Introduction to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)
Here’s the text of a talk I gave at Derby QUAD on Wednesday 2nd February, 2011
Black Swan (2010)
The films nominated for this year’s Oscars mark a significant generational shift in Hollywood, because they represent a watershed for the mavericks who made their name at the turn of the millennium. It’s no coincidence that the makers of several late Nineties masterpieces – The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, David O. Russell’s Three Kings and David Fincher’s Fight Club – are all up for Best Director, or that the most noticeable snub (Inception’s Christopher Nolan) also emerged during that period.
Fellow nominee Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan, is emblematic of this group, whose shared reputation as innovators and troublemakers collectively transformed the reputation of ‘indie’ cinema – then synonymous with the glib violence and pop-culture humour of Tarantino – into something darker, edgier and more socially aware. In a strange way, Aronofsky is the man who binds his peers together. He was attached to a reboot of Batman before Christopher Nolan made that franchise his own, and was originally slated to direct this year’s hit The Fighter before David O. Russell was hired. He also famously cast – and lost – David Fincher’s regular leading man Brad Pitt as the star of The Fountain.
More than that, while all of these directors share an interest in making films about obsession… Aronofsky is the one who can’t make a film about anything else. In Aronofsky’s films, mathematicians, drug addicts, wrestlers and ballerinas are consumed by their passion to the point of insanity. So too, perhaps, is Aronofsky himself. When Pitt bailed on The Fountain, the director tenaciously hung on to the project and didn’t make another film until he’d successfully refinanced, recast and released it – a labour of love that took him six years.
Aronofsky’s rise was a familiar one for emerging filmmakers in the 1990s – a film student who took a low-budget, black-and-white debut to Sundance and came away with a prize and a career. But Aronofsky wasn’t the cliché of a film geek who wiled away his hours in a video shop. He was Harvard educated, majoring in social anthropology, and his film – Pi – revolved around a paranoid mathematician whose radical theories draw the attention of a cult of Haisidic Jews who believe his numbers are a mainline to God.
Weird stuff, and Aronofsky knew it. The film’s grainy, disorientating visuals look like David Lynch’s early work, but it’s edited with a naggingly insistent, repetitive rhythm and scored with propulsive energy by Clint Mansell, who once headed the West Midlands indie band Pop Will Eat Itself. The result is as restless and fidgety in style as it is in ideas.
But it was Aronofsky’s next movie that served notice of someone completely uncompromising – an adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr’s notorious cult novel about drug addiction, Requiem For A Dream. So harsh and unflinching it had to be released unrated in America to overcome censors’ objections, it also drew a staggering performance by Ellen Burstyn, the first of four actors to be nominated for an Oscar in Aronofsky’s five features.
It proved a tough watch, but one that proved influential in some surprising areas. Aronofsky perfected his trademark editing into a succession of short, almost subliminal cuts to mimic the ritual of addiction – a style of montage that has been homaged in Shaun of the Dead, The Simpsons and countless adverts. Then there’s Mansell’s signature tune for the movie, ‘Lux Aeterna,’ which went on to accompany several movie trailers and, more incongruously, Britain’s Got Talent. And this, remember, started out as the soundtrack to remorseless, bruising sex and violence.
Things were looking up, especially when Aronosky secured $70 million to direct The Fountain with Pitt and Cate Blanchett. But then Pitt walked, the money walked, and Aronofsky stayed… even Batman couldn’t prise Aronofsky away from his pet project. When a stripped-down version finally emerged with Hugh Jackman and Aronofsky’s wife-to-be Rachel Weisz, audiences were divided. Was it a unique, visually transcendental meditation on love and death…or a self-indulgent bore? Aronofsky’s obsessive quest to get his way was proving to be both a strength and a weakness.
What he did next surprised everybody. The Wrestler was a naturalistic, low-budget, low-key indie movie about a washed-up fighter, played by a famously washed-up actor, Mickey Rourke. For both men it proved a cathartic experience: Rourke’s hard life fuelled a poignant, painfully autobiographical performance; and Aronofsky found a new way of expressing his obsession. Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is as driven as anybody else in Aronofsky’s movies, still willing to suffer for his art when everybody else has given up on him…but the film’s almost old-fashioned storytelling and rough immediacy punctured through the stylistic tics of earlier films to suggest a new maturity in Aronofsky.
And so on to Black Swan, very much a companion piece to The Wrestler in its emphasis on the gruelling lengths a performer will go to in order to reach their audience. Here, it is a ballerina – played by Natalie Portman – who has to prove she has what it takes to play the complex lead role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake… But don’t think for a minute that this is the softer, more feminine flipside to the sweat and muscles of The Wrestler.
If anything, it’s the opposite. The Wrestler could have been made with Wallace Beery in the 1940s; Black Swan owes as much to the psychological menace of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as to the passion of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ballet classic The Red Shoes. Aronofsky has returned to the abrasive, nightmarish undertones of Pi and Reqiuem For A Dream, but yoked them to the performance-driven realism of The Wrestler.
And what performances. Natalie Portman is the odds-on favourite to win Best Actress later this month, and this role represents a watershed for an actress who been around longer than her director! She made her startling debut, aged 13, in Leon – as the girl who wants to become an assassin – and was a global superstar before she turned twenty, thanks to the Star Wars prequels. And then, she put acting on hold to study at Harvard (she’s the “movie star” namechecked in The Social Network) before building up a solid, impressive body of work in Closer and V For Vendetta. Should she win the Oscar, while still in her Twenties, it’ll be hard to avoid the conclusion that she is this generation’s Jodie Foster.
Portman’s career informs Black Swan just as much as Rourke’s did The Wrestler. Almost cruelly, Aronofsky has surrounded her with women who also started their careers as teenagers and enjoyed mixed fortunes in their adult careers. In front of Portman, there’s Barbara Hershey playing her mother, a failed dancer who’s become the proverbial pushy parent; and Winona Ryder as the washed-up star Portman replaces. Behind, but catching up fast, is Mila Kunis as Portman’s youthful rival for the role of the Swan. If nothing else, this is a film about the way that the worlds of ballet and Hollywood alike chew up and spit out young female talent, and a study of the difficulties for women in sustaining a career run by men.
Speaking of which, all of the women here are in thrall to the intense ballet impresario played by leading French actor Vincent Cassel – a canny choice by Aronofsky. Anyone who has seen La Haine or Mesrine will know of Cassel’s electric presence, but to mainstream audiences, he’s still relatively unknown, with none of the baggage of a Hollywood star. Instead, he’s calling the shots without drawing attention to himself.
Increasingly, that’s just what Aronofsky is doing. The visual and aural pyrotechnics of Pi have been refined into something more sensual, but equally subversive and provocative. Now that Aronofsky is getting Oscar nominated for a film that’s about as mad as anyone has made in recent years, it’s likely that his acidic worldview and uncompromising vision will remain intact. It’s doubtful that any actor will be walking away from a Darren Aronofsky film in the future.