Darren Aronofsky – The Thin Line Between Environmentalism and Controversy

Before screening his newest film, Mother, at a film festival in Toronto, writer and director Darren Aronofsky declared: ‘I apologise for what I’m about to do to you’. Just how much basis would you expect an argument like that to have – I mean, would a man in his right mind openly declare that his newest work is probably not going to be enjoyable, in the classic sense of the word when related to a motion picture? I don’t know, but Aronofsky certainly would, and he did. Fast forward a few months later, and Mother is probably the most divisive film of the year – just browse through its reviews on IMDb, I’d be shocked if you can find anything else other than 1-star or 10-star ratings within the piled up declarations of either pure hatred or unconditional love.

If we look at Darren Aronofsky’s filmography, we can most likely split it into two large categories. Let’s first go through his early work, and leave his final two projects for last. Okay. So, on the one side, we’ve got Pi, which is centred around a brilliant mathematician whose psyche sinks lower and lower as he attempts to find a key number that will hold universal significance and would explain all patterns in nature. Then we get Requiem for a Dream, a true classic – here, addiction plays a very important part, as the main behavioural determinant for both of the film’s main characters. Six years later, The Fountain comes out – and this is, in my honest opinion, his best accomplishment by far. Circularity, reincarnation and transcendence of physical laws are some of the film’s key elements, but most importantly, once again, the main character embarks on an impossible quest that’s bound to absorb all his energy. Then, in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays a faded fighter who embarks on a difficult road to redemption and glory. Finally, we have Black Swan, where a dancer makes getting the main role in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet her ultimate goal, at the expense of her sanity.

You don’t need to look closely in order to kind of get the pattern here. Darren Aronofsky likes determined and ambitious characters, to say the least – they push themselves way beyond the usual boundaries, in order to accomplish something that will change the understanding of the world forever, to find and keep the noble sentiment of love, to belong, to get peer recognition, or one last minute of glory and personal satisfaction. There’s an all-consuming drive to achieve these goals, to literally do anything, physically or mentally, in order to remove all the obstacles and reap the rewards, whatever they may be.

And then, we have the latter two productions, which have been much more divisive due to their premises and handling of the underlying themes, and have established Aronofsky as the controversial figure he now is. First, there was Noah, a film considered by many, myself included, as his weakest project. In what he has described as ‘the least biblical film ever made’, Aronofsky does retell the highly popular biblical tale, but in his own style, and with a different emphasis than you would expect. Environmental elements can easily be discerned as Noah walks a desolate land, which at times comprises ruins which look suspiciously close to modern-like pipelines and power plants. Clearly, the director doesn’t focus on the religious significance and does not quantify his success in closeness to the Bible’s message – which has historically angered many hardcore activists – but instead takes an explanatory route towards the outcome, and heavily hints at cyclicity in nature. Hold on to that thought for a minute.

We come back to Mother, and if you’ve seen it, you’ve probably already guessed the idea that I have in mind. Without going into too much detail, one can construct a very accurate parallel to the Old Testament with the characters and situations put forward by Mother. And while Javier Bardem’s character is clearly the representation of God, Jennifer Lawrence’s character is not exactly Mary, but a much more generalisable Mother Earth. With this idea in mind, you only have to follow her character’s evolution to reap the environmental messages symbolised here. As for the cyclical parallel to Noah, once again, it’s really almost impossible to miss if you know what you’re looking for, especially since it is on display twice.

And if you begin to understand and appreciate how the latter two films complement each other, you’re not that far away from finding the final piece of the puzzle and understanding the overall symbolism and the symbiosis between Aronofsky’s themes – if you’ve seen the films mentioned earlier, that is. You’ve got a diversity of self-destructive tendencies on one hand, and the results on the other. It doesn’t take a cinematographic genius to make sense of it all and take in the larger picture.

Article written by Julian A. Leu for The Monthly Film Festival

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