March 26, 2015 – Culture
Silence, Speech & Oppression in Period Drama Set Design

Film stills are silent. They contain a latent energy. A slowed momentum waiting to burst forth again as soon as you hit the play button. This essay will discuss the oppression of people and how this is expressed visually in three particular film stills. Using the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Metaphysics of Youth – The Conversation’, the relationship of the film stills to silence and speech will be examined – the silence of the oppressed and the speech of the oppressors.

This piece of writing will look at film stills. Firstly a moment from Sophia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ (2006), set in the the late 18th century. Marie is married to Louis, living in Versaille, but has yet to produce an heir to the throne. The royal court gossips about this, blaming it on Marie and not Louis. In a moment of frustration and self disappointment, Marie has ran into one of her rooms in the palace and is leaning against patterned wallpaper. The pattern is a pastel coloured floral arabesque. The pattern on her dress is similar to the wallpaper pattern. She blends into the background, with ribbons on her neck and her wrists similar to those printed on the wallpaper. It seems as if she is tied to the Palace of Versaille with no way of escape.

voiceless roisin phackett

Still, Marie Antoinette, Director Sophia Coppola

Secondly, this piece will examine a still from ‘Jane Eyre’ (2011) also set in the late 18th century and directed by Cary Fukunaga. This moment happens early on in the film when Jane is still a child and living in her aunt’s house. Her older cousin fights with her, she is blamed for it and is locked in the red room, which scares her because it is apparently haunted. She bangs against the door to get them to leave her out, but accidently she bangs her head. The still in question is the moment when she has knocked herself out and has fallen onto the oriental carpet. The carpet and her dress have similar greyish tones and dissolve into one another. The effect of this dissolution is comparable to the effects created in the ‘Marie Antoinette’ still. And unending dissolution, a blurring of the boarder between the background and the character.

Still, Jane Eyre, Director Cary Fukunaga

Still, Jane Eyre, Director Cary Fukunaga

Finally, a still from ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010), set in the 1940s, directed by Tom Hooper, will be considered. In this moment George VI is about to make his famous war time speech, he is about to break away from the shadow of his father and brother and overcome his stammer. He is inside a tent made of patterned fabric, which is itself inside a room in the palace. This tent was created to make it more comfortable for the King. The still contains a potential energy even though it contrasts with the Jane Eyre and Marie Antoinette stills. King George VI is not being absorbed by his background, he is on the verge of breaking from it, of making his speech. The King embodies a force of will and is about to overcome his voicelessness. Jane Eyre and Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, are still voiceless.


Still, The King’s Speech, Director Tom Hooper

These three films are historic dramas. The characters all live an indoor domestic life. The chosen still from each film are moments when each character is living in a trap. Marie is judged by the court and her family for not producing an heir to the French throne. She, as the woman, is the one at fault for not being attractive enough to make her want husband have sex with her. Besides the fact that they are both young and the pressure on them is ridiculous and intrusive, it is her husband Louis who does not want to or cannot consumate their marrage. Ten year old Jane has just been locked into a supposedly haunted room after being blamed for a fight she did not start. This moment happens at the beginning of the film and is a sign of the other difficulties she gets into later in her life. Both Marie and Jane are living entrapped, under the control of older, wealthier and more powerful people. Their life is regulated by others and their choices are severly limited. George VI known as the reluctant king never wanted to become king, but became king when his brother abdicated the throne. He has long been a stutterer and has difficulty in overcoming it in order to make his speech. At this moment he is reaching out beyond his tent inside the palace and broadcasting to the whole world.

Silence and speech fight against one another in these stills. The carpet, wallpaper and fabric surrounding the characters absorb their sound and their will to speak. Oppressed by the societies they live in, their gender, their disability, these moments show them completely pushed back and overwelmed by their oppression or about to fight against it with speech. The characters are consumed by their surroundings, swallowed up by floral and geometric patterns. This is a visual effect used by the directors and designers to give the impression of oppression. As a metaphor for voicelessness, it is a powerful visual device. Marie Antoinette, Jane Eyre and King George VI are silent listeners, they understand those who speak. A quote by Walter Benjamin is apt, ‘as he [the genius] speaks, the words fall from him like cloaks. The words of the genius make naked, and are coverings in which the listener feels clothed ‘ (2011, p.146). The patterns in the wallpaper, carpet and fabric create a sense of movement in stillness. It is the patterned interiors the characters inhabit that wills them forward. There is an underlying desire for movement within the images. It is this will-to-movement (created, as such, because they are a pause, one inhaled breathe, out of an entire film) that makes them vibrant.

Benjamin wrote, speaking of the spaces of women, ‘silence has reigned in the upholstered rooms’ (2011, p.145). The speaker can speak in the upholstered interiors and the silent can listen, learn and understand. The listeners quietly absorb the speakers words. Here I diverge from Benjamin’s thought to suggest that the silent who are absorbing the words of those who speak, learn from the speakers and overcome their oppression. The film stills spoken about in this essay are stills of moments when the characters have yet to stand and fight back. In the case of Jane Eyre, she learns from her superiors and eventually takes control of her own life. With regard to Marie Antoinette, it is readily known that she did not overcome all of her battles, and was guillotined in 1793.

However, she did at one point gain respect from those in the French court, but ultimately she didn’t surface from the restraint of the floral wallpaper and dress. George VI, in contrast to Marie, fought and fought to leave the shadow of his father and brother. He gained control of his stuttering and the public grew to repect and like him. Though these stills are from period dramas, and hark back to times when oppression was more prevalent, they still refer to moments in the past, whether real or fictious, that are relevant today. The voicelessness of certain people in today’s society can be subtle. Your gender, your disability or your poverty allow you to be oppressed today similarly to how people were oppressed in the past. The stills are a visual representation of subtle oppression. The characters may have been cushioned cocooned and pampered into submission in their luxurious interiors, but none-the-less they were oppressed.

Words and painting: Roisin Power Hackett