Friday, January 08, 2016
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Photography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Clint Mansell
Editor: Andrew Weisblum
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Ksenia Solo
Director Darren Aronofsky says he was reading The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky as he started work on Black Swan. He considers Black Swan a companion piece with The Wrestler, his movie of two years earlier. As it turns out, on the physical plane, he makes a good case that professional wrestling and ballet are not as different as you might think (later, he would apply that to ark-building too). He makes a point of observing closely the arduous preparations that go into ballet: a regimen of food denial to maintain appropriate weight, daily routines that start with joints crackling complainingly into life, and an endless assortment of small outrages to the body, sprains, blunted toes, sore muscles, bruises, cuts, and sometimes worse.
On top of that, there are crippling social pressures in the competition for a limited number of parts, and on top of that, our Swan Queen hero, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), still lives with her resentful, undermining mother on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. How to catalog Black Swan? It often travels under unwieldy labels, such as "psychological horror-thriller," which invite unpacking. It's psychological—The Wrestler is psychological in parallel ways, for that matter—because it's about one person's internal struggle with and against herself, attempting to work out "issues" (of ambition, chiefly, and personal value) in toxic environments. Nina's mother Erica (Barbara Hershey, who eats this role alive) once had aspirations to perform ballet professionally, we learn, which is likely the reason Nina is driven to it now, via a lifetime of training to obsessively yearn for it.
Now, when Nina gets the plum part in a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, her mother hates her for her success. In the dancers' world, Nina is thrust on one side into a role of ambitious ingénue, attempting to unseat a reigning grande dame, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, grande dame being a notably strange role for her). On another side, Nina must defend herself from those coming up behind her, one in particular—Lily (Mila Kunis), no last name necessary. She's from San Francisco. Lily is most naturally suited to play the Black Swan side of the Swan Queen, whereas Nina's prim focus on form makes her the right dancer for the White Swan. Nina is a weak, confused person. She doesn't know herself well enough to judge how far she wants to take her own talent, in terms of the interpersonal battles required. For the most part, she wants to be a good girl. She wants to play by the rules and follow the directions and expectations of others. All she asks for are the markers that will define perfection.
Black Swan is horror because there are special effects used to heighten and externalize Nina's conflicts. She has messed-up dreams, and strange waking delusions, which qualify as body-horror. It's not always clear when we have shifted inside her head, which is a constantly unsettling element. It appears likely, as one aspect of story summary, that Nina is genuinely losing it—gone buggy, that is, loco, cuckoo man, twisted, boop-shooby, flip city. It's the weakest part of this show, predictably, because when you make it insanity, that's license to do just about anything, and by definition it doesn't have to be believable.
Even so, Aronofsky plays the point with a light hand, letting it tease out slowly. Like the doppelganger story of the White Swan and the Black Swan in the original fairy tale, like Beth Macintyre's sudden downward spiral, like the minutely observed rituals of preparation by the dancers, like the wintertime setting, like the competition Nina feels with Lily, like the overbearing manner of the dance production director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the crack-up piece is just another thread woven through the whole. It's reeled out slowly and deliberately, and I'm not sure there can be any reasonable complaints about the way it plays out. It makes the movie in many ways.
It's a thriller, finally, because I think that's really what it is, and quite skillful too, a cinematic rollercoaster ride of narrative, sight, sound, and motion that hurtles like a freight train once it's up to speed, finishing off with a tremendous finale. Set in winter New York, it's dark and brooding, drinking in the swooning strains of Tchaikovsky deep into the night. The picture expertly mixes up the naturalistic milieu of backstage high Manhattan culture with the fantastical flights of its deranged main character, as she contends with weeks of brutal rehearsals, hectored by Thomas, slowly losing her grip altogether on the role. She also contends with a mother who lets her sleep on the night of her debut and calls in sick for her.
But Nina steels up and claws her way into position on that night, and once the dance begins, in the final sequence, it's as if she's possessed, in complete command of the role of the Black Swan. I really can't speak to how well she pulls it off, in terms of the ballet, but to this novice, her dancing is stunning, levels above and beyond anything we see to that point. The startling special effects in that moment only heighten her glory in a searing image. In terms of its momentum (hallmark of the thriller), and its stunning finish, Black Swan is just about perfect.