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Sound in Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark and Breaking the Waves

by | Oct 7, 2018 | Film Sound | 0 comments

Back in 1995, Lars von Trier made waves with his Dogma 95 manifesto, which he co-worte and co-signed with fellow filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg. The manifesto became notorious for its prohibition of manipulations involving technology and special effects and instead it urged for a return to traditional values. Whatever the creative goal of the filmmaker, it had to be acheved through the merits of story, theme, and actors’ performances alone.

Trier himself failed to fully adhere to the strict rules of the manifesto in the films he made after writing it, but the limitations he imposed on himself nevertheless led to the creation of wonders such as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).

With regard to sound, rule number 2 of the manifesto stipulated that “sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot)”. And that’s on top of post-production not being allowed.

My initial reaction when I first read this rule was to think that the man was out of his mind. Isn’t the ability to separate, manipulate, and recombine image and sound the heart and soul of filmmaking? I was convinced this rule would condemn his films to total sonic bleakness.

To my surprise, and as you can probably guess from the length of this post, I was very wrong. Sound does play a very active role in both Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. It’s firmly embedded in the thematic and structural framework of the narrative, and perhaps the most satisfying thing about it is that it emerges organically from within the story, something that surely came as a consequence of the manifesto’s prohibition of artificiality.

The two films belong to the ‘Golden Heart’ trilogy, which was inspired by a children’s book that Trier loved as a kid and which tells the story of a girl who gives away everything she has and ends up broke and alone in the woods.

They’re also strikingly similar in many ways.

Both are melodramas, a genre which Trier chose because it provided the perfect platform for creating the high levels of emotion he was after.

Both share the same themes of transcendence and sacrifice, or more precisely, transcendence through self-sacrifice.

Both have as protagonist a female Christ-like figure who seems childlike, weak, and helpless but deep inside is strong and committed to staying true to herself, even if it means dying. It’s ultimately through their commitment to this value that they attain transcendence.

Both share the same basic plot: a woman sacrifices her life to save the person she loves because she believes it was her fault that this person got into his predicament.

In terms of sound, both films use it similarly in some respects and differently in others. Most significantly, both use it to dramatise the thematic element of transcendence at the end. But each film uses sound in contrastingly different ways to get there. In Dancer in the Dark, sound has a rich presence and forms part of Selma’s characterisation, thus playing a key role in facilitating audience identification with her (See this post for more on identification). In Breaking the Waves, there’s only one active sonic element, which makes its presence mostly through absence and which we only hear at the end of the film. It does, though, act as none other than the central symbol that delivers the story’s thematic resolution at the end.

I’ll start with Dancer in the Dark.

Dancer in the Darkcontains probably one of the most brutally devastating and heart-shattering endings in the history of cinema. What makes it so harrowing is not just the intensity of the particular situation – and of Björk’s performance – but also how viscerally we the audience feel the pain and the agony.

From a filmmaking point of view, this ending owes its effectiveness to Trier having done an exceptionally good job of putting us in a deep state of identification with the protagonist, and of getting us inside her head and keeping us there all the way to the end. In this respect, the film is a real tour-de-force.

Three key requirements to getting identification right are, ONE, that the audience understand the protagonist’s belief structure, so that they can comprehend how he or she is being affected by the events taking place; TWO, that the audience experience the same emotional states as the protagonist and arrive at them through the same perceptual and cognitive processes; and THREE, that the audience develop a strong emotional connection with the protagonist and get to care for what happens to him or her.

In Dancer in the Dark, sound is at the helm of all three.

The film is about Selma, a single mother and an immigrant factory worker living in rural America for whom life is a struggle. She’s going blind due to a congenital condition which her son has inherited. She’s keeping her progressive blindness secret because she fears she might lose her job and would not be able to pay for an operation to save her son’s eyes. One day Bill, a local cop and her landlord, confesses to her that he’s in a dire financial situation. Selma, to make him feel less ashamed, confesses to him that she’s going blind and tells him about the money she’s saving for her son’s operation. Shortly after, Bill steals the money from her and, in a tragic unfolding of events, Selma ends up killing him and being sentenced to death by hanging. Although the opportunity arises to change the sentence, she refuses as it would mean breaking a promise she made to Bill not to tell anyone about his money situation, and, worst of all, it would jeopardise her son’s chance to have the operation as the money would have to be used to pay for a proper lawyer.

The only little joy Selma has in life is her love for musicals of the classical Hollywood era. She also has a gift for musicality, one of her most distinctive traits. Selma can hear music in the small sounds of everyday life, sounds which magically transport her into a fantasy world of song and dance.

Both her love of the musicals and her musicality serve as a powerful means of identification with Selma. She repeatedly talks about her love for the sonic world and the things she likes and dislikes about musicals in a way that pulls us into her mental model and helps us understand how she copes with the pain in her life.

In terms of getting us into Selma’s head perceptually and cognitively, Trier manipulates image and sound to take us into her inner fantasy world. First, an apparently insignificant noise slowly begins to sound differently. It gains prominence and it becomes more regular and rhythmic. Trier then shows us the source of the sound and then cuts into Selma becoming entranced by it and going into a dreamy state. The colours become brighter. The sounds finally become music, Selma starts to sing, and everyone else to dance with her.

Even when things get really ugly, Selma manages to find a way out of her pain through her gift for musicality.

But this trait does far more than help position us perceptually and cognitively inside Selma’s head. It also helps us create an emotional bond with her.

A character having admirable qualities is a sure way of creating the emotional connection between audience and character required for identification to be effective. Selma’s musicality says a lot about her. This is a woman who’s been dealt a very bad hand in life, and yet she still manages to find beauty through one of the few things she’s got left – the little sounds around her. It does make her very likeable.

The lyrics of her songs, too, give us direct access to her inner world and help us create a strong emotional bond with her. Particularly touching is this song.

Here, Selma demonstrates her truly stoic nature – her ability to turn the most painful of situations into something to embrace with joy rather than fear. The song shows us that Selma not only has accepted her blindness but almost embraces it as an opportunity to more deeply enjoy the richness of the sonic world. Sight has become redundant to her.

With this tactic, Trier is effectively preparing us for the kill. Selma’s love for the sounds of life will play a crucial role in achieving the extreme pathos at the end of the film that he’s wanting to elicit in us. After this song, it’s impossible not to deeply care for Selma and not to admire her resilience. By now, we’re deeply immersed in her inner world and understand that no matter what life throws at her, so long as there are sounds around her that she can turn into music, she’ll be fine. When Trier takes away from her even those little sounds towards the end of the film, our hearts will bleed for her because we understand the devastation she’s feeling.

As part of his strategy for strengthening our emotional connection to Selma, Trier also makes all the people in Selma’s life, including her landlord Bill, deeply care for her. If they do, so do we.

This tactic reaches its climax with Brenda, a prison guard who also develops empathy with Selma. “I know you love your son very much”, she tells Selma. “Got a boy of my own back home”.

What Trier does in actual fact is to combine the two tactics, Selma finding solace in the little sounds around her and other characters deeply caring for Selma, to create a Molotov cocktail of raw emotion at the end which he delivers through a setup/payoff structure.

Brenda wants to make Selma’s final moments as bearable as possible. In the setup scene, she finds out about Selma’s love for sounds and the soothing effect they have on her – as well as the distress their absence causes her.

The payoff comes in the scene where Selma has to march the 107 steps to the gallows but struggles to take even the first one. Brenda has devised a plan to make the walk more bearable for her. It is a most moving act of kindness and makes the injustice that Selma is suffering all the more viscerally felt and painful to watch.

There’s yet another interesting point about Selma’s characterisation through sound. Selma’s drive, apart from wanting to save her son’s sight, is a desire to be true to herself. This value is at the core of her belief structure, and she explicitly expresses it several times in the film through speech. What is most interesting is the words she chooses – “I Listen to my heart”. These words reveal her dominant sensory modality, which is so central to the film.

We first hear the sentence barely a minute into the first scene. We hear it again over two thirds into the film. And we hear it again at the end. It is in fact the very last line of spoken dialogue in the film. It can’t get more privileged than that.

As well as belief structure, perceptual and cognitive alignment, and emotional connection to get us to identify with Selma, Trier uses the musical genre to deepen our connection with her. His use of this genre serves identification in more than one way.

First, there’s the songs. Songs in musicals can serve all sorts of dramatic functions – commentary, narration, exposition, emotional climax, and so on. In Dancer in the Dark, they serve to reveal aspects of Selma’s belief structure – her hopes and fears, her joys, her pain, and so on – and to echo her psychological and emotional states.

But Trier also does something very unique and original with the genre. He uses the conventions of the musical themselves as metalanguage. In the film, Selma loves musicals. She’s taking part in an amateur staging of The Sound of Music, she regularly goes to screenings of Hollywood musicals at the local cinema, and she talks with others about what conventions of the genre she likes and she doesn’t like.

Trier then uses these conventions she talks about as stylistic elements at the end of film, making the overall effect a lot more tragic.

Earlier we heard Selma tell Brenda, “In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens”. In the previous clip, she tells Bill how much she hates the last song and how she used to cheat to avoid it. She also tells him how she hates it when “It goes really big, and the camera goes like out of the roof, and you just know it’s gonna end”.

This is how the film ends:

Something dreadful happens to Selma – She’s about to be hanged. She sings her last song. This time she can’t escape into her fantasy world. There are no beautiful sounds around her. People don’t start to dance. Colours remain unchanged. Everything is too real. It really is the last song. And the film ends with the camera going off the roof.

There’s one final detail in this ending in terms of the use of sound. Selma’s love for the sonic world has been one of her most defining features, and a great deal of our identification with her has come through her perception of sound. A distinctive feature of sound is that it’s made of mechanical waves that come into actual contact with our bodies. This has made our experience of identification with Selma all the more physical. It has helped us inhabit her being more palpably.

Trier uses this ability of sound to take one notch higher the distress we feel at witnessing Selma’s hanging by completely cutting out all the sound the moment she dies.

The effect is very unsettling. It’s as if we’ve gone to the other side with her. We’re still inhabiting her being, only it’s now a soul staring in shock at the lifeless body that has so violently been taken away from her.

We know, though, that Selma has attained her transcendence. She did the moment Kathy put her son’s glasses in her hands.

Although she doesn’t manage to finish her last song, Trier writes on the screen the last few lines she meant to sing:

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be”.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves uses sound differently, although to the same end of dramatising the theme. It consists mostly of one sonic element, bells, which make their presence through absence and which we only hear at the end.

The bells act as a symbol for the journey Bess has to take to attain transcendence and also to dramatise its completion. They acquire significance through the events that transpire in the story, so we’ll need to go through the key narrative points to understand how this happens.

Like Selma, Bess will need to sacrifice her life to attain transcendence. There’s a caveat, though. It’s not the act of sacrifice itself that will ultimately lead to transcendence, but the quality of character that empowers her to do so. This quality is the strength to live a self-determined life, or what Selma called listening to one’s heart.

Selma was already 100% there from the beginning. She didn’t need to grow. It was her friend Kathy who had to do the growing inspired by Selma. “You were right, Selma. Listen to your heart!”, she tells Selma at the end.

Bess, on the contrary, is not quite there yet. She still has to overcome some inner blocks to reach the level of self-determination needed to attain transcendence.

The obstacle standing in the way of Bess is the repressive nature of the social order within which she has been brought up – a severely authoritarian Calvinist community in a remote part of Scotland run by male elders who deny a voice to women and who have no mercy for those who sin and disobey their rules, ostracising them in life and condemning them to Hell in death.

The psychological power of the antagonising forces Bess has to overcome is embodied in her mother, who’s so fearful of standing up to the tyranny of this social order that she even participates in the ostracising of her very own daughter out of fear that she might be cast out herself.

When the film starts, Bess already has a good dose of the quality of character she needs, and she seems to be in touch with her inner purpose. In the opening scene, she wins the approval of the elders to marry an outsider, something they tend to oppose. She comes across as astute and fearless, though respectful, of the elders.

The trajectory of the film is hinted at in the sermon the priest gives at Bess’ wedding.

First, there’s mention of God as “the author of every good and perfect gift”. When the priest says this, the camera is on Jan. Later we hear Bess thank God for the gift of Jan. That what Jan is to her, a gift from God. This is one key motivator of the actions that move the narrative forward.

Second, there’s mention of Christ, which foreshadows Bess’ fate to become a Christ figure by sacrificing her life to save Jan.

Third, the priest talks about Bess often giving her time and effort to cleaning the church building, “not so as to be well-thought-of here on earth but our of your love for God in heaven”. This is the source of her strength and self-determination. If Selma listened to her heart and not to reason, Bess listens to God and not worldly authority.

Bess’ greatest talent is her belief in God and in the power of prayer to bring miracles. She believes she can win God’s favours through conversations with Him. It’s a well-founded belief, and it has much to do with what transpires in the story. After Jan leaves for the first time after their wedding, Bess begs God for him to come home early. God answers her prayer, although in a “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” manner. Jan comes back home early, paralysed from the neck down due to an accident at the rig.

This is how God puts Bess through the test she needs to go through in order to overcome her limitations and level up.

Jan regrets he can no longer make love to Bess. “I can hardly remember what it’s like to make love, and if I forget that, I die”. He then urges her to find other men to make love to and then come and tell him all about it. For Jan, this would be like being together again.

Bess gets upset and refuses. She’s struggling morally, a sign in the context of the film that she still lacks full self-determination and is living according to the moral values imposed on her by a worldly power.

Jan’s condition worsens. She fears she might be losing him and begs God not to let Jan die.

“There’s nothing I can do”. She knows there is, but she’s not ready to take that step. “Prove me that you love him and I’ll let him live”. At this point, Bess understands, and begins to accept, that this means giving in to Jan’s request to have sex with other men, so that he won’t forget what love is and die.

Bess tries with the doctor but he refuses out of respect. Then she jumps on a bus and discretely masturbates a man. Afterwards, she’s disgusted with herself and begs God for forgiveness. This is what god replies:

After God’s mention of Mary Magdalene, Bess finally understands that having sex with other men to save Jan may be reason for the elders to condemn her to Hell but it’s not a sin in the eyes of God. That’s all Bess needs to know. From this point on, she becomes more emboldened and less respectful of the tyrannical powers surrounding her:

But her efforts are not enough. The turning point for Bess comes when Dodo tells her that Jan is dying. God has also stopped responding to her, presumably because of her half-hearted attempts at saving Jan. She decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save him.

Now for the bells.

The bells, both through absence and presence, symbolise Bess’ journey towards her attainment of transcendence. It’s probably not a coincidence that “Bess” sounds a lot like “bells”.

This is how they come into the story:

Their absence symbolises the despotism of the elders of the Church.

For centuries, bells have been an intrinsic part of Christian life and identity and have been used to mark important moments in people’s lives such as birth, adolescence, marriage and death. Their sound has become almost primal and deeply implanted in the psyches of the inhabitants of such communities.

Because of the sway they hold on people, bells have often been used as a political weapon. This is precisely what the elders of Bess’ community are doing. It’s in actual fact something that Jacobin and Calvinist iconoclasts have often done in the past, to remove bells as a way of imposing their social order.

The absence of bells also acts in the film as symbol for Bess’ call to adventure, to borrow from the Hero’s Journey terminology. In this scene, we see her heed the call:

“Let’s put them back on” is a bold declaration of war on the elders and what they stand for.

For most of the film, the bells remain invisible and silent, perhaps present only in Bess’ mind.

The first time we actually hear a bell is when Bess gets on a boat to approach the ship where the men that will eventually kill her are. There’s nothing apparently significant about it on this one occasion. But when Bess gets on the boat the second time, this time knowing that she’s heading towards her death, Trier makes use of cinematic means to imbue the bell with symbolic meaning.

In the third shot, when she gets onboard, the boat bell is framed right in the middle. Then Bess starts her conversation with God. When she asks, “But you’re with me now?” (God had stopped talking to her), God replies, “Of course I’m with you, Bess. You know that”. Bess listens to this reply with her eyes closed, to feel it more deeply. Shortly after “You know that”, the bell boat rings and Bess opens her eyes. She says, “Thank you” and looks into the camera, something she often does when she gets her way with something.

At the literal level, the bell is announcing the arrival of the boat to its destination. At the symbolic level, it’s announcing Bess having won her place with God and therefore her transcendence, an announcement which she herself notes. It’s also an anticipation of the way in which transcendence will be dramatised at the end.

After this trip, Bess dies and Jan recovers miraculously thanks to her sacrifice and to Dodo’s prayer at Bess’ request.

Jan, knowing that the elders won’t give Bess a proper burial and will use the ceremony to condemn her to Hell, steals her body and gives her a proper farewell at the rig. The following day this happens:

Bess has put the bells back on. She’s attained her transcendence and she’s in Heaven next to God. And just like we retain Selma’s point of view/hearing from her place of transcendence beyond physical life in Dancer in the Dark, so do we in Breaking the Waves.

One other thing.

It may be tempting to conclude that there’s not much in the way of cinematic sound in Breaking the Waves apart from the symbolic function it plays. It’s undoubtedly a very clever deployment of this resource, but for most of the film, it offers little to do hearing-wise. However, there’s more sound to it than meets the ear.

After Bess tells Jan, “I like bells. Let’s put them back on”, she attends church, and this is what she does:

She’s imagining how bells in the tower would sound. And what do we, the audience, do? Since we’re in a position of identification with her, we image what she’s imagining, which is the sound of bells pealing away. Since the brain can’t tell real from imagined…

This is actually a trick that directors in the silent era often used to engage the sense of hearing. They’d include shots of objects that are known for the sound they make and of people doing things like cupping their ears or using body language that suggests intentional listening. It is very effective for involving the audience because it engages the brain by giving it a gap that it needs to fill.

Trier uses this technique in another scene:

Here, Jan and Bess are having a little ‘moment’ on the phone. Since they can’t be physically present with each other, they satisfy their desire to be together this way. Later on, Jan will make reference to this moment when he asks Bess to have sex with other men: “Remember when I phoned you from the rig? We made love without being together”.

The scene is constructed in a way that prompts our brain to imagine what the character on the screen is hearing – Jan’s breathing first, and then Bess’. By using this technique of imaginary listening, Trier is effectively making us participant in the couple’s erotic games. This way is probably more effective than if Trier had simply added the sound of their breathing manipulated so as to seem to be coming from a phone line. Our brain has to fill the gap. It is more engaged and it finds it more satisfying – perhaps more titillating, too.

The great thing about Breaking the Waves is that, although it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of sound, it actually makes a very creative use of it. And it clearly illustrates one very important point about film sound: it’s not all about abundance of loud and espectacular sound effects carefully crafted in post-production. It’s about using sound imaginatively and actively, as part of the narrative and of the process of narration, and of the form and the style of the film.

Finally, Breaking the Waves contains only one active sonic element, but it’s so effective because Trier has done it the right way. He’s selected this element not only because of the rich symbolic meaning it already comes with, but also because, being sonic, it has affordances that allow Trier to tell the story in ways that would not have been possible with a visual symbol.

The concept of affordance – what a medium can offer that others can’t – is essential to understanding the creative potential of the relationship between image and sound in film. It is also a very important concept in Semiotics.

I’ll be starting the exploration of film sound from the angle of Semiotics in my next post. Till then, have a nice one and hope to see you back.