Revisiting the Recent: Black Swan (2010)

Sometimes things — ideas, experiences, nouns in general — require more than a knee jerk reaction.  In Revisiting the Recent, I look at pop culture from the not-so-distant past to see how my opinions have grown or changed.

Rating: Five stars (out of five)

This movie adheres to the idea that the most damaged people make the greatest art, usually through force of will alone. Nina (Natalie Portman) alternately rejects and embraces her worst impulses again and again, figuratively (literally?) killing herself for perfection she cannot achieve.  It’s a theme that grow more with the passage of time, and Black Swan reveals itself a perfect vessel to deliver it.  The more life we experience, the more failure we experience.  We want to give up — our jobs, our relationships, our art — but the briefest of hopeful moments reminds us to keep going, then we hit worse snags than before.  It’s both a hopeful message (“If we just try hard enough, we’ll get there eventually.”) and a horrifying prospect (“What if we never get there?”).  If we don’t keep our heads on straight and succumb to our demons, like Nina does here, that hope recedes entirely.

The process of Nina cracking up is done in the tautest way, not wasting a moment. It runs 108 minutes, but it feels far shorter.  The script, from Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, trims all unnecessary fat; there are no wrenching speeches.  We know Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey, gave up her own ballet career, but this information is dropped organically, through tense comments between mother and daughter.  When Nina snaps, “You were 28,” it’s a devastating takedown, more than just implying — but without being completely overt at the same time — her meddling mother was never going to reach the heights Nina finds herself immersed in, perhaps not entirely because of her own talent.  Editor Andrew Weisblum shapes these moments just right, never stepping on the script or performances, and yet he scoots the narrative along at a snappier pace than typical awards season fair, which this film was plopped in the heart of.

Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, this weekend’s Noah) implements CGI minimally, which lands harder than a blockbuster’s computerized saturation could.  The reason this works is because the handheld immediacy of the camerawork gives us the false sense that this world is real.  The camera swoops around these intense dance sequences, the ballerinas soaked in sweat, their breath heaving, their joints straining from constant punishment, then the reality drops out in almost cruel fashion to shatter our hold on the film’s reality.  Nina bursts magnificent black feathers, her eyes turn crimson, her legs reverse grotesquely at the knees, and she floats around the stage as sexual menace.  And just as quickly, she reverts to the familiar figure of Natalie Portman.  Aronofsky knows to keep the audience unsure of Nina’s mental health and therefore her reliability as a narrator.

Even more impressive is the almost total lack of jump scares Aronofsky uses to frighten the audience. It’s a terrifying picture, but this results from building suspense in which we know Nina’s losing it.  Seeing her react to her oncoming insanity is scarier than any monster popping up behind her.  Portman creates this stressed wreck of a girl, kept from adulthood by her overbearing mother, her initial lowly place in the dance company, and what is likely an inherent emotional instability.  But she gets invited into this world of attention, backhanded affirmation, and the scary specter of sex, and she can’t keep all the plates spinning.  Growing up is a frightening thing and we don’t all handle it well.  Nina’s on the extreme side of this, and she offers us a glimpse of the worst we can get when we don’t deal with our hangups.

These elements create an environment to deepen the film’s appeal, four years later.  The shallower fears one experiences during first viewing– the visual grotesqueries of Nina’s shattered psyche, her mother’s jarring appearance during Nina’s “homework assignment” — are stretched during rewatches into a mounting dread of inevitability.  Nina’s “What if I never get there?” insecurity would be heartbreaking if it weren’t plumbing the depths of horror.  To her, and Aronofsky, failing at one’s chosen art form is the worst, most evil thing that could happen, and Black Swan brings this notion home in the most visceral sense.


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