Posted by: philosopherouge | August 11, 2007

Discovering and Defining Baroque Cinema

The Scarlet Empress

Reading or watching something, I came accross the term Baroque to describe Josef Von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. The term was not really explained, but it stuck in my mind, and I’ve been determined to really pen down the meaning of it, as well as perhaps categorize other films by the same term. Step one is to find out the exact definition of Baroque, with the help of a dictionary I came up with these two defitinitions :

1 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a style of artistic expression prevalent especially in the 17th century that is marked generally by use of complex forms, bold ornamentation, and the juxtaposition of contrasting elements often conveying a sense of drama, movement, and tension

2 : characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance

At this point I’m clearly leaning towards the first definition, although I won’t rule out the second all together. Step two is to do some research to find films that are considered “baroque” in style and watch them. So far I have The Scarlet Empress, and Chinatown. I’ll hopefully expand on this list. I’m also planning to study, if not briefly the Baroque art movement, which includes a wide range of artists such as Carravagio. This is just the start, but I would really love if you have ideas, examples, links, books, etc. that would help me with this.<p



  1. It seems like most film writing would imply the second definition, the first being much more specific to its time and place. I’m sure I’ve tossed the word around to mean grotesque or extravagant. In googling the term, I stumbled on several discussions of “neo-baroque” films, about which Angela Ndalianis has written. I haven’t read her book, but it seems to draw parallels between baroque art and modern special effects extravaganzas. But that might be too expansive for your project.

    I don’t know how you feel about horror films, but you might find Dario Argento’s Suspiria to be suitably baroque, perhaps under both definitions.

  2. Thanks for that, I haven’t found much about it in writing yet, but I’ll definetely look into it. I was looking at The Scarlet Empress earlier, and really both terms somewhat apply to it, although the latter more clearly. I’ll definetely have to reconsider my stance on definition.

    I don’t watch much horror, which is not to say I don’t enjoy it. I’ll definetely have a look at Suspiria.

  3. Usually when the term “Baroque” is used outside the context of the period, it implies the latter. Anything dense, ornate, complex, grotesque and overwrought. There’s a certain notion that the end period of a specific style degenerates and grows decadent and will lean towards the Baroque. For instance, I have seen the latter period of classic film noir termed “Baroque,” which may very well be true of films like The Killing and Touch of Evil.

    I’ve studied the Baroque period to the extent of taking a class in the painting style. In the class we referred to a couple sources, one on Italian painting, the other on Dutch (which were the main regions of practice). If you want titles, just let me know.

    I would consider Suspiria (and a lot of other horror films) Baroque as well.

  4. Thank you for that beautiful explanation. Although I haven’t found enough to really make a new post, it’s interesting you mention noir because nearly every film I’ve come accross under the category seems to be noir/neo-noir.

    I don’t need your help at the moment, but if I do I’ll be sure to drop a line. This has been VERY much appreciated.

  5. Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon fits both definitions.

  6. the notion of baroque and cinema has been extensively developed by french critics since the 1940s. The most useful definition of baroque would be that given by art historian heinrich Wolfflin in Principles of art history. he draws from the 17th century style to isolate 5 principles which could be applied to the many manifestations of the baroque (italian, dutch or spanish…) these principles have then been developped in an approach to cinema particularly the cinema that follow the classical period which roughly start with Citizen Kane. it involves notion of composition (in depth rather than planes) of in the questioning of linearity in the storyline Mankievicz is a very good exemple, ideas of multiple identity/mirrors reflection (The Lady of Shangai) as opposed to a more classical vision of identity as finished and whole etc etc…basically it is style that develops in contradiction to classicism…

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