This article contains spoilers.
Considering the large amount of time and effort that goes into creating and putting together the soundtrack to a film, one of the most interesting creative choices for filmmakers (often outside of the mainstream) is to use a piece of music continuously throughout rather than use different music for different scenes and segments. This choice often highlights a desire for the music to have allegorical effects in contrast to the film’s visuals and narrative instead of the more usual techniques such as Wagnerian leitmotif or emotional guidance.
It is also interesting to note that the films about to be discussed are all relatively recent, made very earnestly in the digital age. Whereas Carol Flinn’s argument that romantic infused classical scores where a tool for harkening back to an older, purer age through the misty eyes of nostalgia (see Strains of Utopia), the idea now can be seen to have evolved, bringing in a natural clash between the organic sounds of a classical score and the obviously digital, but still beautiful, images. Our first example is interesting in this area for a number of reasons. This clash is extremely obvious from the film’s opening segment but even more so due its choice of music rather than choice of compositional style.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) is a stunning but ironic film considering the director’s own, self imposed restrictions through his Dogme 95 manifesto. Considering his earlier work such as The Idiots (1998) or Breaking The Waves (1996), it would have been impossible to imagine the filmmaker producing a film like Melancholia in his early days. Yet the score for Melancholia is equally as bizarre and interesting as his romanticising of the end of the world.
It again presents the viewer with a clash; the film title suggesting tragedy and melancholy but the music suggesting romanticism and beauty. The one piece of music used throughout the film is the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. This piece swells in for the film’s opening prelude itself and re-emerges later throughout the film, reminding the viewer of the impending destruction of everyone and everything on screen. But why has von Trier opted for such a contrasting piece of music? The use of it directly contradicts von Trier’s own second law of the Dogme 95 movement and, though he is a filmmaker of contradictions and controversy, it seems that he has grown out of his self-imposed limitations.
The power of Wagner’s music is one of the driving forces in the film though its narrative contexts are interesting. Tristan and Isolde may be a story of tragic endings but it is tragic in a romantic sense. Melancholia is a story of the ultimate tragedy and yet the romanticism around it mirrors the ambivalence of Kirsten Dunst’s character who seems happy in finding the silver lining of the world’s destruction. Wagner’s music, though only present for certain segments of the film, heightens this romantic vision of the apocalypse and solidifies the film’s leanings with the views of Justine.
The prelude does have some very cinematic qualities but its most striking use is in the film’s opening; a section that von Trier himself calls a prelude of the events at the end of the film. When asked whether Melancholia could be construed as a typical disaster film, he cited this opening segment as the closest he got to them. It does seem like a highly polished, romantic vision of the unfolding chaos that drive Justine and Claire (Charlotte Gainsboug) through the various stages of despair but whereas a conventional disaster film would have used its romantic score to bring out the more heroic elements that often present themselves within the genre, the use of Wagner hints at something far more pessimistic; finding pleasure and cathartic relief in the ultimate destruction of everything.
Imagining the film with other non-diegetic music seems impossible. The long series of silences that hint back at succumbing to the second law of Dogme 95 would simply not be effective if some form of blasé background filler was also present. Instead the music and silence work because they bookend each other, allowing for the systematic nature of the story to build while also retaining the pathos born of knowing the final fate of the characters.
Rhythmically, the same sort of repetitive musical use can be found in the films of Béla Tarr, most recently in his 2011 film, The Turin Horse. In some ways the film resembles von Trier’s at least in terms of mood. The life of a man and his daughter are gradually falling apart through the repetitive struggle of their daily rituals which revolve around surviving and a horse they use for work.
There are however a number of differences in the music to the use of Wagner’s prelude. Though rhythmically, Mihály Víg’s score enters and leaves at various point in the same way that von Trier uses Wagner, the music is far from romantic. It is a sparse, desolate score to match that of the visual landscapes and unlike Wagner which reminded the viewer of a cathartic, romantic end, this basks in trapping the viewer and characters in what seems to be an eternal limbo.
Flinn’s idea of attaining to utopia is ignored; Tarr and Víg are creating a world as inhospitable as possible for their characters and the last thing the score needed to be was romantically classical. But what exactly is this music? It broaches some atonality in its constant rhythmic melodies hinting at a more modernist approach to the music though ironically the film is set far closer to the time of Wagner than Melancholia so it is subtly anachronistic.
Like Melancholia, The Turin Horse is split into segments. As each day passes with excruciating banality, the music reminds the viewer that there is no escape for these people. Whereas Justine and Claire had the freedom of death, Tarr’s world even seems too hopeless for that. The passing of time should signify some change but Tarr’s characters are locked in by their situation, their increasingly disenchanted horse and by the music which builds up arpeggios like bars in a cell door.
A pattern is emerging in these two films. By using one piece of music repetitively, the filmmakers are creating a number of clashes that they use and project upon their audiences. The fact that it creates so many contrasts clearly shows that it is not a normal method of scoring films but perhaps the fact that both of these films are also at the high end of art-house cinema explains this desire to experiment, romanticise the end and lock its viewers in an uncomfortable box.