by Mirjam Unger
In Speak Easy everyone talks to someone on the phone. Yet this could even be considered a film about incommunicability. Every teenager has his or her own language that is often incomprehensible to adults and, at the same time, every conversation is “filtered” through the telephone.
It is not easy to be a teenager. Especially when one realises, day after day, that one is about to enter the adult world. But how do teenagers actually spend their days? What language do they use to communicate with one another? And, above all, do they ever really understand one another? Not one, but many common – but also incredibly representative – moments were recorded by Mirjam Unger’s camera in her debut short film Speak Easy, made in 1997 and which, together with many other short films made in those same years by her colleagues Barbara Albert, Jessica Hausner and Kathrin Resetarits (just to name a few) initiated the film movement known as the Nouvelle Vague Viennoise.
As in the other short films of the movement, Speak Easy deals with the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. Eleven teenagers are filmed during their everyday life. Six of them talk constantly on the phone. What do they say to each other? Their conversations are rather banal and seemingly unimportant: they often make prank calls, they argue with their parents in order to be allowed to spend late nights with friends, they talk about love, sex or simply about ideas and plans for the future. A future that suddenly seems much closer than initially believed.
While watching Speak Easy and from the conversations of the young protagonists, mixed feelings often emerge: boredom, anger, but also hope and enthusiasm. Each of them is more alive and sensitive than ever, but, at the same time, they feel lost, confused, still not knowing what they really want from life and what their place in the world is. This inner restlessness is well rendered on screen by Mirjam Unger’s camera. A camera that only rarely shows us close-ups of the protagonists, that moves from one Viennese district to another and often even gets into the car of one of the boys.
In Speak Easy everyone talks to someone on the phone. Yet this could even be considered a film about incommunicability. Every teenager has his or her own language that is often incomprehensible to adults, and at the same time, every conversation is “filtered” through the telephone. We do not know how the exchange of information between one interlocutor and the other actually takes place. The director deliberately does not show it to us, and, moreover, we sometimes see the protagonists themselves further “filtered”, for instance when the camera lingers on a girl reflected in the mirror.
Images and conversations filtered in a mise-en-scene that, in fact, does not need any filter. And indeed, what immediately impresses us while watching Speak Easy is a directorial approach that is almost reminiscent of a documentary, although in this case it is a fictional film. The improvisation of lines leaves the actors complete freedom. The end result is a fluid, extremely sincere and natural work. A realistic, but also extremely loving portrait of a confused generation that still does not know what it wants from life, but lives every day dreaming of a better future.
Original title: Speak Easy
Directed by: Mirjam Unger
Country/year: Austria / 1997
Running time: 20’
Genre: coming-of-age, ensemble movie
Cast: Romeo Bachmayr, Veronika Glatzner, Sonja Ylmac, Nica Steinbauer
Screenplay: Martin Blumenau, Mirjam Unger
Cinematography: Niki Mossböck
Produced by: Filmakademie Wien