DC Area Premiere! Darren Aronofsky’s Brutal, Brilliant BLACK SWAN

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Black Swan should not work.  It’s a lurid mish-mash of styles and tones, ping-ponging between vérité drama, Grand Guignol horror, operatic psychological drama, insider theater piece, and intimate character study so fast it could cause whiplash.

There’s a little Satoshi Kon on display, a little Dario Argento, some Dardanelle brothers, and a whole mess of early Polanski and Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger rounding things out—in fact, it would not be incorrect to call Black Swan the perfect fusion between Polanski’s Repulsion and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.

It is the most overwhelming film I have seen this year.  It invades you, and for many people, Black Swan will be too busy, too violent, too heated, too much.

And they are not incorrect.

Yet Black Swan is also a raw valentine to the power of cinema.  The plot here is almost inconsequential—a ballerina beset by strange forces from within and without in preparation for her first starring role in Swan Lake—it’s a frame for director Darren Aronofsky to hang his delirious fever dream of a movie.

The frenzied styles and influences work, massaged by Aronofsky and his crew into a carefully calibrated symphony of horror.  All his influences cohere; it is only in retrospect that you can play “spot the reference.”  As you watch Black Swan, all you see is its terrifying beauty.

From this second shot of the film, an impossibly long, impossibly unnerving shot of heroine Nina Sayers dancing with a shadowy figure, Aronofsky sets the benchmark for the mix of aesthetic and emotional unease that he wants to create.  Black Swan is filled with camera takes that go on too long, with music that’s just too harsh, with colors that are too vivid and smeary—it keeps you off-balance from the jump and more receptive to entering the mindset of his tragic protagonist.  There are parts of the film that practically function as great silent film—the filmmaking alone is just that strong.

We may be seeing something special here—the evolution of Aronofsky into a skilled practitioner of pure cinema.  Black Swan represents the culmination of his creative impulses.  Without Requiem for a Dream or Pi or The Fountain, I’m not sure if Black Swan would work as well as it does.  Even The Wrestler finally makes sense in Aronofsky’s oeuvre, the transitional element necessary for Black Swan’s existence.

That earlier film’s gritty, 16mm-enhanced aesthetic returns here, yet Aronofsky wields it to even more devastating effect.

Working with gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky creates a documentary atmosphere.  The ballet scenes seem heightened, more vivid, whereas the more horrific incidents of the film (and there are many) have an uneasy verisimilitude.  We are seeing this happen, and for better or worse, Black Swan maintains a dread grip on us for its runtime.

It’s not just the visual texture of The Wrestler that galvanizes Black Swan.  Many criticized The Wrestler for a supposed softness, saying that Aronofsky let the sentimental aspects of the piece overwhelm his trademark cerebral distance.

I think it is silly to call a film about a washed-up pro wrestler who destroys himself as a means of futilely grasping at some long-lost glory “sentimental,” but the mistake comes from an honest place.  The Wrestler is far more emotionally open than Aronofsky’s earlier films, the cinematic equivalent to a B-side from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album, unflinching and raw and full of empathy and heartache for its tragic protagonist.

That intimate honesty is at work again in Black Swan.  Those documentary cameras laser in on star Natalie Portman, every minute shift in focus or subtle inflection registering like a seismic shock.  They place us in her head for 100 relentless minutes, and like Randy the Ram powered The Wrestler, her Nina Sayers is Black Swan.

It is an understatement to call this the best work of Portman’s career, given how effortlessly she carries such tough material.  Nina’s journey never goes the route of the traditional heroine—it is frequently difficult to watch, and a legitimate claim can be made against the film that Nina flirts with becoming wholly unsympathetic.

Even if that is the case, Portman makes you understand every beat in her character’s arc, every choice she makes.  She loves Nina, even if we don’t, and she holds our gaze even when a lesser actress might make us look away in revulsion (repulsion?).

There is a moment in the film’s final third that is such a triumph of scoring, cinematography, and Portman’s performance that its implications almost make you weep, and I wager its impact would not hit so savagely were it not for the groundwork that Portman has laid throughout the whole film.

If there is an overarching thematic arc to Black Swan, and I believe there is, it is that the pursuit of true artistic creativity requires brutal sacrifices beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

During this film, Aronofsky and company put viewers through hell, and I’ll be dammed if I can’t call Black Swan art just the same.

Black Swan premieres this Friday, 3 December, at the E Street Landmark Cinemas, the Bethesda Row Cinemas, and the Loews Georgetown 14.  Click on a theater’s name for more screening and showtime information.

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