Darren Aronofsky and I have a troubled relationship. I think his films are brilliantly constructed, but so viscerally disturbing that I can never watch them more than once. At the same time, there’s a ridiculousness to them that I find funny in those few moments of relief from bodily terror. The Wall Street and Kabbalistic conspirators who hunt the protagonist in Pi are so amateurish that they become fools. If Ellen Burstyn’s character in Requiem for a Dream wasn’t so pathetic, her hallucinations of a jumping and belching fridge would set me cackling. If the endings of these films weren’t so unsettling, they’d be black comedies. Maybe that’s the best way to characterize the general tenor of Aronofsky’s work (The Fountain aside): black comedies for sociopaths.
Dennis Lim at Slate examines the weird sense of humour in Black Swan, which I saw last week and thought was pretty amusing in that ridiculous way. I wasn’t really sure what to make of Natalie Portman’s performance, though. I have a good friend who has gone through the gauntlet of professional ballet, and from what she’s told me, Portman’s psychological breakdown is horrifyingly accurate to the mental state of the average professional ballet dancer.
These are people treated more as machines than humans, driven into anorexia and hideous personal collapse. Nina in Black Swan is a perfect illustration of the double bind of ballet dancers. She’s pressured to stay grotesquely thin, while her work requires tense athleticism. She’s molded into a concept of femininity as innocent childish asexuality, then sexually manipulated by her director and the demands of a role that she has no concept of how to portray.
Her hallucinations as she loses her grip on reality are multifaceted and fascinating, and constitute the character just as much as the actual performance and dialogue. The self-mutilation is a typical Aronofsky stomach-churner, and the autonomous mirror images are typical Aronofsky techniques to unsettle you mentally. Some of her swan transformations are actively hilarious, and the final black swan dance sequence is genuinely beautiful, a triumph of the character, which because this is an Aronofsky film, doesn’t last.
What Lim describes as the biggest aesthetic puzzle to the film is where it lands in the matrix of camp. Everyone in this film is an over the top caricature except Natalie Portman. Mila Kunis plays the less-talented oversexed party girl. Barbara Hershey is the overbearing self-obsessed hyper-possessive mother. Vincent Cassel is a walking cliché of a genius greaseball director. It helps that he’s French. Winona Ryder’s bitter, forcibly retired diva is the most obvious throwback to Showgirls, which I am increasingly convinced is slowly becoming one of the most influential films of the end of the twentieth century.
Now look at Natalie Portman in the middle of all this. Her character has no sense of humour at all: every situation she’s in is heightened to an incredible emotional intensity. Everyone in the film understands, to some degree, the ridiculousness of the world of professional ballet. It’s the most campy, over the top, laughably zany of all the traditionally high arts. Everyone can see, to some degree, the partial silliness of this world. Except Nina.
She takes all this with an immense seriousness, giving weighty significance to everything that happens to her. Her mother, sitting in her studio of mediocre self-portraits, has some sense of what a cartoon she is: that’s what she paints. Her director talks the pretentious talk when he’s wooing investors, but he knows it’s all a matter of kissing ass. Her rival just loves looking good on stage and getting laid. But for Nina, Swan Lake is the culmination of her existence. The tragic dimension of the movie is seeing that such a serious, perfectionist attitude ultimately gains you nothing. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that if you're considering enrolling your four year old daughter in ballet, watch this movie first, and make sure she understands what kind of thinking will turn her into Nina.
The next day, I ended up seeing Tron, which was awesome, and 3D, and had Jeff Bridges in it.