Saturday, June 3, 2023

King Darren: Black Swan

This is the third in my 2023 bi-monthly series rewatching the films of Darren Aronofsky (all except The Fountain and The Wrestler, which I had recently rewatched) in the year after he became the first director to direct two films I ranked #1 of the year.

Watching 2010's Black Swan, I was struck by the notion that this is easily Darren Aronofsky's most sophisticated film. His most prestigious. 

Part of that is the subject matter, to be sure. Ballet is the highest of high art, as notably contrasted with subject matter of The Wrestler -- which was once meant to be part of the same movie, a very long and too-stuffed movie, as Black Swan. It gets easy prestige points in the same way that Todd Field's Tar gets easy prestige points. 

But there's also something clean and straightforward about the storytelling, even as it presents us with doppelgangers and other unsettling images of body horror. It's a fairly straightforward psychodrama getting inside the head of a dancer who doubts herself.

And that's why I think it took me 13 years to watch it a second time.

Unlike Tar, there's very little wild and unexplained in Black Swan. He'd correct for this in a major way in his next film about a woman in torment, 2017's mother! But in Black Swan, I have to say it all seems a little obvious, a little on the nose, a little too literal.

Let's break it down.

Black Swan is about a dancer (Natalie Portman) who desires the role of the Swan Queen in the ballet Swan Lake. That ballet is about a woman who turns into a swan, and the role requires a dancer to play both a pure, unblemished white swan and a dark, wild black swan. It requires two very different styles of dance, and is therefore challenging, especially for a technically precise dancer like Nina Sayers.

And so, in the movie, Nina both shows signs of turning into a swan, and dealing with another character (Mila Kunis' Lilly) who represents her dark side, in whom she sometimes sees her own face, who may not actually exist depending on how you interpret the events of the film. (There's a lot of David Fincher's Fight Club in this film.)

Now, in case you think I'm coming down hard on Black Swan, let me say this: the way it does all these things is excellent. Any bit of body horror in the film -- I am especially skeeved out by the scene where Nina starts to peel back a large strip of skin from her finger -- is tremendous. The very art of ballet puts its dancers in a constant state of body horror, not only having to maintain their ridiculously skimpy weight (Nina is bulimic), but in the ways their toes are forever on the verge of being crushed and destroyed.

(TMI, possibly -- any time I see someone's toes imperiled, it gives me a sympathetic shrinking of my testicles, accompanied by an uncomfortable throbbing. That happened throughout Black Swan.)

The themes themselves, though? Maybe a little obvious.

It might be the first time Aronofsky had done anything that could be described that way. Pi was obviously a burst of original thinking and design, if a little rough around the edges -- unsurprising for a director's first film. The horrors of drugs might not have been anything new to the cinema, but they were certainly new the way Aronofsky dealt with them in Requiem for a Dream, endlessly confronting and impossible to watch. The Fountain is just kind of wackadoodle from top to bottom. Then The Wrestler is a completely unexpected left turn from the director, a realistic contemplation of an aging male athlete with health problems who is trying to make up for neglecting his daughter.

I may be conflating Black Swan with films that came after it, but I just feel like I've seen a lot of films about caustic relationships between women where the second woman might in some way be the doppelganger of the first. Bergman's Persona is the obvious template for something like this. I won't list all the other instances, especially since some of them do come after Black Swan. But even in a film I unambiguously love, Vanilla Sky, the part where the personalities of Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz blend with one another, and Tom Cruise can't tell which is which, feel a little hacky to me. (I should also say that I don't think it felt as obvious to me when I first saw it as it does now.)

Again, I'm making this criticism within the context of really liking the film. I gave it four stars on Letterboxd (retroactively) and I stand by that star rating. But it's just this is my explanation for why a film that is possibly Aronofsky's most respected, and with good reason, isn't in the top half of the director's eight films as far as I am concerned. 

Two observations about other cast members:

1) It was funny to see Vincent Cassel, because he had just been in Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom, which I saw the night before. If I were going to continue making comparisons to Tar, he'd be the focus of them, as he's basically this film's Lydia Tar -- or would have the chance to be if he were the central character.

2) It was great to see Winona Ryder at a time when she found herself -- very much like the character Beth she plays -- without a clear place in the only industry she had known since she was a teenager. I have to wonder if it was difficult for Ryder to play this part, which does very well, as she's a hot mess in all her scenes. At the time she played this role, she hadn't technically been put out to pasture -- in fact, she was in four films the year before. But it had been eight years since Mr. Deeds in 2002 when she was last considered the right person to play a romantic lead in a film, and by 2010 she had definitely been replaced by younger actors like Portman. Now in her late 30s rather than her early 30s, she might be giving us real anger in the scene where she destroys her dressing room and screams "What?" at Nina. Well, this story has a happy ending as Ryder has had a major comeback in Stranger Things and once again played a rom-com lead in the nice Keanu Reeves film Destination Wedding in 2018. Next up she has two projects that capitalize on her earliest incarnations on film, The Haunted Mansion and Beelejuice 2. (And there, a little recap on Winona Ryder's career that could have been its own post under other circumstances.)

Okay, in August I move on to Noah, which is currently my least favorite Aronofsky film -- though we'll see if a revisit gives me a greater appreciation of it.

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