The Cinematography of Retrospection in Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One

Screen Shot 2020-04-30 at 4.57.02 PM

by Meagan Johnson, Joon Choi, Meira Chasman, Matthew Martinez, Dylan Kanaan


As Alex reminisces, there is an intertwining of two contrasting scenes: the funeral of his presumed deceased wife and their joyous wedding day. This style of cinematography and editing closely resembles cross-cutting; this ultimately promotes the feeling of parallel action. Cross-cutting is defined as the switching back and forth between two or more scenes in different locations that appear to be occurring simultaneously. Tension is increased as the cinematographer accelerates the rhythm of the cross-cutting.

The frequent cuts between the funeral and the wedding show that even his happiest memories with her are tainted by the trauma he has experienced.  In Alex’s drunken state of grief, the audience is aware of Alex’s innocence. He is devastated by the death of his wife, confused by the events that unfolded that night on the lake, and desperately holds on to his memories of her. The two contrasting scenes interact to demonstrate the emotional toll of Margot’s death. Although detectives begin to vilify Alex, the audience is reassured of his faithfulness to Margot. Simply put, Alex is a victim of an absolute tragedy and must deal with the shock of losing his childhood love. The audience holds faith in Alex as the film continues and suspicions of his involvement intensify. 


The sequence cuts between four different events in time: present-day Alexandre, his wedding, Margot’s funeral, and a childhood memory. The shots of Alexandre drinking in his room are closeups with a shallow depth of field. These shots use a telephoto lens to keep a significant portion of the frame out of focus, which helps to demonstrate both his drunkenness and his loneliness. In these shots, the camera is also typically handheld and lightly shaking, and this also helps understand his delirious and sad mental state. 

Meanwhile, the shots of the morgue that are interspersed in this sequence are completely symmetrical, everything is in focus, and the camera is not handheld, so the motion is much smoother. This makes this setting feel like it is the most grounded in reality out of all the locations shown. The ordered, almost matter-of-fact cinematography of the morgue is jarring when juxtaposed with the other settings.

Both the wedding and funeral scenes track the attendees in the same direction and use close ups and similar color schemes so that the two events meld together more seamlessly. 

Finally, the childhood flashbacks have a very different color scheme and lighting style from the rest of the memories in the sequence which distinguishes this particular setting as more idealistic or dreamlike than even the other happy memories like the wedding. 


There are multiple different settings that this sequence takes place in; each setting uses its source of lighting as a means to set the emotional tone and subtly express the mood for the specific shot.

In the first shot, Alex is reminiscing about his wedding with Margot while simultaneously remembering her funeral. He is in his bedroom, which is dimly lit by his bedside lamp and it conveys a somber tone for the proceeding frames. The next scene is of Margot’s coffin being conveyed into a furnace for cremation–an emphasis on the burning flames. This is another dimly lit scene; there is soft lighting that gives Alex soft shadows that accentuate the sadness and emotion on his face.

The wedding scene that immediately follows is shot in daylight and generates a happier sentiment. As the scenes start to overlay on top of each other; shots of Alex in his room, the wedding, and the funeral. The different sources of lighting and levels of lighting dramatize the different mood of each scene while bringing out the emotional subtleties. People at the wedding seem to be glowing with their smiles, at the funeral, although the scenes are somewhat light, there seems to be apparent darkness coinciding with their tears, and the darkest scenes of all, are Alex alone in his bedroom remembering these moments.

Then, the sequence cuts to memories from Alex’s childhood with Margot. These shots look overly lit, almost like they’re glowing. This is another happy memory, just like the wedding; yet, the lighting makes the shot look surreal or dreamlike. This pattern of lighting that dictates the mood and emotion of the shot continues when the coffin gets closed inside the furnace and darkness consumes the screen other than the fire that is preparing to turn the coffin into ash. We get a glimpse of Margot swimming in the lake that also has a similar dreamlike quality to it and then suddenly the coffin gets engulfed in flames and it overwhelms the screen. The sequence ends with Alex washing his face in a sink at the hospital. In this shot, there is normal fluorescent hospital lighting and with this shift in lighting, it’s as if Alex is woken back up into reality. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s