Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream comes with a reputation attached. Even though I had somehow managed to not see it yet before I signed up for this project, I knew from countless conversations that Requiem is 1. very disturbing, 2. cut very fast and 3. groundbreaking. While watching it, with the advantage of ten years hindsight of course, I found that it is 1. much too blatant to be disturbing and 2. not actually cut that fast in most portions (and not even that fast in the fast sequences, now that moviegoers’ brains are used to Paul Greengrass movies). I’ll try to get to 3. in the end and talk about my frame first.
The image is from minute 19 of the film and shows Jennifer Connelly’s character Marion looking at herself in her appartment’s bathroom mirror before one of the film’s famous drug montages shows the use of both heroin and cocaine. The drugs turn the desaturated gloom of this image into a triumph: The expressionless face in this frame changes to an expression of bliss, Marion slowly raising her arms while the image fades to white. In the scene before this one, Marion and Harry have decided to spend the money they make through drug dealing on a shop where she can sell her self-made clothes. The couple is not only high on drugs, they are drunk on their expected success.
The juxtaposition of the two facial expressions before and after the consumption of drugs is echoed again in the very fact that Marion is placed in front of a mirror for this scene. There are really two Marions here, the one that she sees („The most beautiful girl in the whole world“, as Harry tells her again and again) and the soon-to-become-lifeless junkie the audience recognizes.
The fact that the self-perception of the characters usually differs greatly from their actual appearance could be called one of the main thematic devices of the film. Here, Marion believes she is on her way up while it’s already pretty clear that the only way for all four main characters is down – after all, the film claims to be a requiem for their dream. Sara’s story expresses this notion even more explicitly: She believes she is looking and feeling great, while her general demeanor already has something quite harrowing about it when Harry visits her, and will collapse into complete delusion later on. Finally, Harry will believe that the wound on his arm is not actually that serious – only to have the same arm amputated in the final scenes.
Aronofsky revisits the bathroom setting, which is exclusively Marion’s domain, for two later scenes which nicely complement this one in the season triptych that structures the narrative. While the junkies are swimming in drug abundance this early in the film, the next scene featuring the bathroom has Marion in a stupor of withdrawal, knocking over furniture in search for drugs (for all his blatantness, Aronofsky resists the cliché of having her smash the mirror). The third act, of course, puts Marion in the bathroom again for one of the film’s most iconic scenes, in which she soaks in the tub and then screams into the water after she slept with Big Tim.
Marion is almost naked in this scene, wearing a bra but no panties, and glimpses of nudity like this one are probably among the reasons why the film caused such a stir at the time. Presented and lit the way it is here, of course, the exposed skin serves both as an indicator for the state of depravity that Marion is already in and as a symbol for her vulnerability.
My general feeling was that Requiem for a Dream, in accordance with its title, works very much like a piece of dramatic classical music, like an opera. Not only because its soundtrack is one of its best assets, but because it paints with such broad strokes, has such a clear-cut, symbol-laden three-act structure (Summer, Fall, Winter) and lets you expect early on that everyone will end up in a most tragic finale. The message that „Because of modern consumerism, we’re all junkies in one way or another“ is hammered home by means of the drug montages throughout the whole film. The concept might have been clever at the time (my comment on the issue of the film being groundbreaking), but I find it quite annoying in much the same way that Requiem seems unnecessesarily pessismistic in the way all characters are denied redemption – not because they’re unwilling to redeem themselves, however, but apparently because as junkies they deserve to be treated like shit by society.
When it comes to drug movies, I have to say I much prefer the three-years-older Trainspotting. It seems superior in the way it first presents you with a vibrant and funny image of being on drugs, only to punch you in the stomach with the horrors that follow. Requiem instead treats you with regular doses of foreboding, hyperbole and sentimentality – overwhelming you in much the same way a drug would do.