The power of film lies in its ability to create an alternative dimension of cognition by which its connotation, the secondary meaning we artificially attribute to a piece of art, is naturalized by its denotation, the primary meaning inherent in that piece of art, de facto assigned as a perfect analogue to the original. A film’s footage is a set of evidence tracing back to the original act of performing, which confuses identities as an act is in and of itself unnatural. In the same logic, a denotation is not as intuitive as may be implied. Cinematic realism might allude to unachievable fantasy.
Following this logic, the difference between Marius, one of the first sound films ever created in France, and its predecessors such as the Lumière Brothers’ silent films dating back to 1895, is one of explicit and implicit connotations. While the latter appears unscripted as opposed to the former, such is hardly the case. Though the camera is very much intentional in both, the audience is more inclined to accept the Lumière films as documentary in nature and Marius as dramatic theatre on screen. Sound intervenes like a wake-up call that breaks the fourth wall and warns the audience that what we are witnessing in front of us is in indeed an act.
That being said, sound is not the only instrument to crystalize the spell of denotation. Close-ups are equally potent, as manifested in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. In this 1928 classic, the magnification of Joan’s face penetrates out of the screen into the soul of the viewer. The effect of every subtle movement is infinitely enlarged by forever changing frames and camera angles. Per Jean Epstein, “the close-up modifies the drama by the impact of proximity,” until it suffocates the screen in a claustrophobic attempt to merge the watching with the watched as one sacred entity. By the end of such intimacy, worldly tribulations become an article of the past as we follow Joan’s eyes into the embrace of heaven.
Magnification elevates denotation to a status of unparalleled influence, despite the camera striving for realism in the absence of cinematic exaggeration and thereby falsely conveying neutrality. Without an connotative hint through sound, silent films are much more psychoanalytical as viewers are forced to let flow imagination in the vacancy of lines. In other words, The Passion of Joan of Arc invites introspection, whereas Marius propels the story in a series of crescendoing and decrescendoing dialogues. Emotions are transmitted through the conscious interference of sound instead of the subconscious interference of thoughts.