Sequence analysis; Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”

Next essay is part of my academic portfolio of Uantwerpen.

In this short essay, I will try to provide a technical analysis of an interesting sequence in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. (1987). Firstly, I will give a short synopsis of this drama in order to contextualize any specific themes and ideologies, which could refer to specific techniques used for the mise en scène. After this I will analyse the chosen sequence in terms of camera techniques, sounds, light effects and so on. Therefore, I chose a sequence, which contains plenty of specific cinematic techniques.


The movie is set at Coney Island and is divided into 3 parts by subheadings; Summer, Fall and Winter, and tells the story of 4 characters (Harry Goldfarb and his mother Sara, Harry’s Girlfriend Marion Silver and his friend Tyron C. Love) and their relation to drugs. These subheadings symbolise the temporal progress as well as the downward spiral these 4 main characters land in.

Sara, a lonely widow, gets invited to participate in a television program and therefore starts to diet obsessively. She takes weight-loss amphetamine pills and sedatives. Her son Harry , and his friend Marion and Tyron are addicted to heroin and enter the illegal drug trade. The business flourishes and Harry invests the money in a small shop for his girlfriend Marion, who wants to become a successful designer. Summer seems to be positive for all 4 of them, all convinced to realise their dreams. In Fall Sara begins to suffer from amphetamine psychosis, and Harry, Tyrone and Marion get involved into drug-related violence. They’re no longer able to make profit out of their trade and get lost in a state of deprivation. Marion even prostitutes herself to gain some money, which additionally problematises her relationship with Harry. In Winter, where the movie reaches its dramatic climax, Sara gets committed to a psychiatric hospital, Harry’s arm gets infected by an unsanitary injection. Tyrone takes him to a hospital, after which both of them get arrested and imprisoned. Harry suffers from severe, consequently he has to get his arm amputated. In the meantime, his girlfriend Marion receives drugs in exchange for sex.

To conclude, the movie shows how the life of 4 people gets affected by drug abuse and how this leads them each individually into misery and deprivation.

Scene analysis

In order to understand next scene analysis, and to relate it to the story content, I should first shortly sum up some specific editing techniques Aronofsky uses throughout the entire movie in order to rise the dramatic effect. So for example the dream sequences, which are frequently added in the scenes. They illustrate the character’s utopian hope for a happy ending and in this way Aronofsky intercuts reality with a character’s subjective desires and fantasies. Typical for Aronofsky’s style of cinema is the overload of shots (see also the analysed fragment), which is also referred to as hip hop montage[1] or fast cutting. The average movie has around 650 cuts, Requiem for a Dream on the other hand has more than 2,000. Aronofsky uses a lot of split-screens[2] and tight close-ups. Another prominent stylistic device is time-lapse photography. As the movie progresses, the average scene length shortens until the climax, where all seems to come to its tragic end. Abovementioned techniques are all specific camera techniques. Moving on to the music of the movie, the theme song of Requiem for a Dream called Lux Aeterna not only functions as a extradiegetic element with the opening or closing credits, but is repeated throughout the entire movies. This theme is composed by Clint Marshall and performed by the Kronos Quartet and, in my opinion, enhances the dramatic effect the movie has on its audience.

The sequence of shots I analysed takes only 33 seconds of the entire movie, but conveys the spectator with plenty of information in such a short time, because of the used editing techniques. In this paragraph I would like to focus on the 4 components of the mise en scène as referred to in Pramaggiore and Wallis[1]; namely setting, lighting, composition and the human figure, and on all the specific filmic elements related to these 4. The screen shots in the attachment give a selection of the analysed sequence.

Firstly, I would like to point at the setting, which are real settings, namely the houses where the characters Marion and Sara live. Marion is in the bathroom and watches her own image in the mirror. Because of the use of specific camera angles, namely an over-the-shoulder-shot on eye-level, Aronofsky creates the effect as if the viewer is watching her through her point of view (although we in fact see her twice: Sara in real person and her reflection in the mirror). Consequently, Aronofsky pulls the viewer in and one can feel as if he experience the effect of the drugs along with her. Sara on the other hand sits in her sofa in the living room, adjacent to the kitchen. She watches the show on television, she is about to participate in. The host tries to convince his audience of eating more healthy by cutting on eating red meat. Sara, who is on a diet herself, is starving at that moment. The split screen shows Sara on eye-level and her refrigerator, which appears as an embodiment of her failure to lose weight. By analysing the setting of the sequence and its related camera techniques, I already covered the second important component of the mise en scène, namely the human figure, and more specifically the figure placement. Their proximity to the camera reinforces the attachment of the spectator to the characters.

Now let me turn to composition. Although the movie depicts the destruction of the main characters’ life, the chosen sequence shows balanced images, which are in almost perfect symmetry. In the analysed sequence only one diagonal line can be found, and that’s the one of the dollar bill used to sniff the heroin. The framing though, is rather tight (in Sara’s case even a frame within a frame) , which can still point at the characters’ isolated situation. The shot of the eye points at the moment Marion injects herself with heroin and the physical effects following afterwards. In the same sequence (but not in the screen shots) there are also close-ups shown of blood cells running faster and faster through her veins. These shots are frequently repeated and form some sort of motive throughout the movie. In the same way, the movie shots of the heroin or the dollar bill signify the symbolic importance of these props for the narrative progress of the movie. Their dominant role is made visible by the use of close-ups.

Finally, I will end this essay by focussing on the use of lighting and colour in Requiem for a Dream. The movie in its whole is dominated by grey tones (in the beginning of the movie there’s also place for some more bright hues of orange and red) and artificial (or even industrial) lighting , which creates a rather pessimistic mood, which mirrors its theme. In the analysed sequence the lighting is mostly frontally positioned or from the side, creating shadows.

To conclude this sequence analysis, I would like to point at the fact that the used editing techniques such as the tight framing, lighting, and extensive use of close-ups, all refer to the theme of the movie and the constricted lives of the main characters.

[1] Pramaggiore, M. T. and Wallis, T. 2006. Chapter 4: Mise en Scène. In: Film : A Critical Introduction. North Carolina : Pearson, 58-97

2 Replies to “Sequence analysis; Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream””

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