During the first 13 years of the 21st century, there's been a growing sense that humanity might not be headed in the right direction. Here in the United States, the impact of 9/11, sharply divided political ideologies, and economic turmoil has left many of us confused and angry. This disorienting feeling has permeated into the movies, where questions of what's truly real are prevalent. Fight Club and The Matrix offered two compelling examples back in 1999, and we've seen plenty more since that time. Is it possible to remain optimistic about our future chances? I'm generally a positive soul, so I'd like to think that's the case. However, it's easy to get discouraged when you look at what's hitting the news these days. The movies have shown us the tremendous depths of this confusion, particularly in the individual lives of tormented characters. They may not be responding directly to what's happening in the world, but that gloomy tone permeates their lives. With that approach in mind, I've set up my latest marathon to cover films that spotlight this type of behavior. My first entry is an Oscar winner that delves into the main character's displaced psyche. Black Swan reminds us that sometimes our greatest enemy is staring at us in the mirror each day.
Black Swan – Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder
Describe the plot in three sentences.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an aspiring ballet dancer in New York City who is cast as the lead in their production of Swan Lake. Her mental state is fragile, and the pressures of this role increase her stress exponentially. Nina's grip on reality grows weaker, and she struggles to maintain her focus with the opening night just around the corner.
Would I like to shake the director's hand or send him back to film school?
When you're talking about a masterful filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, this is a silly question. Right from the start, he grabs the audience and manipulates our emotions with every device at his disposal. His Super 16 hand-held camera glides around Nina as she focuses intently on the next dance move. Away from the stage, it gets right in her face and gives us an intimate perspective on her degenerative mind. Aronofsky pulls uncomfortably close to Nina and refuses to step back and give us a break. Instead, he plunges forward and shows the doubt that's lurking within any artist. While most can push back these fears, Nina is succumbing to them and letting them take over her reality. It's a challenging experience because we've been taught to expect some respite from the intensity. Aronofsky keeps ratcheting up the pressure and won't back away from the horrors that Nina faces each day.
How are the big twists? Do they make sense or come out of left field?
There are surprises throughout this movie, particularly when we realize that Nina has imagined a key scene. However, I wouldn't classify them as "big twists" because they're all a part of her damaged psyche. The resolutions come quickly and aren't used to build conventional suspense. In the final act, we believe that Nina has killed a fellow dancer by brutally stabbing her with a piece of glass. When this moment is revealed as false (but not entirely imaginary), it doesn't feel like a Shyamalan-like cheat. Even after the credits roll, I wasn't sure what actually happened during each moment. However, the truth isn't really necessary. We're flying through the chaos with Nina and don't have a perspective beyond her viewpoint. Her teacher Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) appears manipulative and nasty, but his behavior varies dramatically in different scenes. This raises questions about whether he truly is that difficult or only represents a certain part of Nina's personality. Working from an intriguing screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John J. McLaughlin, Aronofsky retains the mystery but remains emotionally true right to the very end.
Are the actors convincing in this chaotic environment?
Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar, and her performance lives up to the hype. I can't imagine the tremendous work that was involved to become a believable dancer on screen. Controversy did arise from Portman's double about who truly did the moves, but that's a moot point. Portman embodies this character and confidently exposes her rampant insecurities. Even when she's dancing majestically, her face tells a different story of a girl fighting to keep her demons in check. Barbara Hershey plays her mother, who gave up a dancing career to have Nina. She cares for her daughter, but there's a resentment lurking beneath the surface that hangs over each moment. Vincent Cassel is the right choice for the handsome teacher who both attracts and repulses his students. He channels Anton Wolbrook from The Red Shoes and wisely underplays the fierce methods to push the dancers. The only misstep comes from Mila Kunis as Lily, a dancer who's the opposite of Nina's cold demeanor. She's believable on stage but lacks the fire to really sell the part. Kunis has a good screen presence, but I'm not sold on her ability to nail a dramatic role.
What are the most effective sequences?
One of Aronofsky's best moves is keeping the running time down to 108 minutes, which eliminates any unnecessary moments. This choice brings a rapid pace to a story filled with highlights. A pivotal sequence has Nina venturing out of her claustrophobic room and hitting the club scene with Lily. After taking ecstasy, she becomes a completely different person and sheds the inhibitions. The night ends with sex between Nina and Lily, but all is not what it seems. Watching a reserved character get crazy in a new setting is a common movie moment, but there's a hint of sadness to the entire night. We don't get the feeling that Nina's life will change after hitting the town. She's created a narrative where Lily chooses her over a one-night stand with a faceless guy. When Nina stumbles into practice the next day and sees her friend dancing her part, all the insecurities return and push her even further towards insanity. This sends her hurtling towards the frenetic conclusion, where she dances wonderfully and wows the audience. Unfortunately, this success arrives with a serious price and may not be enough to stop her ultimate demise.
Do I think this story will hold up to repeat viewings or fall apart?
Black Swan should generate an even stronger reaction on repeated viewings. There's so much happening on the screen that it's impossible to take in everything. Aronofsky has directed only five features, and few filmmakers bring such a high degree of precision to their work. His films are intense, personal experiences that stick with you for a long time. They aren't movies that I'll watch repeatedly, however. I've greatly admired each project, but all have been one-timers. With this picture, he takes us so far into Nina's anxieties that it's hard to breathe. I expect the impact would have been even stronger on the big screen. Aronofsky is currently working on Noah with Russell Crowe, and he seems destined to be another captivating lead character. After the success of this low-budget production, he's moving to a bigger stage and seems poised to reach another stratosphere.