Last weekend I went to the volunteer-run Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings to see The Artist and the Model, a film set in the south of France during World War II. It’s about a Spanish refugee girl who takes on a job as a model for an elderly sculptor, and it’s filmed in black-and-white.
Walking back to my car afterwards, past the huddles of Old Town drinkers and a tottering reveller dressed as a chicken, I was thinking about why black-and-white is sometimes used in preference to colour.
The film I’d just seen caught the drowsy hot summer, and the sunlight dappling the leaves, as precisely as it would have done in colour. I was transported back to my own holidays in rural France, a world which I have, of course, only ever seen in colour.
I’d hazard a guess that the filmmakers eschewed colour because it would have rendered the images of the oft-naked model too in-your-face and vulgar. Black-and-white means subtlety. Another very recent film, Summer in February, was also about an artist (the young Alfred Munnings’ time at a Cornish artist’s colony in the early 20th century), but was in colour. Perhaps black and white was never considered for that fairly conventional period drama, whereas the Spanish-French The Artist and the Model has arthouse tendencies.
Sometimes there are more practical considerations. That fine 1968 zombie movie Night of the Living Dead was shot on 35mm black-and-white film because the budget didn’t stretch to colour. And who would wish it any other way?
The Wizard of Oz famously changes to Technicolor once Dorothy arrives in the magical land. The Kansas sequences are, to be accurate, sepia-toned rather than black and white.
Of the monochrome films I’ve seen, Schindler’s List presumably did away with colour (apart from an arresting, repeated image of a small girl’s red clothing) as a respectful acknowledgement of the sombre subject matter. George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, which charts the CBS newsroom’s struggles against Senator McCarthy, was filmed in colour and released in black-and-white, perhaps the better to take us back to the TV world of the 1950s.
I can’t explain why David Lynch chose black-and-white for Eraserhead, but then I can’t explain much about that bizarre film. However, black-and-white worked perfectly well for the Victorian London of his much more straightforward The Elephant Man.
Of course, it’s right to be wary of praising those who make the ‘artistic’ choice to use black-and-white stock. Otherwise every French film with pretensions to art would use it, watering down the medium’s impact.