Dark Obsessions: The Work Of Darren Aronofsky
With his latest film Black Swan about to be released in the UK following Natalie Portman’s Golden Globes win, what better time to look at the work of one of cinema’s most original filmmakers.
Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as a young determined ballerina who finds herself cast as the lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. With doubts from her director, and mother, as to whether or not she can accurately portray evil twin the Black Swan she begins to spiral into a world of obsession and gruelling training to prove she is capable. However, as her mind begins to fracture so her obsession begins to take on a very dark form.
A glance at Black Swan’s plot, specifically focusing on ballet, would seem that Aronofsky has moved away from his gritty routes in order to explore something more artistic. But, what makes Black Swan such an extraordinary film is that is cements Aronofsky as a genuine auteur working in cinema. All the themes that have thus far made him such a fascinating director are clear in his latest work. So what makes an Aronofsky film, what are the key ingredients that define his work and raise the bar for those that aspire to his ways?
Key to an Aronofsky film is that his central characters are obsessively flawed. There are no ‘heroes’ in the worlds he creates, instead people who are always striving for something better. This end goal can manifest itself in various forms. Max (Sean Gullette) in Pi sees the chance to become rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams by discovering the secret behind Pi, Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) in The Fountain (2006) relentlessly tries to save his dying wife, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) in Requiem For A Dream has a chance to be on TV and prove to her friends she’s more than just another one of them sitting on the front porch. One of the ways he achieves this is through his use of editing. There is always a moment where Aronosfky lets fly with his cutting, creating a montage that conveys the bickered point of view of the character, everything else, in that moment, pails in significance. Protagonists in Aronofsky’s work are striving to improve their existence, but invariably for the wrong reasons.
However, this striving to be better culminates in an ultimate downfall through obsession. Max is overwhelmed by the numbers in his head and the paranoia of those that would seek to use them, thus turning him mad. Randy (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler (2008) wants to be the man he never was but in doing so finds himself back in the ring and putting his life on the line. In Black Swan, Nina (Portman) becomes so consumed by the pressure of her role that her mind begins to fracture. These characters perfectly embody the tragic hero, there is little they can do to change their fate.
Despite Aronofsky’s films being intimate and personal in the way they focus on a people there is an operatic quality to them. Invariably all his leading characters have a Faustian quality. They sell their souls, in the case of Max in Pi, their bodies, in the form of Randy’s health in The Wrestler, or their minds, which is clear in Black Swan, Requiem For A Dream and, on a more existential scale, The Fountain.
In making such sacrifices, Aronofsky’s characters often find themselves corrupted. Not in the financial sense but rather in the mind and body. A rot sets in that will ultimately signal their downfall. Max has an ant problem within the confines of his flat that signifies the gentle corrosion of his mind. Harry (Jared Leto) in Requiem becomes so hooked on drugs it begins to claim various parts of his anatomy, his mind being just one of them. Black Swan presents one of the best examples of this, with Nina discovering a rash that seems to flare up whenever the pressure of her performance is at its height.
Recently, Aronofsky referred to himself an “existential humanist” which is about as brilliant a way of summing up his themes you can get. His films are a means of fascination into what makes people tick, be it in the thought of the next high or the belief there is a way to cheat death. The people within the dark worlds he creates are brought to life by their desires and goals.
It is not just Aronofsky’s themes that resonate throughout his body of work. His style is always up close and personal, his camera seldom far from the lead character’s face. He wants us to be drawn to them, become part of their world and, as a result, ultimately watch it disintegrate around us. His use of the ‘SnorriCam’, a rig that allows the camera to be mounted to the actor’s chest thus seeing their face and moving with them, is a key ingredient in seducing us into the mindset of the characters. In Requiem For A Dream as Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) runs, from a drug deal gone bad, we are with him, his fear and energy infect the audience completely and thus we know why the world shakes so violently before us.
In addition to this is the look of Aronofsky’s films. One might assume such a master of the language of cinema would automatically plump for a glamorous glow but this would counteract everything he sets out to achieve. No, instead his films, all bar The Wrestler being shot by the brilliant Matthew Libatique, are saturated in a grainy stock. Like his characters there is underlying grit, one that sets it, even in the most extreme cases like The Fountain, in a recognisable, yet also dream like, reality.
His continued collaboration with composer Clint Mansell is essential in the aesthetics of an Aronofsky film. Mansell’s trance inducing beats allow us to experience the madness often present in the character’s mind. Mansell’s music embodies the chaos that eventually resides in all of Aronofsky’s films. The music, like the films themselves, rise to an earth shattering crescendo before plummeting to an eerie still. Chilling does not even begin to describe the impact Mansell’s scores have on Aronofsky’s work.
Rarely, in this consumer driven industry, does a director allow himself the luxury of putting such unique watermarks that make his work utterly distinguishable from any others. Furthermore, he has never bowed to convention, staying clear of mainstream films he did not believe in. He turned down the chance to direct Batman Begins, believing he could not do it justice, he walked away from a re-imagining of Robocop because he did not want to bow to Studio pressure of shooting in 3D. For many it comes as a surprise that he has recently been confirmed as the director for X-Men Origins; Wolverine 2. However, there are few superhero characters out there that fit into Aronofsky’s human existentialism so perfectly. Logan, the real name of Wolverine, is a man who continually struggles to find his place in the world yet, is obsessed with memories that haunt his every move. After the last Wolverine film no one was particularly excited about a follow-up, in Aronofsky’s hands it could prove, along with Nolan’s Batman films, to be quintessential superhero viewing.