Black Swan (2010)
The most jaw-dropping and horrific thing that’s ever had to do with ballet. Billy Elliott‘s got nothing on this.
Black Swan is about a promising ballerina who tries out for the lead role in an upcoming production of Swan Lake, a role that requires her to play both good and evil sides of the story. When it comes to the good, she’s got it down pat, but when it comes to the evil, she doesn’t know where to start. So with the help of a director who could pass for a horny drill sergeant, a former star who doesn’t take her early retirement sitting down, a concerned and possibly psychotic mother who ends up being a pretty crappy roommate, and a fellow dancer who may or may not be trying to steal the role right out from under our girl’s nose, the new Swan Queen starts to shed her ivory feathers at the cost of her mind, body and being.
Now, when it comes to ballet, I’m at a loss. I know what a pirouette is, I’m pretty sure I’d heard of Swan Lake before, I know that it all looks outrageously painful, and that’s about it. Nothing against ballet, I could never be that flexible, just never been my scene and probably never will be. With that being said, I don’t know how authentic this is in regards to choreography or how this portrays the ballet world as a whole, but whether it totally misses the mark or hits the nail on the head, if ballet had always been this captivating, I would have been on board a long time ago.
So ballet is some brand new territory for director Darren Aronofsky, but everything else feels very familiar, and that’s always a darn good thing when you’re talking about Darren Aronofsky. From a visual standpoint, it’s like a mix between The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream. It’s as methodical as it is visceral, it’s all shaky cams all the time, pretty much every conversation, breakdown or moment alone with a character is filmed with an extreme close-up on their face, and every little detail, every “Did you see that?” moment that continually blurs the line between reality and insanity all make for the most bone-chilling experience I’ve had in a theater all year. Brought back some fond Jacob’s Ladder memories. It’s very cool to see Aronofsky switching up his style from painstakingly picturesque like with The Fountain and blending that together with a gritty approach that lands on the complete opposite end of what he was used to for so long. But as good as he is with a camera, I gotta say, his biggest strength still might be the way he manipulates sound. If you’ve seen Requiem, you probably know what I’m talking about.
Folks, listening to this movie is like nails on a chalkboard and I mean that in the best way possible. The way a pair of scissors sounds like a goddamn guillotine with each new fingernail it snips off, the way a tube of lipstick literally sighs like it’s having an orgasm when it’s first twisted open, the way you can hear every last bone crack when someone curls their toes or pirouettes off a split toenail, it puts your hair on end and it only gets harsher as the movie continues. No one else uses sound the way Aronofsky does and it’s as cringe-worthy as it is effective.
And on top of all this is regular Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell (the guy behind the “ass to ass” song from Requiem) who somehow manages to turn classical music into the soundtrack of a nightmare. It’s loud, it’s relentless, and considering he’s working with tunes we all know and have heard all our lives, it’s pretty amazing the way he transforms something so majestic into something so raw. Although that does seem to be a recurring theme with this movie.
But from a storytelling standpoint, it’s about as close to Pi as anything else, and I really like that association. Yeah, ballet is a cornerstone to the big picture, but more than anything, this is about one woman’s drive for perfection at any cost that starts out innocently enough but eventually becomes a descent into madness. I thought I knew what kind of movie I was getting into, but once that final Act rolled around, I quickly realized that I had my thumb up my ass.
For the most part, this particular aspect is why it all works so well since the audience witnesses our Swan Queen’s transformation not as passive observers but as though we’re experiencing the plot through her eyes. The only catch is that when it’s used correctly, it turns into the scariest movie of the year, but then the whole “transformation” element gets used one too many times and it ends up just being…weird. Not gonna give away any specifics, but that scene in the trailer where she pulls a feather out of her shoulder blade, that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Could have gone for fewer special effects is all, felt kinda silly and I don’t think that was the desired reaction.
Although her final transformation is one of the most stunning scenes of the whole damn movie and that’s all about the special effects. So that there’s the exception. Alright, enough with the technicalities because the acting here is freakin’ phenomenal, The Academy had better take notice, and I hope to God that the casting director here got a bonus check or something for picking these cats out. As great as they all are, it’s incredibly how much they look the part
Natalie Portman plays Nina, and while I’ve been of the mindset for the longest time now that Portman hasn’t given a better performance than the one she gave in The Professional, I’ll shut up now. Jesus, I can’t even imagine the physical and emotional lengths she had to go to in order to prepare for this role, but the girl goes gung-ho on both fronts. The way her spine protrudes out of her gaunt torso along with her naturally graceful, slender features that embody the White Swan end up making her descent down a path where the only way out is in that much more pronounced. It’s crazy in every sense of the word and Portman’s never been better. I’ve heard Aronofsky’s a hardass on the set, and Portman is living proof.
Mila Kunis with those temptress eyes of her is also fantastic as Nina’s bad girl frienemy, Lily. God, she’s sure come a long way since the days of Jackie, never knew she has such chops. Vincent Cassel with his towering stature that sweats confidence and demands obedience is perfect as Nina’s taskmaster of a director, Thomas. Big fan of Cassel, dude is a badass and more people need to recognize. Nice to see Winona Ryder making her annual cameo after last year’s Star Trek with her turn here as the craziest bitch of the later that Nina replaces, Beth. Slowly but surely making that comeback.
But fellas, ladies, Black Swan is a head fuck, a nerve fuck, and it left me flat-out rattled from the time it started to when I went to sleep four hours later. But by the same token, those are the very reasons I’m crazy about it. It’s as much a horror movie as anything I’ve seen over the past year, I was plugging my ears with my index fingers like the royal wuss I am, but it’s simply brilliant to watch, it’s erotic as all hell, and whether it’s right up your alley or leaves you repulsed, there’s no effing way you’re gonna forget it.
No idea how Aronofsky got some of the shots he did with so many mirrors around either. Wild stuff.