Films that help understand Narrative Structure

Films to help you understand the different parts of narrative structure.

Based off of Film 7014G Narrative Structure, Brooklyn College, Fall 2016

Based on the reading Story by Robert McKee

All Elements: Le Ballon Rouge (Lamorissee, France, 1956)

1. Protagonist and Desire: Sunrise (Murnau, Germany, 1927)

2. Antagonist and Rising Action: A Prophet (Audiard, France, 2009)

3. Climax, Resolution, Reversal: Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, USA, 1987)

4. Creating Audience Identification with the Protagonist: Amour (Michael Haneke, France, 2012)

5. Cause and Effect, Creating a Consistent World: Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

6. Scene Structure, Units of Narrative Structure: Do The Right Thing (Lee, USA, 1989)

7. Visual Storytelling, Show Don’t Tell: M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

8. Text vs. Subtext: A Seperation (Farhadi, Iran, 2011)

9. Character Development 1: Sweetie (Champion, Australia, 1989)

10. Character Development 2: Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, Japan, 1957)

11. Backstory and Exposition: Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)

12. The Subconscious and Dream Logic: Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, Mexico, 1962)


Jackie, 2016


{Theatrical Release Poster}

Jackie Kennedy reveals to a reporter a detailed version of her thoughts and life surrounding the death of her husband and the moments that followed.

 Thoughts: P and I were able to see Jackie this last month and it was beyond heart wrenching. There were so many moments that I was over powered with emotions and I caught myself crying silently at least three times. The cinematography was beautiful, the sets and costumes were top notch, period authenticity was perfect, and Natalie Portman is an astounding actress showing a woman showing as much grace as possible while under fire. I would highly recommend watching and buying.

What Maisie Knew, 2012


{Theatrical Release Poster}

A mother and her husband fight over the custody of their young daughter while she attempts to understand what is going on with her parents.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this film mostly because I liked how the writer tricked me.

Early on in the film the viewer chose sides forcing us to be committed to the film. Everyone was on the mother’s side. The first thing we see and hear in the film is Susanna having a tender moment with her daughter singing a lullaby. Susanna and Beale (Maisie’s father) argue viciously, and in the end Maisie is the responsibility of her nanny Margo. The moment Beale flirts with Margo after fighting with Susanna everyone hates him. Everyone is on Susanna’s side especially when she acts irrationally by locking Beale out of the house, and discovers Beale trying to sneakily take Maisie out of school. We realize something is wrong at the sleepover when Susanna has over friends who are drinking and smoking around children, and then when she is force feeding information to Maisie about her father physically abused her. We suddenly realize that Maisie is a pawn for Susanna. We shift to the father once he is awarded joint custody.

Maise goes to stay with her father and discovers Margo has moved in with Beale. After Beale marries Margo, Susanna marries Lincoln a young bartender. While Maisie stays with her father, the audience attempts to connect with the father to find some good in him but he too is using Maisie like a pawn. Both parents extract information from Maisie about the other parent and throw her off to the other when their time with her is over, instead of relishing in the extra time they have gained.

The only likeable characters were Lincoln and Margo, people we are supposed to dislike due to their association with Susanna and Beale. At this point in the film, a nagging voice that was not so much in my head but more next to me predicted “that kid is going to live with Margo and Lincoln. How much do you want to bet?” And the voice was correct. I was now more interested in Margo and Lincoln’s relationship since it was such a huge contrast to Susanna and Beale’s. I hoped that Maisie could be happy with them.

What was tricky is that everything was only told through Maisie’s perspective. We had to gain loyalty to the mother and the father through her, and also see their shortcomings. We only every knew what Maisie saw or heard. It is a fun obstruction for a screenwriter: no voiceover, no monologues, only observations through sight and sound from a six-year-olds perspective.

The Battle of Algiers, 1966


{Theatrical Release Poster}

In French Algeria, the Algerian people are reacting against the French who they consider a threatening colonizing power.

My Thoughts: There were two major parts to this film: what happened before and after the arrival of the French military para-troopers to Algiers.  Prior to the arrival of the para-troopers we were depicted a scene where the FLN was protecting their people, their way of life, and trying to show their people that it was not okay to be fine living in exile in their own city, After the arrival of the paratroopers, we were shown the round-up and slaughter of everyone that stood in the military’s way.

I did not know much about this issue at all, so I enjoyed learning about it through the film. The documentary style made the film appear very life-like.

The film began in a moment of action, that actually occurs near the end of the film. The body of the film itself then explains how the events depicted in the beginning came to be. Though the film follows many of the different leaders of the FLN, the one main continuous factor is in the character La Pointe who consistently appears throughout the entire length of the film.

The beauty of the film is how the explosion sequences were understated. For example, when the three women dress French and plant bombs within the European quarter, we have slow tension filled moments from beginning to end. The only chaotic action occurs only when the bombs go off and the Europeans are scrambling. These is very similar to other instances of actions throughout the film.

The final ending was rather weird. The last three minutes were an epilogue that seemed very much like an afterthought. They appeared to throw it in there so the film would not end on a horrendously depressing note. It prompted me to want to research more about the events that did happen, but it seemed very out of place.

The Exterminating Angel, 1962


{Theatrical Release Poster}

A group is psychologically trapped for no apparent reason in a room, while troubleshooting their true natures appear.

My thoughts: A group of friends is invited to a dinner party. Just before the arrival of the twenty guests, all of the household help sans the head butler without a word abandon the house and the guests. The guests continue their merriment well into the night.  Instead of going home when they got tired, the guests chose to throw out class and abandon good manners. The group then realizes for some unknown reason, anyone who enters the room is psychologically trapped there. The group deals with being psychologically trapped in the room, and then begin dealing with thirst, starvation and the loss of their most basic human rights.

The inciting incident is the moment that the first person (Edmundo Nobile, the host) does not leave the room that they are all “trapped” in about sixteen minutes into the film. All of the guests decides to stay despite it being 4am in the morning. The audience starts noticing that something is amiss at this point. In my opinion, the climax is the discovery of the murder suicide by the young couple that was to be married at about one hour and twelve minutes in.  The ending officially begins when at one hour and twenty-three minutes Leticia notices that all the furniture and people are in the exact same position as the night just before they were all caught in the room.

The beginning is also the ending of the film. The first image we see is the closed doorway to a church. Through the door we hear people singing hymns. This is also where the film ends bringing it to a full circle.  Following the escape from the room, we see all those who were being held hostage dressed all in black at a Mass signing the same hymn from the beginning. And the horrible situation of being psychologically caught in a room with no escape begins again.

Sweetie, 1989


{Theatrical Release Poster}

A sexually frustrated, financially and emotionally struggling couple deals with the arrival of a sister and her destructive behaviors impact on everyone.

My thoughts:

What a weird film. Beautiful but weird.

Sweetie was the main character, even though the film focused on her sister Kay. Every action that Kay does revolves around her sister whether she realizes it or not. Kay was the opposite of Sweetie in every way, and intentionally acted this way in order to counteract the presence of her sister. Despite this Kay was no angel. She broke the engagement between Louis and his then fiancé, lies to his about being disconnected, and lies about killing a tree he planted in their yard. Kay is neurotic like Sweetie, and becomes high selfish and self-involved when her mind is set.

Kay’s story focuses on the weird family dynamic. Sweetie is the cause of the fracturing the family, their forced relationships with each other, and their crumbling relationships with other people. Only once Sweetie is gone can anything be somewhat normal for Kay and her parents.

Elements of the story that I enjoyed: the abandoning of Sweetie’s boyfriend/producer at a coffee shop, the family manipulating Sweetie into getting out of the car, and Sweetie holding the young neighbor boy hostage in her treehouse.

Things that were so detailed that it is scary: Sweetie stripping naked and then covering herself with black paint after blockading herself in the treehouse after she did not get her way, Luis being so mad at Kay that he leaves the house without shoes on, and Sweetie claiming she spent all the food money on a skirt, even though her food remains are all over the destroyed house.


Sunset Boulevard, 1950


{Theatrical Release Poster}

A struggling writer stumbles upon a former movie star, who is detached from reality, and she takes him on the ride of his life.

Synopsis: Joe is a struggling writer in Los Angeles California. He is behind on all his payments, can’t catch a break from producers or his agent,  and is running from men trying to repossess his car. While in a chase with the repoo men, he blows a tire along Sunset Boulevard (a notoriously  wealthy neighborhood) and pulls into a garage of what he believes to be an abandoned mansion. He is mistaken as a coffin salesman and invited into the home which is occupied. The owner of the house, middle-aged former silent movie star Norma Desmond is grieving the loss of her beloved Chimpanzee companion. She strikes a deal with Joe; she will pay him handsomely to edit her masterpiece script (herself as the leading lady) that will bring her back into Hollywood. Believing he is manipulating her into this deal, he agrees. He quickly becomes her new obsession, and realizes her feelings toward him when attending a new years party where he is the only guest besides the orchestra and her servant Max. He decides to leave to party to be with people his age but returns, and agrees to be hers following her attempted suicide. Norma gives Joes everything he could ever desire, but he is still not satisfied. While Norma prepares for her return to the big screen, Joe starts writing a script at night while Norma is asleep with a young and innocent Paramount reader named Betty. Quickly their professional relationship ventures on the lines of romance. In jealousy, Norma calls Betty inquiring if she knows what kind of man Joe really is. Joe catches Norma, takes the phone and invites Betty over so she could find out and judge him for herself. At Betty’s arrival, Joe reveals he lives with Norma who pays for his lifestyle and he is happy there. He refuses to leave with Betty wishing her and her fiancé the best of luck. He then goes upstairs, packs his suitcase and attempts to leave Norma. Norma instead shoots him and he lands in her pool. It is then revealed that Joe is in fact our narrator, and dead.

My thoughts: Film Noir, disillusionment with society, reversed genre roles and the femme fatale lightly brush on the true masterpiece that is Sunset Boulevard.  This films dives into the hidden world that reveals the aftermath of the Hollywood star system. The small touches make the film hyper-realistic including the cameos by Cecil De. Mille, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. I personally loved the twists and turns of the brain-washed woman’s mind. She leaves, no one leaves her unless in death.

Chinatown, 1974


{Theatrical Release Poster}

After being hired by a jealous wife, a private investigator becomes personally involved with a case where nothing is as it appears to be.

My thoughts: What an entangled story! The good makings of a mystery novel, but I am not sure how well it came across on the screen. The film was so long (over 2 hours) that I kept wondering when it was ever going to end.

The Facts: Evelyn is the daughter of Noah Cross, business partner of Hollis Mulwray. After being raped and impregnated with her father’s child at fifteen, Evelyn flees to Mexico. Hollis follows her and marries her. A fallout occurs between Hollis and Noah over Evelyn. Hollis and Evelyn shield the child Katherine from Noah. Fifteen years later, Gittes investigates and takes pictures of what he believes to be an affair between Hollis and a young woman (in reality the hidden Katherine). Noah wins it all – he gets Katherine who has been hidden from him for years, his first daughter and former business partner are out of the picture so they are no witnesses, and he is now free to follow through with his devious plan of annexing the Northwest Valley into the city of Los Angeles and using it for personal gain.

The Story: It begins after Noah has put his plan into action to find his second daughter, and dispose of his former business partner who learned the truth of his underhand dealings. Gittes was at the crime scene only hours after the murder of Hollis, if only he had pulled the bifocals out of the water sooner the film might have taken a very different turn.

We are not introduced to the real Ms. Mulwray until twenty minutes into the film and at this moment we are also introduced to the first conflict. In contrast, workings of Noah are introduced no later than 4 minutes after the introduction. Forty minutes in investigating gets real for Gittis when his life is threatened, a stark contrast from his men taking pictures of adultery from a distance, also something he has not dealt with since working in Chinatown years prior.

Everything is connected and has a purpose- though Curly was only part of the first three minutes of the film, he is later reintroduced and is the reason Gittes escapes from the police.

I liked the ending when it finally came around. It was realistic. Nobody wins. The heroine is killed, justice will not come to the criminal, the innocent is emotionally scarred forever and thrown into a dangerous situation (what if Noah continues his previous behavior?), and the hero is left alone to wallow in self-pity.

Fargo, 1996


{Theatrical Release Poster}

A Minnesota man hires two out-of-towners to fake kidnap his wife in order to get money to pay his debts, but the men he hired do much more than kidnap.

Synopsis: In Fargo, ND  a Minnesotan car salesman Jerry Lundegaard hires two criminals, Carl and Gaear, to kidnap his wife Jean in order to extort a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. The deal is the criminals will get half of the $80k ransom, and a new car from his lot which he delivers to them prior to the kidnapping. The two criminals violently kidnap Jean and take her to a hideout on Moose Lake. The next morning,pregnant Police Chief Marge is investigating the three road-side murders. Her only clue is the car the two men were driving, and its plates. She travels to Minneapolis interviewing prostitutes, Proudfoot a mechanic and former criminal, and eventually Lundegaard about missing cars from his dealership (also Proudfoot’s boss). Carl demands the full $80k from the deal due to the now high profile nature of the case, and Lundegaard tells his father in law that the deal is now $1 million in cash. Following Carl being beaten by Proudfoot, Carl demands the ransom in 30 minutes at a specific location. When Jean’s father shows up instead of Lundegaard, Carl kills him but sustains a face wound. Carl discovers that the suitcase full of money that Jean’s father delivered contains more than $80K and intends to keep it from his partner, burying  $920k in the snow along the road. Lundegaard eventually flees when the pressure becomes too much for him to handle. Carl goes back to Moose Lake to discover that Gaear has killed Jean for shrieking. Carl attempts to leave after splitting the cash, but a dispute arises over splitting the car which leads to Carl’s death. Marge is doing a check of Moose Lake following a tip about a “funny looking guy” when she spots the car  she was looking for in one of the driveways. She has Gaear at gunpoint, and when he attempts to flee shoots him in the leg. She takes him to the station for processing. In North Dakota,  Lundergaard is caught by State Police. Marge and her husband go to bed like any other day.

My thoughts: I enjoyed the dark comedy of this film. The Minnesota people were not portrayed as having a mundane small town life, instead it showed how content and happy they were enjoying what mattered to them. In fact, only the outsiders that were paying through that were the ones that were bringing in the bad and mundaneness.  The gender role reversals were fun to watch. A pregnant police chief is the most grounded person in the film, while the middle-aged men are the most feeble, helpless, and irrational characters. The physical comedy was fun to watch: Gaear not stopping his defacement of Carl’s body because he cannot hear the police chief over the sound of the woodchopper, Chief Marge not being sure what to do (she can’t tap his shoulder!),  and Carl’s realization that he might never be able to find the money in the snow. This movie does have its share of blood, but I would call it tasteful gore. It is only shown when absolutely necessary. I am excited to watch the TV series of the same name that came out in.