Review | The Voice in Cinema, by Michel Chion

The Voice in Cinema. By Michel Chion. Translated and edited by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-231-10822-2 (cloth); ISBN 0-231-10823-0 (pbk.). Pp. 208. $45.00 (cloth), $16.50 (pbk.).

How do we perceive the aural world? The problem is particularly important in the case of sound cinema (which today is simply the cinema), television, radio, etc. However, unless it is a question of the sounds of spoken language, sound has been studied far less than the visual, our civilization greatly privileging the latter. Caught between the two, “sound” is often left aside.

—Christian Metz, “Aural Objects”1

The late Christian Metz pointed out that one of the problems in studying sound was that, even when represented through recordings, it is too ephemeral, a “bad object choice” for analysis. Sound is temporary, dependent on time (and the representation of time), and its many qualities quickly disappear from the critical ear as soon as they are encountered. Of course the voice is as difficult an object choice for analysis as any, a fact that Michel Chion notes at the beginning of his book, The Voice in Cinema, when he states that, The voice is elusive. Once you’ve eliminated everything that is not the voice Itself-the body that houses it, the words it carries, the notes it sings, the traits by which it defines a speaking person, and the timbres that color it, what’s left? What a strange object, what grist for poetic outpourings… (1)

Indeed, the term “poetic” is well chosen. Chion’s observations are far removed from anything resembling a science or any other systematic listing of examples of cinema and the voice; rather, Chion is a creative intellectual whose propositions may exist as flawed inventions, yet their existence is contingent on making imaginative, yet highly cerebral leaps. To read Chion is to engage in a very un-American experience where the well-informed intellectual free-association of each essay provides thoughtful offerings that float untethered to the weight of academic obligations or to the strictures of discipline. The result is a highly readable, yet erudite set of essays suitable for anyone interested in an intellectual investigation of the voice in the 20th century arts, particularly that most modern of arts, the cinema. For some readers, the topic matter of recorded audio may seem both remote and lacking relevance to any serious discussion concerning music. But for those who view audio recordings as something more than a “neutral” medium through which we access and evaluate both music and performance, Chion’s work exists as an achievement that cannot be ignored. The Voice in Cinema,published by Columbia University Press, is the second book for which Claudia Gorbman has provided smart and important translations of Chion’s work from the French and like the first, Audio Vision: Sound on Screen (Columbia University Press 1994), this volume presents the musings of a very creative intellectual on the topic of film soundtracks. It is fair to say that Chion’s decision to focus upon recordings—for this is what a “soundtrack” consists of—places his work within the context of a small yet growing scholarly interest in recorded music and sound. Indeed, Gorbman’s latest translation should be considered essential reading for those interested in recordings, and can be situated alongside the work of Rick Altman, Jim Lastra, John Corbett, Kaja Silverman, Mary Ann Doane, Theodore Gracyk, and Michael Chanan. More familiar to anglophone scholars, these writers have argued throughout their careers for the necessity of understanding how the recorded object (in many cases the film soundtrack) has affected our perception of sound and, in some cases, the way in which we have come to understand the production of music. For this reader, it is safe to say that Ms. Gorbman’s continuing translation of Chion’s work on recorded sound is of the same intellectual importance as Brian Massumi’s 1985 translation of Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music (University of Minnesota Press), a piece that has greatly influenced critical theorists interested in music. As is the case with Noise, any critical theory that wishes to take the issues surrounding musical and audio recordings seriously will have to engage with Chion’s propositions regarding the film soundtrack.

Take, for example, Chion’s critical observation that there is no one singular “soundtrack.” It is simple, inaugural and dislodging at the same time. From this “first principle” Chion argues that, just as the visual terrain of film is often composed of a number of distinct shots and processes (that is, mattes, backscreen projections, post production manipulations of a primary image, and so forth), the soundtrack does not constitute one singular item or individual aesthetic entity. It is an important point, since the proposition cuts through a number of assumptions and underlines how common-day parlance envisions the soundtrack as simply consisting of diegetic and non-diegetic film music. The thinking implicit in this type of discussion, Chion notes, is that “sounds from the proscenium, at a remove from the visual field, more easily gain the spotlight, for they are perceived in their singularity and isolation” (4). Indeed, this has not only framed our day-to-day discussions about the film soundtrack as a primarily musical entity, but it explains why there is so much more written on music than on film sound.

Yet if early sound films resulted in the production of the film musical, they also produced “talkies.” The fact is, as Chion observes,

Discussions of sound films rarely makes mention of the voice, speaking instead of “the soundtrack.” A deceptive and sloppy notion, which postulates that all the audio elements recorded together onto the optical track of the film are presented to the spectator as a sort of bloc or coalition, across from the other bloc, a no-less fictive “image track” (3).

By positioning the soundtrack’s as a “heterogeneous material”2, Chion begins to unravel the many audio components that interact with and influence the production and representation of the voice as it relates to on- and off-screen visual material. Most impressive is the fact that the use of the voice, the voiceover, vocal timbres, the scream and the relationship of each of these elements to cinematic bodies are not only discussed in The Voice in Cinema, but these essays quietly turn discussions of canonical film texts on their respective heads. Chion has a talent for making the work of Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Tati, and Orson Welles utter an aural complexity that is typically overlooked in more visually driven analyses. Indeed, for any reader who wishes to engage with this book, a solid familiarity with Psycho, Citizen Kane and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse would be more than beneficial. This is particularly true of the latter of the three films, Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, as Chion rightly understands the film as one of the more important works in the history of sound cinema. The 1932 film tends to be overlooked when compared to Lang’s 1931 work, M, but Testament’s importance in sound cinema is due to a number of factors, the most fundamental being that, as the title indicates, the audience will hear Mabuse voice his plans and desires—Mabuse, it seems, will provide audible testimony of his madness.

Or does he? On screen, Chion notes, what we witness and hear is a trompe-l’oreille, trickery that visually casts Dr. Mabuse as a mute, yet we are convinced that we hear him speak (although we are never given any evidence to support this). To be sure, “the voice attributed to Mabuse—which turns out to be the voice of another—is heard only from behind a curtain.” Like the Great Oz, “The terrible Mabuse is divided up into a mute body and a bodiless voice, only to rule all the more powerfully” (31). And as in the case of Oz, Mabuse’s body is rendered lacking when it is revealed that is not he who speaks from behind curtains and over phones. His voice outstrips the limits of his body and buttresses his plans with a diabolical power. This relationship, a structured scenario wherein “we don’t see the person we hear” despite the fact that this voice emanates with an authority from the screen is, for Chion, cinema’s acousmetre. The acousmetre is Chion’s most vital concept, a force that drives many of the essays included. Drawn from the French word acousmate, this term signifies “invisible” sounds. The cinema, Chion argues, continually presents us with a game of present/absent signification: The sound film can show a closed door or an opaque curtain and allow us to hear the voice of someone supposedly behind it. Sound films can show an empty space and give us the voice of someone supposedly “there,” in the scene’s “here and now,” but outside the frame (18).

It is this absent vocalist but ever present voice that presents a number of powers, many of which are authoritative in their accent and force. Our desire is to assign a body to these voices (The Ten Commandments, the Scream series, The Wizard of Oz, and so forth). And the minute that we perform such an act an unusual violence is unleashed as Gods are desecrated, murderers discovered (or so we think), and magicians exposed. There is a power in the voice: hushed tones not only convey information but they create within us the desire to attentively listen to them. Chion’s work begins to detail what we want to hear in film voices and, by association, the silences of the cinema. I know of no other book that so effectively discusses the figure of the mute, the use of the scream and the reccurrence of the siren song in cinema throughout the world. In fact, throughout this book, it becomes evident that we need to think more clearly about our own desire to control the voice, to separate it from the performer, and to position it in recordings in order to repeatedly subject it to our judgements.

Unfortunately, the one film that best illustrates this desire and its possibilities for violence, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), is, rather surprisingly, not discussed in these essays. Yet it is in reading Voice in the Cinema that it becomes evident where the sparks of connection lie. It is clear that Voice in the Cinema is not “complete,” but constitutes instead the beginning of a discussion that—unlike any other volume since Kaja Silverman’s work, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema—makes it clear that there is an intellectual stake to be made in analyzing how the voice is used in cinema. The real power of Chion’s work, though, is to force us to conceive of why we want to hear recordings of voices at all.

Tim Anderson
Denison University

  1. Christian Metz, “Aural Objects,” Yale French Studies 60, trans. George Gurrieri (1980): 24.
  2. My use of this term directly invokes the work of Rick Altman on recorded sound, specifically his essay, “The Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound,” Sound Theory/Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman (New York: Routledge, 1992).