Twelve years ago, Darren Aronofsky burst onto the independent film scene with Pi, the story of a young man’s obsession that drives him to the brink of madness. In the case of Pi, the obsession lied in mathematics, finding the perfect formula to predict the stock market, and potentially discover the true name of God in the process. This was just the beginning of a series of films spotlighting the darker sides of the psyche, obsession at all costs, despair, paranoia, utter ruin. The ensemble of Requiem for a Dream is ruined by an obsession with drugs. Hugh Jackman’s multi-generational downfall in The Fountain grows out of an obsession with life. The Wrestler’s Randy Robinson is brought down by an obsession with reclaiming past success. By each film’s end, nothing good happens to our damaged protagonists. These heroes do not find providence. Requiem for a Dream is specifically one of the few examples of a film that I love and rarely rewatch (it’s probably been five years or more since I’ve watched it in its entirety) simply because it is so emotionally painful to experience, a brutal but undeniably brilliant vision, and uncompromising about its subject matter. I’ve written about The Fountain before; my love for that film is personal, intense, and unflinching. It’s the only film I’ve really seen that caused me to openly weep in the theater. Something about Aronofsky’s films just does it for me.
Needless to say, I consider any new Aronofsky project to be a seriously important and exciting moment. The only director I probably actively anticipate more is Terry Gilliam, but I don’t even know how much of the case that is these days. When I found out that Black Swan would be opening in Boston right away as part of its limited release, I made my plans accordingly. Saturday morning at 9:35, I sat down to take in Darren’s new potential work of art. Black Swan tells the story of Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer working in New York. She is given the starring role in a production of Swan Lake after years of working out of the spotlight. She’s chosen for the role due to her timid nature and dancing precision making her the perfect choice for the White Swan. She does not have the passion and intensity for the Black Swan role, and the film follows her as she attempts to perfect the part in spite of her lascivious director (Vincent Cassel), overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), and rival dancer who embodies the role of the Black Swan (Mila Kunis). This film follows what has now become the official Aronofsky formula, as Portman’s obsession with success leads her down a path fraught with paranoia, danger, hallucination, and despair, and ending with her being consumed by her own desire and will for perfection. Knowing the director, the film plays out just as would be expected, but the quality of performance and less conventional (for Aronofsky, at least) approaches to the material end up transcending the potential for cliché. In fact, the is Aronofsky’s most technically impressive film to date, and probably his best. I might personally have more love for The Fountain, but Black Swan is certainly a more complete film.
One thing that I find fascinating about tracing Aronofsky’s film career is the evolution of his camera techniques. Pi and Requiem for a Dream make heavy use of a chest mounted camera rig pointed directly at the principal actors’ faces, creating a very distinct look and sense of chaos. Darren is focused on seeing every nuance of the actors’ expressions, and the actor is imprisoned by the camera lens, unable to escape. The Fountain is shot in a more organic fashion; there are no specific camera tricks or angles that affect Hugh Jackman in a similar fashion. By the time we get to The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky’s focus shifts, and both films contain long tracking shots with the camera placed behind the actor, a sort of over the shoulder point of view shot where the character’s face is impossible to be seen. The actor is dehumanized, and the shots are designed to be about what the character is doing independent of his or her reactions or emotions. The actor is hidden from the camera lens, which turns out to be a prison in its own right, as he or she is unable to convey thoughts and feelings. He is faceless. She is helpless. Claustrophobia is replaced by wide, empty spaces.
Indeed, Black Swan is the darker, feminine cousin of The Wrestler. The plot is eerily similar, with the main character destroying his or herself in order to have that one perfect performance, sacrificing boy and mind to create true art. The paths diverge, as while The Wrestler was approached as a gritty almost biopic with a twist, Black Swan takes on the role of psychological horror. The proceedings are surprisingly disturbing, much more so than I expected. This is definitely further up the scale than Pi, which was more of a suspense film with one specifically grisly scene involving a drill, and is easily Aronofsky’s second most challenging film behind Requiem. Black Swan further differentiates itself thanks to Nina’s fragile grip on reality that heavily deteriorates throughout the film, though the effects are seen very early on. She hallucinates that she’s accidentally ripping slivers of her skin off the cuticle before she even gets the role of the Swan Queen. Clearly, this is a woman with issues before the stress takes its hold. Aronofsky plays with reality constantly throughout the film, and its legitimately difficult (especially in the second and third acts) to figure out what’s actually real. As such, it’s a different sort of horror, a quieter horror that does take advantage of a few isolated jump scares in the old tradition, but is much more focused on the slow warping of reality around Nina as she loses her grip. Mirror reflections begin to take on a life of their own. Mila Kunis’ Lily seems to both actively target Nina for abuse one time and turn around and act like her best friend at another. She sees her own face on Lily’s body. Nina’s body itself may or may not be physically deteriorating, and it’s hard to tell how much of the subtle shifts are actually happening, and what is causing them. It’s the story of a broken woman forced to push herself beyond her fragile boundaries. She never had a chance.
Incredible performances abound. Natalie Portman retrained herself to be a dancer over 10 months in order to dance most of the ballet scenes without using a double. Portman is in every single scene of this film; nothing exists beyond her influence. It’s easily the most impressive role of her career, and should win her a gold statue or two over the coming months. Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Mila Kunis all do a wonderful job as the various tempter/temptress roles that pull Nina in every direction until she collapses. Cassel is especially engaging to watch, owning the screen as the true focus of authority whenever he appears, while also having a loving, somewhat tender, but also actively dangerous other side. The only part that doesn’t do a whole lot for me is Winona Rider’s cast off former star Beth. It’s not much of a role with only a few scenes, one of which is particularly memorable and one of the more gruesome parts of the film, and her acting is serviceable, but I feel more could have been done with the role. One thing I will need to give a little more attention to on a second viewing is Clint Mansell’s score. I love Mansell’s music, and the score for Black Swan itself is incredibly subtle in a way that the film isn’t. The music of Tchaikovsky weaves its way in and out of the score, to the point that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where Swan Lake ends and Mansell’s own music begins. It was sort of a no-brainer that Mansell should have approached the score in this way, but the fact that he was so capable of pulling it off that it was actively seamless is quite the achievement. Even still, I feel like I didn’t pay enough attention to it. The score, much like The Wrestler, doesn’t dominate the proceedings in the way his excellent scores for The Fountain and Requiem for the Dream did. But that’s by design.
Darren Aronofsky is a lyrical director. He, for the most part, doesn’t approach his material from a perspective of subtlety. These films are essentially Greek tragedies playing out in front of the viewer. Main characters are consumed by their flaws and eventually are brought to their knees in supplication. Many critics consider this a flaw in Aronofsky’s movies, feeling that he is overbearing with his choices of plot and camera, that he shows too much in too simple of a fashion. Aronofsky doesn’t make you think, he shows you what you’re supposed to think. Personally, I do not consider this approach a flaw, because Aronofsky is here to make a point. Greek tragedies were certainly not at all subtle pieces of art. They were designed with one simple goal: to make the audience member fear the power and glory of the gods. Similarly, I think Aronofsky doesn’t want any sort of ambiguity in his films that a more subtle touch could potentially foment. He’s making very specific points about the folly of obsession in all of his films so far, and finds no reason to hide that in less blatant visual effects, camera tricks, or script moments. Yes, Natalie Portman’s character does turn into a black swan for a brief moment of triumph, and yes, it is a little heavy handed, but the heavy handedness has a purpose of showing us just how desperate Nina is to succeed. An entire second half of the film constantly assails the viewer with more and more surreal moments of untruth. How much of the third act actually happens? Is Nina actually on stage when she morphs into the swan? Does any of that actually happen? Does she imagine the successes of her performance? Is her force of will so strong (or, consequently, so weak) that she needs to convince herself that she has physically transformed into the black swan in order to complete the performance? Intriguingly enough, the lack of ambiguity in the symbolism creates an ambiguity in the narrative. We can never tell exactly what is real, but Nina’s desire to succeed, her need to create the perfect art against all odds, her sacrifices, they are entirely real. And that is what matters. We may not know exactly what we’ve seen in the end as far as narrative truth, but the lyrical truth of Nina as a character is concrete.
I am now entirely convinced that Darren Aronofsky is the best director of the current generation. I am wildly biased, and I am aware of this, but no single person has put art to celluloid with such success as Aronofsky. He has never made a bad film, but more importantly, basically every film he makes is usually one of the three to five best films released that year. Christopher Nolan has done some incredible work. So have David Fincher and David O. Russell. But they’re missing something. I don’t get the same emotional response to their movies that I do to one of Aronofsky’s work. I need to see it again before my opinions are solidified, but I think Black Swan is a better film than both Fincher’s The Social Network and Nolan’s Inception. By that math, it makes Black Swan the best film of the year so far. I’ve still got a lot to see (Rabbit Hole, True Grit, and O. Russell’s The Fighter, among others), but the bar has been set incredibly high. To be honest, I don’t know what to think about Aronofsky’s next project being the Wolverine movie. It’ll certainly be a departure from what he’s done so far. It’s quite possible that if he can pull off Wolverine, he can pull off anything. Black Swan is a lot closer to the center of his established comfort zone, but that makes it no less of a staggering work of art. This one is not to be missed.