A Two-Faced Masterpiece: Black Swan

Three years ago, my friend Ryan- a filmmaker- came back from There Will be Blood and noted that he now knew (paraphrasing, but close) “what it was like to witness greatness the way people did in theaters when they saw The Godfather.” I saw the same film and completely agreed with the assessment. This weekend, I saw Darren Aronofsky’s latest, Black Swan. For the first time since seeing There Will Be Blood in the theater, I experienced that same feeling. It was as good as any American film I’ve seen since 2007. And prior to 2007, Black Swan is better than the overwhelming majority that I’d seen since… well, I’m not really sure how far back I’d have to go to find one that was better. I’d have to go back many years. What made it so great?

Note: There be spoilers ahead.

The acting
Natalie Portman’s performance was earth-shattering. The last time I saw any actor so visibly absorbed into their role, it was Heath Ledger as The Joker in Dark Knight. Portman threw 100% of herself into the role. I’ve always liked Portman as an actress but this film pushes her into a higher plane of existence for me. Her performance here deserves an Oscar, and I’m likely going to view her as the best actress working today. That was not an opinion that I held a few days ago.

It’s not just Portman, though. Mila Kunis is best known as a sitcom character on That 70’s Show and the voice of Meg Griffin. Clearly, she has a lot more range than anyone had acknowledged. This film could not have happened without Kunis’ near perfection as Portman/Nina Sayers’ foil, Lily. Nor would it have worked without Vincent Cassell, who was expertly cast as Thomas Leroy.

The cinematography
Black Swan
was filmed in almost constant distortion, constant grain, constant hand-held camera. There were mirrors everywhere and more often than not, they were splintered and distorted. Occasionally, they were used to build horror sensibilities, as was the case here:

That’s a mirror in the background. The same can be said for the image at the top of my entry.

Black Swan is a handful of things- partially a horror, partially a new twist on “Swan Lake”- but more than anything else, it’s about one woman’s descent into insanity, her character arc from virginal and shy to seductive and evil. It’s about the journey from point A to point B, and then in the very last moment… point C. Above all, it is about Nina Sayers’ splintered personality. And that is precisely why the cinematography is so great. It does such a brilliant job of accentuating that facet of the story.

Homage

This is from Bergman's "Persona", but that might as well be Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in that photo.

It seems very clear to me that Aronofsky had at least three women-with-splintered-personality films in his head when he made this movie. Those three are Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Double Life of Veronique, and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Each film gave us women tumbling into madness. In Persona and moreso Repulsion, that descent into madness was presented as horror. Whenever a director can draw notably from great cinema without bludgeoning the viewer with the references, it’s something to behold. And that’s precisely what was going on here.

Add everything up and you’ve got a really incredible movie. If any other film wins the Best Picture Oscar or any other actress wins the Best Actress Oscar, some people are probably going to have some ‘splaining to do.


20 Comments

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20 responses to “A Two-Faced Masterpiece: Black Swan

  1. Can’t wait to see it. Aronofsky is excellent!

    • I think that’s what floored me so much about it. I’m not a huge Aronofsky fan. I don’t dislike him at all- not by a longshot. But I’m not one of those folks who has him on their “must see” list, either. He’s on that list now.

      • Saw it last night. Incredible! Blew my mind completely. The last twenty minutes my heart was pumping out of my chest. Surprisingly, the Aronofsky film it has the most in common with is Pi (which was my favorite Aronofsky film until about 10 hours ago).

        Portman was amazing. The film is basically two hours of tight shots of her expression and every reaction she has is nearly perfect. The Black Swan transformation scene made me feel jacked up the way I felt watching Rocky for the first time when he stepped in the ring with Creed.

        The camera work on the ballet scenes is mesmerizing. Makes you feel like your dancing. What a film! The Oscar folks have been getting better lately, but if Arnofsky and Portman aren’t walking out with a truck load of statues, I’m going Charlie Bronson on some Hollywood folks.

        • For some reason, I glossed over this too quickly and read that line as “I’m going Charlie Brown…”, which would have a different undefined meaning.

          I keep reading a lot of reviews that hammer it for being obvious and ham-fisted. The irony there is that those are exactly the kinds of things I hate (don’t even get me started on “Crash”). You can’t exactly deny the camp but it was such a fun/neat element of the film.

          • I’m not really into many critics. I generally don’t dig Merchant-Ivory English period pieces, films about smug coffee slurping literary agents who fall in love online or films about people with rare diseases who overcome them and become pillars of the community, so that puts me in the category of people who don’t like many reviews.
            That film wasn’t obvious at all. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to go well, but I still have no clue what happened (particularly in the hospital scene). Folks be crazy. If she overcame her insanity and scored a moral victory for mankind, most critics would be breaking their arms trying to pat Aronofsky on the back.

            Persona and Repulsion are excellent comparisons, by the way. It reminded me some of “All That Jazz” (a very cool film) if it had been done by Bergman.

            • There are definitely a handful that I enjoy. Peter S. Hall is my favorite (though I’ll cop to being a friend of his brother, so I’m biased). He tends to stick to horror. The “Horror’s Not Dead” link in my blogroll is his.

              Fortunately, even with the negativity, it’s at 88% (last time I checked) on RT. I like RT because it works in a “wisdom of the herd” type of way.

  2. Jim

    I only saw the one scene where the girls…you know. Based on that, this looks to be an excellent film. 😉

    Kidding, but even in that two minute clip you can see how raw and gripping Portman’s performance was.

    • That scene was the, uh, “best” (aka hottest) but much to my surprise, it wasn’t the only one. There were quite a few others (three, but who’s counting) involving Portman. There’s Portman and Vincent Cassel, Portman and Kunis in a separate scene, and Portman and… Portman.

  3. katel5mn

    What? Great film, but Portman was as wooden as ever. Snore! I don’t think you were looking at her acting dude.

    • Thanks for visiting! I’d respectfully disagree. The film would never work without her properly performing the full character arc, from virginal to lurid. But… to each their own.

  4. Stu

    Strong words but fairly accurate. This picture features perhaps the best use of grainy digital photography since “Collateral,” and the performances were, indeed, astounding. Not sure it’s the best American film since 2007, but it’s certainly a head above most of what’s normally playing at the multiplex. Read my capsule review if you get a chance. Let me know what you think.

  5. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Tell me with a straight face that you liked Natalie Portman in the Phantom Menace. Jar Jar Binks out-acted her in that.

    • The guy who met Kevin Meany

      I saw Black Swan last night. Like pretty much every Aronofsky firm, you leave the theatre a little blown away and freaked out. My friend that I saw it with described it as a, “mindfucker.” Even though Natalie Portman still sucked in Star Wars, she should be a lock for Best Actress. On a separate note, even though Mila Kunis is pretty hot, I always still picture Meg Griffin when she speaks.

  6. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Actually you are right about Lacey Chabert doing the voice in 1999. Mila Kunis took over in 2000 until present. From Wikipedia…Meg was voiced by an uncredited Lacey Chabert for the first season, and by Mila Kunis in subsequent seasons, though some of Chabert’s work became second-season episodes due to production order. Kunis won the role after auditions and a slight rewrite of the character, in part due to her performance on That ’70s Show.[4] MacFarlane called Kunis back after her first audition, instructing her to speak slower, and then told her to come back another time and enunciate more. Once she claimed that she had it under control, MacFarlane hired her.[4] MacFarlane stated that Kunis “had a very natural quality to Meg” and she’s “in a lot of ways […] almost more right for the character”.[

    • I didn’t even know who Lacey Chabert was until a month or so ago when Peter Griffin said something about making Meg disappear (or something) and then asked her if she wanted to end up like Lacey Chabert.

  7. I’ve always been a huge fan of Aronofsky since Requiem for a Dream, and so long as he keeps working with Matthew Libatique and Clint Mansell making scarily realistic dramatic depictions of society at its lowest, I will keep watching relentlessly.

    • I’m now up to all of the Aronofskys (and I need to re-watch Pi and Memento, which I haven’t seen in forever). The only one I genuinely disliked was The Fountain, and even that was a matter of high ambition. He aimed too high, swung for the fences if you will, and missed.

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