Something about Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2001) reminds me of Hunger (McQueen, 2008) despite the fact that one is often held up as an example of montage and the other an example of long take. I think it’s the way in which they both seem completely subjective and absent of context; neither film delved deeply into the reasons for their characters’ actions, or the effects of these actions on others.
Every scene in Requiem for a Dream involves at least one of the four protagonists; we’re never shown anything outside of their own microcosm. This works to draw the audience into the characters’ world and, despite knowing that it’s going to end badly, we become so caught up in their hopes and dreams that we hope with them. Their violent descent into a living hell becomes even more brutal, and we feel it even more keenly, because the subjective view that the film presents is so adept at pulling us in. This strikes me the most in the scene when Sara is force fed. Objectively we know that it’s necessary. Yet the way that it’s presented, entirely subjectively and without context, is brutal and horrifying; we completely feel her confusion and terror.
This subjectivity also asks the audience to question their preconceptions and prejudices. Sara’s force feeding is intercut with images of Marion getting ready to sell herself for drugs at her dealer’s party. By cutting these two scenes together, Aronofsky seem to be ask the audience to question how responsible these two characters are for the predicaments that they find themselves in. At first glance it seems that Sara is completely a victim, of her doctors and her desperation, whereas Marion knowingly took heroin and is now willingly selling herself for more. Yet by comparing the two Aronofsky asks if Marion is just as much a victim of her circumstances as Sara, and if Sara is just as complicit in her decline as Marion.
Aronofsky adeptly uses camerawork and editing to create this subjectivity. In a lot of ways Requiem for a Dream almost feels like a videogame in the way in which it completely immerses the audience into the film, especially in the scenes when the chest mounted snorri-cam is attached to the actors enabling us to follow their path exclusively as the world revolves around them.
The use of split screen is also a powerful tool in conveying the immediacy of the characters’ emotions and focus by showing their point of view as they’re looking, instead of waiting for next the shot to show us what they see. The audience looks as the character looks and sees as the character sees.
Just as the long takes in Hunger stood out all the more amongst the montage of the violence, so the stripped back, more conventional shot reverse shot of the scenes between Harry and Marion on the pier and Harry and Sara (when he begs her to stop taking the pills) stand out. These scenes reflect an almost ‘normal’ existence in which the characters act as we’d expect a young couple or a son who cares about his mother might. The normality of their aesthetic reflects their content.
A final aspect of Requiem for a Dream which Aronofsky uses to add another layer of meaning to his film is the concept of sound montage. He uses sound effects to link specific visuals with a unique sound effect (a sound other than the ‘real’ sound of the image that we’re seeing). This creates a kind of audio-visual Kuleshov effect, the juxtaposition of the visual and aural elements plays with the relationship between the signifier and the signified and creates new meaning through their synthesis.
Aronofsky, D., (2001), Requiem for a Dream, Artisan Entertainment
McQueen, S., (2008), Hunger, Film4