Alex Garland's adaptation of ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer is a science-fiction horror mashup about evolution, self-destruction, and humans as aberrations of nature.
Black Swan. 2010. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Andrés Heinz, Mark Heyman, & John J. McLaughlin.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, & Tina Sloan. Protozoa Pictures/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures.
Rated 14A. 108 minutes.
There are filmmakers I cannot help but love. Darren Aronofsky wowed me first with Requiem for a Dream (later I saw Pi). Immediately, I found his style and willingness to explore tough stories something exciting. His style, no matter the subject, is psychological and worms its way to the core. It makes you feel connected, even if that’s an uncomfortable position in which to find yourself. Regardless, he is undeniably effective at getting to the heart of darkness, of struggle, of pain.
Black Swan is all style and all substance, mixed into a sinister dream of what goes in inside the head of an artist. Natalie Portman gives what may likely end up being the greatest, most defining performance of her career. I’ve always enjoyed her, though in this role she shines; physically and mentally. Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis each add their own wonderful elements to the cast, as does Vincent Cassel. A wonderful cast is one thing. Impeccably captured cinematography, beautiful choreographed dancing, solid writing to boot? This is what makes Aronofsky’s film unforgettable. You get to experience all sorts of wonders. There’s the dark heart of artistry, beyond what people see on the outside; all the pain and torturous psychological wear/tear behind the curtain. There’s the often scary, rocky transition from being a girl to becoming a woman, one which Nina (Portman) discovers unnervingly. Finally, this psychological descent in which Nina finds herself twirling becomes our own, as Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw us inside a terrifying headspace until coming out on the other side. Whether that’s in tact mentally, you be the judge.
One major element of why I find Aronofsky’s film so interesting, in an odd sense, is how he incorporates a quasi-body horror into the psychological journey of Nina. There are several key moments where fingers, toes, they get bloody and our mind is drawn to the strain on Nina’s body. Slowly, we begin to suspect there’s a dark fantasy portion to this story, and that things are becoming supernatural, as if Nina is literally transforming into a swan. So with the body horror, Aronofsky combines the psychological elements in there to make things surreal, blurring the thin line between reality and nightmares.
The psychological aspects further come out well through the use of doubles as a theme and mirrors or reflective surfaces. Nina’s character is all about expectations, personal or otherwise. She feels her mother (Barbara Hershey) bearing down, constantly. Her own mind is against her all the time, always asking for more just like dear ole mom. Then there are the expectations Nina perceives from the eyes watching her, dance instructor Leroy (Vincent Cassel), so on. All the reflections serve as a reminder that ballet, her dancing, they are a judgement on her physical qualities; how well she can dance, how thin is her body, how lean are her legs, et cetera. Moreover, the doubles Nina sees – one early on walks right past her under some scaffolding on the street, her face appearing visible briefly before it morphs back into some other unknown person – reflect the idea of being an artist as a sort of egotistical space, at times. It’s not a general statement. However, when it’s coupled with the obsession in the screenplay, this concept of artistry plays into Nina’s visions. Seeing those doubles, reflecting her face, these are points of narcissism. This leads slightly into further themes of the film. As Nina journeys from being a girl to a woman, she moves away from the narcissism and literally has to smash her identity to pieces, destroying the old narcissistic little girl and becoming a confident, more accomplished woman comfortable in her own skin, along with all its flaws. Up until the climactic moments of the script Nina sees her reflection everywhere. Even if nervously, all she can see is herself. Everywhere. In every thing, everyone. By the end, she’s decided this is enough, and along with the blood (a little bit symbolic in that part of it appears period-like), the smashed mirror represents a gateway to her life beyond girlhood.
Another major element to why Black Swan is so interesting has to do with this theme of womanhood, or even simply adulthood in general, and the passage one takes from being a child to being a genuine adult. But definitely the heavy element of female perspective is here, obviously. This is why when some people question the sex scene between Nina and Lily (Mila Kunis), I wonder if they understand that part of this entire story is the fact Nina is discovering herself, her sexuality, her power as a woman, every last little thing in between. So the sex scene represents that side of Nina wanting to explore, the repressed girl in her ready to see what womanhood is all about and open to discovering her own choices, and it didn’t happen. The fact is she has fallen into a fantasy world. Nina lives in a dream world, one afforded by her slightly crazy mother and perpetuated by her own act of allowing her infantilization. So it makes sense she’s diving headlong into a lesbian fantasy, one she’d never dare act out in real life because of her own repressed sensibilities and the overbearing presence of her mother. Problem is, her mind is so fractured – driven to mad lengths by her getting the role as Swan Queen – that she doesn’t realize this is only a dream she’s conjured up. And the awkward situation later when she believes it to be real, bringing it up to Lily is where we can truly see her disoriented reality.
With so much beautiful camera work, the mind bogglingly gorgeous dance choreography by Benjamin Millepied, the always intriguing direction of Darren Aronosfky, Black Swan was completely enthralling from the first time I saw it. Even now six years later as of this writing, I cannot get enough. The entire thing is this elaborate, dreamy tale. All the ballet and the dedicated dancing, that whole world, makes this a unique story we’re not often going to see. Certainly it’s reminiscent of the famous anime Perfect Blue, to which Aronofsky owns the rights, but there’s enough of his own elements to not make it one big rip-off. All around this is an astounding psychological horror/thriller, one that incorporates body horror, surrealism, among other things. No matter how you view it, Black Swan is a dangerous story about obsession, dedication, artistry, all wrapped into a kind of coming-of-age scenario about a girl finally becoming a woman after a long gestating period of being a child. By the time the credits roll you’ll either love it or hate it. But no doubt, you’ll find yourself reeled in, and the dark beauty of the film as a whole will take you away to some magical places. They might not be soft, sweet, rosy places. Yet magical nonetheless.