With Darren Aronofsky‘s highly anticipated (at least for me) new film Mother! being released in cinemas today, I thought it would make sense to dedicate Friday’s Favourite to Aronofsky being as he is one of my favourite directors. I wanted to talk about my favourite of his works, being Black Swan, but I also wanted to discuss why Aronofsky is at the top of my list for favourite directors.
To be frank, I could have selected Requiem for a Dream (2000) as my favourite of his films but I decided on Black Swan for its “rewatchability”. The reason for this is because I don’t particularly want or need to watch Requiem for a Dream again, I’ve watched it a few times when I was younger when I could stomach things much better. I like to shield myself from any unnecessary unpleasantness if needs be, because I’m old and boring like that. Nevertheless, Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece, a truly horrifying masterpiece.
What Aronofsky is very good at doing in most of his films, is getting you into a similar head space as the films protagonist(s), it is incredibly effective. His films usually depict a grizzly downward spiral into insanity of some form, whether it be Maximillian’s final resort of self-trepanation in Pi (1998), or Sara Goldfarb’s obsession resulting in her being committed as a mental patient in Requiem for a Dream, and finally Nina’s desperate need to reach perfection in Black Swan.
The final montage in Requiem was Aronofsky pushing the boundaries, he skilfully wove several scenes that, if taken separately would have been nowhere near as impactful. He then crafted it into something incredibly grim and upsetting with powerful cinematography, music, and CGI/camera effects. All this culminated in footage that was so emotionally and tragically climactic that you’re left wanting to look away.*
With Black Swan, Aronofsky took his mastery into a more refined and nuanced direction, instead of overloading the audience with terrible imagery and sounds, we see some subtlety, a slower burn into insanity and tragedy. Black Swan was Aronofsky venturing into a far more polished and mainstream film, and unexpectedly, I prefer it.
I remember once asking a friend if they had watched the film, a male friend, who sadly stated “I don’t want to watch a film about ballet”, in which I responded, “it is nothing to do with ballet”. Much like The Wrestler (2008) was nothing to do with wrestling. Whatever the protagonist’s obsession is in his films, they are just the side note, the real story is their decline, their loss of self to the point that their obsession becomes all-consuming. On the other hand, I must state that the gritty world of ballet is the exact sort of place that could harbour this sort of behaviour, you must have very tough skin in that line of work (if you don’t believe me then watch Flesh and Bone (2015-), it does a pretty good job of showing what the world of professional ballet is like). I can imagine it is similar with wrestling, and Aronofsky has a keen eye for identifying the best environments that would spew out individuals capable of these obsessive thoughts and damaging actions.
In Black Swan, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina for the New York Ballet Company, her dream, her goal, is to become the Prima Ballerina, to the point that it dictates her entire existence. Her need to be successful in her field is compounded by her controlling mother who herself was a ballerina in her youth. When she is given the chance at a role of a lifetime in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, it is on the condition that she is able to deliver a convincing performance of the Black Swan. As she pours everything into perfecting her technical ability, she is faced with an artistic director who wishes for her to be able to let loose. The director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) implores her to lose her inhibitions and as Nina ventures further from the repressed life she lives under the watchful eye of her mother, she begins to spiral out of control. As feelings of competitiveness, jealously and desperation become all-consuming, Nina begins to hallucinate. Her paranoia about fellow ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) sabotaging her, leads to a distressing incident, but nothing will stop Nina from giving her final perfect performance.
Thomas Leroy: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.
Nina: I’m sorry.
Thomas Leroy: Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!
So, we know that Aronofsky can deliver the psychologically thrilling, but in Black Swan he shows that he is also perfectly capable of nailing body horror in film, there are points in it that leave you physically flinching. This is not overdone, thankfully, it is nicely balanced with the psychological elements to depict Nina’s decline into madness, and the climactic end is incredibly poignant. The highly skilled storytelling combined with the beautiful cinematography, in the end, leaves you brimming with emotions.
After Black Swan, it was obvious that Aronofsky had to head in a different direction with his work, he explored very similar themes in Pi, Requiem, The Wrestler and Black Swan and we needed something different. Sadly, Noah (2014) was not the film we were looking for, so it leaves me asking whether Aronofsky can deliver anything other than what he has so successfully done before. I think other people are asking the same, and I’m hoping Mother! will be the right answer.
*Don’t ever fall asleep to this film, I once did this and I awoke to the montage in which I thought I had entered some sort of hell dimension.