Requiem for a Dream (US, 2000) was my favourite film in the century’s first decade and I’m delighted that director Darren Aronofsky has produced another great movie. Check out the Case for Global Cinema for an excellent discussion and information about the film’s antecedents; here I’m going to focus on Aronofsky’s direction.
However, as an ‘Oscar’ movie it’s worth noting that Portman has followed Mickey Rourke and deservedly garnered a Best Actor Oscar; Aronofsky as an actor’s director?! He also gets terrific performances from Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and, in a small role, Winona Ryder. However, the film’s great – for me – because of the brilliant direction.
Much of the camerawork is handheld however the frame remains composed. There’s no arbitrary placement within the mise en scene for the sake of ‘realist immediacy’. Whilst Tom Hooper did an efficient job with The King’s Speech, Aronofsky’s direction is top drawer; the Academy may have got Portman right but… Using handheld camera, which usually signifies realism, in an expressionist film is a coup de theatre in itself (not to mention to actual coup at the film’s climax). Ballet is about motion and, in shadowing Portman’s Nina, the film focuses on her movement both when at work and when simply commuting home. It welds us to her subjectivity, a key element of an expressionist film.
By shooting much of the ballet in medium shot, the audience are given a privileged position in relation to the performance. The immediacy is striking and gives a clear sense of the physical challenges of ballet (which also emphasises Portman’s ability to convince as a prima ballerina). Understanding the physical challenges involved in performing makes the mental deterioration understandable. Critics who find the narrative unconvincing are not understanding what the movie is trying to do.
I’ve no doubt that Black Swan will stand up to multiple viewings; much of the editing is rapid and so necessitates being seen again. I look forward to teaching the film.