Ironically, Black Swan feels like the swan song of Darren Aronofsky. It isn’t his last film, but it should close curtains on the first act of his career as a director. The movie uses the finer points of his earlier films to create something that is unique, but also clarifies his body of work for anyone struggling to make sense of it. Black Swan gives us not a second glance, but a direct pipeline to the mind behind the camera.
The first spoken words do not intend to be subtle. Maybe it’s the trailers and television spots but when the starting pistol goes off we’re gearing for a Shakespearean descent into madness. The film will be Swan Lake, and only one dancer will take the place of a company’s faded star.
Wannabe-prima ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is wound tighter than Lisbeth Salander, and pulls it off without the aid of bondage wear and dragon tattoos. She’s trained her bony frame into one of solid stone and speaking of tattoos, the back muscles of dancers in Black Swan convey more history of punishment than those of twenty inked Yakuza. Natalie Portman also brought herself back to the body weight of V for Vendetta, and I’ve only begun to cover her physical contribution. That said, it’s the camera that does the dancing in Black Swan.
There isn’t the same patient approach, but Super 16mm cameras from The Wrestler were employed to race from each pose to the next. This pays off particularly well in Aronofsky’s finale, but the majority of our time is spent uncomfortably close to Nina.
As much fun as the “Snorri” strap-on camera from Pi and Requiem for a Dream can be, this handheld approach taps into her anxiety in a more realistic way. Our being this closely drawn in to Portman serves to magnify her character’s loneliness. Centering her in the frames, Black Swan leaves little room for supporting cast members. Let it be known the film remains this uncomfortable for 100 minutes, moreso than this year’s film 127 Hours, and that one’s about a man trapped under a rock.
There’s still a fine scattering of dark humor, as usual. Look out for Requiem for a Dream’s “Ass to ass!” guy on the subway, one of numerous winks to the director’s earlier work. Our tension is momentarily relieved by this, and by Nina’s hypersexual rival Lily, played loose by Mila Kunis before she introduces Nina to a nightlife of druglusty electronica laced with subliminal horror.
A frame-by-frame of Black Swan’s club sequence will be necessary before we fully understand just how much skullfuckery it subjects us to. This release turns out to be a false start to Nina’s transformation, as morning afters often reveal them to be. On a side note, I’m still convinced Aronofsky’s The Fountain was scripted from a cocktail napkin scrawl he found in his jacket pocket.
This highly competent career high from Kunis won’t be forgotten, but it’s never enough to shake off being trapped underneath Portman’s desperation. Only she can free herself, and us, of her two-sizes-too-small shoes.
This restriction isn’t just a matter of physical cues, either. Nina lives with her terrifyingly overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), a mommy dearest who blames her pregnancy for a failed career. She loves her “sweet girl” so much that she dresses and undresses her, tends to her wounds, and seemingly calls Nina every ten minutes when she’s out, like a twisted sister thirty years her senior.
Together they live in a labyrinthine crawlspace-like apartment. Sometimes camerawork in other films can fail to give a sense of space in the setting. In Black Swan, it’s purposefully evasive in this way. Seeing the layout of Nina’s home would ground it in something closer to the common narrative fiction, but we’re feeling this character’s pressure through her setting, which as far as we know it is a series of corners that Nina is backed into.
Further, Nina’s is psychologically and sexually provoked by her instructor Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the kind of maniac who hangs a giant Rorschach test in his apartment, but as a character we only need him for a third of his screen time. Cassel has an interesting light in his eyes whenever his character plays the girls off each other, but his desire to thaw Nina’s frigid nature so that she can portray the black swan consists of one direction reworded multiple times for effect.
It’s the dancer’s greatest weakness that she approaches everything systematically. Being perfectly cast for the immaculate White Swan, Nina appears incapable of expressing the dark side of her performance as long as she remains guarded. While thematically important, the actions of Thomas that are meant to provoke change by touching her aren’t as disturbing as they should be, and the repetitive nature of it only conveys what Pi did in a single line of dialogue. As Saul said of Max Cohen’s strategy in the game of Go, and his life’s work: “Stop thinking. Feel.” Even shorter is the Chemical Brothers track you’ve been trying to dig up. That one’s called “Don’t Think.”
Nina’s pressure to meet that mark is manifested in waking nightmares of the Jacob’s Ladder variety. Trolls of torment, gore on par with Tetsuo the Ironman, which influenced Aronofsky’s first film, and breathtaking convulsions of unusual orientation.
The most telling, but sadly indelicate of these is Nina’s problem with seeing her reflection in others, be they close collaborators or strangers on the street. It’s well intended that the “beautiful princess” hallucinate first at the concept of failing to be unique, but particularly when her mirror reflections pull a Peter Pan shadow act, the film may have tipped it’s cards too clearly.
There might have been moments where only a few people in the audience are aware of the projected psyche before the film pushes it full-scale. As entertaining as they are, the frequency might blur whether the pressure of her life is warping her perspective, or if these supernatural elements are what’s keeping her off balance. What really happened in the plot and what didn’t will be debated in front of more theaters when Swan gets a wider release.
Finally, The most impressive feature of Black Swan outside of Natalie’s full-body performance (which taps into something most people will never know in their lifetimes), is its brilliant use of color. The mise en scene to be found here is some kind of crazy lived-in Jackson Pollock painting that stays with you long after superficial scares do.
There’s never a gray area in Black Swan. Commit or quit, it’s ebony vs. ivory from beginning to end, often in hypnotic swirl patterns on pillows, posters, and graffiti. Clues to her change are loaded in scenes featuring green and purple. Backstage lighting reflects the same colors on her skin that the club sequence did, breaking from a mostly single minded scheme. Yet penetration red will carve our memories of this movie, speed our hearts, and lead us into the signature white fade-out of every Darren Aronofsky film spare The Wrestler.
But let’s take a moment.
Pi’s subjective paranoia, Requiem’s voyeuristic camerawork and sexual exposure, Fountain’s expressionist mysticism, Wrestler’s realism and career parallel… martyrdom for obsession, escapism, love, respect.
Is Black Swan the fifth and final film in a Flagellation Quintrilogy? Swan is a tight amalgamation of what served us through four films, but I can see how his next film, The Wolverine, lends itself to regenerative-flesh-seppuku in its samurai setting.
As a movie, it’s not his best, but it may also be the most personal film a director has ever made. Here we have a person with Sylvia Plath determination finding that she’s a creature of inescapable values. Abandoning them equates to artistic suicide. Is Darren Aronofsky, a famously unrestrained talent knowingly confined by his own perfectionism?
Natalie Portman would be enough to bring the film above its unrelenting Sixth Sense-on-mescaline habits, particularly towards the end where flawless unity of camerawork and solo performance reveal something convincingly primeval. Yet, I’m thinking mostly on what it means for Aronofsky’s career, which would do well to distinguish post- from pre-Black Swan.