Monday, January 24, 2005

About Requiem for a Dream

the story of an addiction through editing and cinematography

Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky is based on a novel by author Hubert Selby Jr. It tells the story of four characters, Sarah Goldfarb, her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion and their friend Tyrone.

Sarah is a lonely widow whose only perks in life are sitting in front of the television all day and her son’s occasional visits. One day she gets an unexpected call announcing she has won an opportunity to be on her favorite television program. Determined to lose some extra weight and fit into her precious red dress she starts a dangerous diet, the price for her dream to come true.

Meanwhile, Harry and Tyrone, looking to fulfill their own dreams of success and Marion’s plans to become a clothes designer, start to deal drugs around their neighborhood, earning quick money but at the same time beginning a slow descent into the hell of illegal drugs.

There are two main themes in the film. The first is addiction, in many different levels. The four characters, each in their own way, sacrifice their present situations in exchange for a dream. This escape from reality through the search for an inexistent future creates a sense of emptiness in the present that needs to be filled with something. Whether it’s diet pills, television, heroin or hope, the obsession grows, devouring them and turning their dreams into drug-fueled utopias.

Another main theme in the story is the walls that separate individuals, the feeling of being close to someone but still unable to communicate, to simply say “I love you”. The characters are together in the nightmares their dreams become but, at the same time, great distances separate them, leaving them ultimately alone in their own suffering.

In consonance with the story, the film has a strong and harsh visual style that comes from the narrative. An important point is that it is told from a basically subjective point of view: we are not outsiders watching as the story develops, we are inside the characters minds, with their personal views and feelings.

To deliver this sense of subjectivity, the director uses many techniques. One of them is splitting the screen into two halves, so we can see what’s happening to different characters individually within a same situation. For example, this is used to introduce Harry and his mother at the very beginning, and the relationship between them. However, the most amazing use of this split-screen technique happens during a love scene between Marion and Harry, where we can feel what every kiss or touching feels for the two characters while at the same time, the topic of invisible walls separating characters is strongly present.

The story is divided into three acts and every aspect of the film serves this division: the music, a nerve-wrecking Requiem delivered by the Kronos string quartet separates the three seasons in the story, summer, fall and winter, each with their own realistic style of lighting and cinematography.

SUMMER the beginning of the dream

After introducing Sarah and Harry while we can hear the instruments being tuned, the Requiem starts, with a long establishing shot of Harry and Tyrone dragging a television around Coney Island and its ghostly roller coaster, giving us the mood and the ambience while describing the background to the story.

Once we learn about the dream the title speaks of, the obsession begins. All addictions are treated the same, whether its diet pills or hard drugs, with many cinematographic and editing techniques and in occasions, some subtle digital effects. Fast-motion, camera tricks and fades to white that represent the characters getting lost in their dreams, take us into an exaggerated but justified depiction of the characters’ mental state.

To create the illusion of the cycle of an addiction the director uses repetition of shots (Sarah checking her mail box obsessively, awaiting news about her television debut, pupils dilating, syringes being pushed…) and before and after situations (cutting from a shot with the characters feeling terrible to suddenly them being in bliss) to take us through the feelings brought by drug use.

At the same time, quick, repetitive music-video style sequences in the form of a collage of images and sounds tell us the story as it unfolds: the drug dealing and consumption, Marion sewing her designs, Sarah restlessly cleaning her apartment under the effect of pills… The extremely fast visual style takes the audience through their own high.

The first act ends with a heart-breaking scene between Harry and Sarah. He visits his mother, proud about his recent success and Sarah tells him about her future as a television guest star. Suddenly Harry notices something and there’s a sudden feeling that things are starting to go wrong. This is emphasized by the angle of the camera and the lighting: the characters faces are half lit. When they’re happily chatting about their success, the camera focuses on the lit side of their faces, “the bright side”. As soon as Harry notices his mom has a problem, the director crosses the line with a traveling shot and starts focusing on their unlit side, “the dark side”.

FALL getting lost in the dream

The second act begins as the first conflicts arise. The director uses the techniques mentioned before and new ones to increase the feelings of anxiety that appear when the addiction gets harder to keep up with. Accelerated and slowed down scenes, a fish-eye lens on the camera, triple exposition, all accompanied by distressing sounds help create a style that shows the desperation of the characters as they try to find, buy and take more drugs as their effects start decreasing.

An outstanding shot idea is also introduced in this act: a camera tied to the actors’ bodies that looks up at them as if looking from under their chin. The background keeps moving while the characters face is frozen in the middle of the frame, creating the definitive subjective shot.

With Marion’s desperate acts in order to score and Harry and Tyrone’s failed attempt to buy drugs, the second act ends with an incredibly hectic scene of Sarah suffering from hallucination as she sees people walking out of her television into her living room.

WINTER the dream is over

As the ending approaches the desperation and tension in the characters minds becomes more and more evident. Insisting on the subjectivity theme, the shots become tighter and tighter, from medium shots to close and extreme close ups.

Regarding the editing, the film cuts from character to character faster, with shorter sequences of the different story lines making them intertwine into a common feeling of pain as they all end in fetal position. The speed between cuts speeds up in mathematical progression, putting the audience into a state of great tension until a final last fade to white.

This is a hard film to watch, there is no happy ending, no end to the suffering as the characters, in their delirium, reach the limit. There is no catharsis, just a sense of loss. The dream is dead, after all, this is a Requiem.

In my opinion this is a film to watch, maybe not because you are sure to like it, but because you are most certainly not going to remain indifferent. What’s most outstanding is the way every single aspect (music, acting, editing, cinematography,…) works for the story, like all the instruments in an orchestra, perfectly directed to deliver a Requiem in honor of a long lost dream.

Requiem for a dream (2000):
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans
Script by Hubert Selby Jr. and Darren Aronofsky
Director of photography Matthew Libatique
Editing by Jay Rabinowitz
Music by Clint Mansell, interpreted by Kronos Quartet


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