Black Swan

Black Swan (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Darren Aronofsky
viewed: 12/03/10 at  AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

The crazy ballerina movie…FROM HELL!

Director Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Black Swan, channels the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski at their most psychologically dark and sadistic.  And in that sense, it’s a cinematic niche that Aronofsky has been carving for himself.  Director of Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), the godforsaken The Fountain (2006), and The Wrestler (2008), Aronofsky makes films that are harrowing and intense, painful to watch visions of characters often in their own personal hells.  And where The Wrestler toyed with a sense of redemption, only to have that redemption revoked, Black Swan is much more focused on a hopeless slide into insanity with a lot of physical suffering thrown in for good measure.   On the high end of the spectrum, Aronofsky’s films have great aesthetics, often riveting performances, and are challenging and dramatic.

In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a frighteningly thin, uber-dedicated ballerina in a New York troupe, who vies for and lands the starring role in a new production of Swan Lake.  Nina is a portrait of repression, so tightly wound that every emotion plays out in utter physicality on her face and body.   Living with her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, she is a virginal girl in a woman’s body, whose meticulous perfectionism plays well for her role as the white swan, but shows that she’s not “free” enough to play the wanton black swan, the critical “other side” to the starring role.  The head of the production, played by Vincent Cassel, pushes Nina to unleash herself.

Bad idea.

Add to this mix another ballerina, Nina’s ultimate understudy for the role, the more worldly Mila Kunis, with whom Nina develops a love-hate relationship, constantly afraid that the understudy is trying to undermine her to take her role from her.  And also looming in the mix is Winona Ryder, the former star of the company, who is forced into early retirement and doesn’t take it well.  Nina’s mother, rival, and former idol are all either doppelgangers or other “selves,” a theme that runs throughout the film.

From the very get-go, Aronofsky creates tension and claustrophobia with constant close-ups of Portman, tracking her with hand-held cameras, through her every movement.  The world of Black Swan is Nina’s world, a frightening, uncomfortable place.  And neurosis and psychosis rule the day.  Nina’s flesh is in a constant state of erosion, whether it’s a rash that she’s scratched to bleeding on her back, cracked toenails, skin ripping and raw from cuticles on her fingers, she is falling apart, physically and mentally.  Only, is the physical an embodiment of the mental/emotional, or is the physical degradation all a hallucination?

As in The Wrestler, Aronofsky is very interested in the human body and the tortures that one puts it through in the name of art, entertainment, or commerce.  The camera is focused on Portman’s body, as it was on Mickey Rourke’s.  And while the violence and abuse of the body is highly on display, it’s Portman’s anorexic yet muscular frame that is the site of the story as much as her psyche.

But much different from The Wrestler, the film is much more of an internal world, an unreliable landscape of living nightmares.  Increasingly throughout the film, Nina’s metamorphosis, releasing aspects of her tightly wound and secret self, the fantastical takes shape.   Nina has visions of turning into a swan, oozing feathers, breaking and transforming, and unless this film is going to cross over into pure fantasy, these physical metaphors must be Nina’s delusions.  And delusional she is.

When the film is at its best, it’s a torturous affair, sitting in your seat, squirming from some of the gruesome elements, but also for the psychic violence of which Nina’s life is comprised.  And this is Aronofsky’s sadistic play, the torture of the character, the physical and emotional brutality of the performance, and then the audience, suffering alongside voyeuristically.  While some would argue that this a true aspect of much of cinema, Aronofsky has it in spades.

But for me, the film’s weakness turns out to be its reliance on digital effects.  It’s not to say that the digital effects are cheap or look cheap, but both the effects do seem to cheapen the movie.  While used in parts quite subtly (did Portman’s skin just flash of gooseflesh?  Did those paintings suddenly glare at her for a moment?), the digital effects take more and more foreground as the fantastical becomes more and more real for Nina.  But for me, the awareness of the effects drew away from the physical and psychological aspects of the film.  What at first is all about the actuality of Portman’s physical and psychological performance becomes digitally animated special effects.  Somehow, it counters the qualities of the film, or at least that is what it seemed to me.

On the whole, Black Swan is an intense and disturbing psychological thriller, one that foregrounds discomfort over pleasure.  It’s a film much more attuned to the art house segment than that of the multiplex, a vision unique and fresh compared to most feature films in America.  Aronofsky is much more of an auteur than most directors.  But how successful this film is, time will have to tell.  And whether or not the average film goer would enjoy it,…well, that just depends on how much psychosis you want in your cup of tea.

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