Darren Aronofsky will attend the Academy Awards as a Best Director nominee for the first time this Sunday. His film, Black Swan, is a Best Picture contender, and his leading lady, Natalie Portman, is the overwhelming favorite as Best Actress for her portrayal of the fractured, and haunted, ballerina struggling to integrate two vastly divergent sides of one, complete, person.
With Black Swan Aronofsky once again draws us into a world in which an individual is faced with battling the demons that only arise from the most opaque recesses of the human mind. The film invites viewers into a darkly depicted fairytale. With one of the most beautiful and tragic tales told in the world of ballet, Swan Lake, as its template, Aronofsky creates a modern myth about the outward manifestation of an internal war that is profoundly human. For so many of us, our greatest loves, and our darkest fears, become interchangeable – two sides of a very dangerous coin.
Black Swan is unique for Aronofsky, in several respects.
It is his most universally accepted film to date, in that it has received the most expansive and esteemed critical acclaim - and is also his most financially successful project (by far). With a production budget of only $13 million, Black Swan has earned over $200 million in worldwide theatrical sales. It is also, in may respects, one of the more feminine films he has made - his leads are nearly all female, and the world they inhabit is one fueled by the dreams and desires of women. Though, as actress Natalie Portman pointed out in her interview with Charlie Rose, ballet is driven by (and drives) women - yet is often controlled by men.
As singular as Black Swan is, it also fits perfectly within the framework of a career which seems to explore the same theme in a kaleidoscope of guises: That which nourishes me, also destroys me.
Aronofsky has called Black Swan a companion piece to his 2008 exploration of the raw and grueling world of professional wrestling, aptly titled The Wrestler. There are some striking thematic similarities between the two films, though as Aronofsky himself notes, one centers on what we consider one of the “highest” arts, and the other on the “lowest – if we would even call [wrestling] an art.” Yet both films focus on performers who relentlessly, and dangerously, drive their bodies in the name of their passion and who face inward and outward threats to their careers, careers that each are, ultimately, willing to die for.
In some ways these two films are representative of an individual chapter in Aronofsky's life as an artist, a chapter which focused on the beauty of capturing the moment, and the performance of the actor – rather than the gorgeous and highly stylized filmmaking present in The Fountain and Requiem For A Dream. Though Black Swan does, in many ways, bridge the gap between the stripped down performance-driven feel of The Wrestler and the fantastical imagery of the director's previous work.
Yet as varied and extraordinary as Aronofsky's films are, there are certain threads that follow through each of his tales. Often, the central characters are challenged with reconciling their humanity, the part that craves friendship, sex, love, humor, family (and in Nina’s case food), with the compulsions that drive them forward – the side beset with desires that devour the character from the inside out. Desires which become demons that manifest themselves (again) in both internal and external dangers. Perils which are intermittently real and imagined, and often some combination of the two.
They become worshipful devotees to their endeavors, and more often than not, blind and fanatical devotees, the kind that become consumed to the point of annihilation by that which is ultimately unattainable: The numerical sequence that will unlock the secrets of the universe, and the name of God (Pi), everlasting life (The Fountain), a freezing of, or return to, a season that has past in one's life (The Wrestler)/(Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream) and of course, perfection itself (Black Swan).
Each of these characters destroys their life, either literally or figuratively (or both) in the pursuit of their goals. In his search for the tree of life to preserve his beloved in The Fountain, Tomas misses each opportunity to fully participate in, and enjoy, the experience of even one lifetime with her. Randy, The Ram, shatters his last chance at a genuine relationship with his daughter, and a significant other, in his pursuit of what is (by all accounts) already over for him in The Wrestler. Nina physically butchers herself in order to unleash the part of her that is unabashed and free in Black Swan. In Requiem For A Dream everyone succumbs to the pull of addiction, and the seductive power of delusion – which is, in and of itself, an addiction for many.
Max's mentor in Pi makes the most blatant reference to the thematic chord in Aronofsky's films when he tells the tale of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the Sun and as a result, fell to his death. With the wisdom of age he was warning his young protege not to chase what is not his to pursue. Max, of course, did not heed the cautionary tale, and eventually was compelled to drill a hole in his head to ease the pressure of a mind that was trying to contain truths that only a divine being can comprehend.
Aronofsky's stories frequently deal with pain, both physical and psychological, and work as a metaphor for the suffering inherent in the creative process itself. A process which reflects the blood and anguish of birth, and its paradoxical and necessary mirror, death. As Nina needs both the white and the black swan to be whole, so do we all need the light and the dark, the sacred and the mundane - creation as well as destruction.
Often the director's characters are touched with both genius (or great gifts) and madness - and always they their own worst enemy. Though there are (as suggested) outward enemies present in each of these films: Nina is of course pursued by the various shades of herself in Lily (Mila Kunis), her mother (Barbara Hershey), and to some degree Beth (Winona Ryder), all anxious to unseat and replace her. Max is hunted by a Hasidic cabalistic sect, and a high-powered Wall Street firm - after the secrets his mathematical skill can unlock (or so he believes) in Pi. Randy, who in many ways is facing the most relatable exterior circumstances, is suffocated by his financial realities and failing health in The Wrestler.
Yet it is their inability to master themselves, their overpowering drives, and thirst for what is beyond the bounds of possibility, that creates the ultimate undoing of each of these characters – in both their work, and their lives. Artistic director Thomas Leroy attempts to shine a light on Nina's path to liberation in Black Swan when he reminds her, “the only person standing in your way – is you.”
It is the letting go of that which we do not ultimately control (time, death, God, inspiration) that would free each of these characters to release into the fullness of all that life has to offer, as well as open their eyes to the knowledge that, all that they seek – is already there for them. Again as Leroy stresses to Nina “Perfection is not just about control, it's also about letting go – transcendence, and very few have it in them.”
As is happens, Darren Aronofsky does.
Source For Quotes: Charlie Rose
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