relies heavily on slack-jawed reaction shots, awkward body language and uncomfortable silences and situations. It’s these tactics, alongside the aforementioned scene examples that he’ll take to new heights in his later flicks.