Anything and Everything / Feminist Criticism / Women Film-makers

A Feminist Approach to Sound in We Need to Talk About Kevin

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Beginning two years after Kevin goes on a killing spree at his high school, Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin follows Eva Khatchadourian’s attempts to navigate the consequences of being his mother. We see her struggle exemplified in the film’s form. Rebelling against Hollywood’s tendency to privilege the dialogue, Ramsay’s film accentuates the stories told by the other two stems (an industry term for the way audio post production organizes the elements of the sound track: music, dialogue, and sound effects). Now, a significant body of feminist theory has already explored the role of the woman’s voice in cinema, but the music and sound effects surrounding the on screen female have been largely ignored. The voice primarily functions within patriarchal confines of the dialogue track adhering to linear transmission of information to clearly communicate the narrative. Ramsay’s use of sound complicates this dominant mode via the links between the audio and visual tracks, not only separating the story along the audio-visual line, but also cleaving the audio into its three distinct stems: music/score, sound effects, and dialogue.

The sound design in We Need to Talk About Kevin exists almost separately from the visual narrative, as though the same story were told from divorced perspectives.  Ramsay’s film is able to exploit the gendered binary within the audio stems: the calculated masculinity of linear conversation, as opposed to sensuous feminine affects of sonic symbolism. Ramsay’s use of acousmatic (off-screen) sound effects and musical counterpoint create a feminine narrative framework that does not rely on language.

Helen Cixous’s revolutionary treatise The Laugh of the Medusa introduced the theory of l’ecriture féminine, or feminine writing. She defines the practice as the purposeful writing of spiraling compositions in order move the writing outside the sphere of patriarchal linearity to alter the narrative structure.  In a similar spirit, I call for écoute féminine, or “feminine listening.” By listening to film sound tracks with a feminine ear we can elevate the non-vocal elements of film into the larger conversation regarding the representation of women in film and television. Feminine cinematic art has the ability to display a narrative that depends on emotional and affective techniques rather than those based in language.

Non-linguistic sound is the first narrative element in the film the audience experiences. The ch-ch-ch of a sprinkler is introduced over the title cards and continues atop the scene as a shot of an open doorway, curtained in a transparent veil, comes into view. The camera moves towards the threshold, but never crosses it.  The screen dissolves into white and cuts the orgiastic image of the crowds at La Tomatina (a “food fight festival” in which participants pelt each other with tomatoes). Meanwhile the sprinkler remains constant and rhythmic, moving towards a crescendo in concert with the camera’s approach of the doorway. Layered atop the sprinkler is the rhythmic cheering of the crowd, complementing the percussive spray. Less than a minute in length, the sequence encapsulates the overwhelming tone of the film as a whole in the confusion of sound and image, and the sonic collage that is created within a person’s memory, specifically the memory of Eva Katchadourian.

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The sprinkler takes the place of a musical theme throughout the film’s progression. Once a benign domestic sound ordinarily associated with the home – the traditional center of feminine labor­­ – the sprinkler has now come to signal the horrors committed by Kevin. A sprinkler inspires images of the suburban American dream, with its lush green lawn and white picket fence, but as the film progresses the audience is conditioned to regard the sprinkler sound as a harbinger of terror, rather than one associated with domestic normalcy. Perverting an inherently innocuous element in the suburban soundscape upsets the heteronormative concept of domestic bliss with its uncanny quality.

Eva Khatchadourian is the reluctant mother trapped in the mundane happenings of her otherwise “perfect” life, and we are exposed to her memories in a collage of flashbacks. The La Tomatina flashback exemplifies life before Kevin; she thrived on travel and autonomy. This story is not a new one: a wild woman meets a man who is able to tame her and they forge an acceptable nuclear family together. However, the twist of Eva’s dissatisfaction in the role society has ruled “natural” for her female body to occupy disrupts the flow in this picture of suburban perfection. Reminiscent of a David Lynch film, Ramsay exposes the “seedy underbelly” of the heteropatriarchy in suburban American culture, as experienced by Eva.

The domestic identity affiliated with the sprinkler haunts Eva and precedes each of Kevin’s offenses, and by extension her own. The source of the ch-ch-ch sound is revealed in the final minutes of the film, and with it, the dead bodies of Eva’s husband and young daughter.  The shots of their corpses make visually clear the destruction of the family’s mask of domestic normalcy. Perverting the traditional narrative further and inviting aural disturbance is the audio-visual mismatch of the sprinkler. The sprinkler shown sprays water in waving curtains, not in the pulsating rhythm we have come to expect. By rendering the cause of the sound inaccurate, an uncanny element is given to the sprinklers. Though the source is revealed, the sound of the sprinkler remains outside the realm of cinematic realism (and linear narrativization) by the lack of audio-visual synchronicity. We are once again reminded that we are witnessing Eva’s subjective memory, portraying things not as they truly were, but as she has orchestrated in her mind.  By placing the audience within the psyche of the female protagonist, the plot becomes not only essentially female, but allows the audience the ability to embody Eva through her traumatic memories, giving the cinematic reality an “impossible subject” to portray.

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Kevin’s male body is a literal physical extension of Eva, their identities entangled in one another, and throughout the film there are several instances where their actions mirror one another’s, or their bodies morph from one to the other, signifying their connection. However, Kevin’s identity comes to overwhelm Eva’s when her own memories and experiences are overlaid with sounds specifically associated with Kevin’s actions. The sprinkler is part of the household, traditionally the domain of the woman/mother, but it too is absorbed into Kevin’s essence.  Kevin’s existence is inextricable from Eva’s identity and has come to overwhelm her sense of self, sonically exemplified by the off-screen effects included in the design.

Eva’s emotional incongruity with the maternal role she is “supposed” to perform and the less than nurturing reality of her personality are mirrored through the sonic counterpoint and unconventional tonal elements in the sound track. Eva’s unhappiness is illustrated in the uncomfortable montages of her in the midst of maternal scenarios. In a sequence that portrays Eva as very pregnant, she is placed in a locker room with several other pregnant women in various stages of undress. Eva remains fully clothed and does not engage with the other women. The locker room scene cuts to one of Eva walking down the hallway as a stampede of tutu-ed girls run by her, and bridging these two scenes is the delicate chiming of a toy piano. While the tune of the piano is light and wistful, one might go so far as to say “feminine,” there come discordant bass notes as Eva moves to exit the building. The music mirrors the experiences of the women; just as the bass clashes with the toy piano, so too does Eva’s person clash with the other mothers.  Attempting to adhere to the socially constructed heteronormative lifestyle results in Eva’s ultimate status as an outcast.

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The juxtaposition of sound and image within Ramsay’s film serves to deconstruct our current dominant ideologies surrounding gender and storytelling. The feminine narrative structure and the subjectivity of Eva’s point of view – the only point of view we are exposed to – allows for a level of audience insight into the protagonist as both a mother and a woman that is not available with linear filmic narratives. The intensely personal perspective we are exposed to simultaneously obfuscates direct communication of narrative, while affecting the viewer on a “deeper level.”

In the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, psychology professor Maggie Walsh informs her class that “talking about communication, talking about language [are] not the same thing. It’s about inspiration…the thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for.” Ramsay and her crew provide a narrative that effectively portrays the raw emotion and psychological torment that cannot be put into words, thus they must rely on the creative pairing of non-verbal sound and image. Ramsay’s film is a thrilling exposé into the mind of a woman struggling to cope with the guilt over her inability to conform to the social expectations of her female body and the ultimate loss of identity within the greater heteropatriarchal framework.

By Ashleigh Bowers


ashleighAshleigh is a 20-something grandpa from Durham, North Carolina. If you make it past her fortress of books you might find her chatting endlessly (to no one in particular) about the sonic characterisations of women in film. To that end, she is currently pursuing a dual masters in Cinema Studies and Sound Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Centre Stage and Bring it On and consiers director Todd Haynes her queer spiritual soulmate. You can follow her music-making alter-ego Brett.Ashleigh on Soundcloud here, or read her irreverent tweets @13cupsofcoffee. 

One thought on “A Feminist Approach to Sound in We Need to Talk About Kevin

  1. Pingback: MIX: We Should Talk About Eva | SCREENQUEENS

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