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Originally written for suite101 and published on 11/01/08, now hosted at Xomba.

Sound is a central force within Requiem for a Dream. Play the DVD and the first thing the viewer sees before any menus, adverts or credits, is the Dolby digital logo. Watch this film without a decent sound system it declares; miss half the film’s power. The sound is truly the first thing that any viewer needs to know about the film.

The sound draws the viewer into the world of the film, slowly, carefully drawing them in, until they’re as hooked as the characters they’re watching. With even the most normal sounds twisted, stretched and blurred in ways that are by turn glorious, alienating and horrific. Leaving the audience having stood in the protagonists’ shoes with them for so long, gasping for air and desperate to escape as the credits roll.

Syncing into the Soundscape

Immaculately synced dialogue is generally the ideal in dialogue editing, so used to this have viewers become that any slight deviation is irritating and distracting, at times going so far to destroy the viewer’s enjoyment. Not so with this film. At the beginning of the film a considerable chunk of the scenes are shot in split screen, with scenes being viewed simultaneously from two different angles at once.

During several of these scenes the dialogue appears to be just that tiny bit out of sync, nothing heavy-handed, just enough to distract from the words spoken. The mind’s eye adapts to the split-screen surprisingly easily – allowing it to disappear when no longer needed with little conscious disturbance. While it is still necessary to the story, however, the sound attracts the attention back to both the trick and the disjointedness of the experience being portrayed.

The dialogue in these scenes appears to have been recorded far closer to the microphone than normal because it exists in the aural space normally occupied by narrations in film. It’s not in the space with the characters it’s outside of their space, detached. Acting as counterpoint to the apparent intimacy of the scenes, underlining how the characters’ desperately need to connect, yet never really manage it.

Sound and Vision Combining

It would be easy to dismiss the film, if only seen in clips, as another shallow, glamorising drug film. However, this would be to miss the carefully constructed hollow emptiness that comes increasing to the fore as the film flows on. The fast cut montages that mark drug taking, speak more of repetition to the point of tedium than any imagined glamour.

The fast cutting of images is matched by equally fast-cut sound effects, an affect far harder to achieve successfully. The sound design uses normal every day sounds in a way that manages to underline the emptiness and loneliness of the protagonists lives. The repetition of sounds accompanying very similar images, seems to underscore the inevitability of the impending doom awaiting them.

Nowhere is this shown to greater affect than during the hallucinations suffered by Ellen Burstyn’s character. As she grows increasingly isolated and addicted her inanimate sources of comfort, her television and her fridge begin talking to, and threatening, her. There’s something ominous and final about the test card tone that plays before she flees her home, not unlike a heart monitor flat lining.

Drowning in the Score

The musical score of the film, in all its unsettling glory, is many viewers’ lasting impression of the film. The way in which the score overwhelms the viewer, immersing them in the world of the film; forgetting about everything outside the dark room the film is leaking out into. However, the score always manages to pull back at the right moments, letting both silence and the sound design have their space to shine.

This speaks of composer Clint Mansell’s skill and restraint in creating a score that, while at times almost overwhelming, never drowns out the film it accompanies. Instead it works well with the images it accompanies and winds its way gracefully round the wider sound design to create an immersive and powerful whole.

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