Periscope Depth

get down, girl; go ahead, get down

Black Swan: Visceral nightmare fuel.

It’s not a subtle film, but if you were expecting a subtle film from the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, you were misinformed. There’s a slow simmer of tension that explodes by turning familiar environments into mazes of shadow and noise. There’s body horror: people discovering weird things in their flesh and plucking them out with gristly sounds. Aronofsky’s camera work mimics the perspective of the human eye, especially in scenes where we glance from one horrific thing to another, or where we backpedal in terror from an insane self-mutilation.

But beyond the horror, Aronofsky depicts the world of professional ballet better than any film I’ve seen. The little details are all present, from the dancers stripping off their warm-up gear once the director arrives (I owe Sylvia credit for pointing that out, though the moment works in situ) to the way dancers invoke “merde” for good luck. Moreover, Aronofsky captures the energy of ballet dancing with some daring camerawork in the middle of complex routines. There are some sequences that must have been a bear to rehearse: one Steadicam in the midst of a dozen trained dancers, focusing on one pivotal point.

The audience spends so much time in Natalie Portman’s head – almost literally, in some cases, framed tight on the back of her head as she walks across plazas or down hallways – that the entire thing hinges on her performance. It’s just as good as you’ve been led to expect. She plays the tightly-wound perfectionist on the verge of being too old for corps as if she were born to it. The horror on her face dawns slowly: a gradual realization that yes, this process is driving her insane, and yes, she’ll keep going anyway. She’s no scream queen, but a scream queen couldn’t pull this off. Her moments of revelation are private: usually just herself and a mirror. Most importantly, we believe she’s a dancer, in the way that we believe Mickey Rourke was a wrestler. (Although note that we rarely see her full body when she’s dancing)

The other characters … I wouldn’t call them one-note. One chord, maybe. Vincent Cassel, as the arrogant artistic director, is a sleazy bastard, but he’s sleazy for reasons other than what we expect at first. Ditto Mila Kunis, as the young free-spirited competitor. Ditto Portman’s mother and the prima ballerina Portman replaces (neither of whom I knew were in the movie, so I won’t name them, although they’re fully credited so that says more of my ignorance; anyway). The dialogue is one step removed from pure exposition at a couple of times. If the director and the actors were worse – or the subject matter weren’t ballet – this might be shelved with Sorority Row at Blockbuster. But it’s not just cheap scares: it’s a precisely crafted film about obsession and derangement.