'Black Swan' Entangles a Director's Obsession and an Actor's Commitment

It's Darren Aronofsky's seriousness that makes Black Swan work as horror (and camp, for that matter, if that's your bag).

Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Seymour Cassel, Winona Ryder
Distributor: Fox
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-03-29

Sometimes movies with a singular, defining lead performance, especially of the Oscar-bait variety, overshadow their own directors. But while it only picked up a single Oscar for Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan nonetheless entangles a director's obsession and an actor's commitment: it's a dual tour de force about ballerina Nina (Portman) coming undone while preparing to dance lead in Swan Lake, and Aronofsky follows the character dutifully, doing his best to get inside her addled, possibly hallucinating brain. Portman brings the human backstage drama, while Aronofsky pushes otherworldly body horror.

The seemingly steadicam-free movie continues with the grainy, faux-documentary style Aronofsky employed in The Wrestler: lots of following shots, keeping that punished body in the wobbly frame. When Nina does dance, this technique places the audience alongside her, spinning and delirious. Portman has played characters with more depth and range than Nina, but what she achieves in Black Swan is just as vivid: a body and mind pushed to their limits simultaneously, and responding in different ways.

As with any work of such confidently operatic intentions, Black Swan has been dismissed by some as a histrionic or pretentious horror movie, replete with the sort of lady suffering that awards voters love. Fox has even welcomed the movie's camp potential; even as it arrives on DVD as a prestige-season hit, the studio has organized drag-queen-hosted midnight shows in several major cities, presumably to develop costume contests and callbacks to the screen.

Granted, Aronofsky is one of the most humorless of the leading US auteurs; the warm flashes of humor in The Wrestler comprise just about all the laughs in his entire filmography, unless you count Black Swan's craziness, which may well induce giggles from some audiences. But it's Aronofsky's seriousness that makes the movie work as horror (and camp, for that matter, if that's your bag). The film's sometimes maligned exploitation elements -- jump scares, camera tricks, even the lipstick lesbian fantasies Nina may or may not entertain about fellow ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis, slyly testing the Aronofsky humor limitations) -- complement the director, who might otherwise get lost in his obsession. Dipping into genre waters invigorates and emboldens him (which is why it's a shame that we'll never get to see his take on that Wolverine movie).

Watched at home, Black Swan may lose a little of the overpowering, overwhelming hold of its big screen release -- whether you're seeking drama, horror, or camp, it's less of an experience -- but fans of the movie may welcome the opportunity to study its visual invention closely. At first the DVD's extras look perfunctory: a single making-of documentary, the kind of feature that appears four or five months before a deluxe two-disc version of the film emerges.

There may well be a special edition down the line, but the three-part, nearly hour-long "Black Swan Metamorphosis" turns out to be a surprisingly comprehensive look at the film. Though the auteurist bent and showcase lead performance make Black Swan seem like a strong candidate for an Aronofsky/Portman commentary track, "Metamorphosis" is arguably better, as it gives voice to a variety of perspectives from the full crew (in addition to Aronofsky and Portman) as it cuts between talking-head interviews and casual on-set footage.

The interviews are enlightening enough, but the most striking immediate observation from the making-of is how small and quiet the movie looks during shooting, in contrast with the jittery intensity of the final product. In raw footage of Aronofsky approaching his stars with small handheld camera rigs, you can sense the movie's intimacy but not its head-trip weirdness -- before the tech people have said a word, the documentary creates an object lesson in how much of the movie's effectiveness was created in post. Rather than standing back from Portman's spotlight, Aronofsky and his crew jump right in with her, weaving her performance into the movie's world. You may find it laughable or exploitative or too reminiscent (or not reminiscent enough!) of The Red Shoes, but Black Swan is inarguably committed.


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