Like its mercurial heroine it’s hard to pin down just what Black Swan is as a film.
That rare erotic movie that is actually erotic? One of the greatest “Body Horrror” films ever made (There are more loving lingering shots to the aftermath of grievous bodily harm than in any movie this side of Cronenberg’s Crash)? A shameless appropriation of Michael Powell? The greatest Head film of the last decade? Yes, yes, yes, yes and more.
It’s as if Roman Polanski and Dario Argento teamed up to remake The Red Shoes. It’s as if Eyes Wide Shut era Stanley Kubrick went completely mental. Yet for all the influences it wears, for all the masters it brings to mind, for all the things it embodies, there is something in Black Swan that makes it unquestionably Aronofsky’s and unquestionably itself. Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that it’s impossible to imagine any of the aforementioned directors would be loose enough to insert an out and out gag into their film right before the big climax.
Black Swan is of course, the story of a young ballet dancer played by Natalie Portman. Things begin to unravel for her when she wins the lead role in "Swan Lake". A part that forces her to tap into some seriously repressed id. Things are exacerbated by the appearance of a rival played by Mila Kunis, who has a direct line to said id. Much madness/sexiness ensues.
Natalie Portman is a revelation here. Up until this point I always considered her an actress who would never rise past “Good”. She has her bag of tricks, and her performances are always just as good as how well the director knows how to showcase those tricks. The film plays as a very knowing take on her “good girl” persona. To the point were I find it kind of impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. She’s tried to play against that persona before. But that work always felt very calculated. Her work in films like Closer was all very White Swan. This role is pure Black. There are shots in the film were she looks twelve and shots were she looks fifty. And when she finally dances The Black Swan she genuinely seems like someone who I’ve never seen before.
Mila Kunis as the other half of the duo, does some shockingly credible work here. I’ve always thought of her as a very undervalued actress. She’s been in some stinkers (Max Payne anyone?) but anyone who watches Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Extract and does not see one seriously sharp comedienne is not looking hard enough. Even in straight roles, like The Book Of Eli, she’s been charming. Still it’d hardly be an insult to point out that she’s never had a role that pushes her this far out of her comfort zone before. She’s playing with the big boys here and I for one think she performs admirably. She’s all anime eyes and salaciousness, who promises to be an obscene amount of fun. Only she could offer the line “Was I good?” and have it suggest about five distinct levels of mischief, each more malignant then the last.
Rounding out the cast is Vincent Cassell, who yields his experience like a weapon, and Winnoa Ryder in a small but crucial role. One which seems almost a bit of a waste until she absolutely detonates in her last scene (And can I just point out how strange it is that someone who was a sex symbol in my lifetime is now playing “Mom” roles almost exclusively)
At the end of the day the star is Aronofsky. As always with Aronofsky it’s a cinema of obsession. Perhaps no other director in recent memory has devoted so much screen time to the fetishtic preparation of things. The shots of the ballet dancers fiercely ripping out their seams, battering their equipment, and wrapping their bruised flesh, is shot with the same unrelenting detail as The Fighters building their gags in The Wrestler, the junkies preparing their fixes in Requiem, Hugh Jackman placing his tattoos in The Fountain, and Max’s preparing his equations in Pi. That same fervent quasi religious single minded sense of ritual. Things made sacred through obsession. Also like all of Aronofksy’s films that obsession eventually destroys the one who obsesses and whether that is a release or a final damnation is left entirely to the viewer.
Aronofsky uses both the performances and his unrivaled visual imagination he keeps the entire film perched on the edge of hysteria. A tone that can so easily fall into camp that it almost seems preordained that any movie that tries to skate it will fail. I saw the film at a full house and during one particular go for broke sequence. A good fourth of the audience started laughing. But the odd thing was it did nothing to dissipate the mood the film had created. The laughter didn’t sound merely nervous, but sick. Far from sounding as if the audience were rejecting Aronofsky’s lunacy, it seemed as though he had done nothing so much as pull them right into the thick of it.
Earlier in the review I mentioned Kubrick. Dropping the K word is no less an invitation to duel then a glove slap. It’s the superlative of superlatives and it’s practically begging for someone to come in an accuse you of hyperbole.
And with good reason. Kubrick made movies that were truly singular to film works of art that were genuinely nothing but cinema. Good or bad Kubrick films are separate, truly only of the seventh art.
Which is why he makes such an inviting branch to clutch to when the viewer is dragged by the currents of something that is truly unfamiliar. Something that for all the influence it owes is profoundly itself and owes almost nothing to what we’re “used to.” Those are as I said the type of film that Kubrick made and that is the kind of film Aronofsky has made here.