Social Anthropology is the study of human society and cultures and part of it focuses on why people do what they do and the relationship between values and behaviour. It comes as no surprise then that Darren Aronofsky studied for a degree in Social Anthropology. It is clear from Aronofsky’s past that in his films he is always searching for answers to the big questions. In this sense he is an auteur, maybe not in the classic sense that his films are about him personally but all of them are about his search for understanding as to why people defy logic (Requiem For A Dream) and his fascination with individuals pushing themselves to extremes (Black Swan). Aside from The Wrestler which is probably his most accessible film, the rest of them are psychologically terrifying. All of his films provoke intellectual debate and occasionally can feel slightly elitist. What’s fascinating about Aronofsky is it feels as if he makes the films for himself first and he isn’t worried whether or not you like them. Obsession, addiction and logic are themes that are present in all of his films. He has enduring & successful partnerships with Jennifer Connelly and most prominently with Clint Mansell who has composed the film score for every one of his films.
Maths genius Maximillian Cohen (Sean Cullette) sees patterns everywhere. He declares at the beginning of the film “mathematics is the language of nature”. He sees numbers everywhere and every day. He’s also built a super computer and is being guided by the mysterious Pi for answers to the questions of life. People have become aware of his genius and he is being hunted by a shadowy organisation as well as a Wall Street group, both want his knowledge.
This was Aronofsky’s debut feature that he both wrote and directed. It won him the best director prize at Sundance and put him on the map. The score was provided by Clint Mansell and it is perfectly matched; it is the score and the fact that the entire film is shot in black and white that provides credibility to the subject matter and adds to the horror of watching someone’s obsession lead them to madness. The frenetic pace of the maths genius is matched by Aronofsky’s frenetic camera work.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Aronofsky directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Hubert Selby Jr. based on Hubert’s book of the same name. It follows four individuals all wishing and hoping for a better life than the one they currently have. Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) who is addicted to a game show that she watches on television. The same television she has to buy back every week from the pawn merchant because her junkie son Harry (Jared Leto) regularly pawns it. Harry and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) both dream of getting out of the city. Harry’s girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is the most tragic out of the four; she comes from a decent family and would appear to have it all but is desperately unhappy.
Once seen, this film is never forgotten. It is brandished into your mind. However, this film as with all of Aronofsky’s work is not about drug taking. It is about the various individuals searching for happiness and their struggles with addiction. The lasting impression is that happiness has to come from within; masking the pain can never be the answer. Some of the reasons offered for the drug taking is the pursuit of happiness, to make others happy and lastly because you are addicted to that high. The scenes of Harry injecting into a clearly infected arm are heartbreaking and also serve as a metaphor for the wasted lives of Harry and Tyrone – diseased and dying. The film pulsates and provides the audience with a rush of cold blood to the head and tingles in the spine. Is there is a more visceral portrayal of the nightmarish effects of drugs? It is powerful and depressing.
The Fountain (2006)
Hugh Jackman takes on the task of playing three characters in three different times: Tomas (a conquistador), Tommy and Tom. Rachel Weisz as Isobel is his eternal love. In the past, Tomas is on the hunt for sap from the tree of life said to be guarded by the Mayans to take back to his Queen Isobel. In the present, he is a doctor trying to find a cure for his dying wife, Izzy and in the future he is trying to find a way to be reunited with his eternal love.
The Fountain is a complete departure for Aronofsky and is his most personal. Rather than searching for a question, he is showing us what he believes. It is also the film that you will either be completely enchanted by or find its non-linear storytelling a tad difficult and confusing.
The principal themes of the film are that love is eternal and death is not the end. Aronofsky does this by using the same actors and using love as the thread that connects all three stories. Apparently the original title of the film was The Last Man – alluding to its final segment when we see Tom suspended in a bubble with a single tree in the far distant future and planet earth is no more. Now that earth is gone what remains is love and the idea that love endures.
The Wrestler (2008)
Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an ageing wrester, who after a particularly challenging match involving staples suffers a heart attack. He has to quickly adapt to a new pace of life outside the ring, in the inglorious position of a meat counter server in a supermarket. In his new life he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an exotic dancer, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). When he gets the offer of a rematch with his arch nemesis from his 1980s wrestling heydays he doesn’t hesitate. However, will this be the making of him or the end?
Randy is a triumphant comeback role for Mickey Rourke. He encapsulates the emotions displayed on screen to perfection and provides much needed authenticity that the role requires. The central question posed by this film is: how do people reconcile who they are with what they believe in their minds? When someone is used to fame and glory how do they adapt, if ever, to the banal everyday? Aronofsky provides enough glimpses of wrestling here but isn’t satisfied with showing glitzy shots, instead showing the audience what happens behind the scenes. It is a wonderful examination of the struggles between living in a painful present and escaping to youthful memories when it all gets too difficult.
Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman not only plays two roles, Nina Sayers and The Swan Queen, but did most of the dancing you see in the film. As Nina a ballerina, who like all ballerinas dream of being the prima donna pushes herself and her body beyond its limits. Until one day her dedication and obsession pays off when the dance company director decides to dismiss the previous prima donna and promote Nina to that role in his new production of Swan Lake. It all feels too good to be true until she feels threatened by Lily (Mila Kunis) who captures the eye of the dance company director and is a very real rival to Nina.
Again this film is not so much about ballet but obsession. We see Aronofsky ask the question: just how far is a person willing to go to achieve their dreams? Ballerinas are fascinating in so far as they are willing to push their bodies to such an extreme for a few moments on stage. It does help to understand the story of Swan Lake here, and why there is a Black and White Swan, especially for scenes later in the film – what you are seeing is not actually real but all in Nina’s mind – Aronofsky borrows heavily from Polanski’s Repulsion in this sense. It is Nina’s obsession that leads to her eventual descent into madness and the terrifying and explosive ending that will have you asking who survives.
The supporting cast of Vincent Cassel as the dance company director and Barbara Hershey as the obsessive, controlling mother who adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the flat that she and Nina share are incredible. Winona Ryder as the prima donna who is replaced by the young Nina is devastatingly good for the brief moments she is on screen.