Cinematic Rites of Passage

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.  Continue reading