G-S-T Review…Black Swan

Few film personalities consistently knock it out of the park with each proceeding effort; Darren Aronofsky is one such director/writer. In what is undeniably one of 2010’s best films (I’d go as far as to say the best) Aronofsky once again takes us down a path fraught with heartbreak, disappointment and, to an extent, insanity. However, instead of being as depressing as it may sound, he dazzles us with visuals in a yet another visceral experience. His stories take us to worlds that that few audience members have ever been to but uses common themes that anyone can relate to or understand. It pays to be a bit familiar with his other works to truly get his style but even if you’re a newbie his films are fascinating character studies. More importantly they’re one of a kind and that’s a rare breed in Hollywood these days.

The ballet and music of Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake have thrilled us for for over 200 years (even becoming the inspiration for a video game). But like the mindset of Vincent Cassel’s character Thomas, it has been done to death. How can this time be different? Here Darren shows us ballet from the inside and much like his last film The Wrestler he completely forgoes the glamorous side to pretty much everything. You know, all his films are like that actually. An extreme realist he seems compelled to strip the sugar coating off everything, even something seemingly as beautiful and pure as ballet. In the opening scenes we find Nina Sayer’s apartment/in home studio ever so much grittier than the inside of a music box.

Now I’ll come right out and say that I’ve never found Natalie Portman to be anything impressive. Aside from playing Mathilda in Leon (The Professional) she’s just never struck me as a captivating. I guess it’s tough when you’ve peaked at 12. But aside form the ho-hum roles she’d taken this really is where she shines. It’s a tour de force to say the least but on a subdued level. They say that great acting makes it look like you’re not acting. Now I can honestly say she’s never given a more real performance and that’s the beauty of her work in Black Swan. Poised yet unassuming, graceful but on the edge of out of control Portman takes us to the ballet in a way we’d never expect to see. And did anyone think it would be this. Fighting off her own paranoia she slips deeper and deeper into what seems like a dream only to find that it’s all very real. The quote “Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad” comes to mind but Portman’s brilliance is that when going over the edge she doesn’t go off the wall. Reserved and trying to manage all the feelings her struggle is internal and that comes off more impressive to watch than if she flew off the handle in a violently outward manner. Man, writing this makes me really want to see it again.

Now as great as she is, she’d not the only star of this magnificent film. Vincent Cassel, who’s known for really strong French roles, commands the screen playing the standoffish Thomas (who better than a Frenchman for this role right?). But while stereotypical and Draconian, deep down he does care for Nina. However his reserved compassion exists at a strictly professional level as he only wants the very best performance on stage. Although he doesn’t seem to have any problem being the patriarch to a company of women and you can tell his lines between business and pleasure blur whenever he so chooses. He runs a tight ship though and it’s possible to imagine that the character of Thomas is in some way a caricature of Aronofsky to some degree. Also it’s very interesting to find out that this entire movie is originally a portion of The Wrestler that was later stripped out. I thought it felt like more than just some sort of companion piece to The Wrestler…but I never would have guessed it was once part of it.

Recognizing the quality of acting existent in all Aronofsky’s previous films he seems able to bring out amazing performances from actors you probably wouldn’t expect. That said I was a little worried about seeing Mila Kunis in the cast. What possible use could Aronofsky have for Meg Griffin and Winona Rider who both seem to been pulled out of left field?? Turns out, they’re not as miscast as you’d imagine. They don’t have more than supporting roles as this really is the Natalie Portman show. They do however, when Aronofsky starts playing with light and altered mind states, play into Natalie Portman’s paranoia as they do kinda look the same and you see then exactly why they were cast.

While acting is just one part of film and really is top notch in Black Swan, I must go back to Aronofsky and his visually blunt manner of storytelling. This time his visually style is complimented and compounded with wild imaginative cinematic trickery. Seamless CG, effective use of light and shadow as well as stunning set pieces all help tell the tale of Nina’s quest for perfection as she’s helped/hindered by the supporting characters. Thomas’ office and home are beautifully, if starkly, designed in black and white big inferring that there’s no middle ground with him. Nina’s apartment is filled with pinks and kid friendly colors tell us she’s a prisoner to her and her mother’s childhood dreams. Also scenes with Beth, even down to the flowers in the hospital room, are a faded teal and pink (which are dated colors) implying that her career is faded and over. Now that’s one a more subliminal level but the CG of Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan really does speak for itself. Man, if you aren’t holding your breath during the final performance, then you aren’t in the right movie.

Finally, since we’re big on scores here at G-S-T, I must say something about Clint Mansell (an Aronofsky regular) and his amazing score. While most people are familiar with the more prominent themes in the music of Swan Lake, Mansell plays with and adds to the famous music making it, like Thomas in the film, something new but still recognizable. Mansell isn’t conventional but that’s what makes his music standout. He can be different but still appealing, approachable and, at times very catchy too.

G-S-T RULING:

For those of you still not sold on this, or even those who aren’t on the Aronofsky band wagon (I know Requiem might have kept a  good number of people from getting on in the first place) this really is  is a “Must See”. It is not a complete downward spiral that’s found in his other films. Well it is just in a different way and doesn’t happen as fast as you’d suspect. Black Swan goes a long way to show us just how close to the threshold of madness someone will go in search of perfection. Beautifully tragic thing about the movie (and so true to life) is that those people don’t know they’re going mad. It really doesn’t help having an supremely overbearing/overprotective mother, a ballet director who seems not to care and an entire company of dancers who would step over her to take center stage in a heartbeat. That may be the way Aronofsky sees the world but still I’d prefer stark and real over fluffy and bloated any day…I guess why he’s my kind of filmmaker. Finally, if Portman or the film itself fail to bring home an Oscar, I will be really really shocked.

Comments

  1. Japan Cinema says

    I NEED to see this film. Still blown away by your rating graphics 🙂

    • Thanks! Again that’s a real compliment coming from you. Though, tis a pity that great graphics don’t get you nominated for the 2011 Total Film Best Blog Awards:P Congrats Marcello, you deserve it. Best of Luck!!

  2. Easily, easily the best movie of 2010 and my favorite Aronofsky film. It’s interesting to see him continue to pursue examination of the performer’s struggle to reach a high level of artistic achievement, and I love what that says about what people like Randy of The Wrestler and Nina do for a living. It’s not about producing something tangible that stays behind and remains around even after they retire and eventually fade away, but about attaining a level of perfection for just a moment. They’re after something fleeting.

    I will agree that Cassel is brilliant, but I don’t know if I agree that Thomas cares about Nina in any strictly compassionate sense. He cares about her as an element of his art. Not to say that he’s totally inhuman, and he reacts like any normal person would at the reveal in the last moments of the movie, but he cares about getting Nina to let go expressly for the purpose of grooming her for his ballet. What makes the performance so great is how finely Cassel treads the line of lascivious scumbag and dedicated, driven director; when he tells Nina to touch herself as a homework assignment, he could just come off as a huge perv, but he’s really genuinely trying to get her to contact and unleash the part of her that needs to come out in order to portray the titular role. It’s a fantastic performance from a fantastic and frankly under-appreciated actor.

    Portman of course is the real star of the show. She’s everything Thomas accuses Nina of being, and of course more as seen in the absolutely mind-blowing finale at the end. I happen to think highly of Portman in general– I cannot think of many roles she’s truly been dreadful in, and I’ll argue to the end that she came out of the Star Wars prequels looking alright considering the material and in comparison to some of her costars– but Black Swan is career-best work for her, trumping her first role in Leon and demonstrably establishing her craft to audience that seems to be unaware she can really, truly act. (So in that case, maybe Star Wars was worse for her than I’d like to admit.)

    Great review for a great movie.

    • Wow, awesome comment Andrew and first off, let me say thanks very much and welcome to G-S-T! But more importantly, pardon us for never making our way to your well written blog though we’re flattered to be on your blogroll. Reciprocity has now been established:)

      On to your comment: Brilliant how you point out how you point to their success and struggle for it as not only intangible but fleeting. Couldn’t put it better myself.

      Yes while I may have inferred that there was some deep down love, I meant Thomas cares for Nina as an artist and what she brings to the company only; not her as a person. Like whipping horses to a finish line he’s in control of them with one goal in mind: To be the best. To someone like Thomas, as a person’s usefulness declines their expandability increases. Basically when Beth’s time was up, he had no guilt in getting a replacement.

      But yes, yes, yes Portman stole the show with an amazing performance. Star Wars was a low point for her (and everyone else in it actually) but she truly commanded this role. In the hands of a great director, any actor/actress can be great. Aronofsky, like Thomas, asked it of her and she delivered! Wow!

      • Thanks kindly, Marc. I’ve read the blog for a while but for some reason this is the first time I’ve posted. Figured I should remedy that, since GST is good stuff!

        I think Aronofsky’s characters are definitely after something that’s temporary, and I think “fleeting” is the perfect way to put it. Everything about Randy’s and Nina’s respective struggles in service of their crafts is about a momentary perfection. It’s transient. But that doesn’t seem to matter to them.

        Seems like I read a bit into your comment about Thomas; I agree completely with what you’ve said here. Again, I don’t think that that makes Thomas a bad guy. He’s an artist, very driven and ambitious, and he knows what buttons to push on his performers to get the best out of them. Admittedly his methods can seem cold at best and brutal at worst from an outsider’s perspective, particularly in Beth’s example. He kicked her right to the curb, didn’t he?

        I don’t think there’s anything else I can say to support your comment about Portman. She’s just great. Aronofsky pulled career-best acting out of her– and I like the connection you’ve made between him and Thomas.

        • Thanks Andrew, it seems only normal that directors put pieces of themselves in the film be it characters or even down to actual cameos (I’m looking at you Shamhammer!). This just has win all over it and I could go on for days talking about how good it is.

          Black Swan has my vote for Best Picture and Actress, maybe director (tied with Danny Boyle). Still need to see The Fighter to feel like