The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we are taking a look at the short, recent, yet incredibly distinctive list of films from Darren Aronofsky.
Also be warned, while there are no major spoilers for Black Swan in this piece, this entry will not make sense if you haven’t read the previous installments of The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective. Prepare accordingly.
And so we have reached the final installment of The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective, which fittingly concludes with Black Swan, perhaps the most quintessential Aronofsky film in his entire filmography. Talk about a movie that essentially epitomizes a filmmaker’s entire career. Everything you need to know about Aronofsky’s films can be found in Black Swan, and you can ultimately “get” what he’s all about without watching any of his other films.
After the success of The Wrestler, many were wondering whether Aronofsky would make another hit or recede back into “failure” like he did with The Fountain. But nobody knew what to expect after the complete stylistic 180 he made with The Wrestler and its more subtle approach. Little did people know, however, that he would create something that encompasses the qualities of all four of his previous works combined. Without further ado, Black Swan.
“I just wanna be perfect.”
Throughout this retrospective, we’ve dug into the mind of Aronofsky to find the thematic undercurrent connecting all of his work: Obsession. And each film dealt with its own kind. Pi: direct obsession (mathematics and patterns). Requiem for a Dream: visceral obsession (addiction and euphoria). The Fountain: existential obsession (the meaning of life and immortality). The Wrestler: relatable obsession (nostalgia for the past).
And what sort of obsession did Aronofsky choose his next film to be about? Why, only the purest form of obsession imaginable: perfection, the desire to be perfect, and the hope that we never have to face our inner flaws. Black Swan takes Aronofsky’s signature obsession with obsession, and distills it into its purest form.
The film follows a ballet dancer named Nina (Natalie Portman, in her Oscar-winning turn) who receives the role of a lifetime as the Swan Queen for a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But mounting pressure from a rival ballerina (Mila Kunis) leads her down a descent into madness.
The psychological thriller gimmick of “What’s real and what’s not?” has been done to death, but few such movies truly make you question the validity of the events on screen in an effective manner. Considering Aronofsky’s penchant for truly immersing the viewer into his main characters’ mindsets, he’s basically a perfect fit for this kind of material–to the point that you wonder why he hasn’t done it more often. The film toys with fabricated events so cleverly in its second half that you wonder how so many other, similar films manage to screw it up.
All that being said, however, Black Swan ultimately doesn’t have the depth or complexity of The Fountain or The Wrestler, in that it doesn’t really offer any intellectual revelations about the nature of searching for perfection and battling your inner demons. What it does offer is Aronofsky’s most intense filmmaking since Requiem for a Dream. Black Swan is a nightmarish free-fall down the darkest corners of human desire. It’s as passionate and melodramatic a film as you can possibly view.
That melodramatic tendency can easily be a target for mockery, of course. For as many fans as there are of this film, others still knock the movie for going as over-the-top as it does. But when you get right down to it, melodrama is a perfect fit for a film about ballet, an art that is based entirely on big, bold, yet graceful physical gestures.
As is always the case with Aronofsky’s films, we are immersed into the mindset of his characters thanks to the visual direction and his brilliant work with the performers. Aronofsky always manages to bring his leads to their highest potential and Natalie Portman, like the rest of the film, goes all out here. It’s such a glorious, bravura performance that it’s easy to see why she finally netted the first Oscar for an Aronofsky actor. Her performance also helps in reinforcing the visual style of the film, which plunges us right into Nina’s mindset. Aronofsky fully infuses the themes of doubles and inner demons into the film. 90% of the scenes have mirrors in the background, truly bringing the doppelganger aspect up to 11. Other little details, like Portman seeing her face on other people’s bodies and the constant portraits her mother is painting of her only further reinforce it. We become just as paranoid as her, and that “inner demon” starts to carry real weight and true terror.
What’s more interesting about the film is how it completely embodies all the things that mark Aronofsky’s distinct stamp. Black Swan has the grace and beauty of The Fountain shot through the lens of The Wrestler‘s gritty you-are-there camera work; the heightened melodrama and intensity of Requiem for a Dream, and the psychological mindfuckery of Pi. And each of these elements totally fit together in the context of this story.
The film even brings to light other traditions in the Aronofsky canon I hadn’t noticed before. For example: Every Aronofsky film contains at least one scene of body-horror. Pi had that drill scene near the end. Requiem for a Dream had that horrifying orgy and the infected injection point on Jared Leto’s arm. The Wrestler is a film about a man who mutilates himself for a living. Even The Fountain had its unexpectedly disturbing “flower” sequence. Black Swan, meanwhile, takes this theme to its zenith, with metamorphosis sequences that make the transformation to a swan–a lovely, graceful creature–look utterly grotesque and terrifying.
The defining Aronofsky trait found here, however, is his signature “crescendo” moment by the end, where he ratchets up the intensity and simply doesn’t stop building it. Black Swan‘s crescendo is just as intense and nerve-wracking as the 15-minute montage of Requiem for a Dream, only this time he miraculously sustains that intensity for twice as long. Just when you think one scene is gonna give you a break, someone grabs a very sharp nail-file, or the paintings start to move, and all hell breaks loose. The way Aronofsky manages to upstage each and every moment until the film’s unforgettable climax is utterly breathtaking. And of course, the crescendo ends with the same staple he employed at the end of Requiem and The Wrestler: The scene in which the audience applauds the protagonist right as they reach their moment of defeat.
But what truly makes Black Swan the key to Darren Aronofsky’s filmmaking sensibilities is not how it employs all the various other elements of his work. That’s only one half of it. The other half is how it ends up telling us about Aronofsky as a person.
In each of his films, we take a journey down the psyche of an obsessive individual’s longing for something of meaning or ecstasy. But Black Swan is the first of his films in which the protagonist is an artist, and that bliss for which she strives is all in service of art. By following the whole filmography of Aronofsky’s films from the beginning to the end and recognizing the thematic tissue that connects them, Black Swan reveals itself to be the one Aronofsky film that comments not on Aronofsky’s perspective on obsession and suffering but his own obsession and suffering as a filmmaker and an artist.
Watching Aronofsky’s films from this perspective, his resumé tells a story of the man himself. Pi had Aronofsky searching for meaningful, ambitious answers to the universe so he could truly impress for his feature debut. Requiem had him indulging on that previous success with the ecstasy of becoming one of the most talked about new filmmakers of that generation. The Fountain was about how his striving for ambition would lead to an existential crisis, and through many viewers’ misunderstanding of the material, that very ambition led to his downfall. The Wrestler was just as much about his own comeback as it was Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s, with Aronosky practicing his restraint to win everyone over again.
And now, with Black Swan, Aronofsky is laying down all the cards on the table, utilizing not only every one of his techniques that he’s acquired throughout his near-decade of filmmaking, but also finally making the connection between his own art and himself. In many ways, the duality of the White and Black Swans in the film represents Aronofsky’s two “sides.” His White Swan made more graceful, subtle, formally and technically “perfect” films like The Fountain and The Wrestler. His Black Swan, on the other hand, lost itself in the chaotic melodrama of Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Balancing the two, naturally, is Black Swan.
In that sense, Black Swan is like the penultimate chapter of Part I of the Aronofsky experience. It began with a filmmaker ripe with ambition and ideas, and it transitions to its end with a cinematic confession. And as far as confessions go, it paid off big time. Not only was Black Swan Aronofsky’s biggest box-office hit, making over $200 million worldwide, it also earned Aronofsky his first Oscar nominations for Best Director and Picture and provided him the clout to make his “passion-project”, Noah. Contradicting Aronofsky’s own view about whether that kind of passion was worth the pain, it turned out there was a puddle of clean water at the end of the muck-ridden sewer pipe after all. The film about an artist striving for perfection and the love of an audience became his greatest success, Black Swan is more than just a masterpiece. Black Swan is Darren Aronofsky.
And thus concludes The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective. I hope you enjoyed this hellscape down the warped mind of one of this generation’s great contemporary auteurs. In the mean time, I’ll be preparing for the next Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective and eagerly awaiting Aronofsky’s next film, Noah in the process. I’m not gonna reveal what the next filmmaker I have in mind is quite yet, but I guess a hint won’t hurt anyone: “Wheat”
That is all. Stay classy and please don’t hold your nail file that close to your face.