Film monologues: the ten greatest

Primarily a theatrical and literary device, the monologue nevertheless enjoys a special place in the realm of cinema. While advocates of realism may dismiss it for its essential artificiality, it cannot be denied that the monologue has framed some of the greatest and most powerful scenes in the history of film. Unfortunately, the words alone can only convey so much of a great soliloquy – there are mannerisms, delivery, filming styles and, most importantly, context that get lost in the process of transferring from screen to paper; nevertheless, this is an attempt to showcase these cinematic moments as best possible within the confines of the written (English) word.

Here, then, are the ten best monologues I have come across:

10. Arsinée Khanjian – Calendar (1993)

In this beautiful, low budget film by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, a photographer takes pictures of twelve ancient churches in Armenia for an assignment as, gradually, his wife begins to fall in love with their tour guide. Casting himself as the photographer and his real-life spouse Arsinee Khanjian as his wife, Egoyan made a curiously personal work that finishes on an impressive note: a crackly, almost indiscernible answering machine message heard over the soundtrack as we revisit some (at first, apparently meaningless) handheld video footage seen at the beginning of the film:

“Today is the last day of the year, and I’m about to take our calendar off the wall. I looked at all the pictures again. I was trying to remember what happened in each place. It’s strange, but… the strongest memory I have has nothing to do with any of the churches. It was that time we drove into that huge flock of sheep, the one that never seemed to end. You took out your camera, and as you were taping, he placed his hand on mine. I remember, because I gripped his hand, watching you grip your camera so tightly… like you knew what was happening behind you. Did you know? Were you there? Are you there?”

9. Ewan McGregor – Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting already contains at least one brilliant monologue in Ewan McGregor’s oft-quoted ‘Choose Life’ speech heard at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, it is another speech, heard midway through the film as the opening scenes are revisited, that is truly poignant: stripped of the irreverence and irony of the previous tirade, there is nothing left but the sordid, unglamorous details of the life of a heroin junkie:

“It wasn’t just the baby that died that day. Something inside Sick Boy was lost and never returned. It seemed that he had no theory with which to explain a moment like this… nor did I. Our only response was to keep on going and fuck everything; pile misery upon misery, heap it up on a spoon and dissolve it with a drop of bile, then squirt it into a stinking, purulent vein and do it all over again. Keep on going, getting up, going out, robbing, stealing, fucking people over; propelling ourselves with longing towards the day that it would all go wrong, because no matter how much you stash, or how much you steal, you never have enough. No matter how often you go out and rob and fuck people over, you always need to get up and do it all over again.”

8. Ingrid Thulin – Winter Light (1962)

There is a reasonably clichéd cinematic device that is often used when a character in a film receives a letter: as the recipient scans the paper, we hear the author read the contents aloud over the soundtrack. In Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman’s bleak discourse on religion, this occurs, except with a twist: Marta (Ingrid Thulin) narrates her letter to ex-lover Pastor Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) in a direct-to-camera, mostly emotionless monologue, that is all the more powerful for it:

“We find it difficult to talk to each other. We’re both rather shy, and I tend to retreat into sarcasm. That’s why I’m writing. I have something important to say. Do you remember last summer, when that awful rash broke out on my hands? One evening we were in church arranging flowers on the altar, preparing for a confirmation. Do you recall the bad shape I was in? My hands all bandaged, and itching so much I couldn’t sleep? The skin had flaked off, and my palms were like open sores.

We busied ourselves with daisies and cornflowers, or whatever they were, and I was feeling irritable. Suddenly I got mad at you and challenged you angrily, asking if you actually believed in the power of prayer. You replied that you did. In a nasty tone I asked if you had prayed for my hands, but it hadn’t occurred to you to do so. I melodramatically demanded that you do it then and there. Oddly enough, you agreed. Your compliance enraged me, and I tore off the bandages. You remember the rest. The sight of those open sores affected you greatly. You couldn’t pray. The entire situation disgusted you.

I came to understand you later, but you never understood me. We had lived together for some time at that point. Almost two years, which at least represented some capital in the face of our emotional poverty. Our caresses… and our clumsy attempts to evade the lack of love between us. When the rash spread to my forehead and scalp, I soon noticed how you avoided me. You found me repugnant, though you tried to spare my feelings. Then the rash spread to my hands and feet, and our relationship ended. That came as a shock to me. I had to face that fact that we didn’t love each other. There was no way to hide from that fact or turn a blind eye to it.

Tomas… I have never believed in your faith, mainly because I’ve never been tortured by religious tribulations. My non-Christian family was characterised by warmth, togetherness and joy. God and Jesus existed only as vague notions. To me your faith seems obscure and neurotic, somehow cruelly overwrought with emotion; primitive. One thing in particular I’ve never been able to fathom: your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ. And now I’m going to tell you about answered prayers. Laugh if you feel like it. Personally, I don’t believe the two are connected. Life is messy enough without taking the supernatural into account. You were going to pray for my weeping hands, but the rash left you dumbstruck with repulsion, something you later denied. I went berserk and tried to provoke you…

This autumn I realised that my prayers had been answered. I prayed for clarity of mind, and I got it. I realised that I love you. I prayed for a task to apply my strength to, and I received one. That task is you. This is what the thoughts of a schoolmarm might run to when the phone refuses to ring, when it’s dark and lonely. What I lack entirely is the capacity to show you my love. I haven’t a clue how to do that. I’ve been so miserable, I’ve even considered praying some more. But I still have a shred of self-respect left in spite of it all.

My dearest Tomas… this turned out to be a long letter. But now I’ve put down in writing what I never dared say when you were in my arms. I love you. And I live for you. Take me and use me. Beneath all my false pride and independent airs, I have only one wish: to be allowed to live for someone else. It’s so terribly difficult. When I think about it, I can’t see how I will be able to pull it off. Maybe it’s all just a mistake. Tell me I’m not wrong, darling.”

7. Richard Linklater – Slacker (1991)

No actor gets more than about three minutes of screen time in Richard Linklater’s iconic indie masterpiece Slacker, but the director’s own role at the beginning of the film is perhaps the most memorable, as his character (officially listed in the credits as ‘Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station’) excitedly shares some absurd theories with a completely disinterested taxi driver:

“I just had the weirdest dream, back on the bus there!? You ever have those dreams that are just completely real, I mean, they’re so vivid, it’s just like, completely real. It’s like, there’s always something bizarre going on in those, I have one about every two years or something, I always remember them really good… like there’s always someone getting run over, or something really weird… um. One time I had lunch with Tolstoy… another time I was a roadie for Frank Zappa. Anyway, so this dream I just had was just like that, except instead of everything bizarre going on, I mean there was nothing going on at all… man, it was like The Omega Man, there was just nobody around, I was just travelling around, you know, staring out the windows of buses and trains and cars, you know. When I was at home, I was like flipping through the TV stations endlessly, reading… I mean, how many dreams do you have where you read in a dream? Wait… man, there was this book I just read on the… well, you know, it was my dream, so I guess I wrote it, or something… but, uh, it was bizarre, it was like, um, the premise for this whole book was that every thought you have creates its own reality. You know, it’s like every choice or decision you make, the thing you choose not to do, fractions off and becomes its own reality, you know, and just goes on from there, forever… I mean, it’s like, um… in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy meets the scarecrow, they do that little dance at that crossroads, and they think about going all these directions and they end up going in that one direction? I mean, all those other directions, just because they thought about it, became separate realities, I mean they just went on from there and lived the rest of their life, you know, it just… I mean, entirely different movies, but we’ll never see it, because we’re kinda trapped in this one reality, restriction type of thing, you know? Another example would be, like, back at the bus station, you know, as I got off the bus, the thought crossed my mind, you know, just for a second about not taking a cab at all, but you know like… maybe walking, or bumming a ride, or something like that. You know, I’m kinda broke right now, I should have done that probably. But, uh, just because that thought crossed my mind, there now exists at this very second a whole other reality, where I’m at the bus station, you know, and you’re probably giving someone else a ride, you know. I mean, and that reality thinks of itself as this, thinks of itself as the only reality, you know, I mean at this very second, you know, I’m in that, I’m back at the bus station, just hanging out, you know, probably thumbing through a paper… you know, probably going up to a payphone. You know, say this beautiful woman just comes up to me, just starts talking to me, you know… uh, she ends up offering me a ride, you know, we’re hitting it off, we play a little pinball… and we go back to her apartment, and she has this great apartment you know – I move in with her! You know? And see, if I have a dream some night that I’m with some strange woman I’ve never met, or I’m, you know, I’m living at some place I’ve never seen before, see that’s just a momentary glimpse into this other reality that was all created back there at the bus station. You know, gee. And then I could have a – a dream from that reality into this one that, like, this is my dream from that reality. You know, of course, that’s kind of like that dream I just, you know, had on the bus, you know, the whole cycle type of thing. Man, shit, I should have stayed at the bus station.”

6. Denis Lavant – Boy Meets Girl (1984)

Leos Carax’s unusual black-and-white film debut was lauded for its stylised, yet emotionally resonant portrayal of teenage angst and loneliness, along with its stylistic homages to the French New Wave. Although the dialogue is sparse, there is a great scene between young drifter Alex (Denis Lavant) and the depressed, lonely Mireille (Mireille Perrier), as they while away the early hours of the morning alone in a living room as a house party winds up:

“It’s like a dream for me, being with you; like an unusually deep dream. Only deep sleep makes you dream like that. Sitting beside you this way is like eternity. The moment I saw you, I knew I was destined to love you. I’ll say it once and for all – I love you, Mireille, more than anything. We must fall in love. We must! Unaware of it, wordlessly…

It’s too late! Pretend you didn’t hear that… time to shut up. I will. After 20 years of babbling, silence. To think that your body will age… shrivelled breasts and more wrinkles, Mireille. On your belly, under your arse. It’s all my fault. You see, Mireille, love; love without regrets; love without nasty afterthoughts… say come, I’ll come, say smile, I’ll smile. We’ll sleep together for as long as you want. I want to work with you, form an unbeatable team – whatever our signs, Libra or Leo, I’ll sign up! Maybe Florence, seeing our strength, will join us. You and Florence and me. I’ll be the go-between lover. It should be so moving. Back and forth I go!

Alone, you couldn’t jolt me out of my shell. Together, we’ll change our habits. We’ll leave Paris, maybe even France. And out of love for me, Alex, you’ll stop destroying yourself. You’ll respect the warmth of your blood, your serene presence, your clear perception, your gentle feelings. Under your impulse, our melancholy will fade away.

(to himself) If I could only escape monologues, Mireille… mental diarrhoea! Not set my sufferings to music! Not bury my lover with words! But if I shut up, she’ll kill herself! Kisses won’t seal our lips. Help me take wing, Mireille. I weigh a ton! Don’t look, I’m a truck! I’ll never live again, Mireille. Never!”

5. Roberto Benigni – Down by Law (1986)

Roberto Benigni knew little English before taking a role in Jim Jarmusch’s indie classic Down by Law, but that didn’t stop him from giving a hilarious, brilliant performance – the highlight of which, perhaps, is a stream-of-consciousness speech to himself after he finds himself deserted by his fellow jailbirds. Considering Benigni’s eccentric real-life persona, one can only wonder how much of this is autobiographical:

“There is a very good… very good rabbit. I know a very good way to cook it. My- my mother teached me (my mother, Isolina, the name of my mother)… with rosemarino, rosemarino, olive oil, garlic… and other secrets of the Isolina.

Before, she is very kind with the rabbit. She call the rabbit, ‘Good rabbit. I like this little rabbit. The eyes of the ra…’ Ta! Suddenly, the rabbit dead. Very strange mother, my mother. Very strange, yes.

My father, no. He’s very strong, but with the rabbit he is afraid. My sister… I have one mother and three sisters: Bruna, Albertina, e Anna. I had a picture of my mother in my room, smiling with the rabbit in her hand, and the other, so… ha, ‘ta’.

Sometime I- I dream of my mother that call me, ‘Robertino, vieni qua. Robertino, come on.’ ‘No, I don’t want.’ ‘Come on. Come on.’ Ta! Una bota in my neck. ‘I am not rabbit.’ ‘Yes, you are.’ My mother… very strange mother. But I love my mother.”

4. Richard E. Grant – Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I is often, rightly, regarded to be one of the funniest British films ever made. Yet, it still manages to end on a beautifully melancholic note: as the two unemployed actors part ways, one for a job and the other for solitary squalor, the latter, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) takes a swig from his wine bottle and gives a brilliant, pitch-perfect recitation of a soliloquy from Hamlet to nobody in particular. One of the greatest final scenes in film history:

“I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! How like an angel in apprehension. How like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor women neither. Nor women neither.”

3. Bruno Ganz – Wings of Desire (1987)

Peter Handke wrote ‘The Song of Childhood’ in conjunction with his screenplay for Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and that piece is soliloquised by the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) throughout the opening scenes of the film. Here is the English translation of the first few stanzas:

“When the child was a child,
it walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people,
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

When the child was a child,
it choked on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding,
and on steamed cauliflower,
and eats all of those now, and not just because it has to.

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

It had visualised a clear image of Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.”

2. Françoise Lebrun – The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Jean Eustache’s 220-minute late New Wave film primarily consists of talking, yet it’s anything but dull. Revolving around a ménage-a-trois containing unemployed pseudo-intellectual Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud, in arguably his greatest role), his long-suffering live-in girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont) and his promiscuous lover Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), the film acts as a scathing indictment of liberal attitudes towards free love in a post-May ’68 setting. The climax of the film comes more than three hours in, when Veronika delivers a drunken, tear-filled monologue to Alexandre and Marie in their apartment:

“Allow me, please, Marie. Allow me for one dreary sex story. Once and for all, both of you, these fuck stories mean nothing to me. And I don’t give a shit that you two fuck. I’m so happy with you. I don’t give a shit, understand that I don’t give a shit, that I love you. Look, I’m starting to get drunk and I’m slurring, and that’s horrible, because what I say, I really mean.

I could stay with you forever, I feel so happy. I feel loved by you two. And that one, looking at me slyly with his beady eyes, thinking: ‘Chat away, baby, I’ll get you.’ – please, Alexandre, I’m not playing a role. What do you think?

For me, there are no whores. For me, a girl who lets anyone fuck her, any way, is no whore. You can suck anyone, get fucked by anyone, you’re no whore.

There are whores on Earth, understand that. And you must understand. The woman who’s married, and who’s happy, and who dreams of getting fucked by anyone, by her husband’s boss, or by some shitty actor, or by her milkman, by her plumber – is she a whore? There are no whores. What does that mean, whore? There are just cunts, genitals. What do you think? It’s not sad, it’s super-happy. I get fucked by anybody, they fuck me and I get off. Why put so much importance on these fuck stories?

Sex: ‘You fuck me well. Oh, how I love you! Only you can fuck me like that.’ How people can fool themselves: ‘There’s just one you, just one me. Only you can fuck me like that. Only I can be fucked like that by you.’ How funny. How horrible and sordid. Fuck, how sordid and horrible! If you knew how I can love you two… and how it can have nothing to do with sex.

I lost my virginity recently, at 20. 19, 20… how recent. And afterwards, I got fucked. I took a maximum of lovers, and got fucked. It may be a chronic disease, chronic fucking, and yet I don’t give a fuck about fucking. Getting knocked up, now, that would piss me off a maximum. I keep a tampax in, so to get me to take it out, and to fuck, you’d have to excite me a maximum. I don’t give a fuck.

If people could dig once and for all that fucking is shit; that just one thing is beautiful: fucking because you’re so in love, you want to make a baby who looks like you, and otherwise it’s something sordid. You should only fuck if you’re in love. And I’m not drunk. If I’m crying, it’s for my whole past life, my past sex life, which is so short. Five years of sex life – that’s not much.

See, Marie, I’m talking to you because I love you. So many men have fucked me, and wanted me, you know… they wanted me because I had a big arse, which can be desirable. I have pretty breasts, which are very desirable. My mouth isn’t bad either, and with make-up, my eyes aren’t bad either. I’ve been fucked a lot, meaninglessly. Desired a lot, and fucked, meaninglessly. I’m not dramatising, Marie. I’m not drunk. What do you think, that I’m brooding on my shitty fate? Absolutely not.

I’ve been fucked like a whore. But you know, I think some day a man will come along and will love me, and will make me a baby, out of love. Love is nothing unless you want to make a baby together. If you want that, you feel you love each other. A couple that doesn’t want a baby is no couple, it’s shit, it’s anything, dust… (sobs)

Those free super-couples – ‘You fuck on your side, darling, I’ll fuck on mine. We’re super-happy together. We get back together. Aren’t we fine!’ I’m not reproaching you; on the contrary. My sadness isn’t a reproach, you know. It’s an old sadness I’ve dragged around for five years. Nothing to do with you.

How nice you can be together. Look, you’re going to be happy…”

1. Emmanuelle Riva – Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

One of the greatest films of the 20th century, Alain Resnais’ film essay on memory and the contrast between individual and collective grief won many accolades at the time, and is still widely considered to be an important work fifty years on. Generating a plot of sorts with a one-night stand between a French woman and a Japanese man in 1950s Hiroshima, the film opens with a devastating monologue narrated by Emmanuelle Riva, penned by French author Margeurite Duras. Here is an excerpt:

“Listen. I know. I know everything. It went on. Women risk giving birth to deformed children, to monsters, but it goes on. Men risk becoming sterile, but it goes on. Rain causes panic, the rain of ash on the waters of the pacific. The pacific turns deadly, and its fishermen die. Food becomes an object of fear. An entire city’s food is thrown away. The food of entire cities is buried. An entire city rises up in anger. Entire cities rise up in anger. But against whom do they rise up in anger? The anger of entire cities, whether they like it or not, against the principle of inequality advanced by one people against another. The principle of inequality advanced by certain races against other races. The principle of inequality advanced by certain classes against other classes. Like you, I know what it is to forget. Like you, I am endowed with memory. I know what it is to forget. Like you, I too have struggled with all my might not to forget.

Like you, I forgot. Like you, I longed for a memory beyond consolation, a memory of shadows and stone. For my part I struggled every day with all my might against the horror of no longer understanding the reason to remember. Like you, I forgot. Why deny the obvious necessity of remembering?

Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin again. 200,000 dead and 80,000 wounded in nine seconds. Those are the official figures. It will begin again. It will be 10,000 degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, people will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. An entire city will be lifted off the ground, then fall back to earth in ashes. New vegetation rises from the sands. Four students await together, like brothers, a legendary death. The seven branches of the delta estuary of the river Ota drain and fill at their usual hour, precisely at their usual hour, with fresh water rich with fish, grey or blue, depending on the season and time of day. People along the muddy banks no longer watch the tide slowly rise in the seven branches of the delta estuary of the river Ota.

I meet you. I remember you. Who are you? You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. How could I know this city was tailor-made for love? How could I know you fit my body like a glove? I like you. How unlikely. I like you. How slow all of a sudden. How sweet. You cannot know. You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. I have time. Please, devour me. Deform me to the point of ugliness. Why not you? Why not you in this city and in this night, so like other cities and other nights you can hardly tell the difference? I beg of you.”

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