Present, Past and Future. In that order –
When Natalie Portman first appears on screen in Black Swan, delicate, fragile and introverted, you wonder how such a mouse-like creature will hold an entire film together. Her voice is a whisper, her presence and confidence could be measured in minus figures and, within minutes, Natalie Portman has already disappeared and you’re encapsulated in the gentle, yet brittle world of the ballerina, Nina Sayers.
If you’re new to the work of Darren Aronofsky then I recommend that you immediately seek out his relatively short back catalogue and get yourself up to speed. This man will be [and arguably already is] one of the great cinematic directors of our time. His other films — The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream (RFaD) and Pi to name but three — deal with similar issues as Black Swan and present them in his now trademark emotional and agonising way.
When Nina first hears the ruffles of the Black Swan, your subconscious clock starts ticking – something is coming, something dark, something raw… something is coming. The sense of dread is almost overbearing and, like the films before, once events are set in motion your only remaining option is to sit back and watch while each subtle twist of fate creates an evermore spectacular train crash toward to the end.
Claustrophobic camera angles only serve to magnify the pressure and stress that Nina feels (similar to that of The King’s Speech – another modern great, and one that I’ll come back to another time) in the main, from close behind her head; as if the out of body experiences that she feels are yours to share with her and, as you constantly wish for the screen to show you more, you too feel her anxiety and her strain as the world closes in.
Black Swan is nothing short of brilliant.
Everything I’ve read about it to date focuses on one of two things; the first the fact that Natalie Portman put herself through such an arduous and intense training programme to truly appear like a ballerina and second, the lesbian love scene between the two main protagonists, Lily (Mila Kunis) and Nina. Both of these points are worthy of attention yes, but to focus solely on these two things would do the underlying currents of the film a genuine disservice.
I feel like I’m repeating myself somewhat [my last film-based post waxing lyrical about the hidden depths behind Tron: Legacy] however, Black Swan is yet another production of many depths and it interweaves different themes throughout. Here we have a story about the madness of obsession, duality and self-expression. But also – on a whole other level – a telling tale of oppression, belonging and pain that will be known too well to anyone who has ever danced with the devil that is self-harm; the self-imposed standards of perfection, the endless parental smothering and the brief, yet searing elation that comes from pushing yourself off the edge completely, only to smash, broken, on the daggers below… To be lost in oneself truly has never meant so much as it does to Nina Sayers, desperately trying to uncover the darkness and passion that’s required for her lead role(s) in Swan Lake.
Yes there is masturbation, yes there is lesbian love, but see this film for more than that. See it for a gut-wrenching trip through a world you may know nothing about. See it for a glimpse into the world of that of the professional ballerina. See if for Natalie Portman’s best performance since Leon and arguably, of her entire career.
More on Aronofsky…
A few weeks back, before seeing Black Swan, a fellow film-loving friend and I held our very own Aronofsky weekend. Between us, we worked out that we hadn’t actually seen all of his films. We’d both apparently seen The Wrestler and Pi, but while my friend hadn’t seen The Fountain, I myself, shockingly, hadn’t seen Requiem for a Dream (although having actually owned it on DVD for several years, I’d never actually got ’round to watching it).
If you haven’t seen it, be warned: it does not make for comfortable viewing. However, if you’re strong of heart and mind, seek it out. In fact, I would argue that (like we did that weekend) it would be worth watching Aronofsky’s films in the order that he made them. The power and strength of RFaD, mixed up with his young, unrefined, ‘this is how I want to make film‘ mentality, truly shines through his earlier work and yet, as you move forward through the catalogue, you absolutely can see his art developing right before your eyes. If it’s his experimentation with existential love-storytelling through The Fountain, featuring Aronfsky’s first foray into the arena of special effects and also his first true “Hollywood” film, or his deep dive into the physical and emotional suffering that is The Wrestler; at each point, his work evolves.
Keeping with The Wrestler for a moment longer, Arnofsky has gone on record and stated that he considers it to be a companion piece to Black Swan. Brother and sister if you will. However, the latter is still very much his most accomplished work to date. The nuances, the subtleties… at each point throughout the film there’s a gentle nudge that Nina is slowly coming apart at the seams. With The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s Randy only has to face the very real demons that exist in his life; those of a broken family, an addiction to pain and a constant struggle for companionship. Portman’s Nina, by contrast, has demons both in her day to day life but also, crucially, those that manifest themselves in her head – Incredible. Inescapable. Indescribable.
Throughout all of Aronofsky’s films the same themes rear their ugly heads:
And, all of the above, seemingly SELF-INFLICTED.
And it’s this, that leads me to the third and final part of this post. That of The Wolverine.
In case you were unaware, Darren Aronofsky’s next film will be Wolverine 2, aka ‘The Wolverine’. Hugh Jackman is reprising his role as the healing factor-blessed mutant and, if you were patient enough to stick around after the credits for his first outing in X-Men: Origins, then you’ll know that the next installment promises to cover off Logan’s time in Japan. But this is not what excites me.
Hugh Jackman was said to be thrilled when Aronofsky signed on to direct; having worked with each other previously, the pair are said to be good friends. This bodes well for a franchise that even though did well commercially, was widely panned by the critics. The ‘origin’ story of Wolverine is a much darker tale, one that encompasses family betrayal, adultery and patricide. Pencilled by the endlessly talented Adam Kubert and written by Paul Jenkins, the book itself – simply titled ‘ORIGIN‘ – is a moving attempt at telling a story that hitherto had never been told. Alas, in the first film, this source material was hardly touched. Wolverine’s exploits in Japan however (Claremont/Miller, 1982) are still widely recognised as being some of the greatest of Wolverine’s rich history and Aronofsky has promised to deliver.
But this is not what excites me.
As a character, Logan deals with many, many problems within; memory loss, heartache, blood lust, a constant battle with the feral side of his nature that he keeps locked up and away from the human race, a healing factor that, while keeping long term injury at bay, does not shield him from any pain he might endure…
This is what excites me.
These themes, these issues if you will, in the hands of Aronofsky are all ripe for his visceral style of film-making. In the very first X-Men film, Rogue asks Logan [about his claws]: “When they come out, does it hurt?” Logan’s response is almost muted through the pain he is so numbed to by now; “Every time.”
That one response. Those simple two words. They – to me at least – signify everything that could be great about an Aronofsky take on this flawed, yet supremely (anti-)heroic comic book character. The pain. The anguish. The day to day struggle with the ‘red mist’…
Black Swan was great, but The Wolverine has the potential to do something quite magnificent to a genre that has never encountered anything like Aronofsky before.
When the dust settles, I predict that as an audience member, you will leave the theatre knowing what it must be like to not only feel those sharp, metal claws slice their way out from under your own skin but also, the pain and agony of choosing to do so…
If you leave with that alone, then Aronofsky has done his job and, for the Marvel film-making industry as a whole, things will be very different indeed.
— Updated: as of March 17th 2011, Aronfsky has officially stepped down. Sad times. —