Darren Aronofsky's latest leaves me with one lingering question I can't seem to answer. Did I just see an independent arthouse movie wrapped in the trappings of a seventies exploitation grindhouse flick or did I just see a seventies exploitation grindhouse flick wrapped in the trappings of and independent arthouse movie? I honestly can't be one hundred percent sure. Either way, what I did see grabbed hold of me in the first ten minutes, then suddenly two hours had passed and I was smiling gleefully as the credits began to roll.
Black Swan is going to be the kind of movie that cinephiles in their late teens and early twenties are going to be suggesting to each other in twenty or thirty years. Though it seems to be doing good business right now, if the comments I heard from the audience as they were walking out are any indication (and sometimes they aren't), this is not going to be a film the general public is going to be giving standing ovations. Most of those comments seem to relate to the trailer having portrayed the film as something very different than what it is. Honestly, I haven't seen a trailer for this yet, so I can't comment on the veracity of that claim. When it was first anounced that Darren Aronofsky was going to be making a movie with Natalie Portman in the lead, I was basically on board to see it. As it hit the festival circuit and was given a limited release, the little I read about it did nothing to suggest I should plan on skipping it. I'm really glad I didn't.
The film follows Portman's Nina Sayers, just given the chance to play the lead role of The Swan Queen in her ballet companies performance of Swan Lake. It slowly becomes a film about the obsession for perfection, and in that, a question of whether or not a rival dancer is trying to steal Nina's place in the production or is Nina just cracking under the pressure. That's the really simple explanation, because I don't want to give too much of this away up front. This film will definitely play better when you know less about what you're actually seeing. That short synopsis might make this sound like a very straight forward story about revenge, competition, anger and so on, but it's really not. It's mostly a story about the lengths human beings go to in order to try and reach creative perfection. With one possible exception, each of the characters in this film are pushing the boundaries of what most of us would consider "normal" and sometimes even "healthy" in both the phsyical and psychological senses.
I'm not a ballet aficianado by any stretch of the imagination. I probably learned more about ballet watching this film than my entire collected understanding represented when I walked into the theater. What the film definitely suggests is that ballet is a labor of love and an extremely competitive, cut throat world. The sheer physicality and physique necessary to perform with even just enough prowess to create the illusion necessary for a film is daunting. The physical condition of the actors, and every dancer in the film (the actors actually do the majority of their own dance work), is impressive. This film had to have been a labor of love for the actors, just as dancing is for real dancers. The chances are it's going to pay off as well because I'd be willing to agree with the predictions that Natalie Portman is a shoe in for a best actress nod at the Oscars. She may not actually win, but it will be an act of fraud if she isn't nominated. Her performance is the reason the film engulfs the viewer so deeply and so quickly. She's phenomenal in a role that in some ways is similar to others she's played before, but in others, something completely and utterly different for her. It's impressive in it's own right. This is the first film I can think of which is completely dependent on Portman for it to be able to stand up, and it doesn't just stand up, it pirouettes, jumps, and runs like a psych patient who just escaped "the quiet room."
Vincent Cassel turns in another great performance as well. This film now puts Cassel in the rare category of actors whose films I will go to see because he's in it. Not only have every single one of his performances been great, but I have yet to see him in anything I really just felt was a waste of my time. Eastern Promises was a superb film, Brotherhood of the Wolf was an absolute blast to watch, the Oceans films were at least fun and The Crimon Rivers was a well done straight forward thriller. He just never turns in a bad performance and he seems to have great instincts for the projects he chooses.
And Barbara Hershey puts in another knock out performance as Nina's truly bizarre mother. There are echoes of Carrie in the relationship, but Hershey nevers takes the role over the top in the way Piper Laurie did in Carrie. Her more quietly weird smothering is almost more unsettling because it's obvious she cares very deeply for her daughter, and at the same time, it's disturbing to see the way that is expressed. It could have become more caricature than character, but Hershey gives another in a career full of great performances.
Then there's Mila Kunis. Most of us probably know her from That 70's Show. At some point I saw the American Psycho sequel she starred in, American Psycho II: All American Girl. The script had originally been written as it's own complete, stand alone film, with absolutely no connection to American Psycho, and you could tell. It was as bad, painfully bad. But, when I saw her in Moving Mcallister, her performance stood out as the best amongst the cast in an otherwise decent but forgettable road trip romance. I was wary of her inclusion with the rest of this cast. But she does a damn good job with the role she's given. She has a fair amount of screen time, but not really an abundance of dialog. She has a few key scenes with Portman that she nails perfectly and with even that little amount to really do, there's a very strong sense of who the character is and what she's really all about. It's good to see Kunis can step into a project very different from what she's been known for and still be able to carry herself in a way that she should be proud of.
The visual style for the film is interesting. Early on in the film, it has a very recognizable hand held documentary style, but as it progresses, it changes, becoming more and more claustrophobic. Even the ballet scenes start to become more and more intimate and personal, pulling in on Portman's expressions and eschewing the spectacle and beauty of the ballet itself in favor of continuing to ratchet up the emotional connection to her character and the tension involved in the story. It works extremely well and comes across as an amalgamation of the visual styles Aronofsky and his long time cinematographer Mathew Libatique have used up to this point. It lacks the editing tricks used in Requiem for a Dream, but it retains some of the freneticism of Pi, the intimacy of The Wrestler and even the grandeur of The Fountain once or twice. The visual style is completely connected to the emotional and psychological state of the lead character, Nina, and it works perfectly. As her emotional and psychological state shifts throughout the film, the camera portrays that shift without ever becoming a hack's trick to impress the audience at the expense of the overall film.
As I alluded to at the beginning, it's hard to classify exactly what this film is. It is an arthouse independent film in some ways, because it is a deeply personal, but still very unusual story whose financing and production were completed outside of the Hollywood studio system. At the same time, it's a weird little character examination/psychological thriller. And still at times in the film, it plays more like those really rare examples of actually well done and great grindhouse films of the seventies. It manages to put all of that together and never seem as if it doesn't actually know what it's trying to be. The credit for that has to go to Aronofsky, because in the hands of a lesser film maker, this could have been either a really rote, cliche'd film or it absolutely would have been a complete mess which was all over the place and boderline incoherent. He also manages to avoid the kind of exposition trap that makes so many movies, dull, slow and for me, annoying. There is constantly information being given to the audience through nothing but what they are seeing on the screen. Other directors would have a character going back and then somehow explaining what the audience has just seen. He never does that in this film. There is an abundance of information given to the audience just through the visual image they are presented with, and it helps to give the film a sense of breakneck pacing when in almost any other directors hands, it would have become a collection of talking heads that slowed it down and dulled the overall impact.
There are many good films out there which deal with the nature of the creative obsession with perfection. Few of them are as boldly entertaining as this one and with the possible exception of Synecdode, New York by Charlie Kaufmann, none have been as boldly weird, bizarre and unusual.
The only real problem with Black Swan is that I'm not completely sure what audience is going to embrace it. Horror fans are probably not going to really go for a film about a ballerina who may or may not be losing her grip on reality. The arthouse audience will possibly be turned off by it's more lurid elements and the people who think they're going to get another film with as straight ahead a visual style as The Fountain or Requiem for a Dream are going to be disappointed by it's much more subtle visual technique. All in all, it was a great movie, that even at 17 million dollars and without big, expensive, sensational special effects, I really think should be seen on a big screen not only because the story and performances are great, but the visual style is so much a part of the actual storytelling, instead of a trick pony thrown in to get the audiences attention.