In his 1998 debut film Pi, Darren Aronofsky provides the math-obsessed protagonist, Max, with a love interest—his neighbor, Devi. Perhaps “love interest” isn’t the right phrase: Devi is interested, but Max sure isn’t. Instead, he pursues a number, the one number that will explain everything, including the stock market, a series of digits that a group of rabbis later tell him corresponds to the true name of God. And while we suspect Max feels for Devi deep down (they embrace in one of his dreams), Max sees human contact, much less romantic intimacy, as a distraction from his single-minded quest.
At first, sex is quietly absent from Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah. There is no hint that the sin in Eden, depicted multiple times, has a carnal nature (as generations of interpreters have suspected). Even the fallen angels who, in Genesis and 1 Enoch, descend to earth to mate with human women, in Aronofsky’s tale come to humanity out of paternalistic and platonic pity. It is only when the film and its protagonist attempt to drive sex out of the film and the pre-diluvian world that it becomes an issue. While Genesis unproblematically assigns wives to Noah’s sons, Noah only accidentally finds Shem a wife, Ila, and her infertility is miraculously cured against Noah’s wishes (and his imagined approximation of God’s will).
The most tragic figure in this sex-phobic epic is Ham. Much could be said to note Noah’s extreme cruelty with regard to the issue of his second son’s love life, but I’ll focus on one point. During his visit to Tubal Cain’s city, Noah recoils at the dual sins of eating animals and rape. In this hellscape, women and meat are fungible in a market of trade to be eradicated by the flood. But does not Noah make the same exchange when he leaves Ham’s new partner, Na’el, to be trampled in order to save a boatload of beasts? Noah fears sex because he fears what he is: he literally sees his own desire for flesh reflected in the rabid urban mob.
Aronofsky’s Noah yearns to escape carnality like the Watchers groan against their encrusted rocky prisons, or like Max desires escape from the frenzy of his migraines to the cool order of math. What he must be reminded of comes from his birthright: the skin of the snake—an archetypical symbol of regeneration, of sex—an animal that sheds its mortal shell only to find itself in another. At the very least, the role of sex in Noah, as in Pi, helps Aronofsky explore the human cost of obsessions for righteousness and transcendence.