Sunday, December 17, 2017

Darren Aronofsky, part VI: Nobody's ever asked a ballerina for a footjob, I can tell you that; certainly, not more than once


Moving from one medium of the performing arts to another, Aronofsky arrives with an even harder-core portrait of the artist than the last, and that one was about a suicidal wrestler.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, John MacLaughlin
With Natalie Portman ft. Sarah Lane (Nina Sayers), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Winona Ryder (Beth MacIntyre), and Mila Kunis (Lily)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I mentioned this in passing last time, but I really don't know how much to credit Darren Aronofsky when he says that the two films he made back-to-back in 2008 and 2010, The Wrestler and Black Swan respectively, started out as one unitary project.  A glance at their screenwriters and story-by credits reveals two entirely different sets of people (and neither lists Aronofsky), while the nightmarish texture of Swan plays to Aronofsky's strengths in a way that the utterly-grounded (almost literally dirt-level) depressive realism of The Wrestler simply didn't.  But they are so blatantly two halves of one whole—both constructed with nearly-identical aesthetics; both about professional athletes; each counterpoised directly against the other (first male, then female, first old, then young,  first a focus upon an art of "low" caliber and consequence, then turning to the "highest" that we've got); and both possessed of practically the exact same ending, only with very, very different resonances to those two endings—that you kind of want to believe him.

So given the blatant similarities between these two films, plus their proximity in time, the least you could say is that nobody could lack enough self-awareness to fail to recognize their kindred spirit.  But even if Aronofsky was making a joke—as he likely was—I'd still be terribly curious to see what that unified film might've looked like.  And I'd be shocked if there's not at least one film student somewhere out there in the world, who, in the midst of looking for a thesis project on match-cutting, didn't consider taking both films and building a Wrestler and the Swan fan-edit for themselves.

Well, if Black Swan is a companion to The Wrestler, that means it's yet another remake of Pi, too, because of course it is.  All of Aronofsky's first five films are, to a greater or lesser extent.  Black Swan swings wildly to the "greater" side of that spectrum, and nowhere else other than Pi have this director's favorite themes (if that should even be pluralized) been more transparently and forcefully expressed.  In some ways, it's even more Pi than Pi: true, Pi makes itself purer, intellectually, by effectively making the pursuit itself the object of its featured obsession; whereas in Swan there is some sense of a possible "afterwards," that is, a rational, functional use for the goal its heroine seeks.  (If not too much: for the film is also about the boundaries of age, and the tiny slice of time we get to strive, especially if we're a woman.)  But the self-destruction in pursuit of perfection is certainly every bit as complete in Swan.  Moreover, and more importantly, in Swan, it's successful.

And maybe even necessary.

And that makes it a little different than his first three films, where the obsession was always self-defeating.  It's the thing that crucially distinguishes Swan from The Wrestler, too—since while that other movie grapples just as readily with the sin and virtue of pride, The Wrestler presents its hero's achievement as more-or-less pure in its tragedy.  The Ram's drive toward glory is obviously nothing but the final refuge of a hopeless man already ruined by his past; Black Swan tells the story of a woman's willing immolation of all her possible futures upon the altar of greatness in the present.

So, distinct from everything else in Aronofsky's whole filmography except perhaps The Fountain (which is distinct in its own way), you can actually make a colorable argument that Black Swan has a happy ending.  In fact, seen through the eyes of its crazed heroine, and considered upon her own self-imposed terms, it's hard to honestly claim it doesn't.  In Swan, we don't get to see through anyone else's eyes but hers, after all, representing a return to Aronofsky's abiding mode of deep subjectivity (for one of the elements of The Wrestler that worked against it, and contributed most clearly to the flattening of Aronofsky's style within it, was indeed its abdication of Aronofsky's usually-rigorous first-person POV).

The Aronofsky heroine this time is Nina Sayers, a womanchild ballerina in the corps of a major metropolitan ballet company led by Thomas Leroy, presently preparing his company for a new season built around a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.  Nina's spent most of her adolescence and all of her physical adulthood painfully pursuing technical perfection under his guiding hand.  And that, she's basically achieved already: as Thomas frankly says, Nina's mechanically-precise movements and brittle persona make her absolutely ideal for the the hesitant and virginal princess transformed into Tchaikovsky's White Swan.  But what the role calls for, in its guise as the White Swan's sensual and voracious twin, the Black Swan, are all the things Nina can't provide him: confident maturity, sexual experience, and gleeful, sometimes-malicious spontaneity—and, while he doesn't say it in so many words, above all what she can't offer him is genius.  On some level, she even knows he's right.  But there's ambition in Nina as well, something hungry that she can't deny, and she pursues the role regardless, with all the self-punishing fury of a woman who realizes she's no natural but has come much too far to accept anything less than perfection, damn the consequences.

But even before the madness comes (and—Aronofsky movie!—you know that madness is coming), there's nothing solid to hold onto in Nina's world, and certainly nobody: not the impresario who oppresses her with overt, despicable sexual harassment, which he turns instead, the very instant she starts to appreciate it regardless, toward terrifyingly cruel cuntteasing; not the overbearing ex-ballerina mother whose constant pressure upon her daughter swings over to outright sabotage, the moment it looks like Nina might actually overshoot her; not the aging star whose so-called "retirement" has deranged her with bitterness toward the replacement who's thrown her over; and certainly not the company's newest member Lily, whose extroversion and free spirit are everything Nina's not, and who represents, in a single person, Nina's (bi)sexual awakening, her dark shadow, and the tireless, pitiless competition of every other woman in her little, little world—and whom Nina is having a terribly hard time separating from the spectral black-clad doppelganger that's stalking her.

On the level of pure story, obviously, there's only a little Black Swan does that The Red Shoes didn't do sixty years earlier; by the same token, there's almost nothing Swan doesn't do better, more coherently, more thrillingly, and in less time.  (The one exception: though Swan indulges in several sequences of phantasmagoric ballet that wouldn't seem totally out-of-place in a midcentury musical—and one that is breathtakingly modern—Swan has no complete reply to The Red Shoes' centerpiece balletic breakdown.)  Meanwhile, in terms of its immediate, masculine forebear, Swan does very little different in terms of basic cinema—it's another "settled" Aronofsky film, where in any given image, you can bet your bottom dollar the camera's stuck behind its protagonist's head, as filmed in an even-more desaturated 16mm—but the impact here is so much more visceral.

The credit goes in no small part to the return of Aronofsky's customary cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who isn't nearly as keen as Maryse Alberti was to make you aware of the cameraperson's presence); but the lion's share must go to Aronofsky and his scenarists, because in the details, there's not much mistaking Swan for The Wrestler, for Swan goes all-in for hallucinatory subjectivity, in the form of Cronenbergian body horror, Polanskian psychohorror, Lynchian alienation and weirdness, plus Aronofsky's own native excess, and all of this is just way more interesting to watch, even when it costs some nuance, though Swan builds on The Wrestler to present a character who isn't totally an empty vessel for Aronofskian ideas.

It comes close, certainly, from the costuming that's about as manichaean in its symbolism as Star Wars (or more; Han Solo got to wear white and black, indicating comparative complexity), to the laser-like arc Nina undergoes as she transforms, psychologically (and, of course, psychotically), into the Black Swan of her waking nightmares.  But Swan's lucky to have an exceptional anchor for its wackiness, and that's Natalie Portman, not always the best actor, but just ideally well-cast here, with her usual lack of any affect beyond "fragile neurotic" being fantastically well-suited to a heroine who starts neurotic and rides her neurosis into insanity-inflected apotheosis; Portman's presenting herself as playing her own experience of playing Nina Sayers, if that makes any sense.  Either way, it's phenomenal—a veritable textbook example of self-aware, intelligent performance.

Portman's aided, no doubt, by wonderfully-detailed production design that fills Nina's life up with the detritus of a youth she ought to have outgrown by now.  She's aided even more by Swan's host of great supporting performances: Vincent Cassel, right on the razor's edge between legitimate artist and disgusting monster; Barbara Hershey, as Nina's hellishly-inconsistent mother; Winona Ryder, as a physical act of cognitive dissonance, a worn-out old has-been who looks like Winona Ryder; and especially Mila Kunis, who's maybe just effectively reprising Jackie from That 70s Show in a declasse, slightly more grown-up register—back tattoos and all—but this turns out to be the most enormously dangerous thing in the world when set against Nina's own glasslike, almost pubescent girlishness, particularly in the way Aronofsky frames Lily in every scene as an existential threat, either blithely smug, actively sinister, or, at Swan's extreme, just scarily tempting.  (As it happens, the only mistake Swan's screenplay ever makes is letting Lily be unequivocally real, at least most of the time; sure, this was never the right scenario for a look-at-me Shyamalan-style mindfuck, but there's nevertheless a hugely-effective Tyler Durden quality to Lily that could've been even better, if left awesomely ambiguous.)

But expertly-assisted or not, Portman's unraveling is the show we came to see.  She's even a fair dancer, though a lot of this, one guesses, is some well-concealed face replacement on Portman's dancing double, Sarah Lane; and part of the way it gets so well-concealed is through Aronofsky's serious reluctance to take Nina on in medium shots, which, as Aronofsky has made pretty darned clear over his past four films, this director just hates.

Swan features one big item that's different than the usual Aronofsky joint, however, and that's an awareness (on the margins, anyway) of the absurdity of Nina's pathos, and it gives it, by far, the best-developed sense of humor of any Aronofsky film.  There's more than one laugh-out-loud moment achieved at the intersection of ironic realism with Swan's otherwise-earnest melodrama; and I know I said that Aronofsky never actually learned he was the 21st century's master of camp filmmaking, but Swan proves me pretty damn wrong.  (It also makes it clear that his very clearest antecedent in film history isn't Lynch or Cronenberg or Polanski, but Ken fucking Russell, and I don't know how that took me seventeen years to figure out.)  But this sense of humor is also a reminder that this film—its batshit imagery, definitely, and probably its paranoia, too, or at least its high-pitched intensity—takes place mostly inside Nina's head.

It's the interior-made-exterior that sticks with you, and Nina is not unsympathetic, for all that you'd likely avoid her if you knew her in real life: it's the way the low-key body horror of brutalized feet and compulsive self-harm, inutterably nasty for its very smallness, bleeds so seamlessly into the impressive full-scale freakout that serves as this Aronofsky film's obligatory crescendo.  Naturally, it's the way, also, that Clint Mansell's driving score (back in force after its non-presence in The Wrestler) bleeds seamlessly itself, into the Tchaikovsky that dominates Swan Lake's all-important debut.

Indeed, Black Swan offers one of the best Aronofsky endings, which means, in the context of this filmmaker, obsessed himself with the perfect ending, that it must be one of his best movies: it's the perfect ending to a nearly-perfect film that, even with everything revealed, doesn't seem entirely sure what to actually make of the terrors it's witnessed, except that, whatever else, this story about a toy girl, built by everyone around her to break against the ceiling of her own dreams, was beautiful in the end, not unlike Swan Lake itself.

Perhaps it represents the moment where Aronofsky finally got such single-minded studies of obsession out of his system, and, in so doing, completed the five-film cycle upon which he'd staked over a decade of his career.  But that's a pity, though, since in the absence of obsession, Aronofsky has not yet found another subject worthy of his talents and passion—or, at least, that's what it feels like to me right now, because what Noah and mother! suggested to me on my first spin, more than anything else, is a great filmmaker just dicking around, rather than pursuing, against everything, the perfection he'd so readily attained in the past.  But I guess we will have to check, just to make sure, in our next and final installments.

Score:  10/10

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