Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Monday, 26 September 2011

Juror's Film Festival: Requiem for a Dream (d. Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

The last film I saw by Darren Aronofsky was the superb Black Swan, and when I came out of it I was exhilarated, terrified, thrown completely off kilter and just spewing adjectives left, right and centre. My reaction to Requiem for a Dream was very similar, so here goes with the descriptions which just fell out of my mouth.

This is brutal, unrelenting, depressing, crushing, painful, horrific, brilliantly made, quietly clever, devastating and, all in all, the most horrid film I’ve ever seen, but in the best possible way. The fact is that this is a masterful piece of filmmaking from a man who, at the time of its release, was only 31, and it is a thrilling example of visionary filmmaking that will grip you from the start, but it goes on to torture you and as things get worse and worse, and then catastrophically ghastly, you cannot tear yourself away from it and, I for one will admiringly refer to it a lot from this point forward, but I’m never watching it again because to do so would be frankly sadomasochistic.

It is the story of four drug addicts, three out of choice and a fourth by accident, whose lives and bodies are slowly crushed by their need to feed their increasingly out of control habits. It all sounds like pretty ordinary stuff. It isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. However, Aronofsky uses editing as a weapon in the course of making this film something quite extraordinary. Frenetic and inventive cutting keep your gripped and disturbed in equal measure.

A surprise is that the young people in the film, who appear to be the centre of the story at the start, turn out to be surprisingly uninteresting (though well-performed by Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans). Their story follows an unremarkable, familiar pattern. The central reason why this film really works is the unintentional addict – the quiet TV-watching pensioner, Sara Goldfarb, who slips into an addiction to diet pills.

She is played with a flawless brilliance by Ellen Burstyn who at first makes the humdrum misery of her life painfully real (a feeling which is assisted by the film’s grim visual style), then is heart-wrenchingly moving as she reaches a point of sweet optimism, before bringing the inevitable madness to life in all its terrifying detail.

The title refers to the American dream, but the elegy to it is subtly done and it is Burstyn’s Sara who brings that theme into sharper focus. Her only aspiration is to be on television for a fleeting instant and it is the only thing which gives her life meaning. This is a sorry state quite aside from the drug-abuse she falls into. She is also let down by her son (Leto) and all of her hopes and dreams, which are built on sand, fail her as you falls into a world of hallucinations.

There are no enemies in this film greater than the characters themselves, but their grim and unfortunate circumstances merely sit in the background. Aronofsky is not pointing the finger at anyone as the murderer of the American dream. It seems to be that, in the modern world, it has not been killed but has died under its own weight.

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