Tick Reviews – Black Swan (2010)
So what happens when one of our most talented living directors decides to, Bordello of Blood be damned, make an episode of Tales From the Crypt? Short answer – You get Black Swan. That may sound dismissive, but I assure you it isn’t. Semi-simplistic film description in order to open up a review, maybe, but I’m certainly not trying to take away from the film, which is far and away the best film of 2010. When I originally sat down to write this review a few weeks ago (holidays, company and lots of booze put the brakes on it) I intended to be as vague about the true nature of the film as possible. Now, with commercials for the film giving away more than it should, I feel I should break it down a bit more than I had originally intended. No spoilers, just clearing things up to get the last of you sceptical bastards into the theater.
When word of this film first circulated, all anyone would say was “ballet film with lesbian scene.” Most comments I heard were either “boooooring” or “booooring, but I cant wait to see the lesbo scene on the internet.” Probably not what Aronofsky was hoping for. Since it’s actually come out, the word of mouth has been generally positive, but confusing as well. It seems that a lot of people don’t know how the hell to even describe the film. Not that the early ads have helped. A lot of ads are giving this some sort of Single White Female vibe, which isn’t what it is. It’s also not “over the top” as I heard some dipshit in the theater complain as the house lights came on. So, let me say this once again, even though it may conjure up some negative images and I’ll try to soothe your mind afterwards. It’s a fucking Tales From the Crypt episode, albeit the greatest, artiest, most brilliantly directed one you could ever imagine. Now let me try to clean up my own mess.
Black Swan centers around Nina Sayers(Natalie Portman), a prim and proper, extremely neurotic, lifelong ballerina who has toiled long and hard in the New York City Ballet Company without ever moving above the level of background dancer and bit player. Nina isn’t bitter. She’s a somewhat innocent, glass half full type of person and at least just a little naive. She works hard, looks up to the company’s star Beth Macintyre(Winonna Ryder) and bides her time until the day she’s noticed for her hard work and perfectionist attitude. Her day finally comes when company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to take this season’s series in a bold and controversial direction, which begins with jettisoning the aging Beth and casting Nina as the lead in his version of the classic Swan Lake.
Nina is surprised and overjoyed, but she soon finds out that her years of training and single-minded focus on her craft may not be enough. Leroy informs her that she will be playing dual roles as the virginal White Swan and as the lusty, duplicitous Black Swan. While Nina is told that she is the very embodiment of the White Swan and her perfect form works well, she holds none of the dangerous abandonment necessary for the role of the Black Swan. Leroy tells her that she is going to have to learn to let go completely and actually feel her performance or she will never be able be his Black Swan.
This is where things begin to go in a different direction. As we begin to discover, Nina is tightly wound on the best of days. Although she’s in her mid-twenties with a good career, she lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who provides a home that only serves as a Petrie dish for mental illness. Her mother is over bearing and over protective, usually sandwiching Nina between bullying and guilt trips. She’s the sort of woman that keeps her daughter’s decor full of stuffed animals and will not allow her to close her bedroom door. She’s a seriously damaged woman and Nina carries her mother’s psychological baggage as well as her own.
Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a new ballerina to the company who immediately attempts to strike up a friendship with Nina. She also catches the eye of Leroy for although she isn’t the most technically sound dancer that he’s ever seen, she embodies the reckless abandonment that he wants Nina to give to her Black Swan. This in turn only adds to the pressure that is threatening to make Nina crack.
From here it gets dangerous to describe too much else that goes on in the film, but suffice to say it fits well within Aronofsky’s cannon of work. He’s long dealt, in one degree or another, with themes of obsession and people that are willing to drive themselves to any extreme over what they are most passionate about, usually to unhealthy conclusions. Black Swan, in fact, is almost a companion piece to his first film, Pi. Although it is miles away in its visual storytelling and Aronofsky is a much more polished and accomplished film maker now, Black Swan is every bit the intense spiral that Pi is.
If there is any word that best sums up Black Swan, it is definitely intense. Once the film gets moving, it’s unrelenting both psychologically and visually. There are moments when the film is almost suffocating in its intensity. Aronofsky is a master at filming scenes so that you feel the emotional weight as his characters are feeling them onscreen and that’s not an easy feat with some of the things that are going on with Nina. Yet Aronofsky is able to pull it off, making Nina’s rising anxiety and confusion a palpable thing. There were a few times where the packed house that I saw this with was audibly squirming in their seats. This is a film that makes you uncomfortable and it doesn’t do it with cheap tricks.
Black Swan is also Aronofsky at his visual best. Aronofsky reaches into his directorial bag of tricks and pulls out everything he’s ever shot before, plus an array of shots that he hasn’t used before. Black Swan has the handheld intimacy of The Wrestler, the hallucinatory dread of Requiem for a Dream and the quick cut paranoia of Pi all woven together with a diabolical ease. There are some sequences, such as the actual performance of Swan Lake and a forray into New York’s club scene that are especially brilliant. The club scene, in particular, is hypnotic and unsettling, almost making you feel as sweaty and disoriented as if you were there and two tabs into your own extascy trip.
As for the performances in the film, there isn’t a sour note hit amongst the cast. Mila Kunis is the least noteworthy, but she’s still solid and is mainly only asked to play a role that she’s played a few times before. She plays the role well, but she’s overshadowed by the cast around her. Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey, however, are tremendous. In the wrong hands, both of their characters could have come across as cartoonish, but both actors give the right touch to the two people who provide the catalysts for Nina’s troubles. Cassel gives Leroy the perfect counter balance of out of control ego and brilliant psychological insight to his Svengali like figure. Hershey, meanwhile, seems to be channeling Piper Laurie’s performance from Carrie, except she makes the character less religious fanatic and more of a fragile psyche that means well, yet is incapable of having a healthy relationship. The character is a pendulum of love and resentment that swings without rhythm. She plays crazy with a subtle intensity that is frighteningly believable.
The film belongs to Natalie Portman though and she owns every minute of it. Portman has always had great promise and her talent has never been in question. Yet, I feel at least, that she’s never seized the moment to be the star she was always destined to be. She’s been very good in most roles she’s played, great in others, but she’s never really risen to the level that we always knew she could achieve. That changes with Black Swan. In fact, the role itself is almost an analogy for Portman’s actual career as, like her character in the film, she’s forced to push herself in ways that she’s never had to push herself before. Like the other roles in this film, a lesser actress would have made the character of Nina a ridiculous caricature and in this case, absolutely destroyed the movie. Portman deftly nails every aspect of the character from the most sympathetic to the most over the top aspects and let me tell you, there are parts that skim a thin line near over the top, yet Portman always knows where that line is and always knows how to pull it back just enough. 2010 will be remembered as the year when most of the best and most memorable performances were given by women, but Portman should have little trouble getting the Oscar as the best of the best. My own slight prejudices against Portman are now gone and she finally sheds her nagging images of the wispy little girl. She’s the fierce, brilliant actress that we always knew she could be.
Aronofsky can also finally shake off his own shackles as the eternally up and coming next big thing. He can no longer be denied his rightful place at the table of greatest living directors. The man has proven his talent in all aspects of film making and can easily hop from genre to genre, never missing a beat. It’s interesting to see him tackle different types of film, particularly because he’s proven that he isn’t jumping from genre to genre as a stunt. He knows what he’s doing. He understands each genre that he works in. Black Swan incorporates many different influences from the afore-mentioned Tales from the Crypt to Carrie to, especially I think, early Cronenberg. Yet, his style is one hundred percent his own. I’d love to discuss the film in more detail, but to give away anything more specific would be spoiling the viewing experience. I hate giving away the fact that this is Arornofsky’s take on a horror film, but it had to be said and it won’t ruin what you’ll see by knowing that going in. I’ll just finish by reiterating that this is undoubtedly the best film of 2010 and the shot heard round the world that Aronofsky and Portman will no longer be overlooked.