Last night, recovering from a nasty week of being sick, I stayed in my apartment and watched Requiem For a Dream. I’d never seen it, and it’s been on my to watch list ever since I’d seen Aronofsky’s (utterly hilarious) Black Swan. I didn’t know anything about the movie, other than it was about drugs and that Jennifer Connelly was in it. Having seen Aronofsky’s goofy Pi and chuckle-inducing Black Swan, I expected Requiem to be as broad and silly as his other work. It wasn’t. Not really. Requiem For a Dream is almost, but not quite, camp or exploitation. It goes up to the line, but doesn’t cross.
Spoilers for a twelve year old movie ahead.
Aronofsky can’t resist the building blocks and stylistic flourishes of camp. Requiem For a Dream abounds with fast edits, sped up footage, slowed down footage, fish-eye lenses, high emotions, exploitation, and a even a little bit of speechifying. Several of the scenes scenes involving hallucinations veer almost into the comical- a refrigerator opens to reveal several jagged teeth, a character imagines watching herself on television, and people jump from a television set and into a living room. There’s also a dumb scene with an imaginary pie. At the end of the movie, the four main characters, all drug users, meet grisly fates worthy of an after school special. One is jailed, one is in a psychiatric ward, one becomes a prostitute and another gets his arm sawed off. Say no to drugs, kids. You’ll become a crazy one-armed hooker, and then you’ll go to jail.
And yet, I don’t think Requiem For a Dream is camp or exploitation- it works as a genuine drama. Most of the credit for that goes to the actors- the four principals all play their roles straight. In the midst of Aronofsky’s goofy (but enjoyable) direction they seem like real, actual humans rather than the overy stylized meat puppets that inhabit most camp or exploitation movies. I’d go so far as to say that the actors save the movie- the story is basically “don’t do drugs,” the director seems to busy playing with lenses and footage speed, and the soundtrack (can’t believe I haven’t mentioned the soundtrack yet- it’s really overbearing, but also kind of great) sounds like it comes from the opening credits of a daytime soap opera. The performances, though, don’t clash with the over-the top style. Rather, they balance it out. They’re like the cool tonic and lime to Aronofsky’s harsh, spiky gin. The four actors ground the movie, and in hammier, more scenery-chewing hands, the film would have been a frothy, hokey disaster.
After watching Requiem, I couldn’t help but think how much better it was than Black Swan, and how much more I was on board with it, goofy elements and all. I enjoyed Black Swan a good deal, but not really as drama. I liked it as an exercise in excess, and I’m not sure if that’s what the filmmakers wanted. At the end of Black Swan I thought “that was absurd and entertaining.” At the end of Requiem, I actually felt something for the characters.
Aronofsky seems to be one of those artists who shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever he wants. He needs something, be it a budget, a producer, a person he knows, to call him out on his excesses and tell him when to reign it in. Requiem demonstrates that he can make a great film, but Swan shows that, if left to his own devices, he probably won’t.