An early scene in the psychodrama Black Swan shows how professional ballerinas literally break in their new slippers. The dancers, including Natalie Portman's high-strung Nina Sayers, slide the shoes out of plastic, gouge out the soles, smack them on the floor and re-sew the lining with needle and thread. Only then do they put their weight on the slippers for their pirouettes.
The sequence also reveals director Darren Aronofsky's creative perspective on the dancers. The shots take place in tight close-ups, sharply edited together, conveying the ballerinas' intense, almost savage attention to their footwear in preparing for their craft. Their single-minded self-discipline goes even harder on their own minds and bodies.
Black Swan shows how competitive pressures and artistic perfectionism drive Nina to madness ahead of her prestigious New York City ballet company's production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The tense, at times nightmarish film serves as a handy example of how the cinematic medium so vividly captures obsession. Aronofsky numbers among the many filmmakers who not only return to compulsive behavior as a favorite theme, but also demonstrate an obsessive stylishness in their work.
Any filmmaker with a distinctive personal style and body of work almost certainly counts as an obsessive to some degree. Given the drawn-out period of time it takes to make a film, the potential for plans to go awry, and the amount of people and money involved, directors have to be detail-oriented control freaks to see their vision to fruition. Stanley Kubrick's exacting standards are the stuff of legend: For The Shining, for instance, Kubrick shot additional footage of Jack Nicholson's "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" manuscript in multiple languages for the film's release in non-English speaking countries.
Some of the current maestros of monomaniacal films include Roman Polanski, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese frequently follows antiheroes who begin at high emotional pitches and go to extremes of behavior, from the strung-out paranoia of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to the combativeness of Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta to the OCD of Howard Hughes, who freaks out at the sight of a much-used bar of soap in The Aviator. Scorsese's obsessive mode doesn't always suit his material: When he conveyed the point of view of Daniel Day-Lewis' New York aristocrat in The Age of Innocence, the character seemed to have Sherlockian powers of observation.
Many of the tools at a director's disposal capture heightened emotional states, beginning with simple close-ups of an actor's face. Nina spends the entirety of Black Swan in varying states of anxiety, whether she's intimidated by her company's predatorial director (Vincent Cassel), threatened by younger, sexier ingénue Lily (Mila Kunis), or guilt-tripped by a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey). Every slight and source of upset registers on Portman's expression.
The camera can also track the people or things that absorb the protagonist's attention to the exclusion of all else, such as irresistible hotties, addictive substances or murder weapons. In Black Swan, Nina steals lipstick from an aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) as a lucky totem, even though it gives her one more thing to worry about. During ballet rehearsals, Aronofsky shows how an older dance teacher's back muscles stand out in increasingly sharp relief until it's like something from Bodies ... the Exhibition. Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream even presented a microscopic montage of drug abuse via close-ups on injections, pumping blood vessels and dilating pupils.
Uncontrollable fixations become inherently dramatic as they consume a character's personal relationships, and trick photography can capture a runaway mind in countless ways. In Black Swan, Nina suffers from phantom injuries, sees mirror images that don't match reality, and notices signs of swan-like physical transformation that are (probably) hallucinations.
Obsession untethered to insight about human behavior can be a limited premise. Despite Aronofsky's stylistic brio and Portman's raw commitment to the role, the film comes across as overly simplistic, with Nina's downward spiral a foregone conclusion. As Nina attempts to dance the dual role of the innocent white swan and the sensual black one, the script hammers some reductive ideas about the creative process and female sexuality. Cassel's splendidly oily character browbeats Nina about tapping her emotional side so often, it's like he's trying to tempt her to the dark side of the Force.
Black Swan also asserts that technical accomplishment comes at the expense of spontaneity and sensuality. Accused of being "frigid," Nina becomes physically attracted to free-spirited Lily, even as she mistrusts the newcomer as a cutthroat rival. Black Swan spends less time exploring this facet of Nina's psychology than creating steamy sexual tension. But the film dances around the implication that women do not and should not trust their own bodies.
Black Swan comes as a disappointment after the naturalism of Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler. There, Mickey Rourke's addiction to the spotlight was conveyed perfectly through his pre-bout primping regimens and ghastly mistreatment during the matches. Despite the sideshow aspect of their careers, the wrestlers came across as sympathetic figures. Black Swan nicely captures the cliquishness of dance company dressing rooms, but Nina feels more like a cautionary figure than a fleshed-out character, a perennial victim of mean girls, pervy guys and horror-movie fake outs.
Apart from The Wrestler, Aronofsky devotes his films to replicating psychological fugue states, such as Pi's mathematical epiphanies and Requiem's bad drug trips. Watching a talented filmmaker unleash his ardor for cinema can be an operatic, intoxicating spectacle, one that can, in turn, stoke the obsessions of a filmmakers' fans. With Black Swan, however, a one-track mind fails to take us very far.
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