DEEP BREATHS: Listening to the Breath of Cinema

Alejandro Toledo Acierto


Anton Freeman: Vincent! How are you doing this Vincent? How have you done any of this? We have to go back.
Vincent: It’s too late for that. We’re closer to the other side.
Anton Freeman: What other side? You wanna drown us both?
Vincent: You wanna know how I did it? This is how I did it Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back. [i]


Plagued with a heart condition from birth and a life expectancy of 30.2 years, Vincent Freeman was not supposed to live, let alone see the day he would travel to space. His fate, or so it seemed, was sealed through genetics – a condition that limited his ability to function physically, socially, mentally, and emotionally. Throughout Gattaca, Vincent continuously attempted to hide his physical flaws, particularly after he assumed Jerome Morrow’s identity with a series of prosthetic attachments that concealed his flawed identity. Though Vincent trained and attempted to keep his body in shape so as to diminish the effects of his medical history, it became apparent that he could not succeed without the aid of Jerome’s prosthetics.

As part of the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation’s routine checkups, Vincent was asked to partake in a physical examination to prove he was equipped to participate in an upcoming mission. But when Vincent “Jerome the Metronome” was forced to continue running past the typical examination period – coinciding with the ending of a fabricated recording used for this exact reason – the scene cuts to him rushing to the locker room and collapsing to the ground. Exhausted and frantic, Vincent coughs and gasps for more air, attempting to catch his breath so as not to reveal his identity. Later towards the end of the film, his “genetically superior” brother Anton is seen drowning after challenging his brother to a game of Chicken in the sea – a childhood game of dare that pushed the limits of their bodies. Vincent, who “never saved anything for the swim back,” didn’t seem to be challenged by his own bodily limitations and saves his brother from death by bringing his brother back to shore.

Gasping for air, Anton is confronted with his own identity, his own mortality. In the case of his near drowning, we as viewers witness a genetically superior human coming to terms with the limits of their own body – a limitation generally unseen within the world that Gattaca has presented. With a sonic register of his bodily limitations, Anton’s gasp offers the viewer a visceral moment in which his body might fail completely. For Brandon LaBelle, the gasp articulates “the sound of a body reaching a terrible threshold … the moment of glimpsing the end”. [ii] A suspension of fate, the gasp “holds the breath” momentarily, causing anticipation and terror in the presence of the listener. As a temporal displacement of a regularly occurring sound, the gasp ruptures the periodicity of ordinary breathing; its sound makes present a function that is otherwise silent, slow, and boring.

In many ways, the gasp offers the viewer-listener a spectacle of the body in a state of uncertainty: a dramatic moment in which we await the future of that body. Through this gasp, we are made aware of a vulnerable body, one that has not yet stabilized. Hearing the breath in these cases of near collapse thus becomes a signal for the recognition of mortality, an audible indication of the inherent reality of our bodies and their imminent failure. Darth Vader, possibly the icon of flawed respiration, tethers this moment in every scene he is present. Though Vader isn’t actually gasping in these scenes, there is a sensibility that his respiration is labored and uncertain. Reminiscent of a complex string of gasps, normalized only due to their repetition, the audition of Vader’s breath becomes a dramatized moment of uncertain respiration – a complicated gesture in light of his command of the Force.

Though he is masked and powerful, we hear his vulnerability rendered in the noisy interval between spoken words. (LaBelle’s aside on noise as a rupture of the sublime, or an event that signals the limits of the source). In the scenes of dialogue with him, we are made aware of presence through the breath much before he becomes visible on screen. A residual effect of his respiration triggers an emotional response of terror and fright, similar only to the gasp.


In the final moments of Vader’s life in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker removes his father’s mask, revealing the audibility of their breath between Luke and his father. In an intense dialogue between the two, Luke partially takes on the characteristics of his father as he breathes heavily through his dialogue. Holding on to his dying father, Luke’s voice trembles as he tries to save Vader, though his attempt is futile. Meanwhile Vader, already losing his breath, speaks softly as if his lungs were unable to adequately take in enough air to speak louder. Powerless without his mask, here we find the ultimate collapse. The death of Vader, in an act of assisted suicide enacted by his own son, not only marks a moment of collapse of his own body, but also of that of the Death Star and the dark side of the Force. [iii]

From these scenes, as Kevin L. Ferguson gestures, it seems that villains are only those that have trouble breathing. For Ferguson, the “breath gestures to the essence of life and constitutes a valuable commodity held back by the villain…On the other hand, monstrous breathing signals these villain’s absence of language and their resulting irrationality. Breath comes at the limits of speech.” In the instance of Vader, the sound of his breath amplified by his prosthetic clearly signals the sound of monstrous breathing. Even in his speech, the sounds of his breath are audible, interrupting his speech in order to continue. But to cast villains as the only characters whose breath has been made audible is to limit the scope of breathing and its audition. While Ferguson acknowledges that the possibilities of the breath’s audition are still yet to be fully theorized, his insistence that the breath signifies death is to discredit the potential of the breath to signify otherwise.


Through these two scenes, like many other audible cinematic moments, we see and hear the collapse of the body as it relates to the characters’ flawed respiration. Here, when the body as a mortal and vulnerable being tethers the instances of life and death, a secondary, if not more important aspect arises. For Ferguson, “air is an intimate medium, breathing life into our notions of embodiment and our relationships with others.” [iv] His discussion of breath also turns to sex, where the audition of breath signals the arousal of the subjects on screen. While primarily citing pornographic depictions of audible breath, he continues to articulate that “the sound of exhalation, breath” is the “immaterial aspect of sexuality that is so difficult to show – pleasure.” And while I agree with his assertion that the audible breath in depictions of sexuality does allow for the viewer/listener to register that “pleasure is occurring,” it only further acknowledges the sense of vulnerability that the breath has upon the listener. Thus, for Ferguson, the audible breath in cinema allows the listener to register a sense of vulnerability, whether sexual or mortal that opens the body to be present when visual portrayal is not enough.

Building from Ferguson’s argument that the breath fosters “our relationship with others,” it is clear that there is an aspect of exchange inherent within the breath. While Ferguson’s discussion highlights sex, typically involving the engagement of multiple bodies, there are several other scenarios in audible media in which this is not the case. In the moments of vulnerable collapse such as the death of Vader, or Anton’s near-death drowning, we are faced with scenes of characters at the height of an intimate bond that are or have been engaged in some sort of exchange. Not only are we as viewer/listeners hearing the sounds of the breath emanating from the characters themselves, but also in an audio-visual turn, we are hearing the characters themselves hear each other breathe. Thus to hear the breath constitutes a moment of intimate relation (though not necessarily sexual), whereby the characters on screen (or in other audio/visual space) are caught in a moment of physical and relational proximity. To hear the breath as listener/viewers, we are also connecting to their vulnerability, building a relationship to them and further investing ourselves with their stories. [v]

Physiologically, breathing constitutes a form of exchange. The process of respiration enables the proper function of the body, regulating oxygen levels through the exchange of carbon dioxide. Not only relegated to a gaseous exchange, proper respiration also mediates the levels of pressure inside the lungs that allow for the body to speak. A raw source of power for the production of speech and vocalizations, breathing thus allows the body to engage in dialogue, yet another form of exchange. [vi] While the body’s physiology may not necessarily become apparent in the audition of one’s breath, it offers the body, and the perception of the body, a flurry of theoretical and metaphoric possibilities.

Take for example a live musical performance of chamber music. In order for the musicians to start together, one of the musicians will offer a cue, a visual signal that enables each other musician to play at exactly the right time. But in many cases, an even more perceptible breath undermines this visual marker. For the other musicians, the audition of another’s breath allows them a stronger “connection,” both musically and personally, that enables them to perform at the right time. And as the performance continues, the breath allows for consistent ensemble cohesion that enables the performers to keep focused on their music without distraction. Even the listener gets caught up in the breath of the musicians. Andrew Mead, composer and musician, recalls a particular experience of his at a concert in which he realized he had “quite unconsciously been breathing along with the soloist.” [vii] For Mead, that “moment was a physical embodiment … of how that music was made.” In a similar fashion, hearing the breath instantiates a moment of physical embodiment in which we empathize with how that breath was made. It is through this auditory recognition of the other that we are able to acknowledge the audition of breath as that of an exchange; a moment of audible proximity that opens the possibility of the other.

With the acknowledgement of the breath as an audible form of exchange, particularly as it pertains to the opening up of other bodies (i.e. vulnerability), I want to further position the breath as a material that signifies change or becoming. As a physiological process of gaseous exchange, respiration affords the body the ability to remain active. It is then not too far-fetched to insist that the audition of breath thus also constitutes a state of becoming. As bodies involuntarily repeat processes of internal exchange, we hear the body in the midst of preparation. Countless scenes of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky or Rambo make audible the breath as he prepares himself for battle or a fight. Other cinematic displays of characters in the midst of extraordinary feats are featured in their moments of preparation, making the breath prominent within the sound design, further privileging the breath as the most important sound of the body during these scenes. Thus, to hear the breath as an act of exchange allows the body to continue, to be, to become. Going back to Vincent, the character of “flawed” bodily genetics who was not intended to live as long as he did, further represents this idea of a body in the midst of its becoming. With the support of audible breathing throughout the film, his body and his fate are enabled to continue and see the result of his hard work and preparation. The sound of breathing thus allowed us to further empathize with him and understand his success; it offered us an audible opening in which we could experience his preparation, becoming, and formation.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Kevin L. “Panting in the Dark: The Ambivalence of Air in Cinema.” Camera Obscura 26, no. 2 (2011): 32–63.

Kreiman, Jody, and Diana Sidtis. “Producing a Voice and Controlling Its Sound.” In Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

LaBelle, Brandon. Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Marquand, Richard. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Science Fiction, n.d.

Mead, Andrew. “Bodily Hearing: Physiological Metaphors and Musical Understanding.” Journal of Music Theory 43, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 1–19.

Niccol, Andrew. Gattaca. Film, Drama, Sci-Fi. Columbia Pictures, 1997.

[i] Niccol, Gattaca.
[ii] LaBelle, Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.
[iii] Marquand, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
[iv] Ferguson, “Panting in the Dark: The Ambivalence of Air in Cinema.”
[v] It should be noted that while this theoretical frame of vulnerability seems to push against Ferguson’s articulation, it is not the intention of this argument. Within this theorization, the concerns of vulnerability and exchange offer a more expansive, inclusive set of lenses from which to consider the audition of the breath which enables Ferguson’s argument to be a part of it. Though he writes specifically about mortality and sexuality where the audition of the breath exclusively signals death or sex, this broader set of frames allow for his theorizations of the breath but also opens them to more malleable theorizations.
[vi] Kreiman and Sidtis, “Producing a Voice and Controlling Its Sound.”
[vii] Mead, “Bodily Hearing: Physiological Metaphors and Musical Understanding.”