Ecoute le temps is the promising debut feature from young French director Alanté KavaíÂ¯té, whose previous work includes the noted 2002 short The Carp as well as the co-directed documentary Childhood of a Leader, about Boris Yeltsin. Set in rural France, the film is a subtle thriller about a sound recordist, Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne), whose mother (Ludmila MikaíÂ«l) is murdered in her home. Upon visiting the old house, Charlotte soon realises that she knew little about her mother’s life in the tiny village, a place where sinister locals eye Charlotte with suspicion. A police enquiry begins, but Charlotte decides to investigate on her own. Using her sound equipment, she starts recording noises in the house, but events take an uncanny turn when sounds of the past blend with sounds of the present.
The thriller narrative has a supernatural dimension as the recorded voices of the past, which ultimately lead Charlotte to the murderer, take the story beyond reality and beyond the conventions of the genre. This could be perceived as simply a clever gimmick, but KavaíÂ¯té treats the subject matter with sensitivity; the ghostly voices also help Charlotte relive moments from the past and explore her troubled relationship with her mother. As such, Ecoute le temps is as much about grief as it is a murder mystery. This is also evident in the mise en scíÂ¨ne; the rural landscape shrouded in perpetual autumnal rain creates a mood of melancholy, which is intensified by Charlotte’s isolation in the house, an ominous place full of secrets.
Sound, both a central theme and a narrative trigger, is elemental in the film’s development. Coppola’s 1974 classic The Conversation (or even De Palma’s Blow Out) is an easy comparison to make here, but it is the way Kavaite turns the abstract sound into something tangible that is really striking. The voices of the past have no chronological order in the house but rather depend on the position of the microphone in space. Charlotte marks spots of sound by stretching thread between all four walls of the room. She eventually weaves a web so complex that she can barely move. This intricate maze is visually arresting (if a little confusing), and adds dynamism and physicality to both the narrative and Dequenne’s performance as Charlotte.
Dequenne is a versatile actress who has enjoyed great success in France in a number of films, including Rosetta, which won her the best actress award at the 2001 Cannes festival. Her performance as Charlotte is understated: she is diligent and has an air of cold distance (she has reason to be suspicious of the locals), but her warmth is visible in her relationship to Jérôme (Flender), the simple but sweet childhood friend and neighbour. Perhaps a little unexpectedly it is the old house that is the strongest supporting character. Charlotte is intrigued by the cracks in the walls that creak and moan as though exhausted by years of secrets and deceit. As Charlotte delves deeper and skeletons come out of the closet, the house slowly begins to succumb.
By the film’s conclusion it is clear that the identity of the murderer isn’t the only revelation. The ending suggests that the ineffectual police investigation is symptomatic of a deeper-rooted problem within the small community: a sense of apathy towards crime and a denial of responsibility, and Charlotte’s mother is a victim of their attitude. Like the secrets within the crumbling old house, Charlotte exposes the shortcomings of the community, though perhaps it is too little too late. KavaíÂ¯té has turned her original screenplay into an atmospheric and often innovative film, and is probably a director to keep an eye out for in the future.