Saturday, December 18, 2010

Seeking Perfection: "Black Swan" review


In most versions of film history, D.W. Griffith gets credited for "inventing" the close-up, for having the audacity (and, it turns out, the remarkable foresight) to move the camera right into the actor's face, cutting from a longer shot into the close-up. When audiences first saw an actor's face spread across the entirety of the screen's canvas, one can only imagine how revelatory it felt, to be able to read the movement of eyes, the curls of lips, the lines of the face in exacting detail at emotionally significant moments.

Watching Darren Aronofsky's torturous thriller, "Black Swan," is the closest I've come to feeling the sheer magnitude of the close-up in, well, ages. Following obsessively desperate ballerina Nina's (Natalie Portman) burning to desire to be the star of her company's "Swan Lake," and her subsequent mental breakdown over her desire to reach absolute perfection, the film doesn't so much let Portman create her fragility as it does graft it onto her. It is an oppressive, claustrophobic, utterly unnerving piece of psychological mayhem whose spiral into Nina's personal hell is as relentless as any American horror film in the past decade.



Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique take the film's aesthetic design to staggering extremes: they choose a film stock that is highly grainy and borderline desaturated, where every spotlight into the lens almost blows out the frame. Onto this plane comes Natalie Portman's face. Her eyes constantly circling, her brows twitching, her lips quivering, her skin either covered in make-up or cold sweat, she masterfully brings both a sense of obsession and a deep fragility with her (in)ability to perform. Further, Libatique's camera follows Nina in almost every shot. Almost like a dark companion piece to Aronofsky's last feature "The Wrestler" - a film also about desperation and a desire to reach personal and professional gratification - we follow the back of her head around hallways, down open streets, through her mother's apartment; it swirls around Nina's upper body on the stage instead of following the action from afar, and after a while this method of shooting Nina feels entirely too oppressive, as if we too want to escape the kind of terrifying panic she experiences.

"Black Swan's" opening act sets it up as a conventionally plotted backstage drama, and puts all the tropes on full display: the aspiring performer, the sexually-charged director, the envious and scheming co-star, the oppressive has-been mother. What's shocking and tremendous as it wears on is how it questions and twists these very conventions by gradually undoing any semblance of a concrete visual reality. With clever editing and some trippy visual effects, editors Kristina Boden and Andrew Weisblum go from making Nina the object of the camera's unwavering gaze to making the viewer a part of her confused world.  She starts having violent and sexual experiences - or are they fantasies? - and sees her conniving, seductive understudy Lilly (Mila Kunis) everywhere she goes - or does she?

Moreover, she starts seeing herself. Over and over again, the film uses mirrors to confuse our sense of where we are and who we're looking at. Rooms first look massive until we realize it's a mirror magnifying it twice over, company director Thomas's (Vincent Cassel) face is doubled on two mirrors, Nina appears to retreat into infinity in a mirror, and on and on.  Its use of reflective surfaces is almost beyond inventive; it's pervasive. Soon, she's even seeing doubles of herself when she's not looking into a mirror. "Black Swan" is dazzling to look at, and it's just as easy to get lost in its vortex. As Nina's identity, and the identities of the people around her, get more confused and confusing as the film catapults towards "Swan Lake's" opening night, its increased use of discontinuous editing and its overabundance of mirrors make it purposefully hard to follow, as we're supposed to be just as wary as Nina about her every move (and its potential to be a figment of her imagination).

This is a horror movie, make no mistake, and of the unbridled, purely psychological kind horror filmmakers rarely pursue. It emerges from dark places and aspires to ambitious heights. It mirrors personal insanity to professional aspiration, sexual frustration with violent unconscious. And by the time it's over, you won't really know what you believe. This is insular, technically and emotionally accomplished film that Darren Aronofsky's talent promised ten years ago when he made "Requiem for a Dream" - a perhaps more disturbing but nonetheless equally visceral and hallucinatory experience. This is the film that takes him beyond the fantastical ambition of "The Fountain" and the earnest melodrama of "The Wreslter" to place him firmly into the realm of America's best visionaries. It's true horror because it's a film that strives to get into the viewer's head as much as it does the character's head, and it strives to create a violent, paranoid reality of deep uncertainty. It's almost terrifying how deep it goes.

The same goes for Natalie Portman, who transcends all her previous performances to levels few actors ever reach. To create a performance as a performer is difficult enough, but Portman invests every part of her body. When she tries to unlock her sexuality, it's almost heartbreaking in how traumatic it is for her psyche. When she's asked to smile, her sheer inability to express happiness is truly saddening. Mila Kunis  and Barbara Hershey (as Nina's has-been and deeply suppressive mother) are terrifyingly predatory in their own ways, but it's Winona Ryder, as Thomas's last prized ballerina Beth, who makes every one of her few moments absolutely chilling.

To speak more of "Black Swan" may be to discredit it, as I think it's a film best experienced with no preconceived ideas about what's going to happen. All the better to experience the last third, which is sublime, surreal terror that feels like poetry covered in blood. Let me just mention that as much as it is a companion piece to Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," it owes an equal amount of debt to Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," about a sexually repressed woman who loses her grasp on reality. It would be interesting to know if screenwriters Mark Heyan, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin used "Repulsion" as a template or as inspiration, but "Black Swan" equally chronicles a particularly feminine descent. Its modes of blending reality and fantasy within the same shots and its integration of montage as a way to weave in and out of the character's fantasy owe quite a bit to Polanski's ideas about how to forge and manipulate cinematic perspective.

"Black Swan" is one of the best, most fully accomplished, and most awe-strikingly ambitious films of 2010. It melds backstage drama and psychological horror into a penetrating character study. Its writing is both convoluted and perfectly clear, its aesthetic perfectly marries the kind of tone, emotion, and ideas that Aronofsky and his team desire to emit. This is a cold-blooded masterpiece that tears the fabric of the film image to shreds.

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