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.
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.