Thursday, January 06, 2011

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

I've enjoyed Darren Aronofsky's films up to now, but Black Swan is the first one that really hit the bullseye for me. I still think Pi is a great lo fi sci fi flick, a good indication of what was to come. Requiem for a Dream is a powerful film, brilliantly composed, but such an unpleasant experience that I can't really get enthusiastically behind it. The Fountain is amazing. It's not a prefect film by any means, but I doubt any film with that kind of ambition could turn out perfect (2001 sure didn't). And The Wrestler is a good, solid film, although the heavy-handed Christ imagery irked me a little bit (seriously, that "sacrificial ram" line?). Black Swan fits well into this body of work, but also stands out as his first near-perfect film.

The thing about Aronofsky is that he makes art movies, in a very specific sense of the word. He values imagery, composition and rhythm (editing) over traditional ideas of storytelling. Or maybe a better way to say it is that he conveys his stories through imagery, composition and rhythm. I don't think he neglects story and character, but he comes at them from a different angle, like they are the skeleton that he hangs his cinematic compositions on. The actual films feel more like pieces of music or animated paintings than screenplays, and they produce the same sublime feelings in the viewers that a concert performance does.

Which is not to say that these films (besides The Fountain, anyway) are difficult to understand. Black Swan is a very straightforward story about a performer pushing themselves past the limits to achieve an artistic breakthrough.* This is a scary process. It's much easier to just go through life coasting on autopilot than to push yourself to a breakthrough. And this fear is the unifying motif of the film. Aronofsky illustrates that fear throughout the film with horrific nightmares and hallucinations. The film's protagonist, Nina, goes through a psychological breakdown over the course of the movie, where she is haunted by all sorts of terrifying images. This is, of course, an exaggerated way of getting at this story, just as ballet and opera are not entirely realist forms of storytelling. Nothing wrong with that. The question is, does the story move you. To me, sitting in the theater, I didn't just watch this movie, I experienced it. By the time the credits rolled, I could feel a physical sensation of exhilaration in my chest. Requiem for a Dream had a similar effect on me, but as I said, that feeling was deeply unpleasant. The resolution of Black Swan is triumphant.** It's inspiring. Now, personally, I don't have much relationship to the world of sports, so movies like Rocky or that one where the fat kid gets to play for Notre Dame or whatever don't really effect me much. Black Swan is like a sports movie for people that don't relate to sports. Seeing the film at the dawn of a new year in which I hope to push myself more than ever, Black Swan is an inspiration. I'm going to carry this movie around with me for the next year.

* On a more mundane level, it's also about taking responsibility for one's own life and making the tradition to living as an adult, as illustrated in Nina's rejection of her overbearing stage mother who keeps her unnaturally infantilized. In that respect, Black Swan is like one of those Judd Apatow comedies, except with a female protagonist.

**The exhilaration at the end is partially because it's so easy to imagine an alternate ending where, after leaving the stage, Nina is arrested for having murdered Lily, Beth and possibly her mother in her psychotic state, or where she's hauled off to a rubber room before her debut.


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