With only five features to his credit, Darren Aronofsky has pretty much cemented his place as Hollywood’s most fascinatingly unpredictable predictable filmmaker.
Aronofsky’s portraits of insatiable obsessives are so aesthetically and topically varied that he’ll never be accused of repeating himself, even if there’s an easy and compelling argument to be made that the Aronofsky-ian hero or heroine is invariably cut from the same cloth.
That’s one of those things that sounds like a criticism, but that’s not my intent. Aronofsky’s latest film, “Black Swan,” is one of 2010’s most dazzling and effective films and I derived great pleasure from its unlikely similarities to “The Wrestler,” one of my favorite films of 2008.
Like “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” is a story of artistic commitment and the dangers of dedicating yourself so totally to a performance that you become untethered from real life. Both films also find Aronofsky playing off of very familiar genre tropes, with very different results. While “The Wrestler” was a reconciliation narrative, with Mickey Rourke’s character seeking solace through his relationships with two archetypal women in his life, “Black Swan” spikes the traditional backstage drama with the highlights of a psychological thriller and even a horror film. So if you thought “The Wrestler” was bleak and distressing, “Black Swan” is sure to throw you for a loop.
Even vulnerable viewers wary of going through Aronofsky’s wringer once again, though, should check out “Black Swan” for the wholly consumed lead performance by Natalie Portman, career-best work from Mila Kunis and some of the best music and dancing of any film in recent memory.
[More on “Black Swan” after the break…]
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a young ballerina merely striving for exposure in a New York City ballet company. When the company’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel) announces that his longtime prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) is making the not-so-voluntary decision to exit, the lead role in “Swan Lake” is suddenly up for grabs. Nina, suffocated by her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former aspiring dancer herself, is pure and technically perfect — the embodiment of the White Swan — but she lacks the passion and sensuality to also embody the Black Swan. Conveniently, the new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) isn’t necessarily technically gifted, but she’s all kinds of sexy and dangerous.
Is “Black Swan” about Nina “All About Eve”-ing Beth or about Lily “All About Eve”-ing Nina? Or is something more psychologically insidious occurring? [Hint: It’s probably the latter, but maybe it isn’t.]
Cassel’s Thomas acknowledges without prompting that in choosing “Swan Lake” to launch his new season, he’s giving in to cliche. His argument: Yes, “Swan Lake” may be obvious, but the challenge is in taking the obvious and making it into something the audience hasn’t seen before. Aronofsky, who has never really aspired to be a subtle filmmaker, intends for Thomas’ realization is his own. The backstage melodrama is an obvious choice, but Nina’s descent into confusion and alienation from herself is done in a manner all-together new in its extremity and interpretation. Well, maybe it isn’t *all-together* new in its interpretation. Nina spends a lot of time looking into mirrors and looking at photos and paintings of herself. “Black Swan” is a movie that’s very demonstrably about identity and representation.
“Swan Lake” is also an obvious choice for its purposes within the story. Like “Black Swan,” it’s a transformation narrative but Aronofsky and company are very much aware of the darker undertones of its story, as well as the darker evocations of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score, which has been marvelously arranged, adapted and embellished by composer Clint Mansell. A ballet about sorcerers and dopplegangers and romance and misery isn’t a counterpoint to a story about performers, imagined characters, duality, romance and misery. It is, to abuse the ballet term, predictably and effectively en pointe.
After the hyper-stylization of “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique chose “documentary-style grit” as their new artistic artifice for “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan.” That first film’s rough textures, worn-out color and tone and careful location shooting, plus the tremendous work by Mickey Rourke, helped cut through what could have just been “Rocky, only with an over-the-hill WWE superstar” (just as “Rocky” itself is elevated by director John G. Avildsen’s embrace of the rebel ’70s cinematic flavor). Had “The Wrestler” been any glossier, any more polished, it would have been an underdog sports movie, and a banal one at that. “Black Swan” might have been even more greatly hampered with more gloss and polish.
Just as “The Wrestler” was fascinated by the often painful minutae of Randy the Ram’s stagecraft, “Black Swan” is deeply invested in the physical sacrifices that dancers must undertake, from the rigorous breaking in of shoes to the careful maintenance of every aspect of their bodies. The sacrifice is why Randy the Ram would cut himself in the ring to give the audience the blood it desired and why Nina — a scratcher, rather than a cutter — would push herself to the breaking point to give the audience the beauty it desires (beauty that comes with no shortage of blood). When Thomas’ best advice to Nina is “Lose yourself,” it’s not such terrific advice, but it helpfully spells out the movie’s undercurrent.
In some ways, “Black Swan” feels like it’s taking the story-free ballet verisimilitude of Robert Altman’s “The Company” and then dumping the trappings of a popular genre upon it. “Black Swan” may well prove to be too arty and dance-y for horror fans and it’s equally likely to prove too horror-y for some art house moviegoers (and for some younger female viewers who might somehow be confused into thinking that if you love “Center Stage,” “Black Swan” is a viable pirouetting placebo).
Let there be no doubt on this fact: “Black Swan” is certainly a horror movie, or for long stretches it operates using the visual language of a horror movie and not even a high-brow dance-horror movie like “Suspiria.” Aronofsky utilizes some of the same jump-y scare-cuts as you’d expect from a slasher movie. But grafting the schlocky and the exploitative onto the esoteric and the allegedly high-cultured is part of Aronofsky’s game. Just when you think you know what movie “Black Swan” is, it becomes a different movie entirely. Aronofsky takes something of a buffet approach to the movie, picking and choosing genre-wise, but it’s the weirdest and most twisted buffet imaginable and then, just when you think you can’t take it anymore, it becomes a lavishly orchestrated ballet performance and you realize that the intensity of the movie is in no way foreign to the intensity of “Swan Lake.”
The movie hinges utterly on Portman’s ability to be convincing in every aspect of the role. She looks and feels like a dancer. Little known fact: I’m not a ballet expert. Shocking, right? So I can’t tell you if a professional dancer with decades of non-stop training will be fooled by the effects of Portman’s aggressive crash course. I *can* tell you that I was never taken out of the dancing sequences by Portman and that, at her very best, I could distinguish between her dancing at the beginning of the film and her dancing at the end, recognizing the evolution required from both the character and the actress. Portman’s occasional difficulties transitioning into fully adult roles actually improves the first half of her performance and then she we see Nina transitioning from White Swan to Black Swan herself, Portman becomes more confident and we see her uncertainty with that metamorphosis. The movie becomes terrifying and Portman’s commitment is terrifying as well. When it comes to actresses, Oscar voters alternate between career achievement awards and career validation awards and if this year is in the latter category, Portman may be very difficult to beat.
Portman carries the weight of the movie, but she’s still aided by a crack supporting cast. I was once hesitant at Kunis’ ability to transition from solid sitcom actress to movie star, but her character here is required to have a gravitational field that sucks in all around her and you never question why Portman’s character would be both intimidated and attracted by this dynamo. Charisma is usually all that’s asked of Kunis, which is why Hershey or Ryder may be more viable Oscar contenders, with breakdown scenes aplenty.
Of the leads, the only one who slightly disappointed me is Cassel, if only because his natural tendency towards hamminess in English language roles would have been perfectly in keeping with Aronofky’s MO, but he’s possibly under-playing Thomas. Note that “underplaying” for Cassel doesn’t resemble a traditional conception of “underplaying” and he’s not without grand gestures and spitting out chunks of florid dialogue with aplomb.
[Folks who watch as much TV as I do should keep an eye out for “Human Target” co-star Janet Montgomery and “Life Unexpected” co-star Ksenia Solo as two members of the ballet company. Neither has a huge part, but neither seems out of place, which is a high compliment. Ditto with Sebastian Stan, who’s currently best known to “Gossip Girl” and “Kings” viewers, but will become “a movie guy” after he appears in the upcoming “Captain America.”]
There’s a lot happening in “Black Swan” and I suspect that due to Aronofsky’s approach, it’s a movie that will reward second viewings. My first impressions largely concentrated on the film’s visceral pleasures — it tied me up in knots — and its thematics — as suggested already, simultaneously heavy-handed, but also rich. I want to watch again to pay closer attention to Portman, to study how Aronofsky and Libatique shot the ballet scenes, to try to piece together the different shadings of fantasy and reality. I’m sure it will be good enough to stand up to the scrutiny.
Aronofsky will continue his streak of unpredictable predictability with “The Wolverine,” a career choice that sounds strange and out-of-character until you remember how consumed Wolverine is by his particular obsessions, his need for revenge, his need to validate his memories, etc. Like Randy the Ram, like Nina the Ballerina, Wolverine the X-Man is another character struggling to balance multiple identities. Sounds like an Aronofsky movie to me…
“Black Swan” is now out in limited release. [And I’m working on a very strange time zone/sleep schedule, so I apologize if any of this is incoherent.]