The Conversation (1974) and the ‘Maternal Voice’

Posted: February 13, 2015 in Movies, Philosophy
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This is a video essay looking at how Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller The Conversation explores the psychology of sound. In particular: Kaja Silverman’s theory of the “maternal voice”.


The maternal voice is a fantasy of origins: a representation of an individual’s pre-lingual, pre-cultural form, and their inauguration into subjectivity. Kaja Silverman writes that it is “a moment prior to the creation of the world”, when the infant is wrapped in the “sonourous envelope” of the mother’s voice, and unaware of its own selfhood (72). However, this state of “uterine night” is soon severed once the child becomes aware that it is a separate entity from the mother, thus establishing the subject-and-object (73). This realisation creates in the individual a feeling of incompleteness, and a desire return to the “bath of sound” the mother has nourished them with, which now serves as the “prototype for all subsequent auditory pleasure” (84). The fantasy contrasts the maternal “voice” (which is identified with sound and sense) with the paternal “word” (which is identified with meaning). From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, the subject enters language and symbolic order, but yearns to return to the pre-lingual “wholeness” of the maternal voice (Zizek 47).

This psychoanalytic elucidation can be mapped to The Conversation (Coppola 1974), with surveillance expert Harry Caul serving as subject, and his target, Ann, embodying the maternal voice. Harry has dedicates his life to recording other people’s conversations, yet has completely divorced the meaning of their words from the sound itself (Smelik). As he tells his assistant, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” This suggests a “strong and irrational attraction” to the presymbolic wholeness of infancy, in which only the “signifier” (or form) exists. It is reiterated later in the film, when Harry cannot recall the reason for undertaking an earlier wiretap, but recounts with delight the clarity and “beauty” of the recording. This attraction begins to centre on the character of Ann, the woman he has been currently tasked to spy on. Her maternal voice is given form through the empathy she displays for a homeless man (“he was once somebody’s baby boy”), and the singing of a nursery rhyme (“the red red robin / goes bob-bob-bobbin’ along”). Her voice takes on a musical quality for Harry, and he begins to listen to it over and over, even falling asleep with her recording playing the background. This clearly illustrates his desire to be wrapped in the auditory blanket of the “mother”—to be absorbed, and sustained, and nourished by her tone (Smelik). His obsession is also coaxed out by a girlfriend, who playfully accuses him of listening to her through the apartment door.

However, while the maternal voice “signifies a regression to the harmonious state” when mother and child are still joined as one, it also signifies the fear of being swallowed up (Silverman 75). That is, the terror of having one’s subjectivity and selfhood dissolved (or re-embodied) into the maternal presence. Harry expresses this paradoxical fear and desire through the act of surveillance. He becomes obsessed with observing the auditory cobwebs of the world, but never participating in it, maintaining a detached, aloof disposition with everyone he interacts with. He is consistently pointing the listening apparatus outwards, so that it can never be directed back at him. This is emphasised in the few times when Harry himself is spied upon—such as when Bernie gives him a bugged pen, or when a landlord intrudes upon his apartment—to which he responds angrily. He displays at all times a dedication to the distinction between subject (himself) and object (the world), and feels threatened when that line is blurred by inward-facing surveillance. However, Harry is also attracted to those he spies on, in particular the character of Ann, who he dreams of connecting with. This longing of being restored to the “uterine night” is also illustrated through Harry’s love of music, which he uses to fill the cold emptiness of his apartment. Silverman writes that Harry yearns to reincorporate a beloved part of himself that was lost in infancy, a music that he has relocated within the voice of Ann (Pisters 181). His obedience to the paternal symbolic order (perhaps signified by the patriarchal “director” who employs him for the job), and his own need for auditory control, is gradually overwhelmed by his desire for the maternal voice. He seeks Ann out, first in a dreamstate, and then in real life, renting a hotel room next to her own. He fears that she is in danger, but still cannot bring himself to make contact. And when violence does occur, he retreats from the symbolic world—darkening the shades and lamps, turning the television volume to full, and burying himself beneath blankets—all acts of enveloping himself in sound, dissolving his subjectivity, and taking himself out of the situation (Pisters 182).

The Conversation can be interpreted as an oedipal story, in which Harry desires to kill the father and save the mother, but to also hear her scream. However, this is revealed to be a fantasy, as it is Ann who has been plotting the murder, subverting her perceived position as a passive, vulnerable object for the male subject’s gaze (Smelik). Harry realises only in hindsight that he has distorted the conversation in his mind, hearing the phrase “He’d kill us if he had the chance” in a frightened tone, when he should have heard “He’d kill us if he had the chance” in a threating one. Silverman writes that this distortion is emblematic of the female voice in Hollywood: “an impossible object of desire and at the same time an object that needs to be controlled discursively” (Pisters 183). The female voice is always connected to the female form, and portrayed as emotional and irrational, embodying pure sounds like screaming and crying, which from the “rationally lingual” perspective of the patriarchy, are considering interesting, but negative. However, as The Conversation exposes, the fantasy of the “maternal as sound”, and the “paternal as language” is a falsehood, cultivated by the male subject. It is an acoustic mirror for the anxiety of the masculine psyche.

Works Cited

Pisters, Patricia. “(De)Territorialising Forces of the Sound Machine.” The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 180-183. Print.

Silverman, Kaja. “The Fantasy of the Maternal Voice: Paranoia and Compensation.” The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988. 72-100, 240-1. PDF File.

Smelik, Anneke. “Feminist Film Theory.” The Feminist eZine. Web. 14 Sept 2013.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Grimaces of the Real, or When the Phallus Appears.” Rendering the Real 58.1 (1991): 44-68. PDF File.


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