By now, everyone and their wicked stepmother has seen and reviewed Black Swan, the psychological thriller that has set the film world afire as of late. And because it is such a disturbing and frightening film, it has crossed over into the horror realm, leaving hordes of black T-shirt wearers giddy over the thought of a "serious" mainstream Hollywood film falling under their purview--and getting Oscar consideration, no less. It's like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs all over again.
In the wake of all the buzz, I recently had the pleasure of finally catching the film, along with my undead cohort Captain Cruella, as a welcome break in the midst of our multitudinous online and real-world activities. And I must say it turned into a whole lot more than a simple diversion for either of us. In fact, I'd say we both agreed that it was one of the best, if not the best film of 2010, in our experience. And so, I'm sorry, dear readers, but you will have to sit through yet another gushing review of this breathtaking movie from Darren Aronofsky. The man who brought us such fine work as Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler has done it again with this mind-frak of a flick, starring the amazing Natalie Portman as Nine Sayers, an aspiring ballerina up for the dual lead role in a slick new production of Swan Lake. I haven't seen every nominated performance, but it's difficult for me to imagine Portman not taking home the Best Actress Oscar for this.
My initial reaction to the film was to think of it as "Suspiria meets Jacob's Ladder", and while this summation is a bit too neat and not really accurate, there are definitely elements of both. You have the balletic backdrop, with so much psychological strife being dredged up as a result of it; and you have the very real horrors of the mind gone mad, causing the viewer to lose sight of the line between fantasy and reality.
I spent part of the film trying to discern if what I was watching was supernatural in nature, or all in our main character's mind. The taut, kinetic script--a collaboration of young, relatively untested screenwriters Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin--keeps us on our toes, and pulls us deeper and deeper into Nina's internal world. Make no mistake, this is horror--only horror in the same sense that a film like Moon is horror.
Along those lines, the movie fairly is obsessed with bodily trauma, in an almost Cronenbergian way. In particular, the fixation on finger/fingernails was particularly disturbing, akin in some way to Lucio Fulci's eyeball fetish. Our writers--as well as the always-intense Aronofksy--definitely understand the kinds of things that get inside the head of the average person, and use that knowledge to great advantage in engendering a cinematic environment that manages to both keep the viewer completely off-kilter while also enthralling with its gorgeous lushness.
A large part of the credit must also go to Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky's cinematographer on both Pi and Requiem, who triumphantly returns here with a visual painting that speaks to the viewer in a way that no dialogue ever could. This is the power of the camera, and why film will always be a vision-based medium, first and foremost. The imagery, combined with Clint Mansell's original score and the overarching snippets of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake itself, provide quite the potent cocktail, and it's one which surely held me in its spell from beginning to end.
It's difficult to describe the intensity of the experience of watching the film. I honestly sat there in the theater chair gripping the armrests with white knuckles from time to time--and this comes from a rather jaded film-goer who is more than capable of deconstructing the art while in the process of viewing. When a film can still get to me like that, I know it's good.
The journey of Natalie Portman's character Nina is an almost mythic one, yet told on a completely personal level. In her efforts to uncover the dark, "black swan" aspect of her personality, she delves deep within herself, with mounting horror at what she discovers--and we're right there with her, along for the ride. It's a journey of growing dread, and as the film progresses, it takes on almost Kafka-esque proportions. It's the journey of the mind made physical--who says Expressionism is dead?
This is clearly the performance of Portman's career, and if anything, witnessing the magnitude of her dramatic power here is proof positive that George Lucas--who directed her to utterly wooden results in his Star Wars prequels--has absolutely no idea of how to work with live, human actors. But in addition to Portman, Black Swan is also populated with a variety of powerhouse performances. These include the striking Barbara Hershey, whose own faded beauty only adds to the strength of her turn as Nina's overbearing failed ballerina mother; Vincent Cassell as Nina's mentor Thomas, hilariously described in a recent Saturday Night Live spoof as "the world's only straight French ballet choreographer"; and Winona Ryder in an unexpectedly shocking and harrowing appearance as Nina's onstage predecessor and the former paramour of Thomas.
It's long been said that the most terrifying material of all is that which festers inside us--in essence, that the truest horror is the horror of the human mind gone awry. And Black Swan is certainly a classic example of this--a worthy successor to films like Repulsion and Carnival of Souls, that force us to confront the fact that we all have within us the capacity to drive ourselves mad.
Nina's startling transformation into the black swan is the transformation of an individual who can only find release in the acceptance of that within her which also has the power to destroy her. The result is a film of great power--an intimate portrait of the human mind, which also manages to be simultaneously epic in scope. This is horror of the most cerebral variety--deeply rewarding, and utterly unforgettable.