When synchronized sound and dialogue became integrated into cinema in the late 1920s, many filmmakers feared it would destroy the art of film. Having earned its place among other well-respected art mediums like literature and painting, the addition of sound was not readily accepted due to its threat to potentially cheapen the industry and produce content that was no different than filmed theatre. Indeed, there were filmmakers that did produce such films. Marcel Pagnol is one of those directors. With films like Marius (1931) there is little to nothing to say of the film’s artistic merit. Rather, the camera stays static and predictable, and the constant dialogue is more of a crutch than anything else. In spite of this trend, there were filmmakers like Reneé Clair who were still dedicated to the purity and art of Cinema. The following films are broken down into genres that typically rely on dialogue, so this excludes the more avant-garde of genres (Kenneth Anger, for example). These are some of my favorite films that have synchronized sound, yet choose to use it in a different way. Sound is still integral to the artistry, yet the dialogue is sparse and used only when absolutely necessary.
5) Romantic Comedy: Le Million (1931)
Typically rom-coms are heavily reliant on dialogue for clever repartee, quick quips, and lengthy proclamations of love. Clair made Le Million with the intention of juxtaposing the work of Pagnol and others like him. One could argue that in a film like Marius, sound is occasionally used in creative ways (boat horns and whistles can be heard throughout the film as a way of conveying the protagonist’s desire to return to sea), but it was not enough for Clair. It is immediately evident when watching Le Million that its use of sound is entirely inventive and creative. Among countless examples, a favorite is when the two quarreling lovers accidentally make their way on stage during an opera. They manage to hide in the back, and as we hear the real time, diegetic opera singing, it becomes clear that the lyrics coincide with the two lovers, as it urges them to make up. The two lovers never speak a word, but thanks to the opera singers, who we occasionally see as well, you are able to discern exactly what is happening, and the context of the scene.
4) Action: The Driver (1978) and Drive (2011)
Drive is not a straightforward remake of The Driver, in fact it pays homage to an array of films. However, both of these films stray away from the standard action screenplays, laden with dialogue and one-liners. Both feature dark loners referred to only as “The Driver,” as they drive the getaway cars after robberies. They are both at once the hero and the villain. Both lean more towards the action itself than unnecessary exposition. This tactic was impressive and uncommon in the late seventies, and it was still just as unfamiliar in 2011.
3) Thriller: Under the Skin (2014)
Jonathan Glazer’s distinctive film dips its toes in a few different genres, like horror and sci-fi, but regardless of the genre, the result remains utterly thrilling. It managed to be completely bizarre, innovative, alienating—and yet remained at the top of almost every best film list of 2014. It was concentrated, agonizingly suspenseful, and a truly gorgeous film. Scarlett Johansson stars as “The Female” who seduces men in Scotland as she begins to become more self-aware. It manages to be rich and full while remaining completely sparse.
2) Sci-Fi: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It’s confounding how a movie so grand in scope is able to remain such a minimal film. Groundbreaking at the time of its release, it still stands as a refreshing, shining example of what film can be capable of. After about the first twenty minutes of set-up, the remainder of the film focuses only on Dave, who is on a mission to uncover an artificial object under the lunar surface, and the ominous HAL 9000. There are lengthy stretches with no dialogue, where the neon visuals and sounds of space completely overwhelm you.
1) Comedy: Every single movie by Jacques Tati
All right, so I copped out by not choosing one. How could I? Excluding his shorts and T.V movie Parade (1974), Tati has directed only five films. Yet he stands as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, with a staggeringly impressive (albeit small) body of work. Tati began his career as a mime, which is unsurprising if you’ve ever seen a Tati film. In any one of his films, the spoken word is an afterthought, and words are rarely (if ever) the source of a punch line. Most of Tati’s jokes are sight gags, masterfully set up, and expertly executed. His gags avoid becoming merely slapstick by approaching the genre in a way that has yet to be trumped. Beyond just sight gags, Tati incorporates sounds that are just as important as the gags that require you to keep a watchful eye. The juxtaposition of the rural pre-war Paris, and the technologically driven modern-day Paris is highlighted by sound—in Mon Oncle (1958), the beloved character M. Hulot (played by Tati himself, who reprises his role in almost every one of his films) embodies the carefree, simpler town where the music and chatter in the streets seems to be unending. His sister, however, lives in cold, sleek modern house where the only noises seem to be the clacking of her heels on the concrete floor, and the trickling of the fish fountain (which is brilliantly used as a way to announce formal guests—a recurring sound gag that the audience grows to expect). Similarly in Playtime (1967), the disconnection between people is made abundantly clear with the bizarre noises that come from complicated technology, or even a chair in a waiting room. It’s only when all hell breaks lose in a restaurant that Hulot’s carefree, messy attitude clashes with the reserved tendencies of those around him—but eventually harmony is found between the two. These are just two tiny examples out of literally thousands, making this section the meager tip of the Tati iceberg. Suffice it to say, when it comes to cultivating a completely original way to use sound and not rely on dialogue, Tati is the master. While Tati’s films are technically complex and require an attentive viewer, Tati also urges the viewer to approach his films with leisure. When watching Tati it is best to not pick apart his films meticulously (though many scholars have, and it is certainly a rewarding task), but instead to watch with pure enjoyment. Repeated viewings are encouraged, and I guarantee you’ll have a different experience each time.
The following clip has no subtitles, but you’ll notice it really doesn’t matter:
And as a bonus, here’s David Lynch talking about Tati, who happens to be one of his greatest influences:
Honorable Mentions: Animated: Wall-E (2008). Children’s film: Red Balloon (1956). Adventure: All is Lost (2013). Romantic comedy: Lost in Translation (2003).
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.