Film Sound Analysis – How the off-screen sounds of the “last meal” scene of Von Trier’s “DANCER IN THE DARK” convey the psychophysical state of the protagonist


The film “Dancer in the dark”, directed and written by Lars Von Trier with the Sound Design
by Per Streit (Dancer In the Dark Imdb) is certainly an interesting film to analyse from a sound-design perspective. The protagonist is blind and, therefore, modifies what can be considered significantly diegetic. In fact, what we see is not important to understand what the character feels (Grimley 2005). Accordingly, in the chosen scene one can easily notice the abundance of off-screen sounds, as there is no actual difference for the protagonist. (from 1:57:22 to 2:02:38). The choice of this time choice is to show the difference between the scene itself, a bit of the previous scene and of the following scene.

See the scene Movie

To better analyse this “acousmatic” condition I thought it would be necessary to put myself in a similar state. Hence, after viewing the scene for the first time, I listened only to the soundtrack without watching the images. Consequently, I notated in the software Acousmographe all the sounds, underlining what I thought were the most significant sonic aspects. Consequently, I could not refer to the image relation, but most of all I was not too influenced by it. Of all the possible audio parameters one could choose from, I focused on: the descriptive sound qualities of the background (buzzes, hisses, reverberation, changes of POA etc.); the different use of the characters’ voices (speech, cry, gasps, songs, phone mediation); the types of sound gestures of foreground sounds (rattle, hit, thud etc.) rather than the supposed sound source. However, afterwards, I watched the scene, again, in a conventional way to understand the role of the image consequent to this acousmatic interpretation. Thus, I chose to notate in a similar way a few aspects of the image, hoping to find significant patterns in the audio-image relations: the sound visibility (on-screen or off-screen); the concordance between video and audio-background cuts (in counterpoint or synchronous); the state of the protagonist’s eyes (closed, covered, open, half-open), because of the symbolical meaning eyes have for a blind person (Chion 2009). This way I designed a listening score of the scene.

See the Acousmographic analysis

The final aim of the analysis, however, is to take advantage of what Von Trier tells us about
his aesthetic (Stevenson 2009) (G. Smith 2000). Therefore, the analysis should verify the
aesthetic coherence between his theoretical principles and his filmmaking practice.


Lars Von Trier is an awarded director and writer of contemporary Danish and European cinema ( 2012). The film DITD is the last of what he defines his“Golden Heart Trilogy”, which are films that are all characterized by a plot in which very peculiar female protagonists show their humanity and devotion to their beloved in difficult social, physical and psychological situations. Even if these stories have very unhappy conclusions, he states that there is always an optimistic view behind it all ( Smith 2000). These three films have been made after he participated to the writing of an aesthetic manifesto. This Dogme95 states how the filmmakers, who follow it, should conduct
filmmaking. Even if this film does not follow these rules, Von Trier admits that he still has a
similar attitude in film direction, but in a less orthodox way (Smith 2000). The film-making aspects of this film, which Von Trier himself declares, and which I think can be useful for our analysis are the jumpy discontinuous cutting both audio and video to show explicitly that the film making practice is manipulative (Smith et Henderson 2008). This way he would be going against the classical Hollywood and modern American aesthetics (Doane 1985) (Ganti 2012). Even more, he says he uses audio-video editing to give an idea of speed-changing time. Furthermore, he thinks that it is important not to control too much of the performance to keep some of the honesty of acting improvisation (Smith 2000).


Von Trier confirms that this film is characterized by a contrast between the musical scenes, in which we see what Selma, the protagonist, is imagining, and the documentary-like realistic scenes. Aesthetically, there is a contrast between the use of the fixed cameras in the musical scenes against the moving cameras in the non-musical scenes. They are extensions of Selma’s psychological state. In addition, the post-processed realistic images are unlike the coloured musical scenes (Stevenson 2009). Even more, the mono, lo-fi audio recordings are noticeably distinct from the highly processed surround musical songs (Kerins 2010). Of all the scenes before the chosen one, I think there is one with an important dialogue scene, which can help to understand the scene I am analysing. In fact, just a few scenes before Selma describes how she feels alienated due to the lack of liveliness in the prison cells soundscapes. Hence, she has no rhythmical sounds to help her daydream. Thereby, apparently irrelevant sounds and the need to flee from reality might be fundamental for the understanding of the analysed scene.


To give an understanding of the structure of the design, I will make a detailed description
of the various layers, using the information obtained from the acousmo-graphical analysis.
There are five major layers:


Introduction with Monophonic light background, which bursts into a reverberant room space.
Prison Walk Room with many reflecting surfaces. It moves around similar rooms, each with its hums, hisses and reverberation. Then Buzzes or static hums. After, Distant Step Sequence Unusual changes in reverberation. PsOA change also. Occasionally, there are hisses or hums.
Reverb Turns into Music Background and slowly turns in a more abstract space, conveyed by the use of meta-diegetic (Milicevic 2012) orchestral music and by the use of very few, but manipulated sounds in surround, rather than monophonic mix. Overall, we can notice that the background changes drastically, due to audio-video cuts. In addition, there is a variable use of both natural and artificial reverberation, according to the part of the scene.


Introduction with  Mediated communication in which Geoff manages to confess his love for Selma, who consequently cries. First Conversation Indications given by Brenda and a few breath sounds by Selma. “Your Meal Jezcova”. No vocal sounds. Then, we hear the prison officers tell her about her last meal. Selma does not reply. Second Step Sequence Breathing gets heavier, heavier with gasps, and then crying. The vocal level becomes predominant after the other prison officer says, “it’s time”. Consequently, the breathing sounds become more frequent. “You can do it Selma” Selma’s dialogue with Brenda, who encourages her. Reverb To Music Brenda counting and then singing the number of the steps they make together.
Overall, we can notice two aspects. In most sequences, the speech is acted in a “cold”
manor, but at the beginning and at the end it is performed with warmth and anxiety, due,
also, to what is being said. Moreover, there is an evident alternation of on-screen and offscreen
vocal sounds and with a sort of slow-reactive off-sync.


The most common concrete sound is the step, but it is never heard the same, as it changes according to the room in which the characters are walking (rigid, soft, reverberant, squeaky etc.). In addition, both the rhythmical and distance aspects of the steps are very variable. There is definitely a predominance of off-screen concrete sounds5 (46 on-screen 229 offscreen6). It is difficult to say if there are recurring patterns in the sound organization. However, there is definitely an important repetition of the “many steps, metal rattles with door thuds” sequence first at 1:20-2:00 and then at 2.46-3:25.
The other interesting aspect is that in most moments it seems that there is no pause between sounds, as if the designer wanted to continuously give you something to refer to. The only long pauses are when there are the buzzes in the background.


There is certainly something behind the use of her eyes, because Selma, being blind, should not need to open them at all. However, Von Trier tells us that the performance was slightly based on improvisation (Smith G. 2000). Therefore, probably, the different showing was not done in a literal way. Nonetheless, the sound design might have related to what the chosen performance ended up to be. It is interesting to notice tat she opens her eyes very quickly after she closed them at 2:00.

0:00 – 1:30 Closed or covered
1:30 – 2:00 Open
2:00 – 2:02 Closing
2:02 – 3:40 Open (rest of the face is covered)
3:40 – 4:05 Partly closed or covered by hair
4:05 – 4:55 Closed (because she is crying)
4:55 to end Wide open


TIME (position in the scene) SHOT DURATION AVERAGE (seconds)
0:00 – 1:20      10
1:20 – 1:40       5
1:40 – 3:35      10
3:35 – 4:25       5
4:25 – 4:40       2
4:40 – 4:53      13
4:53 – 5:01       2
5:01 – to end    4

As we see from the table, between 4:25 and 4:40 and then between 4:53 and 5:01 there is a fast pace. This is accentuated by the cuts, which are very drastic and easily coincide with the change of the sonic background rather than with foreground sounds. In addition, the cuts often show the same character, but change the angle shot and distance. This makes the cuts
perceived as harsh (Ganti 2012).


The graphical score would seem to show a very dense design, which, actually, is not that confusing, because the overall volumes are very low and are carefully layered in terms of spatial depth perception. The overall feeling is more that of a counterpoint (Chion 2009), because many audio-audio and audio-visual associations interact in many ways. In fact, this scene involves the audience with many modes of listening at the same time (Tuuri K. et al 2007).
The blindness forces a reduced and causal mode. Speech induces semantic listening.
Abrupt cuts and unexpected sounds cause reflexive listening.
The repetition of the door slamming stimulates connotative-associative listening. In fact, when we hear the sequence of thuds and steps for the second time we understand that it this means that the prison officers are coming back for her. This is the reason why she starts sobbing before they actually enter the room.
The focus on the background buzzes and the change from monophonic to surround compels empathetic listening.
Also, the designer doesn’t oblige so many modes simultaneously, but rather pushes only a few at a time. For example, there is nearly no speech up to the end of the scene and there are no concrete foreground sounds during the buzzes. This has the consequence of creating a good balance between a rational and conscious understanding of the scene and a more irrational and unconscious reception.


All these strategies are probably used to suggest a very intimate and close relation between the protagonist and the audience. The use of audio-visual elements concentrates on physical and psychological proximity to convey the protagonist’s psychophysical condition. In fact, her blindness is fundamental to understand how the whole scene should be perceived, as it obliges the audience to “use their ears” (Thom 1999) (Grimley 2005). For example, the viewer can easily understand the sequence of concrete sounds steps and door thuds when we hear it for the second time. We understand that Selma knows that they are coming back for her. This makes us understand the anxiety she expresses with all the gasps and heavy breathing she does. This works because the use of the voice without words can easily express psychological states of film characters (Sonnenschein 2001). However, also from these sequences, the empathy in this scene is not conveyed simply, by using the POA and POV of the protagonist, but by varying them and giving them their own “life”. Chion notices that in the cinema of the 1990s there was a tendency to use camera movement and POA as if there was an external character always watching the scene The camera movements and virtual microphone angles are, in fact, independent to the protagonist’s movements, but are always somewhat close to her. This life-giving to an external observer puts the viewer in the condition to explore the protagonist rather then creating a complete empathy with her (Chion 2009).


However, the peculiarity of the protagonist stresses on sounds which might seem narratively less important. In fact, the background buzzes are emotionally more important.
Therefore I think it is important to observe the backgound sounds. Throughout the scene there is a persistent tape-noise-like background (Grimley 2005). This is probably used to create a fundamental noise and, so, to show the contrast with the “pure silence” of the final scene of the film. In fact, when she is executed in the final scene, we hear the reverb of her falling down and then only “digital silence”, which sonically conveys the idea of “death” to the viewer (Chion 2009).


Another design technique, used to convey her psychological state with similar finalities, is
the time pace of the scene. This is conveyed both by the speeding up and by the slowing down of the audio-visual cuts, but also by the rhythmical disposition of sounds. The most important “phrasing” element is the step, heard throughout the scene and shown only as the scene is finishing. The steps, and most of all the first of the “107 steps” are what really help the understanding of the passing of time. In fact, time is metronomic-ally described by the life span of each step sound and the pauses between them. This is confirmed by the fact that Selma uses these sounds to help her daydreaming and, so, to forget about her sorrows and her destiny. This is the reason why, when she is left by herself in the last-meal cell, we hear only synthetic buzzes. The absence of rhythm in buzzes makes it impossible for her to daydream, as she said in a“previous scene”. In addition, the absence of rhythm takes away all cues to how much time is passing (Shatkin 2012). In fact, it seems that not much time goes by between the various moments, in which she interacts with the prison officers.
However, the phrasing is also conveyed by the emphasis of vocal sounds, both in rhythm and performance, and by the use of very variable reverberation, which gives an unusual spatial perception and, consequently, a psychological message through each sound (Gilbert 2011). This technicality, accentuated also by the final use of surround, is used, because Selma has to do only 107 steps, before she reaches her execution cell. Hence, the unrealistic nature of the steps stresses her impending death and her attempt to escape reality.
This resembles in many ways the “music of destiny” technique, typically used to anticipate a death scene (Chion 2009). This becomes more obvious when the counting actually becomes the reason why she starts imagining a musical number. She has finally found a rhythmical sound to make her mentally escape. Even if this sound stands for her death, her optimistic attitude towards life makes her give an ideal meaning to them, as Von Trier mentions (Stevenson 2008).


The acousmo-graphic analysis methodology was very useful to understand the audio-visual organization of the scene. Thus, it helped to understand the signifying role the sound first, then the image and their interaction have for the narrative. In fact, as forecasted, it was easier to recognize audio-visual patterns on music-like scores, because it obliges critical listening (Tuuri K. Et al 2007), which helps to notice details that might be perceived only unconsciously.
The observations highlight that the use of off-screen sounds together with other audio-visual strategies is fundamental for the aesthetic and metaphorical value of this scene. In detail, the stress on background sounds, the audio-visual phrasing and the contrast between POA and POV should effectively force the viewer to relate to the protagonist’s psychophysical condition, as Von Trier intended.
The analysis could point out even more, by looking more deeply behind the use of the eyes and of the unusual use of audio-visual syncing. However, this analysis technique did not unearth any significant patterns.


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