Tagged Womanhood

Black Swan: Dark Hearts, Tortured Artists, and the Transition to Womanhood

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.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
POSTER
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

La chambre des morts: Better Than a French Demme Knock-Off

La chambre des morts. 2007. Directed & Written by Alfred Lot; based on the novel by Franck Thilliez.
Starring Mélanie Laurent, Laurence Côte, Éric Caravaca, Gilles Lellouche, Jonathan Zaccaï, Céline Sallette, Fanny Cottençon, Nathalie Richard, Jean-François Stévenin, & Stéphane Jobert.
Métropole Film Distribution/Mongrel.
Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Crime/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER La chambre des morts, translated into English roughly becomes Room of Death, is a solid and under-seen French thriller that folds together crime, some horror, and a ton of mystery into a film which many compare to The Silence of the Lambs. Not sure exactly why that is, or well, I know why that is but don’t agree. I love The Silence of the Lambs, don’t get me wrong. However, the relationship between these two films only comes because of the hunt for a serial killer, supposedly intelligent psychopaths, and of course a strong female detective. These are big elements of the Thomas Harris adaptation.
Yet La chambre des morts isn’t a copy or a cheap knock-off. It doesn’t even particularly do any homage to the Jonathan Demme Hannibal Lecter romp. It remains its own film and provides us with enough macabre, sick thrill that you can easily find charm without relying on comparisons to other cinema. One major reason for why the film works is because it doesn’t stick with all the time honoured tropes of the crime-thriller genre. Neither does it totally rely on the stomping grounds of Clarice Starling in order for it to sell the fact women drive its plot. Writer-director Alfred Lot adapts the novel of the same by Franck Thilliez – a book I’ll soon need to track down a copy of – and he almost dares us to assume what’s about to happen next. Using strong directorial choices alongside the powerful acting talent of the lead cast, Lot crafts La chambre des morts into a work of crime-thriller cinema that’s worth far more than being relegated to the realm of a French Demme homage.
This has a lot to offer. Certainly one of my favourite French thrillers between 2000 and 2010. I do love some of the New French Extremity films which came out just before and around the same time as this one. However, there’s something to be said for a subtle, well paced, morbidly exciting work of mystery.
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I’m always a sucker for a good screenplay that’s capable of weaving several genres into one. Especially if it’s done seamlessly. Some of the best examples, in my opinion, are the classic Alfred Hitchcock slasher spawning Psycho and Zack Parker’s more contemporary horror-thriller Proxy. At the start, you begin to imagine this is less of a police procedural mixed with a serial killer dramatic thriller, and more a small, personal crime drama. Instead, the screenplay by Lot keeps you wondering. From one scene to the next, you’re never quite sure where things are headed. The plot and its events even get weird from time to time, in the best sense. Certain movies can fall into the trap of trying too hard if they’re switching between different elements, such as this one how it hops between the procedural format (similar to Demme’s classic) and the outright grim atmosphere of a mysterious horror. This is exactly where Lot gets it right with his directing style and writing. He balances the separate elements in a way that comes together perfectly near the end. There’s almost a Gothic-type feel to this story, as well. Not sure if that comes predominantly from the novel by Thilliez, or if this is something instilled by the director-writer Lot. Either way, the finale of the film does have a slight Demme-esque moment where you feel like Lucie is very much right next to Starling in spirit, but the Gothic tone and setting gives this a unique twist, allowing it to exist in a space with all its own creepiness.
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The female element in this story is what drives my interest most. Not often are there serial killer films which tackle a woman’s perspective. Certainly not one which extends to several lead characters. Even The Silence of the Lambs remained focused solely on Clarice Starling, and that was excellent. La chambre des morts is able to encompass several different aspects of womanhood: the main character Mélanie Laurent plays whose responsibilities lie between being a tough single mother to being a tough police officer tackling gruesome murder cases; likewise, one of her superiors is female whereas other movies might opt for a typical older policeman; and well, you’ll figure out the other one.
So for a crime-thriller, this one finds itself in a small group where women get to take on the serial killer, they get to play all the roles usually reserved for men. With somebody like Laurent, the main character Lucie is so well performed. She isn’t some typical cop, neither in writing nor in how Laurent portrays her. Lucie is not a burnt out detective, she’s not particularly cynical or optimistic. She sits somewhere in the middle; a new mother, a woman that takes her job seriously and knows it just as well. We’re always going to be reminded of Jodie Foster as Clarice when it comes to these types of films. Although Laurent injects this character with enough of her own talent to not let this role be defined by another. This is the first movie in which I’d seen Laurent and I’ve gone on to enjoy her hugely in Enemy most of all. She’s an excellent actor.
Both Laurence Côte and Céline Sallette are equally as compelling as Laurent. The story of their characters alone is interesting enough. But more than just that they give us highly emotional performances that are tragic. Between the flashbacks and their relationship within the frame of the film’s plot we discover the deep sadness that exists within these women. Most of all, I love that these characters are women because so often men get these complex nasty characters they play while women, in crime-thrillers such as this, often wind up as the nagging wife to a career oriented cop, or some other stock character of the genre. Here, Côte and Sallette play terrifying people, though they are the complex and rich sort of characters women are not yet afforded enough. This is a great example of how interesting a serial killer thriller can get if only you allow for atypical characters that Hollywood isn’t giving much of, if at all. Between these two and Laurent this film is stacked with talent that adds authenticity and, more importantly, emotional weight to the writing.
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This movie is far too slept on by many. If you have an aversion to subtitles, get over it and start watching these get French films you’re missing out on! La chambre des morts is absolutely worth watching. Not only does it have a fresh perspective, the story and its various plots come together in such a fascinating way that it provides an exciting finale to take you through its conclusion. Laurent helps sell a huge part of the film, as do Côte and Sallette. In fact, all the supporting cast do a spectacular job with their roles, too. Nobody misses their mark.
The direction of Lot and his adapted screenplay from Thilliez’s novel makes for such a wonderful experience that I’m honestly at a loss as to why more people don’t know (and love) this movie. All the unique elements work together, which are exciting, disturbing, wild. That leaves the rest of us who’ve found our way to Lot’s movie a little French treat that is likely to remain in your mind long after those credits roll across the screen.