EDITED TO ADD: I just realized that there may be some spoilery things in here...so be careful. But really, you shouldn't be reading this if you haven't seen the movie yet.
"Maybe it was all that White Swan/Black Swan split-personality stuff, but as Black Swan ended I found myself confronted by two outwardly identical but attitudinally opposed thoughts: "That was something... (?)" and "That was something... (!)." In other words, I can't yet tell you exactly what Black Swan is, exactly what it means to me, or exactly when the film is genius and when it's trite, but I can tell you that it got under my skin, that it's powerful in sum, if not incessantly, and that I expect its spell will linger."
----- Jason Bellamy
Black Swan is ultimately about an identity crisis (and how!), but it's also a genre mash-up that I can't stop thinking about. Like Jason explains in the quote above (from his piece with Ed Howard at The House Next Door), I find myself thinking that the film is often brilliant in its excess and often hackneyed in its execution. I'm no Darren Aronofsky acolyte, but there is something about his movies that keep me coming back. Like his obsessed characters, I find myself thinking about his films – love 'em or hate 'em – for days. Black Swan is, as Jason puts it, "powerful in sum." If Aronofsky is anything, the one thing he isn't is subtle. And you know what, I like that about him. I like the audacity of his head-long brashness to make the film arrive at the conclusion that, certainly, almost everyone can see it approaching. For once, Aronofsky's aesthetic didn't get in the way of me enjoying the movie. My observations after the jump...
- One of the most fascinating themes of the film is that of identity, and how we can lose that identity in the pursuit of perfection – all under the guise of ambition. To make the world's most obvious observation: all of Aronofsky's films are about some form of obsession. Black Swan is thematically most akin to the director's previous film, The Wrestler. Not only does Nina (Natalie Portman) destroy her body in the name of art a la Randy "the Ram," but Aronofsky films her – over the shoulder hand-held – in the same way, too. The ending, Nina doing one last "move" and having to jump off of something is similar to Randy's one last "move" (in the pro-wrestling sense) – all for the admiration of the crowd that will forget them when the next star comes around. Nina is that next star now, but her obsession makes her realize that she could, at any moment, be like Beth (Winona Ryder), the dancer she replaced. It's a film about losing your spotlight much in the way The Wrestler is about two past-their-prime performers trying to make it in a world dominated by people younger than them. When the end of Black Swan does finally arrive, I couldn't help but think of The Wrestler as both endings are virtually identical.Both films end with their characters in crucifixion like poses, and both films end with their characters -- seduced by the stage lights -- disregarding their own wounds (in a sense their both self-inflicted wounds, although Nina's are much more literal) in the name of stardom.
- Speaking of The Wrestler, I loved how Aronofosky continues the motif of an obsessed performer preparing for a performance. When Nina tapes up her feet, cracks her bones, and prepares her shoes (which, apparently, is quite the process), it reminded me of the way "The Ram" needed a solitary moment pre-match to tape himself up, go over his spots, and psyche himself up. Throughout all of Aronofsky's films, he's been just as relentless with his explication of preparation (none more viscerally presented than the "shooting-up" scenes in Requiem) as his favorite theme of obsession.
- One of the things Aronofsky does extremely well is place the film within Nina's psyche. He does this by employing a lot of close-ups. It reminded me of the way he had his audiences running, strapped to the chests, with his characters from Requiem for a Dream. Black Swan may be a lot of things to a lot of people, but it's never boring; it's never at a loss for energy as we bathe in the psyche of Nina for 110 minutes. Amidst this energy, there is a film about obsession and suppression. Everyone that surrounds Nina is trying to get her to let go – to let loose and find herself. So, the film is also about discovery. Whether it's her director (Vincent Cassel) telling her that she should be the one seducing him during a dance practice as he tries to get her to tap into her "black swan," or whether it's her co-star Lily (Mila Kunis) trying to get her to loosen up at a bar and have some fun (both of these instances, one ordered by her director in an attempt for her to free herself and the other brought upon Nina's own repressed sexuality, result in Nina trying to unlock her sexually repressed self via masturbation) these instances are in stark contrast (much like the film's aesthetic) with Nina's home life where she lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey doing her best Piper Laurie) who only wants her "little girl" to remain innocent (Nina's room is peppered with pink stuffed animals…and one black swan).
- The conventional angle on the film – and from the point of view of some of the characters – is that Nina must get in touch with her repressed sexuality in order to become the person she wants to be. However, I think Aronofsky is approaching it from a different perspective (although certainly that psycho-sexual reading is there): I think Nina must overcome her timidity to be the fully-realized starlet she wants to be. This is a film about a young woman who must overcome diffidence to truly get what she wants: a starring role. In order to do that, it is not her repressed sexuality that she must embrace, but it is her individual power – her confidence. Nina has created the antagonists in her mind so that she can squash them in her pursuit of perfection, and in her pursuit of becoming a fully-realized woman. This feminist reading is a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but I feel that the sexual angle (read: Nina finding the lipstick lesbian within her – making her a more realized woman) wasn't as prominent as some people think it is.However one reads the film, I still find Aronofosky's treatment of Nina pretty disingenuous.
- Natalie Portman is this movie. Good or bad it is hers. I asked some friends after we saw the movie whether or not they think that Portman is a good actress. Most agreed that she was and pointed to the scene where Nina breaks down in tears of joy on the phone, as she tells her mother that she got the lead role. It's a strong performance, but I have a hard time ever believing the weepy Portman (I had the same problems with her "big scene" in V for Vendetta) when she emotes. I can only think back to a film like Beautiful Girls where I actually remembered a Natalie Portman performance (I did think she was a strong lead in V for Vendetta, save for that one scene). I found her in this performance to be a lot better as the traditional horror film character type: the girl in peril. Since the film is being told from Nina's unreliable, subjective point-of-view, we can't help but empathize The problem is, and what I find disingenuous about the Aronofosky's treatment of the character, is that I feel like Portman is trying her hardest to make us feel something more for this character than the director ever intended for us to feel. It's a fine performance, but it doesn't make you forget that you're watching an Aronofsky movie like Mickey Rourke's performance did. The supporting cast is top notch, especially Barbara Hershey as the resentful mother who still clings to her daughter because she is the last visage of hope for her to have an in with dance community that she abandoned years prior in order to have Nina. Mila Kunis is serviceable as Nina's doppelganger. The standout supporting performance, though, is Vincent Cassel as Thomas. He's the stereotypically heelish dance director who promises a more stripped-down, controversial version of "Swan Lake." Cassel plays on all of the tropes and cliches these characters employ in dance films and pulls it off wonderfully. Thomas is a brilliant man who we are never quite sure of because we see him through the lens of our unreliable protagonist. Is he helping Nina find the Black Swan within her, or is he as subversive and slimy as he comes off in certain scenes? It's a great performance from Cassel.
- What appear to be parlor tricks are actually still visceral moments that don't lose their power. That's one of the most amazing things about the film is Aronofsky's ability to mash-up the narrative – the film is a waking nightmare of "is it?" or "isn't it?" that reminded me just a tad of Eyes Wide Shut* (I can't be the only one that saw this, right?) – with elements from dance films, psychological thrillers, body horror, and slasher movies. There's an energy here that reminds me of why I keep coming back to Aronofsky's films even if I despise them (The Fountain) or feel ambivalent (Requiem for a Dream) towards them – there's something that is always pulling me back, and I think that what that "thing" is that pulls me back is best articulated in Black Swan.
- So sure, there's nothing terribly surprising about Black Swan, but there's nothing terribly surprising about slasher film tropes (which Aronofsky employs), either, yet we still watch horror movies because we enjoy them so much (at least I do); we like to see different people riffing on such a broad genre. That's what Black Swan felt like to me. To be honest, it felt a lot like the visceral energy found in the 70's Italian horror of Dario Argento. If Aronofsky ever wanted to make a giallo, I think he would be rather adept at it. When the film begins spiraling out of control by the end, and Nina is left alone in the dance studio, Aronofsky employs all kind of maddening aesthetic and false scares that, for me, played out brilliantly. It's a moment that gave me chills. Like Jason mentions in the quote that started this piece, Black Swan is a film that gets under your skin, and during this specific scene (especially when she goes to her apartment and begins REALLY freaking out) I was invigorated. I was energized. I had a big goofy smile on my face as Nina, and the film, just kept devolving before my eyes. All set to the paradoxical music of Tchaikovsky (it's almost like we're in Thomas' stripped-down version of "Swan Lake") -- music that is simultaneously beautiful and manic. It's a brilliant scene.
- There's nothing new in Black Swan whether you're considering it under the guise of a dance film (there's plenty of clichés from movies about performance here), or whether you're considering it within the context of Aronofsky's oeuvre (close-ups abound, the typical Aronofsky hand-held follow shots are prevalent, the aesthetic is grimy and in-your-face at the same time being controlled and beautiful to look at); however, as many people have pointed out, the film gets under your skin. There's something wonderfully affecting about Black Swan that I can't quite explain. If pressed, I suppose I would say that I admire Aronofsky's headlong vision; his unabashed attitude towards his overt themes (he is definitely not subtle about mirroring/doubles/doppelgangers) and aesthetic (contrasting black/white images are all over this film); his ability to just be able to unapologetically move his film forward with his oddball vision. I have to say that I admire that about the director. Much like what he did in The Wrestler, Aronofsky has an ability to show his hand early and often (not to mention the overuse of certain shots), yet he continues to engage the audience on his protagonists' obsessive journeys because he just steamrolls ahead with his narrative. Despite its flaws, Black Swan is a film that will stay with me for some time; Aronofsky's choices don't always work, but there's something infectious about the kind of energy he brings to the film.