Black Swan

I was surprised to read in the credits that director Darren Aronofsky did not also write Black Swan. (It was written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin from a story by Andres Heinz.) That’s because, like other Aronofsky-written films, it was rife with characters who are symbols more than living, breathing people. I had liked how Aronofsky moved into more emotional territory with The Wrestler (written by Robert D. Siegel), but with Black Swan he has gone back deep into the realm of thematic storytelling plumbed previously in Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain.

The symbols here are brilliantly displayed in all their plumage. A nearly black-vs.-white-with-shades-of-pink art direction by David Stein enfolds a dark, extreme performance by Natalie Portman, who is 100% convincing as both a ballerina who has dreamed her whole life of playing the Swan Queen, and as a young woman with a controlling mother undergoing a dissociative personality split.

As my companion pointed out, for all its art house bona fides, Black Swan is really a psychological horror film. Aronofsky’s use of c.g. effects for something other than explosions or space robots should be commended. This is what I dreamed of after Fight Club knocked the scales from my eyes. I won’t say what Aronofsky does, to avoid spoiling it, but filmmakers should study this film for this, for the art direction, for the use of music and sound design and, most importantly, for how to film dance.

The opening sequence, which is a single long take of a dance, lit enigmatically by a hovering spotlight courtesy d.p. Matthew Libatique and his talented gaff & grip team, made me instantly care about the art and craft of ballet when I had never done so before.

Black Swan is a film which I imagine is going to haunt me for a while. I can’t say it is ‘fun’ to watch, so I certainly can’t recommend it to escapist moviegoers (but do see the review of The Fighter below). The performances, other than Portman’s, are sometimes mechanical, especially Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Rider. I don’t blame the performers, but rather a script that has streamlined details to highlight thematic elements. Like a great piece of dance, Black Swan is a work of art which refuses to be reduced into words alone. So see it.

The Fighter

The Fighter is a good film to follow Black Swan, and not only because it was executive produced by Darren Aronofsky. It also has the emotional uplift that Swan lacks.

The Fighter is based on the real story of two boxer half-brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts. The elder, Dickie Ekland, played by an invisible Christian Bale, is a screw-up who hangs onto the glory he got from once knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard. “Irish” Mickey Ward, played by favorite Russell collaborator Mark Wahlberg, is good fighter on a bad losing streak, probably due to poor training from his brother and poor management from his tyrannical mother Alice, a superb and equally-invisible Melissa Leo. While Ekland and mommy Alice are busy dreaming of a comeback, Mickey mounts his own run at the title.

Director David O. Russell is making a comeback of his own. After the debacle of Nailed, where, among other troubles, one of the investors failed to come up with enough cash to pay the crew and the production was shut down, and after walking away from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies after being unable to workout the schedule with star and executive producer Natalie Portman, it’s nice to see him complete a movie. For my money, I [Heart] Huckabees is one of the great films of the last decade.

The Fighter occasionally shows some Huckabian flashes of wit. It is funnier than I expected, but I was distanced a bit by the mocking attitude it often took towards the people of Lowell, Mass. Small directorial flourishes, like pseudo-documentary camerawork and pseudo-t.v. coverage of fights worked fine. But really, the film is going to be best remembered for the phenomenal character work by Bale and Leo (working with the advantage of being able to model themselves on the real larger-than-life characters).

The boxing movie genre is larded with great films, from Body & Soul to Raging Bull to Rocky to Girl Fight to Million Dollar Baby. The Fighter is very good, but I’m not sure it is in their weight class. Nonetheless, it may just get a shot at the title this year, and you should never count out an underdog.