There are a number of working filmmakers right now whose work I approach with excitement and anticipation, which is part of the fun of something like the Toronto International Film Festival. When I look at the list of films playing, I look not only at the film or the title or the synopsis, but the filmmaker. Movies like "22nd Of May" and "Cold Fish" and "I Saw The Devil" made it onto my list of films to see this week because of who directed the films more than anything specific I read in the descriptions of the movies. There are only a few filmmakers who I consider truly world-class right now, though, guys whose every move demands attention. That doesn't mean I'll always love their work, but it does mean that their careers so far have convinced me that they approach film in a way that few of their peers can.
Darren Aronofsky is one of those filmmakers. He wasn't always. I liked "Pi" when I first saw it, and I think it's a great no-budget film with some real ambition. I don't think it all adds up in the end to a complete film for me, but first films are all about establishing a voice, and that voice was interesting enough to follow. "Requiem For A Dream" is amazing filmmaking, but it's so unrelenting in its efforts to disturb and punish the viewer that it's one of those films I've never revisited. I can't imagine seeing it again. I absorbed all the horror the first time, and I don't know that I ever want to invite that back into my head.
For me, things really turned a corner with "The Fountain," a film I love dearly even as I acknowledge that it is an acquired taste. I think the film is burnished to such a lovely finish that it leaves many viewers outside the experience, and that's a shame. It certainly felt like Aronofsky was polishing his aesthetic approach from film to film, and that technique came to a head with "The Fountain," a film that was a huge professional struggle for Aronofsky. It may have been an emotionally and personally draining process for him, something that seemed to be the case when I saw him at the end of that production, but the end result changed him as a filmmaker, and for the better, I'd say.
"The Wrestler" seemed to drop all of the affectations that distinguished his early work, and the looser nature of the movie was perfect. I think "The Wrestler" is in almost every way a direct reaction to "The Fountain," and that feeling of letting go of the extreme control, the obsessive perfection of his compositions, was important. It gave new room for the unruly mess of real life, and it gave "The Wrestler" a totally different pulse than everything he'd done before that.
Now, with "Black Swan," Aronofsky seems to have digested that experience of following "The Fountain" with "The Wrestler," and the result is a movie that speaks directly to the way artists torture themselves and the way great art frequently comes at a high personal price. As if it weren't enough for Aronofsky to analyze himself on a sort of a meta level, the casting of Natalie Portman in the lead is thematically perfect. She was a brilliant child actor, with obvious intuition and wisdom that seemed to be beyond her, but as an adult, I think she's become a very mannered, very flat performer, depending on a great director to wake her up from time to time. I have not been terribly interested in her as an actor for the last few years, and walking into the theater today, she was the one thing that made me nervous. I wasn't convinced she was up to whatever Aronofsky would demand of her. And in the film, her character Nina is a dancer with a major NY ballet company who is given the lead in a new interpretation of "Swan Lake," only to grapple with how she will ever loosen up enough to play the Black Swan in the piece. Even her director, Thomas, who cast her in the role, isn't sure she's right for both halves of the role, depending on himself to be able to find it in her somewhere. Portman is this character, and whatever hell she put herself through to play the part, it's worth it. This is, simply put, the finest work she's ever done, and it completely changes the way I think about her as a performer.
The script, by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John J McLaughlin, is smart and surreal and striking. Nina's given the role just as the star of the ballet company, Beth (Winona Ryder), is on her way out the door. It's not by choice, either. As one of the dancers observes early on, "she's practically in menopause." That's a bitchy exaggeration, to be sure, but in terms of prime dancing years, it's true. It's true for athletes, it's true for dancers, it's true for performers of many stripes, and it's unavoidable. Time is the enemy, the great ruiner. You have a window to do what you do, and when that window closes, all that training and all that experience all suddenly adds up to… nothing. Nina has spent her life preparing herself, with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) living her own life completely to prepare Nina. It's a sad, deeply co-dependent relationship between the two of them, and Nina allows herself to be infantilized so she can focus completely on her dancing. She doesn't have to make adult choices or deal with adult relationships or handle adult responsibility because Mommy is always there to do it for her.
Thomas sees the technical perfection in Nina's dancing, but he also sees the restraint, the total lack of heat, and that's what he needs from her for the Black Swan. He needs to see that she can lose herself completely in the dance. It's vital for the character and for the production. The great tightrope walk of the movie then becomes us waiting to see if Nina can transform herself enough to dance the role, and it's a harrowing emotional journey she takes. It's complicated by the arrival of a new dancer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), who may be angling to take the role from Nina. Or maybe she wants to be Nina's friend. Or her lover. Or her destroyer. At different moments, any of those things feel true. Maybe the role that Lilly is meant to play in Nina's life is inspiration, since Lilly lives the way Nina needs to dance the Black Swan: free, with abandon, a libertine spirit en pointe.
From the very beginning of the film, reality is liquid here. Aronofsky's lost the formal, locked-down compositions, but this also isn't quite as loose and documentary as "The Wrestler." Working with his longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofksy screws with perception in almost every moment. There are tons of subtle FX shots in the film, used to heighten mood or underline a thematic beat. Nina wants to be free like Lilly. She wants to be a happy person, a whole person. She wants to be alive when she dances. She wants to be perfect. That quest would drive anyone mad, and right away, the film starts flirting with the idea that there's something supernatural here. There are moments that almost feel like they're out of a film like "Jacob's Ladder." But don't be fooled. This is a movie about internal enemies, and the barriers we create for ourselves in our lives. Aronofsky focuses on the details of Nina's life, the things that are unique to dancers, using each detail to reveal something about this girl, or about anyone who is driven to this kind of physical endeavor. He seems entranced as a filmmaker by those details, like he's been allowed into this dancer's world and he wants to remember everything about it, capture it all so that we know what it's like. But because he's playing with reality here and repeatedly plays with what is or isn't, he's not bound by those details. He's more interested in a subjective view than an objective one, and the film's better for it.
The entire film builds to a third act that takes the film from "very good" to "unbelievably great," and there are moments in that third act that left me breathless. It's unhinged, but it has to be. There's one shot in particular that I already debated with someone, but I'd say that I found it to be one of the most thrilling uses of visual effects ever, pure emotion unleashed through CGI. I could go on and on about the film on both a technical and a thematic level, and I may return to it later this season. I have a strong suspicion this will end up on my list at the end of the year, so there will be plenty of time to discuss it. We haven't even gotten into the discussion about Mila Kunis and her work or Winona Ryder's role or Vincent Cassell or the use of color or the influence of Powell and Argento. For now, I'll just say that Aronofsky is a master, and "Black Swan" is an amazing meal, rich and worth another visit as soon as possible.
It's hard to believe I'm just a few hours into my first full day of the festival, and I'm already this drunk in love with something. That's a good sign.
More reviews and interviews to come, so keep reading.
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