Thursday, December 23, 2010

Black Swan (2010)


As a director, Darren Aronofsky is a lot of things. He is devious, eclectic, nuanced, calculating, and above all mind boggling. One thing Aronofsky is most indisputably not, is subtle. Aronofsky's volatile style to filmmaking embeds each film with a mixture of reality and delusion. Every twist and turn is an exercise in the viewer's mind, and understanding of the world. He plays against audience's understanding that seeing is believing, while asking them to feed into that role. In essence, he makes movies that need to be watched multiple times. I should have known that going in.

It is perhaps appropriate that Aronofsky's next film is a studio blockbuster. For Black Swan is the accumulation of everything he has done to date. Like The Wrestler it deals with the physical and emotional strain of working in a world where eyes are constantly upon you. The need to present this idealistic image regardless of the cost. Like The Fountain and Pi, Black Swan disjoints reality. There is no focal point from which we can derive fact from fiction. Any argument made in one direction, could easily be opposed by those in other directions. Then of course you have Requiem for a Dream. Frantic, dubious, and obsessed, Black Swan dives into the territory of addiction. However, unlike drugs, Nina Sayers' (Natalie Portman) addiction is to perfection. She has to be perfect. She was raised to be perfect. Anything less means the destruction of her self image and the way she views the world.

To capture that Aronofsky brilliantly uses mirrors. At every turn, twist, and move, Nina is constantly being reminded of how she looks. Interestingly still, the mirrors represent something entirely unique for Nina. When she looks into them she sees not herself, but a projection of all the things she can't see elsewhere. All her faults and transformations are bundled up into the mirrors, and only they can show her what she fears she is, or what she wishes to be. As her mind loses control on reality, these projections become increasingly more realistic. Eventually reaching a boiling point by which Nina destroys the projection she has slowly manifested throughout the film, and imbues herself with that image.

One of the aspects of Black Swan that I found most captivating is the obsession with physical perfection. Nina and her fellow company members are constantly being pushed to perform more and more strenuous tasks. A nail file Nina steals, which she uses aggressively to remove even the slighted imperfections, becomes the manifestation of that physical perfection for her. Still, on a subconscious level, Nina seems to reject the notion of perfection. She files away any imperfection in her nails, yet in a pseudo-masochistic release she uses these same fingernails to scratch at her shoulders to the point of causing physical damage. Destroying the facade of perfection, it ironically merely adds another thing for Nina to obsess over.

Now whether or not her self-harm is a mental projection Aronofsky leaves up to the viewer. As he does much of the film. A certain number of elements in Black Swan seem to be grounded enough that they maintain some sentiment of reality, but there's lots of leeway for discussion and disorientation. Luckily enough, Portman is perfect in guiding us through these flailing frames of reference. She embodies the conflicting maturity and childlike attributes that make Nina a captivating character. Every crick, crack, and pop is pronounced to the viewer, highlighting Portman's borderline Bale/Machinist style physicality. Whenever I was worried that her character was starting to get stale, Aronofsky would step in and crank up the mental deterioration of Nina. Portman never shies away from these, and fully engulfs herself in the role.

Mila Kunis ups her game tenfold as Nina's nemesis (of sorts) Lily. She is seductive, deceiving, and exactly what Nina needs (or doesn't need) her to be. Barbara Hershey as Nina's controlling ex-ballerina mother, Erica, serves as the perfect counter to Lily. Like a devil on one shoulder and a flawed angel on the other, Hershey and Kunis represent the conflicting duality Nina faces as stress takes hold. Hershey may be obsessive, but her primary goal is the well being, and supporting, of Nina. Lily, on the other hand, constantly pulls Nina into a world of sexuality and malice. Add in Vincent Cassel's confident turn as the alluring Thomas, and Winona Ryder's ghost of Christmas future incarnation as the forcefully defunct ballerina Beth, it becomes easy to see why Nina's breakdown reaches a boiling point at supersonic speeds.

When the credits role on Black Swan the only coherent thought that sprang to my mind was 'crap, now I have to watch it again.' Unlike so many films which would like for you to watch them again, Black Swan requires it. Nitpicky issues I had with the film could be justifiable problems. Or they could be expository moments interwoven by Arronofsky that can't be fully absorbed unless viewed with knowledge of the greater context of the film. It's the sort of movie I imagine watching five years from now on my nth viewing and being mesmerized by all the intricacies imbued throughout Aronofsky's tale. Yet that's only one possibility. The chance that I very well may watch this years from now and feel as if something is still missing always looms overhead. As such, Black Swan is a film I believe can be appreciated to the highest of degrees on a first viewing, but not wholly understood. Only time will tell if there really is an intrinsic power underneath all that chaos. For Aronofsky's sake, and to some extent my own, I truly and deeply hope so.

Film Credits:
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Written By: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin 

11 better thoughts:

Ryan McNeil said...

Nifty review - obviously a film that landed amongst the best of the year for you.

I'm curious about the news that this story was once a subplot in THE WRESTLER. Aside from their obsessions over what they do, I couldn't imagine a more unlikely pair than Randy and Nina...not to mention the quiet & subtle tone of THE WRESTLER seems completely at odds with the melodrama on display here.

I actually love both films equally - but what I wouldn't give to see that original script!

SugaryCynic said...

Nice review! Yeah, subtle this was not. But that was why I liked it, it was intensely operatic and overwrought-like a ballet! I had a lot of fun watching from between my knees as I cringed in horror. Agree with that it pretty much requires at least a second viewing.

Castor said...

Sure, there might more visual details to uncover as well as clearer understanding of the themes but I feel the opposite way in terms of re-watching this. As I said in my review, I don't think there is nearly as much as meets the eyes in this movie and subsequent viewing would probably highlight the fact that there isn't much more to be "wholly" understood.

Univarn said...

@Mad That would be an interesting thing, however I'm certain over the past two years quite a few changes have been made. :P

@Sugary I never cringed in horror, but I did spend a good deal of time wincing.

@Castor See, that's where I'm not sure. It's one of the reasons I had such a tough time reviewing it because it could very well turn out next time I watch it that there isn't the same draw. However, I'm very interested in analyzing two things on a repeat viewing 1) The role the mother, real or fake, plays in it all and 2) Why does faux Lily appear when she does. On the first viewing

Joseph said...

Nice review. My wife and I watched it last night. Wow, what a film.

"One thing Aronofsky is most indisputably not, is subtle." True that! :)

Simon said...

Psycho ballet awesomeness.

Candice Frederick said...

i really really en joyed this film. i agree it begs for a second, or even third viewing but only to appreciate the little things you might have missed.

Univarn said...

@Joseph Thanks for the comment! It is quite amazing indeed.

@Simon As opposed to normal ballet non-awesomeness?

@Candice True, and I think there's some things that would be fun to take another look at in the film.

Lesya said...

Great review! I also thought that seeing it for the second time is simply amust. I found it absolutely captivating and mesmerizing. You know I'm not a huge fan of Aronofsky but 'Black Swan' ruined all my prejudices.

CMrok93 said...

In case you are thinking you're going to see a pretty film about a lovely, popular ballet, this is not that film. On the other hand, if you're interested in a horror film about a lovely, popular ballet, then this is the ticket.

Andrew K. said...

I know that subtlety is not his style, but the slight garishness works for him in THE WRESTLER more than I think it does here, as if all those moments where the tension is built were necessary narrative-wise but Aronofsky just put them in, just for the hell of it, almost extraneous.

I like the parallels you draw between Hershey and Kunis, which I'll look for if I watch it again because I really wanted to but I was really unmoved by Kunis.

(Loved the bit on Ryder, which I think is a part that works excellently simply because the parallels between Beth and Nina are obvious but not stifling.)

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