Saturday, January 22, 2011

Review: Black Swan (2010)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis

"I just want to be perfect."

Darren Aronofsky is a puzzling director, but he has gotten better since the rather overwhelming – to the point of being a burden to even watch – Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain was artful, if not a little lacking in substance, but where he really got good was The Wrestler. That was just a great movie. And continuing this brilliance is his new film, Black Swan. Let’s get started, then!

This is a really great movie without any kind of restraint as it hurtles through boundaries like a blazing hellcat. Aronofsky’s directing is spastic and harsh. The lighting is very cold, unsettling in its mass of clinical whites and dark, dank shadows. And so the atmosphere is set.

Black Swan is a film about passion and obsession. Natalie Portman's character is driven by a maniacal lust to become a dancer, and the things she goes through - all this physical and sexual madness - is just insane, and yet she perseveres. She really puts on a masterful, captivating performance and makes you believe that she really is this character, Nina Sayers.

And let’s talk about Nina for a second. She really is a great character, with enough depth and texture to her that you really feel like she’s an actual person. Nina is beautiful but insecure and somewhat childish. She lives with her mother in a small apartment in a crowded city and really, really wants that big role in the ballet production coming up. She thinks that it will define her, like she can’t exist and be happy with her existence without this one, prideful achievement. Her mother is domineering and strict and most likely had something to do with her fragility and insecurity.

This is a movie about a lot of things, among them art, work and all kinds of sexuality. It merges the real life trials of doing demanding work like ballet dancing with shocking, often grotesque psychological horror that is subtle and fleeting and yet horrific at the same time. Nina experiences cuts that appear out of nowhere on her back, arms and hands. There are several jarring, nightmareish scenes throughout the film that accentuate and pepper Nina’s gradual mental decline.

She gets involved with another dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis), who she sees as a threat to her and her role in the performance. Even though she doesn’t have much of a reason to, Nina slowly grows more and more certain that Lily is trying to kill her and take the role for herself. There is the infamous lesbian scene between the two of them. It really drives home the amount of sexual tension there is in this film. The lesbian scene is not even really sexy, or arousing at all. It’s really more creepy and unsettling than anything. Female nudity can only do so much in the face of this film’s dark, crawling sense of fear and shadowy atmospherics. The film does an outstanding job creating paranoia inside the viewer, and the result at the end is a unique blend of sensuality and fear, two opposing forces colliding and interweaving into the movie’s madness. It is one of the film’s strongest points.

One scene that sums up the theme of the movie is when Nina goes to visit a broken ex-dancer in the hospital, because it just points out the viciousness and immediacy of the profession she’s chosen. There are no demons here, no spooks around the corner or ghosts in the belfry – just the cold, hard fact of her job. People come, people go, so you have to get that special part, make your mark on the scene and seize the day while it’s still yours, because tomorrow it could belong to someone else. It’s a dangerous edge to teeter on, and as people are emotionally driven and irrational, they may not be able to deal with it. The mind is fragile, easily breakable, easily given in to pressure.

This fragility and fleetingness is really the core of Black Swan. The climax of the film involves a stunning, breathtakingly good ballet performance from Nina and a subsequent collapse in blood. She works herself to the bone. Death for her art. The utmost devotion to it. Beautiful, haunting, demented and unforgettable, Black Swan is a dark trip from a director on his way up. One of the year’s finest.