Black Swan

a film by Darren Aronofsky

One could (and many have) make a case for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan being The Red Shoes on acid - and to a certain extent (and with eyes asquint) one would be correct in such a critical classification as this - but then again, though the similarities - chief among them the underlying themes of an artistic desire to dance that takes precedence over everything, including one's own life - abound, to one-off this film with such an acerbic one-liner frivolity as the aforementioned acerbic one-liner frivolity that many have made a case for, does not do justice to the fascinating modern monster movie Grand Guignol that Black Swan, despite its toehold in the usually (at least outwardly) non-threatening world of ballet, most certainly is.

Being as batshitcrazy as it wants to be, Aronofsky's fifth film (a sort of femme version of his fourth film, The Wrestler - but there we go again with acerbic one-liner frivolities) is ostensibly the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina (Natalie Portman, in her most dangerous and volatile role yet) who has the opportunity to play the dual lead (the virtuous white swan and the wicked and lithesome black swan) in a new version of Swan Lake, if only she can free her inhibitions and allow herself to become one with the dark side of the ballet. But once we get to the nightmarish hallucinations (picking black feathers out of one's own shoulder blades), the self-destructive tearing apart of one's own flesh (self-torture works as a descriptive as well), the mother of all mother-issues (Barbara Hershey's bitter control freak could take on Carrie's Piper Laurie in any cage match, any day), the inevitable sexually repressed-induced Sapphic snog-and-then-some (whether one believes it is gratuitous or merely an important plot point in what is essentially a psychosexual thriller, Mila Kunis's oral exam upon the virginal Portman is both the stuff wet dreams are made of and ripped asunder because of) and the eventual - and I suppose inevitable (there really are no well-kept secret twists here as long as one is paying enough attention) - finale that has to be seen to be believed (or at least to be fathomed), who the Hell knows what this film is about anymore - and for that matter who cares. For by this point either one is bored silly with the haughty pretentions of Aronofsky (and many have been for years) and just want the damned thing to be over already or one is so enraptured by what is going on up on the screen that they no longer find themselves watching a film so much as becoming part of one. I am in the latter camp - no doubt - and I am sure there will be much fighting between the two sides before everything is finally said and done by my talking head brethren and me.

Intensely leading up to the aforementioned batshitcrazy crescendo of a finale in some sort of overstressed mind fuck by Aronofsky (we all remember Requiem For A Dream, do we not?), while simultaneously playing as an absurdist WTF black comedy of sorts (should we laugh, should we cry, should we scream, should we shit our pants with giddy delight?), Black Swan is a near picture perfect look at what Hell would and could be like if we too were as totally insane as Portman's Nina - or for that matter, Darren Aronofsky. Perhaps (to play at yet another acerbic one-liner frivolity) this monster that Aronofsky has built (and a monster movie is just what Black Swan ends up being, no matter the haughty pretentions of its New York dance world setting may otherwise hint at) is what The Red Shoes would have been if Polanski had gotten his grubby little hands on it - but then again, perhaps we could make a case for Aronofsky being the new millennium's American Polanski (sans the tabloid issues of the French-Pole auteur). In fact, there have been comparisons to Polanski's The Tenant flying about the critical spectrum. And yet, while this is certainly Aronofsky's picture (as Polanski-besotted as it may be), with his unique twisted fantasies going splatter all over the place like the figurative (and eventually literal) blood of ultimate desire and artistic sacrifice (perhaps the Devil made them do it!) and his camera stalking his prey like a murderous cat in the black of night, ready to pounce at any moment (shooting Nina from behind on more than multiple occasions, Aronofsky played these foreboding cinematic tricks in The Wrestler too, but here they seem much more ominous - and perhaps much more lecherous as well), the brilliant focal point of Black Swan is, of course, Natalie Portman. Going wilder than ever before, Portman is engulfed by her Nina as much as Nina is engulfed by her mad delusions and even madder desires. Playing against type in many ways, Portman's Nina is sexually repressed and socially awkward, and she and her director use both of these personality traits to help destroy Nina from within (and in the case of the aforementioned Portman/Kunis tryst and one of the most uncomfortable masturbation scenes ever put on film, from without as well). Simply put, it is a masterful performance by one of the finest actors working today - and it is a performance that allows Portman to spread her own wings wider than she has ever been allowed to before.

As far as potential reaction to Black Swan goes, and it is already pouring in from both sides of that old cinematic fence, it is sure to be loud and quite unending (from both the lovers and the haters) and no matter who says what and whatever becomes of what was said by whomever, the film will surely have a rabid reaction all around. Perhaps the whole The Red Shoes on acid case (there he goes again!) sums it up the best and is the easiest way of explaining the quite unexplainable (and that can be construed as a good thing or a bad thing by either side of those pesky camps) and perhaps I use that image (as cheap as it may very well be) to sum up my own inadequacies when it comes to attempting a summation and/or explanation of Aronofsky's batshitcrazy motion picture (inadequacies that have left me forgetting to mention the sumptuous cinematography from Matthew Libatique, whose work on Aronofsky's Requiem and The Fountain are even more reasons he not be ignored, as well as the surprisingly stunning, albeit minor performance from Winona Ryder in the perhaps quite autobiographical role of the dying swan). Whatever the case may be (and there are a veritable slew of them to be made), Black Swan is a film one will surely not soon forget. I am just glad I am in the love it camp, because I do not think I could survive watching this film otherwise. [12/02/10]