Jan 7 2011

Black Swan

Dark, infectious, and one hell of a ride. One of the year's best. Deal with it. 4/4

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is something of a hallucinogenic fairy tale about madness, transformation, and the ballet.  Being an Aronofsky film, however, the film is less sweet and fluffy, and more akin to the Brothers Grimm style: dark, creepy, and grotesque.

On the surface, Black Swan looks like a return to form for Aronofsky; the film features the reckless camera work of Pi, the expressionistic anxiety of Requiem for a Dream, and the ambiguous reality of The Fountain.  Yet the film also features the psychological trials and tribulations, albeit in a very different direction, of an athlete/performer similar to The Wrestler.  In this sense, Black Swan is not so much a return to anything for Aronofsky, but a culmination of the director’s work up to this point.

Black Swan follows ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who is chosen to play the Swan Princess in Swan Lake.  However, the ballets’ director (Vincent Cassel) decides that he wants Nina to not only portray the pristine White Swan, but also the role of the Black Swan, the formers more seductive, swan fatale look alike.

Although Nina is a phenomenal dancer with impeccable technique, she is as pure as the driven snow, and the role of the Black Swan requires a raw sensuality our virginal ballerina lacks.  Naturally, Nina needs to release her inner vamp, and in doing so, taps into a primal darkness that has been cooped up for far too long which triggers a number of disturbing transformations, both mental and physical.

Black Swan is no doubt Aronofsky’s most expressionistic film to date. Aronofsky trades in objectivity with a hyper-awareness for paranoia, anxiety and reckless self-discovery, which isn’t to say Aronofsky abandons reality entirely.  Much of the tension of Black Swan is enveloped by its portrayal of the ballet world, and Aronofsky goes to great measures to truly bring that world to life.

The film often looks more like a documentary than a slick Hollywood film; the grainy film and handheld camera techniques make the viewing experience more tangible and engaging.  There are several scenes that take place during dance rehearsals, but instead of sitting back and watching the dancers practice, the camera dances with the characters with enough vigor to make filmgoers feel little dizzy and out of breathe.  Clint Mansell’s score, which contains arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, permeates virtually every scene, and makes it almost impossible not to be obsessed with the upcoming performance.  Thus, we, not unlike the dancers, are waiting anxiously for opening.

Of course, it is the physical transformations in the film that are the most wild examples of expressionism, not to mention the thing that generated the most buzz prior to the film’s release.  These transformations, however, are not to be taken literally, for they only represent Nina’s inner metamorphosis, but whether or not these transformations are “real” is beside the point; they are frightening to watch, and effectively warp the film’s sense of realism without disrupting the ultimate narrative.    

The credit for these nightmarish changes does not lie entirely with the director; Natalie Portman gives one of the most involving, fearless performances of her career.  Portman surrenders herself entirely to the role physically, emotionally, and even sexually.  The world of Black Swan presented to us belongs to Nina, and Portman manages to, both, carry the film while surrender herself as its victim at the same time.  Furthermore, Portman portrays her character’s inner transformation with such great subtlety that the external changes serve the internal ones, and not the other way around.

Just as Black Swan relies on Nina’s own internal troubles, there are several external forces that appear in the film as supporting archetypical characters.  Although these characters have predetermined functions, it would be foolish to dismiss them as flat or uninteresting.  Mila Kunis plays a rival dancer who embodies the very raw, uninhibited sexuality that Nina lacks and needs to discover, and Kunis shows us yet again that she is far more than “the spoiled teen from “That Seventies Show.””

Vincent Cassel plays the proverbial sleazy mentor, which manifests itself here as Nina’s director.  This is the kind of role we’ve seen several times before, and Cassel seems to be the go-to “sleazy European” character in other films, yet he exhibits such a powerful presence that he goes above and beyond serving a function.

The most disturbing, shudder-inducing role in the film belongs to Barbara Hershey, who plays Nina’s overbearing, never-was ex-ballerina of a mother.  Although this isn’t the first time we have seen a horrid stage mother, Hershey plays her with a subtlety that nearly rivals Portman.  Every action and abuse her character exhibits is passive, yet it is the kind of passive that masks a greater kind of crazy and desperate interdependence.

As of late, Black Swan has become one of the most debated films since Inception; people either love it or are extremely annoyed by the film and its success.  Several people have brushed the film off as a campy B-movie; I read something that referred to it as “Showgirls for people who read The New Yorker.”  A clever, pithy zinger, yes (one that belongs in The New Yorker), but Showgirls, it ain’t.

The B-movie moniker makes sense, although the film hardly possesses the tongue-in-cheek humor inherent to camp.  Black Swan, however, is something of a genre film that features archetypical characters, clichés, and expected plot points; one could even label it a “horror-farce” if they wanted to sound vaguely condescending. The film is also unmistakably exploitative in its aesthetic style, in its emotional range, its shock value, and its treatment of the lead character.

So maybe Black Swan is a B-movie, but my question is this: does it make any difference?  Are A-pictures superior in quality to Bs?  Not particularly.  And why is it the Internet film geeks that are crying foul, citing its B-movie tendencies?  These are usually the same people that criticize the mainstream for ignoring the legitimacy of such films in the first place. Its only crime as a ‘B’, I suppose, is that it has received well-deserved critical acclaim in its own time, which ruins the fun of liking a film for the sake of being hip and ironic, rather than for the sake of film itself.

Be it a ‘B’, an ‘A’, or something in between, Black Swan is a phenomenal film.  There is something so vivid and mesmeric about the film, and these sensations linger on in the psyche long after the lights flicker back on in the auditorium.  A film so resonate is not the result of anything ironic or superficial; its damn fine filmmaking.

2 Responses to “Black Swan”

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  • Nate Says:

    I as well have heard of Black Swan being referred to as a ‘B’ film. But it seems like in several ‘B’ or camp films, one thing they all have is a distance between the viewer and the characters on screen. We watch those films separating ourselves from the characters and the world they inhabit; not to say that they aren’t involved in the film, but not in the level in which the viewer is able to project bits of themselves onto the characters on screen. But for as distanced as I might have felt from Nina for the first half or so of the movie, by the end I was inextricably tied to her-removed from the position of outside spectator and completely and utterly dissolved into the film. And for me, that is what makes it difficult to understand those that have called it a ‘B’ movie. But I know that’s just how I felt watching it-I’m only one opinion. Did anyone else have that same reaction?

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