P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

To be shown how to be talked to
Narration and parabasis in contemporary film
- and Almodóvar's Hable con Ella

Morten Kyndrup


What is narration? Many answers to this question within literary narrative theory have focused on the relationship between levels and positions within the narrated universe. This applies especially to the structuralist traditions, beginning with Vladimir Propp. Hence, a number of these endeavours - undertaken for instance by A. J. Greimas and his successors - have often concentrated on an attempt to discover the fundamental scheme or recipe for a generalised narrative. And this in pursuit of the ability to describe the master narrative of which any narrative in the world - past, present or future - may be considered a particular version.

Along the way, these endeavours have led to valuable results. Generally, however, they have been unable to attain their goal. Firstly because the basic hypothesis is probably wrong: not each and every narrative in the world is inscribable into a single scheme. But secondly because in concentrating on the narrated universe, these traditions have ignored what may be the single most important characteristic of the narrative as such: the fact that it is told. Any narrative is told by someone to someone. In other words, it is characterised by a fundamental communicative differentiation of positions which in the very (enounced) act of enunciation of the narrative in a specific way regulates the competences of these positions - implicit senders and beholders of the narratives - in relation to the narrated universe. This is above all true of their epistemic competences, that is the question of who knows what and when. But closely related to this are also their axiological competences, concerning the ascription of values to what happens within the narrated universe. Any given narrative performs a certain temporal distribution of these competences - a sjuzet that produces the imagination of a fabula. A fabula which has been the basis: that which is told. This upside down operation is decisive: what is narrated - fabula - is logically and ontologically a function of the narrative although the narrative appears as though it were ontologically subsequent, i.e. secondary to what is narrated, constituting one possible representation of it. Like a motif and its depiction.


When the new art form, the film, first began to tell stories, from the very point of departure it had to realise that this was no simple matter. Although the passing of time - the most important parameter of any narrative - is inherent to film as a media, a narrator was still missing, and consequently, so was the possibility of that differentiation of competence across a time span which is constitutive of a narrative. The sheer sequence of camera shots was insufficient to establish that kind of a narrating position. Camera shots in managed at best to illustrate a story, but even that - as we can see from the efforts to tell stories in early film - appeared strangely diffuse. The problem was and is that although the camera physically did and still does constitute the point from which the space is "seen", this fact in itself does not establish the impression and the illusion of that differentiation of levels and positions which elevates the entire structure to the status of a narrative.

As we know, film soon realised this. Thus, development of a formal convention became the issue. A formal convention which on the one hand made it possible through the very composition of the pictures to establish a system of narrative positions inside the narrated space, capable of transforming the raw motifs of the living pictures into a seen world, a narrated world. And which on the other hand, as it appeared, managed to make these constructions so unstriking, so natural that the basic qualities of film as multidimensional sensory experiences were not obstructed by them.

It is a well-known fact that the development of that convention was fully achieved. Mainstream film language unremarkably and smoothly fits in even advanced and hyper complex differentiations of narrator and focalizer positions inside the narrated spaces.

This development process has been quite lengthy - but still short when compared to parallel developmental processes within other art forms. If you compare this process with the development of the formal language of literary fiction within modernity, you will see a striking parallel. But the decisive difference is that film evolves through the various phases in a far more compressed manner. What I have in mind here is not particularly the partnership between the classical realist novel and mainstream film: this partnership is due to the viability of reducing precisely this kind of novel to its fabula and then basing a film on this by constructing a new sjuzet, another representation of the "same" fabula. This indeed has resulted in many miserable films, "filmatizations", the core problem of which is exactly the fact that they have been conceived on the basis of fabula and not in terms of sjuzets in their own right. Many of these, however, have been useful as form-experiments along the way. The remarkable and interesting similarities between the evolution of these two art forms, however, are primarily connected to the parallel rebellions they contain against the mainstream narrative conventions of form - temporally displaced but formally incredibly parallel. The fact that modernism arrives with such a delay in filmic conventions is not really surprising: this convention necessarily had to be fully developed before becoming the target of the modernist rejection of it - a rejection still usurpatory and thus still deeply dependent on its target.


This rejection evidently takes place at different levels and in varying keys. These include so-called "filmed modernism" - as exemplified by the Orson Welles film based on Franz Kafka's The Trial (1963) - in which it is primarily the thematic level that illustrates this endeavour. The representation in film of an absurd, meaningless world does not give priority to critical questions concerning filmic representation as such. The latter, however, is true of several other movies which beyond any doubt may be labelled modernist, also with regard to the art form itself. Films such as Jean-Luc Godard's Passion (1982) unfold one continuous objectifying exposure of the filmic conventions of construction. The representational mechanism as such is here taken ad absurdam: close-ups at the thematic level are filmed at such distances that we are unable to distinguish the characters from one another; the sound more or less consistently vanishes into roaring incidental sound; the break-down of construction includes the movie, the shooting of which the film is about - from beginning to end any attempt to create traditional sjuzet/fabula-relation is consistently blocked. What you see is what there is, one might say with a revision of a mantra from the computer world to come. The fact that also this frenetically exposed artificiality has its own level of coolly calculated enunciation is another story - as has been the case for similar Spielverderbereien in other art forms. But thanks to the generally compressed developmental history of film, late-modern formal thinking was already at film's disposal in the heart of its modernist phase. So the form experiments in film took a new direction. The substantial cost of film production may have contributed somewhat to this direction as well: film industry simply needed at least something of an audience.

Whatever the exact reason may be, modernists' frenetic experiments with form, literally turning their backs to the audience, have in contemporary film been succeeded by paratactic constructions which often in the very same movement both expose and objectify their constructional effort and fulfil this effort. In other words, they establish a credible fictional space in terms of a sensuous reality. An effective illusion is established, the constructional character of which is simultaneously exposed: the effects are maximised and at the same time the mechanisms of maximisation are pointed out. This takes place by means of differing types of advanced constructions of enunciation, constructions that we have labelled "paramodern" elsewhere. The art theorist Thierry de Duve even speaks about an "enunciative paradigm" within art.

Objectifying the construction of enunciation in this way does not amount to a revocation or a denial of the illusion of the fictional universe. These constructions are distinctively parabasic but they rarely appeal to ironic distance or to postmodern lightness. The parabasis may be positioned in formal construction or may be drawn closer to the fabula level. One could mention Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995), David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (1999), Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) - and of course Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), both subscribing with paradoxical efficiency to classical melodrama and distinct objectification of form at one and the same time. Von Trier's latest opus Dogville (2003) goes one step further and dares to formalise the presented world into sheer and explicit coulisse. Despite this - and despite further objectification through for instance voice-over narration - the formation of illusion is almost frighteningly effective. The protagonist's painfully consistent act of desisting from action in response to continuing humiliation, takes the beholder to a position in which acceptance of the cruel revenge is felt as a fully justified deliberation. And this is despite the fact that most average beholders would hardly accept "revenge" of that kind in the real world.


Von Trier's work, however, in its exploration of the constructional possibilities of the formal language of film, consistently challenges the borderlines of what may be widely accepted. A beautiful example of a film which in its narrative mode with laid-back lucidity maintains the transparent lightness of the construction as well as the weight of illusion, is Pedro Almodóvar's Habla con Ella, Talk to Her (2002). On the one hand, this film uncompromisingly insists on the presented space's authentic references: to loneliness, to disability, to melancholy, to lack of love - and to beauty, to music, to the good, to passion. And on the other hand, it constantly makes explicit its own constructional set-up to such an extent that throughout the film, at no single point do you lose the feeling of being lead through something and on to something which you cannot (yet) identify.

Habla con Ella is the story of the more or less mentally retarded Benigno and his beloved Alicia, a doctor's daughter with whom he has fallen in love at a distance and whom he could never have. But he gets her anyway when she is involved in an accident and ends up in a coma - Benigno trains to be a nurse and takes care of her day and night at a clinic. And he talks to the brain-dead Alicia and at one point takes care of her so intensely that he impregnates her. He is imprisoned for rape; she gives birth to a child and miraculously wakes up from her coma. Benigno commits suicide in jail unaware of her recovery. Interwoven into this story is the one of Marco and Lydia. Marco is chronically weighed down with a feeling of sorrow or loss - maybe due to unhappy love - which makes him cry, also any time he experiences something beautiful or just intense. And the bull fighter Lydia, also unhappily in love with an ex-partner, for some time dating Marco but then starting to see the ex-partner again behind Marco's back until she is seriously injured (by a bull) and also ends up in a coma at the same clinic as Alicia. Here Marco and Benigno meet each other, taking care of the two brain-dead women, Benigno trying to convince Marco about the usefulness of talking to them. Marco discovers the truth about Lydia's ex-lover and hence even loses his loss. He goes away and returns too late to prevent Benigno from committing suicide. The movie concludes with Marco and Alicia meeting each other; it ends with the beginning of their story (announced through a screen text: "Alicia y Marco" - just as all the other sequences of the film have been announced. But this time the beginning is the end.

The narrative point of the fact that this beginning becomes the final moment of the movie is that this we did not know. There has been no anticipating redundancy of this ending, no deictic indication at all as to where the movie was about to go narratively. As already stated, the pointing out of the enunciative level of the film as such is distinct. The direction of the story, however, is experienced as one continuous enigma. To watch this movie is just like being led through a curved tunnel with an unpredictable course. You are being led with wonder through the events, you know literally nothing but at the same time you know that somebody knows what you don't know. This indeed differs from the classic construction of enigmas in which a certain universe is constructed with good and bad, up and down, out and in, and in which of course there may be uncertainty as to how the game will end - but this uncertainty will be well defined by these abductional frames. Talk to Her withholds both axiological and narrative directedness. It obviously knows what it wants and that it wants - but does not make these things clear. Not until the end; where the tunnel ends, it becomes apodictically evident how everything that happened has been leading to exactly this conclusion. But on the other hand, this could not be known along the way. As we know: just like in real life. The difference is that this is overtly artificial construction, which means that the opacity - no matter how much it looks like something familiar to us - has been installed there, exactly in this manner.

Through a sovereign gesture, Talk to Her sets reference and act of enunciation in relief in a completely paratactic stance. The classic narrative choice between showing and telling is replaced by a distinctly narrated showing; a parabasic narrative in which the parabasis is not a revocation at any level. On the contrary, in itself it performs a confirming gesture toward what is narrated. In constructions like this we see, but simultaneously we also observe ourselves seeing. We cry and we know that not just something but also someone has made us cry. The very construction convincingly comprises a weight, which is both its own result and reference. In that sense, the filmic narration is thereby surprisingly but evidently turned upside down. Or perhaps rather: is finally set on its feet.

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