A few months ago here at Jewcy, we wondered if Black Swan was going to be the best film of the year? At that point, we only had a few indications on which to base such a sweeping prediction. There was, of course, Darren Aronofsky’s trajectory as a filmmaker up to that point: four films equaling a body of work that rivaled the early efforts of any filmmaker and a bag of trick’s at his disposal that had the ability to astonish any viewer. Other than that, a short trailer had been released that didn’t tell us much more than we already knew: Black Swan was a film about ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, but it subtly hinted at something more, something dark beneath the surface that in it’s subtleness and restraint, intrigued and titillated us more than some kind of fast cut, special effects light show, or gore fest. Still, the question lingered, can Aronofsky pull off the visceral attack on the senses that he’s so beautifully executed in Pi and Requiem For a Dream or play to our empathy and tap into kind of humanistic venerability that he did in The Wrestler? could he possibly pull of what we’ve come to expect as a “Darrenofsky flick” about ballet? If so, it seemed safe to say that our prediction from this summer would hold as truth, Inception not withstanding. Having witnessed the 107 minutes of unrelenting, often punishing film that make up Black Swan, it feels quite safe to say that, indeed, Black Swan is the year’s best film.
Black Swan revolves around a New York based ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, and follows around, Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, as she struggles through the demands of being granted, and subsequently performing the shows lead role of the Swan Queen, which demands a dancer portray two characters, one that represent light and beauty, and another that represents darkness. Mila Kunis plays the role of Lily, a new edition to the company who is the black swan to Nina’s white swan. Nina neglects the social life of a pretty young woman living in the city entirely to spend every free minute practicing and preparing herself to dance by not eating and manipulating her body in various ugly ways. Lily on the other hand, only practices when she’s at work, choosing to spend the rest of her time hitting the bars and clubs, getting drunk and getting laid, which she can do because her grace is natural, she doesn’t even warm up. Barbara Hershey plays the role of Nina’s mother, a former dancer whose life centers around the care of her daughter, living vicariously through her career, keeping her daughter in something of a box, much like one that she keeps by Nina’s bedside, with the tiny spinning dancer inside. Winona Ryder plays the role of Beth, a dancer who used to play the Swan Queen until Thomas, the company’s director, played by Vincent Cassel, decides to recast a younger, fresher swan. Ryder, who’s chosen her roles carefully and sparingly since the shoplifiting incident so many years ago, plays this small yet seminal role beautifully, portraying a character whose every move is motivated by darkness. A series of events unfold that prod and jar the viewer so as to feel plopped into the position of this desperate woman in coveted spot where potential threats lurk around every corner, many of which come from within. Think of the The Shining, Nina Sayers is an amalgamation of the roles of both Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval.
Simply put, Black Swan is the most visceral film to come out since Requiem For a Dream and in a many ways it’s a return to form for Aronsofky to the kind of out of the box creativity that he introduced in Pi and honed in Requiem. Only, in Black Swan the neurosis that he deals with is much more complex. Physical and emotional dependence, the kind he illustrates so beautifully in Requiem is something that most of us can identify, if not empathize with. In Black Swan, it’s an obsession with perfection that drives our protagonist to the inferno that’s in store for her, the kind that drives anorexic’s and cutters, as much as it does Olympic athlete. Nina ripping apart her fused toes, cracking and shoving different body parts in and out of place and peeling away at layers of her skin is akin to Jared Leto shoving a needle into the puss-filled purple crater in his arm at the end of Reqiem for a Dream. His evocation of the grotesque in frighteningly real circumstances, in this film, feels like an unequivocal nod to Cronenberg, a surprise, coming from a director who rarely nods — unless Kubrick is at the opposite end. His take on eroticism, purity and gender in this film, also goes a level deeper than he has in the past. Aronsofsky also revisits the kind of creative trickery that tempered his first two films. It’s the kind of thing that would have many critics writing off a director as being gimmicky or overly stylized, but Aronofsky executes them with such control and restraint that it never feels that way. When Portman spins early in the film to practice for the finale of Swan Lake (in which a dancer spins around at least ten times in a row) the camera spins with her, swinging and stopping, swinging and stopping, which somehow never has a “look what I can do” underpinning. Importantly, Aronofsky also incorporates the over-the-shoulder biographical storytelling style of The Wrestler, a film that for the most part lacked the stylized photographic tricks of his earlier films. Black Swan has the best of the three films, at the same time incorporating the mind bending, cerebral intricacy of The Fountain. We know from very early on in the film, as Nina waits on the subway and a ominous sound effect jangles our bones, putting us in the shoes of a young woman alone on a creepy subway, that we are watching a film in this directors body of work. It’s warning for what is to come, a final onslaught of madness that mirrors the dizzying over the top conclusion to Swan Lake.
Some people may not like Black Swan and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that –like was the case with Stanley Kubrick– a lot of this director’s best work will take time to be appreciated. The dialogue for some will feel awkward and borderline campy. The motif of duality, the dark and the light, to some might feel like a clobbering over the head not unlike all six seasons of Lost. In the theater while watching this film, after long stretches of intense psychic attack, the audience’s reaction tended toward the humorous, laughing after some of the most macabre moments in the film. What most will fail to grasp is the mastery over emotions the director displays during these moments. Some of the dialogue is somewhat absurd, yes. In fact, it’s almost operatic in it’s grand, absoluteness. It’s brash, like an aria by a fat lady wearing a horned Viking helmet, which is, indeed, the point.
There’s about a month left in the year, and yet, a lot might still happen. This is just about when all the films gunning for this year’s Oscar’s are released. Variables aside, there are few films thus far that have a chance at besting Black Swan. Of course, Inception for many is first thought, and a fair one. Nolan and Aronosfky are the most exciting directors in the world of mainstream film today. Aronofsky debuted with more of a DIY attitude, finishing Pi by simply asking everyone he knew for a hundred bucks. Nolan’s major debut, Memento, was far more sleek, however comparable to Pi in tone and ambition. A healthy rivalry between these two could make for an exciting future for film, particularly now that both directors have passed the proving stage of their careers. Between the two, Aronofsky is more likely to go for broke to satisfy an artistic vision. Famously, Aronofsky told Nick Cage after he’d been given the lead in The Wrestler that Mickey Rourke was the only person who could play the role, knowing it would cost him his budget. While his commercial sensibility exists, it’s not as honed as Nolan’s and it’s less of a drive, either a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
Meanwhile, few other films thus far even come close to compare. I Love You Philip Morris, soon to be released is a beautifully executed adventure to story, almost a gay Catch Me If You Can. The Social Network, like Fincher’s Zodiac, succeeds as an experience, without the kind of staying power a great film demands. There’s still time but there don’t seem to be any releases on deck that will make the difference. Aronofsky in all his films, but especially in this most recent effort, does one thing better than any other director, he makes a film feel like it’s happening to you, he grabs you by the fucking collar and says, “Watch the pretty ballet!” and then he stabs you in the face.