Chuchotage Review: A mesmerising marriage of comedy and tragedy

In the build up to the 2019 Academy Awards, we look at one of the shortlisted films in a hotly-contested Best Live Action Short Film category. In Hungarian director Barnabas Tóth’s Chuchotage, there is a beautiful story of with plenty of heart.

To tell a story that mixes comedy and tragedy is a fine art, let alone within the two-hour time constraints of a full-length feature film.

To do so in a 15-minute short film, not least with the ease in which writer/director Barnabas Tóth does in his Oscar-nominated Chuchotage, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The tale of two Hungarian interpreters (Pál Göttinger and Géza Takács) at an industrial conference who find out that only one person is listening to their stream is both a superbly-curated slapstick reel, born from the director’s long-held love of Charlie Chaplin, yet also a touching homage to the unseen man.

Tóth draws on his own experience working as a conference interpreter as he charts the attempts of the two interpreters to impress a beautiful woman (Andrea Osvárt) that they work out is the one listening to them.

All three of the leads apply themselves superbly, simply by getting a lot out of a limited situation. However, it is Göttinger, in particular, that produces a nuanced comedic performance for the ages. Toth himself identifies the key tenets of the performance as being that “the acting has to be natural, minimalistic…almost flat”, and Göttinger provides those in abundance with a precise a display of facial acting, both comedic and emotional.

The subtlety of Osvárt’s performance is not to be underestimated either, as she resists the temptation to over-act and instead retains a curious mystique, shielding her thoughts and keeping the viewer yearning for reaction, much like the interpreters are.

However, as the film moves on, it transitions almost without warning into a heartfelt expression of isolation in a way that really catches you by surprise yet feels perfectly realistic. Göttinger’s sudden change of tone, the delicate wording of which Tóth admits was improvised during the shoot, beautifully captures the feeling of one who yearns for that lost connection to the world beyond his booth and cannot contain that desire any longer.

Tóth has a track record of making films about, as he describes them, “everyday people, or people who are exposed publicly but still we don’t see them”, and this film is a wonderful continuation of that idea.

The climax of the film toys beautifully with the idea of putting a face to the voices one hears in such situations and creates a sense that reality for people like these is essentially living their lives shut off from the rest of the world.

They do not seem to exist on a physical plane at all, and the sense of isolation that comes with the territory. And yet, despite all of this, the humour in the story still shines through all the way to the end.

This film gives you more to think about in 15 minutes than any two-hour-plus superhero, Michael Bay enhanced blockbuster and it is frankly all the more glorious for its brevity. Chuchotage is a tight, contained and resonant story, coupled with fine individual performances that adds up to one of the most memorable cinematic experiences that this reviewer has had in a long time.

It is a film of translation and transcendence. When you next hear someones disconnected voice, this film will really make you think about who is on the other end of the microphone.

The Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday 22nd January 2019. See if Chuchotage takes home the award on Sunday 24 February 2019. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ★