Expressing Doubt in Tell No One

by Tomas, Ashwin, Meira, Shahrez, and Matthew

The greatest feeling experienced upon first watching Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One is a sense of confusion, underpinned by an overwhelming sensation of uncertainty. This doubt both emerges from and pervades the film: the characters are suspicious of one another, the film’s timing and events are frequently called into question. By separating the film into it’s basic aspects, we hope to interrogate the ways in which this experience is created throughout the film, and for what purpose.

Cinematography

Cinematography plays the foremost role in creating the viewer’s experience of the film’s themes of doubt and its resolution. Starting off with how the film is shot, we see a few different techniques depending on the setting and how the story is progressing. We see wider shots in the start and end of the movie, which all look very similar due to the setting being the same. Most of everything that takes place in between, however, is far more focused on Alex and what he is going through rather than wider shots showcasing the environment and setting, with a lot of close ups on him with a shallow depth of field to emphasize the state of doubt and confusion he is in for majority of the movie. 

As such, to amplify these feelings of doubt and confusion, many of the camera dynamics in this middle portion, including the action scenes, consist of handheld shaky camera movements rather than mounted shots or tracking shots, even in setting that we visit in the beginning and end of the movie in markedly different circumstances, which are accompanied by very different camera movements as well. 

A significant and noticeable break in the movie’s fast pace and less traditional camera movements comes in the scene in the park where Alex is presumably waiting for Margot to meet him. The audience at this point is not entirely sure either about what exactly Margot’s fate was and whether it really has been her sending all these messages to Alex. And in resolving this doubt for the audience, the movie uses slow motion and lighting very similar to the scenes by the lake at the start and end of the film. However, with Alex not being able to see her and still not being aware of her presence there, they are never both in focus in the same shot, as our protagonist’s doubts have not yet been resolved. 

While the depth of field is so as to keep one of the two out of focus in any given shot in this scene, as Alex stands at the tree where the two used to go routinely, he begins to realize that Margot is behind him without even needing to look. As his mind is cleared of all doubt that it is indeed Margot behind him, both of them come into focus after there initially being a shallow depth of field focusing on Alex only. The wide-angle lens allows for there to be a medium long shot rather than the close ups and medium close ups we have been seeing for most of the film when it tracks back and deepens the depth of field as clarity is finally achieved and doubt is resolved. 

As this full picture comes into view, the camera tilts upward and back downward to show wide shots of the lake from when the two were children, and along with many of the shots that are framed and lit exactly as they are in the beginning of the movie, the film comes full circle and provides resolution to its themes of doubt and confusion.

Mise en scene

Hand in hand with its cinematography, the film’s mise en scene maintains the proper environment for the film’s uncertainties to develop. The first example of how staging can create doubt is in the opening scene when Margot is thought to be murdered. Canet has Margot far in the shot here and while Alex is not present, there is an implied deep staging and distance between the two. The deep staging is a contrast to the shallow staging previously depicted, which emphasized the intimacy between Alex and Margot and their happy life. The break from shallow-staging introduces the idea that the happy marriage between Margot and Alex could be disrupted, thus creating doubt in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to the deep staging in this scene, Canet also employs low-key lighting in the scene. There are a lot of shadows cast across the water and on Margot herself, and the noir-like lighting in this scene not only creates doubt as to whether Margot is safe, but also establishes the film as a mystery. Margot almost appears as a silhouette in this scene, creating the initial impression that her presence may not be a given for the foreseeable future and providing room for doubt in the viewer’s mind. The combination of deep staging and low-key lighting in the opening scene creates an atmosphere of doubt that serves as the film’s inciting incident.

While mise en scene can help create doubt in Tell No One, it also serves to help remove some of that doubt. An example of this can be seen through the decor choices in the closing minutes of the film after Alex learns the truth from Margot’s father. Alex is driving the same car that he drove in the lake scene at the beginning of the film and passes along the same country road, with the camera moving to show the ‘Lac Charmaine’ sign from the beginning of the film. Additionally, the rose-lined path to the tree where Alex and Margot had carved their initials as children remains, with new lines being drawn in the years since she had allegedly died.

By including these pieces of decor in the final scene of the film, Canet portrays how doubt is erased from Alex’s mind in a setting that is associated with a more absolute truth (the love he has for Margot) that is in contrast to the constant doubt and shifting circumstances that he experienced throughout the events of the film.

Editing

Modifying the images created through the film’s cinematography and mise en scene is its editing. The film’s editing creates doubt by arranging its shots in ways which highlight the uncertainty of its situation. This is exemplified by the flashback, the device by which the film’s doubts are resolved. On the level of editing, the flashback struggles to present past events in continuity with those established in previously-shown sequences. The scene near the film’s conclusion at the home of Margot’s father exemplifies this; his confession of past events prompts several shots revealing the true events of the night of Margot’s supposed death. As her father Jacques explains that Neuville hired the men who attacked Alex and Margot at the lake, there is a cut between a close-up of his face as he speaks to Alex, and a long shot over his shoulder which reveals him watching Margot moments before she is attacked by Bartola and Pagnac. This cut rewrites previously established events in the film’s narrative, which would ordinarily be a questionable choice as it breaks the film’s realism. However, the cut contains this unbelievability within Jacques’ character. The over-the-shoulder shot which begins the flashback establishes that the following events are being shown from his perspective, and by concluding the flashbacks with the same shot of him (falsely) identifying the body re-establishes the film’s continuity. 

The flashback emerges in order to fill the gaps in the narrative which drive its action. Just as editing techniques  help to facilitate these revisions, they call attention to the unexplained events which necessitate them. One of the most distinct devices used for this purpose is the insert shot.  For example, after Alex questions Jacques about his discovery of Margot’s “body”, the police arrive at Jacques’ house with the photos of Margot beaten up. Shortly after, Jacques asks his wife to leave the room. When Jacques questions if they spoke to Alex, the police tell him that he left with a lawyer. As they ask “Does that sound like an innocent man to you?” the scene cuts to an insert shot of Jacques’ wife crying on the stairs. Beyond the confusion created by the photos of Margot, that the film stresses this image of distress suggests that there is a greater tragedy at play. It is never made explicit that Jacques’ wife knew the truth about Margot, but her certainty of Alex’s innocence creates ambiguity as to who her tears are for: her daughter, or her son-in-law. In this way, editing is used to raise the stakes of the film’s events, building towards its climactic revelation.

Music

Tell No One relies on two forms of music: the score, which is a blend of piano, soft electric guitar, and violins, and the soundtrack, which mainly consists of American pop and soul music. I am going to primarily focus on the score, because I feel like that contributed the most to the sense of doubt that permeates the movie. This score tends to come up during moments of chaos, doubt, and all the various twists and turns that the movie goes through.

It is interesting that the composer decided to rely on softer, more somber sounds to portray stressful situations, rather than a faster-paced, more high pitched score. The score does not just portray Alexandre’s doubt and confusion: it also portrays the tragic nature of the situation. The score reminds the viewer that this is more than just a mystery with twists and turns: the plot is fueled by love and sadness, and so a score that would be more in line with an action movie does not really fit.

We hear the main theme of the movie for the first time when Alexandre sees his wife on the webcam in his office (23:35). Slowly, a somber blend of piano and guitar begin to play as everything that Alexandre thought he knew is called into question. This is the moment that he begins to doubt the story about her death that he was told, and even his own account of the events. This revelation is clearly on his mind when he goes to visit his in laws, and so during the drive there, the score’s volume and intensity increases. It switches from mainly slow piano to reliance on guitar. The confusion that he is feeling is demonstrated through the music.

The score returns during Jacques’ first flashback. The sad mix of piano and guitar plays as he identifies the body. This second revelation confuses Alexandre even more, because he seems to have confirmation that his wife is dead, and yet he just saw her. Once again, the score accompanies a mood of uncertainty resulting from the conflicting information he hears, in addition to the pain of digging up old emotions.

This music returns after Alexandre talks to Margot’s friend about the mysterious pictures of her covered in bruises. As he leaves, he sees one of Neuville’s henchmen watching him, which drives his paranoia and uncertainty even further. The music continues as we cut to him frantically rummaging through the old storage unit for helpful information. The score represents the Alexandre’s inner doubt that accompanies each new revelation or suspicion, in addition to the fear that he is being framed.

Finally, during the climax of the movie, when Jacques reveals the entire story to Alexandre, the score is surprisingly absent. There is no sound besides for the dialogue between the two of them. This is because new information is no longer meant to confuse Alexandre and the viewer; finally, once the whole picture is clear, the music that represents the confusion of conflicting, constantly shifting information is no longer needed.

The score is used in cases of other revelations and moments of doubt, but I thought that listing one after another would feel repetitive. Overall, the use of the score reflects the increased levels of confusion and uncertainty felt by both Alexandre and the viewer throughout the film. It represents the fact that learning more information will often lead to more questions rather than less, and these new questions can take an emotional toll on a person, especially when connected to a lost love.

Narrative and 3-Act Structure

The narrative and 3-act structure that is at play in Tell No One, cater to the residing themes of doubt and intrigue and culminate in resolving said doubt. Tell No One partakes in a typical 3-act structure: act 1, sets up the narrative of the film and is broken up into two time periods that allow the narrative to be pushed forward and bring forth the central dilemma of the protagonist Alex; act 2 deals with the ups and downs of Alex’s adventure to find out the truth about his wife that coincides with a series of confrontations; act 3, culminates in Alex finding out the answers he’s been searching for and leaving all the doubt he had about the truth behind him. 

To amplify doubt and intrigue, in act 1, the narrative pulls us 8 years forward into the present, the day before the anniversary of Margot’s death/disappearance. With that jump forward in time, the viewer can’t help but question the series of events they have just seen, but also what has transpired over those years.

The inciting incident that takes place during the first act, in which Alex receives a mysterious email with a recent video of Margot, drives the narrative and feelings of doubt and intrigue forward. After receiving this video, the truth of what happened on the night Margot disappeared comes into question, and Alex must seek out the truth.

As the film progresses into act 2, Alex’s investigation into his wife’s disappearance coincides with the police’s investigation of Alex’s part in it, and this acts as the narratives rising action that culminates in the film’s midpoint where Alex is framed for the murder of Florence, the photographer. The midpoint not only marks a significant setback for Alex in his search for his wife but creates doubt about Alex within the narrative, as now he is seen as a wanted fugitive. 

Alex’s lowest point at the end of act 2, occurs when he catches a glimpse of Margot leaving the park but is unable to catch her. This is the first time in the film that Margot is seen in the flesh, and there is no longer doubt that she is alive. But as Alex is attempting to catch up with her, he is abducted by Bernard and his people. The feeling of doubt is still furthered by the questions of Bernard’s part in all of this. 

The dénouement/resolution and climax of act 3 occurs when Margot’s dad tells Alex the truth about what happened the night of Margot’s disappearance. In this scene, all the previous doubt, mystery, and intrigue is resolved as Alex finally has a clear answer. After a great deal of turmoil, Alex and Margot are finally reunited. 

Tell No One gives a perfect example of how narrative and the 3-act structure play a vital role in creating themes within a story. As a mystery/thriller, the narrative and the 3-act structure continuously cast doubt on what the viewer knows or thinks they know until those feelings of doubt are resolved in the final act. 

Naturally, the film’s genre consolidates its devices into a central meaning. In conclusion, Tell No One‘s sense of doubt serves in order to build tension in the plot per the generic standards of a mystery. However, in separately analyzing how each aspect of the film creates this sensation, it is possible to better identify the moments in the film that are successful in their coordination of different film techniques (as could be expected, the film’s climax and conclusion are of note in every section) as well as the ways in which the devices operate independently throughout the rest of its duration.

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