Emmy Nominee The Handmaid’s Tale shows us how to tell a story when characters can’t say what they mean. The show is a masterclass in using audiovisual techniques like framing, color, music, flashbacks and voiceover to express what characters are thinking and feeling.
Transcript provided by Youtube:
The Handmaid’s Tale — based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel — is a show about
strong, dynamic women. But it’s set in a world where women are enslaved heavily
restricted in what they say or do. So, much of what we learn about these women
has to be communicated through other means than dialogue. Let’s take a look at
the cinematic techniques: framing, choreograph,y color, voiceover, music and
flashbacks that allow the show to include us in its characters inner
worlds, as they confront the very wrong outer world that’s closing in on them.
[Blessed are the meek.]
[And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness.]
Closely framed shots of the show’s female characters — particularly Elisabeth Moss’s
Offred — show the complex range of emotion experienced by these women. So we can see
on her face when Offred is lying, sarcastic, or in deep emotional pain.
Remaining close with them is a way of visually making us feel their emotions —
what they’re not able to say or express.
[I have found happiness. Yes]
The claustrophobic close-ups reinforce that they’re trapped in Gilead, just as
they’re trapped in the frame. Some of these shots place the women on the edges
and in the corners of the frame, literally marginalizing them. And shots
looking down on the women are putting them low in the frame, emphasizing their
powerlessness. And the framing tells us it’s not just the hand mates who are
victims. Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, is part of one of the
leading families of Gilead. But the close-ups on her face mirror those have
Offred. Even if one has a higher status, both are slaves, marginalized in the
corner of the frame instead of central and actively in control of the
composition. The contrast between the oppressed, terrified women in the
close-ups, and the obedient, efficient handmaiden Army in the wide-angle shots
is striking, and it shows how much humanity can be lost in the transition
from personal to abstract collective; from valuing individual lives to valuing
only the greater good. Many shots are also obscured in some way because we
share in The Handmaid’s point of view. Things are hidden from us; we’re denied
information. The ceremony scenes — which show the rape of the women by the
commander’s — are shot clinically. The first shot — a bird’s eye, or gods eye view —
feels like a comment about the fake sanctity of the ritual. They are under
his eye, then the scene strings together moving portraits of each of the three
participants filmed from the shoulders up. Their disembodied faces emphasize the
disjointed unnatural nature of the procedure. Just as the framing is awkward,
everyone here is hellishly uncomfortable. So the visuals are very effective in
getting across that this combination of artificial insemination and
institutionalized rape couldn’t be less sexy or intimate. Color functions to
highlight the categories or roles the women are sorted into. A woman is quickly
defined by the color she wears and reduced to that function. Forcing the
women to wear different colors is a strategic move, keeping them apart and
distracting them with internal rivalries. The fertile women hand mates wear red.
Red symbolizes fertility and menstrual blood, and it sets these women apart as a
prized rarity. Yet a woman wearing red is traditionally associated with desire and
sin, like a Scarlet woman, or the Bible’s Mary Magdalene.
And these connotations clash with the official rhetoric of devout
sacrifice surrounding The Handmaid’s position.
[We aren’t concubines or
Against the oppressively desaturated gray world of Gilead, the
Handmaids’ red stands out just as these women stand out as the one vibrant life
force that remains in this drab world. Red is also the color of the bloodshed
that Gilead uses to keep the handmaids enslaved. And as an aggressive color of
action red can symbolize power and rebellion since they’re the only fertile
women they still have a source of power if they could band together society
couldn’t kill all of them as Gilead and perhaps most of the world is unable to
procreate without them.
[Red’s my color.]
[Well, that’s lucky.]
The name Offred — while
literally a patronymic of Fred referring to her commander — also sounds like of red
which could be a hint that in the story she represents the universal experience
of this red abused and eventually rebellious woman. The wives’ turquoise — in
contrast to the red of a Mary Magdalene — alludes to the blue garments of the pure
Virgin Mary. The blue is symbolic of companionship, admiration, and loyalty. Yet
it’s sexless and muted, masking the dissatisfaction of a wife who’s reduced
to a virginal state. The red and blue contrast with each other showing that
the system is intentionally placing the wives and handmaids in opposition to
keep all women down. Martha’s unmarried, non-fertile women wear khaki green to
blend into the background. They’re viewed as servants, given little more respect
than furniture. Aunts — women who train and control the handmaids — wear brown. The
brown’s reminiscent of military dress, and according to Atwood, the color was chosen
to be vaguely reminiscent of Nazi Germany which adds another layer to the
subconscious foreboding we feel.
[Blessed are the meek dear.]
Men wear black, a universal color which allows them to be viewed as more whole,
not defined by a function. However they are still dressed in uniform so they’re
not entirely free either. No one is in a system like this. At the end of the last
episode, Offred remarks:
[They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t
want us to be an army.]
Cleverly reversing the intent of the colored uniforms to
reduce and separate the women as the red of the handmade suffering has brought
them together. The show and Gilead are full of contrasts: the stated virtuous
sounding outer reality and the brutal inner one. Truth is filtered through the
false embroidered vocabulary of the state:
[You are hereby sentenced to the
common mercy of the state.]
And almost everyone we meet is a terrified slave
who must praise the tyrannical totalitarian government. Because spoken
words don’t say what they mean, Offred’s voice over is crucial.
[I don’t need oranges, I need to scream.]
Mimicking the feel of the novel, the
narration reveals June’s private mind — the only place where she is free.
[No Nick. I’m gonna knock back a few at the Oyster House bar. You want to come along?]
Her candid speech reminds us of the person she still is behind the
facade — educated, sarcastic, honest. And her blunt commentary can provide humor.
[Ten ways to tell how he feels about you. Number two: he keeps finding ways to
accidentally run into you.]
In the very first episode Offred’s misjudging of
[I kind of want to tell her that I sincerely believe that Ofglen is a
pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass.]
[Under his eye.]
[Under his eye.]
helps us grasp how effective the world’s strict
regulation of speech and behavior is and separating the women.
[I always thought
you were such a true believer.]
[So are you.
So freakin pious, they do that really
well — make us distrust each other.]
observe the choreographed scripted world of Gilead, we’re trained like the
Handmaids to quickly perceive detours from the repeated rituals,
and expect these detours to receive punishment. And we wonder about
the other handmaids’ true personalities hidden inside this cage of false
behavior. Flashbacks to the woman’s pasts highlight the wrongness of the present.
Here, the content of the past and present situations is drastically different and
so is the framing. In the present, the Handmaids are usually low in the frame,
or to the sides and corners, visually oppressed. In the flashbacks, June and
Moira occupy the middle of the frame. These interplays between past and
present help us grasp on a visceral level how much has changed and how these
characters arrived where they are. The flashbacks resemble our world and show
us how the nightmare evolved step by step from a place that we recognize,
unsettling us with the understanding that this could all conceivably happen.
[When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up; when they blame terrorists and
suspended the Constitution we didn’t wake up then either.]
Flashbacks also make
us come to like — or at least pity — Serena Joy. Even though she’s Offred’s enemy, we
realized that she was a career woman, far smarter than her husband, who’s now had
to retreat into a domestic role that doesn’t at all satisfy her.
[You don’t need to worry about this. I promise we’ve got good men working on it.]
Even if she’s a victim of her own ideology
[Do you ever imagine a society
[A society that has reduced its carbon emissions by 78% in three
[A society in which women can no longer
read your book.]
From the information given us in flashbacks and other scenes
we gather that the Handmaids aren’t just casualties of this new society,
they’re the foundation of Gilead’s economy and existence.
[Do you think they want to
[Don’t be an idiot. Gilead only has one thing
to trade that anyone wants. Red tags.]
Offred and we start to realize
that while The Handmaids have been reduced to a commodity,
this means that Gilead will collapse if they all refused to obey.
The arc of the first season of Handmaid’s Tale is Offred’s journey from
not being one of those people who protests and rebels
[There’s a network.]
[I don’t know. I’m not that kind of person.]
[No one is until they have to be.]
to step in forward as the leader of a rebellion.
We experienced her transformation through camera and sound,
slow-motion, her opinionated inner voice, music, and specific
framing and blocking, all of which helps us to see her reach her breaking point
and understand why there is no other way. Close-ups allow us to sense her
intensifying defiance and hatred of the commander and Serena Joy. Contrasts
between her facial expressions and her words start to reveal the increasing
falseness and daring of her dialogue. Here, Offred’s close-up plus the point of
view shot tell us exactly what she’s thinking. While speaking words of calm
and obedience she’s contemplating bloody murder of her captors. The visual calls
back to the thoughts she shared with us in a previous voiceover:
[How hard would I
have to press those sheers in her neck before seeing blood?]
Here the intense
close-ups of her mouth and eyes convey her visceral disgust after she’s kissed
the commander. The threatening score makes us feel constantly on edge; it saws
at us like this world is constantly attacking Offred.
But moments of other music and key scenes, and often at the ends of episodes
express Offred’s inner world when it’s out of joint with her outer. As if coming
from within Offred’s thoughts or memories, invigorating pop songs punctuate moments
when we realized that she’s still June inside and her hope is still alive. We
get this for June’s good feeling after the first time she plays Scrabble, only
for the music to be abruptly cut out when she realizes Ofglen has been
replaced. After Offred’s heartened by the secret message she finds from the
previous Offred, the music is uplifting too. While Offred walks in slow motion,
and behind her the other handmaids enter the frame and fall in step, as if
she’s their leader.
With her bold voiceover, Offred reclaims the handmade title. To
her being a handmaid now means being part of a community of women so strong
that even the most inhuman conditioning won’t stop them from being kind to each
other. We again get hopeful music when Ofglen or Emily steals a car and runs
a man over. And the music transforms the bloody scene which is sure to be swiftly
punished into a moment of inspiration for Offred. And after Offred refuses to
stone Jeanine — another slow-motion moment to emphasize the gravity of her defiance —
we again get her internal soundtrack as Nina Simone expresses how good it feels
to start a revolution. In the final scene of the series Offred is escaping the
commander, escaping Gilead, and for a second it even feels as though Offred
is escaping the camera. When the camera lingers on an extreme close-up of Offred’s
red dress, we have the feeling that she’s literally climbing out of the frame to
where our eyes can’t follow her. The very last song over the season finale and
credits, Tom Petty’s American Girl, ironically reminds us that the story is
after all set in the USA. But it also alludes to Offred’s unbreakable spirit.
June’s inner world has finally been expressed and the hope of rebellion is
alive. With no characters able to act or speak freely, the inventive audio-visual
world of The Handmaid’s Tale allows us to witness women growing strong,
rebelling and expressing themselves. These techniques help us connect
emotionally to this nightmare, to feel what these women feel in a world that
treats them as less than human.
[Now I’m awake
to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.]
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video