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What Is the Best Extended Take in Cinema?

To mark the arrival of Pieces of a Woman and its harrowing 24-minute shot, our writers weigh in on their favourite long takes

Pieces of a Woman, the new film by Kornél Mundruczó, is built entirely around the fallout of an unbearable tragedy, rendered in a single, all-consuming 24-minute extended take. Martha, played remarkably by Vanessa Kirby, cries, burps, and screams her way through a sequence that begins with contractions and ends with the death of a child. It makes perfect sense as a continuous shot, putting us in the shoes of the character while refusing to give us the breathing space offered by a cut or an edit.

As proven here, the extended take stands as one of cinema's most intriguing techniques – namely because it has a tendency to directly acknowledge its own existence, pulling the viewer out of the experience. But while these takes can be playful or self-referential, should they successfully bridge the gap between form and content, they can also prove just as immersive as they can distracting. To whatever end, the extended take is something that offers a very specific type of audience participation – whether we know it at the time or not.

In honour of the dazzling opener of Pieces of a Woman, we asked our regular contributors to name their own favourite extended takes from the annals of cinema history – some coming in at just two minutes, others, miraculously, spanning the length of an entire film.

Words by: Tom Barnard, Alasdair Bayman, Jack Blackwell, Ben Flanagan, Steph Green, Ella Kemp, Emily Maskell, Iana Murray, Lilia Pavin-Franks

 

The End (The Long Good Friday) – Tom Barnard, Editor

Where to watch it: Prime Video

Here's an example of an extended shot that pushes a good film into great film territory. For the entire length of The Long Good Friday, Bob Hoskins’ British mobster, Harold Shand, continually tempts fate and pushes his luck. Then everything comes crashing down in the film's final scene, as he's piled into the backseat of a car, the unforgettable synth score crying out like alarm bells as Harold glimpses his stricken wife being taken away in another vehicle. What follows is a fixed shot that stays on Hoskins' expression as Harold runs the gauntlet of human emotion. He figures for a way out. Grits his teeth. Smiles (at the ridiculousness of his being caught out like this). Looks like he might be sick. Then, finally: a kind of acceptance. The entire spectrum is laid out on that face in minutes, the camera right close to his features, Hoskins delivering a tour de force of wordless acting. It’s a remarkable performance that could only work as a one shot, Howard left to contemplate his decisions, his arrogance – everything that led him to this point. And we see it all working behind his eyes. I’m cheating, somewhat, since the shot is broken by a single insert of a young Pierce Brosnan pointing a pistol from the front seat. But it's a testament to the film – and Hoskins – that it still feels like a single, dizzying take, even with that momentary break.

 

The Bridge (Millenium Mambo) – Alasdair Bayman, Contributor

Where to watch it: Home video only

A founding father of the Taiwanese New Wave, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s introspective cinema spans a glorious eighteen feature films, with a body of work that tends to place a great deal of significance on the mood and specificity of his film’s settings. Reflective of these elements is his 2001 film Millenium Mambo. The film’s flowing, opening sequence follows Vicky (Shu Qi) as she walks across the abstract Zhongshan Bridge in Taipei, at nighttime. Shot with a hazy, slow-motion aesthetic, Vicky seems to float, effortlessly, across the bridge, as Lim Giong’s melodic score sounds in the background. Hsien’s decision to include voiceover in the sequence, too, as Vicky narrates in hindsight from 2010, allows these elements to come together to create an intense atmosphere of drifting through time in an opiate state, all rendered with the air of a brilliant fever dream.

 

The Ambush (The Revenant) – Jack Blackwell, Contributor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Less than a year after Alejandro Inarritu won Best Director for the constant tracking shot illusion of Birdman, he managed to blow audiences away again with more long takes in The Revenant. Part of what makes the opening ambush of The Revenant so impressive is that, even with our expectations raised by Birdman’s directorial boldness, this scene is still extraordinarily involving, never feeling like an imitation of what’s come before. Part of that is the magnificently lensed environments, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki using the stark greys of Canada’s wintry north to launch us back in time to a moment of violence, horror, and majestic beauty all at once. The feat of choreography here is even more impressive than Birdman’s, carnage unfolding across a wide exterior space with nowhere to hide any trickery. You can feel the fear and chaos, almost smell the blood, in one of the most effective early statements of intent of any film in the last decade.

 

The Opening (The Player) – Ben Flanagan, Contributor

Where to watch it: Prime Video

The long take carries with it an implicit awareness of the relationship between viewer and camera. In the best tracking shots, we feel the weight of the camera combined with the sheer effort of orchestrating performers around the set to piece together a singular, exquisite illusion. Robert Altman’s The Player parodies this act in its very first shot, as the master of the ensemble film combines crane, dolly, and tracking shot to cover a fresco of Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue. These characters are bombastic, overpaid, and irksome in their self-awareness, and the film goes through the motions of a noir mystery while drawing attention to the abuse, humiliation, and sheer narcissism of the folks who run the dream factory. By opening his film with the most bombastic and narcissistic shot of all – and namedropping Absolute Beginners and Touch of Evil in the process – Altman reminds us that he's no different from the rest.

 

The Split-Screen Bomb (Phantom of the Paradise) – Steph Green, Contributor

Where to watch it: Prime Video

Brian De Palma is known for a myriad of audacious directorial techniques. But his unique melange of cine-literate auterism and B-movie schlock is perhaps best seen in a scene from his 1972 cult musical Phantom of the Paradise, comprising of two simultaneous long takes – split-screened in real time. A fictional band, clearly parodying The Beach Boys, rehearse a song stolen from the film’s disfigured and vengeful protagonist Winslow Leach. Little do they know that he has planted a time bomb inside a prop car and it's heading their way. De Palma is often castigated for his “cinematic shoplifting,” and yes, this scene is heavily inspired by the long take in Welles’ Touch of Evil. I don’t by any means claim this as the greatest extended take in film history, though what it does demonstrate is the technique’s endless potential. The long take can give space for parody and uncanny doubling, combining humour and tension in differing, real-time perspectives. It doesn’t always need to fall on the side of naturalism: it can bastardise, too.

The Entire Film (Victoria) – Ella Kemp, Contributor

Where to watch it: Prime Video

She’s only got one night to make it out in one piece. Victoria, a luminous Spaniard working in Berlin, sees a club night turn into a white-knuckle heist in Sebastian Schipper’s real-time thriller Victoria. It took the filmmakers two tries to film the two-hour-eighteen-minute take that constitutes the entire movie – and the result isn’t just a technical feat, but a vertiginous emotional journey, too. It works in huge part thanks to Laia Costa’s compelling, vulnerable performance, as well as Nils Frahm’s score that is somehow both claustrophobic and ambient at once. It’s a heist that isn’t like other heists, because, more than ever, you’re in there with them. If anyone trips, or falls, the gig is up. Exhale and it’s over. If you blink, the world might blow up.

 

The Pie (A Ghost Story) – Emily Maskell, Contributor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a film that's haunted by the long take. In a scene that requires the utmost patience, Rooney Mara’s character sits on the kitchen floor with a pie in her lap. Bite after bite the pie is slowly devoured as the minutes tick by, lens staying wide as the fork yo-yos between her mouth and the dish. With no soundtrack – just the scraping of a utensil and the obtrusive noise of chewing – there is an overwhelming sense of stillness. A bizarre blend of anticipation and comfort underlies this moment: Mara’s profile remains unmoving until she finally leaps to her feet and rushes to the toilet, where she falls to her knees and vomits. While extended takes are so often used to push unbelievable filmic visuals, A Ghost Story’s pacified cinematic long shot showcases the power of a more restrained moment.

 

The Fireplace (Call Me by Your Name) – Iana Murray, Contributor

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The final, devastating shot in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name removes all the bells and whistles of a long take. It’s just one man in front of a camera, in soul-baring close up, but it’s that simplicity that lends the moment its power. As Elio reminisces on his summer affair, Timothée Chalamet stares at a fireplace and flits between heartbreak, anger, and acceptance with the most minuscule of facial expressions, like the twitch of a lip or a furrowing brow. Call Me by Your Name’s minimalistic cinematography is as languid as the sun-kissed days it depicts, allowing the viewer to absorb the sheer emotion playing out on screen. Likewise, the final five minutes serve as a testament to the effectiveness of paring everything back and letting humanity do the work.

 

Veal Cutlets (Jeanne Dielman) – Lilia Pavin-Franks, Film Data Manager

Where to watch it: The Criterion Channel (US only)

It’s hard to pick just a single scene from Chantal Akerman’s spellbinding film to represent one of cinema’s greatest long takes. Partly because this 202-minute-long epic features so many of them and partly because every single excruciating long take is riddled with intention and meaning. What Akerman does with this film is utilise gruelling realism to spotlight the life of a woman under patriarchal regime. With fixed frames and the sole use of diegetic sound, she confines both film and film-goer to the tightly structured space of gendered domesticity. Though ritualistic and repetitive, Jeanne Dielman does feature a subtle progression in narrative over three documented days. “Veal Cutlets,” a scene taking place on day two, hangs in an uneasy limbo between the ritualism of day one and the jarring shift in tone and routine that happens on day three. Watching Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) prepare food in real time is laborious but oddly comforting to watch, saying so much by literally saying nothing at all.

Pieces of a Woman is now available to stream on Netflix.

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