Like the Brothers Coen, though with a mere emerging track record, Darren Aronofsky is buffing his way to “All-Time Great” stature in the little known Hall of Directors. He has simply, continuously put out impressive, quality film after superb film. Ever since his feature-length debut, Pi, he has garnered much due attention and praise for his efforts. And that Academy may have to reward him with a statue in the coming months for his latest, Black Swan. This release is the best film I have seen since Slumdog Millionaire and my only concern on Oscar Night will be that the Academy will continue their tradition of snubbing directors (The Coen Brothers (Yeah, I know, I’m up their collective ass), Martin Scorcese), actors (Jack Lemmon, Helen Mirren), and the like early in the careers, while rewarding them years later for good, but not comparable accomplishments. This would be, as Thom Yorke might put it, “fuh-ucked up.”
The film is about a ballerina, Nina Sayers (incredibly portrayed by Natalie Portman), whose dream is to dance the lead in a performance at Lincoln Center. She gets her chance with Swan Lake, but the pressures of performing at that level begin to have a drastic impact on her deteriorating mind. Her director chooses her over the more naturally-talented, Lily, (easily Mila Kunis’ best performance in her youngish career) because he sees potential in her. Thomas Leroy, the director, sticks with Nina throughout the rehearsals, despite his harsh criticism and the appearance that the show will inevitably fail if the lead doesn’t get her shit together. Thomas does everything to get Nina to “let go” of, I guess, her inhibitions and somehow relegate much of her training into the rear view; he even makes sexual advances towards her, which becomes a source of great ambiguity through much of the film (viewers aren’t sure if he just wants to bang her or if it’s an unorthodox motivational tool). Through suspicions of whoring herself out, Nina’s overbearing mother brings added weight by attempting to be nurturing and supportive, but falling far short as it becomes more apparent she’s simply a “stage mom,” trying to live her own dreams vicariously through her daughter.
The aspects of the film that obviously allow this piece to earn its reputation are the said ambiguity and varied motivations of the players, but too the layered internal conflict of Nina (as clearly symbolized by the duality of the incredibly challenging role she has been tasked to portray as both the White and Black Swan in the show), and, on a more aesthetic level, the performances of the actors themselves. Due to her desire to have her daughter reach stardom, Erica Sayers has driven Nina to have her life completely revolve around everything ballet. This is made evident in a quite a few places, like, when asked by Thomas if she has ever had a boyfriend, Nina replies, “A few, but nothing ever serious” and, earlier in the film, when viewers see Nina go through the ritual of breaking in her dancing slippers (wonderfully shot and cut by Aronofsky and co.). So, Nina has never been able to “be a kid,” thus the struggle with her sexuality, her lack of a social life, and inability to aptly deal with this mountainous stress.
As the movie progressed over the course of a tensely grueling 108 minutes, I began to feel that one thing could easily be lost on the audience and critics because the film is so very dense, this being the fact that Aronofsky’s work is also very much about art itself. The ballet production company and all included must constantly live up to the expectations of literally being the best in the entire world. Thomas states as much when reminding Nina that he will be presenting her talents to the world as a means of upping her level of performance to unknown heights. At one point in the film, Nina explains that Swan Lake, even with the tragic ending, is “beautiful.” Viewers see no beauty in the lives of the people actually putting the show on and Nina, in modeling herself after the swan, commits suicide. Sure, she takes this action because of a new awareness of the drudgery of her existence, but her dying words also indicate another reason for ending her life, along with Aronofsky’s theme. Nina, everyone around her, and those before her too (personified by Beth Macintyre) have always striven for “perfection;” however, once that is attained, there is nothing left to live for. Aronofsky is saying then that there is something admirable, even beautiful, in imperfection and humanity. If art is a commentary on man, then it too should be flawed.
With all that said, I feel it is ironic that in the process of presenting this message, Aronofsky may have delivered a perfect film. Pi was his first and provided a sound foundation, establishing his style and niche. He gained big-time notoriety with Requiem for a Dream, but, for me and a lot of others, it was perhaps too intense (Despite absolutely loving that film, I have yet to see it a second time for fear of purging at its close.). The under-appreciated The Fountain took forever to produce and it showed, as he dipped into murky, self-indulgent waters, while The Wrestler saw Aronofsky possibly go a tad too far in the other, easily-accessible direction. With Black Swan, Aronofsky has put together a work that combines all he has learned from his previous experiences. It’s tough to stomach at times, but certainly bearable. It’s heavy, yet compact and comprehensive. He may not be able to duplicate this again, so I hope to see him on stage soon, but in an expensive suit that will make Joan Rivers swoon, as opposed to a tutu. We’ll reserve those for Bjork.