The fantasy level in Dark Energy is quite high, but taken as a whole this group of movies holds a subjective view of reality as opposed to being escapist. Admittedly Babe: Pig in the City and Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast stretch this claim beyond generally accepted borders, but I believe they have their place. The Dark Energy take can roughly be compared to art movements such as Symbolism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. I don't mean that the movies fall into any of those categories (though one or two might legitimately be called surrealist, and expressionist touches abound in noir) but that the Dark Energy set taken as a whole can be said to be about reality without claiming to depict it.
The connections to Expressionism and Surrealism are solid enough. The bridge from these European art movements to the Dark Energy movies was built and maintained by practitioners such as Fritz Lang and Luis Buñuel.*
Different people have different needs when it comes to this reality/fantasy mix. There are those who see escapism as an essential part of entertainment; to some, the function of entertainment is to remove us from the burdens of concrete reality altogether, if only for a short period of time. And there are others who become irritated when what they see on the screen or on the pages of a book doesn't correspond closely to the reality that guides them in their daily lives. Most individuals fall somewhere in between, inclining by various degrees to this side or that.
Noir (including neo-noir) tends to feel like reality - the grittiness meshes pretty well with a long tradition of news stories that deal with crime, whether it's organized (The Phenix City Story) or of a more personal nature (Body Heat). But all in all, noir tends to operate in a reality of its own making. Most noir plots don't stand up to close scrutiny. Pulp writers like Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish) and David Goodis* provided a lot of source material and inspiration to film noir. These guys were churning out novels as fast as they could, trying to make a living in a hard world. They were also serious boozers so a lot of the fine points were glossed over for one reason or the other.
What they were good at was catching a certain darkness of the soul that their readers recognized as reality based, and film noir has thrived not so much because of its classics, Double Indemnity, The Asphalt Jungle, Chinatown, Pulp Fiction - though, for sure that doesn't do any harm - but because there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of minor movies that hit the right note: Crime Wave, Tension, Decoy, Armored Car Robbery, The Blue Gardenia, The Killer is Loose...
For some viewers the looseness of second-tier noir is prohibitive. "Why the hell didn't she just pick up the phone and call the cops?" etc. For others plot is just a device - a MacGuffin as Hitchcock called it - that gives the characters something to do while the directors, the cinematographers, the actors get on with what matters most: the ambience, the blues, the zeitgeist.
(To be continued.)