The Quiet Room: 'This is not easy'

The Quiet Room: 'This is not easy'
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The mother (Celine O’Leary) sits watching her daughter’s angry drawing. She has come to tell her that her father is moving out. The child carries on a conversation that her mother can’t hear – a series of denials. Her father repeats most of the mother’s dialogue, separately, during his heart-to-heart. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Rolf de Heer’s comedy can be very brutal and bruising, and this is a good example. It’s not funny but it is a comedy in the gap between truth and perceptions. Much of the child’s dialogue is written as if she were already grown up, even though that is what she’s resisting. The adults, on the other hand, are never able to match her directness or honesty. That is part of what she is resisting – the loss of honesty. She thinks that is what adults do – they lose touch with the truth. The flashback in the middle of the scene is the seven-year-old remembering her former, happier self as a three-year-old (played by Phoebe Ferguson).


The Quiet Room synopsis

A seven-year-old girl (Chloe Ferguson) refuses to speak. We hear her thoughts in a constant and perceptive monologue, but she will not talk to her parents (Celine O’Leary and Paul Blackwell). A series of flashbacks shows that their increasingly vicious arguments are partly to blame, but they are not the whole story. The girl’s memory of herself at age three (where she’s played by Phoebe Ferguson) suggests that her silence is, in part, a revolt against growing up.


The Quiet Room curator's notes

Rolf de Heer conceived, wrote and directed The Quiet Room very quickly while waiting to get a much larger project off the ground (Epsilon, 1995), but that may have helped to heighten the film’s intensity. He has said he was interested in depicting a seven-year-old’s perception of adulthood, but the film is as much about the way the girl perceives herself, and her transition from very small and happy, to bigger and less happy. Further along in that path of transitions, she perceives that her parents, both of whom love her, are very clearly unhappy.

The film can be described as a depiction of a marriage break-up through a child’s eyes, or equally, the rebellion of a child faced with her own sense of helplessness. Either way, it’s a remarkably effective and imaginative film, with an intense emotional landscape. Chloe Ferguson’s performance is astonishing, but part of that is the way that de Heer uses her monologue. It’s recorded to sound very intimate and personal, like a whispered journal. De Heer used his own children to help with the writing – 'At one point when I was writing, it was the school holidays. I would talk to my kids, particularly my seven-year-old. I would have sessions with them, trying to explore the way they thought, all the time remembering how I used to think when I was a kid’.

Notes by Paul Byrnes


Education notes

This clip shows the responses of a 7-year-old girl (Chloe Ferguson) as she is told by first her mother (Celine O’Leary) and then her father (Paul Blackwell) that the two are separating. Throughout both encounters the girl angrily scribbles with a black crayon and does not respond to or look at either parent. However, her interior thoughts are heard in voice-over. A flashback to the girl as a 3-year-old shows her again drawing but this time a brightly coloured picture, although her 7-year-old self comments, ‘I’m here alone too. Why am I alone all the time?’

Educational value points

  • In The Quiet Room the film director explores the breakdown of family relationships from the perspective of a child. The child retreats into silence in response to her parents’ increasing discord and then, as this clip shows, their plan to separate. This withdrawal is an attempt to exert some control over a world in which as a child she feels powerless, as if, by refusing to acknowledge her parents or what they say, the separation will not happen.
  • By placing the girl on the right-hand side of the frame, while first her mother and then her father occupy the opposite side, the clip suggests the disconnection between her and her parents. Her position on the edge of the frame evokes her sense of abandonment, and contrasts to the flashback to a happier time where she is shown securely in the centre of the frame. Here her perception that, ‘I’m here alone too’ is coloured by her current vulnerability.
  • The colours used and the low-key lighting reflect the girl’s state of mind with washed-out blues and greys lending a bleakness to the scene. By contrast, in the flashback showing the girl as a 3-year-old, the room is bathed in a warm glow, and instead of angrily drawing black scribbles the girl, dressed in pink, carefully draws a colourful picture. The cut from a shot of the girl staring desolately at the camera to the earlier scene implies she yearns for that happier time.
  • In this clip the girl is mostly shown in extreme close-up, while her mother and then her father are placed out of focus in the background of the shot, which works to direct the viewer’s attention to the girl. Rolf de Heer wanted to explore the impact a marriage breakdown has on a child, and therefore the parents’ story is secondary. The stillness of the actors also has the effect of making the audience focus on the girl’s monologue and the meaning of her gestures.
  • In this clip the parents’ repetition of similar lines and the girl’s unspoken but blunt retorts have a wryly comic effect, but her raw responses also reveal their inability to be similarly direct and honest about the separation. Their tentative attempts to cajole her are sincere but also, as the girl says, ‘hopeless’.
  • The three characters in The Quiet Room are not given names by filmmaker Rolf de Heer, who conceived, wrote and directed the film in an extraordinarily quick time. This presents the child and the parents as universal characters and serves to have the viewer focus on the relationships and the responses of each character to their situation.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Fandango Australia
Domenico Procacci, Rolf de Heer
Rolf de Heer
Rolf de Heer
Graham Tardif

The young girl sits on the floor, colouring in a picture. Her mother is sitting on the floor near her, watching her draw. We hear the girl’s thoughts as she’s drawing. She doesn’t speak once.
Girl You didn’t come in here and sit against the wall to watch me draw. So, say it. 
Girl Hopeless. Here it comes. 
Mother Your father and I are going to separate.
She crumples up her picture and throws it away. She takes another piece of paper to start drawing.
Girl That’s what you think.
Mother Can you listen? This is not easy, you know. 
Girl It is easy. You just don’t say those stupid ideas, and you don’t do it. 
Mother He’ll probably move out this weekend. 
Girl I love weekends. 
Mother You’ll stay with me, of course. 
Girl Of course. 
Mother And we’ll start looking for somewhere smaller to live. Closer to the city. Nearer to my work – and your school. 
Girl You mean further away from the country? Now I’ll never get a dog. 
Mother It could be fun. 
Girl It won’t be. 
Mother Dad’ll have you most weekends. You’ll have two homes. 
Girl I only want one. 
Mother Maybe you’ll start talking to me again? 
Girl Fat chance. 
Mother Your father wants a divorce. 
Girl No he doesn’t. 
Mother I think that’s going too fast. Closing doors. But if he’s determined, there’s no real choice. 
Girl I’m sick of this conversation.
We see the girl remembering when she was younger, sitting on the floor drawing again.
Girl I’m here alone too. Why am I alone all the time?

The girl’s father is now sitting on the floor near her. She’s still drawing. 
Girl I know what you’re going to say, but say it. 
Father This is not easy. 
Girl Yes it is. Just don’t say it then. 
Father Your mother and I are going to separate. 
Girl That’s what you think. 
Father Things have been getting a bit out of control lately, and we think it’s better for you. 
Girl How would you know what’s better for me? 
Father We don’t want to hurt you anymore. 
Girl Why did you want to hurt me before? 
Father You’ll stay with your mother. 
Girl Of course. And you’ll have me most weekends, just like half the kids in my class. 
Father There’s a lot of arrangements to be made. I’ll have to find a place where I can have you for weekends, that sort of thing. 
We see the picture that the girl is drawing. It’s a dark scribble in black crayon.
Girl I don’t like weekends any more.