Lately, I’m beginning to appreciate how sets work in films. I began to notice the nuances of sets (and even wardrobe) and how they affect the story in Black Swan, but I began to obsess over them when I started watching House of Cards. I noticed how Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s characters, Frank and Claire Underwood, were positioned during their scenes. Frank was always bathed in dark tones while Claire was constantly in cold colors. If you follow the series, you’ll realize that these reflect their personalities. Once I noticed it, I noticed it everywhere.
I’ve been obsessing over two films lately and how the sets play a considerable role in them. They’re Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. They’re different in terms of premise, but both are creepy, exciting, and use gorgeous houses as their setting.
Goodnight Mommy is a German film publicized as having the scariest trailer of the summer. It’s creepy, yes, but it doesn’t do justice to the actual film. It’s intriguing enough when you see the two-minute clip, but it misleads you by promising supernatural horror when it is actually psychological.
At its center is a pair of young twins, whose mother comes back after an extensive facial surgery. The twins become alienated and suspect that she has become a different person. She is wrapped in bandages during the first half of the film, which provides the jitters, but you later wonder who is the actual villain. There’s a heavy sense of foreboding that makes it a gripping watch.
The film is set in the family’s Scandinavian-inspired home in between corn fields and woods. It stands out for its gray stone walls, Eero Saarinen’s hanging bubble chairs, and use of wood. There are also references to the mother’s obsession with her looks, like artist models, a large photo of the mother (with the face blurred), and a wire mannequin. The house’s minimalism reflects the film’s lack of emotion, which heightens the unease.
Like Goodnight Mommy, Ex Machina follows the Scandivanian school of thought. But instead of being surrounded by the lush corn fields and the warm glow of the sun, Ex Machina is in a vast fjord in the middle of Norway, surrounded by large boulders, icy mountains, the rush of a river, and an endless forest.
The mansion is home to Nathan, the CEO of a tech company looking to explore artificial intelligence. He brings in Caleb Smith, a talented but gawky coder who must administer a test to the robot Ava and see if she could pass off as human. The film, although sci-fi, focuses more on its philosophy rather than impressive CGI. It touches on morality and mortality, and is even more interesting as it is applied to AI. It’s cerebral and terrifying.
The mansion (a hotel in real life), is constructed in a way that offers top-notch amenities and a breathtaking view without interrupting the topography. In fact, the architecture is so seamless that some of the walls are the boulders from outside!
Like the house in Goodnight Mommy, the house in Ex Machina is cold and unfeeling (notice how Nathan and Caleb wear only neutral colors) and it strikes a great contrast against the majestic shots of nature. It shows how luxurious living can peacefully co-exist with the natural world. I just wish the relationship between AI and human life would be the same.
It’s rewarding to see films that pay attention to even the smallest details. Goodnight Mommy and Ex Machina show how settings and wardrobe can convey moods and symbolism. It reminds me of this writing article I read a few days ago: it’s all about the details.