Film & TV Review & Analysis

The Power of Silence in Cinema

A look at how A Quiet Place and Portrait of a Lady on Fire wielded their minimal dialogue and soundtrack to elevate and invigorate the focus on both sound and image.

This was originally published on Vocal (15.04.20)

When we watch movies and television, commenting on and admiring the cinematography, acting, styling, and score is pretty customary. After all, cinema is mostly defined and looked upon as a story told through a series of moving images.

But there is one defining factor that, if done well, usually goes unnoticed, but if done poorly will immediately take you out of an otherwise immersive experience – and that is sound editing.

If you are a film student or filmmaker, I’m sure you understand exactly what I’m talking about. You can have the best camera, the best lighting, the best actors – but if your sound isn’t clear, soft, and rounded, the quality of the rest of the equipment really doesn’t make that much of a difference; your film is amateur.

And anyone, regardless of their film knowledge, will be able to tell straight away. But the moment that you get your well recorded sound gets synchronized to your footage, the moment the two entities of audio and visuals blend together, your story becomes realized.

The sound of cinema is obviously so much more than just a matter of mic quality. It is the diegetic noises fulfilling the character’s world, it’s the foley background sounds added in post, it’s the emphasis on a creaking floorboard, the bwwweoombb of a lightsaber.

These sounds are mostly just blended into the background, filling in the holes of the dialogue and score at the front lines. It is the egg in the batter that binds it all together, and you don’t really notice it. You’re not supposed to notice it.

But what if you removed those front lines? If you removed the epic score and passionate conversation? If suddenly, everything was quiet, and you had to tell your story only through glances and the sound chirping crickets?

A Quiet Place (2018)

John Krasinski and Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place.

In 2018, John Krasinski’s directorial debut A Quiet Place hit the theatres. Set in an apocalyptic world where humans have to hide in silence from noise-sensitive monsters, a family is forced to communicate through sign language to stay alive.

A gasp too high, a sigh too deep- any reaction that would linger through soundwaves could potentially resolve in instant death. The lack of sound and dialogue could maybe make you fear that the story would quickly run redundant and lethargic.

But in the case of A Quiet Place, the silence required presented a unique opportunity to envoke a much deeper, communal terror within the audience.

It’s the contrast that gives you the drama. When you can go from very quiet to very big which allows us to explore and create an incredible story for the audience to experience.

Sound editor Ethan Van der Ryn for Variety

Millicent Simmonds (front) and Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place.

When sitting in a theatre, crunching down on snacks, gasping, laughing, maybe even whispering something to your mate next to you (please don’t do that though) is all quite common. Hell, I remember last May when I had a terrible, constant cough and was able to sit through John Wick 3 and go completely unnoticed just because of how loud it was.

But when you sit down to watch A Quiet Place, it does not take long before you make the decision to put that popcorn away and sit back with your mouth zipped shut.

Deprived from our usual audible stimulation, suddenly what you before would have barely noticed carries the same intensity as that of a Hans Zimmer score. A hand gliding down the handrail of a staircase, a footstep in seeping sand, the flickering sound of leaves in the wind…

And then, when a lantern shatters, and screeching monsters come chasing, the audio assaults you with vigour, heightening the climax by its contrast.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Adèle Haenel as Héloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Isolated on an island in Brittany, France 1770, a romance between a painter and her subject unfolds steadily. After coming home from a convent, Héloïse finds herself promised in marriage to a Milanese man she has never met.

In her silent protest, she refuses to pose for the wedding portrait to be painted of her. And so when Marianne is commissioned to paint said portrait, she must do so under the pretence of walking companion where she secretly observes Héloïse’s facial features to paint from memory at night.

With already little to no dialogue, Portrait took it one step further than A Quiet Place and chose to have no soundtrack – all sounds and music were to be completely diegetic (sounds organic to the setting/world). Yet, it might still have some of the most powerful musical moments in cinema.

Noemié Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (Héloïse) together in Portrait.

As scenes go on, and their hearts unveil, the silence holds you by your throat as you itch for their eyes to meet. Never has a glance completely unprovoked by words been so powerful, nor the softest touch so chilling.

There is a moment mid-through were the women gather at the beach by a bonfire, and a female choir breaks into a folk-like anthem. As their voices rise, Héloïse and Marianne’s eyes are locked at each other through the fire. In that moment, they are the fire.

Up until that point, my breath had been held still as I let the film wash over me, but as that music played and so many words were said but not spoken, I couldn’t help but break into tears.

The gentle silence leading up to that moment had left me so tense and vulnerable – the touch of their symphonised voices on fire was climatic, orgasmic.

Writer/director Celine Sciamma on the decision of not having a score:

“I didn’t want you to have it if [the characters] didn’t. Because it’s all about sharing that experience.”

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place

Although polar opposite genres, the silence and lack of dialogue brought out the same thing in A Quiet Place and Portrait of a Lady on Fire: intensity.

For A Quiet Place that meant that you were pulled through the same horror and fear that the family in the movie was. It meant that the anticipation of sound or the mere crack of an autumn leaf would have you bite your tongue and hug your pillow.

For Portrait it meant a pure and undisturbed gaze. It meant that as Marianne observed Héloïse’s features and mannerisms, so did you, and as she fell in love with her, so did you.

For both of the films, it also meant focused attention; you couldn’t just look at your phone or scroll through your feed or text a friend the same way that 45% of Americans do while watching movies and TV.

Your eyes had to be glued to the screen because that is the only way to follow along without genuinely missing anything. Because of this, every frame and every noise were elevated and became so much more powerful than that which filler dialogue and rollercoaster soundtracks could ever have provided.

“When you take away that security blanket, when you get so quiet, people start to lean forward, and they start to hold their breath and get quiet themselves, and become aware of the sounds they are making. In a way, making the audience really an active participant in the experience of the film.”

Erik Aadahl, A Quiet Place sound editor for The Verge.

By malinevita

I talk and write about things I find interesting.

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