I may be a bit behind the wave as far as seeing new releases goes, but having finally seen “Black Swan” I can see what all the hype (and Oscar buzz) is about. Darren Aronofsky has made a visually stunning film that turns the tragic narrative of “Swan Lake” into a paranoid fantasy that alternates between dizzying extremes of beauty and terror, fear and desire. On the one hand the film is “high art,” a restaging of one of the great stories of the Western tradition, and on the other it is a visceral, heart-pounding psychological thriller which resists a “disinterested” gaze.
It will also make you never want to cut your fingernails again.
(These international posters are a lot cooler than the ones we’ve seen in North America.)
I agree with commentators who see this film as closer to Aronofsky’s grainy, black-and-white “Pi” (1998) than his more recent Mickey Rourke-driven “The Wrestler” (2008). Still present are the all-consuming paranoia and the mutilated body parts (“Pi” features a pulsating brain which turns up in unexpected places); the differences with “Black Swan” are a much larger budget and the competitive world of ballet instead of kabbalah, advanced mathematics and the Name of God. Aronofsky’s other major films, the relentlessly dark “Requiem for a Dream” and underappreciated metaphysical meditation “The Fountain” are also in the background; the juxtaposition of death and immortality takes on in “Black Swan” the ‘immortal’ quality of the stage, of the “perfect” performance or work of art, as in the final few seconds of the film where the audience is enveloped in white and a thunderous round of applause. After being enthralled by the film for the past two hours, this cathartic white-out was the closest thing I’ve experienced in a while to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art.” (Also, the volume in the theater was turned up pretty loud.)
“Black Swan” is full of common tropes that could, in the hands of a lesser director, slide into cliches. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces (such as the glass doors of a subway car) are literally everywhere, signifying the fragmentation of reality in a story all about evil doubles, “alternates” and elided identities. The ballet director and the lead ballerina’s mother are both dominating, manipulative figures whom we have seen before in countless films (“The Red Shoes” (1948) has been pointed out as a direct precursor of the film, but the evil master/(step)mother trope is much more universal). However, the way in which the story is told, ie. the cinematography, editing, music, etc., turn a fairly conventional story about a ballerina who needs to get in touch with her “darker half” in order to perform as the Swan Queen into a deeply disturbing meditation on the total demands of art.
Apart from mirrors, the other ‘surface’ where much of the action happens is the body, specifically the body of Nina (Natalie Portman) which is mutated, mutilated, eroticized and wounded in her transformation from the innocent, childlike White Swan to her terrifying alter ego. Dance is an innately physical, embodied medium, and the way the dance sequences are filmed help convey the immediacy and concreteness of ballet, a style often seen as rigid and dispassionate. But more than this, the bodily presence of the dancer on the stage and the bodily nature of being-in-the-world come together here, revealing the Cartesian split between body and mind to be something of an illusion. Accordingly, so much of the “reality” in this film is indistinguishable from Nina’s interior fantasy that it makes no sense to ask what “really” happened: where the marks on her back “really” came from, if the new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) was “really” involved with the director or the male lead, what “really” happened to the former star ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder)… I should also mention the editing, which just like the movement of dance creates an intricate, layered movement of tension and release. There are some great cuts in the film, such as when we suddenly cut to Nina’s dark reflection in the subway glass near the beginning of the film, or the sudden “reveal” of her mother sleeping in the chair beside her bed. (I’ll leave out the cinematography, which was also spectacular, notable especially for its ‘behind-the-head’ tracking shots.)
In any case, I thought it was incredible and I’ll probably never get the score out of my head. Here’s another review of “Black Swan” which aptly calls it a “delirious, phantasmagoric freakout.” For a well-reasoned opposing opinion from someone who didn’t like “Inception” or “Exit Through the Gift Shop” either, take a look here. But mostly I’d say go watch it for yourself, especially as Natalie Portman continues her winning streak to the Oscars later this month.