Gothic Transformations – The Monstrous and Fragile Body in the cinema of Darren Aronofsky

Posted by Dr Sorcha Ni Fhlainn on February 10, 2011 in Dr Sorcha Ni Fhlainn, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , ,

After experiencing the much anticipated Black Swan, the idea of gothic hybridity and transformation in the cinema of Darren Aronofsky has returned to me again and again. The film’s popularity, compounded  by the recent Oscar nominations and the apparently “insane” ending (according to film reviewers in Ireland and the UK at least), has led me to think critically not only about the increasing mainstream interest in the transformative body onscreen, but also in a continuing focus in director Darren Aronofsky’s films to date. In a myriad of ways, Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) thematically link through the fragility and torment of human existence, . While Black Swan is certainly not Aronofsky’s most gruesome or visceral piece  – that honour is reserved for his film adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream (2000) –  Black Swan’s cine-literate, multi-genre structure, is undoubtedly a spirally constructed gothic tale interwoven with influences from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Dario Argento’s Susperia (1977) and Opera (1987). The body is the primary text for Aronofsky; it is a site of crisis, of metamorphosis, of ultimate expression. His protagonist characters struggle with/ and against their bodies, frequently abuse themselves, all in search for the experience of, and paying the ultimate price for, attaining (momentary) perfection. Pervading his films at every level, the body is beautiful and terrifying in all of its capabilities and limitations. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s body is repeatedly seen as stretched, bruised, and transformative: her beautiful yet painful black feathers, her broken nails, injured feet and bloodshot eyes all indicating a body twisted into a specific form of painful beauty.

Black Swan (2010) Trailer

Aronofsky’s career began with a low budget film entitled Pi (1998) in which Max (Sean Gullette), a young and talented mathematician who is slowly losing his grip on reality. Pi explores the madness of attempting to affix order on the random chaos and events – the desire to discover nature’s unique mathematical code through which Max believes he can successfully predict the fluctuations on stock market, and other seemingly random and chaotic domains. While Pi is Aronofsky’s first feature film, its dramatic conclusion (which concerns a drill and a self-performed lobotomy in this case in an attempt to dull the mental torment of mathematical patterning) nevertheless sets the tone for his work overall. His protagonists are gifted, talented, and often profound, but never freed from their punishing and obsessive quests for answers and redemption.  Aronofsky’s protagonists break away from their liminal existence in search of momentary clarity and achievement, but are ultimately destroyed by their own relentless goals. His camera never shies away from revealing the monstrous and brilliant capabilities of the body and the mind – Pi presents us with unparalleled mathematical genius, whose paranoia colours the world as a terrifying place; Black Swan illustrates the beautiful capabilities of a dancer’s body, coupled with a fractured identity and tormented mind.

Pi (1998) Trailer

Aronofsky enjoys illustrating the pain of transformation – every step towards transition demands a price which he thoroughly relishes in revealing on screen. In Requiem for a Dream (2000), perhaps the most anti-drug film ever made (and certainly one of the most impressive yet sickening, disturbing and upsetting drug narratives in its visually assaulting two thousand frame-cut presentation) it is a film that is impossible to un-watch.

Requiem for a Dream Trailer

Its editing is jarring and dizzying, leaving the viewer unsure of what they have seen, but also acutely aware that, much like the cinema of Gasper Noé (whose controversial films include Irreversible (2002) and Enter The Void (2009)), all hope has been destroyed. Being so brutal in its portrayal of ravaging drug addiction and annihilation, Requiem for a Dream invades and morphs the textual body through psychological damage, physical loss of limbs, freedom and dignity, and sexual threat and destruction, frequently inducing genuine physical reactions in viewers due to the film’s unrelenting pace, style and force. Concerning four New Yorkers who in turn become addicted to various drug states, the film is particularly brutal in its destruction of Sara (Ellen Burstyn) whose diet, in order to fit into a much loved red dress and to be on a TV game show, culminates in amphetamine abuse and a psychological breakdown.  While all four addicts experience physical torment, abusing their bodies in order to maintain their increasingly addictive highs, their bodies are ultimately ravaged by addiction and exploitation. Memorably, the film repeats imagery of blood cells and rushing adrenaline, dilating pupils and drug induced haze, visually arresting and sickening in its depiction of euphoric and nightmarish highs, all reinforced with extreme colour filters and grating sound effects editing.   This is perhaps Aronofsky’s most visually complicated and horrific film; certain moments recall Jacob Singer’s (Tim Robbins) descent into hell at the mental hospital (below) in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990) achieving an overall hallucinatory effect that warns of the body’s potential monstrosity.

Jacob\’s Ladder (1990) Trailer

descent to hell

In much of the same vein as Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder and David Lynch’s tv series Twin Peaks and film Fire Walk With Me (1992)Fire Walk With Me (1992) (Ending)

Selby Jr. claims that through facing inner monstrosity, we can become angels:

Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there’s something inside us that’s so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won’t be able to stand looking at it. But it’s when we’re willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel.

However, Aronofsky on Requiem for a Dream, sees the text as a pure horror film; its invisible monster is unforgiving, destructive and ultimately insatiable:

You know, I think it’s a modern horror film. We always saw this as a monster movie except that the monster was invisible. The creature was invisible. It was addiction, living in the character’s head and the only other difference is that the creature wins.

Much like all of Aronofsky’s subject matter, it is the painful reality of these malfunctions of the body, the undoing of it by age, physical and chemical abuse, and the reality of its fragility that makes his cinema so compelling, but also so difficult to watch.

Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler was hailed a triumph not only for the director’s documentary-style approach to the world of wrestling, but also for Mickey Rourke’s extraordinary physical role as Randy, a washed-up and depleted performer attempting to make a glorious comeback.   The Wrestler follows Randy’s troubled life, using steroids to keep his physique intact despite a heart condition, desperately trying to reconcile with his bitter daughter, and attempting to form a romantic relationship with  stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), another lost soul. Rourke’s body becomes the site of celebration and failure in the piece – he realistically cannot endure the competitive  fights in the ring but cannot leave the world of professional wrestling either – it is the only world in which he is not adrift.

Set against the competitive world of ballet in Black Swan, The Wrestler is a fascinating approach to low brow body culture – Rourke’s physique, hair and accoutrement of costumes and bandannas symbolise the lack of cultural refinement in the low brow culture of wrestling, but also serve to celebrate it as a popular subculture in its own right.  Black Swan, with its high brow world of ballet and professional dance schools is nonetheless as traumatic and punishing on the body, repackaged into neat and beautiful choreography and costume designed to appeal to the upper echelons of class. Viewed side by side, both films tackle the same subject matter and produce similar reactions – Rourke’s redemption in the ring may only momentarily achieved, much like Nina’s only performance as the Black Swan; both are compelled by the promise of transformation in their artistic expressions, whatever the personal cost in achieving this short lived glory.

The Wrestler Trailer

Whatever monster haunts the margins of Aronofsky’s films, we can be sure that these personal demons are never far from the surface of our fragile existence.

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