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Offscreen sound in I Love You, Phillip Morris’ dance scene: How deep is your love?

We all know how essential offscreen sound is to the creation of a story world that feels real and alive, how it adds three-dimensionality and  contributes to creating the right atmosphere. Offscreen sound can also serve a more specific dramatic purpose. Usually, this can be anything from attracting attention to people and events offscreen to triggering responses in the characters onscreen.

These are common practices, but offscreen sound can do so much more. The juxtaposition of image and sound can be exploited to create  complex layers of meaning and do so in ways that capture the attention and imagination of the audience.

There’s a scene in I Love You, Phillip Morris that does that. A massive brawl is heard offscreen half way through the scene that does a number of things simultaneously at the level of plot, character, and genre.

The film is a dark comedy telling the real life story of Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), who after nearly dying in an accident decides to leave behind the lie that his life has been and do things his own way, and this involves unleashing the gay man in him. All goes well but he soon discovers that ‘being gay is really expensive’, so he becomes a con man to keep up with the life of excess he’s created for himself. The law catches up with him eventually and he ends up in jail, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), the true love of his life. Steven finds a way to get the two to become cell mates and this is what happens one night:



One very common use of offscreen sound that I mentioned earlier is to bring out a response in the characters onscreen. Technically, that’s what this brawl should do. It should prompt the two lovers to just get back to their beds and pretend that they’re asleep, but they don’t. They just carry on dancing. It is that lack of response precisely what delivers the dramatic value of this scene. It tells us a lot about their state of mind.

Offscreen sound takes us into the psychological space of the two characters, instead of merely suggesting the space beyond the frame. It gives us a sense of how into each other they are, how deeply in love they’re falling, and how blissfully oblivious to the outside world they are at that moment. It gives us a reference point against which to measure the depth of their emotions – much like when you drop a stone into a well to gauge its depth or when you place a ruler next to an object you’re about to photograph to give the viewer a sense of scale. That’s what the offscreen sound of the brawl does here.

It was a great choice that directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra made – to let the camera stay with the characters all the way through the dance rather than intercutting between the brawl and the dance, which would have diminished the effect.

In terms of narrative function, it is important for us to get this sense of the depth of their feelings, because it will help us understand later on Steven’s motivation and drive to take his con artistry to incredible heights just so that he can be with Phillip.

The way this scene has been constructed audiovisually also contributes to characterising Steven as a daredevil, and how spellbound Phillip, an otherwise apprehensive person, is by him.

And finally, as a bonus, it adds comedic value.

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