Darren Aronofsky is an absolutely fucking fearless filmmaker. Forgive me for being so blunt. No doubt there was a more scholarly way to put that, but after being thoroughly floored by Aronofsky's Black Swan I am in no mood to reach for the thesaurus to find gentler phrasing. Aronofsky is fucking fearless and he deserves to have all this year's Oscar statuettes melted down and molded into a statue in his honor. Maybe I've gone too far. How about this: Black Swan is an amazing movie. A masterpiece. You should see it.
Black Swan is the story of Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, a ballerina beginning to wonder if her prime will come and go without her ever having had the chance to break out of chorus roles and take center stage. The impresario tells her that while she has the skill and presence required to play the virginal white swan in his upcoming production of Swan Lake, he doubts she can access the unbridled passion necessary to play the dual role of the wild, sensual black swan. Nina has had the prolonged adolescence of a lifelong performer, and her efforts to find that erotic black swan in herself combined with the brutal physical toll of a professional dancer starts to overwhelm her. She comes unglued.
The framework of the story may sound familiar on the surface - the overbearing stage mother, the imperious director of the ballet, the understudy nipping at her heels - but what matters is the singer not the song. Aronofsy isn't satisfied to just eavesdrop on some backstage drama. He intends to pin you to the back of your seat as he takes you through the horror of Portman's mental dissolution. He uses the same bold, sweeping strokes as his dancers, telling a story that reaches for the iconographic. The details of Nina's fragmenting mental landscape are so clearly mapped, the audience so in tune with Nina's point of view, that Aronofsky never sacrifices the audience's connection to the material for all the stylistic excess. Rather, it feels like the swelling torrent of imagery is pouring straight from Nina's fractured psyche. The more grand it gets the more intimate it feels.
Aronofsky once again dwells on his themes of mental pain manifesting itself in physical punishment suggesting The Red Shoes by way of Requiem for a Dream, and for the first half the violence a dancer inflicts on her own body is all the horror we need. Aronofsky gets more mileage out of a pair of nail clippers than most directors do with a chainsaw-wielding slasher. By the two thirds mark the accumulated details of Nina's terror have dragged us into a nightmare reality where we, along with her, find our bearings lost and the ground vanishing beneath our feet. At one point we hold our breath as Nina returns home late to a darkened apartment, fearing that her mother will...do what exactly? We can't say, but we dread it all the same, so powerfully has her presence been established. Black Swan ennobles the idea of what a horror film can be.
You can tell you're watching a master director at work when a cast of familiar actors all simultaneously amaze us with the previously unknown depths of their talent. This time it's Mila Kunis as Portman's uninhibited rival showing again after Sarah Marshall that she has the stuff of big screen stardom. Her charisma lends vital credibility to Nina's feeling of being threatened by her. Vincent Cassel as the impresario is a masterstroke of casting. He excels at playing menacing characters, but what is unexpected is the layers Cassel brings to the character. He is a cad to be sure, but he is also smart about his job and what he needs, and appears more concerned with coaxing a great performance out of Nina than he is coaxing her into bed.
The standout in the supporting cast is Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother. She has long been one of our most reliable actresses but it feels like it's been ages since she's had an opportunity like this to prove just how formidable her talent is. She is electric, playing a smothering stage mother with a smile to rival Heath Ledger's Joker for warmth. The mother/daughter relationship here has echoes of Carrie in the way she represses Nina and undermines her in everything she does. Listen closely to the way she wishes her luck, using just the right tone to let her daughter know that she expects failure.
But as great as the supporting cast is this is Portman's show and she delivers a career-elevating triumph. Her character knotted in tension at all times, her every smile a mask of pain, Portman gives a performance that isn't just good, but is the kind of performance that is rare even among very good actresses - the kind where you have trouble coming up with the name of another actor capable of delivering anything close to it. She will get the obligatory comparisons to DeNiro's work in Raging Bull due to the astonishing physical transformation she undergoes. Not to diminish that transformation - it is breath-taking, there are long, unbroken shots where Portman is entirely convincing as a prima ballerina - but lots of actors have undergone similar technical changes to lesser dividends. What is truly impressive is that Portman doesn't just convince as a dancer, it's the way she convincingly dances in character. Throughout the movie we can chart Nina's mental state by observing her dancing. The opportunity to honor work of this caliber nearly justifies all the awards hoopla.
Sometimes it feels like all we hear out of show business is how this or that compromise was unavoidable, or how impossible it is to get quality work done. You hear gifted performers and filmmakers rationalizing one mediocre project after another, and people talk about the great films of the early seventies as if it's a bygone era never to return. Then you get a film like Black Swan or similar works from PT Anderson, the Coen brothers, or Guillermo Del Toro and you breathe a sigh of relief. Films like this are a powerful reminder that films of importance are as possible today as was when David Lean or Orson Welles were making their marks on film history. What a movie.
Verdict: It's hard to tell if the majority of Hollywood's output is really comprised of timid, vanilla attempts to please everybody, or if it just seems that way after viewing work this ambitious. I expect there will be a spirited debate about Black Swan with many finding the film nearly hysterical in its heightened emotion. That's fine. If you are going to make a film as ambitious as Black Swan it is a guarantee that you are going to leave behind a sizable percentage of the audience. For me, however, films like Swan are the reason I get excited about going to the movies. It is clearly made by people who understand what an extraordinary privilege it is to make movies, and are not about to squander it trying for anything less than greatness. 10 out of 10