Telluride Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan

Before Darren Aronofsky left the stage at the 37th Telluride Film Festival in the introduction of his new film, Black Swan, he apologized to the crowd: “I’m really sorry. I want to apologize for what’s about to happen… I didn’t know what I was doing…” With that he walked off stage and the lights went down. Aronofsky’s apology was directed at people like the older couple seated to my right. Maybe they were lured in by the star power of Natalie Portman, the story of a ballet dancer, or possibly because they loved that movie about the professional wrestler and the stripper. Whatever the reason, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. And why should they? Black Swan is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.


Many are comparing the film to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, probably due to the minamalistic handheld Super 16mm cinematography and the choreography which connects both dance and wrestling. It’s not hard to believe that Black Swan and The Wrestler began as the same project. Originally, the wrestler was to fall in love with a ballerina. Fascinated by the dual character in the ballet Swan Lake and the idea of doppelgangers, Aronofsky decided to develop a psychological thriller about a dancer who is obsessed with perfection. Natalie Portman plays a dancer named Nina, who is driven into madness when a rival appears in her ballet company and challenges her for the lead role in the company’s production of Swan Lake.

Swan Lake not only serves as the production inside the film, but the film itself is essentially a big screen adaptation of Swan Lake. The characters in the film are dramatic versions of the characters in the 1877 ballet, and the story mirrors the storyline of the stage production in many ways (and probably even makes more sense of the fairytale). Even Clint Mansell‘s fantastic score is a cinematic horror adaptation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s compositions. It is unlike anything Mansell has ever done before, and I can’t wait to hear it again.

I think Black Swan is better compared to the filmmaker’s first feature. Aronofsky broke into filmmaking with the $60,000 black and white independent film Pi, which was about a paranoid mathematician who searches for a “number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.” (warning, spoilers for Pi coming up…) Max finds himself on the run from other organizations who also want to get a hold of his achievement, and use it for their own gain. He is driven to the brink of insanity, causing severe headaches, unexplained nosebleeds, and vicious hallucinations. In a fit of rage, Max drills a hole in his skull, and becomes at peace with nature. (pi spoilers concluded)

A lot has happened since Pi screened in the late 1990′s. Aronofsky made a certified masterpiece in the big screen adaptation of Requiem for a Dream. He crafted an a science fiction film, The Fountain, which spanned over one thousand years, and three parallel stories, and made the awards rounds with The Wrestler, his transition from a heavily stylistic aesthetic to a more naturally filmed character piece about a down and out professional wrestler.

Black Swan is a brilliant mind fuck. It is one of the boldest films I’ve seen produced by a Hollywood studio in years.

Portman’s performance, which is a transformation in every sense of the word, is nothing short of amazing. If she does not at very least get an Academy and Golden Globes nomination for this film, something is seriously wrong. The actress has danced until she was thirteen years old, but is obviously not a trained ballerina. However, you’d never be able to tell in this film. Some of the dance sequences clearly involve incredible skill on Portman’s part, while someshots likely involved Portman’s head to be digitally inserted on a classicly trained dancer. Although, most people probably can’t even tell (I couldn’t).

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has been working with Aronofsky since his 1993 short film Protozoa and has gone on to DP the Iron Man films, shoots the elegant ballet sequences on stage using handheld cameras to capture the art of dance in a way I’ve never seen before.

Mila Kunis gives her best performance to date. Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey were all excellent.

Black Swan is also the most erotic American film I’ve seen in years. Portman’s character Nina is sexually repressed, and her director Thomas (played by Vincent Cassell) is trying to turn Nina’s frigid dancing into something more seductive. Yes, there is masturbation, the much talked about sex scene between Portman and co-star Mila Kunis and a fair share of physical groping. The old lady to my right gasped at least a dozen times. She covered her eyes during the sex sequences, and groaned in disgust at the gore.

Oh, did I mention this is a horror film? The disturbing imagery spans the gamut of scratches, cuts, bloody puncture wounds, to demonic transformations. There are genuine, jump out of your seat scares. Paintings come to life, and tattoos become animated. Aronofsky cleverly balances the crazy happenings with a heavy chunk of realism. The doc-style handheld cinematography, authentic performances and heavily researched details, make the horrific imagery that more horrific.

This isn’t a movie for everyone, certainly not the rich Colorado couple that quickly squeezed past me on their fast exit out of the theater. They didn’t wait around for the question and answer session with the director which followed. I guess they knew all the answers already? I’m glad I don’t.

Half the time you’re not sure what is real and what isn’t. The movie demands to be re-watched more than a few times, and will likely reward audiences for multiple viewings. The use of reflections, in both glass and mirrors (maybe to “reflect” Nina’s ever consuming self-reflection and improvement), and color schemes (Nina’s characer dresses in white and lives with a lot of pink, while Thomas has a more minimalistic black and white decor) will give film school students a lot to explore.

Comparisons to early Roman Polanski or David Cronenberg are not unwarranted. Aronofsky even admitted during the Q&A that the film was influenced by Cronenberg’s The Fly and Polanski’s Repulsion. Aronofsky scoffs off comparisons to the recently Scorsese-restored edition of The Red Shoes, believing it is  just a result of research both productions did into the world of ballet. The attention to detail in this film is insane. From the incredibly detailed production design to the fantastic details which immerse us in the world of ballet much the way The Wrestler took us into the world of independent wrestling.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Peter Sciretta is a film geek and popcultured fanboy living in Los Angeles. He created /Film in 2005.

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