(My) Top 10 Shots in Casablanca

posterSo many people have written mind-blowing thematic analyses of Casablanca that I decided to go another route. This movie invites you into it—and invites you to take souvenirs from it: favorite lines, cherished scenes, fragments of tunes and soundtrack music, and, of course, images.

Casablanca encourages you to turn it into your own personal collection of memories and does so more successfully than any other Hollywood film. So here’s my collection of its most meaningful, mythical, and tantalizing shots.

10. Casablanca Noir

If you were to show me this shot and say, “What’s it from?” it would take me more than a minute to realize that it’s from The Greatest Hollywood Movie of All Time (according to some people, though I don’t like those kinds of judgements). Here, Ilsa is watching Victor as he risks his life by going out to the Free France meeting after curfew. The low-key lighting, the venetian blinds, and the obscured face all scream NOIR.  The image clearly plays with our genre-recognition abilities. This noirish quality, largely thanks to expressionist-influenced director Michael Curtiz and director of photography Arthur Edeson (also the DoP for Frankenstein and The Maltese Falcon) consistently add a palpable ominousness to what could’ve been a frothy, unbelievable quip-fest.

9. In the Shadows

Now, this isn’t a shot that slaps you across the face with its importance. It occurs very early in the film when Captain Renault warns Rick not to help Lazlo. The shot doesn’t last particularly long. However, I think this moody shadow silhouette of Rick serves a key function of insisting on his dark side… the dark side that we’re about to see when he coldly watches the Nazis nab Ugarte. This film only works if we believe that Bogie (who, leading up to Casablanca, had played some pretty vicious guys) might actually let Victor Lazlo die because of a grudge against Ilsa. That ugliness needs to lurk in him to counterbalance the sentimentality. And this shot knows it.

8. The Airfield Two-Shot

We all know the famous two-shot of Rick and Ilsa saying goodbye, but there’s a marvelous swooping crane-in movement on the pair which we would also do well to recall with fondness. It adds to the shock, tension, and pathos of Rick’s noble switcheroo as Ilsa copes with the fact that she’s going, not staying.

7. The Nazis are Coming

How brave was it, in 1942, to include a shot like this? Raw, grainy, obviously the real deal, and totally terrifying. Not only does this footage of a genuine Panzer division ripping through the French countryside lend psychological weight and menace to Conrad Veidt’s sinister Major Strasser, but it’s also the scariest shot in the film, for my money, because it reaches beyond the diegesis to frighten us. For the people watching this in 1942, it might have felt like a coming attraction. And not a pleasant one. As Strasser asks Rick, can you imagine the Nazis in New York? I bet Casablanca‘s audiences could, in their nightmares.

6. The Weeping Letter

How many times have we seen letters in movies as a short-hand for plot revelations? And how often does it feel flat and lame? Well, apparently, just add (rain)water and the ink bleeds and weeps into instant devastation. The words cry the tears that tough-guy Bogie can’t and infuse the scene with an ineffable feeling of loss and things falling apart.

5. Trouble in Paradise

Ilsa tries to enjoy her last moments with Rick, but this tight framing tells us that some mysterious inner struggle is killing her. It’s pure agony and irony—since Rick blithely has no idea. The Paris dream is about to come crashing down.

(Note: Nick Ray would later copy this tight framing for the nightclub scene in In A Lonely Place, again, with Bogie, but it’s much more effective here, I’d argue.)

4. The Penetrating Searchlight

The beam scans the night sky as peaceful harps sing on the soundtrack, telling us what really happened between Rick and Ilsa. As Rick later admits to Laslzo, “She pretended she was still in love with me… and I let her pretend…” One of the most alluring, evocative ellipses of all time. Thanks, Joseph Breen and your blue-pencil brigade, for being a real pain and burning this remarkable hole in the narrative!

3. La Belle Aurore

One shot encompasses all of the frames above. We get a tilt up from the shadow. Rick’s at the bar. A dolly movement follows him over to the piano. He pours some champagne as Sam plays the then-untainted “As Time Goes By.” Instant nostalgia.

Do you ever have a memory where you see yourself? Like you’re watching a movie of your past in your mind? Then you think, “Wait, I can’t see myself in real life. I must be embellishing this…” This lyrical long take captures that sensation of a romanticized remembrance, colored and enhanced by longing. Nothing could ever be this perfect and beautiful and romantic. But, then again, it’s broadcast to you from the mind of a drunk, lonely saloon owner. Of course it will look pure, friendly, intimate, and untouchable—the antithesis of his own saloon.

2. The Last Shot

This crane shot contains the paradox of Casablanca. How can I be a good person, one who cares for others and, if necessary, makes sacrifices for them, and still be an individual instead of another senseless follower? Won’t my drama get lost in the drama of a world in crisis? As the shot rises, Rick and Louis look small, but their voices stay more or less the same. No matter how immersed they are in the tide of history, the force of their personalities, their desires, and the uniqueness of their goodwill gestures maintains their integrity as characters.

Integrity has many forms and many representatives, including venal bureaucrats and sad-eyed bar owners—idealized Lazlo isn’t the only option. You don’t have to lead the Resistance to stand out in a sea of change, we realize, as Rick and Louis walk down the runway mist which shimmers around them like a starry firmament.

1. Ilsa x 2

It really is true. No matter how many times you watch Casablanca you discover some clever detail that you hadn’t noticed before. Just before this shot, Victor shows up at Rick’s and Ilsa is hiding in Rick’s room. Now, as much as I admire Ilsa’s spirit and decency, I confess that, as a character, she annoys me personally. It took this image to set her free in my mind. Because here she’s doubled, split, divided.

This image translates the forked path of destiny, so central to Casablanca, a movie about not just one choice, but many choices. It’s a tale of possibilities and “what-ifs,” and therein lies the key to its beauty and resonance.

Casablanca is a story that doesn’t know its own ending. In my opinion, that is why it is such a great story.

Now, I know that the claims that the cast were kept in the dark as to the dénouement practically until they filmed it (because the screenwriters were scrambling to wrap it up) have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, even the characters persistently talk about this up-in-the-air conclusion. “Does it have a wild finish?” asks the nasty, inebriated Rick. “It’s still a story without an ending,” he later observes to Ilsa. In that scene, when she comes for the letters of transit, they finally unburden themselves of their misunderstandings by figuring out the exact chronology of their own story.

Without the slightest bit of “meta” cynicism, Casablanca manages to unravel the complications of storytelling—not in an artistic sense, but in a human one. The fact that Warner Brothers produced it during the war means that, of course, the entire world had to agree with Rick: “It’s still a story without an ending.” The epic of World War II wasn’t over yet. But, then again, when is anything really over? Even Casablanca’s ending is a beginning and the characters’ relationships open all kinds of room for our imaginations to fill in the time before the beginning of film. Still, on an even more universal level, Casablanca touches the viewers by reminding us of all of the loose ends in our own lives.

Casablanca endures because it dwells in these big little questions. What’s going to happen to me? Will we always be together? What will the future bring? How are we to make sense of all the encounters and losses that life sets, like landmines, in our path? Nobody knows the way it’s going to be.

Those twin visions of Ilsa peering at us suggest that every reality is teetering on the brink of not one, but several futures, several possible endings. And we don’t know which until it happens.

Honorable Mentions: 

Because, really, I’m a little screenshot-happy. What movie blogger wouldn’t be?

Waiting in Casablanca

Every time I think about this film, this long sweep over the huddled masses, gazing upward towards the plane, sticks out in my memory. The fatigued faces and the hope in their eyes reminds me of the American immigrant experience and, within the story, suggests the stakes of getting the Hell out of Casablanca. This shot also tells us of a multitude of stories that we won’t have time to hear in this film, but which are just as valid, poignant, and personal. Casablanca is not an egocentric film. It realizes that for every story told, there are millions more worth listening to.

Everybody Goes to Rick’s

In those first shots of the nightclub a whole era of between-the-wars escapism comes alive. The textures, the smoke haze, the silky gowns, the pierced, lacy screens, as though to filter out the harsh light of truth—it’s all there, inviting and numbing.

O.K. Rick

One of the best character introductions of all time. Champagne cocktail = sophisticated, drinker. Cigarette = cool. Chessboard = thinker. Alone = lonely. Shadowy background = noirish badass with a knack for decorating. Any questions?

The Foursome

When Rick sees Ilsa for the first time in Casablanca, we get a few very overwrought close-ups. If we had to linger in their reunion, the scene would descend into bathos. Fortunately, Lazlo and Renault arrive—and the tension is palpable as the four of them crowd this shot with their worries and surprise. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.

Face-Off

Rick and Lazlo bump into each other in the doorway of the Blue Parrot… as the shadow of a belly dancer’s arm undulates over them as a reminder of the love versus lust aspect of the plot.

Shoot Me

Umm… did I miss something? Did my DVD cut to Double Indemnity? In all seriousness, this indelible shot drives home the risk of losing one’s humanity to war—even far from the battlefield. If Ilsa shot Rick, she would be just as bad as Major Strasser.

Okay, maybe not quite, but you see my point. According to the logic of this film, you can’t fight for principles by abandoning all principles. Ilsa can’t bring herself to shoot Rick, which is why she does triumph. She’s still human. She’s still filled with love for Rick, love that reminds him of his own humanity, of that time before his insides got kicked out. However, she comes mighty close to pulling that trigger—which allows Curtiz to show us that war is indeed Hell. Divided loyalties turn almost every relationship into a noirish collision course.

Vol de Nuit

Escape and loss, relief and regret—inscribed on the image. It will haunt my dreams. I’m sure that it’s haunted dreams for 70 years. And will do so for many more as time goes by.

Freaks, or What’s the Attraction?

Calling Freaks a horror movie would actually mistakenly categorize and limit the film, which is itself an anomaly—a freak, if you will.

I’m not the first person to remark that it’s part revenge fantasy (an important text in the genesis of the “revenge film” genre), part heartwarming dramatization, part kinky Pre-Code exploitation. As I re-watched it the other day, it occurred to me that Tod Browning’s film constructs itself as a sideshow, with a director surrogate figure, the carnival barker, providing a prologue and frame story centered around a major reveal at the end.

As many of you may know, director Tod Browning did have a background in circus clowning and contortionist feats which makes the “step right up” hype spiel at the beginning even more connected to him. Even though there’s an audience in the movie, we can’t escape the feeling that this guy is talking to us, the non-diegetic audience.

In other words, the fourth wall is shaky from the beginning and it stays that way.

Which brings me to the idea that Freaks is a great instance of the “cinema of attractions” rearing its head in the midst of narrative Hollywood. This term “cinema of attractions,” coined by the critic and scholar Tom Gunning, has come to characterize the era of newborn motion pictures which often operated in a presentational manner rather than a representational manner (I totally recommend Gunning’s writings on this).

In other words, if these early movies could talk, they wouldn’t say, “Get absorbed in the plot and identify with the characters.” They’d said, “Holy sh*t, have look at this!” That is, they intended to thrill, shock, and spellbind audiences in a way that often directly acknowledged the viewer. If there was a plot, you could tell that it was just building up to some kind of privileged “money shot” (like the close-up of a lady’s ankle in The Gay Shoe Clerk). In other words, spectacle was the name of the game.

shoe

Freaks doesn’t have much of a narrative. It’s a pretty short film, but even for its barely-over-an-hour runtime, the plot feels stretched thin. As Irving Thalberg said when he read the script, “I asked for something horrible. It’s horrible.” Let’s face it, you don’t go to Freaks for well-balanced story-telling. You rush to the theater to gawp at real life anatomical abnormalities. In other words, Freaks harkens back to the sideshow attraction quality of cinema.

And yet it also brings together two strands or bloodlines of that early cinema: research and spectacle. Browning documents the unusual bodies of the freaks and thus fufills the research in reality component of the Lumière Brothers’ films, while also presenting these bodies as a spectacle, something which magician Meliès pursued without end. Jean-Luc Godard once said that he made his films as “research in the form of a spectacle.” I would argue that Freaks is the opposite. A spectacle which actually turns out to be a kind of documentation, research, loving scrutiny.

This shot of the lovely Frances O’Connor, for instance, contains all the “wow” factor of a magic trick, but, situated as it is within an unremarkable dinner scene, we also realize that this woman eats like this every day of her life. We come to Freaks to gawk, but we leave with an understanding of the ways being born with a physical difference affects daily existence. At its best, Freaks is mundane, not sensationalized. Spectacular because of its ordinariness.

Time to Shine

Freaks animates an unprecedentedly varied ensemble cast with small vignettes that pull focus onto the strengths and gifts of each character. As I revisited Freaks this last time, Browning also impressed me with how he worked to emphasize the unique movement patterns of his unusual stars. I particularly appreciate how he used a ground-height dolly shot to capture the capering grace of Johnny Eck, the “Half Boy,” as he “walks” on his hands underneath a circus caravan—silhouetted by flashes of lightening.

Schlizte, on the other hand, lacked the dynamic travelling movements of Johnny Eck, but Browning gives him almost as many medium shots and medium close-ups as leading lady Olga Baclanova! And with good reason, for Schlitze lights up the screen. He’s fantastically photogenic, bubbling over with the kind of unihibited joy that few professional actors can project. It’s easy to project sadness, but happiness is hard.  Not for Schlitze, though.

One scene that will forever stick in my memory, the proposal with the Hilton Sisters (the cool Hilton sisters, not those rich freak-shows who own hotels), the beautiful and very talented conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet, provides an instance of bizarrely tender comedy. As the fiancé kisses Violet, Daisy, who’s been doing her best under the circumstances to read unobtrusively, closes her eyes and smiles as she feels this apparently quite enjoyable intimacy. We, the viewer, also share in this sublime cuteness.

I can only describe this humor as a strange love child of Cronenberg and Lubitsch. The connectivity of the bodies provokes an eruption of giggles by virtue of its foreignness to the majority of viewers. And yet, the subtle sexiness of the vicarious experience, of something wonderful shared with a close friend, infuses what could be a punchline with warmth.

Haven’t you ever had a dear friend or family member who confided in you so much that you could almost feel their memories and relive their flashbacks? Don’t all sisters communicate their dramas and receive each other’s emotions, to some extent? The universality of this feeling elevates the joke above the “freak show” physicality that it might immediately suggest. The audience also partakes in this girlish complicity and connects to the sisters with a bond of sympathy, not flesh.

Who You Calling Freak?

Seriously, watch Freaks again and check out how many shots reveal the oppressed characters just looking towards the camera, if not at it. Peeping through windows. Glaring at off-screen characters. Peering up from a hiding place. A few examples:

Often lob-sided, strangely framed, or partially obscured by bars or shadows, these shots disrupt screen space and attack the eye of the viewer. The compositions make us increasingly aware of being looked at. Yep, we’re back to that shaky fourth wall that the film pushes at from the carnival barker at the beginning.

However, this time, the gaze of the downtrodden characters threatens us much more.

In the end, how do you react to “freaks” presented at a sideshow? Why, you look at them. You gawp at them through a peep hole, a partition, bars. Whether you get to feast your eyes or merely catch a glimpse, you’re throwing your gaze over and onto something.

To this day, audiences watch Freaks in order to gape at the unusual bodies presented therein, but, Browning turns the tables on us. The “freaks,” the subjects of the spectacle empower themselves to look back. No passive objects of scrutiny, they return our gaze with pride and menace in these jarring shots.

In fact, it might almost be said that they’re looking over the barrier of the screen and of time to study us. What is a freak after all? As the prologue-spouting showman of the beginning reminds us, but for an accident of birth, any anatomically normal person could be one of them. I’ll go one step further: isn’t the desire to see freaks on parade pretty freaky in and of itself?

The withering stares of the cast remind us of the extent to which ordinary film viewers harbor a germ of sadism and perversity in their love of seeing. When the voyeur gets looked at, in return, he blushes. He realizes his own absurdity. In this case, the characters look at us and we become the freaks.

Moreover, to whom does the unbearable Cleopatra actually deliver her tirade at the wedding feast? In her long, shrill rampage, we don’t see anyone but her, isolated, railing in the direction of the camera. Our and the camera’s point of view fuses with the perspective of the wedding guests. In other words, it’s us she’s calling freaks.

A throwback to the cinema of attractions, Browning’s Freaks plays to the audience in order to shock us, but not just for idle thrills, but rather for a more legitimate purpose. The questions palpitate in the air, “What if you were one of us? What if you already are?”

The spectacle, the ostensible freaks of the title, turns on the spectator and reverses their positions.

Formally, the prevalence of looking shots and manipulations of perspective mirror the plot of the film. Just as Cleopatra, who’d scorned and abused the freaks, transforms into the horrific chicken woman, the viewer, lured in by the promise of peering at carnival abnormalities, must endure the accusatory stares of these fully-realized people. The attractions tie into, and echo, a narrative direction in a rather salient, border-line “meta” manner.

While Freaks does harken back to the so-called primitive attraction-driven cinema, the movie also looks forward to a more aggressive kind of spectacle—a delicate balance of identification, wow factor, and uncomfortable viewer acknowledgement that later cinema (Hitchcock and Godard come to mind) exploited and mined.

Then again, you could have guessed the movie was going to be revolutionary from the opening titles, when a hand rips through from behind the movie. The humanity of the film reaches through and tears away at the diegetic divider. It’s a startling acknowledgement of the film’s illusion, even if it does take place during the credits.

You’re not allowed to numb-out here, Browning seems to tell us. You’re not just going to watch. Something might be watching you. The great thing is, Browning doesn’t make us squirm with at the sight of the freaks. He makes us squirm when we feel like we are one of them, that we’ve traded places.

Gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble!

Pardon My French: Foreign Languages and Wit in the Movies

If they ever make a movie about the Tower of Babel, it ought to be a romantic comedy.

After living in a France for two months, I learned just how funny linguistic confusion can be. Notice I said after, because those kinds of problems are only humorous in retrospect, or when they’re happening to someone else. Which brings us to movies and the mildly sadistic pleasure we derive from the befuddlement of others, so long as they’re fictional.

Language versus Body in Design for Living

Some of the most innovative comedy scenes I can think of involve the unexpected interjection of a foreign language—and would fall completely flat without that language, unlikely to be spoken by the majority of viewers. Consider this sublime opener to Lubitsch’s 1933 Design for Living, in which two male friends, George and Tom, (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) who’ll become the focus of the love triangle that fuels the movie.

(If, for some reason, you can’t play the video here, I direct you to the unlisted video on my YouTube page and ask that you please not share the link for commercial purposes.)

Look, there’s a lot that’s funny about this, but I’m going to stick to the French. So—apart from how hilarious it is to consider that anyone would ever mistake Gary Cooper for a Frenchman—what’s remarkable about the clip is that the first lines spoken by the main characters wouldn’t have been understood by most audience members. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for giving viewers a lot of credit in the brains department. In fact, Darryl Zanuck actually hired a man he knew to be an idiot because, “I know if a situation is clear to him, it’ll be clear to anybody.” Thus is the importance of clarity to the studio system and, I’d argue, to cinema in general!

This opener harkens back to silent aesthetics, since it relies so heavily on gestures and facial expressions to carry across its meaning. The sound tells you nothing for most of the clip. The image shows you everything. It’s all very physical: from Gilda’s, and our, deduction of Tom and George’s personalities from their sleeping faces to the subjective blurred image of her dainty foot as seen by George. Am I dreaming or is there a fetish object in my lap?

Then again, imagine the scene after everybody wakes up with English instead of French chatter and what have you got? Well, basically an exaggerated argument between quibbling artists.  Goofy, yes, but not truly funny and definitely not witty. The foreign language completes the alchemy of the opening. To a certain extent the misunderstanding that Gary thinks Miriam is French and vice-versa is funny, but even without the great “Aw, nuts!” reveal, the scene would be droll for an American audience.

In my opinion, the humor resides foremost in the fact that we may possibly understand others just as well without speaking their language. It’s just a funny thought: I don’t know what you’re saying, but I know exactly what you mean. We can get the significance even if we don’t get most of what’s being signified linguistically.

It’s the superfluity of language that becomes amusing. There they are, trying so hard to debate the hell out of Frederick March’s upper maxillary bones in a second language, and they might as well have just pointed with the occasional growl. The intellect that it takes to discuss anatomy in French offers a droll juxtaposition to the crude and obvious nature of the gestures and the emphasis on the body in the opening shots. It’s embarrassing, because they (and most other humans) like to believe that they’re perfectly fluent linguistic communicators and thinkers, above caveman grunts. Gilda exclaims her frustration when she feels she can’t win the argument by talking and defending her artistic choice: “Ceci est une caricature!

And what does she say when she breaks into her native language? “Aw, nuts!” It doesn’t get more anatomical than that. The inelegant, staccato English slang even suggests the crassness of what she’s saying and overturns the implicitly civilized nature of all language, which makes all things more abstract and general. The mind and the tongue, the “higher” parts of our nature, serve the body, the physical, the tangible. The way the body and the mind wrestle with each other makes up most of comedy. Lubitsch makes it palpable by switching from a comedy of images to a comedy of words versus images.

I believe that Lubitsch is suggesting that, in the end, humans are pretty primitive. We canget by with gestures, even when discussing something as sophisticated as artistic perspective. Though a fully modern, spirited woman, Gilda can’t help but focus on the physical, too, forming a relationship with the physiognomy of the two men long before she meets them.

And Tom and George, roused (ahem), by a woman’s tiny foot, are not all that far from “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” They’re homo sapiens in nice suits with a smattering of continental charm, but the physical dimension still rules their lives, as it is at the heart of our need to communicate. A big preoccupation of language is courtship. How many times have we mentally face-palmed ourselves after a particularly awkward exchange with a desired individual of the opposite sex?

In Design for Living, we see how often humor is about sex and rivalry, and how often sex and rivalry are humorous. And, in this brilliant opener, we also see how intimately language is bound up with physicality. Language and the mind are the slaves of the body, Lubitsch chuckles at us from behind the screen, and don’t you forget it.

Wooed by Mr. Wu, or Very Creative Intertitles

I could go on forever with examples of comedic moments hinging on language. In Gilligan’s Island, not known for particularly intellectual comedy by a long shot, Ginger announces that she can speak some Hawaiian that she learned while singing in a bar in Waikiki which she promptly rattles off, sounding sultry and exotic. Skipper asks what it means. “The bar is off-limits to all military personnel,” she matter-of-factly replies. That’s another (rather funny) problem with languages we don’t understand. The textures, the feel of the sounds, become more powerful than the meaning. Who needs significance when you have a beautiful, mysterious signifier? Which brings me to case two…

Intertitles, in theory at least, disambiguate the plot of a silent picture. For proponents of pure cinematic art, captions were the bête noire of the silent era, threatening to sully the image with words designed to impose an interpretation. The prejudice continues. When I was a little girl, I read in the Eyewitness Guide to Film, “Poor-quality silent films made heavy use of caption cards, but good directors preferred instead to rely on the cast to tell the story.” In other words, intertitles served as support for the narrative, filling gaps, sort of like plumbers caulk, and nothing more.

That, however, is not always the case.

I had the privilege of seeing the silent film Mr. Wu at the Cinémathèque Française. It’s a very strange film, comprised of 80% Oriental hokum, 20% pure stylistic genius, which comes in flashes. In one scene, a young British imperialist cad, Basil Gregory (the lovely Ralph Forbes), finds his way into the palace walls of a powerful Chinese warlord. Basil immediately proceeds to try to woo the Big Boss’s daughter, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée). As maidens are wont to do, she stumbles and twists her ankle. After some aggressive flirting on Basil’s part and some mute shock on Nang Ping’s, the young lady’s compainion Loo Song (Anna May Wong) arrives to intervene.

That’s when it happens. The screen explodes with dancing calligraphy. Slashes, curlicues, strokes of white, all governed by some order that assimilates them into an unknown meaning, burst across the black screen in vertical bars, pairs, slants, single characters, superimpositions, constellations. In Eisensteinian dynamics, black titles flash into starburst drawings and lines that radiate from the Chinese characters. The maidens talk in shot-reverse-shot, but their words combust.

The audience becomes Basil, beguiled and confused by this plunge into a world of mysterious signifiers. And yet, it’s funny! Even the stiffly urbane spectators at the Cinémathèque couldn’t repress a chuckle at this sly metafilmic subversion.

We read intertitles to understand, but these deliberately vex us. The character-strewn cards use a language we know, the cinematic language, to remind us of a language we don’t. The slight worry on Rénée Adorée’s stretched brows and Anna May Wong’s pout of disapproval give us the gist of the scene (I don’t like that guy one bit! Oh, but he’s so cute!),but the exact exchange escapes us. We are closed out of comprehension. By the very thing that’s supposed to render the film explicit. We’re helpless in the dark. So, of course, we laugh.

Once the clash of symbols has subsided, Nang Ping surprises her suitor by announcing that she does indeed speak English. She may understand without being understood. It’s quite meaningful that the women speak both languages, but the man doesn’t. The female of the species contains the allure of the symbol still to be learned by a foreign male. The woman is the cipher, the indecipherable character.

“We’re speaking different languages!” So goes the refrain of so many failed relationships. Basil and Nang Ping’s relationship—spoiler alert!—is doomed from the start. I can’t help but admire the aptness of the intertitles’ metaphor.

So, I’d observe that the sudden interjection of a foreign language, of something incomprehensible, punctuates a movie with comedy because it touches on a sore spot: the absurd things we manipulate language for… and how language, in turn, manipulates, embarrasses, and tantalizes us— especially when we don’t understand.

Movies are so popular, I suspect, because they largely dwell within the universally, often instantly comprehensible language of images. When a language we can’t make sense of pops up, however, there’s a combustion. We become aware of what we can convey without speaking and we also become more aware of what we don’t know, what we can’t decipher. Language comedy imposes a certain amount of vulnerability on the audience who’s placed its confidence in the readability of the image. It’s a shocking and brash betrayal. And all we can do is laugh.