Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has been advertised as a bit of a melodrama, or a dark drama, or maybe even a psychological thriller. What Hollywood’s not telling you– because the genre has always been treated as Hollywood’s dirty little secret– is that Black Swan is, in fact, a horror film. And it’s not just any horror film: Black Swan is a “body-horror” film in the vein of Cronenberg’s best work. Very sneaky, Hollywood. Very sneaky, indeed. Read on for the review, my gentle Examiner readers…
For months now, the buzz has been building about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and I’d been dying to see it the entire time. Back when Fantastic Fest came to Austin in October, there were rumors that the film would turn out to be one of the “Secret Screenings” being held for the press, but we were all disappointed when it didn’t arrive. Then, when the film came to the Austin Film Festival, I managed to completely forget the screening on the night it occurred, meaning that I was forced to wait until now– when the film’s gone into “wide release” (just under 1,000 theaters nationwide)– to see it with the rest of the unwashed masses (and they were definitely unwashed, especially the old man sitting on my right).
So, did it live up to the buzz? Is Black Swan as badass as everyone’s been saying it is?
Well, yes and no. For starters, everything you’ve heard about Natalie Portman’s performance is dead-on: Portman turns in an Oscar-caliber performance here, and if she doesn’t win at this year’s Academy Awards, I’ll be dumbfounded. Portman’s always been a favorite of film geeks and basement-dwelling nerds for her obvious sexiness and ties to the flagging Star Wars saga (who can forget the time she ran as awkwardly as possible towards the end of Attack of The Clones?), but I can’t recall ever seeing her in a film where I thought, “Wow, that Natalie Portman can act up a storm!”
Here, she does. When critics say that a performance is “fearless”, they’re talking about performances like this. Yes, there’s the much-discussed lesbian sex scene (you’ll get your money’s worth if that’s what you’re buying a ticket for) and a few moments where she’s less than fully-clothed, but it’s the raw emotion she puts onscreen that should truly be impressive to audiences.
…Are you reading this? Do you see the kind of flowery, overly-professional verbiage that Black Swan inspires? The previous paragraph included the phrases “fearless performance” and “raw emotion that she puts onscreen”. Apparently, hammering out a review for Black Swan has turned me into a first year film student. If you imagined me wearing a beret while reading the above paragraph, you’ll be forgiven (please note, however, that my beret is actually at the drycleaners right now following a vicious lotion-related assault during my most recent visit to Bath and Body Works).
Look, I know that these are cliches, and I know that reading these kind of accolades sounds like the standard, government-issue “Film Critic Praise (TM)”, but…well, the classics are the classics for a reason, and in this case, the words are completely honest. Natalie Portman deserves every ounce of praise that’s been flooding her way, and if she takes home an Oscar this March (or February, or whenever the hell they decide to run that 4-hour, self-congratulatory marathon this year), all will be right with the world. In short: there are many reasons to see Black Swan, but Portman’s performance is among the very best reasons to see Black Swan.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina with the NYC ballet who is really, really hoping to get the part of the Swan Queen in a just-announced re-telling (even the world of ballet has been infected with Hollywood’s need to remake everything, it seems) of The Black Swan. She’s got an overbearing-bordering-on-creepy mother (Barbara Hershey, in a role that may land her a supporting actress nomination), an oversexed and dictatorial boss, and a gradually slipping grasp on her sanity. When a new dancer (Mila Kunis, hotter than the sun) arrives on the scene, things get even more complicated. Tragedy, horror, and lots of dancing ensue.
Aronofsky’s direction is– as expected– virtually flawless. I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s ever since he had that weasely-looking dude push a running power-drill into his temple in Pi. I was a fan of the diseased horrors he offered up in Requiem for a Dream. I was a fan throughout the long and arduous process that brought The Fountain to theaters, and I was a fan when everyone ignored the film upon its release (you still haven’t seen it, and that’s a damn shame). When The Wrestler arrived– backed by a truly astounding Mickey Rourke performance– I thought, “Well, that’s it. Surely his next film will be less-than-awesome. He’s batting a thousand four films into his career: Who goes five-for-five?”
Darren Aronofsky goes five-for-five. He’s a goddamned national treasure.
In my humble opinion, the best part of Black Swan isn’t the stunning Natalie Portman performance or the amazing score or the clever editing or the lesbian sex or the overwhelming feeling of dread that Aronofsky’s slathered all over the film, it’s the fact that Black Swan is a body-horror film…and I hadn’t expected that. The film is being sold in trailers and TV spots as one of those “psychological dramas” or “dramatic thrillers” or “thrilling psycho-dramas”, but the reality is that Black Swan is a body-horror film. Who knew?
For those of you that aren’t familiar with this very particular sub-genre, “body-horror” is a type of horror film that deals with the changing, mutilation, or transformation of the flesh. Films like…well, the majority of David Cronenberg’s movies. There are elements of ExistenZ and The Fly and Videodrome on display in Black Swan, and I couldn’t help but be unexpectedly– and merrily– surprised by the fact.
You can tell Black Swan is of the body-horror genre early on in a scene where Nina gets a hangnail. Sounds innocuous, right? Nina goes into the bathroom, washes her finger– which is bleeding just a bit– under the running water in a sink…and then she attempts to peel off the loose bit of skin. It pulls…and pulls…and, oh, my God, it’s still pulling…and the audience around me shrieked. There are about half a dozen similar moments in the film, all of them moments of violence that punctuate scenes unexpectedly and brutally. They’re disturbing, to the point where I actually found myself turning away from the screen. When’s the last time you saw a film that prompted that reaction, not counting Yogi Bear?
The violence will turn off some theatergoers– it certainly didn’t seem to amuse the trio of chatty housewives sitting behind me– but whatcanyado? Perhaps that’s why Fox Searchlight has sold the film as a drama rather than a horror film. Perhaps, if people knew what they were getting into, they wouldn’t be so quick to lay down their $12 for a ticket. Maybe they don’t wanna see a disturbingly violent movie about a ballet dancer losing her sh-t around Christmastime. If you feel like you might be one of those people, I’d still encourage you to see Black Swan. You may have to turn your eyes away from the screen from time to time, but is that too much to ask? You’re seeing one of the year’s best films: man up, Slappy.
Much is sure to be made of the film’s ending, which leaves a few questions unanswered. On the ride home, my buddy and I attempted to retrace our steps, to go back through the film to see if there was one “explanation” that could be applied to the film’s finale. We reasoned that, “Well, if A is true, then B must have been a hallucination, but that would negate C, which makes A true”. It’s hard to discuss without ruining the film– I’ll leave its specific mysteries for you to discover– but it points to the complexity of Aronofsky’s work here. Try and unravel it and you’ve already injected too much logic into what you’ve just seen: it’s like trying to untangle a series of wires that are all– in the end– interconnected. I say, bravo.
My grade? A-.
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