Sunday, December 19, 2010

Preliminary Top Film of 2010: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's filmography ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, encompassing genres as diverse as kitchen-sink melodrama (The Wrestler) to hallucinatory sci-fi (The Fountain). The connective tissue between all of these films is an obsession on the part of the filmmaker with the massive psychic toll suffered by self-conscious beings bound by decaying physical vessels. Our glories are fleeting, our decline is assured, even our greatest moments are bound by physical and mental limitations. Aronosky explicates these themes more painfully and insightfully than most directors, but every one of his films to this point have been wildly uneven. Requiem for a Dream is a visual tour de force, but it's manic singularity proves exhausting and somewhat hollow. The Fountain is the rare film to confront the issue of mortality without resort to metaphysics, and its also sometimes embarrassing to watch. The Wrestler introduced a new strain of effective naturalism to Aronofsky's repertoire, but it also hewed too closely to familiar genre beats. Black Swan is the culmination of Aronofsky's inquires into human fragility; he brings together every element that worked in his previous films while doing away with anything clunky or unconvincing. There's something deeply enthralling about watching a film director hone his craft to a point of absolute incisiveness.

Black Swan and The Wrestler were originally conceived of by Aronofsky as parallel stories in a single film. At first glance, it seems like a terrible idea, and it's clear that breaking them up was the right call, but the two stories make for a striking mirror image. Randy "the Ram" Robinson and Nina Sayers share a central dilemma: they are both characters defined, both to themselves and to the world around them, by their physical bodies. Randy the Ram is only alive to the degree that his leathery hide dishes out and absorb punishment in the wrestling ring. Nina's only means of self-expression is the voiceless grace of her body. Both of them are haunted by the specter of their inevitable physical decline: Randy is smack in the middle of his own, while Nina sees her future all too clearly in the person of Winona Ryder's fading star ballerina. Both characters are driven to self destruction by their insatiable demand for perfection and adulation. Black Swan distinguishes itself as an altogether more penetrating and brilliant piece of work by burrowing so deeply into Nina's warped psyche and by expertly dissecting the specifically feminine dilemma she faces.

Natalie Portman's Nina lives an absurdly proscribed existence: her daily routine, her life goals, her values, her self-esteem, are defined by dance. Her mother, a failed ballerina living vicariously through her daughter, uses a complex system of passive-aggressive conditioning to keep Nina focused on presenting herself as a symbol of purity and aesthetic perfection. When the film starts, Nina is somewhat comfortably cocooned in her frigid little world (although there are signs that the prospect of playing the lead in her company's production of "Swan Lake" has already put some cracks in the veneer). The real trouble begins when she wins the part of Odette and her director, played by Vincent Cassel, demands that she get in touch with her sexuality in order to channel the Black Swan, Odette's seductive alter ego. The tug-of-war for Nina's soul waged between her Mother and her Director places Nina in an impossible situation. She must simultaneously embody Mona Lisa and Mata Hari. It's the classic Virgin/Whore dichotomy all women have to navigate in some way, heightened to psyche-shattering heights by Nina's preternatural focus and artistic devotion. Her mechanisms for coping with the uncertainty and peril of depending on her intensely vulnerable human body (just listen to the knuckles of her toes crack as she gets out of bed!) are all based on a mechanized rigidity that cannot process paradox. She's like a cartoon robot sent into sputtering meltdown by a logic puzzle.

Aronofsky documents Nina's mental breakdown by deftly synthesizing every effective gimmick in his directorial bag of tricks. He utilizes the over-the-shoulder shots and overall sense of docu-drama realism first displayed in The Wrestler to wed the viewer to Nina's point of view, making the film's lurch into Requiem for a Dream-style hysteria credibly disorienting. While Requiem's all-out visual assault created a fatal distance between the audience and the character, Black Swan's hybrid approach draws the viewer inside Nina's head so effectively that her descent into madness is heartbreaking, terrifying and mercilessly logical. The performances are universally excellent, with Natalie Portman finding the role that her icy, repressed screen presence was made for. The dance sequences recall the fight scenes in The Wrestler in their emphasis on awesome grace and grim physical punishment. The film's themes; sex, decay, artistic obsession, radiate from every frame. Black Swan is the work of an artist at the peak of his power; someone who has clearly wrestled with his defining subject matter for years and has learned through grueling trial and error the most effective application of his gifts.