Studying Subtext: Match Point.

This is the first in a series of posts studying subtext.

This electrifying scene – between Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s Match Point (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) – sizzles with sexual tension through subtext.

Watch the scene:

Here’s the dialogue:

NOLA

So, who’s my next victim? You?

CHRIS

I haven’t played table tennis in quite a while.

NOLA

Would you like to play for a thousand pounds a game?

CHRIS

What did I walk in to?

Chris plays and smashes the ball violently to win the point.

NOLA

(surprised at his aggression)

What did I walk in to?

Chris moves to Nola’s end of the table.

CHRIS.

It’s like this.

He goes to help her.

May I?

NOLA

Please.

Chris puts his arm around her and pulls her close.

CHRIS

You have to lean in and hit through the ball.

NOLA

I was doing just fine until you showed up.

CHRIS

Ah…story of my life.

So tell me…what’s a beautiful young American ping-pong player

doing mingling among the British upper class?

NOLA

Did anyone ever tell you you play a very aggressive game?

CHRIS

Did anyone ever tell you you have very sensual lips?

NOLA

Extremely aggressive.

CHRIS

I’m naturally competitive. Is it off-putting?

NOLA

I’ll have to think about that for a while.

Tom enters (played by Matthew Goode).

TOM

Ah! There you are. I wanted to introduce you to Chris Wilton.

Chris Wilton this is Nola Rice, my fiance.

NOLA

The tennis pro.

They shake hands.

CHRIS

My pleasure.

NOLA

(to Tom, but eyes fixed on Chris)

He was trying to have his way with me over the table.

TOM

(laughing)

Oh really? Well you’d better watch out for this one.

He’s made a living out of hustling.

NOLA

(to Chris)

I’ll be ready for you next time.

So, let’s study it line by line:

NOLA

So, who’s my next victim? You?

This is brilliant foreshadowing by Woody Allen. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I won’t spoil it for you.

CHRIS

I haven’t played table tennis in quite a while.

NOLA

Would you like to play for a thousand pounds a game?

CHRIS

What did I walk in to?

Chris plays and smashes the ball violently to win the point.

NOLA

What did I walk in to?

Chris moves to Nola’s end of the table.

CHRIS.

It’s like this.

He goes to help her with her posture.

May I?

NOLA

Please.

Chris puts his arm around her and pulls her close.

MatchpointCHRIS

You have to lean in and hit through the ball.

NOLA

I was doing just fine until you showed up.

Nola isn’t just talking about the table tennis game. She’s talking about the game of life. Nola is a hustler, an out-of-work actress using her beauty to work her way up in society. She was doing fine. But now Chris has walked in to her life…

CHRIS

Ah…story of my life.

So tell me…what’s a beautiful young American ping-pong player

doing mingling among the British upper class?

NOLA

Did anyone ever tell you you play a very aggressive game?

This aggressive game, again, is not just about the ping-pong. More superb foreshadowing by Woody Allen, pointing towards the climax.

CHRIS

Did anyone ever tell you you have very sensual lips?

NOLA

Extremely aggressive.

By using the adverb of intensity ‘extremely’ Woody Allen pushes the foreshadowing at us even harder. It’s a warning. There is ‘extreme aggression’ to come.

CHRIS

I’m naturally competitive. Is it off-putting?

NOLA

I’ll have to think about that for a while.

Tom enters (played by Matthew Goode).

TOM

Ah! There you are. I wanted to introduce you to Chris Wilton.

Chris Wilton this is Nola Rice, my fiance.

NOLA

The tennis pro.

Chris and Nola shake hands.

CHRIS

My pleasure.

NOLA

(to Tom, but eyes fixed on Chris)

He was trying to have his way with me over the table.

I love this line. Throughout the scene the body language subtext has been electric sexual tension. Until now its been unspoken. We’ve seen it. We’ve watched it. We’ve felt it. But Nola speaks it. It’s no longer subtext. The subtext has come to the surface. It’s the truth. But heedless Tom, lacking all awareness of the sexual chemistry that we’ve just witnessed between Chris and Nola, laughs it off. 

TOM

(laughing)

Oh really? Well you’d better watch out for this one.

He’s made a living out of hustling.

NOLA

(to Chris)

I’ll be ready for you next time.

This ingeniously crafted line works on two levels.

i. She’ll be ready next time he wants to ‘take her’.

ii. It foreshadows the climax when being ready for him has life or death stakes.

Summing up then, this scene is a superb example of subtext working to both foreshadow and to create sexual tension.

We also experience sexual tension ‘subtext’ through the actors’ physical interaction and body language.

What a pleasure to see these two actors working together to create so much sexual tension with such a clever script.

I’ll finish with 3 questions:

1. What tension is your dialogue creating?

2. What is your dialogue/subtext foreshadowing?

3. Does your dialogue give room to the actors to allow them to create tension in their physical space?

match+point+scarlett+johanssonAbout Mark

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