Cinema and Media Studies Darren Aronofsky
by
Tarja Laine
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0305

Introduction

Darren Aronofsky (b. 1969) is an acclaimed American filmmaker known for his psychologically disturbing films. Before studying as a director at the American Film Institute, Aronofsky attended Harvard University, where he studied anthropology and filmmaking. He secured a reputation as a “cerebral” filmmaker with his feature debut Pi (1998), a low-budget, surrealist thriller in which a brilliant mathematician aims to reduce the world to the purely mathematical. After the film’s critical success and his Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Aronofsky boarded on his first major project, Requiem for a Dream (2001), which follows the spiraling plunge into desperation of its four main characters, whose lives closely intertwine through various phases of drug addiction and pathological obsession. Aronofsky’s third feature, The Fountain (2006), received ambiguous reviews that, while acknowledging its visual and stylistic merits, often described the film as blatantly “pseudo-metaphysical.” The film failed at the box office, but now enjoys a cult status. By contrast, Aronofsky’s fourth feature, The Wrestler (2008), was released to critical acclaim. It stars Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, faced with a life crisis that has entrapped him in both bodily and mental pain, due to his inability to accept change (aging) or to grasp emerging opportunities. Like The Wrestler, Black Swan (2010) epitomizes the physical and psychological pain faced by the performers who use their bodies in extreme ways to express themselves emotionally. Noah (2014), Aronofsky’s sixth feature, is a biblically inspired epic that portrays Noah as a prophet who experiences hallucinations of an impending apocalyptic flood as messages from God. Aronofsky’s most recent feature is mother! (2017), a psychological horror film that, like Noah, conveys ecological themes through damage to the body of the protagonist, a central theme in Aronofsky’s oeuvre that is related to rationality (Pi), obsession (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan), and finally environmental ethics (Noah, mother!). Many of Aronofsky’s films have received divided reviews and even provoked debate. For instance, there was considerable controversy regarding the graphic scenes of sexual abuse that are interwoven with scenes of physical and emotional torment in Requiem for a Dream. But it also drew critical acclaim and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Ellen Burstyn, who portraits elderly widow Sara Goldfarb in the film. Noah caused controversy for its interpretation of Noah as the first environmentalist, instead of remaining faithful to the biblical story. Most recently, mother! received similarly divided reviews as The Fountain. On the one hand, the film received praise for its artistic vision, its allegorical narrative, and the performance of its main characters, but it met with disapproval for its banality, nonsensicality, excess, and pretentiousness. It was described by horror novelist Mylo Carbia as the most controversial film since Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) after its screening in Venice Film Festival. It gained the reputation of being the most ambiguously received film in 2017, perhaps exemplifying the way in which Aronofsky’s films do not leave anyone indifferent.

General Overviews

At the time of writing there are two systematic book-length accounts of Aronofsky’s oeuvre in English. Laine 2015 is the first book-length study of Aronofsky, discussing his first five feature films. It provides a nuanced analysis of the aesthetic specificity of Aronofsky’s films, attributing to them a distinctively corporeal cinematic style, which reveals philosophical insights embedded in the aesthetic experience. Skorin-Kapov 2016 is a philosophically informed approach to Aronofsky’s first six feature films, which discusses the themes of life and death, addiction and obsession, as well as sacrifice and hope through an analysis of the visual style of his films. The third book-length study of Aronofsky is Burnette-Bletsch and Morgan 2017, an edited collection that provides a scholarly perspective on Aronofsky’s Noah from multiple vantage points. These include biblical studies, genre theory, and environmentalism. The work focuses on how understanding biblical narratives can enrich our understanding of faith. Similarly, Johnson 2015 argues that religious imagery in the cinema of Aronofsky renders the films into aesthetic experiences that are designed to invite the spectators to reflect on their own understanding of faith and spirituality.

  • Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, and Jon Morgan. Noah as Antihero: Darren Aronofsky’s Cinematic Deluge. London: Routledge, 2017.

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    This collection addresses the interest in Aronofsky’s Noah among scholars who combine biblical and film studies. Its aim is to evaluate the film critically from various perspectives such as ancient traditions, contemporary religious and cinematic contexts, and the way in which the film appropriates the biblical story. The book concludes with different ecocritical approaches such as “the problem with the animal” and the construction of the film’s ecological message.

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  • Johnson, Andrew. “Pain as a Pathway to Epiphany in the Films of Darren Aronofsky.” In Faith and Spirituality in the Masters of World Cinema. Vol. 3. Edited by Kenneth R. Morefield and Nicholas S. Olson, 111–124. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2015.

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    This essay argues that the central theme of the bodily destruction in Aronofsky’s films functions not merely as a consequence of blind ambition, but as a pathway to existential bliss. His obsessive characters seeking personal fulfillment tend to achieve spirituality, but only after their bodies have been broken. This insight might lead the spectators to reflect on the link between body and spiritual transcendence.

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  • Laine, Tarja. Bodies in Pain: Emotion and the Cinema of Darren Aronofsky. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015.

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    The first book-length study into Aronofsky’s films, which explores the way in which his films invite emotional engagement by means of affective resonance between the cinematic and the spectatorial body. It argues that Aronofsky’s films have a distinctively corporeal style that engages the spectators in an affective form of viewing that involves all the senses, ultimately engendering a process of philosophical reflection through emotional dynamics.

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  • Skorin-Kapov, Jadranka. Darren Aronofsky’s Films and the Fragility of Hope. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781501307003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The leading argument in this book-length study into Aronofsky’s first six feature-length films is that they all convey the power of hope gone out of proportion, and thereby becoming fragile. It analyzes the thematic and stylistic elements in the films from various perspectives such as psychoanalysis (Pi), Deleuzian philosophy (Requiem for a Dream), existentialism (The Fountain, Noah), genre theory (The Wrestler), and gender (Black Swan), including a transcription of the author’s conversation with the filmmaker.

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The Bible

Biblical references persist in Aronofsky’s films, running the gamut from visual quotations of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life in The Fountain, through the suffering of Christ in The Wrestler, to the biblical story of the flood in Noah. His most recent film, mother!, has also been interpreted as an allegory of the biblical story of God’s decision to turn the earth into a state of chaos and then to remake it, as in a reversal of the creation. It comes as no surprise, then, that the cinema of Aronofsky has attracted attention from scholars working within the emerging discipline of theological film studies, especially as regards his biblical epic Noah. Comparative approaches to Noah and the Bible do not seem particularly productive for most scholars, though. Many readings of the film consider Noah an exercise in artistic license, such as Kosior 2016, Lee 2016, and Manier 2014. They argue against the controversy surrounding the film, since the biblical flood narrative is inherently ambiguous, open, and polyphonic, which renders the story particularly suitable for creative reinterpretations and artistic transformations. Rather than evaluating the extent to which Noah can be considered biblical, both Pegg 2015 and Sanders 2014 argue that the film is best approached as theologically “fertile” rather than “accurate” insofar as it offers revised and nuanced views on biblical stories. When a comparison between the two texts has been made, such as in Heinegg 2014, it serves to illustrate some contemporary issue, such as ecological guilt and environmental awareness. Furthermore, there are readings that move away from biblical interpretations altogether, such as Copier and Vander Stichele 2016, which analyzes Noah as an apocalyptic disaster film, focusing on the way death and disaster feature as genre elements in the film.

  • Copier, Laura, and Caroline Vander Stichele. “Death and Disaster: 2012 Meets Noah.” In Close Encounters between Bible and Film: An Interdisciplinary Engagement. Edited by Laura Copier and Caroline Vander Stichele, 155–171. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

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    The article analyzes how from the perspective of genre Aronofsky’s Noah functions as a biblical epic about the flood on the one hand, and as a disaster blockbuster on the other. It discusses the controversy surrounding the film, and the way in which the spectacular blockbuster elements contribute to the flow of narrative information, conveying a vision of God and a specific interpretation of the biblical story.

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  • Heinegg, Peter. “Aronofsky’s Noah: The Water and the Fire Next Time.” CrossCurrents 64.2 (June 2014): 287–294.

    DOI: 10.1111/cros.12078Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This review draws a comparison between the biblical Noah and Aronofsky’s, arguing that while the former was mostly a positive character, the latter is a much darker figure, driven by blank despair for human malfeasance. The value of Aronofsky’s Noah, according to the author, is found in the way in which the film borrows from the Bible and extrapolates it in order to tell a serious story about ecological guilt.

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  • Kosior, Wojciech. “The Crimes of Love: The (Un)Censored Version of the Flood Story in Noah (2014).” Journal of Religion & Film 20.3 (2016).

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    This article proposes that the controversy surrounding Aronofsky’s Noah is not appropriate, since its ideas have been in use since Antiquity, often in a much more “uncensored” fashion. It argues that the flood narrative is inherently ambiguous to the extent that it is not justified to speak of an original meaning. The film is by necessity conditioned by artistic license rather than by the recreation of the biblical text.

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  • Lee, Lydia. “The Flood Narratives in Gen-9 and Darren Aronofsky’s Film Noah.” Old Testament Essays 29.2 (2016): 297–317.

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    Rather than asking to what extent Aronofsky’s Noah corresponds to the biblical flood narrative, this article compares the two from a polyphonic perspective. It argues that the extent to which the cinematic and biblical narratives share resemblances and divergences demonstrates the open nature of the flood story. It is this polyphonic quality of biblical texts that render creative transformations and reinterpretations possible such as in Noah.

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  • Manier, David. “What Is Left of Creation.” PsycCRITIQUES 59.43 (October 2014).

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    This review considers Noah an exercise in artistic license, arguing that the deviations from the biblical story are the most interesting aspects of the film. Although there are references to various religious texts such as Jewish Midrash and the Book of Enoch, the main theme of the film is environmental. This, however, is inconsistent with the commercial standards of the film, which can be considered the film’s biggest flaw.

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  • Pegg, Danny. “Noah.” Journal of Religion & Film 19.1 (2015).

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    Rather than evaluating whether Aronofsky’s Noah is biblically accurate, this review approaches the film as “theologically fertile,” offering a nuanced view on current interdisciplinary struggles that have to do with applying standards of one field onto another. It also shows that while the film is not an “accurate” depiction of the flood narrative, there is a clear movement from Old Testament wrath to love and forgiveness of the New Testament.

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  • Sanders, Seth. “Noah: The Movie.” Religion in the News 15 (2014): 30–32.

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    This article studies the extent to which Aronofsky’s Noah can be considered “biblical.” It argues that, due to the incoherence of the biblical narrative, misinterpretation is required for the flood story to be translated into cinematic action. In contrast to critics who condemn the film for not being true to the original Bible story, the author considers it a form of Jewish exegesis that revises, rather than merely retells, biblical narratives.

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Body

The cinema of the body is a term that describes the ability of the filmic medium to induce vivid, unsettling aesthetic experiences that are often associated with filmmakers such as Claire Denis and Gaspar Noé. But it is equally relevant for understanding the cinema of Aronofsky and the way in which his films engage the spectators by means of their sheer corporeal film style. His films are full of tension-filled conflicts between body and mind, as shown in Subramanian and Lagerwey 2013, which studies Black Swan as a depiction of mental self-destruction based on the denial of the body. Tyrer 2015 reads Nina’s struggle in this film as a conflict between the immaterial, algebraic object of desire on the one hand, and the female body and the embodied sublime on the other. Aronofsky’s films are also filled with bodily (self) injuries and cognitive disorders. In Calvo Pascual 2016, the origin of Nina’s eating disorders and practices of self-harm is attributed to her mental delusion that physical self can be overcome by acts of will. Martin Sandino 2013 approaches this self-induced pain and the breaking of the self in Black Swan from an autoethnographic point of view, arguing that pain and the physical ability to make art have a certain effect on the artistic process. In Moreno 2009, different configurations of drug-using bodies in Requiem for a Dream are analyzed as phases that can be found as chapters in the film like “Summer” (hydraulic), “Fall” (habituated), and “Winter” (destructive) in the film. The Wrestler too has been discussed in terms of the body, such as in Carlin and Cole 2011, which argues that Rourke’s and Tomei’s performances are evaluated in terms of their aging bodies both within and outside the film. The material limits of the body are central in Balthaser 2012 as well, as an aging commodity (mis)used by capitalism. In addition to analyzing the body as an object and subject of commodity in The Wrestler, Rodriguez Plate 2009 studies its religious associations beyond mind-body dualism. Finally, Aronofsky is fond of cinematic techniques that aim at direct sensorial and bodily engagement such as the frenetic rhythm and the techno-cinematic style in Requiem for a Dream, studied in Bianco 2004, or techniques of morphing, such as in Black Swan, that cross the boundaries between representation and performance and that are designed to overpower the spectator, as shown in Christiansen 2011. The direct sensorial aesthetic strategies are also central in Bovens 2018, which argues that the resulting intense embodied experience of such strategies can trigger self-reflective ethical insights in the spectator.

  • Balthaser, Benjamin. “Re-Staging the Great Depression: Genre as Social Memory in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.” Works & Days 30.1–2 (2012): 249–264.

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    This article studies The Wrestler as a film deeply invested in the memory of the Great Depression. It argues that Randy is faced with two forms of “affective labor” (Hardt and Negri): one that is highly paid but unsteady, and other that is low-paid and humiliating. Rather than constructing binaries between performance and reality, the film defetishizes performative labor, while offering capitalist critique by means of the material limits of body.

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  • Bianco, Jamie Skye. “Techno-Cinema.” Comparative Literature Studies 41.3 (2004): 377–403.

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    This Deleuze-inspired analysis of Requiem for a Dream emphasizes the centrality of frenetic rhythm in the film. Through the relentless organization of this rhythm, the spectators themselves sense and feel drugged in the explosion of the techno-cinematic style of the film, which results in a bombardment of affect that is felt in the flesh, as the protagonists’ bodies attempt to escape one’s own drugged body.

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  • Bovens, Veerle. “Embodied Ethics: A Phenomenological Analysis of Darren Aronofsky’s Sociopolitical Themes as Conveyed through Three Films.” MA thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2018.

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    This MA thesis aims to understand the ethical-political significance of three films by Aronofsky—Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and mother!—by analyzing them from a phenomenological perspective. It argues that the films sensitize the spectator to social stigmas, such as drug addition and mental illness, as well as to environmental issues, such as climate change, in ways that render the films effectively political.

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  • Calvo Pascual, Mónica. “‘It Was Perfect’: Desire, Corporeality, and Denial in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Revista de Filología Inglesa 37 (2016): 119–132.

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    The article is a counter-patriarchal analysis of eating disorders and practices of self-harm in Black Swan. It argues that these practices are the protagonist’s means to escape her body, and her path of self-destruction is an inevitable outcome of her corporeal illusion that one can overcome the physical self by mental acts of will.

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  • Carlin, Nathan, and Thomas R. Cole. “The Aging Bodies of Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 56.1 (2011): 85–101.

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    The article analyzes The Wrestler as a commentary on aging performers. Within the film, Rourke’s and Tomei’s characters are ultimately defined not by their performance, but by their aging bodies. And in the context of Hollywood, both real-life performers were once considered sex symbols, but are now past their youthful prime. In addition, the article draws a parallel between wrestling and striptease, considering wrestling a form of “male stripping.”

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  • Christiansen, Steen. “Body Refractions: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Akademisk Kvarter 3 (2011): 306–315.

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    This analysis is concerned with Black Swan and the bodily transgression of its protagonist, which takes the form of crossing the boundary between representation and performance, between a mirror image and a morph. These notions of transgression and the morph can help to explain the aesthetic specificity of the film, designed to “overpower” the spectator as an example of the cinema of the body.

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  • Martin Sandino, Amanda. “On Perfection: Pain And Arts-Making in Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 12.3 (2013): 305–317.

    DOI: 10.1080/14702029.2013.10820084Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In contrast to studying disability and art practice from an objective, qualitative perspective, this article employs an autoethnographic method in analyzing Black Swan. Approaching the film as someone in chronic pain, the author is interested in the way in which achieving perfection in Black Swan is connected to the breaking of the self à la Artaud. What is pain’s effect upon the artistic process and the physical ability to make art?

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  • Moreno, Christopher M. “Body Politics and Spaces of Drug Addiction in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.” GeoJournal 74 (2009): 219–226.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10708-008-9223-zSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this analysis, which is inspired by Deleuze’s and Guattari’s understanding of the body, the author explores different configurations of drug-using bodies and spaces of addiction. Like the film, it is divided in “chapters” entitled “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter,” which demonstrates moving from a hydraulic through a habituated and finally to an affectively blocked space of addiction.

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  • Rodriguez Plate, S. Brent. “Pop-Eye: Meat The Wrestler.” Religion Dispatches (18 June 2009).

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    This critical review explores the religious connotations of flesh in The Wrestler. Starting from an observation that its protagonists use their bodies both as commodities and as sources of livelihood, it argues that the film’s religious references were missed by reviewers due to a common understanding of the body as object of crucifixion and the soul as subject of resurrection, a dualistic view that is refuted in Randy’s final, Christ-like leap.

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  • Subramanian, Janani, and Jorie Lagerwey. “Food, Sex, Love, and Bodies in Eat Pray Love and Black Swan.” Studies in Popular Culture 36.1 (Fall 2013): 1–20.

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    This article reads Black Swan as a depiction of a woman’s destructive relationship to herself, brought about by acts of extreme denial of bodily appetites. It argues that the film examines the protagonist’s “interiority” in ways that suggest her body is merely an extension of her psyche. Highlighting deprivation and discipline, the film uses the protagonist’s starving body to show the alienation of her bodily relationship with herself and with others.

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  • Tyrer, Ben. “An Atheist’s Guide to Feminine Jouissance: On Black Swan and the Other Satisfaction.” In Embodied Encounters: New Approaches to Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Edited by Agnieszka Piotrowska, 131–146. London: Routledge, 2015.

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    A reading of Black Swan that is inspired by neo-Lacanian film-philosophy. It explores embodied experience through the psychoanalytical concept of jouissance. In this reading, Nina’s struggle in the film is related to the distinction between the unattainable, phallic jouissance based on objet a, and the immanent, feminine jouissance based on the body and the embodied sublime.

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The Double

In an interview with IndieWire, Aronofsky explains how his Black Swan was inspired by The Double by Dostoyevsky (1846), a novel in which the main character repeatedly encounters his doppelgänger, who is a polar opposite of himself: “I had the idea of the ballet world and was thinking of doing something with The Double [ . . ] I saw Swan Lake [with] a black swan and a white swan played by one dancer [ . . ] It was a eureka moment.” It comes as no surprise, then, that many readings of the film are inspired by the concept of the double. The importance of mirrors in Black Swan’s mise en scène is highlighted in Clover 2011 and Jackson 2013. Clover argues that the excessive doubling on the aesthetic level of the film drives the protagonist insane. Jackson though bases his findings on research into the human mirror neuron system, exploring the neuroscientific vision of over-imitation in the film between parent and child on the one hand, and ballet and performance on the other. A dualistic interpretation is central in Dhillon 2011, which reads Black Swan through Nietzschean philosophy as a depiction of conflict between the Dionysian “frenzy of becoming” and the Apollonian “veil of reason.” Similarly, Plate 2016 argues that Black Swan centers around dualism between the mind and the body, the self and the other, black and white, yin and yang, reality and fantasy, masculinity and femininity. And Shaviro 2011 discusses the film as a female doubling of The Wrestler, a companion piece which the film was always intended to be. But the concept of the double is present in other Aronofsky films as well, such as Max’s doppelgänger dressed up in traditional Hasidic costume, dripping blood on the subway floor in Pi. In this film, the theme of the double is also present in the visual conflict of black and white that manifests itself in the go game played by Max and Sol, as well as in the bright white highlights contrasted with stark black that dominate the visual quality of the film. In Requiem for a Dream, there is the haunting, more youthful Sara appearing in the Tabby Tibbons Show; Tomas the conquistador and Tom the space traveler are doubles for Tommy the neuroscientist in The Fountain; and the Ram appears as Randy’s ego ideal in The Wrestler. Furthermore, one could argue that the constant doubling in Aronofsky’s oeuvre thematizes the reflective character of cinema that is self-consciously parasitic of other forms of expression such as mathematics, wrestling, and ballet.

  • Clover, Joshua. “The Looking Glass.” Film Quarterly 64.3 (Spring 2011): 7–9.

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    The article discusses the concept of (uncanny) doubling as a paradigmatic trope in cinema, both inter- and intrafilmically. It points to the role of mirrors in Black Swan, and the way in which the film “doubles” other art forms: the ballet Swan Lake, for example, in which the principal dancer must double herself. Then, there is a doubling between mother and daughter, Nina and Lily. The author argues that the protagonist is driven mad precisely by this excessive doubling.

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  • Dhillon, Dharmender. “Black Swan.” Philosophy Now 86 (2011): 46–47.

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    This article is a Nietzsche-inspired reading of Black Swan with a particular reference to two clashing worldviews: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. These worldviews are embodied in the Apollonian White Swan (idealistic, disciplined) and the Dionysian Black Swan (passionate, emotional). Nina’s urge to overcome her limits can be seen as a Dionysian “frenzy of becoming” through which the Apollonian “veil of reason” can be lifted.

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  • Jackson, Tony E. “Social Neuroscience, the Imitative Animal, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Style 47.4 (Winter 2013): 445–465.

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    This essay studies how imitation, a neuroscientific concept based on research into the mirror neuron system, is embodied in Black Swan. It argues that the film, with its use of mirrors and doppelgängers, communicates the neuroscientific vision of (over)imitation on the level of parent-child dyad on the one hand, and ballet as a performative art on the other.

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  • Plate, S. Brent. “Black Swan.” Journal of Religion & Film 14.2 (2016).

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    This review emphasizes the principal oppositions in Black Swan that center around dualism between the mind and the body, the self and the other, black and white, yin and yang, reality and fantasy, masculinity and femininity, concluding that it is the protagonist’s neck where the opposites meet.

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  • Shaviro, Steven. “Black Swan.” The Pinocchio Theory (January 2011)

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    This review describes Black Swan as the female equivalent of The Wrestler on the one hand, and a “remake” of All About Eve on the other. It argues that Nina’s sacrificial redemption through ballet compensates for her inauthentic self, while the film mirrors the cold cynicism of a backstage melodrama in which a new dancer replaces the prima ballerina and is in turn threatened by her rival.

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Gender and Sexuality

From the perspective of gender, Aronofsky’s mother! has already garnered a lot of discussion. The film interprets God as a masculine force that destroys and starts over his creation, Mother Earth, who is completely submissive, willing to sacrifice everything. In Wyatt 2017, feminist film criticism is presented as the most suitable approach to this film, which is equally easy to be labeled as misogynist, or as a commentary on misogyny. The stereotypical gender issues emerge in Black Swan too, which depicts a young ballerina in the world of dominating men that pits women against women, which has not gone unnoticed among feminist critics. For instance, Fisher and Jacobs 2011 debates whether the film is an “Irigarayan horror story” that critiques patriarchal power structures or a “masturbatory male fantasy” that confirms them. Similarly, Corpus 2011 analyzes patriarchal structures in the world of ballet, comparing them to structures of female objectification in the classical Hollywood system. Nelson 2012 and Nelson 2015 analyze Black Swan as a gendered narrative from the perspective of gothic feminism, comparing the protagonist’s struggle between control and passion to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) on the one hand, and arguing that the “staged weakness” in the film is a disguised form of female power on the other. Furthermore, Black Swan is particularly open to interpretations that explain the peculiarities of Nina’s psychic pathology in terms of repressed sexuality in relation with artistic performance. In the film, the dancer’s repressed sexuality finds expression in her uncanny double, projected onto her uninhibited rival dancer, Lily. Nina represses the sexual aspects of her being possibly because she experiences them as self-destructive impulses, and the film strongly suggests that this is caused by her troubled relationship with her overprotective mother Erica. It comes as no surprise, then, that the film has inspired a number of readings that emphasize sexuality, especially in the feminist context. For instance, Ritzenhoff 2012 discusses sexuality in Black Swan in terms of masochistic violence that reflects normative ideas of femininity in popular culture. Efthimiou 2012 explores the transformation into the “monstrous-feminine” in Black Swan as a process that conjoins sexuality and death, thereby destabilizing the symbolic order. By contrast, Gibson and Walske 2011 argues that Black Swan re-establishes the patriarchal symbolic order insofar as it represents lesbian sex as a spectacle for the male gaze. Similarly, Qaisar 2016 argues that the film is structured by and for the male gaze, and that it highlights patriarchy in its depiction of bodily transformation, subjected to sexist, misogynistic norms. While Nina’s experience and suffering in Black Swan are indeed partly structured by her gender and sexual repression, it is at the same time similar to and fundamentally different from the emotional and physical pain undergone by Randy in The Wrestler, who is trapped in the world of testosterone-laden masculinity. Barker and Cottrell 2015 examines Randy’s entrapment in relation to the tracking shot, which is a salient, recurring element in the film. They argue that this technique has phenomenological significance, addressing the issue of masculinity as a norm taken up by a real body. Dickerson 2012 too argues that The Wrestler is a larger narrative about masculinity in the context of contemporary America, in which Randy becomes a symbol of the unprivileged white male. Similarly, in John and Viswamohan 2015, The Wrestler is interpreted as an allegory of the crisis of masculinity in contemporary America, and the masochistic pain it depicts, as the only way to maintain a sense of (gender) identity.

  • Barker, Jennifer M., and Adam Cottrell. “Eyes at the Back of His Head: Precarious Masculinity and the Modern Tracking Shot.” Paragraph 38.1 (2015): 86–100.

    DOI: 10.3366/para.2015.0148Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper examines masculinity in relation to the tracking shot in The Wrestler, arguing that the floating camera behind the character seems unmistakably fetched to his body. It asks what the phenomenological significance is of the camera/body relationship in this film, arguing that the complexity of the follow shot addresses the issue of masculine norms and how these might be taken up by real bodies.

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  • Corpus, Rina Angela. “Ballet in the Dark: A Critical Review of Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky.” Humanities Diliman 8.2 (2011).

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    This critical review analyzes the subtexts of power that surround patriarchy, cinema, and ballet culture. In contrast to accounts that emphasize female agency and empowerment in the world of ballet, it argues that Black Swan focuses on women’s victimization in ways that might not be so different from objectification of women’s bodies in classical Hollywood.

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  • Dickerson, Nik. “The Wrestler (Review).” Journal of Sport History 39.1 (Spring 2012): 139–141.

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    This short review focuses on The Wrestler as a generic narrative in which an athlete attempts to return to the pinnacle of his career on the one hand, and as a larger narrative about ethnicity, gender, and American nationalism, with Randy the Ram as a symbol of the unprivileged and disadvantaged white male.

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  • Efthimiou, Olivia. “Becoming the Monstrous-Feminine: Sex, Death and Transcendence in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Interactive Media 8 (2012): 1–30.

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    This article takes the seminal work on the “monstrous-feminine” by Barbara Creed as its starting point. It explores the protagonist’s transformation as a process of becoming between sexuality and death. This transformation is equivalent to becoming-vampire, which destabilizes the symbolic order. This in turn becomes a representation of the “monstrous sublime” even when the protagonist in the end retakes her proper place in relation to the symbolic.

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  • Fisher, Tim, and Amber Jacobs. “Debating Black Swan: Gender and Horror.” Film Quarterly 65.1 (Fall 2011): 58–62.

    DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2011.65.1.58Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A conversation piece about Black Swan, in which Tim Fisher reads the film in feminist terms as “Irigarayan horror,” insofar as it dramatizes Irigaray’s critique of the patriarchal construction of femininity. By contrast, Amber Jacobs argues that the film is merely a reproduction of patriarchal imaginary with no alternative version of femininity that would be truly Irigarayan.

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  • Gibson, Katie L., and Melanie Walske. “Disciplining Sex in Hollywood: A Critical Comparison of Blue Valentine and Black Swan.” Women & Language 34.2 (Fall 2011): 79–96.

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    This article analyzes the performance of oral sex in Black Swan and its rhetoric of sexuality in general. It argues that the film re-establishes patriarchal conventions of male gaze and visual pleasure in its representation of lesbianism as a spectacle-to-be-looked-at. The conclusion is that the film performs to a “panoptical male connoisseur” and disciplines the expression of female sexuality as the protagonist’s sexual experimentation results in insanity and death.

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  • John, Vimal Mohan, and Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan. “Narcissism, Masochism and the Reconstituted Male: Masculine Performances in Fight Club and The Wrestler.” Journal of Creative Communications 10.3 (2015): 276–287.

    DOI: 10.1177/0973258615614419Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article analyzes The Wrestler as a masochistic spectacle that lacks the “proof” of “genuine” masculine identity. It argues that the film is both a celebration and critique of machismo. While incorporating the logic of violence in a distinctly subversive fashion, it argues that masochistic pain is the only way to experience a “certainty” of existence in the film. This symbolizes the “crisis of masculinity” at the turn of the 21st century in America.

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  • Nelson, Barbara A. “Two Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Cinematographic Art & Documentation 5.9 (2012): 29–36.

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    This article presents two possible readings of Aronofsky’s visceral revision of Swan Lake in Black Swan. The first is based on gender, and it compares the film to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, arguing that both works depict a female struggle between control and passion. The second offers a more ethical interpretation based on Emmanuel Levinas and his ideas about facing the vulnerability of the Other.

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  • Nelson, Barbara. “Remapping Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake as a Gothic Feminist Tale.” Journal of Research in Gender Studies 5.2 (2015): 85–92.

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    The article analyzes Black Swan through the lens of gothic feminism. Avoiding dualistic readings that suggest that the film is either a male fantasy or a depiction of psychosis, the author argues that Nina can be likened to passive-aggressive heroines such as Jane Eyre, who use staged weakness as (disguised) female power. The ending of the film then fulfills the mission of the gothic heroine, in which the protagonist becomes an all-powerful goddess even when it marks her breakdown.

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  • Qaisar, Rafia Moienuddin. “Sexuality, Insanity and Violence: An Analysis of the Politics of Gender in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” The Literary Herald 1.4 (2016): 117–122.

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    This reflectionist reading of Black Swan argues that an inherently misogynistic society is manifested in the film, structured by a male gaze. Inspired by well-known feminist film scholars such as Laura Mulvey and Barbara Creed, the article contends that the film highlights patriarchal ideologies, which interpellate women as beings transforming their own bodies to conform to the sexist, stereotypical norms of gender and sexuality.

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  • Ritzenhoff, Karen A. “Self-Mutilation and Dark Love in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001).” In Screening the Dark Side of Love: From Euro-Horror to American Cinema. Edited by Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Karen Randell, 109–130. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137096630_8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay analyzes masochism in Black Swan as sexual violence directed against one’s own body. It discusses the concept of the “wound” as a metaphor for the way in which sexuality appears in popular culture. Inspired by Carol Clover’s notion of the “final girl,” it argues that the film’s ending illustrates how the protagonist’s sexual prudence is turned against herself instead of against her masculine oppressor.

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  • Wyatt, Andrew. “Feminine Mystique: ‘mother!’.” Gateway Cinephile (September 2017).

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    This critical review discusses the screen time devoted to physical and emotional female labor in service of the man in mother!. It argues that the film evokes a viscerally uncomfortable, psychologically repellent experience for (male) spectators due to its depiction of patriarchy as a gluttonous aperture that devours everything that women can give. At the same time the film invites opposite interpretations in its clichéd representation of women being closer to nature than men.

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Film Form and Style

Even though it might be argued that Aronofsky’s films are independent of any definable genre or signature style, a certain aesthetic and thematic continuity can be observed nevertheless. It is especially the “hybrid” quality of his films that have made Aronofsky famous. They blur the line between fantasy and reality, employing the styles of various genres, such as science fiction, psychological thriller, melodrama, fantasy, and body horror. In his earlier films there is the specific on-location aesthetics that was inspired by Aronofsky’s childhood neighborhood on Coney Island. These earlier films became also known for his extensive use of Snorricam, which is a camera rigged to the actor’s body, facing the actor directly, and creating a hyper-subjective effect. Likewise they are famous for the technique of hip-hop montage that attempts to apply the principles of music sampling to the aesthetic system of film, with accompanying sound effects. For all but mother!, the musical scores of Aronofsky’s film have been composed by Clint Mansell, and in Pi and Requiem for a Dream he created a multilevel rhythmic structure with an intense, energetic force. Kulezic-Wilson 2008 analyzes this rhythmic structure as “techno-kinetic,” inspired by hip-hop music, with a vigorous drive that organizes cinematography and editing, as well as sound, in Pi and Requiem for a Dream. The concept of rhythm is also central in Thompson 2011, which analyzes Requiem for a Dream as an intense, visceral experience designed to engage the spectators with the characters as they are pushed to their emotional and physical limits. Engagement with characters in Requiem for a Dream is the main concern in Curry 2013 too, which argues that Aronofsky’s cinematic effects invite us to evaluate addiction from the perspective of a drug addict. On the director’s commentary track of this film, Aronofsky explains that he is “trying to come up with a visual style that is born out of the narrative [ . . ] trying to figure out what the movie is about and then creating a visual language out of this.” But even though as a filmmaker he values visual style that aims at sensorial engagement over “traditional” story development, this does not mean that his films would lack a narrative structure altogether. Beck 2004 analyzes this structure in Requiem for a Dream, arguing that it may be considered a “non-narrative” in its form insofar as the film distorts “reality” and “fiction” in “nonsensical” ways.

  • Beck, James C. “The Concept of Narrative: An Analysis of Requiem for a Dream(.com) and Donnie Darko(.com).” Convergence 10.3 (2004): 55–82.

    DOI: 10.1177/135485650401000305Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article discusses the notion of convergence and the limits of narrative in Requiem for a Dream. It suggests that the film may be considered non-narrative even while it retains its emotionality and catharsis. It observes that Aronofsky’s film distorts “reality” and “fiction” in ways that allow forms of “unreality” or “nonsensicality” to emerge, forms that are also inherent to the film’s official website.

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  • Curry, Renée R. “Beautiful Junkies: Images of Degradation in Requiem for a Dream.” Imaginations 4.1 (2013): 7–16.

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    This essay analyzes the way in which the cinematic effects combined with images of drug abuse in Requiem for a Dream invite us to evaluate addiction from the perspective of a junkie. Faced with the monstrousness of drug addiction, the essay asks to what extent can ugliness be presented as “beautiful” in a work of art, arguing that the beauty in the film lures us into the horrific situation of an addict.

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  • Kulezic-Wilson, Danielja. “A Musical Approach to Filmmaking: Hip-hop and Techno Composing Techniques and Models of Structuring in Darren Aronofsky’s π.” Music and the Moving Image 1.1 (2008): 19–34.

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    This essay studies the musical structures that organize the style and the internal rhythm of the film Pi throughout. It distinguishes between hip-hop style as the film’s microrhythm, and techno style as its macrorhythm, arguing that the former illustrates the protagonist’s compulsive behavior, as well as his psychological decline, while the latter organizes the film throughout as an “unpredictable stream” beyond a strictly narrative function.

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  • Thompson, Lara. “In Praise of Speed: The Value of Velocity in Contemporary Cinema.” Dandelion 2.1 (2011): 1–15.

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    This article analyzes the intense, accelerating rhythm in Requiem for a Dream, which pushes both the characters and the spectators to their limits. It argues that the film is emblematic of the power of cinematic rhythm to be able to elicit visceral, “mirrored” emotions in the spectator. Through immersion into the audiovisual rhythm, the spectators bond with the characters in ways that prompt contemplation long after the film has ended.

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Identity Crisis

It can be said that all Aronofsky’s films plunge deeply into the perceptual and mental subjectivity of their characters, but that they do not necessarily invite identification from the spectator, which is an interesting paradox. The reason is that these characters are often damaged, emotionally isolated unto themselves, psychologically disturbed, and/or in the midst of identity crisis of some sort, which complicates identification. In Pi, the protagonist experiences an existential crisis in his extreme quest to find meaning, purpose, and value in life through mathematics. Requiem for a Dream follows its protagonists’ spiraling plunge into self-destruction followed by their drug-infused chase of hollow dreams. Eisenstein 2016 discusses the latter film in Lacanian terms, arguing that identity crisis in the film stems from the signifier/signified disjunction and the resulting loss of jouissance. In The Fountain, the main protagonist is on an existential quest to defeat death until he slowly comes to terms with mortality, while in The Wrestler, death becomes the main character’s only solution for holding onto his sense of identity, however unrealistic. For Lennihan 2011, this “solution” is the result of the protagonist’s “persona” dominating his sense of self, with fatal consequences. Similar performer/person distinction is present in Black Swan, which is discussed in Bignall 2013 in terms of Deleuzian “becoming-animal” as a process of radical transformation gone wrong. Schubert 2013 and Sexeny 2015 also discuss the film as the depiction of identity crisis embedded in internally focalized narration through a mentally unstable protagonist in The Wrestler, and as a distorted organization of the ego in the mirror stage in Black Swan. Furthermore, Noah too can be seen as the depiction of an existential crisis borne out by being torn between righteousness and sinfulness, a dilemma that has to be solved by a more humane relationship with God.

  • Bignall, Simone. “Black Swan, Cracked Porcelain and Becoming-Animal.” Culture, Theory and Critique 54.1 (2013): 121–138.

    DOI: 10.1080/14735784.2012.749110Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author considers Black Swan through Deleuzian philosophy. She focuses on his concept of “becoming-animal,” arguing that the radical transformation that the protagonist undergoes is connected to the “crack” in Deleuzian thinking. This enables the protagonist to expand her established self, although in this process she “breaks like a glass.” This exemplifies the way in which the film can inspire us to reflect on possibilities of transformation without ending up destroyed.

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  • Eisenstein, Paul. “Devouring Holes: Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and the Tectonics of Psychoanalysis.” International Journal of Žižek Studies 1.3 (2016).

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    The article takes its inspiration from the “pillow talk” scene in Requiem for a Dream, in which a split screen separates the two protagonists. The author considers the function of the split similar to the bar that separates the signifier and the signified in Lacanian thinking. This prompts the author to discuss romance and other relationships in terms of signifier/signified disjunction, which results in an unavoidable loss of jouissance.

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  • Lennihan, Lydia. “The Dark Feminine in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.” In Jung & Film II: The Return: Further Post-Jungian Takes on the Moving Image. Edited by Christopher Hauke and Luke Hockley, 243–252. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    In this reading, the author considers The Wrestler illustrative of what happens when an individual develops his self (“Randy”) to equal with his persona (“the Ram”). In Jungian terms, the “Ram” dominates Randy’s consciousness and has to be sacrificed for the renewal of his life. Another Jungian insight in the film deals with feminine and masculine archetypes that need to be integrated in order to reclaim identity.

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  • Schubert, Stefan. “‘Yourself’: Narrative Instability and Unstable Identities in Black Swan.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 14.1 (2013).

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    This article discusses unstable identities in Black Swan through the concept of narrative instability, characterized by an inconsistent and disrupted story world. It argues that the film epitomizes an ontological and epistemological crisis of identity, and suggests that any attempt to solve that crisis is futile and potentially fatal. The crisis manifests itself on the level of narration, which is focalized internally through the protagonist, who suffers a mental disorder.

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  • Sexeny, Julie. “Identification and Mutual Recognition in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” In Embodied Encounters: New Approaches to Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Edited by Agnieszka Piotrowska, 51–59. London: Routledge, 2015.

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    This psychoanalytically informed reading of Black Swan and the identity crisis of its protagonist, Nina, explores the distinction between identification as objectification, and identification as mutual recognition of the other. The chapter argues that this distinction is mirrored in the way in which Nina struggles to individuate herself from her mother on the one hand, and to integrate both good and bad aspects of her self on the other.

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Mind and Intellect

Despite the centrality of the body in Aronofsky’s cinema, as a filmmaker he can also be considered “cerebral” insofar as his films often explore such topics as mental states, madness, hallucinations, social anxiety, addiction, psychosis, schizophrenia, and neuroscience. Furthermore, on a thematic level there is his constant interest in characters suffering from severe obsessions. Their obsessions often lead to an emotional shutdown that disturbs the relationships of these characters with the surrounding world. This relationship is explored in Achar 2018 who discusses the cinematic world in Aronofsky’s films as projections of the mind of their protagonists. For instance in Pi, the protagonist’s obsessive goal is to reduce the natural world to the purely quantifiable through deduction of mathematical patterns in order to exert control over it. He believes that everything in the world, including the stock market, can be understood and explained in numbers, and this mathematical premise becomes the driving force of the film. On the level of aesthetics, the film regularly cuts to mathematical formulas, numerical series, and Fibonacci patterns, which are depicted as spirals, fir cones, fractals, and seashells. It also frequently uses the aesthetic principle of the golden ratio, which is for example often assumed—albeit incorrectly—to have been used by Leonardo da Vinci in his famous drawing Vitruvian Man (1487). An ever-increasing number of digits representing π is regularly running in the background, and on top of this mathematical diagrams, algebraic equations, cerebral cross-sections, neural network models, and stock market data randomly appear in quick succession. Mathematically inspired readings of this film include Eisenstein 2004, which equates the irrational number π with the Lacanian primordial signifier that structures the subject’s symbolic universe. Klaver 2005 pays attention to the way in which mathematics can be represented within the framework of narrative film, arguing that in Pi mathematics becomes a performance that can be likened to mathematical axioms. By contrast, Stone 2007 contends that the film displays a profound and misleading view on mathematics, making wildly inaccurate assumptions about numeracy. Woods 2012 approaches the topic from the perspective of phenomenological psychology, arguing that the protagonist’s madness originates from his extreme rationality that denies both the body and the object of knowledge itself. Aronofsky’s films have also attracted the attention of clinical psychologists, such as in Devis, et al. 2012, which draws links between perfectionism, gender, identity, and eating disorders as well as other mental disturbances as depicted in Black Swan. Vanier and Searight 2012 too considers Black Swan an apt representation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, arguing that it potentially enables better understanding of compulsive behavior, physical self-harm, and mental delusions. Lord 2009 explores the neuroscientific themes in The Fountain from a different point of view. Through the lens of magical realism, it argues that the film helps us understand what goes on in the mind during the process of creation. Pisters 2010 compares The Fountain to Pi through the concept of Baroque mathematics by Leibniz on the one hand, and through Deleuze’s ideas on thought on the other. Deleuzian concepts of the virtual and the actual are central in Pisters 2016, which studies the affective qualities in Black Swan, arguing that the obsessive-compulsive disorders in the film are symptomatic of contemporary capitalism and a technology-driven media world. Similarly, Marston 2015 considers Black Swan as symptomatic in the context of neoliberalism and post-feminism, arguing that the depiction of mental disorders in the film functions as a metaphor for the Hollywood star system.

  • Achar, Alberto. “Psychotic Characters & Bizarre Objects: The Representation of the Mind in Darren Aronofsky’s Films.” MA Thesis Chapman University, 2018.

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    This MA Thesis is a study into the way in which Aronofsky’s cinematic settings function as locations that reflect the complex inner world of the protagonists, and how the viewers are invited to enter that location in order to experience it affectively. Drawing from psychoanalytic object-relations theory, the thesis argues that the presence of ‘bizarre objects’ functions as cinematic cues that immerse the spectator into the psychotic mind of the characters.

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  • Devis, Kathryn Z., Brianna L. Kolhoss, and Aubree K. Papaj. “Black Swan.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 24.2 (2012): 159–163.

    DOI: 10.1080/08952833.2012.648126Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This film review explores the inner conflict of the protagonist struggling with issues concerning perfectionism, gender roles, and identity crisis through a feminist lens. It draws links between perfectionism and parental expectations, eating disorders and societal standards, as well as mental disorders and a demanding career. It considers the film as an important comment on the need for actual therapists to attend to the pressures women face in such circumstances.

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  • Eisenstein, Paul. “Visions and Numbers: Aronofsky’s π and the Primordial Signifier.” In Lacan and Contemporary Film. Edited by Todd McGowan and Sheila Kunkle, 1–28. New York: Other Press, 2004.

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    A Lacanian-inspired reading of Aronofsky’s Pi through the notion of the primordial signifier. It argues that the film manages to isolate the nonsensical dimension of the primordial signifier, that dimension which cannot signify anything. The author argues that the quest to find the exact value of the irrational number π, which is the central theme of the film, is equivalent to the terror of the Real to the Symbolic.

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  • Klaver, Elizabeth. “Proof, π, and Happy Days: The Performance of Mathematics.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 38.1 (Spring 2005): 5–22.

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    This article pays attention to the significance of “doing mathematics” in performance genres, and especially to the question to what extent can mathematics, not just mathematicians, be represented in a narrative framework. It argues that the most intriguing aspect of Aronofky’s Pi is its performance of mathematics insofar as the axiom it presents, although in a metaphorical and literary form, is similar to the mathematical axioms that enable the building of an edifice.

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  • Lord, Catherine M. “Angels with Nanotech Wings: Magic, Medicine and Technology in Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Gibson’s Neuromancer and Slonczewski’s Brain Plague.” Nebula 6.4 (2009): 162–174.

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    This article studies how the humanities taking a neuroscientific turn can make strange bedfellows with religious myths and magical occultism, as exemplified in The Fountain. It analyzes the three parallel thread stories in the film as mythical and magical quests that help us understand the notion of creativity and the way in which the creative mind can support its own healing process.

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  • Marston, Kendra. “The Tragic Ballerina’s Shadow Self: Troubling the Political Economy of Melancholy in Black Swan.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 32.8 (2015): 695–711.

    DOI: 10.1080/10509208.2015.1060825Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article studies the multiple levels of character signification in Black Swan, with focus on white femininity as hyper-spectacle in the context of neoliberalism and postfeminism. It argues that the film provides insights into mental disorder and “performing melancholy.” It operates as a metaphor for the commercial imperatives of the Hollywood star system, in which the professional standing of Nina and Beth parallels the relationship between Portman and Ryder.

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  • Pisters, Patricia. “Numbers and Fractals: Neuroaesthetics and the Scientific Subject.” In The Force of the Virtual: Deleuze, Science, and Philosophy. Edited by Peter Gaffney, 229–251. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816665976.003.0010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The article studies fascination for mathematics with a particular interest in the actual brain. It develops the concept of neuro-image by analyzing Aronofsky’s Pi and The Fountain, relating the films to Deleuze’s ideas on thought and to Leibniz’s Baroque mathematics. It argues that Pi is a “theorematic” film, not only thematically but also stylistically, while The Fountain is “problematic” (in a mathematical sense), structured along fractal principles.

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  • Pisters, Patricia. “‘Just Want to Be Perfect’: Affective Compulsive Movement in Black Swan.” The Cine-Files 10 (Spring 2016): 1–15.

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    This article studies the affective qualities of the mental world depicted in Black Swan as emanating from compulsive disorder. It argues that the main character’s compulsion to dance has turned inward, and thus it becomes a symptom of the psychopathology of cognitive capitalism, or of the collective madness of the contemporary media world, in which it is hard to distinguish between the virtual and the actual.

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  • Stone, Peter. “Pi and the Movie Mind.” Philosophy Now 64 (2007): 44–46.

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    An article that focuses on views on mathematics and mathematicians in Pi, asking whether those views are misleading or educational. Instead of evaluating the film’s form or style, the article criticizes the film for displaying a profound innumeracy and making wildly inaccurate assumptions about mathematics. By contrast, a film that would deal with mathematics in a more mature way might help to make basic numeracy a more widespread reality.

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  • Vanier, Danielle, and H. Russell Searight. “Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorder in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” Advances in Psychology Study 1.2 (February 2012): 4–7.

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    The article argues that Black Swan is an apt illustration of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that might trigger welcome discussion among mental health professionals about the spectrum of the OCD symptoms. It considers the film to have “cinemeducational” value by enabling the therapists to better understand their patients’ experiences, which include compulsive rituals, self-harm, and delusions.

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  • Woods, Angela. “Mathematics, Masculinity, Madness.” In Madness in Context: Historical, Poetic, and Artistic Perspectives. Edited by Gonzalo Araos and Isabelle Travis, 1–11. Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2012.

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    This article uses phenomenological psychologist Louis Sass’s account of schizophrenia to analyze the figure of the mad mathematician in Pi. It argues that the protagonist’s madness originates from his knowledge crisis, and more specifically from the exclusively cerebral method by which he links the subject and object of knowledge. This crisis of knowledge is registered by the affective male body, which in turn troubles the traditional distinction between rationality and corporeality.

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Performance and Stardom

A central theme in both The Wrestler and Black Swan, two films that deal with characters whose purpose of life is to perform for others, is a conflict between emotional expression and bodily performance. In cinema in general, and perhaps in Aronofsky’s films in particular, it is the physical performance of the actors that enables the spectator to grasp the mental attributes of these characters. Thus, Rourke’s on-screen performance in The Wrestler becomes the vehicle for the protagonist’s masochistic exposure and self-deception. Portman’s performance, on the other hand, might embody doubling her character rather than sheer enactment of personal traits, reciprocated by the film’s digital aesthetics, in which a human being is doubled by an animal. Fleming 2013 links these notions of physical and digital performance, arguing that the digital, “expressionist” performance in Black Swan is aesthetically as affective as the physical, “realist” performance in The Wrestler. Yet next to the digital element, the affective result of Portman’s performance is also enhanced by her self-imposed bodily alteration, which draws an analogy between Portman and the self-mutilating dancer Nina in the film. In a similar vein, Osterweis 2014 studies the contrast between the daily rigor and the fleeting performance of a ballerina, arguing that the body on screen in Black Swan epitomizes the horrendous struggle with this duality. The personality of star is central in Fusco 2013, which argues that the audience’s familiarity with and “cruel knowledge” of Natalie Portman as a celebrity can be exploited by the filmmaker to enhance the (artistic) value of the film. Walsh 2010 too discusses The Wrestler from the perspective of star personality, arguing that analogous to the film’s narrative, the lead performance in the film creates both desire for the gorgeous young Rourke in the 1980s and dread of the monstrous aging Rourke of the 2000s. Finally, performance in The Wrestler has been analyzed in allegorical terms, such as in Friedman 2015, which studies professional wrestling as a genuine sports performance that is nevertheless generally considered fake, insofar as it embodies indisputable ramifications of neoliberal capitalism. And Morris 2012 compares the agony-saturated wrestling performance in The Wrestler with the boxing match in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). It puts these contests on a par with the epic fight between Jacob and God in Genesis 32, with Aronofsky epitomizing Jacob, and Scorsese epitomizing God.

  • Fleming, David H. “The Method Meets Animation: On Performative Affect and Digital-Bodies in Aronofsky’s ‘Performance Diptych’.” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 9.2 (2013): 275–293.

    DOI: 10.1386/padm.9.2.275_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The article studies Aronofsky’s The Wrestler as a “realist” film and Black Swan as an “expressionist” film, with issues concerning the notion of “performance” as a central topic. Instead of approaching the digital performance in Black Swan as disembodied, the author explores it as being aesthetically equally affective as the human performance in The Wrestler through notions as doubling, becoming, and stardom.

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  • Friedman, Seth. “The Money Is in the Rematch: Redbelt, The Wrestler, and Masculine Self-Determination on the Ropes in the Contemporary Hollywood Fight Film.” The Journal of Popular Culture 48.6 (2015): 1306–1326.

    DOI: 10.1111/jpcu.12361Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay studies how The Wrestler epitomizes the historical adaptations of the boxing film genre, arguing that the film aligns its conventions of the genre to realistic settings that convey anticapitalist ideas. After a lengthy commentary on the genre conventions, it contends that the film showcases genuine ramifications of professional wrestling, a sport often considered fake, insofar as the film convincingly illustrates the profit motives of a neoliberal age.

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  • Fusco, Katherine. “The Actress Experience: Cruel Knowing and the Death of the Picture Personality in Black Swan and The Girlfriend Experience.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 28.1 (2013): 1–35.

    DOI: 10.1215/02705346-2016942Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay discusses Black Swan in connection to the audience’s familiarity of Natalie Portman as a “picture personality” and the ways in which she is made an expression of “fan cruelty” in the film, or pleasure of witnessing a celebrity’s destruction. It argues that a filmmaker can utilize this cruelty in order to energize his film through the audience’s extradiegetic knowledge of its stars.

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  • Morris, Daniel. “I Am Ram, Not Robin: Aronofsky’s Agon with Scorsese in The Wrestler.” Literature/Film Quarterly 40.2 (2012): 180–190.

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    In this reading, the author analyzes The Wrestler as a wrestling match with Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), to which the epic fight between Jacob and God in Genesis stands as a precursor. It states that the Ram must be sacrificed in order for Aronofsky to overcome Scorsese. At the same time, The Wrestler is a re-take of Raging Bull insofar as The Wrestler too resists the narrative of recovery and reconciliation.

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  • Osterweis, Ariel. “Disciplining Black Swan, Animalizing Ambition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen. Edited by Melissa Blanco Borelli, 68–82. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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    In this analysis, the author argues that the duality portrayed in Black Swan does not create an opposition, but suggests that one persona must subsume its double, which illustrates the “parasitical encounter” between the daily rigor of a dancer (technique) and the fleeting performance of a ballerina (emotion). It argues that in the film the body becomes a canvas for the horror of this struggle between virtuosity and ecstasy.

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  • Walsh, Keri. “Why Does Mickey Rourke Give Pleasure?” Critical Inquiry 37.1 (2010): 131–162.

    DOI: 10.1086/656471Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article discusses Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler, stating that the film creates a combination of desire for the gorgeous young actor of the 1980s and dread of the monstrous actor of the 2000s. Similar conflict is present in the film’s narrative, which goes in two directions: a symbolical destruction of the phallus, and a narrative return of the phallus, even if the protagonist remains within a “phallic lie.”

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Religion, Spirituality, and Mysticism

Many Aronofsky’s films are full of religious themes, symbols, and imagery. There is the theme of Kabbalistic mysticism in Pi, the numerological interpretation of the Torah and the 216-letter name of God. In addition, there is a recitation from Qurʾan 2:140, which asks “Are you more knowing or is Allah?” Furthermore, mathematics itself can be seen as a form of religion in the film, as an attempt to be “like God” in knowledge. Similar human desire to “play God” can be found in The Fountain, in which there is the search for an ultimate scientific solution to the mysteries of the world, as epitomized in the mystical Tree of Life, a common spiritual motif among various world religions. This film also features themes of death and reincarnation that are central in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Mayan religion, as well as references to the Mayan Sun God Kinich Ahau, Spanish inquisitors, and mandala-like imagery, among other things. The Wrestler can be seen as a Christian passion play, an interpretation reinforced by the Christ-like pose with which Randy the Ram leaps presumably to his death, as well as the direct reference to Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (2004). These visual “Christ-footnotes” are analyzed in Walsh 2013, in a reading that interprets Randy as a messianic figure that is destroyed for the spectators’ entertainment. Aronofsky’s Noah is obviously in its entirety inspired by the biblical story of Noah’s Ark from the book of Genesis. But Aronofsky’s Noah might be best understood as an environmental activist, as in Laine 2016, which analyzes the ethical vision in the film in terms of the inherent sacredness of nature and its sustainable stewardship. And there is mother! (with Jennifer Lawrence as Gaia, or Mother Earth before the creation of man, and Javier Bardem as God, who out of boredom creates Adam and Eve and their dueling children Cain and Abel, with devastating consequences), which continues Aronofsky’s vision of environmentalism as a spiritual devotion. Furthermore, while Aronofsky’s films constantly deal with religion, it is remarkable that they especially explore the mythical, non-orthodox religious elements: in addition to the mystical-theosophical Kabbalistic elements in Pi, there are meditation symbols of Eastern mysticism in The Fountain, and Gnostic themes in Noah, among other things.

  • Laine, Tarja. “Religion as Environmental Ethics: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.” In Close Encounters between Bible and Film: An Interdisciplinary Engagement. Edited by Laura Copier and Caroline Vander Stichele, 173–183. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

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    This article argues that Aronofsky’s Noah communicates a vision of responsibility before God as responsibility toward nature, which becomes accessible through affective experience of the film. This experience potentially calls forth the embodied acknowledgement of human interdependence with the natural order from the perspective of environmental ethics in general. But this is added to an insight into nature’s inherent sacredness that could give rise to mankind’s sustainable stewardship.

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  • Walsh, Richard. “A Modest Proposal for Christ-Figure Interpretations: Explicated with Two Test Cases.” Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception 3.1 (2013): 79–97.

    DOI: 10.11157/rsrr3-1-569Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The article analyzes visual Christ “footnotes” in The Wrestler and the way in which they reveal a popular understanding of Christ, in contrast to the divine Christian figure. Randy the Ram suffers from a messianic fantasy that does not allow him to have a normal life, but which drives him toward death. The film presents the spectators a “Christ” as a bodily spectacle, abused and destroyed for their entertainment.

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