Friday, October 30, 2015

Freaky Friday: "Black Swan" (2010)

Natalie Portman in Black Swan
The season is upon us, and it's time to get in the mood for Halloween. Every Friday in October, The Oscar Buzz will be highlighting the films that The Academy recognized that likely chilled you to your bone. While there have been several genres more prevalent than horror, there's been a fair share that have popped up and proven themselves among the more prestigious competition. What is it about these films that stand out? Are they just scary, or is there something more to their charm? Join in the journey of recognizing the award nominated scares that you may or may not have known about.

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Written By: Mark Heyman & Andres Heinz & John J. McLaughlin (Screenplay)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Oscar Wins: 1
-Best Actress (Natalie Portman)

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing

As of 2015, director Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is the last "horror" film to be nominated for Best Picture. To properly call it horror is to enter a can of worms that will cause disputes about its actual validity. After all, the other Freaky Friday entries have all featured an actual supernatural form of terror. The Exorcist had the devil. Aliens had aliens. They've had these lingering forces that have fought the protagonists in engaging ways. That isn't to say that Black Swan lacks conflict. It's just something that seeps more into other genres, most specifically that of psychological thriller akin to director Roman Polanski; who even then was dealing with demonic ideals in Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion. While I don't know that Black Swan *is* horror directly, it definitely has an awe-inspiring level of fear that runs throughout the entire film.

Horror is generally seen as a visual fear; a cumulative being that is attacking the protagonist. This has come in the guise of haunted houses, monsters, and serial killers - all of which Black Swan doesn't have. However, I would like to make the case that it does have a certain horror that also runs rampant. It's the fear of failure. While this doesn't seem like the greatest subject matter for the genre, it's definitely something that eats at the creative types. In the case of Black Swan, it is ballet. Nina (Natalie Portman) wants to be the lead in Swan Lake, but comes into conflict when her understudy (Mila Kunis) begins to pose a real life threat to her chances. It's petty subject matter often saved for romantic comedies, but what Aronofsky has done is create something that is wholly immersive and terrifying. It also helps that composer Clint Mansell interpreted the famous ballet's score into its own use for melodramatic emphasis.

Fear is the enemy in Black Swan. It eats at its characters, specifically Nina as she lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey). It isn't just a film about the drive. It's about the intimidation and the desire to be a woman of note. It's a psycho-sexual look into the desperation to be beautiful, agile, and young. As Nina encounters people have been through the ringer (Winona Ryder), she discovers the horrors of the fading relevance she is doomed to face. Her understudy is more attractive and better than her. As a result, she has fantasies of having sex with her and letting go of her inner turmoil. When she does, it turns into one of the most surreal images of the 10's so far. She isn't just doing Swan Lake. She is THE Black Swan, transforming onstage into something that is beautiful and graceful. Even as she faces potential death, her last words are "I was perfect," suggesting that she literally bled for her art.

This wasn't just some arbitrary plot device either. Aronofsky transforms Nina slowly over the film from an innocent woman into the conflicted individual that she is. The whole thing, for some, may read like a surreal soap opera in which everything is heightened and people are arguably too irrational. Still, I think that there's something to calling this horror because unlike most psychological thrillers, the fear is visible. Nina picks feathers out of her skin. She imagines her room talking to her. Even in a dance club, she is surrounded by potential hurdles. The paranoia is visually present in immersive ways emphasizing that this is Nina's perspective. She may be on the verge of losing grasp of sanity for the sake of art, but Aronofsky does it with such visual grace - the likes of which he hadn't done since Requiem for a Dream. This is especially an odd film considering how nuanced and "visually unimpressive" his previous film - The Wrestler - was. He swings for the fences and produces one of his most striking films.

This is why I consider Black Swan to be a horror film. While people can get caught up in monsters, I do think that there's merit in exploring the horrors of the mind. I am fine if the film seems too pulpy for some, though it also makes me wonder how it was able to get a Best Picture nomination. It largely hinges on Portman's performance, in which her neurotic nature builds and we're forced to see the world through her eyes. While this isn't the last film to feature the fears of perfectionism to get a Best Picture nomination (see: Whiplash), it's definitely among the scariest because it understands how sacrifice can irrationally destroy a person. Portman embodies Nina's deconstruction so well that it turns into a beautiful, strange package.

If nothing else, one of the underlying themes of this year's Freaky Friday entries has been the acting nominations. While the genre hasn't had the best of luck in every other field, acting seems to be more accepting. Whether it's The Exorcist, Aliens, Carrie, Psycho, or Black Swan; they all have performers who strive for something greater, capturing fear in compelling ways. In the process, it proves that there is some levity to the genre that doesn't get enough credit. Horror isn't just about the supernatural scares. It's about the people coming to terms with the situation. So while it may be awhile (if ever) before horror wins Best Picture, Black Swan proves that they'll always stand a chance in acting fields - if the role is good enough. 

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