Sunday, December 12, 2010
Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN
"Just because you're a perfectionist doesn't mean your perfect."
(Jack Nicholson to Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining)
The world of the ballet is tough, hard and cruel to the body. It should be a given as soon as you hear the name Darren Aronofsky as director of this film Black Swan, and that his previous film was The Wrestler, that he would be obsessed with that aspect of it. Then again, obsession is one of the main deals to an Aronofsky movie: the perfect number in Pi, fame and achieving good life with no worries in Requiem for a Dream; finding a cure in The Fountain; one's identity in The Wrestler. Every character has a drive, usually towards self-destruction, and the body, the flesh and the spirit sometimes one or the other or both vying for attention, becomes an excrutating focual point.
But hey, you didn't come here to get a full-on breakdown of Aronofsky as auteur did you? No, maybe you did (sorry for the lapse into really addressing at *you* in this review, I'll stop now, maybe). In Black Swan we get Aronofsky's talents at a high peak. It's about a world where pressure cooks the soul and the drive has to be kept again (clap) again (clap) AGAIN (clap). The ballerina is no less an athlete or professional body-fucker-upper than a wrestler, only with this it's the feet, the toes, and the constitution of the body weight. Natalie Portman, for example for the role, lost twenty pounds off of her already skinny frame to play the role (it's not The Machinist but it'll do). And Aronofsky's aim is to explore the nature of a perfectionist in this realm, or someone driven to be one after so many years, and how it drives one mad. Kubrick might be proud.
What's fascinating about Nina Sayers (Portman) is how much she creates her own sense of must-be-perfect-self-worth once she gets the role of the black swan along with the white swan. The latter is just fine, she's a delicate flower of a young woman able to portray her fragile veneer. The former is more difficult, as she's not impulsive, or very sexual. If one reads into ber backstory she's probably like the result of a parent who drove her to this as a child, maybe a very young one, as Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) tells her she's been at this ballet thing for a long time. She's not even thirty and already becoming an old-timer; she's replacing "The Dying Swan" herself, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder, one of her best performances, seriously, even in such a short capacity she amazes in a one 1/2 note performance).
(Oh, by the by, 'Dying Swan' isn't merely a reading-into kind of deal. On IMDb, unknown to me when I saw the movie, characters are listed with monikers; Nina is the "Swan Queen", her would-be friend and rival newcomer Lily (sexually charged and loosely played Mila Kunis) is the "Black Swan", and the trainer, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, kind of sinisterly hamming it up as a descendant of a character originally played with more class by Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes) is the "The Gentleman" weirdly (or ironically) enough. The mother is the "The Queen". Perphaps these are references to the Swan Lake ballet. Or maybe Aronofsky's just being cute, or having fun in his own diabolical-dark way).
What happens to Nina isn't quite so sudden; from the start of the movie there's a sense of paranoia to her, of a sound she may hear (thanks sound fx!) or a dark figure standing down a corridor at the ballet studio. Once she gets this dual role and is pushed on by her instructor/mentor/sexual-assaulter Thomas to dig deeper to find that wild-side for the black swan, which isn't easy to find, she goes deeper into a mania where it is hard to separate reality from fantasy. From nightmare, in fact. Compounding this are the diametrically opposed forces of Nina's Mother, who once had dreams of her own and failed to achieve them (like a lot of showbiz mums), and her equal love/disdain relationship with her. One of the more interesting scenes psychologically comes when after Nina got the two roles, and her mother gets her a cake. Nina turns it down, saying her stomach "is still in knots." Queen Sayers doesn't take this lightly and makes a dramatic pose to throw out the whole thing altogether. Nina relents, and has a piece. Whew.
One may think back for comparison to Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, where we had a trippin-balls Ellen Burstyn imagining a living-bouncing refrigerator was coming her way in her apartment. I might think back more to classic-horror period Cronenberg, where one saw James Woods push a gun into his stomach and then attach itself to his hand in Videodrome. The flesh can be an icky, dicey and really squirm-worthy thing (one still can't quite get over the arm-off in 127 Hours last month), and Aronofsky pushes this right from the start.
When he shows these ballerinas working their toes into submission, and having to push their ankles and feet to a limit, it's not just a "showing the profession" kind of deal. It's connected to what Nina goes through later with her "other" condition, of an unusual mark on her back that goes in a straight line and is red, and perhaps scratched. Other people (at least Nina's mother) notice it on her, but Nina is the only one who sees it extend to its logical destination. When it gets there- and dear reader, you'll know where- its a transformation not unlike Mystique in the X-Men (side note, Aronofsky - The Wolverine - awesome).
A body can be a thing that can waste away, but the mind is a bit more complicated, and the subjective perspective is something Aronofsky is masterful at portraying here. I was completely caught up with Nina about midway through the film. Her mania became my mania in a way; Aronofsky's choices of close-ups on this woman falling apart is a distinct and maybe (only) brave choice to do. She has fear, anguish, pain, delirium, occasionally (when a 'substance' is put in her drink by Lily) euphoria, and finally full-on homicidal madness. I couldn't discern reality from fantasy in this film, which is something that excites me and surprises me. That it's also in the framework of a full-borne melodrama is something that excites further. No, it's not quite The Red Shoes. It's something different, adaptive, as if Stephen King with a refound lust for glory took the Red Shoes and doused it in kerosene and made it dance till it passed out. It's script, which deals in conventions, is deceptive once its truer purposes are revealed by its director (who, admittedly, rises it up from potential pitfalls that backstage-dramas can have).
Casting is so important though, outside of a director's vision, and Aronofsky has a lead here that could equal her previous Randy 'The Ram' from The Wrestler. Natalie Portman seems to find a really strong role every five years or so, and this is one of them. In Nina she finds darker countours than I've seen her play before, and as the filmmaking reaches a feverish pitch the actress is right there along for the ride. I mentioned close-ups before (as did Jim Emerson in his blurb, bless him), and Portman is game to fill up the frame with her availability and horror that she can give as an actress. It's a revelatory performance in that she runs a gamut of emotional notes from tender to sad to hysterical to mad to evil and just downright... determined. That she's also an amazing ballerina should be a given to be in this film, though her dedication to the role pays off in that climactic Swan Lake performance. It's not all visual fx up there and lighting daring-do. It's flesh and blood and eyes turned red and wings flapping like daggers.
Did I mention the music? Or the cinematography? Or any number of things? In short, it's one of the best of the year, do go see it if it's around the area or when it opens wider this Christmas. As far as head-trip mind-fuckers go, it's the director's finest and, within its cozy hand-held 16mm confines, most ambitious work.