This is a new segment that I’m trying out for the blog, and if it goes well I might do more of them. Although the primary focus of this blog is TV and TV writing, I’m also interested in feature-length films and the examples that they provide of good writing and storytelling techniques. Instead of trying to analyze an entire film, however, I’m going to be focusing on one particular scene from a film. I hope that you enjoy it.
Recently I watched the film Match Point by Woody Allen. For those of you who don’t know it, I’ll give you the SparkNotes version. In the film, a man named Chris strikes up a romantic relationship with a woman from a successful family but then becomes enamored with her brother’s fiancée, Nola. The scene that I want to look at occurs during the early stages of this illicit attraction.
One afternoon when Chris is at home with his girlfriend, Chloe, she mentions that her brother had invited the two of them to see a film with him and Nola but that she turned him down. Chris is immediately interested, and the following exchange occurs.
Chris: We have no plans…well, no special plans.
Chloe: I thought we said we’d stay in.
Chris: Yeah, but it wasn’t written in stone. We could have joined them.
Chloe: We still can if you’d prefer it.
Chris: It’s not a case of preferring it, it’s just…we always have fun with them, and you love films.
Chloe: Well, shall I call them?
Chris: I mean, sure, unless you’d rather not.
The conversation continues in this vein, with both of them giving the impression that they don’t much care whether they go see the film or not. Anyone who’s ever tried to agree with five or more people on a group activity should find this scene hauntingly familiar, except that we the audience know that Chris is more interested than he’s letting on.
So what’s happening here? It’s practically the definition of a low-stakes situation–deciding what to do on a free evening–and yet the stakes are incredibly high for Chris because of one small detail of the context: the presence of a woman he’s attracted to. Except he’s not supposed to be attracted to, so he mirrors his girlfriend’s indifference, acting like he doesn’t care when he cares much more than he can possibly let her or anyone else know.
In the end, Chris gets what he wants. Chloe agrees that they should spend the evening with her brother and Nola, and she calls them up. But in a cruel reversal that typifies the film’s theme of luck reigning supreme, Nola falls sick and is unable to make it to the film. Chloe only takes a moment to be politely sad about this, but we can assume that Chris is crushed. All of his shrewd cajoling to get Chloe to agree to see the film was for nothing, and once again, something that doesn’t matter much to anyone else in the scene means everything to him.
Anyway, this scene is a great example of how to write tension into a simple situation, the kind of tension that gets the audience engaged, wanting to see what happens next, and then shooting our hopes down along with the hopes of the main character. Like a ball being served back and forth in a tennis match, every beat of the seemingly innocuous conversation between Chris and Chloe carried with it the impression that the scene was about to go one way or the other; the issue was always on the brink of being decided, and then one character would make an offhand comment that would throw the whole thing into question again. Then, immediately after the tension peaked, the film turned around and said “it doesn’t matter, none of it mattered, he didn’t have any real reason to want to see the film after all.”
To my fellow writers, I want you to think about the things that I’ve said here, how tension can be found in the most innocent of situations and how conflict and reversals can play games with the audience by creating and then taking advantage of their involvement. It’s something to think about when you want to plan a juicy scene or two for your next project.