God bless Darren Aronofsky. I don’t know if he’s the best filmmaker working today, but he’s certainly the most vital. His films are the most alive and exciting films being made; they’re pumping with blood and dripping with sweat. Aronofsky movies are vital and honest and they’re immediate and they’re amazing.
Black Swan is the best Aronofsky film since Requiem For A Dream, and it’s the one that most feels like it comes from the same insane creative place as Pi. Like Aronofsky’s first film it’s a first person look at madness, and like Pi it’s an all-encompassing, screen devouring vision.
But this isn’t the young punk who made Pi - a movie that’s as likely to give you a headache as it is to give you a cinematic boner. He’s got a bunch of films under his belt and his early talent has been honed. Where Pi was chaotic and messy (when I called Aronofsky a young punk I meant it - Pi is 90s punk rock on screen), Black Swan is controlled and precise. Which is part of the point; Pi’s Maximilian the math genius was a disaster, a flailing wreck. Nina, the ballerina at the center of Black Swan, is the opposite: disciplined, proper, aspiring only to perfection.
Wound tight at the best of times, Nina is at a crossroads in her career; the aging prima ballerina of the company, Beth, is about to move along and the company’s director,Thomas, is looking for a Swan Queen to dance in his cutting edge version of Swan Lake. The story of Swan Lake is simple: a girl is cursed into becoming the Swan Queen and only true love can free her. She finds a prince who is her true love, but then the evil twin Black Swan seduces the prince and ruins it all. The Swan Queen, despondent, kills herself. In Thomas’ version the Black Swan and the Swan Queen will be danced by the same ballerina, representing the duelling sides of humanity.
That’s the key to Aronofsky’s film. Nina is a natural Swan Queen, but she has spent her whole life locking away her own Black Swan. Bulimic, solitary, workaholic, obsessed with dance and only dance, Nina strives just for perfection, just to make the perfect move in perfect time. But her search for perfection has stripped away the soul from her dance, and it’s left her unsure how to access the lustier, livelier side that Thomas demands she show as the Black Swan. As she accesses that side of herself things start to come unraveled, or maybe the world begins to change around her, or maybe a rival ballerina has begun trying to drive her crazy and take her role.
There’s not really a twist per se at the end of Black Swan, but the process of experiencing the breakdown and horror with Nina is what makes the film so effective. As in Pi Aronofsky places you subjectively inside the head of someone whose grasp on reality has always been tenuous; there’s nothing to hang on to, and it’s disorienting and thrilling to spiral along with Nina towards a dark, unknowable end.
Natalie Portman is simply incredible as Nina; one of the most assured and confident actresses of her generation she slips away completely, hiding inside her boniness at the beginning. Shy and slight and quiet, it’s barely the Portman that we know. As the film goes on and as Nina begins to confront her Black Swan - and as her Black Swan confronts her in what could be a series of escalating hallucinations - Portman modulates the performance, becoming more confident, stepping out of the shell, and she does it in organic increments.
What’s more, Portman sells many scenes that could be otherwise ridiculous. A film like this is a delicate balancing act, with histrionics always around the corner. Go too big and you’ve made everything a joke, go too reserved and you don’t sell the horror. The whole film rests on Portman’s narrow shoulders. She’s perfect. A performance of this magnitude from a male actor would be the buzz of Hollywood right now, but female actors only get that buzz when they deliver weepy and wounded. Here Portman is unhinged and unsettled and terrified and sometimes even terrifying. It’s the best female performance of 2010, but it’s probably too far outside the mainstream comfort zone to connect with the awards crowd. They’ll be embarrassing themselves yet again.
The other powerhouse performance in Black Swan, for my money, is Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother. The ultimate stage mother, she also has something of Carrie White’s mom in there, with her monkish devotion to the art of ballet and the way that she inflicts penance for her own mistakes on her daughter. With Hershey’s character Aronofsky has followed up Requiem For A Dream with another indelible mother - if only Wolverine had a mom he’d hit that out of the park as well. Hershey, aging naturally and without the assistance of Botox, finds the humanity in a character others might play as simply nasty. As the film reaches its climax the question of what Erica wants for her daughter - what’s best for her or to keep the young girl from ever surprassing her mother - is impossible to answer, although either version is perfectly believable. That’s a deep character, a real person.
Mila Kunis, meanwhile, is tasked with playing a possibly real person. As Lily, the newcomer to the company, Kunis is all heart but little technique. She’s the perfect Black Swan. But is she also Nina’s Black Swan? Is she conspiring to destroy Nina or is she a figment of Nina’s fevered imagination? Is she a real person or is she the personification of everything Nina has ever held in? Again, there are no easy answers, and thematically she’s any or all of those things. Kunis is gorgeous, with eyes made to stare at you from a cinema screen. She isn’t quite in Portman’s weight class, and I never fully bought her as a ballerina - a Laker girl, maybe - but she’s strong anyway.
Lording it over all of this is Vincent Cassel as Thomas, the director of the company. Sublimely creepy and gross, Cassel comes across as nonetheless brilliant. He keeps coming on to Nina, but in ways that do relate to the show, in attempts to unleash the lust from her. I mean, yeah, it’s horrible, but it also works. Cassel has the perfect creep face - handsome yet devilish and offputting. He’s a delightfully slimy presence throughout.
There’s so much to love in Black Swan, and most of all I think I love the fact that this is a horror movie. Ballet is a rough art, one that leaves practictioners as scarred and broken as a contact sport; Black Swan plays with that idea and moves it into the realm of body horror. Slowly Nina begins transforming into something else, her nails cracking and bleeding, her flesh peeling away in strips, feathers protruding from just under skin. Finally the transformation goes insane and Aronofsky has us wincing as bones crack and Nina’s body buckles in inhuman, unforgettable ways. His instincts for horror are strong, and he shocks us, grosses us out but more importantly leaves us deeply, truly disturbed.
Black Swan is really a small film. It’s a very personal story about sacrifice and self-destructiveness in pursuit of art. But it feels bigger, and it hurtles forward at incredible speed; walking out I thought the movie had to be less than 90 minutes but it was in fact a solid 110 minutes long. There’s not a wasted moment (I actually wouldn’t have minded a little more breathing room in the second act), and that means there’s no time to get settled in. Aronofsky is constantly knocking you off kilter, keeping you from completely relaxing. It’s an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a film, and you feel every moment of decay and destruction as Nina sinks deeper and deeper into darkness.
There’s no doubt that this is one of the best films of the year, and probably ranks just behind Requiem as Aronofsky’s best. I’m in awe of this movie, of the way that it lays out its themes and story right up front as Cassel describes the story of Swan Lake and yet never feels predictable. I’m in awe of the way the film truly horrifies, in the most true sense of the word, and the way it rattles you deep inside. I’m in awe of the way the movie ends, a wonderful and incredible ending that’s one part Tales From the Crypt and one part The Red Shoes. Aronofksy has always been one of the filmmakers who best blends genre and art, because he loves both, and he blends them perfectly here. It’s a story of the madness behind creation, the insanity behind beauty and the destruction inherent in art. And the more destructive the art is to the artist, Black Swan says, the more true and honest and rapturous that art is.