Saturday, December 11, 2010
Black Swan (2010) A Film by Darren Aronofsky
There's a throwaway gag about halfway through Black Swan in which a random creep in a trench coat hysterically "flirts" with a mopey, insecure Natalie Portman on a deserted subway car (smacking together and licking his lips, rubbing his junk). Director Darren Aronofsky covers the action in simple shot-reverse-shot setup, letting the absurdity play without interruption. It's a rare and welcome moment in the film for the way it digresses from Aronofsky's straitjacket design, his unrelenting control over the thematic direction of the film. Amidst all the airless grand guignol and ramshackle purpose, there's this glimpse of humble spectacle. It doesn't forward Portman's character progression, it doesn't have anything to do with ballet, and it doesn't even require any cinematographic hijinks to convey.
Of course I'm being a little facetious, but this is about as close as I got to pure pleasure from watching Aronofsky's latest film, which is otherwise a punishing yarn with little originality and a quantum leap backwards for him artistically. There was not a thought in my mind that after the positive evolutions of The Fountain (still his most thoughtful, sublime film) and The Wrestler (perhaps his most "mature") Aronofsky would regress to the manipulative excesses of Requiem for a Dream, calling back his old shock horror and whirlwind climax routine to alternately tedious and rousing effect. To be sure, Black Swan is definitely better than that film, with not quite as heavy a deterministic undertow, but within Aronofsky's often limited scope, that's not saying much. For all its surface discrepancies, Black Swan tells about the same story and makes the same statement as The Wrestler: Nina Sayers (Portman), a virtuosic but emotionally weak and vulnerable ballerina, is cast as the coveted Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and as she is forced to mine the complicated depths of the role, we learn that in order to succeed in one's art, one must be utterly consumed by it. The artist must flirt with death, and in this mechanically ambiguous case, maybe even meet it.
If Aronofsky is recycling the structure right down to specifics, he's not doing the same with form. Where The Wrestler lounged in social realism, Black Swan is decidedly expressionistic and over-the-top, externalizing everything from Nina's subjective vantage point into the mise-en-scène - her fears, obsessions, and paranoiac projections, shoveled into the frame like the first snow of the season. When Nina returns from a night of peer-pressured partying and stumbles into her apartment, Aronofsky establishes the scene with a nakedly symbolic shot of a kaleidoscopic mirror that fragments Nina into various bits and pieces, clearly representing the fracturing of her usual self. The meaning is blunt, and one gets the sense that Nina and her equally uptight mother would not own such an ostentatious mirror; it's there for Aronofsky's sake alone. This manifestation of interior states grows tiring, especially when it is repetitively reduced to jolting shock cuts of bloody doppelgängers in the third act, who morph their way into Nina's overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), her rival Lily (Mila Kunis), and a crazy has-been ballerina (Winona Ryder) who once had a flame with the ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). The "gotcha!" nature of all this reality/fantasy flip-flopping is cheap and fraudulent, indebted as it is to countless predecessors like Polanski (specifically Repulsion), Argento, and even Lynch (who Aronofsky seems to have extracted from not only with an aggressive lesbian scene that recalls Mulholland Drive, but also in his use of wide-angle close-ups that flatten and deglamorize their subjects much like in INLAND EMPIRE, but in a more transparent and less affecting manner). Black Swan's tricks largely seem to not be its own, and when Nina cathartically kills a "dark side" of herself before blowing away the audience in her final dramatic metamorphosis, it becomes doubly evident.
The human objects of Black Swan are given one role to play, one emotional register through which to direct their behavior towards Nina (this being a film in which everything comes at Portman); the director is the sexist prick who awakens feelings of self-inflicted sexual repression in Nina, Lily is the overtly sensual ballerina who possesses the skills Nina blatantly needs to have the full package as a dancer, and the mother is the overzealous caretaker with a history of her own faded glory. This heightened level of design is entirely the point given that the film is a mechanism of Nina's subjectivity, but it falls apart when there's little base of psychological or emotional depth to begin with in Nina. There has already been lofty praise for Portman's performance, and it would be disingenuous to call it off-base. In the limiting manner in which it is written, it's a tough, durable, and sometimes heartbreaking embodiment, but it is certainly not dynamic or varied, lacking the layers of emotionality that Mickey Rourke brought to his role in The Wrestler. As good as Portman is expressing naiveté, despondency, and personal imprisonment, the script ultimately makes her just that, a bundle of whimpers and half-convinced utterances.
I don't mean to suggest that there's a total lack of virtue in Black Swan. The purely experiential aspects of dancing, for instance, which can be enjoyed for reasons exclusive to the story, are conveyed adeptly by Aronofsky's swooping camera, rarely coming to a halt when privileged to the wondrous swirling motion of bodies. In one particularly exhilarating touch, the camera adopts Nina's viewpoint as she pirouettes for Thomas, creating a blur of motion before pausing momentarily on his domineering gaze. Also, just as with wrestling, Aronofsky captures the abject and less obvious body horror of ballet dancing, lingering on nail-biting close-ups of outstretched toes, pulsing back muscles, and stiffened calves, until of course he hammers the point home with recurring shots of these same body parts replete with various scrapes and sores. Unfortunately, when the film's fleeting pleasures reveal themselves quickly as oppressive narrative devices, the pleasure's sucked away. If there's one lesson Aronofsky needs to learn again as a filmmaker, it's what two of his co-stars didactically repeat to Nina throughout the film: "just live a little".