The Secret Life of Words

English Title: The Secret Life of Words

Original Title: La vida secreta de las palabras

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: El Deseo, Mediapro

Director: Isabel Coixet

Producer(s): Esther García

Screenplay: Isabel Coixet

Cinematographer: Jean Claude Larrieu

Art Director: Pierre-François Limbosch

Editor: Irene Blecua

Runtime: 118 minutes


Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Sverre Anker Ousdal, Javier Cámara, Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins

Year: 2005

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

The Secret Life of Words begins as a masculine microcosm on an Irish oilrig in the middle of the sea. The men are a motley crew of various ethnicities. Among them is the young engineer, Martín, who spends his days counting the number of waves that violently clash against the rig; the Spanish cook, Simón, who creates international thematic dinners for the crew; and Josef, who was seriously wounded and temporarily blinded after jumping into a fire to rescue a colleague that committed suicide. Hanna, a solitary and mysterious nurse trying to forget her past, is brought to the platform to stabilize Joseph’s condition. Slowly, a strong intimacy and love develops between them, and Hanna opens her heart to Josef by sharing her traumatic experience during the Bosnian war. But Josef is transferred to a hospital and Hanna disappears. He finally recovers and goes to Copenhagen, where her torture was documented by Inge, to find her and propose they change their lives together.

The Secret Life of Words starts with a voice-over that poetically compares the human life experience to an ocean floor wounded by the immense body of an oilrig. As a defense mechanism to deal with pain, the mysterious voice-over focuses the spectator’s attention on the silence that surrounds words, while the opening credits that follow connect to the characters of Hanna and Josef. The dialectic between silence and words structure this film, which reaches its climatic point when Hanna reveals the dramatic events she suffered during the Yugoslav War while showing the scars that remain on her body.
Coixet’s dramatic choice of a Serbian woman who is raped by Serbian men translates the Balkan conflict from an ethnic- to a gender issue: the woman’s body loses its national identity in order to be transformed into a prized ‘war territory’. She is not the target of violence or rape because she is Serbian or Croat, Christian or Muslim, but because she is a woman. Nevertheless, the director does not use the camera to invite the spectator to witness the horror of the image, but to feel the emotion through the power of words. Coixet does not reveal on the screen any images of the torture and the rape afflicted on Hanna’s body because she is not interested in the filmic representation of violence, but rather in its lasting effects: the inner death of the protagonist.
Although not completely developed in the film, Josef’s story has many similarities to Hanna’s. To create this parallelism, Coixet uses a literary source: Mariana Alcoforado’s Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1669). The lyrical eloquence contained in these letters is expressed in the film as poetic telephone messages left by the character played by Leonor Waitling, which Hanna listens to secretly. Josef and that woman love each other, but her husband is his best friend. When he confesses the love he feels for his friend’s wife, the husband commits suicide, throwing himself into a fire on the oilrig. Josef unsuccessfully tries to rescue him and is badly injured. Josef feels responsible for the death of his friend and it is this guilt that unites him with Hanna. Like her, he feels ashamed for having survived and, like her, he yearns to be dead inside.
The film possesses an existentialist tone and the sensibility to human suffering that characterizes Coixet’s filmography. Like her other films, the ending also opens towards a future that is not tragic or pessimistic but full of hope. When Hanna tells Josef she cannot love him because she is afraid that one day she will drown in her tears, his humorous response is that he will learn how to swim.  A close-up of Hanna’s tears over a smiling face followed by a poetic kiss from Josef contrasts with the isolated landscape that surrounds them, while the soundtrack plays the emotional song by Anthony and the Johnsons band ‘Hope There’s Someone’, which is also the theme song for the film’s trailer. It is at that moment that the possibility of a new life emerges, and the diegetic use of music reinforces the hopeful ending.

Author of this review: Maria Cami Vela