Toward the end of the film, as Ally and Bobby sit together on the floor of Ally’s home, the scene begins tight and cuts between close-ups of the two characters. Given the way the characters are framed as they commiserate — Ally looking down and to the right; Bobby on the right, looking left and upward — the dynamic of the scenes comes off, initially, as a direct conversation. The scene cuts from Bobby’s face to Ally’s, and it feels as if the upsetting news they’re exchanging connects them somehow, like there’s some form of understanding between the characters.

However, the emotional intent of the scene becomes something entirely different once the physical dynamic between them is clarified. Bobby enters the frame in Ally’s closeup, retroactively reframing the subtext.

The two weren’t actually face-to-face. Bobby was seated behind her. It takes a moment to re-orient the perspective on what’s going on. The two weren’t connecting; rather Ally was devastated to the point of being unable to maintain eye contact, and Bobby was trying to reach out to her. It takes this physical clarification at the very end of the exchange (rather than bringing the audience into the characters’ perspectives after first establishing them, or even simply framing Bobby on the left) to figure out the scene is about Ally’s isolation.

This spatial muddling permeates the film throughout, stifling what ought to be clear and affecting emotional moments. However, the emotions of each scene are still clarified to a large degree by the actors – enough that a precise understanding of the subtext and dynamics don’t always matter.

The reason the film’s opening scene works perfectly is the same reason its scenes of interpersonal dynamic feel off-balance. Cooper, the actor’s director, masterfully externalizes the thoughts, feelings and insecurities of the individual, though for the most part, he struggles to connect the same between two people in any visual sense.

The “actor’s director” element is key. Gaga, Elliott, and Cooper the actor all deliver tremendous performances; Cooper the director loves their faces and bodies, and rightly so. While he struggles to orient them in time and place (and thus, in an emotional equilibrium going into a given scene, one that’s either going to be re-affirmed or upset), he clarifies their emotions when most scenes enter close-ups or tight two-shots, like the altercation between Bobby and Jackson…

…or the incendiary argument with Ally in a bathtub, an intoxicated Jackson leaning over her to berate her. In either scene, the actors’ physicality dictates the rhythm. Editor Cassidy holds the tension between the performers as they veer in and out of each other’s orbits, something that never quite comes to fruition in medium or wide shots, since Cooper is unable to use these shots to the same dramatic effect.

The drunken argument between Ally and Jackson works as soon as Jackson sits at the edge of the bathtub. Cooper, who often leans in the film to compensate for Jackson’s poor hearing, now leans in order to tower over Ally. He sits in a fixed position of power over her, un-moving, taking up more than half of the frame. The camera on him stays locked off, since he strays neither from his physical nor emotional position.

The way Ally is framed, however, follows Gaga’s every movement. She begins in the corner of the frame, powerless, before becoming the scene’s energetic focal point, rebuking Jackson’s challenges.

Both performers shoulder the weight of the story. What Cooper lacks in ability to visually frame subtext, he makes up for by bringing out, in both himself and Gaga, subtext through voice and posture. Cooper’s Jackson feels like a cheap imitation of Sam Elliott, as if in attempt to replicate his hardened exterior. Gaga, who code switches subtly between her home and public life (she sounds more Italian-American when acting opposite her father, played by Andrew Dice Clay), delivers a physical performance in sharp contrast to the resolute Cooper, capturing each scene through movement.

Sam Elliott’s performance as Bobby is crafted in even further contrast to the two leads. Where Gaga and Cooper express themselves — Gaga, freely, and Cooper, reaching out from behind Jackson’s crumbling exterior — Bobby’s constant composure, compared to his alcoholic brother, means Elliott has to speak subtly through his eyes. He has entire conversations through his tears alone, as he struggles to hold them back, and they push their way through regardless.

Were a film composed entirely of close-ups more commercially viable — imagine A Star is Born by way of Tsai Ming-liang, or La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc — then Cooper would likely find himself in the directors’ hall of fame. But Cooper’s focus, for better or worse, seems to be crafting traditionally Hollywood stories. Which, at their very best, succeed at an outside-in approach. It’s the outside part — the bookends, the framing, the “Meanwhile…” that supports each scene —that Cooper hasn’t quite put his finger on.

Whatever wins at the Oscars this Sunday, A Star is Born will likely remain an artifact of Bradley Cooper’s early career. A sign of things to come, once he hopefully hones his visual craft, and a promise of unmistakable dramatic talent as a director of human emotions up close.

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