Javier Bardem (left to right), Jennifer Lawrence, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Venice
USA (121 mi) 2017 ‘Scope d: Darren Aronofsy Official Site [France]
Well there’s at least one man that would love to see a return of Roman Polanski to the United States, and that would be director Darren Aronofsky, as he seems to worship at the feet of this noted Polish director, as while watching this film, other films that come to mind are Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), and THE NINTH GATE (1999), where the mood and tone are similar, creating a central character where the world is pushing back at them from all sides, forcing them to carry immense weight, which becomes too much of a psychological burden, eventually breaking under the pressure, creating cataclysmic fissures in the way they perceive the world around them, turning luridly offensive and grotesque, as if caught in a nightmarish dream world. Just a coincidence? Probably not. While what distinguishes this film, which has instantly become an incendiary talking point on social media, is that it is like nothing else, mindboggling and disturbing, yet two other films come to mind that also deserve mention. The granddaddy of all religious satire belongs to Luis Buñuel, particularly an infamous “Last Supper” sequence in VIRIDIANA (1961) where all hell breaks loose, literally, set to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. This film borrows liberally from that original idea and expands on it in new ways, creating a world of horrifying monstrosity, where there’s just no stopping the evil ways of mankind. And finally someone must mention the Epilogue in Fassbinder’s mammoth epic BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980), at 15 and a half-hours, still considered the longest narrative film ever made, ending with a two-hour fantasy sequence that breaks with the unprecedented realism in the preceding 13-hours, becoming a series of fragmented, illusory imaginings from the deteriorating mind of the central character, suddenly exploding into a minefield of phantasmagorical images of carnage and human wreckage. These previous cinematic conceptions lay a groundwork for this film, which attempts to take you where no one else has gone. While that’s debatable, it’s clear this is a highly toxic yet visionary work that fuels cinematic debates concerning what it’s about, while also reminding us that once a film is released, the director no longer controls the process, as it’s in the hands of audiences that might have their own ideas about what they’ve just witnessed. That is the power of art, that it’s highly subjective, where each work’s place in history is as volatile as the shifting winds of time, as many films considered out of favor in one period have been elevated to masterworks in other time periods. And while DVD’s and streaming networks allow films greater access, there are simply some films that defy commercialization, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) (1989), for instance, which still has no version with English subtitles, or the Beatles’ LET IT BE (1970), Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1971), John Sayles’ CITY OF HOPE (1991), Raul Peck’s The Man On the Shore (L’Homme sur les quais), Naomi Kawazi’s SUZAKU (1997), Pascale Breton’s ILLUMINATION (2004), along with a slew of Valerio Zurlini and Jacques Rivette films, or even the chronologically edited GODFATHER series that curiously did screen on television once in 2012 in a high-definition version, for instance (and there are so many others), that have simply never been released on DVD, so their place in the pantheon of cinema history remains an open question, as they haven’t been scrutinized by a wider audience.
It should be stated that much of this is drop dead hilarious, despite the severity of the subject matter, where this is truly a divine comedy, where it would not be surprising if in some future millennium this film might be chosen as a visionary work, lightyears ahead of its time, but beaten down and fallen prey to a drumbeat of critics that either want to condemn it as worthless, sheer lunacy, or ostracize it altogether as an off-the-fringe outlier that fails to benefit the public in any recognizable way. While some films will always deserve this kind of critical purgatory, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) anyone?, this is not one of them, as it’s ambitious as hell, layered with an extraordinary amount of ambiguity, while the story itself and the way it’s expressed defies anything else coming out of Hollywood, where it has such an edge and attitude about it that you have to wonder how this ever made it through? The film is a cosmic expression of humanity as an Edenesque Lost Paradise given a Sisyphean tone of futility, showing how we inevitably lose our way, despite the presence of the church, and more specifically, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, rules supposedly handed down by God to help guide us on a path of righteousness, yet we continually get sidetracked, developing an obsession with false prophets, often deluding ourselves, where our destructive capacity apparently has no bounds, with plenty of saber rattling and war mongering officials leading the charge. In the Biblical stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, God was so angered that He destroyed the world, sending massive floods, allowing the world to begin anew, starting fresh. But if history has told us anything, it is that those who don’t learn from the past are destined to repeat the same mistakes. Despite our capacity for knowledge and systematic education, including a stunning curiosity for planetary explorations and other scientific missions heading into dark space beyond our solar system, we remain inhibited by our basic instincts, as we still commit crimes, fly into a rage, and brutally suppress others, often resorting to atrocities as a means to an end, thinking only of ourselves and what we want to accomplish, using money and power to obtain even more power, becoming insatiated by it, paying too little attention to the needs of others. Sheer chaos and anarchy is what the world would look like without order, and this film offers a before and after view, where the results are startling. Aronofsky seems to specialize in a cinema of discomfort, where the last 15-minutes of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), for instance, one of his most highly acclaimed movies, is nearly unwatchable due to the intensity of the nightmarish experience he realizes onscreen, where it closely resembles a bad acid trip, listed at #9 in this unique poll, 9. Requiem for a Dream (2000) - The 50 Most Disturbing Movies of All .... Despite one’s reservation with the raw and graphic horror of drug addiction, the film has redeeming qualities, with the lead actress nominated for an Academy Award. Despite the popularity of Jennifer Lawrence, the lead actress and director’s current girlfriend, she’s not likely to earn similar honors, though she risks plenty with this performance, even breaking an arm during the filming. By paying so much attention to a dark and ugly side of humanity, few will actually “like” this film, though audiences can appreciate it in much the same way as people today praise Pasolini’s SALÒ (1976), as they are gutsy attempts to expose our darkest impulses by graphically exposing an inherent barbarism that normally never sees the light of day.
Perhaps the film this comes closest to is the director’s own THE FOUNTAIN (2006), where a prominent theme is “Death, as an act of creation,” while also showcasing his girlfriend at the time, Rachel Weisz, as his muse, playing a character of eternal light while her overly grim husband, whose single-minded purpose makes him completely oblivious to others, is absorbed with the constant presence of death, searching for a scientific cure that never comes. In much the same way, Jennifer Lawrence plays a Madonna figure, defined by her innocence and eternal love, while her husband, known as Poet (Javier Bardem), is a failing writer consumed in the bitterness of his own shortcomings, while also professing eternal love, though he fails to live up to it. At least initially it’s beautifully written, where a series of characters knock at the door and suddenly take over her house and home, first Ed Harris, followed by an utterly sublime performance by Michelle Pfeiffer (where have you been?), which is only a warm up for what’s to follow. Yet the internalized friction and overt antagonism caused by the guest’s total disdain in following normal guest protocol is overwhelming, reaching states of delirium, where they actually seem to be taunting her, like Rosemary's Baby, treating her with blatant disregard. When their kids show up, a Cain and Abel tag team of fighters, all hell breaks loose, breaking furniture and whatever else stands in their way, altering the mood to such an extent that it initially seems humorous, but that is quickly remedied when one of them murders the other, bringing the house to a sense of calm only after they’ve left for a hospital, as at that point he’s only bleeding to death. The Poet goes with them, allowing the film to completely embrace Lawrence’s character, where strange things start to happen, as reality is altered and distorted by her elevated paranoia and fears, embracing Catherine Deneuve in REPULSION. By the time the family returns, this time filling the home with unwanted guests attending the wake, she’s already on the edge, but is pushed to the limit, as people intentionally disobey her instructions, literally wrecking the plumbing, as an exploding water leak drives the crowd away. Get it? The flood. In the midst of an ensuing argument about how he abandoned her, the couple engages in sex on the staircase, continuing into their bedroom, where she awakens fully cognizant she is pregnant, where the couple gets a new start. Almost simultaneously, this breaks his writer’s block, suddenly an unstoppable force, and within minutes, amusingly, he’s a published author, with first Kristen Wiig arriving at their door as his publisher, somehow showing knowledge of personal intimacy between them, then heaps more disdain on his now visibly pregnant wife, as crowds suddenly arrive at the door, unstoppable and unending, showing mad devotion to her husband, as if he’s a cult savant, eventually breaking into the house and taking whatever they want, reiterating his verse, share and share alike, claiming it all belongs to them, not her, basically stealing them out of house and home, where they can’t find a single solitary space that hasn’t been invaded by the mob, with people breaking through windows and Wiig absurdly leading a military assassination team, leaving plenty of dead bodies in her wake. This heinous attack causes panic and mass confusion, ideal conditions for the birth. From there things only deteriorate further, growing more and more feverish, where the Poet clearly loves the attention and can’t separate himself from his adoring fans, even when it’s destroying whatever beating pulse is left in his wife, attacked and disfigured, clawing her way over people, fighting for her life, but all for naught, eventually exploding into an apocalyptic fire and brimstone spectacle, suddenly turning into a Twilight Zone episode where it mysteriously rewinds and plays out all over again. Breaking all rules, making no capitulation whatsoever for commercialism, this film is well worth the experience, as it’s an artist’s dream, even if it never rises to levels of transcendence.