Trust the Viewer

Last night, as I was re-watching one of my favourite recent films, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) (2006), something struck me: this film thinks I’m smart. Or, at the very least, it doesn’t think I’m stupid.

The film is, in many ways, a standard thriller. Adapted in French from an American novel, it isn’t groundbreaking, nor is it revolutionary. But it is remarkable for what it doesn’t do: it doesn’t pander or otherwise bend over backwards to explain every last detail to its viewer.

This was particularly evident in terms of character development. The characters exist, intertwined, incredibly naturally. Watching, one is struck by the feeling that they exist beyond the confines of the particular period and events that the film explores.

There are no awkward introductions, nor any lurching expository speeches. Consider the film’s main character: Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet). In the film’s opening scene, at a friendly dinner party, someone offhandedly mentions his eight years of residency. Now we know that he’s a doctor. Later in the film, we see him at his office, examining a young baby ““ so a pediatrician, then. These details come to us on their own, in their own time.

Similarly with another character: Hélène Perkins (Kristen Scott Thomas).  She is a close friend of Alexandre’s, and a confidante. But only as the film progresses do we discover that she is also married to his sister. That director and co-writer Guillaume Canet, along with co-writer Phillippe Lefebvre, didn’t feel the need to either introduce this directly, or make it an overt plot point, speaks to the trust he seems to hold in the viewer.

It is a standard piece of advice to writers: show, don’t tell. And the same applies to what is written for the screen. But it is easier said than done. the most fertile ground for examples is television pilots; so much needs to be introduced in so little time. And while this task is often handled with aplomb ““ consider the pilots of such wonderful recent shows as Mad Men and Friday Night Lights, which introduce us to entire communities and narratives without feeling unnatural ““ it can be painfully obvious when a show fails.

The key for success in this regard, I think (and I say this as a dedicated armchair analyst, with the utmost respect for how difficult and arduous screenwriting ““ and indeed writing of all kinds ““ is), is to remember that the audience is smart. We can draw conclusions, find the threads between elements, and fit the pieces of the carefully drawn out puzzle together. We can understand without needing to be lead by the hand.

At a recent press conference for his new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Colin Firth advocated for more films which demand concentration on the part of the viewer, saying:

I do think there is a tendency to underestimate audiences, I do think there is an appetite to be stretched.

I couldn’t agree more. Bring it on.

3 replies on “Trust the Viewer”

For some reason we have different mentalities when it comes to different media. We’re content to let a book unfold, but we want to be able to immediately and neatly file away every detail about a show or film. I’ve never understood why show pilots are even aired. A pilot is a prospectus for the network, which is why everything is always so rotely outlined. If a show has buzz or money behind it, sometime they’ll reshoot the pilot, but this is why the pilot of a show doesn’t always “count” in fandom.

Absolutely. One of the reasons I liked The Wire – to pick a TV example – is that it had a similarly high estimation of the audience’s intelligence and capacity to pay attention.

A mainstream blockbuster that had a higher-than-normal expectation of the audience, I think, was Inception, though that may have been a side-effect of the complex plot rather than a conscious decision by the writers.

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