Some movies rely on witty, fast-paced dialogue. It’s always the fast-paced stuff that gets all the credit. The quality of a script is often determined by the strength of the dialogue – and yet so many movies are full of characters explaining exactly who they are, what they’re doing, where they’re going. They spell it all out for you. You might as well hand out copies of the script at the theater and have the audience consume the movie that way.
But Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007) could have had a dialogue-free script. It could be on mute the whole time, and the movie would be the same. And don’t worry, this isn’t one of those The Artist-esque gimmicks. The movie is a movie in the purest cinematic sense – it’s a story that could only be told with a camera.
Writers will not study this film as they do Network or The Godfather. There are no signature lines, no memorable blowout arguments. But writers would do well to take note of what the filmmakers behind Holiday have to say about the craft.
Take, for instance, a scene in which Bean (Rowan Atkinson, in his iconic role) comes face-to-face with a seafood platter he unwittingly ordered from a French restaurant (the only French word he knows, presumably, being oui). Every edit, every facial expression and subtle gesture captured on film informs us of who this character is. He is never a rude guest – he exemplifies the ‘politeness to a fault’ the English are so known for. But he doesn’t have an adventurous pallet. He is blissfully unaware of how unprepared he is to confront a foreign, non English-speaking country, until he sees a fresh oyster gently turn in its shell. And yet, Bean will keep a stiff upper-lip. Upon noticing his guest’s apprehension, the maitre’d ‘encourages’ Bean with a nod of the head. Go on, try one. Bean slowly lifts a shell to his mouth and chokes one down. Yuck. Won’t be doing that again. But, just to please the maitre’d, Bean switches his grimace to a grin and motions to the smiling man: delicious! (with a ‘chef kiss’ to the fingers). He’s off the hook. But there’s still a dozen oysters left! The maitre’d: go on! try another. From one angle, we see Bean shoveling oysters into his mouth. Suspicious. But from the reverse, we see what he’s up to – he’s pouring them into the napkin in his lap, cleverly concealing his deception from the wait staff (and us) by holding the napkin up to his mouth.
Throughout this whole exchange, not a word of meaning is shared between the two men. The maitre’d speaks in rapid French (conveniently subtitled for the audience, with the understanding that Bean doesn’t know what the man’s saying) and Bean returning with a confused “oui.” But what we learn about the character in this scene is more than any dialogue could encapsulate.
But it’s not all character moments which show off Holiday‘s visual expertise. Most plot information in the film is conveyed visually – largely thanks to the ingenious device of giving Bean a video camera for his trip, so we can see first-person what Bean is experiencing. The camera comes hilariously to a head when Bean comes back to a stolen bike he’d left in the road (it’s a long story). The bike has been mangled to bits, but luckily the camera, which was in the basket, is unharmed. Bean flips through the footage (the camera always seems to be on and recording) and discovers what ran over the bike. We’re watching the camera playback screen now. Cars whiz by. In the distance, a slow, lumbering object, getting louder, louder – a tank?
Cut to Bean’s face – which says it all. No need for a line like “oh jeez, a tank! Who woulda guessed?” Or maybe “Gee, whaddya suppose a tank is doing out here in the countryside of France?”
The camera has to show some things and omit others. When Bean hops aboard a farmer’s little bicycle-moped thing to hitch a ride, the weight of the two men is too much for the little motor. They can’t get the bike going again. The farmer hops off and inspects the vehicle. Bean, sensing a moment to capitalize on the situation, slides forward into the driver’s seat and takes over, skidding away, as the farmer looks on in disbelief. The nerve! Now we see a side view of Bean cruising down the country highway, rather pleased with himself. And . . . slowly . . . into frame walks the farmer, who can easily keep up with the pathetic contraption at a brisk walk. He shoves Bean out of the seat, hops aboard, and continues on his (presumably tedious) country journey.
You don’t need your movie to be a true silent movie. Every now and then, some things have to be outright explained. But the little moments where the camera does all the work – those are the moments where cinema distinguishes itself. Movies cease merely being adaptations of plays or books, great as some may be. Movies can do things other art forms cannot. They rely on a piece of technology – the camera – which is also their greatest asset.