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Notes on ‘Black Swan’

I had plans this Saturday, plans to be productive.  I made a list, because Tony Robbins says if you’re going to be successful you should make lists.  But that list was quickly thrown out when a friend called with an extra ticket to an advanced screening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film Black Swan.

At these industry screenings there are no trailers, no quizzes and advertisements on the screen; it’s just the crowd and the curtain until showtime.  The curtain pulls back and the trumpeting announcement of Fox blares.  Without all the pre-show noise this moment ends up achieving exactly what it should; it sends a quick chill down your back. You feel like this isn’t just another piece of media projected on a screen, this is a show under a Proscenium with all the players ready to give you a unique performance.

We open on a dark stage, a single spotlight bathing our ballerina in a white circle. This is the first moment we hear Clint Mansell’s emotional and powerful score.  If you’re not familiar with Mansell, then you’re not familiar with Aronofsky either. Mansell composed the haunting score for Requiem for a Dream as well as each of Aronofsky’s other films.  The success of those films rested heavily on Mansell’s orchestra and that is certainly the case for Black Swan.

The music lifts our dancer (the enchanting Natalie Portman); she glides around the stage, being tempted by a dark figure dancing around her. He circles her like a predatory bird, morphing into a grotesque black-feathered beast that pulls her violently around the stage.  It’s a dance of madness, a nightmare Lynchian in scope serving as an overture that instills a sense of foreboding of what we can expect as this white swan struggles with the pressure of receiving the prince’s favor.

Obsession is a very common theme for Aronofsky. Whether the obsession is with numbers (Pi), drugs (Requiem for a Dream), immortality and love (The Fountain), or celebrity and glory (The Wrestler), his films chronicle the detrimental, destructive effects of allowing yourself to be consumed entirely by one desire. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Black Swan continues the exploration of self-destructive obsession.  Nina (Portman) is a ballerina in an acclaimed dance company led by the Machiavellian creative director Thomas – pronounced toh-mah with adequate pretension. Nina’s desire to please Thomas is incidental, simply resulting from her endless pursuit for perfection.  Nina practices all day, then returns at night to her over-bearing mother (Barbara Hershey) as they settle into their nightly routine.  No, not routine. This is something more. This is ritualistic. She prepares her swollen, bruised and bleeding feet, she prepares her shoes and the ribbons, she prepares her body with methodical stretching. The dedication to ritual is again something Aronofsky loves to explore. Think of the process of liquefying the heroine, or the pre-match ritual of the Ram.

As Nina pursues perfection she quickly falls into the lead in Swan Lake.  With the former lead, Beth (Winona Ryder), retiring the heavy crown is passed on.  Thomas (brilliantly played by Vincent Cassell) struggles to get Nina to dance with passion. He tells her that she plays the White Swan beautifully, but in order to dance the Black Swan she needs to get out of her head and dance unfettered by her thoughts, letting the dance simply ‘take her over.’  He entices her to find the side of herself that can be the Black Swan, even encouraging her to masturbate and just give in to temptations.

This begins her spiral into a nightmare reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion.There is a slow build as Nina embarks on a sexual exploration that has been delayed by years of sexual repression.  She starts to deviate from her ritual in order to find this side of herself that Thomas wants to see. And as she continues this journey she, and the audience, starts to question reality. She can feel, even see, the Black Swan bursting forth from under her skin.

The narrator, or more accurately the POV, becomes unreliable.  Nina’s point of view becomes so unreliable I still don’t know what happened exactly. Some of the events could have just been figments of her imagination, not unlike some of the events in Repulsion, but in the end I wish I knew what to believe regarding some of the characters, especially Lily. In fact, Nina’s delusions even distort how she sees her own reflection as Aronofsky delves heavily into a mirror motif.

Everything builds to a true metamorphosis of character which is handled with tremendous skill by Portman.  This is the performance that will define her career. Vincent Cassell is perfect as the creative director, and I would say it’s his best since La Haine if it weren’t for his brilliant work in Mesrine just last year. In the end, the performances were great all around. The atmosphere for the screening was perfect. It was a smart, thrilling picture.  So why didn’t I love it like it feels I should?

First, I was too aware of the camera.  Like in The Wrestler we have long hand-held following shots, but this is a different story. The Wrestler felt like we needed that rough filming, that observational feel, but Black Swan is a new story and I felt called for a new style.  I know Aronofsky abhors the steadi-cam but using a more fluid motion for the long tracking shots would have complimented the perfection and grace of the ballerina, at least until her life became chaotic.

Second, it felt like Aronofsky was too intellectual with this film. That’s why there is so much to write about. You could write essays on his use of mirrors, on the ritual, on the sexual repression, self-mutilation or the transformation you undergo as you strive for perfection, but that’s not why most people go see movies. Yes, he’s a very smart guy. Yes, he knows how to direct a good film.  But I can’t help feeling that he is lost in his own ritual as he directs, creating films that are almost entirely cerebral and not visceral. His best film is still Requiem and it’s because there he had true passion. He was experimenting and attacked his first big release with a rookie’s recklessness.  It’s like Thomas tells Nina, you have to get out of your head. You need to let the emotion take over and only then can you reach perfection because then you will find the ability to surprise yourself and the audience.  I was hoping for something surprising with Black Swan. It’s still a very good film; it’s still worth seeing in the theater because that’s the only way to experience what should be an Oscar winning score, but if the reins would have been loosened this film could have been so much more.

Below are several of the movie posters, which I thought were fantastic.

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