Sunday, January 16, 2011

BLACK SWAN - glorious trash

Darren Aronofsky's much-praised new film, BLACK SWAN, is beautifully-produced trash, and I say that with all respect and admiration. It brings an auteur sensibility to material that is basically a camp psycho-sexual horror flick, in the style of Polanski's REPULSION or Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA. While the material may superficially resemble Powell and Pressburger's seminal ballet melodrama, THE RED SHOES, BLACK SWAN contains none of that film's elegant framing or love for high-art. Rather, BLACK SWAN is the ultimate B-movie - a genre movie that wears its balls-out craziness on its sleeve. The result is beautiful and exhilarating, but I can't say that it affected me as emotionally and as profoundly as Aronofsky's previous film, THE WRESTLER.

In fairness to Aronofsky, the B-movie craziness of BLACK SWAN can be traced back directly to its roots - the ballet Swan Lake - a Gothic melodrama containing elements of body-horror, psychotic doubling and ending in transformative suicide. If that isn't the stuff of a Polanski horror flick, I don't know what is. In the ballet, an evil wizard transforms the innocent princess Odile into a were-swan. The love of the handsome prince should set her free, but her evil doppelgaenger Odette seduces the prince, with results varying depending on which version of the ballet you watch. In the film, Natalie Portman's Nina Sayer has been infantilised by an over-bearing mother (Barbara Hershey). Under pressure to be the perfect "sweet girl" and ballerina, Nina self-harms, is bulimic, has a pathological desire to please, and a psychotic fear of imperfection. When given the role of the Swan Queen, Nina has to bring her innate sexuality, so suppressed by her mother, out into the open, to inform her dancing of the Black Swan. She simply cracks trying to reconcile her mother's expectations of pre-pubescent innocence and her ballet director's (Vincent Cassel) aggressive demands that she be as instinctively sexual as her understudy (Mila Kunis).

What follows is a movie that creates a sense of building tension through the use of claustrophobic interior shots; invasive close-ups; visual trickery with mirrors; and sound editing that suggests an inner self trying to break through. The movie is never pure horror despite plenty of shots involving nail-clipping and skin-scratching.  After all, we never really doubt whether what we are seeing is real or imagined. Nina is shown to be an unreliable witness too early in the movie for that. What we do have is a powerful display of hysteria - but heightened to the point where it is sometimes unintentionally funny (an early scene bedroom scene, for example) and moves so far beyond realism that one feels almost disengaged from it. Nina is less a person to sympathise with than a delicate compendium of every single neurosis that can arise from intensely un-boundaried parenting.

The thematic material in BLACK SWAN is very similar to THE WRESTLER. In both movies we have individuals who are so dedicated to and defined by their profession, that they ultimately sacrifice their physical and mental well-being to it. The Wrestler staples himself and batters himself to entertain, just as Nina breaks her toes and punishes her body. The Wrestler and Nina may be extreme examples of self-destruction, but they hint at the systematic physical abuse that their professions entail. That's why Aronofsky's shooting style is so perfect. By taking the cameras on-stage, by using tracking shots that immerse us in their worlds, Aronofsky is making us look behind the costumes to see the grueling physicality. He wants us to see the sweat, the muscles, the bleeding toes and the broken bones. 

In a sense, Aronofsky is making a bigger point about the demands the entertainment industries make of its professionals, begging the obvious question of how far this applies to his profession, with its pressure to maintain youthful good looks with botox, plastic surgery and aggressive dieting. To that end, one can only view the casting of Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER and Barbara Hershey in BLACK SWAN - both self-mutilated by plastic surgery and injury - as provocations. By casting these actors, Aronofsky is himself blurring the line between actor and character - just as Nina can't separate reality from fiction. Similarly, the use of Winona Ryder to play the prima ballerina Nina supplants is inspired. Ryder was a beautiful young actress whose early success morphed into career stagnation and personal humiliation.  Who else better signifies crushing rejection in reality and on screen?

Still, for all the similarity in material, and in the vérité shooting style used in the apartment scenes, to my mind BLACK SWAN is at once a greater and lesser film than THE WRESTLER. It is a greater film insofar as it shows Aronofsky and DP Matthew Libatique in perfect command of vérité shooting style but also able to inter-cut this with its exact opposite - a super-heightened gothic horror shotting style using chiaroscuro and close-ups. It also shows that Aronofsky can do genre cinema with the best of them. But BLACK SWAN is a lesser film insofar as that willingness to leap into melodramatic horror is ultimately a distancing device. Nina Sayers is such a compendium of crazy - under such extreme pressure - that she becomes a device rather than a person. Accordingly, as the film moves into its final act, it is beautiful but it isn't emotionally arresting. Nina's self-destructive tailspin is transfixing, wonderful, crazy and all-consuming - but it never made me feel the visceral hurt that The Wrestler did. That is BLACK SWAN's only flaw - but it is a serious one.

BLACK SWAN played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and London 2010. It opened last year in the US and Canada. It opens this Friday in the UK, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Poland. It opens on the 27th in Chile, Greece, Slovenia and Lithuania, It opens on February 4th in the Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Iceland and Norway. It opens in France, Singapore and Mexico on February 10th. It opens on February 17th in Argentina, Hungary, Israel, Russia, Estonia and Spain. It opens on February 24th in Belgium, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Finland and Turkey. It opens in Sweden on March 4th, Italy on March 11th and the Czech Republic on April 7th.


  1. BillFenner196719/1/11 5:04 PM

    Watching this film reminded me of something I heard James Gray say in the commentary track for We Own The Night. He said (paraphrasing here) that good films/stories aren't about what happens next but about how it happens. This of course is why we can take pleasure in re-watching films and re-reading novels. If the surprise were everything then we'd only ever see or read something once.

    Black Swan was predictable, as you pointed out, so there was no surprise that Nina was A) mad and B) going to die at the end. The joy was in seeing how it unfurls and how the film makers presented this spiral into madness. For that, I enjoyed it very much, but as you said, it did lack the emotional punch as a result.

    By the way, lots of people have referenced The Red Shoes as an influence. I agree, but I also saw that other Powell-Pressburger film The Black Narcissus. Remember how they shot the nun going bonkers at the end, running around the convent, the close ups of her eyes? All reminiscent of how Aronovsky shot Nina in The Black Swan. But I like how you referred to Argento. Of course there's some of that Italian Giallo cinema in there too! Mario Bava too.

    Enjoyable film. And always nice to see Vincent Cassel, even if he's hamming it up in another English-language film!

  2. Yes, the Narcissus is a better reference for tone and style than Red Shoes. I doubt Aronofsky has seen it though. Apparently he only saw Red Shoes very late in the production process. He seems to refer to Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy in interviews but I cant see the influence at all.