In Darren Aronofsky I trust.
With only five films under his belt (Black Swan being the director’s fifth film), director Darren Aronofsky has both become the most viscerally interesting director of his generation, as well as one who seems to grow, change, and shift with each new picture.
Moving from the MTV-style punk auteur who created such energetic looks into obsession as Pi and the brilliant Requiem For A Dream, Aronofsky has not only made one of the decade past’s most epic and misunderstood masterpieces in The Fountain, but done much more.
His latest, the haunting look into the world of ballet that is Black Swan, sees the second film in this new, neo-neo realist, almost Dardenne Brothers-like cinema verite style that has now become his staple. Toss in a collection of top tier performances, and you have a film that’s not only the year’s best, but an absolute Masters class in style and genre.
Black Swan stars Natalie Portman, and follows a veteran dancer, Nina, who must come to terms with finally getting the role of her dreams, The Swan Queen. A “brilliant” ballet director, played by Vincent Cassel, has cast the dancer in a “real, stripped down, and visceral” take on the classic Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet. However, the “sweet girl” must ultimately come to grips with her inner “Black Swan,” which ultimately starts to slowly take a toll not only on the dancer’s body, but more so her mind, particularly after a new girl is brought into the company by the director.
A mixture of Roman Polanski style psychological horror, In My Skin style body horror, and the 16mm auteur style seemingly rooted with Aronfosky’s own essence, Black Swan is a visual treastice on the artistic experience. It’s also much more than that. It’s the best film of the year.
Part of the trilogy of films that I’ve deemed Aronofsky’s “Mind, Body (The Wrestler) and Soul (The Fountain)” trilogy, Black Swan is the quintessential psychological horror film. The atmosphere instilled here by the director is so perfectly realized, that while much of what happens on screen truly does happen, more times than not the viewer is left contemplating if they too have gone a bit off the edge. A simple look at a painting, a brief glimpse at a passing woman, or movement within the background of the stunningly grainy frame, you are never quite at ease within this world.
Featuring the director’s patented behind the shoulder tacking shot, Black Swan is seemingly a manifestation of many things that he attempted to touch on both thematically and visually within something like his previous film, The Wrestler. Very much about a person completely giving oneself over to his or her craft, Black Swan is a stunningly intense feature. However, it’s Nina who proves to be the most interesting piece of thematic material.
Inherently, this film is about the artistic experience and the ability for one to truly become lost within his or her respective art. That said, with our lead, the film also proves that to become a truly great artist, there must be a sense of self destructiveness, or at least an ease with that concept. Ultimately, without being at ease with the idea that this art may ultimately take more than your time, one can never truly touch either their inner most darkness, nor the precipice of true art.
It’s this sense of danger, and something being just a tad bit off, that keeps the viewer both inherently engaged within this narrative, but also engaged with what is taking place within the frame. Aronofsky never quite shows the viewer his complete hand, always leaving something off about each frame. Be it an operatic sound cue, or the sound of faint words being uttered somewhere within the depths of our troubled protagonist, this is a masterwork in both thematic depth, and the setting of true, haunting atmosphere.
Oh, and the acting here is really damn good to boot.
Giving a career defining performance, Portman plays Nina as not only a truly brilliant dancer (doing much of her own dancing as well), but as a girl so inherently unable to give herself over to life. Not darkness, but life in general. Still living with her mother, Nina is a frighteningly weak woman, looking for nothing more than cold, clinical perfection. There is so much depth within this role, and while it could have ultimately been played far more theatrically, there is a sense of truth given to this role, that makes it truly the year’s most raw and energetic performance. Oscar should be knocking at her door anytime now.
The supporting cast is also top notch. Barbara Hershey turns in an Oscar worthy performance as Nina’s trouble mother, who herself was a gifted dancer, until she ultimately had to choose her daughter over furthering her career. There is this off putting dichotomy between being an overbearing mother, and yet one so heavily steeped in jealousy that when the bomb under the table finally goes off, it’s one hell of an explosion.
Mila Kunis is equally as great here as the sexy and free-spirited Lily, and is absolutely on fire here. She’s not asked to do much thematically, but what she does perfectly is play the absolute polar opposite of our lead, which ultimately leads her to becoming the thing that pushes our lead over the mental edge. Kunis is absolutely stunning visually, which makes her role in Nina’s change all the more believable. This woman must be absolutely stunning to get such a worrisome woman to drink the night before her big day, and while that’s in the bag for the beautiful actress, the fire she gives this performance is absolutely pitch perfect.
Winona Ryder is great here as the aging Beth Macintyre, and rounding out the cast is Vincent Cassel, who becomes the film’s weak link. He isn’t asked to do much, but what he does is gives a performance that feels like a performance. In a film that looks and feels so visceral and raw, the performance is ultimately out of place in this neo-neo-realist thriller. He fits the role perfectly; just visually off-putting enough, and truly convicted in the dictum he spouts, but is undone by a script that doesn’t quite do the character justice.
That said, it’s truly Darren Aronofsky’s motion picture.
Drenched in Polanski-like dread, Black Swan is much more than a thriller, thanks to its director. With a frame that’s as visually alive as it’s stunningly choreographed ballet sequences, the film dances so poetically on the edge of ultimately becoming camp. Featuring absurdist moments of body horror, and equally jarring moments of true dread, Aronofsky’s hand is so intensely assured here, that one has to think that he himself has already come to terms with the artistic experience.
Darren Aronofsky’s sly re-telling of the ballet of the same name, Black Swan is a horror film unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Small and intimate, the film deals with themes ranging from what it means to create art and what that entails, to something far more minute like a mother-daughter relationship. With a claustrophobic cinema-verite touch, Black Swan is simply the best film of the year.
Aronofsky leapt off the artistic edge. And we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful landing.