A film festival has a lot in common with an art gallery. How you respond to a film mostly depends on the film, but to some degree it also depends on the films to either side. I probably have this image in my mind because I just saw the wonderful animated film Le Tableau, in which the people inside a painting climb out and go looking for their artist, discovering in the process that theirs is only one painting among many on the walls of his studio; the fact that this is the set of metaphors ready to my hand when I go to write about the way films talk to each other at a festival illustrates the point nicely.
Mostly the connections that crop up in my mind as I bounce from film to film are ephemeral and meaningless, though that doesn’t lessen their strangeness in the short term. By the end of my second full day of festival-going, I had seen six dogs killed in five different films. Canine fatality is a curious thing to find yourself becoming randomly sensitised to, but there it is: I would have loved Costa Botes’ The Last Dogs of Winter anyway, but by the time I got to it I was especially warmed to discover that all the dogs make it out alive. (Despite some lively interactions with a large supporting cast of polar bears). On the other hand, my six-dead-dog count was becoming enough of an obsession that I actually got into a conversation with someone about whether a briefly glimpsed creature in a certain high profile horror movie had been a wolfman, and whether it had died, and whether it was taxonomically bankrupt for me to count it as a dog death if it had. (Answer: it’s cool you enjoy your work. Get some sleep, guy).
But here’s an interesting and possibly even useful connection: in one day at the festival, I saw three book-to-film adaptations. One of them was fatally undermined by its failure to use voiceover narration. The second was a shining example of how to interpret text in visual terms, so that not only did it not need voiceover, it needed very little dialogue. The third used voiceover so insistently that it would not have required much tweaking to become a radio play.
I’m not opposed to voiceover on principle. It’s just another tool. But I’ve become increasingly allergic to its use as an alternative to thinking visually. If the reason you want there to be a voice telling your audience things is that you can’t figure out any other way to get information across, why are you making a film in the first place? This is a syndrome particularly common in adaptations of novels, because novels generally have more story in them than a film can easily accommodate, and also generally have chunks of text describing subjective experience. There are ways in which film can be far more information-rich than text can, but exploiting these to compress narration or express subjectivity is a lot harder than just getting someone to read bits of the book out loud.
I’ve rarely seen this better demonstrated than in The Wall (Die Wand), director and screenwriter Julian Roman Polsier’s adaptation of the German novel of the same name. An astonishingly high percentage of the film’s informational content consists of its protagonist reading us her diary, which I take to be a verbatim transcript of the novel.
You can see why Polsier took this route. This is a story with only one character to speak of, a woman who goes into the mountains for a brief holiday and finds herself trapped inside an invisible force-bubble, which appears to wall off a large region from the outside world. The handful of figures she can see on the far side of the wall appear frozen in time.
It’s an intriguing conceit, which the story unfortunately has no interest in. Our narrator/protagonist accepts very quickly that the wall is there and that everyone on the far side is dead (dead? Then why do their bodies never decompose?), and she tries none of the obvious experiments for getting past it except for crashing a car into it and nearly getting herself killed. The mix of half-hearted escape attempt and not-quite-suicide attempt combines with her lack of curiosity about her situation to suggest she’s well on the way to some species of dissociative depressive disorder even before we meet her: depression and isolation being the area of the film’s real interest. You don’t have to take this from me. If you’re so inclined, you can listen to the German voiceover and read the subtitles and you’ll have it all laid out for you. What it is to be alone. How we survive ourselves. What it is to have a self when there are no other selves. Stop me if you’ve heard this song before.
My frustration with the film is partly that of the English-language science fiction fan contronted with German existentialist musings kitted out in an ill-chosen SF hat. But even had the story dealt with its premise a little less glibly, or chosen a different one that would have yielded a similar scenario via a less distracting route (post-environmental-apocalypse isolation is a popular meme these days), the ceaseless talk, talk, talk is clearly a result of someone thinking, “Hmm, the book was in the first person, let’s just have her read it, that’ll work for the fans”, and never revisiting the decision or pondering its consequences. It makes for a thuddingly heavy viewing experience. It also denies us the chance to hear the endless, eery silence of an empty world. We’re not really in an empty world. We’re in an undergraduate philosophy seminar, listening to someone who’s just discovered Nietzsche and Won’t. Stop. Talking.
Compare and contrast: Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Here, now, is a film. Arnold also had the option of explanatory voiceover, and a great deal of narrative to explain – the book covers decades of time, and it’s told in a series of nested first person narratives, with our primary narrator relating a story someone else told him. Neither of these two narrators is at all central to the story, though they each have enough interesting work to do around the edges that you could build them into a TV version easily enough. Arnold wastes no time on them. She strips the story to its core, which is to say she opens with the boy Heathcliff arriving at Wuthering Heights, and lets us follow his relationship with Cathy as it develops through the years, rather than in flashback.
She also opts to make Heathcliff black. There’s some support for this in the novel, though a close reading doesn’t really leave room for it; Heathcliff is dark-skinned and is refered to at one point as a “Lascar”, the mixed race sailing caste who did a lot of the scut work on the Indian and African trading ships, but he’s also described as a Gypsy, and various bits of dialogue imply that his features are hard to pin down in racial terms. The more interesting question is whether making him black feeds into the film usefully, and it clearly does, both in the abstract (Heathcliff’s treatment by other characters and his angry pride make perfect sense if you think of him as a black orphan in Nineteenth century England) and in terms of the actors Arnold has found to play him as boy and man.
“Is it useful for the film?” is evidently the question Arnold asked at every turn of this project, and note that the key word here is “film”. She manages to tell this wordy story with an absolute minimum of dialogue, turning a visual study of the life of the moors – birds, plants, the changing seasons – into an expressive language which conveys just as much meaning as the characters’ faces. And the characters are required to convey a lot of meaning through facial expression; they don’t talk much. (When they do, they often use language Emily Bronte might have blushed at – or might not, which is an interesting question to ponder – and which she certainly could not have got into print). A single example: when Cathy is first coaxing Heathcliff into friendship, having initially made an enemy of him by spitting in his face after her father suggested they might become friends (not a tame miss, Cathy), she shows him some of the feathers she’s collected from the wild birds on the moors. The camera closes on the feathers, and lets us study them. They’re beautiful. Several times after that, we see birds flying free over the hills, either in close-up or from a distance.
Much later – you know this story, right? It seems odd to post a spoiler warning for a book published in 1847, but here you go: spoiler warning. Much later, after Cathy has acquired a taste for finer things and married the well-to-do milksop Edgar Linton, Heathcliff visits her and notices a little bird in a cage. The camera lingers on it for a moment.
This would amount to the clumsiest of symbolic sign posts in isolation, but it’s not in isolation. Because Arnold builds the natural world into her visual storytelling throughout the film, this is just one word in an ongoing silent sentence. It doesn’t seem heavy-handed. It seems eloquent.
I could stop here, and have myself a nice “voiceover bad!” moral. But inconveniently, there’s also Farewell My Queen to consider. This adaptation of a French novel about the final days of Versailles, as viewed by a servant to Marie-Antoinette, avoids voiceover until its very last seconds, opting to convey its story purely through dialogue, facial expression and observed action. If only I didn’t have to say this: it needs more voiceover desperately.
It isn’t that Diane Kruger and Lea Seydoux, who play Marie-Antoinette and her reader, Sidonie, are limited actresses. They do everything that could reasonably be expected of them. The problem, very simply, is that Sidonie is fixated on Marie-Antoinette to the point of essentially trying to live a vicarious life through her, which means the film is about someone whose real focus is on someone she hardly ever sees. Sidonie has no interest in her own life, so we find out next to nothing about her, and whatever it is that feeds her passion for Marie-Antoinette is either in her past, or deep inside her head: places a novel can go easily, and a film can go only via devices like flashback or voiceover, which this one opts not to use, or via exceptionally good acting, cinematography and editing. What we get here seems like perfectly competent historical drama, viewed minute by minute, but in the aggregate it becomes lifeless and boring. Its center is hollow. The lesson, I think, is that we either need fewer novel adaptations, or more Andrea Arnolds.