And the Winner is: Multilingual Perspectives 🏆

March 9, 2024

This year’s nominees for Best Picture include three films that go beyond incorporating “foreign” languages into the script and instead integrate three specific multilingual perspectives into the storyline, making language as prominent as the plot. Killers of the Flower Moon, Past Lives, and Anatomy of a Fall each demonstrate how language can enhance the characters, the storyline, and the audience experience. 

Communication is such a prominent piece of human dynamics and plot development, that most writers hone the script to be sure that dialogue is prime for actor execution. And that task in one language is already a challenge. Adding additional languages adds a level of complexity that trusts the audience to engage in the reality of communication challenges in spaces with diverse speaking participants. As an expert in language policy, I have spent years analyzing how language supports and restricts opportunities for multilingual communities. From decisions about how much of the target language was used, who was using the target language and why, these movies made key points about how language can communicate more than ideas in other languages and instead demonstrate power and relationship dynamics.

Past feature films have attempted to create accessibility for an English-speaking audience through subtitles or accents (while speaking English) to represent the location (example: using a German accent while speaking English when in Germany). However, these three films challenge viewers to grapple with the ways that languages can be used to resist assimilation, connect to one’s identity and survive as an outsider.

Killers of the Flower Moon -Home Language Maintenance #resistance

Killers of the Flower Moon features Lily Gladstone playing Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who throughout the movie works to maintain her home language of Osage and resist assimilation as members of her community “disappear”. Gladstone comments in a True Hollywood Reporter roundtable, “I knew I had to find Mollie in the language first” and describes requesting that more of the Osage language be used in the script. Mollie uses the language along with other members of the Osage community to connect and maintain a boundary between themselves and the outsiders (White people) who don’t take the time to learn the language of the community that they are infiltrating. However, this movie highlights the power of connection through language when outsiders take the time to understand the language of the community with which they wish to integrate. Robert DeNiro’s character, William Hale, early on demonstrates his speaking ability in the Osage language and encourages Leonardo Dicaprio’s character, Ernest Burkhart, to do the same. Using the language and cultural learnings, the two characters build trust in the community, ultimately using that trust to betray the Osage people.

Most notable about the use of language in this movie is despite Mollie’s efforts to maintain her language and actively use it; as the movie and the abuse continue, less of the language is heard. This is perhaps due to the fact that members of the community are being murdered, perhaps it is because the community members are being poisoned or perhaps it is as the movie foreshadows a result of linguistic integration with an outside community. This warning, of losing language, and culture as a result of the outsiders coming in to take over is received with grief from the Osage community. They know that despite their resistance, without the connection to language and cultural practices, their youth will be disconnected from them and their traditions. 

Past Lives – Home Language Reconnection #identity 

Past Lives stars Greta Lee as Nora, a Korean woman who leaves her homeland of Seoul, to immigrate to Canada and then to the US learning English in the process. Whereas in Killers of the Flower Moon Mollie was able to practice her language and culture into womanhood and works to maintain it through linguistic acts of resistance, Nora in adulthood identifies her Korean as “rusty”. It is through her reconnection with her childhood friend and sweetheart who stayed in Korea that she returns to the language and explores her identity as a multilingual cross-cultural Korean woman. Lee stated in a True Hollywood Reporter roundtable, “It’s a huge responsibility to portray that cultural duality” and she wanted to be intentional about the complicated experience of her character who as an adult didn’t speak “perfect” Korean. She worked with a dialect coach to show the range of her character’s language ability as Nora returned to her home language and increased fluency/proficiency through hours of speaking to her childhood sweetheart.  

While Killers of the Flower Moon has Mollie use less of her home language as the movie continues, Past Lives maintains the use of the language throughout. Main characters Nora and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo), demonstrate a range in her fluency after time not practicing, building back her capacity to confidently speak in Korean. Further, her husband, Arthur played by Jonathan Magaro makes a concerted effort to speak to her and Hae Sung in Korean. Like Killers of the Flower Moon, you see characters creating connections through language. However, in Past Lives the language is used not as a tool for manipulation but rather as a peace offering. Hae Sung speaks to Arthur in English and Arthur speaks to Hae Sung in Korean. The viewer can sense that both are uncomfortable speaking a new language but still do so to make the other feel more at ease with their unique and personal connection to Nora. This movie exemplifies three of the most prominent motivations for becoming multilingual, maintaining the home language after immigrating, needing the language for travel, and learning the language for someone you love. 

Anatomy of a Fall-Home Language versus Dominant Language #survival 

Anatomy of a Fall stars Sandra Hüller playing Sandra Voyter, a German woman who lives in France with her husband and child. While the husband and son speak predominantly French, Sandra states that they have decided to speak English in the home as a “middle ground”. Sandra shares throughout the film, she is most confident in German and English. Yet, when her husband is found dead and she is accused of murdering him she must defend herself in French, a language she speaks but not with the fluency necessary to navigate the judicial system.

Early in the film, Sandra is challenged by her lawyers to speak in French, a language that is easier for the courtroom audience to understand but not for her as a speaker to be understood. In one scene she is asked to recreate an argument she had with her husband Samuel, and the transcript is provided to her in French. Although Sandra clarifies that the argument was not in French but rather in English, “French is easier for everyone” is used as the excuse to move on. One could question, “Who is the everyone that this is easier for?” if it is not easier for the speaker who lived the experience. Later in the film, the court determines that Sandra and Daniel (her son) can only communicate in French (although they are both bilingual). The frustrations continue in the courtroom as the case begins and Sandra tries to defend herself in French. Recognizing that the concept she needs to explain is too complicated for her French-speaking skills, she asks permission to switch to speak in English. In a Los Angeles Times roundtable, Müller describes “When you have this problem that you want to be understood so badly and it’s not your mother tongue… so you have to be really precise with everything, and you don’t [want] to make any mistakes, so the tension comes from there mostly”. This conflict expresses a challenge that many multilinguals face as they navigate the intersection of how they best express themselves and how the listening audience will interpret their message in a non-dominant language. 

Linguistic Throughline: Speaker versus Listener 

In all three of these movies, the responsibility of the listener comes with significant power dynamics. In Killers of the Flower Moon, the Osage community understands their power and is intentional in maintaining their home language. The characters played by DeNiro and Dicaprio recognize that by actively listening and learning the language, they can manipulate these power dynamics. Conversely, Sandra, in Anatomy of a Fall, is without power and therefore must modify how she speaks to reach the French listening audience. Past Lives shows the three main characters working to use their speaking and listening abilities to collaborate and accommodate one another as a sign of empathy and relationship building. Finally, the movie makers do not translate all of the dialogue that is used in these three movies. There are moments when without the understanding of the language being spoken, as an audience member we are in the dark and therefore must rely on other visual cues to determine what is unfolding. 

Considering language differs based on many factors including (but not limited to) geography, family background and personal experiences, the only certainty when discussing communication is that there will be uncertainty. It is in that unknowing that we are empowered to question our assumptions as speakers and as listeners. I encourage viewers of these films to consider how power dynamics manifest in the storylines presented. Further, I challenge viewers to consider how power dynamics manifest in everyday conversations and how dominant and non-dominant languages are being supported and restricted (intentionally as well as unintentionally). Language is an incredibly powerful tool, and these three films help viewers consider how we can support multilingual resistance, connection, and survival on and off screen.

Warmly,

Dra. Rivera Pagán

P.S. If you would like to share your experiences with language policies, comment on this blog post 🗣🎧📖✍🏽👀🤟🏽

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