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Requiem for a Dream DVDReview - Requiem for a Dream DVD
Director's Cut
by Darren Aronofsky
Artisan, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 28th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 48)

Requiem for a Dream starts with Harry taking his mother's television set while she hides in the closet.  The screen is split, so we see her muttering to herself while he shouts at her complaining that she makes him feel guilty.  Both are immediately unsympathetic characters, and the split screen enhances the sense of alienation.  Set in Coney Island, where director Darren Aronofsky grew up, we see that these are people who want to escape from reality.  Harry and his friend Tyrone shoot up as soon as they get the money from the Pawn Shop.  They have a scheme to make money by selling drugs, although they find it difficult to control their own drug use.  Meanwhile, Harry's mother, Sarah Goldfarb, sits in her apartment watching TV.  She gets a phone call telling her she will be on TV, and she is thrilled.  She wants to be able to fit into her best red dress, so she starts to diet.  When restricting her food to hard-boiled eggs, grapefruit and coffee doesn't work, she gets some diet pills.  Soon both Sarah and Harry are out of control with their drug taking.  Harry has a girlfriend Marion, and they have fun together, but in their most intimate love scene, they are also shown in split screen, as if even when making love, they are isolated.  When Harry's money-making scheme does not work out and they need more drugs to just to feel normal, everything goes wrong.  By the end of the film, each character is ruined. 

The film is characterized by plenty of visual techniques.  When the young people take drugs, we see a fast montage of the drugs in preparation, with sounds effects.  When people are on drugs, often the scene is speeded up.  When Sarah is dieting, she sees food everywhere, even through the fridge.  The thematic music is played by the Kronos Quartet, often signaling disaster.  At other points, electronic music gives a strong sense of tension and undermines any possible rapport between characters.  Although there are occasional moments of humor, the performances are strong, and Jared Leto, Jennifer Connely and Marlon Wayans are all good looking actors, Requiem for a Dream is a hard movie to watch. 

In his director's commentary, Aronofsky explains that he wanted the work to be entirely subjective, getting into the heads of the characters.  Their addictions take hold of them and make their lives horrific, and he captures this well.  But unlike Michael Figgis' work in Leaving Las Vegas, for example, it is hard to identify with the characters.  It seems as if getting closer to their subjective states, in Aronofsky's work, results not in bringing the viewer to like the character, but rather to feel disgust.  Maybe, as in Louis Sass' analysis of schizophrenia in his important book Madness and Modernism, Aronovksy sees his characters as utterly alienated from themselves. 

Requiem for a Dream is based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr., who also wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn.  One of the DVD extras is an interview of Selby by Ellyn Burstyn, and he explains how he came to become a writer and how he came to write such dark pieces.  He says he knows more about the darkness than the light, and he can relate to the suffering of people.  He wanted to get deep into people's pathology, but importantly, he also remarks that people feel compassion for his characters in his books.  This is exactly what Aronofsky does not do.  Everything about this film works against us caring for these people: we can see their suffering and we can be horrified by their actions, but we are not led to care for them. 

There is a fascinating section in Aronofsky's commentary where he tries to distinguish his approach from that of the "Dogma" school associated with Lars Von Trier, at least in his early films.  That approach rejects all artificiality and the polish of Hollywood films, and tries to convey reality through capturing truth spontaneously.  By way of contrast, in trying to get closer to subjective experience, Aronofsky embraces artificial visual techniques with famous actors, showing characters fantasies and paranoid dreams.  Of course, both in his early film Pi and this one, he addresses subjects and uses techniques that Hollywood does not want to touch, so both he and Von Trier have to work independently of the major film companies.  Both filmmakers manage to create profoundly depressing works, despite their different philosophies. 

When I first saw Requiem for a Dream a few years ago, I loathed it.  It was more gripping that the deeply pretentious Pi, but it was still unpleasant to watch, and more than that, it made me hate the characters.  Watching it again on the full DVD, seeing the deleted scenes, watching the actors preparing for their roles, and hearing Aronofsky talk about his creative process makes it more interesting.  There's no doubt that he is innovative and creative in his approach, and this film demands the viewer's attention.  As a portrayal of addiction, it is remarkable and can be counted among the most important cultural representations of addicts in recent years.  After watching it a few times, the film's power to induce discomfort and alienation is reduced, but it is still not an experience I want to go through again any time soon. 


© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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