Narrative Ambiguity

“Show don’t tell” is a well worn instruction in literary teaching and “Dramatise, don’t surmonize” is a version of the instruction, which has been issued to aspiring filmmakers who wish to convey a moral message.  but some films choose to neither show nor tell but rather to allow an audience to drawn their own conclusions.  Let’s call this ‘narrative ambiguity’.

Two films I have seen recently are Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Cure (1997). While both these films are intent on conveying a message of moral ambiguity, Agatha Christie’s tale ties up all loose ends while Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s J-Horror screenplay employs ‘narrative ambiguity’.  In juxtaposing these two films, the value of ‘narrative ambiguity’ is drawn into sharp focus as it is only the latter which caused me to reflect on what I’d seen, necessitated by the all-too-human desire to piece the narrative together in my mind.  

Narrative ambiguity has been a feature of a number of films I’ve seen lately.  Namely, Stay (2005), Hold the Dark (2018) and Velvet Buzzsaw (2019).  In all cases, as with Cure (1997), my enjoyment of the film was greatly enhanced by the need to mentally fill in the gaps which were deliberately left in the films’ story. 

It strikes me that the technique of narrative ambiguity is underused considering how effective it can be.  Yet, Stay (2005), Hold the Dark (2018) andVelvet Buzzsaw (2019)have, on the whole been poorly received.  Perhaps in an increasingly time-poor and attention-deficient world Narrative Ambiguity is too big a risk.

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