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Studies in European Cinema Volume 5 Number 1 © Intellect Ltd 2008.

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seci.5.1.7/1

Image, Music, Film
Wendy Everett University of Bath

The complex relationship between music and cinema has haunted critics, theo-
rists and filmmakers since the days of silent film, yet despite considerable work
that has been carried out over the intervening years, questions and uncertainties
still predominate. While few would query the essential role of music in supporting
and colouring filmic image and narrative, others would reject this traditional
function, considering on the contrary that music performs as an image in its own
right, an image that is fundamental to the creation of meaning. For a number of
theorists, critics, and filmmakers, from Abel Gance and René Clair in the 1920s to
Jean-Luc Godard and Terence Davies today, even this reformulation is inadequate.
For them, film itself must be understood as a form of music, whose textures,
rhythms and dramatic tensions reflect a strategic process of ‘composition’. It is
this last idea that provides the main focus of this article which explores and evalu-
ates the notion that film composition reflects or parallels that of music, and will
assess why musical form is seen as ideally suited to contemporary concerns, in
general, and what the repercussions of such an idea might be for our understand-
ing of filmic narrative.

The inspiration for this article, as referenced in my title, is – of course –
Roland Barthes’s Image, Music, Text (1977), a collection of short essays
ranging in content from photography to film, from narrative to the death of
the author, from Beethoven to the Bible, and far, far beyond. What is partic-
ularly exciting about this volume, as indeed about so much of Barthes’s
writing, is the way that its wide-ranging intellectual journey implicitly opens
up whole new geographies of connection for the reader to explore, in a
process which has the potential to reveal new vistas and perspectives.
Without specifically referencing this text or, at least, referencing it only min-
imally, the notions of connection that it articulates will underlie this brief
exploration of the so-called musical analogy; the problematic and unstable
juxtaposing of two fundamentally different media, music and film, in an
attempt to discover what new insights might be gained from the process.

I am encouraged in this attempt by Roland Barthes’s contention that it
is through studying the relationship between music and other art forms
that an understanding of contemporary culture in general may best be
reached: ‘analysing music, even more than literature or painting, helps us
to understand modernity’ (Barthes 1995: 819; my translation). This is a
fascinating suggestion. Is it unique to Barthes, or perhaps symptomatic of


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a more widespread attitude, and if so, why? It is certainly the case that
novelists and poets alike have long adopted what they describe as ‘musical
principles’ in their own work. In the nineteenth century, for example, the
symbolists chose words primarily for their sounds, since the resulting
poem would thereby acquire meanings that exceed the purely linguistic,
and language itself would attain new levels of ambiguity.1 In the late
1920s, Aldous Huxley modelled his novel Point Counter Point on Bach’s
Suite No. 2, in B Minor, while artists, from Kandinsky to Klee and beyond,
have repeatedly explored the possibility of reworking the language of
painting in terms of music and counterpoint. (Klee, for example, believed
that if eighteenth-century counterpoint was directly replicated in paint-
ings, through gradations of colour and shape, they would acquire the
musical ability of modulating or moving).2

In recent years, belief in the importance of musical structures has,
quite clearly, extended beyond the purely artistic. The critical theorist, Julia
Kristeva, for instance, argues the need to analyse the ‘Other’, the foreigner,
in terms of ‘the harmonious repetition of [. . .] differences’, as part of a
wider thesis that posits Bach’s fugues as a suitable model for approaching
contemporary issues (Kristeva 1991:3). This intriguing idea references the
notion of the multiplicity of voices offered by (orchestral) music, as does
Edward Saïd’s belief that it is the simultaneity of such multiple contribut-
ing voices, their ability to confuse, their expressive freedom, and their
demand for creative interpretation, that makes music – particularly the
fugal structures of counterpoint – so directly relevant to contemporary
society (Saïd 1983: 47). The belief in polyphony as a means of increasing
individual interpretative freedom similarly underlies Glenn Gould’s experi-
ments with Contrapuntal Radio, and his documentary about Schoenberg,
in which the voices of a number of composers and conductors, heard
simultaneously, along with very different pieces of music (a Gregorian
Chant, pieces by Dufay, de Machaut, and Stockhausen), constitute con-
flicting and simultaneous signifiers (Hurwitz 1983).

Music is, therefore, seen to offer a form of structure suited to the com-
plexities of modern/postmodern culture and thought, through its mobility,
its multiple and equivalent voices, and the polyphonic and contrapuntal
strategies that reject both linear causality and simple binary opposition.

The musical analogy/film as music
The relationship between film and music is long-standing and complex;
almost from the first, silent film was perceived as a form of visual poetry or
music. For example, René Clair believed that the great power of film lay
less in the representational quality of its images than in its ability to create
its own internal, musical rhythms. Film which functions in such a manner,
characterised by him as ‘pure’ cinema, in that it works directly upon the
imagination of the audience, is thus a form of what he calls ‘visual sym-
phony’ (Clair 1970: 146–147). Germaine Dulac too was convinced that film
‘has far more to do with musical technique than with any other’, precisely

1 Poets such as
Stéphane Mallarmé
(1842-1898) and
Paul Verlaine (1844-
1896), for example,
were fascinated by the
relationship between
poetry and music.
Verlaine’s ‘Art
Poetique’ (‘The Art of
Poetry’), with its
stipulation that music
was the quality to
which poetry should
aspire, can be seen as
a form of manifesto
for the movement.

2 This idea is beautifully
illustrated by Klee
himself in paintings
such as Fugue in Red

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film image containing movement many of the objects within the frame
may remain fixed, any form of sound will inevitably imply displacement or
mobility of some sort (Chion 1990: 9–10). For Shepherd and Wicke, it is
the evanescence of sound, the way that it goes ‘out of existence at the
moment it comes into existence’, that enhances our perception of it as
dynamic and mobile (Shepherd and Wicke 1997: 126). By contrast, the
world of vision appears safer and permanent. Again, the example of music
is telling. For Zuckerlandl, changes in pitch are inevitably perceived as a
form of abstract space in motion (1959), so that it becomes ‘impossible to
separate the perception of sound from the perception of space and move-
ment’ (Storr 1992: 173). In other words, ‘music and stasis seem, in prin-
ciple, irreconcilable (Shepherd and Wicke 1997: 129). A film which
illustrates the importance of the close association of music with movement
is Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988), a memory narrative in
which alternating music and silence, perceived as alternating mobility and
stasis, serve both to structure the film and to create a powerful narrative
dynamic between maternal love and the trauma of violence.

Both music and film are of course temporal, or time-based arts, and
they share an awareness of time as flux and durée, as well as of the multi-
ple and often conflictual times of performance and reception. Musical time
impacts on film in two primary ways: the inward, subjective temporalities
of music, which can trigger memories and emotions with unparalleled
immediacy, serve to contribute rich temporal textures to visual images.
Second, the ability of music to fragment, extend, or reverse time through
its rhythmic patterning, may serve as a template for films that reject the
linear structures of classical narrative.

Both music and film use rhythm to deconstruct and reconstruct time,
and, in both, the resulting movement through space is entirely illusory.
What I mean is that a tune is really a succession of separate tones which
we hear as a linear development, so that in music, time acquires an (imag-
inary) spatial dimension (Storr 1997: 171–173), just as, arguably, the
appearance of moving images in film rests upon a similar illusion.5

Nevertheless, in both music and film the perception of time as movement
through space is fundamental. Many versions of the music/film analogy
focus on the rhythmic composition of editing as the key to this relation-
ship. For example, Eisenstein’s theory of film music, is based on a concept
of ‘vertical montage’ in which music, sound effects and the visual are con-
ceived as gestural composites (Eisenstein 1947: 74). Less attention has
been paid to the very significant ways in which film, through using music
to create multiple temporalities, has itself devised music-based strategies
for representing temporal change within still images. However, images
such as the ‘still life’ shot of the corner of a patterned carpet in The Long
Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992), offer examples of film using such
strategies to create what Deleuze and Guattari term ‘the indefinite time of
the pure event or becoming’; an image of time which, essentially, escapes
time (1980: 322).

11Image, Music, Film

5 Given that what we
actually see on the
screen is a series of
still images which,
when projected at a
specific rate (24
frames per second),
are perceived as

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In other words, ideas of counterpoint, rhythm, and musical time in film
are far more complex than it might seem from the traditional approach to
the music/film analogy. Rather than attempting to provide precise answers
to questions of the compatibility of film and music, to which there can be
no single, fixed solution or theory, it is important to open up some of the
spaces that lie in-between the opposing viewpoints, since the more fluid
interpretations that they reveal may go some way to explain various recent
filmic strategies, as well as the widespread belief, noted earlier, in the suit-
ability of musical structures for articulating the contemporary world. With
this in mind, I shall consider a number of examples that will provide an
illustration of this idea.

Earlier, I included Jean-Luc Godard in my list of directors who are
specifically concerned with music in their work, foregrounding its identity
as both content and, in a more complex way, structure. All of Godard’s
films could be examined in this context, but for the purpose of this article,
it is his 2004 film, Notre Musique, that seems particularly relevant. This is
because in Notre Musique, Godard adopts a musical structure, marked by
multiple voices and extreme narrative fluidity, as a way of dealing with
complex issues (including the Arab/Israeli conflict), to which there can be
no easy solution. Interestingly, it is the film’s open-ended polyphony that
enables it to avoid both straightforward polemic and simple binary opposi-
tions, in just the way that Kristeva, Barthes and Saïd suggest. Notre
Musique is both documentary and fiction, image and sound, film and art:
an essay, a collage, a piece of visual music. No single viewpoint dominates,
and no conclusion is offered. The film has a three-part structure: Hell,
Purgatory and Paradise. The central, and longest, section, Purgatory, is set
in contemporary Sarajevo, where a group of people (fictional and real, and
including Godard himself) are attending a literary event at which Godard
will speak about cinema. It is flanked by the collage of brutal images of
war (documentary and fictional) that compose the first section, and the
sun-drenched tranquillity of the last. As a study of war and conflict, the
film received a mixed critical response, undoubtedly because it refused to
provide a traditional dialectic, or clear-cut argument, and it was variously
accused of being anti-Semitic, messianistic, ambivalent and liberating. The
film specifically eschews linearity and solution, not least because the con-
flicts that mark our world are far too complex for that, and if, as its title
suggests, we are advised to approach the film as a piece of music, in which
the form and meaning are inseparable, and ‘meaning’ is both personal
and fluid, it is because each spectator is obliged to respond to its rhythms,
its conflicting images, its brutal juxtapositions and shifting signifiers, and
must individually navigate the spaces and tensions that it creates. For
Godard, this process is essential; it is only by venturing into such spaces,
with an open mind, that tolerance can be found. After all, we are all
involved: this is our music, ‘Notre’ Musique. As the film’s final section,
‘Paradise’ reminds us, to some extent, meaning can only ever be provi-
sional and personal, and it therefore becomes clear that Godard has

12 Wendy Everett

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Chion, M. (1990), Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, New York: Columbia University Press.

Clair, R. (1970), Cinéma d’hier, cinéma d’aujourd’hui, Paris: Gallimard.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari (1980), A Thousand Plateaux, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.

Dulac, G. (1978), ‘The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea’, in P.A. Sitney (ed.),
The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, New York: New York
University Press, pp. 36–42.

Duras, M. (1973), Nathalie Granger, Paris: Gallimard.

——— (1977), Le Camion, Paris: Minuit.

——— (1980), ‘Les Films de la nuit’, Les yeux verts, Cahiers du Cinéma, pp. 312–313,
331. (Special Edition of the journal, devoted to the work of Marguerite Duras.)

Ehrenzweig, A. (1975), The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, London:
Sheldon Press.

Eisenstein (1947), The Film Sense, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, pp. 44–54.

Everett, W. (2004), Terence Davies, Manchester and New York: Manchester
University Press.

Everett, W. and A. Goodbody (2005), Revisiting Space: Space and Place in European
Cinema, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien:
Peter Lang.

Faure, E. (1953), Fonction du Cinéma, Paris: Editions Gonthier.

Hurwitz, R. (1983), ‘Towards a Contrapuntal Radio’, in McGreevy, J. (ed.), Glenn
Gould, Variations, By Himself and His Friends, New York: Quill, pp. 253–263.

King, N. (1984), ‘The Sound of Silents’, Screen 25/3, May–June 1984. (This entire
issue of Screen, subtitled ‘On the Soundtrack’, contains a number of articles on
sound and music in film.)

Kristeva, J. (1991), Strangers to Ourselves (trans. L.S. Roudiez), New York: Quill.

Lack, R. (1997), Twenty Four Frames Under: A Buried History of Film Music, London:
Quartet Books.

Saïd, E. (1983), ‘The Music Itself: Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Vision’, in McGreevy, J.
(ed.), Glenn Gould, Variations, By Himself and His Friends, New York: Quill.

Shepherd, J. and P. Wicke (1997), Music and Cultural Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Storr, A. (1997), Music and the Mind, London: Harper Collins.

Zuckerkandl, V. (1959), The Sense of Music, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Suggested citation
Everett, W. (2008), ‘Image, Music, Film’, Studies in European Cinema 5: 1, pp. 7–16,

doi: 10.1386/seci.5.1.7/1

Contributor details
Wendy Everett is Reader in Film Studies at the University of Bath. Her principal
research interests are in European cinema, and recent publications in this field
include: Revisiting Space: Space and Place in European Cinema (Peter Lang 2005),
Terence Davies (Manchester University Press 2004), Cultures of Exile: Images of Dis-
placement (Berghahn 2004), European Identity in Cinema (Intellect 2005/1996),
Questions of Colour in Cinema. From Paintbrush to Pixel (Peter Lang 2007), as well as
numerous journal articles and book chapters. Wendy Everett, Department of
European Studies and Modern Languages, University of Bath, Bath BA27AY, UK.
Tel: +44 (0) 1225 386482, Fax: +44 (0) 1225 386099.
E-mail: [email protected]

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