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The Invisible Truth: Black Swan: Tchaikovsky meets Aronovsky

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Black Swan: Tchaikovsky meets Aronovsky

Black Swan is a new, terse psychological thriller from film festival darling Darren Aronovsky, featuring Natalie Portman playing a ballerina. Her character is as memorable as she is neurotic. Having been selected from her company to play the prestigious role of queen swan in Swan Lake, she descends into a frightful world that treads the border between delusion and social manipulation.

The director of the ballet, thinking she has some distance to travel into her dark side in order to appropriately play the Black Swan half of the part, seduces and torments her to push her into a schizoid state. Alternately leading her to believe that she will be replaced by a new dancer and that her arrival into the star system of ballet is imminent, he cruelly toys with her passion and her obvious fragility, which Portman's performs in an exhilarating and admirable manner.

Aronovsky lends the film psychological depth through the lead character's fraught relationship with her controlling mother, who seems obsessed with living out her fallen dreams vicariously through her daughter. This relationship is echoed in the plot through Nina's overtures to both her predecessor and heir apparent in the company's star system of primogeniture, as figurative mother/daughter relationships. The dethroned prima ballerina resents Nina, verbally accosting her at a fundraiser at which the director announces her retirement and her replacement's ascendence, calling her a whore.

The reality of some of the attacks on her competence, however, are subsequently destabilized in the plot through the introduction of hallucinogenic or delusional episodes. Beth, the former prima ballerina ridiculed by the other dancers for her age, is hospitalized after being hit by a car, and there are subtle suggestions that she is either the victim of the director's cruel whims or that she herself does this intentionally to express her discontent with the company, her waning star status, and to rattle the rest of company out of its rhythm.

To add to the intrigue of the ultra-competitive dance company, Nina's heir apparent seduces her as well, imploring her to live a little and relax her rigid discipline in order to "let herself go" and finally lose herself in her dancing. It becomes apparent finally that the director may have engineered this fatal ménage a trios -- between the director, Nina, and Lily -- to force Nina to plumb the depths of her soul and find its darkness, its aggressivity unto the basic predatory instinct expressed by the crime of murder. 

The anxiety-wracked climax of the film, during which there are continuous suggestions, even through the opening performance of the ballet, that her rival will replace her in the lead role, effectively keeps the viewer on their film-watching toes (pun intended). This climax leads to a violent confrontation in the dressing room between Nina and Lily, which has homicidal and suicidal overtones. The boundary between art and life becomes blurred for the brilliant protagonist.

This confrontation is the flip side of the erotic encounter between the two dancers a couple nights before the opening performance, seemingly precipitated by Lily surreptitiously spiking Nina's drink with MDMA. Lily denies this encounter happened, and this encounter figures as part of the psychological torment that Lily and the director inflict on Nina in order to evoke the best possible performance from her. This drugging incident could be sabotage, or it could be a conspiracy for Nina's benefit: the narrative evades closure and keeps the viewer anxiously guessing all the way until the end and beyond.

Some familiar Aronovsky tropes appear in Black Swan such as the blurred borders between madness and genius, the abject figure of abandoned and forgotten celebrity, and skin-crawling scenarios of gore. What is new is the virtuosity, the polish. This film is excellent on all counts: the cinematography is innovative and deeply creepy; the score is surprising and subtle, full of background bass wooshes and surround sound panning that generates voices that seem to emanate from outside the dark space of the cinema; the writing is solid; the acting is nuanced and bold. Also new are the beautiful sequences of dance, which feature long balletic shots where the camera transcends static reality and becomes a participant in the dancing, a partner to the protagonist in her dance.

This shows Arronovky's flirtation with versatility that is the sign of a truly gifted artist; he has achieved fluency in two poles of film language. On the one hand, in Requiem for a Dream, another of his films that features a harrowing climax, he gives the pivotal sequence its intensity through sophisticated editing and montage techniques. On the other hand, Black Swan takes the long shot to new dynamic heights. Rather than the aleatory tracking shots of Robert Altman's in Gosford Park, or the fantastical slow panning shots of Peter Greenaway in The Cook, His Wife, The Thief, and Her Lover, or the Hitchcock's attempt at a single-shot film in Rope, Black Swan introduces a mobile element to the long shot that is rare and masterful.

Aronovsky gives the psychological edge of this film expression through handheld camera shots, which he tastefully limits to avoid the nausea-inducing verisimilitude of The Blair Witch Project or  Cloverfield, and through shots following the protagonist as if the camera depicts a stalker's point of view. In this film, there is suspense a-plenty. 
Furthermore, the director avails himself of CGI technology in a similarly tasteful and unobtrusive way. There is no fetishization of technology for its own sake here. The uses to which he puts the dramatic digital manipulation of the film are governed by the internal logic of the film. Nina's skin at different points in the film bristles with energy, and the sores which her mother attributes to her neurotic scratching of her own back are also the site of the emergence of black feathers, signaling the transformation central to her performance of the Black swan and her negotiation of the binaries within herself.

This film features a spectacular synergy of talent; to miss it is to thumb your nose at film's inherent potentials. Bravo!

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