Cinema, the youngest of the great art forms, has wrestled in its time with defining its own archetypes. Some have been pilfered from other art forms…literature and theater and opera…your classic Oedipal complexes and hero-worship. But there is one archetype that has evolved into something purely cinematic. It’s been there from the earliest days. We saw it with Dreyer and Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a prototypical materializing of The Director orchestrating The Performance from The Actress. In its infancy, cinema gleaned from the religious. After its golden era of youth, as it settled into cynicism and postmodernism, it became more deranged. Polanski’s Repulsion…Bergman’s Persona…Altman’s 3 Women…Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. There have been seeds of it planted in horror as well…Argento’s Suspiria…De Palma’s Carrie.
We know the characters: The ingenue dying to land her first big role (Natalie Portman), the fallen star (Winona Ryder), the obsessive mother figure (Barbara Hershey), the psychotic director (Vincent Cassel) and the dark femalien foil to the ingenue (Mila Kunis). To play these parts…to choreograph this masturbatory madness…it’s become a cinematic rite of passage. Darren Aronofsky — impregnating the archetype with his own hang-ups — makes his film, his rite of passage about the achievement of perfection. He’s so comfortable with the archetype that the first spoken words of the film following a fade from black are, “I had the craziest dream last night.” He closes arrogantly with, “It’s perfection.” Fade to white.
Portman speaks both of these lines, and the transformation we witness in between…well…it’s the archetype as we’ve never quite seen it before. Everything we think we know about the archetype is spun seductively into the mind of The Actress! Her character and Aronofsky’s camera twirls like a ballerina out of control…but there’s nothing graceless or mad about The Performance. Portman has us just where she wants us. She is in complete control at all times. Never once did I think she lost herself.
There have only been two roles in Natalie Portman’s career: Mathilda in The Professional and now Nina Sayers in Black Swan. Everything else in between was practice…even her most interesting roles in Closer and V for Vendetta. The regal woodenness of her roles in the Star Wars prequels, the tooth-ache inducing cuteness of her performance in Garden State, the numbing histrionics of Brothers, her steadfast determinism off-screen not to be the stereotypical former child actress — these were all necessary stepping-stones. These were all parts to play…and she combines elements of them all in Nina Sayers. It is the role Portman was born to play. Everything — good, bad and in between…on screen and off — has been building to this. In interviews she may still say, “I’m not sure I want to be an actress.” But here, under Aronofsky’s perverted eye…SHE. IS. THE. ACTRESS.
Ah, yes…we have it all here. There’s Ryder writhing, Hershey screeching, Cassel weaseling and Kunis wiping away the stigma of being the voice of Meg Griffin. Hey, ladies and gentlemen, Mila can act! Then there’s Aronofsky’ shaky camera, which when sent spinning lends itself surprisingly well to the ballet. There’s Clint Mansell’s score merging with the music of Tchiakovsky’s Swan Lake. There are women violently folding into one. There are limbs metamorphosing into wings. There’s blood. There’s sex. There are fever dreams. There are nightmares. There are lucid moments of near perfection.
There are audiences cheering. There’s buzz. There are already references working their way into other forums — witness the hilarious “We’re two Black Swans!” joke in last week’s 30 Rock episode. There are Oscar ballots soon to be cast. It’s strange…the archetype has seemingly evolved from art — from something provocative and spoken about only in screaming whispers by cineasts and critics — into something everyone will now recognize. Will adore. Will rave about. Will mock. Will parody. With Natalie Portman as Black Swan, the archetype now becomes a part of pop-culture.
Just what does a young woman have to do to get our attention? Well, Natalie Portman took the drastic route. Aronofsky was more than willing to lead her. And we love to watch, even if it we hate ourselves or “it” in the end.
Do we all not enjoy watching this rite of passage? Is this not entertainment?
Step right up, ladies. Whose turn will it be next?
Written by David H. Schleicher
The following is dedicated to all the blogosphere buzz around Black Swan:
- Marilyn Ferdinand has an interesting (and not all positive) spin over at Ferdy on Films.
- Aiden R. once again refreshingly “Cuts the Crap” and reminds us why we all love this archetype and classic cinematic head-trip.
- A feminist spin on the madness is taking place at The Canonball.
- Over at Filmic Daniel Montgomery focuses his review on Portman’s physical performance and the tortured mind of her perfectionist Nina.
- Meanwhile, at Movies Over Matter, Jason Marshall argues it’s Aronofsky’s haphazard direction that almost sinks the ship, while it’s Portman who holds it all together with her most compelling performance.