Where Black Swan is concerned, paradoxes abound. Darren Aronofsky‘s Oscar-nominated film was released on DVD and Blu-ray this week. This review is of the Blu-ray.
The film tells the story of a young girl (Natalie Portman) attempting to validate the expectations and pressures on her to achieve perfection as the lead in the ballet Swan Lake. Those pressures come to a head when her studied perfection – her personal point of pride – becomes her own adversary. She is paradoxically directed to tap into an imperfect, more passionate nature that is anathema to the rest of her career and indeed her personal life. By the film’s close, a pursuit of “perfect imperfection” has left her the tragic spoils of the battle between control and passion. In other words: Black Swan is classic melodrama.
For this piece, I will not be writing a proper review of the film itself, but rather, focus on the presentation of the Blu-ray edition. Truly, no one needs yet another accolade added to the pile of accolades for this film and chances are good you have already experienced the public reaction to it.
That reaction, as split as it was, likely offered little to tell you whether you should invest your time. Black Swan was absolutely divisive in its appeal — as well it should be: the best creative work makes bold choices and supports those choices with finely-crafted, subtle detail. Admittedly, the bold choices of Black Swan were not for everyone. But for those who find bold filmmaking appealing, it proved utterly fulfilling. Admittedly, it was this writer’s personal favorite of 2010.
Director Aronofsky makes extremely personal films. Is that to say that his films are personal to himself? Perhaps, but more than that, his films hang tightly on studies of their lead characters. The viewer always watches the drama unfold around them through the color cast on these characters. So intentional is that choice, that in his first feature film, Pi, he literally attached a tightly focused camera to Sean Gullette, his lead actor. In key scenes, the audience was strapped to the presentation, with Aronofsky refusing to let the audience escape the pressure on Gullette’s character.
Given that priority, filmmaking is paradoxically a collaborative medium that requires the focused attention of many people working together to make the proper choices that will support these characters and what the filmmakers wish to tell us about them. It is a further strange paradox that the selling of these films by the film industry often inverts the reality of this, serving a collaborative work to the vanity of a single auteur director or worse, the actor standing in front of the camera.
I suppose the assumption is that it is easier to sell a singular vision as a personality or reputation than it is to sell as a smartly assembled team of experts, each playing at the best of his or her ability. After all, when it goes wrong, the liability falls somewhat on that same film industry as well. When it comes time to wash away mistakes, individuals can be discarded easier than entire teams.
Past the primary allure of seeing Black Swan, the extras of the Blu-ray edition add an extremely illuminating look behind the collaborative effort that went into making the film. While many modern releases aspire to add documentation of a feature film’s creation, the results are usually lackluster. Supplements either impose, or worse, support an assumed presentation of singular personalities chiseling out masterpieces.
The centerpiece of Black Swan‘s extras, a 50-minute documentary entitled Black Swan: Metamorphosis, undermines this tendency, and in the process of doing so, reveals the relationship between narcissism and artistry that not only serves the metaphor explored in the feature, but also masks the nature of filmmaking.
A director’s commentary is a reliable feature commonly added to home video releases (usually only to serve a director’s vanity). The allure is obvious: who better than the director to tell you what was behind individual creative decisions? Indeed, Aronofsky has made a few: one of the most compelling of such commentaries is his for The Fountain, which was excised from the commercial release, but can be found on the Internet if you look around for it.
Nonetheless, Black Swan offers no such commentary. Rather, in addition to the director, Metamorphosis interviews several members of the cast such as Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and production designer Thérèse DePrez. It is clear he hires thinkers, and they individually offer insights into their individual processes and the creative decisions they made. They explain how these decisions served the larger story. These decisions, when they initially pass before you viewing the feature, will likely escape your immediate attention, but after they are illuminated, it is difficult to imagine the film as effective without them.
His supporting creative team doesn’t necessarily serve the director, but rather the director maintains a specific vision while he collaborates with the others toward the common goal. Yes, the director might most singularly define that goal, but to assume that he is the finite point of reference would be naive. Instead, the individuals under Aronofsky are empowered to make decisions toward an end, and the director only intervenes when a choice has gone off-target, or could be more effective.
To support that, I recommend a specific scene in the documentary in which he directs Natalie Portman writing on the word “whore” on a bathroom mirror. The scene doesn’t happen on-camera for the film, but that the word is written by Portman is important to the story, as is that it be written in a way that is consistent with the character’s psychology. It is a simple task that Aronofsky knows he must delegate to his lead actress, and he appropriately coaches its delivery.
Some reference to the film’s modest budget of $13 million is also made. Instead of viewing the budgetary limitations as creative limitations, the crew finds ways to use the limitations to their favor, at least philosophically. Constraints breed impulse decisions that focus the each collaborator’s decisions and they sometimes discover the first thought is often the best.
Lengthy passages of the documentary explore the use of mirrors throughout the feature, not only as a device to redirect the viewer’s eye back to the isolating, personal journey of the lead character, but to serve the truth that ballet dancers work within an environment of mirrors as a means of either self-critique or of indulging narcissism.
Indeed narcissism is explored by those the viewer might most suspect guilty of such narcissism: the actors. While explaining the extreme nature of his portrayal of the ballet’s hot-blooded director, Vincent Cassel offers, “The key to the character is narcissism. If you are passionate about what you do, I guess it really does excuse a bit of what you are and the way you behave. That’s the way I did it.”
The results are what anyone who is ever compelled to watch bonus features ever expects to get from them: true insight into the creative decisions that render an effective film. It is rare that such insights ever successfully reach an audience. It is equally paradoxical (there’s that word again) that lead actress Natalie Portman, the winner of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role, is so rarely featured therein, but it underscores the principled conceit of the documentary: there are many creative individuals that bring a successful film to the cinema, and most of them will never receive the credit they deserve.
As contrast, the Blu-ray also offers additional featurettes that pay somewhat more cursory attention to these same detailed decisions. The featurettes are clearly devices of 20th Century Fox for the purposes of selling the film, and as such pay much more lavish attention to praising Aronofsky and Portman. Nonetheless, most of them are worth exploring if only once. Some of the great talent behind some of the supporting cast is allowed to shine through in them in spite of the glossier tone, with Barbara Hershey and Cassel in particular revealed as very thoughtful players. In lesser detail than in Metamorphosis, explorations of ballet as context, as well as production and costume design are offered to some measurable insight.
I also recommend Blu-ray as the means to viewing this film at home. In particular, there is so much subtle, fine-detail in the film that if viewed through the haze of soft, low-resolution DVD or compressed streaming media, it would be otherwise lost. Clearly there are films for which the experience belies no genuine difference for a softer picture — this film is not one of those. When I made reference earlier to great creative work employing bold choices that are reinforced with subtle detail, this film exemplifies that. Some very subtle effects shots appear midway through the film that hint at the penultimate resolution. So subtle is their appearance that you might not otherwise notice them and a low-resolution presentation won’t help at all.
While Black Swan was shot digitally, a level of filmic grain is present throughout the movie (even in scenes where it wouldn’t normally occur with actual film). While omnipresent, it is clearly a creative choice, and doesn’t distract at all. I mention this only as some have defended film grain on Blu-ray presentations as a necessary marker of the accuracy of a transfer. It isn’t necessarily true in this scenario, but it is a consistent trademark of Aronofsky and Libatique’s established style. Nevertheless, the picture is sumptuous, and all you have come to expect from Blu-ray.
Further, music is an integral component of any ballet and the score opens up with amazing dynamics that were shamefully overlooked during the recently-passed award season. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack makes surprisingly active use of surrounds, resulting in a multimedia presentation that you might think of as reference-quality — if you are the sort who would demonstrate your system without reaching for films that employ fighting robots or jet aircraft.
The Blu-ray is, obviously, recommended.