There's a moment in Godard's Breathless when Jean Seberg's Patricia asks the famous novelist Parvulesco (played by the seminal Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Pierre Melville), "What is your ambition in life?" Methodically turning his gaze towards her, Parvulesco triumphantly replies, "To become immortal....and then die!" Fifty years later, Natalie Portman's ballerina, Nina, in Darren Aronofsky's exhilarating Black Swan must chant this mantra in her head at every pirouette.
Aronofsky's cinematic bitches brew begins with heavy doses of The Red Shoes, All About Eve, and Sunset Blvd., adds a corporeal helping of Kubrick's The Shining, and finishes off with Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Claustrophobia, paranoia, and general creepiness ensue. For a film staged within the uber-refined confines of the supposedly quietly classy world of dance, there is not a single moment of peace or general pleasantry. Even Nina's hyper-pinked bedroom glutted with girlish knickknacks and stuffed animals has a pinch of psychosis to it.
At its heart, Black Swan deals with the obsessive convulsions in the pursuit of perfection. In her innocence and vulnerability, Nina is the ideal virginal White Swan, but the ballet calls for the same dancer to dance both roles, and the Black Swan is a seductive force, using her sex like a flyswatter -- something the technically perfect but timid Nina is incapable of. Under increasing pressure, Nina immerses herself so deeply into the dual roles of Swan Lake that she completely and abruptly loses grip on reality. She suffers grisly hallucinations, simultaneously haunted by an evil twin (paralleling the ballet's plotline) intent on destruction and an ambitious incipient rival, Lilly (Mila Kunis), who is everything Nina isn't: carefree, reckless, promiscuous, and enjoys exploring feminine nether regions, both her own and Nina's. As if the pressures of the role of a lifetime weren't enough for poor Nina, she shares a domicile with her bizarrely controlling and envious mother played ominously by Barbara Hershey, in an inspired piece of casting.
With Black Swan, Aronofksy achieves what today's gross-out horror moviemakers would sell their souls to replicate, namely, produce a film whose every move, every scene, every word, is shuddersome. The camerawork and sound editing will make your palms sweat, the scene-cutting will make you cringe. The thing is, you'll love it, and you'll want much more. The transcendentally exhilarating climax will give life to Parvulesco's romantic proclamation.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing which contemporary filmmakers we found most intriguing; whose films, when they come out, would make us raise an eyebrow and take notice? Darren Aronofsky came up in the conversation as someone -- for me -- who fell into this category. The sheer fact that all his films were so utterly uncompromising and dark earned him that status. The complete dread evoked by Requiem For a Dream begins and ends any Aronofsky debate. Yet, with this recent achievement, let me add, along with uncompromising and dark, Aronofsky has become breathtaking.