Voice of a Generation
By Lawrence Garcia

This Closeness
Dir. Kit Zauhar, U.S., Factory 25

In his 1982 book The Voice in Cinema, French film theorist Michel Chion observed that the talking cinema is by and large vococentricthat is, structured around human voices. “In every audio mix,” he writes, “the presence of a human voice instantly sets up a hierarchy of perception.” There are voices, and then there’s everything else. Many filmmakers have worked to topple this hierarchy: think of Marguerite Duras’s daring experiments with asynchronous sound; the disjunctive audio mixes of Jean-Luc Godard’s late films; or the hollowed-out speech of Robert Bresson’s “models,” whom the director instructed to speak “as if to themselves.” Experimental and avant-garde traditions, for their part, have attempted to draw out the textural (as opposed to semantic) dimensions of human speech. In the coda of Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970), for example, two voices read out a medieval text at a rate of one word per second, drawing our attention not to the meaning of the words but to the rhythmic, incantatory quality of the recitation. These interventions notwithstanding, Chion’s diagnosis retains its force: in most narrative films of the sound era, synchronous sounds are “often forgotten as such, being ‘swallowed up’ by the fiction.”

It is within this vococentric context that we should consider the originality of This Closeness, writer-director Kit Zauhar’s second feature. The film opens with a man preparing a guest bedroom, laying down fresh sheets and fluffing pillows, as a disembodied voice (Zauhar’s) invites the viewer to join her in getting ready for bed. The spare visuals, whispery line delivery, and heightened ambient sound are consistent with the conventions of ASMR videos. “Are you feeling comfortable on your bed?” Zauhar’s voice intones. “Here, why don’t we fluff a pillow for you. You’ve got a little hair on your face. Let me get that out of the way.” Needless to say, a mere transcription does not convey the scene’s acute sensorial tingle.

This opening passage, we soon learn, serves a clear narrative function. The man, Adam (Ian Edlund), is preparing the room for an Airbnb stay, and his first ever guests are Ben (Zane Pais), a Philadelphia native returning for the weekend to attend a high school reunion, and his girlfriend Tessa (Zauhar), who makes ASMR videos for a living. But this opening lays out the film’s formal stakes as well. Unfolding entirely within the confines of Adam’s two-bedroom apartment, This Closeness maintains an ASMR-like attention to heightened sensory detail. As one might expect given this close-quarters setting, conflict ensues between the principals. Already tense at the film’s start, Tessa’s relationship to Ben is put under further pressure by the recurring presence of Lizzy (Jessie Pinnick), an old high school friend of Ben’s with whom he is a touch too comfortable, as well as that of Adam, whose apparent social awkwardness unsettles the couple in surprising ways. What distinguishes the film from a slew of other indie dramas, though, is how this conflict unfolds not just in spoken dialogue, but in the creak of the floorboards, muffled conversation through thin walls, the hum of the radiator—in short, all those sounds typically “swallowed up” by the fiction in order to privilege the voice.

Zauhar once described her first feature, Actual People (2021), as “mumblecore for people of color”—a designation she has since come to regret. And to be sure, it is more revealing to see her work as a sign that Éric Rohmer’s 1948 polemic “For a Talking Cinema” continues to leave a mark, affirming that conversation, far from being a theatrical or literary burden, is no less “cinematic” than any other formal element. Even more so than the Moral Tales, it is Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986) that is paradigmatic in this regard, having become a kind of touchstone for filmmakers such as Hong Sang-soo, Guillaume Brac, and Celina Murga, to name but a few. The mumblecore films of Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski fit also into this loose tradition, particularly in their refusal to smooth out their characters’ often awkward speech rhythms, as well as their emphasis on conversational vibe as much as voice. If the “mumblecore” label does highlight something useful about Zauhar’s work, though, it’s reflective in how This Closeness effectively takes things astep further, using ASMR-inspired aesthetics to place human speech on the same plane as ambient noise.

This is not to suggest that dialogue and drama are unimportant to This Closeness. In fact, it’s one of the most sharply scripted and acted independent films I’ve seen in recent years. The push-pull power dynamics between the principals are compelling and well-balanced, often playing out over long takes that showcase the actors’ considerable talents. Zauhar’s handling of the limited space, too, is impressive throughout. A revealing feature of the single-location constraint, which recalls the tradition of the Kammerspielfilm and such films as Dreyer’s Two People (1945), is how filmmakers confront the inevitable problem of establishing a stable history for each of the characters. How does one provide a sense of a person’s present-tense words and gestures as emerging from a coherent past?

The usual response is to employ baldly expository dialogue, lending the impression of ‘staginess’ to many a production. This Closeness partly circumvents the issue by giving some of this material solid internal motivation: Ben’s high-school reunion provides a natural pretext to explore not just his apparent nostalgia for his adolescence, but also Tessa’s discomfort with hers. More significantly, Zauhar allows our sense of the characters’ pasts to emerge out of a mass of non-verbal texture. That is, the film sensitizes us to the extent to which our understanding of other people is predicated on what’s essentially ambient noise. When Ben introduces himself to Adam early on, he becomes unsettled not by anything the latter says, but by his apparent aloofness, his stance, his tone. Over the course of the film, this pattern of non-verbal cues taking on dramatic significance will become a familiar one. This suggests that the vococentrism Chion identifies is less a matter of human verbal communication than of how it comes to be seen within a coherent personal history. Conversely, we realize that virtually any sound element can become freighted with intention in this sense, at least potentially taking on the significance of a voice.

This Closeness, then, does not overturn the hierarchies of perception that place the human voice at the top, but rather examines how the hierarchy gets established in the first place. That is, Zauhar explores how sounds, human or otherwise, can in some cases remain just sounds, but in others take on the intentionality and directedness of voice, transforming into the stuff of which drama and fiction are made. The film may in broad outline be said to depict a turning point in Ben and Tessa’s relationship. But it is significant that apart from one heated fight, this dramatic situation does not unfold as an interlinked, cause-effect chain of actions and events. Rather, the couple’s tensions reveal themselves through what are fundamentally matters of perceptual difference. When Lizzy comes over to the apartment for drinks one evening, Tessa hears a voice “oozing” with desperation, while Ben, for his part, hears nothing but perfectly innocent talk from someone who just had a bit too much to drink. In another film, Lizzy’s presence (not to mention Ben’s high school reunion) might serve as the fulcrum for some decisive climactic action. Here, it mainly highlights how differently Ben and Tessa perceive and interpret the world around them—the disjunctions in the way that they each ascribe vocal significance to non-verbal cues. What Zauhar’s heightened approach to sound and ambience thereby suggests is that the very coherence of the dramatic situation—the basic intelligibility of a linear narrative—should be understood as precipitating out of a manifold of ambiguous, non-verbal detail.

If Zauhar has found a novel way to unsettle cinema’s vococentrism, then, it is by highlighting the process by which mere sounds emerge into speech, coming to be perceived as having the intentionality of voice. Appropriately enough, This Closeness ends on an ambiguous note—a moment of inarticulateness on Tessa’s part, whose final (dramatic) import is difficult to read. But whatever it means for her relationship with Ben, it is a measure of Zauhar’s achievement that this loss of voice resonates as forcefully as any closing line.