The emotive potential that lies within music is a bottom-less well from which composers and filmmakers draw upon. When utilized properly, sound has the capability to support and develop a character in unique and powerful ways. By subtly guiding emotions and subconsciously connecting with viewers through the airwaves, a symbiotic relationship becomes forged that strengthens both entities in tandem. And while there are many examples of filmmakers and composers getting this formula right, there are few that work quite like Giona Ostinelli’s score in Darling. As it is The Sound of Screams Month here at Nightmare on Film Street, the timing couldn’t be better to explore this potent relationship and the terrifying way it develops the film’s titular character, Darling.
Directed by Mickey Keating, Darling exhibits a stunningly effective use of music and sound as an extension of character. With a sparse amount of dialogue, limited locations and a very small cast, Ostinelli’s score becomes a way to track the film’s internal emotional temperature and the titular character Darling‘s place within it. Expertly played by Lauren Ashley Carter (Jug Face, Imitation Girl), Darling‘s story is a puzzle that unfolds in deliberate, measured ways. Emphasized and supported by Mac Fisken’s focused and stylish cinematography and the film’s overall black and white color palette, there’s a classic and timeless nature to Darling‘s world. Stripped down to its most essential, Keating calls on the senses to reinforce Darling‘s story in a primal, no holds barred way.
Introduced with sweeping, wide shots of New York City there is an early and unsettling atmosphere to Darling‘s world that gets set through sound. Void of any and all diegetic noise, New York becomes a cold, otherworldly presence, deprived of its iconic personality. Using a rare instrument called an ondes martenot, Ostinelli creates a natural sense of unease. Further distorted and transformed through digital means, the sound is extremely uncommon and unfamiliar. This disconnection and inability to be easily pinpointed subconsciously sets the stage for Darling before we’ve even been properly introduced. Reoccurring and reappearing throughout the film whenever the cityscape shots return, New York becomes a character itself, embodying Darling‘s bleak and despondent view of the world.
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“Darling exhibits a stunningly effective use of music and sound as an extension of character.”
We officially meet Darling for the first time as she is beginning her new job as a live in caretaker for an iconic New York home. Timid, respectful and classically styled, she listens politely as Madame (Sean Young) reveals the home’s haunted history and dark past. As she tours the house alone for the first time a beautifully mysterious piano melody plays over subtler, creepier sounds. With the outside world remaining largely silent, Darling begins to settle in to her new surroundings. Noticeably fading into the background, all remnants of a traditional melody become replaced by sparse piano notes and swells of various sounds. While further exploring the home’s impressive floorplan, things begin to shift as Darling discovers a lone locked door at the end of a hall. Jarring glimpses and out of context images begin to flash through Darling‘s mind (and our eyes) accompanied by screeching, atonal noises. Not all is as it seems within the house and within our Darling.
After a chance encounter with a strange man on the street, Darling becomes visibly shaken and extremely upset. For the first real time in the film, Darling‘s internal emotional state becomes unquestionably conveyed and supported through the music. Stunned and unable to speak, minimal music accompanies the moment as Darling takes a moment to compose herself. Once she does, layers of sounds, rhythms and simple repeating melodic lines build as Darling follows The Man (Brian Morvant) and watches him enter a nearby building. Now externally focused and calm, the score allows us to enter Darling‘s headspace. Although murky and never fully defined, the building swirl of sounds make it clear that this man means and represents something to Darling. Something sinister and foreboding indeed.
Acting as the true inciting incident, the score becomes to take on a more prominent and integral role with Darling‘s character following this run in on the street. Her senses heightened and emotions fully triggered, an undercurrent of sonic reverberations and melodic interjections become punctuated by sharp, stabs of unnerving sound design. Coupled with visual shock cuts, it becomes easily deduced that Darling is struggling to cope with something much more personal than a simple haunted house. Working closely with the film’s visuals, Ostinelli’s score works in unified fashion to mirror the cruel and unpredictable way that trauma can sneak up and materialize without warning. Needing no logical frame of context or reasoning, in this particular way, Darling’s trauma is portrayed to viscerally honest effect.
Although visibly composed and perfectly outfitted while venturing out the next night, the score takes on an aura of nervous energy as we watch Darling follow the same man to a nearby bar. As soon as he enters her realm of vision, an anxiety inducing amount of percussive hits and atonal modulations let us feel the effect of his presence upon Darling. Even as she sits with him, awkwardly and minimally engaging in conversation, echoing percussion beats sound every time she registers his face. As the night continues back at the house for Darling and The Man, things begin to take a dark and bloody turn. In a rare exposition moment, Darling officially reveals information regarding the incident of trauma within her past. A violent and cathartic emotional release, the moment is partnered with nothing but the simple sound of static from the record player. This deliberate choice in sound design gives not only weight to what Darling has just done, but to her pain and trauma as well.
“[…] Darling becomes a fascinating on-screen portrayal of not only what trauma induced madness looks like, but sounds like as well.”
Once past the point of no return, Darling‘s world continues to unravel. As the lines begin to blur between identities, awareness and what is real and imagined, Ostinelli’s score muddies the waters further as to what is motivating and fueling Darling‘s actions. A near constant presence playing through her head, this internal noise drowns out any attempt from the outside world to break in. Once again utilizing a rare and uncommon instrument, Ostinelli increases the sonic presence of the waterphone. An interesting instrument with extreme versatility, Ostinelli manipulates, alters and pushes at the bounds of the instrument’s capabilities to create a haunting and terrifying sound for Darling‘s rapidly accelerating internal spiral. While there are many unspoken and unresolved issues regarding Darling‘s culpability of what she has done, the film’s sonic foundation leaves no mystery to Darling‘s internal cognizance.
Terrifyingly trapped within her own mind, possibly influenced by the house’s rumored dark nature, Darling becomes a fascinating on-screen portrayal of not only what trauma induced madness looks like, but sounds like as well. Embracing and embodying the idea that less is more, Keating, Carter and Ostinelli work together to make Darling a character that evolves in her own unique way. Although reverently and openly paying tribute to classic films like Repulsion, Eraserhead and Ms. 45, Darling retains its own singular identity. Only lightly relying on direct exposition, the majority of Darling‘s character journey is revealed through Carter’s expertly controlled performance, stylistic visual choices and Ostinelli’s horrifyingly intuitive score. By allowing its viewers to engage and connect with Darling in such a personal, subjective and intimate way, Darling becomes a sonic and visual force to be reckoned with that inevitably lingers long after the credits have rolled.
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