An Extreme Ear to the World: Noise in Contemporary European Cinema

Change log
Talijan, Emilija 

This thesis examines a recent shift in attention to the auditory present in a strand of post-1999 contemporary European film and philosophy. It argues that noise, defined predominantly as unpleasant or unidentifiable sound, has been harnessed by particular filmmakers as a means to tune our attention to different bodies sounding in our environment. Yet while the ear is an organ we perceive to be open, it could always be receiving more. This limit to our audition is a limit the filmmakers examined here productively engage with in ways that raise questions about the politics and ethics of listening to different bodies. The thesis takes Jean-Luc Nancy’s articulation of the listening body, what he calls the corps sonore, to posit a theory of a ‘cinematic corps sonore’ where the boundaries between on-screen bodies, medium and spectator are dissolved in the mutual vibratory soundings that characterise the state of being ‘all ears’. In doing so, the thesis offers a revision of the haptic framework that has dominated recent sensuous theories of film as well as applications of Nancy’s thought to film in the inter-discipline of film philosophy.

The analysis proceeds via close readings of individual films to consider how noise tunes us to different bodies and the specific issues raised in doing so in ways that resonate beyond the philosophical limits of Nancy’s corps sonore. Chapter one examines the ‘unlistenable’ in the work of Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé. It revises accounts of the supposed ‘unwatchability’ of Breillat and Noé’s cinema by examining their respective appeals to volume and frequency, revealing both the possibility of intimacy and the risk of vulnerability that the corps sonore poses. Chapter two takes the corps sonore to the question of national borders and social bodies by bringing post-colonial theorist Édouard Glissant’s concept of the écho-monde to Tony Gatlif’s Exils (2004) and Arnaud des Pallières’ Adieu (2004). It argues that both filmmakers appeal to the migratory properties of noise to think through questions of identity, relation and the different degrees of belonging that sound inscribes. The final chapter asks whether cinema constitutes a site that allows for an amplification of the nonhuman. Attention is given both to the practice of Foley and to the use of Foley in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) to show how a non-coincidence between body and sound figures cinema as a place of resonance, animated by the scattered structure of dynamic relations between things that Foley brings about. Yet the chapter also casts doubt over the possibility of noise indicating something outside of human world-projection and as such, disrupts the otherwise increasingly prehensile attention that I argue filmmakers have been able to pay to the body through the auditory.

Wilson, Emma
Film, Sound, Contemporary European Cinema, Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council