I seem to have recently watched a number of films directed by Darren Aronofsky.
The Fountain (2006)
Perhaps more than any of Aronofsky’s films this one is a visual tour de force and imbued with a sense of spirituality, perhaps a little too much so for my liking. In many ways it reminds me of Mallick’s 2011 masterwork The Tree of Life – the title, obviously, star Brad Pitt who was originally slated for the lead in Fountain, and the imagery, though Mallick puts this to much better use. There are three separate plot strands, with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing the leads in each. Neuroscientist Tom is desperately seeking a cure for his dying wife Izzi, conquistador Tomas is seeking the Tree of Life to help his Queen Isabella overthrow the influence of the Inquisition, while Tommy the space traveller journeys through the universe in a biosphere generated by the Tree in search of his beloved Izzi. The second strand is in fact a book that the first strand Izzi is writing and asks Tom to finish for her, and though it’s not stated I can’t help wondering if the third strand is his imagined ending. There’s a Rider Haggard She feel to some of it, with a vision of lovers who meet over and over again through the ages, but underlying that is a drive towards an acceptance of mortality and that death is only a new beginning, not an end. I liked the film, but didn’t feel it was entirely successful, with particularly the third section as one in which the beauty of the imagery distracted from the sense of the story, so that at times it felt like watching a big budget firework display. The Tom/Izzi strand was the one that worked best for me, with his desperation and the pain of imminent separation, the attendant feeling of helplessness, all coming over well, and Izzi’s own need for Tom to accept what is happening and share their last moments instead of throwing away what little time they have left on a futile search for a cure. I guess the need for closure is what’s central in this scenario, and possibly also in the film as a whole, though not conveyed as well in the other sections. It’s an intriguing work and I shall certainly watch it again at some point, see if I can get anything more from it, but I suspect as a thoroughgoing materialist I am not part of the intended audience.
The Wrestler (2008)
With the possible exception of Requiem for a Dream this is my favourite Aronofsky film, with Mickey Rourke superb as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, one time superstar of the pro wrestling circuit, now some twenty years later a broken down hulk, earning a crust by playing small gigs and taking part in extreme wrestling, signing posters for pay in drafty town halls and working the deli counter at a supermarket. We see the poverty of the man, both spiritual and financial; the abuse his body has been subjected to, chemical and physical, that lead to a heart attack. On the other hand there is a certain nobility to this fallen hero – he is good with children, the other wrestlers have immense respect for him, on the deli counter his showmanship delights the customers, and he shows respect to the stripper he befriends at a local club. And yet for all that he is in a downward spiral – he fucks up an attempt at reconciliation with his estranged daughter, he loses his job, and the hope of finding love with a woman doesn’t quite materialise. In the end all that’s left to Randy is a final swansong doing the thing that he loves, entering the wrestling ring where he can still be the star that shines brightest and earn the unconditional love of the crowd. Like Requiem this is a film that examines what happens when the American dream turns sour – in that film we had a tableau of young and wasted lives, and in this we have a close-up on one life, a portrait of a man in freefall. It ends on a perfect note, with Randy poised in mid-air executing the move for which he is best known, the infamous Ram Jam, as the crowd howl their approval. We know he is going to die of a massive heart attack, but at the same time we have the opportunity to pretend that it all turns out well, that he beats both his opponent and the odds, that all the things he has lost come crashing back. And cue the heart rending lyrics of Springsteen’s title song as the credits run. The cruelty of life has seldom been portrayed with such artistry, and of course most of that cruelty is self-delivered.
Black Swan (2010)
This film plays out almost like a mirror image of The Wrestler, set in the world of classical ballet and with a young female protagonist on her way up instead of an elderly male on the way down. Natalie Portman is ballerina Nina, who wishes to play the lead in a new production of Swan Lake. The director of the ballet has the idea of amalgamating the black and white swan roles; he tells Nina that while technically accomplished she doesn’t bring any soul to the part, is unable to let herself go artistically. In part we suspect this is down to the influence of Nina’s controlling mother, with whom she still lives, a woman who attributes the end of her own dance career to giving birth to a child and now wishes to have the success she missed out on by using Nina as her proxy. Nina attempts to get in touch with her wild side and cast off her mother’s influence by going out with another ballerina, her rival Lily. But Nina’s mental health is precarious and she is experiencing hallucinations – a dream of sex with Lily, a scene in which she starts to transform into a swan, another in which an older ballerina mutilates herself. With her paranoia kicking into top gear, the stage is set for Nina’s performance as the white/black swan, a dance that is fated to end in tragedy. As with The Wrestler it ends in a leap of (bad) faith, but this time Aronofsky shows us the aftermath, with Nina struck down in the hour of her triumph, and the knowledge that what has happened is all down to the flaws in her own nature. What comes across here is how fiercely competitive the world of ballet is, with a seamy underbelly that stands in counterpoint to the surface aesthetic of grace and elegance. Nina is a victim of this system, witness to the ruthlessness with which other people are used up and discarded, no matter how great they stood in their heyday. Her fragile mental state is wired into this world, one which she lacks the toughness to conquer unless she gives in to her hallucinations and lets them guide her. Nina sane is negligible, a milquetoast of sorts, but mad Nina is unstoppable, even if she burns brightly only for a moment. She becomes the swan and the swan becomes her, but at a terrible cost. The effects used to convey Nina’s deterioration are compellingly understated, with the viewer kept off balance as hallucinations and reality are subtly intertwined, so that we don’t know how much to trust of what we see, our agitation mirroring that of Nina herself. At the end she probably views what she achieves as worth the sacrifice, and that I guess is the moral crux of the film – exactly how much is creativity, artistic endeavour of any sort, worth in strict terms of the end justifying the means? Personally I’d say that Nina’s life was worth more than any performance, no matter the heights scaled.
This time around Aronofsky gets a big budget, plus the services of a special effects studio and Russell Crowe as the eponymous Biblical hero. Everyone knows the story I imagine – the world is fucked up, so God decides to send a flood, telling Noah to build an ark and save two of every species to start anew once the waters have receded. Here they sex it up by giving Noah an enemy in the form of warlord Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and introducing a cadre of fallen angels, who look like nothing so much as Tolkien’s ents given stone cladding, so that we can have a neat battle royale as everyone and his father try to clamber aboard the ark while the waters rush in. It all felt a bit false to me, as if the Biblical story had just been used as a pretext for yet another disaster movie, something that should probably have had Michael Bay’s name attached. The battle scenes all looked superficial, as if I was staring down on a World of Warcraft board game, while the attempt to give the drama a human dimension by presenting Noah with a crisis of conscience only made me dislike the character, who didn’t really have much going for him to begin with. Oh yeah, and Anthony Hopkins played the venerable Methuselah as if he was channelling Yoda. Jennifer Connelly was excellent as ever as Noah’s wife, but she was the only one who seemed to be making much of an effort, and of these Aronofsky vehicles I’d have to say this was the weakest, a film that I didn’t mind watching but really don’t want to see again any time soon.
So what Aronofsky films does everybody else like or loathe?