I’ve liked, in part or whole, the four previous features of Darren Aronofsky. One of the earliest pieces ever published at this site was my interview with him. I listed his previous work, The Wrestler, in my top ten list a couple of years ago.
Within that context, since I first saw Aronofsky’s new film at the Toronto Film festival in September, my profound enthusiasm and excitement for Black Swan has taken time to fully process.The movie constitutes, I think, a major leap forward and stands with Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, as the best American film this year. (Reichardt’s film is not being released until early next year.)
Working from a carpentered script by three different hands, Aronofsky seamlessly fuses the pieces. His movie is about a beautiful, emotionally scared New York dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), whose desire to be “perfect,” threatens to rip her apart as she prepares for the lead dancer’s role in a new “visceral and raw,” production of Swan Lake. “I know,” the imperial director, Thomas Leroy (the sinewy Vincent Cassel) acknowledges, “it’s been done to death.”
Aronofsky’s poetic, feverish and often startlingly brilliant movie has some fascinating and thrilling echoes with The Wrestler. Both films underscore for his all of his technical finesse how terrific he is with actors. He seems to know intuitively what the actor both holds and is scared of, and attacks it, making their vulnerability palpable, lively and excitingly human.
The boardwalk confrontation between Mickey Rourke’s failed father trying desperately to connect with the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) he had continuously disappointed was powerful not only in rawness and pungent emotional exchange, but the truths the director summoned from his star, the sense of a great talent and ability that had been squandered because of his own ruin and self-addiction.
If that film concerned a man’s search for his humanity and the art that made his talent, personality and sensibility expressive and particular, Black Swan tracks, psychologically and artistically, a very similar path. Rourke’s wrestler, theatrical, self-created, was a gladiator. Nina’s furiously controlled ballerina is a technically adroit though sexually aloof young woman permanently trapped between modes of being, aware of her serpentine sexuality and the power she holds over men, though strangely afraid to draw on it, and seemingly safe and secure only in the almost fetishistic and fabricated lair of the apartment she shares with her mother, (Barbara Hersey).
In The Wrestler, Aronofsky reiterated Rourke’s potential greatness. In Black Swan, he makes the case for Portman’s. She started when she was just a kid, but she’s never really been thought of as a great actress; a great face, of course. The whole of the movie is about the emotional and moral consequences of Nina letting go. Portman goes off, in ways beautiful, crazy and daringly haywire and unexpected. She’s small and lithe, but there’s a peculiar tension in her movements.
With the possible exception of Mike Nichols, in Closer, Aronofsky is the first director to truly demand and push Portman to get beyond her beauty and plastic technique; to her credit, she submits finally to a tough director’s will. Both Aronofsky and Portman are willing to suspend realism to intensity effect and consciousness (like with The Wrestler, Aronofsky likes the camera to dance on the edge of his protagonist‘s back).
In The Wrestler, the backstage world of professional wrestling was captured with a particularly Hawksian ethos that animated the special group dynamic, men who recognized what they were, were content to live out their lives according to their terms, and as such, had a healthy regard for their competitors. In Black Swan, the backstage world is marked by viscous double dealing, sexual treachery and constant rumor-mongering.
With its mirrored images, like the rehearsal space, or water imagery, Nina in the bathtub, imaging again her own destruction, the movie is about creativity and re-birth. As such, visually, the movie is awash in doubles and doppelgangers (the production design, by Thérèse DePrez, is evocative and note perfect). Nina vanquishes her past, the gloriously though now declining top ballerina (Winona Ryder), tragically called “the dying queen,” through a particular cruel form of appropriation. Nina’s “double,” explicitly acknowledged in the structural similarities of the names, is Lily (Mila Kunis).
Black Swan begins in dream, and part of the great pleasure of the movie is how Aronofsky constantly destabilizes the work, visually and sexually. Portman’s Nina is, virtually from the start, unmoored; her body taking on physical characteristics of self-abuse, even if she has no recollection of marking herself, her every movement is shadowed by thoughts of disruption and a hallucinatory dread. One of the film’s most effective recurrent acts is Nina stalked her own image superimposed on others, like a woman she passes in shadow on a nighthawk street.
Aronofsky and his great cinematographer Matthew Libatique worked in 16mm and digital; seeing the film projected a second time, I noticed more clearly the interesting stylistic uses of grain and texture. A lot of the film is shot hand-held, and it makes for a thrilling and vertiginous viewing experience. Portman, who did much of her own dancing, is an entrancing figure (and so is, it must be said, Kunis though she lacks some of Portman‘s discipline and structure).
Catching Portman, in a kind of repose, her body angled before a mirror, in warm ups and stretching, or captured in the exalted flight and elegant movement of the dancer, the movie is electric and full-bodied.
The two great visual artists, director and cinematographer, are also very alert to bodies and faces, the tension and daring plays off the contrasts of their two gorgeous subjects: Nina is tight but sculpted, Lily free and energized. The elaborately drawn tattoo on Lily’s back and shoulder blades intensify the sense of flight and abandon. (Without giving too much away, the two have a sexual pas de deux that is about as charged and provocative a moment as contemporary American art cinema gets.)
Aronofsky summons other works, obviously the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes and also Polanski’s Repulsion, and the body horror works of David Cronenberg. I have a fairly low threshold for visually mannered filmmaking; this time, I let it all ride and any objections I might hold melted through the precision of the filmmaking, the velocity of the acting and movement.
The movie’s rhythm and cutting is absolutely dynamic. Andrew Weisblum’s editing is sure and free, but it gets at the movie’s swiftness and knife-like exactness, like a single cut that transports Nina from the hallway of her apartment to the exterior of Lincoln Center. The movie builds and flows to a stunning twenty-minute crescendo that is thrilling, sustained and dazzlingly shot and executed.
It ends, in the most explicit reference to The Wrestler, with a nearly identical shot of its protagonist ambiguously floating through space to either her oblivion or resurrection.
Whatever the outcome, the tumult and exhilaration is purely ours.