Black Swan (2010) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey
By Greg Klymkiw
I am breathless, speechless and frankly, so knocked on my ass as I attempt to write this, that I fear that no words will ever adequately describe the elation I feel at having experienced what might be the best movie of the year, the decade and possibly one of the best pictures of all time.
I love this movie to death!
Is it that obvious?
With Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, the brilliant director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, has etched in stone his right to be called one of the greatest living film directors in the world. This is such a passionate, sexy, suspenseful, artful and wildly melodramatic movie, that even now I'm obsessed with seeing the picture as many times as possible.
Even one more viewing will do in order to pinch myself to see if I am dreaming how utterly stupendous it is.
I suspect, I'm not dreaming, however - Black Swan feels like it is exactly the sort of film we'll all look back upon as a milestone in cinema history.
It's Powell/Pressburger's The Red Shoes meets Mankiewicz's All About Eve meets Verhoeven's Showgirls with heavy doses of Polanski's Repulsion - and then some!
Aronofsky etches the unforgettable tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina driven to achieving the highest level of artistry; brutally encouraged by crazed impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), thwarted by her possessive, narcissistic mother (Barbara Hershey), terrified at the prospect of failure exemplified by an aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) and most of all, facing the threat of extinction by Lilly (Mila Kunis), an earthy rival with less technique, but greater raw passion - something Nina desperately needs to wrench from the depths of her soul to move beyond mere technical virtuosity.
The strongest comparison point is the aforementioned Powell/Pressburger 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, a staggering, highly influential motion picture - the stunning ballet sequences were a huge inspiration to Scorsese for the staging and mise-en-scene of the Raging Bull boxing matches. Powell/Pressburger wanted to make a movie that captured dance the only way motion pictures truly could - not from a proscenium, but on stage - as close to the action as possible.
Aronofsky follows suit with Black Swan and in some ways he matches the Powell/Pressburger approach with considerable aplomb. Where Aronofsky's approach differs is in his use of movement. Powell/Pressburger favoured exquisite compositions from a mostly-fixed camera position with the occasional dolly or crane shot, but often creating movement through delicate montage. Aronofsky, on the other hand, moves and swishes his camera with a sort of controlled steadi-cam abandon. I say "controlled" as this is no mere display of annoying shaky-cam techniques - the handheld movements are gorgeously composed and not a single move feels out of place, indulgent or downright sloppy.
In Aronofsky's mise-en-scene, the camera floats and glides with calculated abandon. In fact, I'm rather embarrassed to admit I caught myself - several times - rocking back and forth, to and fro and in a state of amusement-park-ride bliss. In fact, I've never seen dance sequences on film that inspired me to move in my seat as the image unspooled. I seldom move - period, but that's another story and significant only in that Black Swan compelled me to not remain static and slumped into my chair. And this was not only the case with the dance scenes, but with virtually every moment in the picture.
At times it compels one to literally jump from one's seat during set-pieces of slam-bang suspense. Other moments inspire one to sit forward, eyes up to the screen and literally on the edge of one's seat - at times, in mouth-agape awe at the sheer genius of the filmmaking and at others, because the action is so thrilling that to sit back becomes near-impossible. And then there are the numerous cringe-inducing moments where one squirms and sinks into one's seat, clinging for dear life as the picture deals with the grotesquely painful physical injuries and deformities that dancers - especially ballerinas - are prone to; split, oozing toenails, dislocated joints and other such gnarly realities of the dancing trade. I have not uttered the words "Jesus Christ" so many times in one picture - in utter disgust at witnessing the physical torture these women endure. Nina in particular is afflicted with an obsessive streak to the point where she scratches at her shoulder blades and leaves blood and pus-oozing open sores. And worse, to stop herself from scratching, she continually cuts, trims and buffs her nails to a point where her fingertips, fingernails and cuticles are a raw, pulpy mess.
And the melodrama: O, the melodrama! Some consider melodrama a dirty word. Well, anyone who does is a total knot head. It's a completely legitimate genre. There's bad melodrama and there's good, if not great melodrama. Black Swan is in the latter category. O, glorious melodrama! This great movie, replete with catty nasties of invective hurled with meat cleaver sharpness, literal cat fights, mother-daughter snipe-fests, masturbation, lesbo action, anonymous sex in nightclub washrooms and delicious over-the-top blood-letting, all add up to one motherfucker of an ice cream sundae with not one, not two, not three, but a barrel-full of maraschino cherries globbed with pools of glistening syrup on top.
The performances in Black Swan are perfectly pitched to the heights of melodrama that the film itself achieves. Miss Portman captures her character's intensity and frigidity with such perfection that Nina's gradual soul wrenching ascent/descent takes on the heft of pure tragedy. She commands the screen with such assured bravado that it's probably safe to suggest that hers will be the performance to beat in the year's upcoming awards season. Mila Kunis is gorgeous and sexy. Her chemistry with Portman crackles with the sheer electricity of opposites attracting. Winona Ryder delivers an exceptionally mature tragic portrait, full of bile, resentment and tragedy - a worthy successor and rival to the suffering bitch goddess Susan Hayward. Barbara Hershey wanders through the Grand Guignol territory of those immortal Robert Aldrich heroines of the 60s and drags us deep into the demonic bilge barrel of great movie harridans. And last, but certainly not least, Vincent Cassel is one sexy beast - the perfect ballet impresario: one part genius, one part cocksman, two parts Mephistopheles.
Some critics have referred to Black Swan as "The Red Shoes on acid.". They couldn't be more wrong. The Red Shoes is already on acid.
From my vantage point, Black Swan is pure crack cocaine, and as such, inspires more and heavier doses.