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Old Movie, New Review: Tell No One

March 26, 2011

This review contains relatively minor spoilers.

Tell No One (original French title Ne Le Dis à Personne) finally came to the U.S. in 2008 after its original 2006 European release. I’ll leave it to previous reviews to summarize the movie and analyze its success as a murder mystery and a modern update to the Hitchcockian thriller genre. From what I’ve seen, most reviewers agree that it’s a resounding success in this regard.

I also judge Tell No One to be a profoundly effective and moving film. However, I depart from some of the standard views by arguing that the “whodunit” storyline is one of the movie’s least interesting elements. For me, Tell No One is much more affecting when it focuses on the love once shared by central characters Alex and Juliette, Alex’s grief that consumes him for most of the eight years between Juliette’s disappearance and the present day, and his obsessive clinging to the hope that she may not have been murdered after all.

Much of the actual “love story” between Alex and Juliette is told in three mostly wordless sequences in the film’s first half. These three passages in this eminently lyrical film are its heart and soul, and without them, Tell No One would be a much lesser work. The most remarkable achievement in these three segments is the brilliant, flawless integration of music into the storytelling.

1. Opening sequence: Otis Redding – “For Your Precious Love”

The opening scene is a flashback to the weekend when Juliette disappeared. With no dialogue and Otis’s keening vocals pushed into the foreground, we see Alex and Juliette driving to one of “their” romantic spots in the French countryside. While driving, Alex reaches over, touches Juliette’s face lightly, and moves his hand down over her heart—a well-conceived, authentic moment of intimacy. The song choice is apt because of Redding’s unmatched ability to infuse even the sweetest love songs with a melancholy air of great need. In many Otis songs, this one included, I hear a man whose fierce love is the direct result of his constant fear of losing that love. In the film, the song adds emotional heft to the tender moment, but it’s also a harbinger of just how fleeting that love and tenderness will prove to be. When Otis sings, “It means everything in the world to me,” we already know that Alex shares that sentiment for Juliette, and we can already tell that losing her will drive him to the depths of sustained grief and obsession.

2. Wedding/funeral flashback montage: Jeff Buckley – “Lilac Wine”

The speaker in “Lilac Wine” is lost in a drunken reverie of memories of a lost love. If I didn’t know that the song was written in 1950 and covered by Buckley on his 1994 album Grace, I’d swear that “Lilac Wine” was written for this scene. Given that the song precedes the film by half a century, the reverse must be true—this scene must have been written and edited around “Lilac Wine.” The result is an overwhelmingly powerful scene in which Alex’s actions on the screen perfectly mirror the song’s lyrics. Just one example—when Buckley sings “I drink much more than I ought to drink, because it brings me back you,” we see Alex pour and down a shot of vodka while staring at the computer screen that may be indicating that Juliette is not dead after all. There are several such perfect marriages of sound and image in this two-minute montage, which also boasts an intercut camera sweep over the crowds at both the Alex/Juliette wedding and Juliette’s funeral—we see the same faces of their friends and family consumed with joy at the wedding and grief at the funeral. The scene is a triumph of mood and atmosphere, and the song deeply enhances its impact.

3. Password discovery and Juliette’s contact: U2 – “With or Without You”

On a bed of nails, she makes me wait...

Alex struggles to deduce the password he needs to open an e-mail that Juliette may have sent him in the present. In frustration at his failure thus far, he sits down on a city bench and broods. U2’s “With or Without You” begins to play, and Bono broods with him—“On a bed of nails, she makes me wait.” Alex finally connects the dots and realizes that the clue has to do with the U2 concert he and Juliette saw in 1995. We share the very real flicker of hope that comes from this “Eureka!” moment, knowing that we, along with Alex, are finally going to learn if there is any possibility that Juliette is alive and trying to contact him. Alex races to the nearest Internet cafe. The password is correct. Alex waits, more on edge with each passing moment, as the password allows him to open the e-mail’s attachment. It loads slowly. Meanwhile, “With or Without You” builds. And builds. Bono’s voice grows louder, the ringing guitars begin to swell, the drum hits grow more forceful. Alex waits. The tension rises. The hope, once dead, now burgeons again. The message finally pops up. It’s a meeting time and place, followed by Juliette’s words, her first to Alex in eight years: “Be careful. I love you.” At that exact moment, drums crash and Bono’s voice soars. The camera cuts from Juliette’s words on the screen back to Alex, bathed in the monitor’s glow, smiling hopefully through joyful tears.

It takes everything I have as a writer—more than I have—to even begin to convey the power of these three moments, each greatly enhanced by the inspired use of music. With the possible exception of the finest musical moments in Wes Anderson films, I have never seen better cinematic use of music as a storytelling device that shapes the viewer’s understanding of the film’s emotional core. Tell No One would be a good film without these choices. With them, it’s magical.

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