Black Swan (2010)
Rated R for being a disturbing horror movie with overtly sexual elements. Aronofsky is known for disturbing imagery and a lot of that reputation comes from movies like Black Swan. While there isn't a traditional horror movie villain, the movie is meant to make you fear for the protagonist's life. There's violence and blood, language, drug use, and really aggressive sexuality on screen. There is no nudity, but not a lot is left to the imagination. R.
DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky
The great news? I got all of my grading for the quarter done early. The students can leave school today knowing exactly what their grades are, probably before anyone else in the building. The bad news: I now have to write against the clock to get this out before I have to head home. I also have parking lot duty, which is a double-edged sword. The good news: I can't go home because I have parking lot duty, so it gives me a little time to write. The bad news: I have to be out of the building the second that my parking lot duty starts v. finding a few more minutes to put finishing touches on this blog entry. Basically, I'm giving a lot of context if this one feels just a smidge off.
I can't believe that All About Eve and Black Swan ended up being an accidental double feature. I don't plan these things. I have a system --an algorithm, if you will --for determining which movie I'm going to write about next. It stops me from just watching things I like a lot. But then we ended up getting, through kismet, two psychological horror movies about the trauma that comes with art and fame. These movies are so specific in their content area that it's just beyond serendipitous that it worked out that way. I remember really resisting the tag "horror movie" for Black Swan when I saw it the first time. I don't know what it was about it that really rubbed me the wrong way when it came to labeling this movie as a horror film. I think the topic and the lack of formal antagonist made it seem like it was just a disturbing drama. But I was also just discovering the work of Darren Aronofsky. I mean, mother! hadn't come out yet, so I thought that he was much more in the vein of The Fountain than he was trying to outright shock an audience.
But horror movie it is. Yeah, I can see you really fighting the notion that All About Eve as a horror movie, unless you consider psychological issues and mental breakdowns to be something that wouldn't necessarily be something of a horror trope. But Aronofsky absolutely wants to horrify his audience. There is some really troubling imagery in this movie and it's so odd that I actually have a harder time watching something like Black Swan than something like The Evil Dead. Perhaps it is because he finds trauma in the mundane. Like, one of the most upsetting moments in the film, despite the fact that it is filled with absolutely abhorrent imagery, is the cuticle scene. She's picking at her fingers and tears a piece of flesh. We've all done a smaller version of this on a regular basis. But because we have that real experience in our heads, that moment comes across as a violation of what a film is supposed to do. When Jason or Freddy rip someone apart, it is gross. But we're also supposed to find some form of entertainment. It's not considered too uncouth to howl with laughter at the creativity of a co-ed getting wrecked. But when Nina pulls on that piece of skin, I tend to vocally bemoan that moment.
I want to explore the weird irony that makes Black Swan flow into mother!. I'm thinking about his career starting at Pi. I know that he has other movies, but that's the starting point for me. He goes from Pi into Requiem for a Dream and he becomes this director who deals with the visceral. But then we have two movies in his catalogue that almost distract and deviate from that reputation: The Fountain and The Wrestler. While The Wrestler has disturbing imagery, it really grounds itself in the drama of this man, free of supernatural influences. (If I'm off about this, it has been a while since I've sat down and watched this movie.) But then we kind of have a return to form with Black Swan. It's not quite as insane as Requiem for a Dream, but it absolutely is an upsetting film. It almost comes across as a hybrid from his early work to the things he's evolved into.
But there's this message throughout Black Swan that feels like Aronofsky is talking to himself as a director. The film is about the creative process and the pain that a creative type must go through to give the perfect performance. It doesn't feel like too far of a jump to think of the director of a movie to the ballerina. There's a kindred spirit there that is being explored. But one of the themes of the movie is letting go. Nina makes a perfect white swan from the beginning of the film. She's obsessed with perfection and has every movie technically down. (I know that dancers had a problem with the fact that Natalie Portman isn't a professional dancer and would never be viewed as perfect in any light. Again, I get it.) But she's so closed off from her emotions that she can't emote the black swan. She has the dance moves down, but she seems guarded and removed. If we use this analogy for the film, it kind of holds up. The first two thirds of the movie are perfectly executed, but guarded. Aronofsky shows restraint in terms of his directing. Natalie Portman isn't allowed to leave a certain range of emotional intensity because everything has to be closed off.
But it is in that final act that people remember the film Black Swan as a whole. When Aronofsky allows himself to get a little crazy, that's when the movie becomes something beyond the frustration of being a woman, vulnerable and artistic. I'm not saying that we shouldn't view the story of Nina, a good girl in a bad world. I actually want to explore that in a bit. But people aren't really watching for the first two acts. They want to see the Black Swan in all of her violent fury. And when Aronofsky takes off the chains for the third act and follows his own advice, it becomes this absolute nightmare of a film in the best way possible. It's gory and upsetting. Dance becomes something more than simply a performance. There is this transcendence that occurs that shames the White Swan's mistake when she is dropped. Things go crazy and there's nothing holding the direction or the performances back.
But this is where I have to attach this movie to mother! (I am seriously running out of time now). I bet it felt good to return to form. It had to be intoxicating, getting all of that praise for making one of the most insane ballet movies ever, even more aggressive than The Red Shoes. (Do you know how much I wanted to write a whole section on The Red Shoes in here?) So Aronofsky comes to mother! with the same formula he brought to his Academy Award winning Black Swan. Only he tries to capture lightning in a bottle twice. The first two acts are decent dramas. But I'm sure that he probably scolded himself for not even going more crazy in the movie about letting go. He was going to show us how nuts a movie could get. And that's when he made the mistake of trying too hard. He didn't evolve. If anything, he got caught up in this own reputation and that's where the movie fell apart. Because unlike Black Swan, I liked the boring part of mother! a lot. But I loathed when he decided to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the movie.
I do want to talk about the White Swan element of this movie. I mean, Mila Kunis just looks way more comfortable in her role before Natalie Portman lets loose, right? But there's this odd misconception that good means weak, right? As critical as the movie is about sexual abuse and power, as portrayed by the director of the film, it does kind of seem to glorify it. Nina is apparently so miserable being a good little girl that she has no power. I get that the Black Swan is meant to be attractive. That confidence that Nina doesn't have is encapsulated by the Black Swan. But the movie never even toys with the notion that Nina's power comes from her goodness. It makes goodness synonymous with repression. I can see Nina losing her goodness and that being an effective storyline. But it seems like it is the best thing for her to abandon herself for the sake of the Black Swan. That part always feels a little undercooked.
I am tempted to explore the idea of duality and what is real and fake in this. But between running out of time and knowing that Darren Aronofsky's films are meant to be thought about without nitpicking the nuanced canon of the whole thing kind of holds me back. Yeah, maybe if I wasn't rushing this thing, there might be something fun to explore. But I also feel like Black Swan isn't about the twist or the "gotcha", but about the emotional experience of a performer losing herself to a role.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.