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.
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.
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.
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.