Black Swan (2010)
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Expectations: Very High. I don’t know why really, I never even saw the trailer. I’ve just got a feeling.
1 Swan Lake
1/2 Tbsp. Mind-Fuck
Mix well. Serve at room temperature immediately.
All kidding aside, Black Swan is easily one of the top American films of the year. It’s definitely one that will split audiences, with some reveling in the glorious mystery of it all and others wondering when the arthouse invaded their local multiplex. Whichever side of the fence you find yourself on, one thing is certain. Black Swan is sure to get many highly coveted nominations during awards season while actually being good enough to warrant receiving them. Imagine that.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballet company putting on a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a dedicated dancer who practices relentlessly in an effort to secure the starring Swan Queen role. The question is… is mere practice enough? At its heart, Black Swan is a horror film masquerading as an art movie and this duality is why I found the movie so intriguing. Aronofsky successfully walks the line between trash and art here, so skillfully in fact that it’s almost unnoticeable. For instance, was the garment-ripping lesbian scene completely necessary for the plot or is it gratuitous trash? The filmmaker’s choice to keep the nudity on the cutting room floor will be the point that artsy folks champion as the mark that it is “tastefully done.” The scene is also important to the story and the main character for various reasons I won’t disclose. Despite the accepted justification of the scene, it doesn’t change the fact that a hot-and-heavy lesbian scene between two young, gorgeous actresses was written into a film built atop a basic horror movie framework, which in virtually all other circumstances will most likely be the description of a trashy B-movie. The eternal question “What is Art?” springs to mind, as does an interview quote from director Aronofsky.
“Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”
His connection of his previous film The Wrestler and Black Swan is a valid one, and the two films are very kindred spirits in terms of their worlds and leading characters. With both films Aronofsky successfully turns the conventional wisdom of the art form in question on its head, bringing art to wrestling and trash to ballet. The magic of both films is that they also work on the opposite tip and never betray or belittle the mythology and driving spirit of either form of entertainment. In the end, it’s all for our amusement and Aronofsky’s definition of both art forms helps us to view both the trash and the art on an equal playing field. My kind of guy.
In this way, the trashy elements of Black Swan are absolutely necessary to the success of the film. Portman plays a sexually repressed girl who must tap into her sexuality in order to properly dance the part of the Black Swan. As she struggles to wrap her head around what is needed of her in order to pull it off, the audience struggles to figure out what exactly is going on around her and where the film is heading. Brief, subtle glimpses of strange things foreshadow what is to come, but initially they go by so fast that you immediately question if you actually saw what you thought you saw. Just when you convince yourself that it was your imagination, something else pops up. This is very reminiscent of Dario Argento’s obsession with memory and presenting his films in such a structure that the main character and viewer are questioning their memory of something seen early in the film. Along with the dance school vibe of Suspiria, it’s pretty clear to see that somebody enjoys themselves some Argento.
As a horror movie, Black Swan is incredibly taut and successful. I had more scares, jumps and squirm-in-my-seat moments within the runtime of this film than I’ve had in the last few years of horror films combined. Like a snowball gaining speed down a hill, the film gets off to a slow start but eventually picks up a full head of steam as it assaults you from all sides. Not only is the final act jarring in its subject matter, but its pace is so much quicker than the rest of the film that you literally have little time to gain your footing before the rug is pulled out from under you once again. In these tense moments the music swells, with the original score by Clint Mansell seamlessly weaving in and out of the music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It’s done incredibly well and works wonders at heightening the frightening mood created by Aronofsky’s visuals.
Black Swan is a great movie, made better by careful thought and intense discussion after seeing it. If a modern horror movie ever had a shot at Best Picture, this is it. Highly recommended.