One of the amazing benefits that comes from going to events like the London Screenwriters’ Festival is the wonderful people you meet and the incredible contacts you gain as a result. I was connected with Paul via a dear friend whom I met at the aforementioned festival. Paul Anderson runs and writes for the UK based site, strangersinacinema.com, where he reviews independent shorts and feature films. Paul and I share a mutual love for a film which was described by the late Roger Ebert as “a travelogue of hell“. And with his extensive background in film theory it was only natural, and quite the pleasure, to ask him to guest blog for us here across the pond.
Requiem for a Dream
by: Paul Anderson
What with the recent Oscar success of Darren Aronofsky’s more recent work it’s easy to forget the impact that he made on independent cinema with the release of π (Pi) in 1998. Fantastic as it was many directors have fallen at the first hurdle when the follow ups don’t match the breakthrough, just ask Richard Kelly. No such foibles with Aronofsky though, his second feature Requiem for a Dream, a literary adaption of Hubert Selby Jr’s equally fantastic novel is a work a of disturbing brilliance from beginning to end. Once again reuniting with DoP Matthew Libatique Requiem for a Dream turned out to be a visually interesting proposition from the outset.
It may seem hard to believe but one of the first outstanding things about this film’s visuals are how natural the lighting feels, in fact the interior work was all done on sets artificially lit. While it’s not the film’s most exciting element by a long shot it should give some indication of the dedication and talent of the visual team involved, so when they do get a little experimental rest assured it works very well indeed.
Take for example split screen, which features heavily in the opening scenes. Initially it is used with great effect to establish the gulf between Harry (Jared Leto) and his mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn). She is trying to getting on with her life while Harry is (not for the first time) desperately trying to pawn her television. When the technique appears later in the film it is used to equally powerful effect but to deliver a completely different message, in this case a feeling of intimacy (almost unrivalled in any other recent work) between Harry and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). It’s a bold and original decision to use split screen for a love scene but the close ups of fingers running over different body parts can almost be felt by the audience and certainly make it more sensual and engaging than a more traditional shooting style. As the film progresses the technique crops again but for yet another different purpose, this time showing us the cause and effect of Sarah’s addiction. The repeated uses of the same effects certainly give the film a sense of character it makes a pleasant change to see risks taken with each use.
While the film may be most famous for its often parodied drug taking scenes, (The Simpsons being one example that springs to mind) these do not exist solely to make the film ‘cool’. It would be a fairly easy mistake to read Requiem as a ‘drugs’ film… it’s not. Requiem is a film about addiction pure and simple. Though the substance abuse scenes certainly look great and are a fantastic visual flourish, they work very well to create a separation from the characters actual lives and capture the characters in the very depths of their addiction (whatever it may be). It’s this sense of detachment that really gets you feeling for them. Arguably the best example of this is in the doctor’s office when Sarah returns for a second time.
The use of the fisheye lens combined with the speeding up of her background is the closest cinema has come to truly representing the feeling of being ‘under the influence’. The use of slow motion in the dancing scenes also feels scarily accurate in places. And it’s refreshing to see that the filmmakers have done some research on the subject matter rather than taking the Bad Boys approach.
The use of color in the film is also spot on, while not initially obvious, the hue of the film changes throughout. The film opens in the summer months and a suitably warm palette reflects this. As the seasons change the palette changes; from a warm hue to an ever more depressing grey as the film grinds towards its horrific conclusion. Not only does this subtly change the mood of the film from beginning to end but gives a fantastic sense of the chapters that represent the characters decline into addiction as the film goes on.
When things start to take a surreal turn the film is damn well terrifying and the visuals combined with the atmospheric score are responsible. The off kilter angles and hand held camera work mean that certain scenes could have been lifted straight from a horror film and are not what one would normally associate with a gritty urban drama, this combined with the editing is a master stroke on behalf of Aronofsky and Libatique. As the characters slip into an ever worsening situation, the audience are dragged right down with them. The final scenes are made all the more brutal by the jarring harsh cuts that take you way out of your comfort zone.
While the subject matter would have packed a punch regardless, it’s the visuals that make the film stand out. And though it’s a hard watch, that’s the point. There are some fantastic and stylized techniques used from the very start but what is key to Requiem for a Dream’s visual success is that they are never over-used. Every effect here has narrative purpose and adds something valuable. So, to those of you who may write off the film as style of substance, look again. You might be in for a pleasant surprise.