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Few scenes better capture filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic sensibility than the climax of 2010’s Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman. Silhouetted by brilliant light, a ballerina falls from the stage. She is dressed all in white, save for the crimson stain slowly spreading outward from a gaping wound in her torso. Voices and figures swarm, hazily perceived. As her world fades to white, she murmurs a single victorious line: “Perfect. . . . I was perfect.” Beauty and horror unite in extremis. Revelation arrives, but it costs everything.

Few working filmmakers match Aronofsky’s genre diversity—from indie psychological horror and existentialist drama to romantic fantasy and big-budget epic. But while Aronofsky has never made the same film twice, his filmography chases the same theme across radically different dimensions of human experience: the quest for transcendence, at any price.

Although “transcendence” is a theological category, Aronofsky is strikingly ambivalent about God. “I’m Godless,” he told one interviewer, “And so I've had to make my God, and my God is narrative filmmaking.” Aronofsky invests enormous faith in the power of cinema to help us make sense of our existential struggles. We might read his canon as the fruit of that faith. 

His theological odyssey begins in darkness. Aronofsky’s Kabbalistic first film, Pi (1998), features a mathematician who believes his research will uncover the name of God (which also might be a key to deciphering the stock market). His quest pushes him to a level of spiritual intensity so overwhelming that, in the end, he takes a power drill to his skull. 2000’s even darker Requiem for a Dream is a story of drug addiction as metaphysical horror. Its heroes’ search for simple human goods—public recognition, financial stability, a worthwhile future—dies on the altar of a false and fleeting euphoria. As in Pi, here the encounter with the infinite is a traumatic experience, one that blasts away rationality and leaves souls in ruins.

The theological undercurrents in Aronofsky’s films become more complex with 2006’s The Fountain, an arthouse romance. Structured around the motif of a storybook—its tale begun by the hero’s dying wife, but concluded by him alone—the film comprises three interweaving narratives, with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz starring as iterations of the same characters. A conquistador, under orders from a mysterious queen, seeks the Edenic Tree of Life in Central America; a researcher races to find a cure for his wife’s cancer; a mystical astronaut pursues a cure for death at the center of the Orion Nebula, while experiencing ghostly visions of his long-lost wife (connected somehow to the dead tree his spacefaring vessel carries). Juxtaposing imagery of both Spanish Catholicism and Mayan philosophy, The Fountain is a story centered on the acceptance of “death as an act of creation,” of life’s end as always also the possibility of regeneration.

In a 2006 interview, Aronofsky stressed that The Fountain is indeed a story of “spirituality,” though an unorthodox one:

I think the themes of “The Fountain,” about this endless cycle of energy and matter, tracing back to the Big Bang . . . The Big Bang happened, and all this star matter turned into stars, and stars turned into planets, and planets turned into life. We’re all just borrowing this matter and energy for a little bit, while we’re here, until it goes back into everything else, and that connects us all. . . .  To me, that’s where the spirituality is. Whatever you want to call that connection—some people would use that term God. That, to me, is what I think is holy.

As abstract as those meditations are, though, The Fountain focuses far less on cosmic processes than the relationship between its protagonists. Jackman and Weisz are memorable not as archetypes, but as the figures of a love story. And Aronofsky’s next works—intense character studies—followed in that vein, with 2008’s The Wrestler and 2010’s Black Swan serving as companion pieces of a sort. They trace a struggle for perfection as seen from both ends of one’s career: the former depicts a wrestler reckoning with professional and personal decline, the latter, a tormented ballerina ingénue on the cusp of her breakout role.

Of course, that struggle itself is not unique to high-performance athletics. It is part of the human condition. And Aronofsky’s reckoning with what it means to be human underscores his best-known and most controversial films: 2014’s Noah and 2017’s mother!

On paper, Noah should have been a smash hit—a four-quadrant, $150 million blockbuster, starring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson. But it seemed designed to polarize audiences. Aronofsky quipped to the New Yorker that his Noah was “the least Biblical Biblical film ever made”—a remark which certainly didn’t improve the film’s prospects among skeptical evangelicals.

But there’s a sharp irony to that claim: where countless biblical retellings have sought to “demythologize” their subject matter, Aronofsky’s film does exactly the opposite. Living angels, trapped in bodies of stone, thunder across a fantastical landscape. Tribes of violent men prepare for war in an Isengard-style industrial nightmare. Noah depicts a world where supernatural power is real and active, not merely imagined or glimpsed from afar.

More jarring, for some viewers, was Aronofsky’s depiction of Noah as a guilt-ridden figure haunted by the sins of humankind. For most of the film, Noah understands his Ark not as the salvation of the human species, but as the rescue of innocent animal life, even threatening his own family when they endanger that mission. Though the film’s plot beats are faithful to the biblical narrative, it’s hard to forget the image of a raging Russell Crowe holding a knife over his grandbabies, who maybe ought not to have been born. After all, if everything is just “energy and matter,” why not minimize suffering as much as possible?

Whereas Noah toys with misanthropy, 2017’s mother! embraces it. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence as a Mother Earth figure, dwelling peacefully in a house with “God” (Javier Bardem) until violent, rapacious visitors arrive. Acting out plot beats of the biblical narrative at an accelerated pace‚ from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and Noah’s flood, the visitors bring chaos to her home and devour her child in a scene of blasphemous horror. An apocalyptic inferno follows. (The film was even more polarizing than its predecessor; while modestly appreciated by critics, audiences detested it, giving it a rare “F” CinemaScore.)

2022’s The Whale trades this metaphysical ambition for personal drama, signaling a return to the Aronofsky of The Wrestler. Adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter, the film stars Brendan Fraser (in an Oscar-winning performance) as a morbidly obese, long-closeted English teacher who withdraws from the world. Like Aronofsky’s eponymous Wrestler, he grapples with his health while trying to rebuild a relationship with his long-estranged teenage daughter. Over and over he rereads a cynical essay of hers, like a catechism. Within it, rightly or wrongly, he discerns a desire to say something true rather than something performative. An earnest young door-to-door evangelist, despite his best efforts, can’t provide the needed grace to improve things; no theology built around coping and conformity can. Only authenticity—reality—can cut through despair.

Aronofsky’s films all depict spiritual quests. His protagonists grasp toward some sort of absolute, something that is indeed “holy.” Pi is a search for the name of God himself, and Requiem for a Dream is a quest for bliss through drugs. The Fountain portrays a starfaring odyssey toward the source of rebirth, and The Wrestler and Black Swan conceive of true fulfillment as self-denying artistic triumph. Noah and mother! center on the search for unmediated encounter with God—Aronofsky’s Noah longs to grasp God’s purposes, and the Mother of mother! seeks the cold purity of the fifth day of creation, a world with God but without human beings. The Whale transposes that same longing into a semi-secular key, rejecting popular religion in favor of sheer authenticity, of the real as such.

If Aronofsky’s worldview really is as he describes—a spirituality of the purely natural—maybe all these stories are, essentially, cautionary tales about reaching too high. His characters certainly pay a terrible price on their journeys. Blood gushes, skin swells and stretches, body parts give out under strain. Black rot creeps up an addict’s needle-scarred arm, a ballet dancer’s toenails splinter during a pirouette, and the nib of a fountain pen slices into flesh. Animals and humans alike are torn limb from limb. Perhaps all this pain simply follows from human arrogance.

But it is surprising how often the films themselves subvert that reading. Aronofsky’s films do not seem content to affirm the world in its sheer givenness, as if his protagonists could—or should—simply stop chasing the higher and more. To give up the quest would be to amputate what makes them human in the first place.

In a stunning sequence midway through Noah, Aronofsky depicts the emergence and diversity of biological life in a kaleidoscopic story of evolutionary creationism. But there is a twist. When Aronofsky depicts the Garden of Eden as such, Adam and Eve stand alone, luminous, distinguished from the other stuff of creation. They are creatures, but not merely creatures. They are the figures of a larger drama.

In similar fashion, all the brutal events of mother! are bookended by a prologue and epilogue told from the perspective of “God.” From the eponymous Mother’s damaged chest, he extracts a glittering jewel. The viewer recognizes it: Previously in the film, the breaking of such a jewel stood for the Fall in Eden. “God” then creates a new world, with a new jewel at its center and a new Mother. Creation, in short, has an inner narrative logic. But left unclear is whether it is the logic of samsāra, suffering to be escaped, or some sort of progressive work of perfection. Those within creation’s horizon are left in the dark.

It is The Fountain, though, that foregrounds this question most starkly. Only the viewer—never the characters—has full access to the film’s three interlocking narratives as a unified, overlapping whole, with the hero confronting two possible fates as he struggles to accept his wife’s mortality.

One timeline ends in tragedy. At the climax of this story, the conquistador plunges his knife into the Tree of Life and drinks its sap—only to be eaten by plant life from the inside out, transformed into more of the lush vegetation that surrounds the tree. But one of the other narratives ends in glory: The voyaging astronaut passes into darkness, only to experience rebirth in the blazing light of a new star. The dead tree he has brought with him, in which something of his wife lingers, blossoms into new life.

The conquistador certainly experiences “connection” as his energy and matter return to the cosmos. He is directly reabsorbed into nature. But this is obviously a grim fate, unfitting for a human being. The destiny of human souls, The Fountain insists, lies beyond simply rot and regeneration.

Following the conquistador’s demise, the film’s “main” story of the cancer researcher concludes with a moment of decision. Its hero cannot foresee where his choice leads. But the audience can. It is evident that he stands within a greater story, not merely a concatenation of events. And crucially, that story need not end in tragedy. 

The possibility of hope, though, is quite different from its plausibility. The longing that suffuses Aronofsky’s films is not just a longing for transcendence as such, but for a transcendent verdict on the suffering of creation—that the suffering of his characters and his worlds might, in the end, count for something.

Only once does Aronofsky dare to depict such a vindication. In the closing moments of Noah, the troubled patriarch addresses his grandchildren beside the altar of the Lord. High above, God reveals himself—for the first time in the film—in a blazing rainbow corona, coruscating in flare after flare of celestial light. It is the revelation that the heroes of all of Aronofsky’s films seek so desperately—a blessing that cannot be seized, but only given.

John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C.

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Image by Joseph Voves licensed via Creative Commons. Image filtered and cropped.

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