When Words Fail

Sometimes the talkies go silent. As Bresson noted, the soundtrack invented silence. Or at least the meaningful use of silence. Many films have used this to great effect: there are a number of memorable scenes in which we can see characters talk without understanding or even hearing them. What words, meanings and themes do these silences convey?


This video essay, made for Fandor, compiles fifteen scenes in which our understanding of the dialogue is obstructed, frustrated or flat out denied. The reasons for the use of this stylistic stratagem are diverse: they range from comedic to horrific, from wistful to suspenseful. Some possible explanations are overlaid in text on the scenes, but as with all great art the meanings of these movies and their silences are up for debate.

This is just a small sampling, and a rather arbitrary one, of scenes in which the dialogue is thwarted. This collection was put together with the help of a particularly knowledgeable group of film lovers on reddit (1), but there are many more examples to be found of this technique. Because silence is golden, even in the sound film.

(1) When I was looking for examples to include in this video essay, I put out a call to the members of the True Film group on reddit. They came back with a couple of dozen suggestions, ranging from television shows via mainstream films to obscure arthouse movies. Not all of those tips made it into the video essay (that would have turned it into a feature length montage) but all the suggestions were wonderfully helpful, insightful and well argued. True film lovers indeed. So a big thank you goes out to atclubsilencio, Elbwana, Meggs2011, THE_BIG_BOSS, TheRedMongoose, Mcpato, wuudy, false10, Cunhabear, marxistmarx, HejAnton, dischorus, nutellacinderella (bonus points for that user name), ParanoidHeathen, imbeciI, sally-draper, asdruball, captnkurt, unkinhead, MontyBrooks328, narcolepticwalrus, propagandu, TurtleOnCinderblock, WildlifeAnalysis, d1m108l, ThatDeviantGuy, IsaacJDean, kerrkerrkerr, Apolinario13, narrator_uncredited, lolilluminati and printculture.
This video essay includes clips from:


The Matrix [feature film] Dir. Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski. Silver Pictures, USA, 1999. 136 mins.
The Godfather: Part III [feature film] Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Zoetrope Studios, USA, 1990. 162 mins.
Mon Oncle [feature film] Dir. Jacques Tati. Specta films et al., France, 1958. 117 mins.
2001: A Space Odyssey [feature film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick Productions, UK / USA, 1968. 149 mins.
Lost in Translation [feature film] Dir. Sofia Coppola. American Zoetrope et al., USA, 2003. 101 mins.
On the Waterfront [feature film] Dir. Elia Kazan. Horizon Pictures et al., USA, 1954. 108 mins.
The Graduate [feature film] Dir. Mike Nichols. Lawrence Turman, USA, 1967. 106 mins.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner [feature film] Dir. Tony Richardson. Woodfall Film Productions, UK, 1962. 104 mins.
North by Northwest [feature film] Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, USA, 1959. 136 mins.
In the Mood for Love [feature film] Dir. Kar-Wai Wong. Block 2 Pictures et al., Hong Kong / China, 2000. 158 mins.
The Martian [feature film] Dir. Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions et al., USA, 2015. 144 mins.
Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie [feature film] Dir. Luis Buñuel. Greenwich Film Productions, France, 1972. 102 mins.
The Conversation [feature film] Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. American Zoetrope et al., USA, 1974. 113 mins.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [feature film] Dir. David Lynch. Twin Peaks Productions et al., USA, 1992. 135 mins.
La Dolce Vita [feature film] Dir. Federico Fellini. Riama Film et al., Italy, 1960. 174 mins.