Eric Rohmer, who died this week at the age of 89, made the kind of films that put a lot of people off French New Wave cinema. Eschewing formal notions of plot and dramatic structure, the director instead focused on character and, above all, on conversation. In films like Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert and his ‘tales of four seasons’, Rohmer used long, intelligent discussions between his main characters to explore certain universal themes and to lead the audience towards revelations that are on such a small – that is to say human – scale that when they arrive they might almost be missed.
Critics of Rohmer have long dismissed his films as excessively ‘talky’. And indeed, the unprepared viewer might well be baffled and rather bored by the prospect of watching a group of middle class French people talk at length about their lives and feelings. The fact is that since the movies learned to talk, audiences have learned to search for their cinematic thrills elsewhere. Conversation is something that works well in literature, and even better in theatre, but on the screen, in excess, it risks making cinema seem downright uncinematic.
Take Billy Wilder’s work for example. Famously it was dialogue that drove the creative partnership between the director and his regular co-screenwriter IAL Diamond. Famously, they worked and re-worked their scripts, until every line to be spoken was as sharp, sparkling and well-placed as it could possibly be. The results are impressive. Films like The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot are as smart and funny today as they were fifty years ago. But still, as you watch them, you can’t help but feel that there’s something ultimately theatrical about them; that they might work just as well on stage as they do on screen; that you are, in fact, watching a filmed play.
Compare Wilder’s work to Hitchcock’s and you’ll soon see the limitations of his approach. Hitchcock famously said that his idea of ‘pure cinema’ was of a film that could be watched and grasped on a purely emotional level even if the sound were to break down during a screening. So while Jack Lemmon was worrying and wise-cracking his way around The Apartment (1960), James Stewart was having a much more cinematic time of it in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). There is dialogue in the latter film, and it is important in a way, but it’s far from being the most important component in the overall impression created. Try to think of Vertigo on a stage, and I think you’ll agree it’s impossible, except perhaps as an opera with the liberal use of back-projection. The Apartment on the other hand, is a story that could have been told, with suitable modifications, in a theatre anytime, anywhere.
That’s not to say that Hitchcock didn’t occasionally choose stagy material: 1948’s Rope is a straightforward adaptation of a popular play. But even here, confined to one room, you can clearly see the film-maker at work, eager to find a way to make the play succeed as a movie. Hitchcock’s use of an elaborately contrived ‘single take’ (actually three shots) is an interesting cinematic device in itself, even if it doesn’t quite compensate for the limitations of the material.
Perhaps the most ‘talky’ film-maker working in Anglophone cinema today is Richard Linklater. Two of his most celebrated films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), are made up of little more than a man and a woman – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – walking the streets of Vienna and Paris and talking to one another. Perhaps aware of the potential limitations of his material, Linklater is keen to give us more to do than just listen to his characters. So he lets us explore the two cities with Delpy and Hawke, giving us a sense of the place and the time in which the films are set. And, importantly, he never neglects his real subject matter, namely the suppressed love story between the two characters. Ultimately this is what is important, and we come to see much of what is actually said as almost superfluous, the words a kind of soundtrack to the films.
Similarly, with 2001’s Waking Life, Linklater showed that conversation needn’t necessarily be a limitation in cinema. His characters – animated from real footage – are certainly drawn to philosophical discussion, but always in a way that makes you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on conversation rather than witnessing an actor delivering a performance.
In fact, if conversation is done well, it can punctuate a film in a way that goes with, rather than against, the grain of narrative cinema. The 22-minute dialogue scene at the heart of Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), for example, works so well precisely because the rest of the film has been made up of images, sensations and sounds, but very little in the way of speech. And in the best moments of John Cassavetes’ films, the characters talk in the way that a jazz musician plays, repeating and riffing on lines incessantly until somehow striking at the truth of a situation.
Talking at the movies, then, is a risky business, and many finely thought-out films have failed or been hobbled by the theatricality that it can bring. It would be truly maddening if everyone tried to make films in the way that Cassavetes or Rohmer made films, but fortunately that’s not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime we can admire their noisy, messy, incessantly chatty work and admit that sometimes it is good to talk.
And now I’ll shut up.