Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Just Don't Call Her Twinkle Toes

By Josh R
I have nothing against Darren Aronofsky, but I am sometimes given to wonder if he was held enough as a child. This is not to say that the writer-director of Black Swan, a grisly fairy tale set in the world of professional ballet, is in any way deficient as a filmmaker. On the contrary, he has always displayed an intuitive grasp of the mechanics of storytelling and suspense, a sure hand with actors, and a distinctive flair for the dramatic — his approach to mise-en-scène is visceral, exciting and uniquely his own. He is also (and this is not meant in the spirit of a put-down) a bit of a sadist. Above all, Aronofsky is a keen observer of human suffering, of the graphic physical variety. In Requiem for a Dream — by my estimation, the only film of his in which the bloodletting seemed genuinely gratuitous — there was a certain grim satisfaction in the way the main characters were essentially gutted like fish as a denouement to their battles with addiction. Even in The Wrestler, perhaps his gentlest film, the physically broken-down title character’s tortuous exertions in the ring were rendered with such bare-knuckled clarity that the viewer was left in no doubt as to the intense physical pain which accompanied them. The final scene — basically, a 10-minute coronary in progress — was as tough to watch as anything in Requiem.

There’s a certain kind of ethos at work here, and while the gore quotient can sometimes upset the balance of his films, I think I can see what Aronofsky is getting at. His films deal with the externalization of internal conflict — psychological torment which manifests itself in the form of physical pain. The wounds are a metaphor for something else, but the approach is very literal-minded; when Natalie Portman’s emotionally fragile ballerina is ripping the skin from her bones, she is literally tearing herself apart in order to prepare for the role of a lifetime.

This all goes to say that Black Swan is not recommended fare for the squeamish, or those who prefer fantasy-based drivel such as The Turning Point, which made ballet look very, very pretty, and ballet dancers look like shallow hedonists only capable of experiencing the big emotions — love, pain, loss, betrayal — at the high school cafeteria level. There’s nothing pretty, cute or sweet about Aronofsky’s treatment of his subject; if anything, being a member of the American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet often seems like one step up from life in a Turkish prison. If all the little girls who’d decided to become ballerinas after seeing The Red Shoes watched Black Swan afterward, their parents might have saved a fortune in toe shoes.

Then again, impressionable young women have been known to find a perverse sort of pleasure in pain (it’s the reason that eating disorders and small cutting never fall out of fashion), and Aronofsky knows exactly how to translate the kind of swoony, intoxicating hunger that fuels teenage fantasies of orgiastic self-mutilation into visual form. Portman’s pale, tremulous Nina is a promising young dancer in the corps de ballet. When the tempestuous prima ballerina (Winona Ryder, acting sufficiently crazy) is forced into early retirement, Nina is promoted to principal dancer and secures the coveted dual role in Swan Lake. The director of the company (Vincent Cassel), who is not above mental manipulation in order to bring the most out of his dancers, offers her the role with one proviso; while there is little doubt that she can embody the elegant, delicate White Swan to perfection, she must also find a way to convincingly inhabit the uninhibited, predatory Black Swan in order to keep the part. To pull off this coup de theatre, the repressed, emotionally stunted Nina must channel her darkest inner demons and invite them out to dance — to the point where she can no longer distinguish her own fevered hallucinations from reality. It’s less a question of life imitating art, or vice versa, than one of art and life becoming so inextricably linked that one can no longer exist without the other; she and the Swans have become one and the same. The performance of a lifetime cannot be far at hand, assuming Nina survives long enough to give it, and manages to do so without shedding any blood (hers or others) in the process.

There are intriguing elements to Black Swan, and they almost (if not entirely) coalesce into a very satisfying film. The underlying concept is basically the same as that of Bergman’s Face to Face, in which Liv Ullmann’s buttoned-down psychiatrist is driven to insanity by her own demonic, tormenting visions. Add to that a bit of All About Eve’s backstage skullduggery and the bloodstained shenanigans of De Palma’s Carrie, and you get a rather peculiar hybrid of arty psychodrama and gut-churning pulp shockfest. It’s not an entirely comfortable marriage — imagine if Holly Hunter started stabbing Harvey Keitel with a broken-off piano key as a means of alleviating sexual tension, or if I Know What You Did Last Summer featured a dream sequence inspired by the choreography of Pina Bausch — but it has its own kind of loony fascination, and is brought to life with such flourish that it still sends shivers down the spine at all the right moments. Visually, it’s the most exciting thing Aronofsky’s done to date, and grimly enveloping enough to make you mostly forget how nutty it is.

In case there’s any doubt on the subject, Black Swan exists very much in the vein of a director’s film, as opposed to an actor’s. Most of the characters seem to exist on a purely conceptual level — in other words, as literary constructs that make sense within the context of the film they’re in, but not as part of any larger reality. This doesn’t prevent the principal actors from making an impression; they’re not exactly flesh-and-blood people, but make for compelling figures nonetheless.

I’ve found many of Portman’s performances wanting in the past, but she’s very effectively used here. Her lean, anxious, haunted look, coupled with an air of seeming vapidity, is exactly right for Nina — an unformed person totally unequipped to grapple with the maelstrom of emotions funneling into her consciousness and fueling her metamorphoses from angel to demon. I’m still not sure how deep Portman’s talent runs, but it’s clear that she’s making a connection here — she understands what the role is supposed to be, and she’s up to the demands. Cassel was seemingly put on the earth to play villains, and strikes a perfect balance between smarminess and seductiveness; even while he bullies, berates and abuses his girls, you never doubt why they’d gladly follow him down the garden path to hell. It’s nice to see Barbara Hershey back in action again, even if her role as Nina’s overbearing, slightly unhinged mother is a tad underwritten to allow her to really go to town with it — it’s the one piece of characterization that could benefit from having gone a bit more over-the-top. The best, most interesting performance is given by Mila Kunis, bringing a feral sensuality to her role as the free-spirited rival dancer who may or may not be giving Nina the additional push she needs to send her over the edge. She’s a marvelously enigmatic presence — you’re never quite sure how much of her treachery is real, and how much is a product of Nina’s imagination (credit to the actress that she keeps you guessing right up until the end.)

If you really stop to think about Black Swan, you might conclude that it’s fairly ridiculous — it’s a testament to the element of showmanship Aronofsky brings to the proceedings that you don’t reflect on this until the film is over. He goes for the jugular without going out of bounds, and the film works, even when its disparate elements don’t always fit together the way that they should. It’s a close contest in terms of who’s the bigger head case — the director or his heroine — but as far as blood-splattered trips to Crazy Town go, this one has style.

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It took awhile for me to get into it, but once I did, I really dug it. It's so nice to see Winona Ryder get work in substantial films again. Kunis is great. Who would have picked her from the kids on That '70s Show?
I'm REALLY REALLY REALLY GLAD :-) that both of you appreciated the film! For me, it's the 'Oscar contender' that I most want to see win this year, even though I know it's a long shot - though having said that, it appears as though Black Swan may just end up grossing more than The Social Network, which even if this means nothing for its award chances, would be a nice cherry-on-the-cake, since Black Swan is, for me, even more exciting and intriguing than Fincher's film, and the one I think is much more likely to endure as a classic! PORTMAN FOR BEST ACTRESS!!!

and I didn't even recognise Ryder; I'd forgotten she was in the film...what a brilliant job from her!
There's a short rarely noticed/ mentionned scene in the beginning wherein Portman's character is feverishly trying to block entrance to her bedroom with a broom handle or some such item.

Next we hear Hershey's character peremptirely call out her daughter's name. Nina rushes to hide the 'stick', jump into bed and await her mother's arrival.

A moment later "mom" appears wearing what appears to be a black negligee and asks the really bizarre question,"Are you ready for me?"

Nothing in that scene suggests it's a dream/nightmare.

Now, if in addition to the pressures of being promoted to prima ballerina in a most demanding role, Nina is also being sexually molested by her mother, wouldn't it explain her creeping madness and lesbian penchant? Wouldn't it?

Incidentally, I very much enjoy your reviews.


This film is truly, unrepentantly, brilliant. I was so amazed when I first saw it in theaters that I didn't think I could ever see it again the motion was so strong. But I did, purchased the home video recently, and might I say, again, truly, unrepentantly brilliant!
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