Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Danse Macabre

A little obsession can be a good thing- to an extent. It's good to have something to focus on, to give us drive and motivation, to give us a reason to go out there and do things and- more importantly- achieve things. If you don't have drive to motivate you to do what you want- well then, what's the point? Some of the greatest works of art, literature and film have been born from the obsessive nature of their creators, and been all the better for it.

Then again, there is a very fine line. It's difficult to know at the time when you cross over from a passing interest, to a hobby/activity/whatever, into full-blown, all-consuming, passionate obsession at the expense of all else. The few times I've tipped over a little have had mixed results, but all have crashed and burned or fizzled out in their own time. I can't say I've ever achieved anything particularly great out of it... I can only hope my slightly-obsessive nature reaps such dividends as that of Darren Aronofsky. It's a theme that has recurred throughout all of his films disguised, at times, as love, career prowess, torment, addiction and loneliness. With his latest endeavour, Black Swan, he has truly outdone himself, his stars and any expectations I might have had about the film in the first place.

The film has been a huge international success so far. Made for $13 million, it has so far taken $171.4 million internationally (to date)- a long way from the humble successes of Pi (1998), Aronofsky's first feature after graduating from film school five years previously. I watched Pi when I was about 18, and didn't understand much of it, but I knew I loved it. It was everything I wanted to make. I followed this up quickly with Requiem For A Dream (2000). While it may have been a huge departure topically, and also not based on an original story, Aronofsky made it his own with a pulsating, urgent and somehow necessary visual style.

The Wrestler also portrayed a broken man at the end of his career, desperately lonely and trying to reconnect with a world that has cruelly rejected him. It was hailed as Mickey Rourke's big comeback (arguably I'd say this started with Marv in Sin City but hey), and I was intrigued when I read that Black Swan was intended as a 'companion piece'. I suppose it makes sense- professional wrestling sums up images of beefed-up men pumping themselves full of steroids and leaping off of turnbuckles, while ballet seemed the perfect girlie alternative- Natalie Portman's character denies herself even a lick of cake frosting and punishes herself with late-night practices that even her accompanying pianist walks out of. The drive, the desire and the isolation in trying to strive for perfection are all there. The determination and single-mindedness in trying to reach hyper-perfect physical peaks, whether it be through drugs or eating disorders, are exactly the same. The only difference is that Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is on his way out, while Nina Sayers (Portman) has just been given her first starring role.

The intensity brought to the roles by both performers was much documented but since I've watched Black Swan more recently, I'll concentrate on that. (Also, it's an excuse to buy The Wrestler and watch it again in full). There's always huge hype surrounding something that the stars have gone through such physical exertion for, or transformed themselves in some way. Natalie Portman has famously lost 20lbs for the role of fragile, broken Nina, and trained full-time as a ballet dancer too. Even this perfectly exemplifies the notion of obsession, of being perfect for a part and committing fully to the task. He performance has been lauded with awards and nominations already, and rightly so. She is magnetic as the young dancer falling apart in her quest to be perfect, to live up to the expectations of her frighteningly over-bearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and sexually loquacious director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). It says alot when even Cassel's performance isn't being hailed as the stand-out, as he's usually the best thing in anything he appears in- have I mentioned how I sat through Ocean’s Twelve just for a glimpse? OBSESSION! Portman's Nina is the perfect White Swan in the ballet of Swan Lake, but she's considered too frail, uptight and virginal for the counterpart of the Black Swan (the White Swan's evil, dark side). No matter how hard she tries she just can't let herself go- until she meets Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily is free-spirited, free of self-consciousness, and dances how she wants to. She's dark, has a tattoo, smokes and even- gasp!- eats steak. She's everything Nina is not, and everything Nina thinks that she wants to be.
The performances are all uniformly excellent and the use of handheld cameras means we can get right up close and personal with every crack in the characters' veneer. I really love Aronofsky's style; despite his fondness for handheld it never looks cheap or a substitute for fancy camera trickery. Even when the dancers are, y'know, dancing, they're never really given the huge wide shots you would think they would be afforded- it feels like we're in the performance with them, through every painful step. It's a technique that works to great effect. Even when bulimic Nina is making herself sick in a tiny toilet cubicle, we're in there too. There's nothing of her that's left to our imagination. Everything about her is laid bare, making her character even more vulnerable, not only to other characters in the film but to us too.
The obsessive attention to detail also manifests itself in things in the film. The dancers' costumes in the ballet itself are sensational; the jewel in the crown being the Black Swan's costume. It highlights the grotesque strive for perfection and the excess of the ballet, and also the final transformation for both the Swan princess and Nina herself.

Another telling sign of this is the lack of reflective surfaces. In every scene throughout the film, while Nina is still struggling to let go, there is a mirror or reflective object of some form, until she is on stage and makes the transformation. This sums up the tying up of the themes of duality and conflict throughout the film, even though the results are somewhat tragic. The ending provides a perfect conclusion to the nature of extreme obsession and striving for perfection- it can't be maintained. And here we see that there has to be some sort of balance maintained. It's the perfect note to end on and leaves a disturbingly thought provoking mark.

I was only troubled by a few minor things within the film. For one which makes such a strong point about excess and succumbing to you dark side, I never felt it was as graphic or explicit as it could have been. There were some points where I felt it could've gone further than it did, more in depth, more... generally just more weird. After all, this is from the man who gave us Jared Leto with half an arm and a delusional mother in a psychiatric ward. Still, the film is so dense that it seems like quite a trivial point to make. I do feel for a film that's so concerned with characters pushing themselves to the brink, that it could have pushed itself that little bit further.

In saying that, the film achieves such near-perfection in so many areas that it's easy to forgive any nagging personal opinions. The look, the performances, the flourish with which everything is pulled off is really something spectacular. It'll haunt you, yeah, but for me that's part of the allure. If I could only harness a fraction of the dedication and imagination which Aronofsky imbues his work with, I'd be overjoyed with what I came up with. I can only watch and try to learn- at the very least, I'll learn that things can be taken too far and not always for good! Like all of Aronosfky's work so far, this is both a complex character piece and a thought-provoking psychological drama. It leans heavy towards the 'thriller' side more than his other work, and addresses both styles without ever being too close to being either. This balance, I think, complements the themes of duality and conflict perfectly. Aronofsky's stories are always complex, dark, deeply layered and rewarding. His characters don't aim low or have small ambitions- much like the man himself.


  1. Oh god, I love this film so much. And not just because I want to perv on THAT SCENE.

    (Though also because I want to perv)

  2. I love it too. SO HARD. Do you know what else is hard? Googling "Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman" and resisting the urge to put a still from That Scene up, because there are 373636 for every one picture of them not getting it on.

    .....know what else is hard?....Lolz...