Cinema is a sophisticated art and never hesitates to cross the screen’s boundaries to play a game with the viewer. One of its methods caught our attention this week : when we see a character deliver a sentence or a secret to another, without being able to hear it. We’ve tried to browse some of these sequences to understand their meaning.
Don’t take offence at my innuendo
The first and most obvious purpose of these sequences is to allow a character to mutter something dirty under his breath. Pros : this open secret builds up affinity with the viewer, and such a hint hardly ever offends. Here in Avengers:
In How I Met Your Mother‘s season 4, Barney whispers a joke that we never get to hear in the ear of Lily. In this case, it’s the other way around, we’re supposed to be shocked: by making the joke unspeakable, it lets our imagination run free. Furthermore, the joke has to be so awful as to make Alyson Hannigan’s character leave the group of friends, to let the actress give birth to her baby.
Building a mystery
What’s more mysterious than a whisper ? One of the benefits of this kind of scene is to foster the enigmatic atmosphere of a film. The illustrations we’ve chosen are all clips from movies well-known for their cryptic nature.
In Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick does a bad bad thing, in line with the lustful quest of the main character. He leads us in the exploration of a (sexual) fantasy world complete with subconscious desires, suggestive scenes and things left unsaid. Typically, we’ll never know what Leelee Sobieski murmurs to Tom Cruise.
We do end up to know what Roberta Sparrow says in Donnie Darko. But let’s be honest, what’s more creepy than an old lady’s voice rustling in your ears?
This is even more obvious in Twin Peaks. In the beginning, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has a dream in which Laura Palmer divulges the name of her murderer. But he has forgotten this revelation by the time he wakes up. The intent behind this scene ? To frustrate and titillate the curiosity of the viewer while cultivating the uncanny eeriness of the series.
This suspense is killing me
At the end of Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper’s character reunites with his ex-wife and talks to her briefly while Jennifer Lawrence’s character watches. The sole purpose of this sequence ? Suspense. We’re seeing it from her point of view, and don’t know the nature of his declaration – love, or else ? The happy end of the movie depends on it.
Taking this one to the grave
Generally, these sequences are even more significant when they allow characters to afford some privacy. By giving them the right to communicate away from our prying eyes and ears, it makes them have a life and an actuality of their own. This is a way to enhance the viewer’s identification; the onlooker might paradoxically feel closer to fictional beings when they elude and exclude him or her. On the other hand, not partaking in the secret can result in a different emotional impact, more delicate and restrained, with a poetic dimension. Of course, the most striking instance of such a stolen moment is the final scene of Lost in Translation, full of grace and feelings.
In the Mood for Love has a sequence with a similar meaning, except that Tony Leung’s character doesn’t confide in someone else but in a stone wall : his secret is beyond our reach but left to be kept by the elements.
It’s very different in Mulholland Drive, but no less interesting. The secret between Laura Harring’s and Melissa George’s characters makes the former even more elusive : no one knows her past, her intimacy can’t be reached. She existed way before we lay eyes on her. We understand Naomi Watts’ jealousy because we share her position, we’re passive, powerless watchers who won’t ever have a grip on the whole situation and might react violently. A nice metaphor of the movie itself !
There are many other sequences of that kinds, with many other meanings. Let us know your favorite examples in the comments !
Still in a secrecy mood ? Here’s a whisper supercut :