April 24, 2011

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)


WHAT IT IS: A young ballet dancer in a prominent New York company wins the coveted lead in their next production of Swan Lake. Although, her technique as the White Swan is impeccable, she finds it difficult to channel her dark impulses for the Black Swan character. As she struggles against a newcomer to keep the show’s lead, her world begins to unravel under the stress.

HOW IT IS: Lauded at the TIFF last year, Black Swan steadily gained momentum last year, leading up to the big award ceremonies, The Golden Globes and the Oscars. Some of that attention is warranted. As the mostly angelic dancer Nina, grappling with life’s complexities, Natalie Portman is flawless, pulling off on cue a transformation into the Black Swan that is jarring, fascinating and frightening. She is the crown jewels of the movie.

But, although Darren Aronofsky is a very capable director, I found myself unaffected by most of his artistic choices this time around. His visual representation of schizophrenia, although accurate, didn’t depart much from other movies dealing with the same subject matter, hanging on too close to narrative logic. It could be argued that David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002), delving into similar territory, succeeds better in depicting the condition.

Also, Aronofsky’s use of music for foreboding effect was uninspired at best, ridiculous at worst. His art school aesthetic (shoddy camera work, unpolished graphic elements, (over)expressive camera angles and movement), also used in Pi and, to some extent, in The Wrestler, here detracts from the character’s descent into madness. Some of his shots are powerful, like the bare and stylized dancing shots in total darkness; the quick camera movements towards Nina, charged with meaning; but those are quickly overshadowed by Aronofsky’s forced setting in horror and use of conventions of the genre that have not worked in movies since the early 80s. In contrast, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) creates a much more transcendent mindscape, one in which the protagonist uses dream logic to work through her mental disease, a more effective depiction of a mental break, in my humble opinion.

Although Black Swan is marked by a grandiose performance from Nathalie Portman, Aronofsky’s regression into a simpler aesthetic hinders the movie’s themes and narrative, the aesthetic sometimes flirting with brilliance but mostly meandering into artsy arrogance.

IF YOU LIKE: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue