Black Swan stages a bleak ballet, while Client 9 details the political downfalls of a different kind of dance.
Darren Aronofsky is the kind of filmmaker who builds up goodwill with every movie he makes no matter what subject he focuses his eclectic sights on. He has an uncanny knack, through sharp storytelling with a rich visual syntax, for breathing life into wildly different films that maintain a thematic consistency, while displaying a distinct, ever-maturing, style.
Tiny Dancer. The flick struck a popular chord, but still, even with what on the surface seemed like a creative
choice calculated for wider appeal Aronofsky meant for The Wrestler to be a companion piece for a darker,
stranger, more difficult work—Black Swan.
He established that style immediately with his 1998 debut Pi.
Shot in gritty black and white and telling the mind-bending story of an obsessive, mentally unstable mathematical punk genius who, while looking for a way to predict stock market picks, runs afoul of a group of Hassidic Jews who believe he might have unraveled the language of God, Pi was a wickedly watchable indie whose story was so enigmatically propulsive it made math fun. Math.
While a dark film, Pi was only a beginning for Aronofsky and what would become his growing talent for mapping out the psychological inner architecture of tragically flawed characters who cling to hope only to be destroyed by it, which he hammered home much more forcefully with his follow up, Requiem for a Dream--a story so stark in its portrayal of an anguished mother and her drug addict son that, after the second viewing, I promised myself to never see again (despite that fact, it's great).
He took that raw honesty to the next level with the wildly ambitious and trippy The Fountain, an awesome film that bombed spectacularly, and as will happen in the blowback of failure he began scoping out a Robocop remake (that I'd honestly still love to see happen) to balance out the scorecard.
But instead he turned to a less complicated sure-thing, the (sorta) feel-good, down-on-his-luck fighter story, 2008's The Wrestler, a film with a stripped down narrative and visual aesthetic, buoyed by Mickey Rourke's career-revitalizing performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson. The flick struck a popular chord, but still, even with what on the surface seemed like a creative choice calculated for wider appeal Aronofsky meant for The Wrestler to be a companion piece for a darker, stranger, more difficult work--Black Swan.
Now, on top of math and wrestling, he's somehow made ballet compelling, forever earning my benefit of the doubt.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a coldly perfectionist ballerina who is vying to assume the dual roles as the lead in Swan Lake. Obsessed with honing her craft to razor sharp brilliance, Nina represses her emotions, a job made all too easy as she lives with her cloyingly suffocating mother (Barbra Hershey), a retired dancer who seems bent on molding Nina into a new and improved version of her former self.
The pressure has Nina wound tight, as she finds herself in competition for the role with Lily (Mila Kunis) a sultry, free spirit who, while not quite as talented, succumbs to the joys of her art in ways the chaste Nina doesn't allow herself to. The show's director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), convinced of Nina's skill encourages her to get into the role by getting in touch with herself. As Nina begins to let go sexually, her suppressed emotions begin to break down her walls of rigidity.
But landing the role only amplifies the stress of perfection, and soon the cracks manifest in increasingly bizarre hallucinations and the possible rupturing of her sanity.
While, tonally, Black Swan is completely different from The Wrestler, it's in their themes that they mirror each other-- wrestling as a low form of ballet, protagonists on different ends of their careers but unhealthily committed to how those careers fulfill them in poverty or privilege. The Wrestler crafts a lighter tone as a drama but Mickey Rourke's physical deterioration is paralleled in Portman's mental dissolution. Even their finales share a triumphant yin/yang kinship; again and again Black Swan is The Wrestler's dark reflection.
Aronofsky, from a script by a trio of writers, courts an odd combination of psychological horror with giallo overtones--tipping closer to Polanski than Dario Argento--that leaven the melodrama (which is bolstered by Clint Mansell's imperiously grand score) surrounding Nina's cloistered life, the effect of which renders Black Swan Aronofsky's most discomfiting and bleak film since Requiem, though it doesn't land with the same brutal punch. Black Swan is too lush and attractive (thanks to great work by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, returning from The Fountain) for the film to feel that arrestingly personal. There's an emotional distance that is another chilly counterpart to The Wrestler's warm characterizations but it's a necessary distance that accentuates Nina's anxiety as clearly as her reflections in the dance studio's mirrors portend her fracturing sense of self.
Portman dissolves into the role, playing Nina with an amalgam of adolescent naiveté and iron willed resolve, a duality that she uses to reveal deeper layers of Nina as she's transformed, figuratively (and sometimes literally) by her dangerously liberating ambitions and the increasingly unmoored emotions they unlock. It's a complex and deeply internal role which Portman makes tangible and sensuous despite her guarded solitude.
Barbra Hershey is deliciously contemptible as Nina's mother, whose jealously over-protective nature and passive-aggressive manipulations give the crowd a reason to root for her obsessive, prima donna progeny. She's not as overtly hateable--or crazy--as, say, Piper Laurie's detestable mother in Carrie, but for some reason my mind kept returning there, as if it were a subtle hat tip to Black Swan's horror undertones.
Mila Kunis is lovely and oozes charisma (and fulfills the promise to those who were just interested in seeing her and Portman get it on), while Vincent Cassel plays the demanding, yet well meaning, Frenchman director-type to a tee. Ultimately, though, this is Portman's show.
Black Swan is not necessarily a horror film--Aronofsky isn't interested in being that straight forward--but there is surely nothing scarier than the realizing your perceptions of self and the reality that defines them may be no more than figments of your broken psyche. For Aronofsky that's one compound of an intricate potion that he, once again, mixes like a master alchemist. Bravo. Solicitor General
Burning Bridges. Client 9—as Spitzer was known in the investigations reports—is an interesting look at
the man, though not particularly illuminating of him.
In many ways Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, like Black Swan, is a companion piece to another film, though its prolific, muck raking director, Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) had nothing to do with the recently maddening expose, Inside Job. Where Spitzer does make an appearance in both films, in Inside Job he's like a retired general commenting on what went wrong with the war strategy. In Client 9 we see Spitzer when he was still in a position to win it.
Famously toppled as Governor of New York after revelations of a taste for high-dollar prostitutes, Spitzer, an Eliot Ness-inspired firebrand, made a career as a white-knight Attorney General who lived to root out corruption in sacrosanct business institutions from Big Pharma to Wall Street powerhouse AIG and eventually the notoriously corrupt New York legislature, shining a light on their criminal practices and earning a cadre of powerful enemies. He was already grooming himself for the Presidency.
The film exhaustively details the bridges Spitzer crossed and unceremoniously burned as he rooted out criminal business and political practices with alarming success; racking up convictions and shaking up the halls of financial power. The film also traces the parallel existence of The Emperor's Club, the Manhattan escort service that catered to the financial elite, whose most famous employee, Ashley DuPre became the face of Spitzer's ruinous hypocrisy.
Client 9--as Spitzer was known in the investigations reports--is an interesting look at the man, though not particularly illuminating of him. Spitzer himself is a guarded individual and while his interviews reveal a smart, driven, serious-minded man with a boyish predilection to laugh off his faults I never got the sense he was showing anymore than he wanted to reveal, like any good politician. His combative, borderline-coercive, style is instead detailed through the eyes of others, political enemy and former co-worker alike, describing a flawed and difficult man with, at heart, pure intentions--a weird counterpart to Julian Assange.
The film doesn't intentionally draw a parallel to the jailed WikiLeaks creator but I couldn't help but see it in the conveniently timed sexual scandals that befell both of them after they pissed off as many powerful people as one could deem possible. In Spitzer's case the film couldn't ignore the timing, either--or the circumstances by which it played out as the FBI begins a seemingly unprecedented investigation of the one (arguably most powerful) client of a New York escort service who just so happened to be scoring serious convictions, upending financial service heavy weights and dismantling the twisted system that was making a few hedge fund operators and some powerful CEO's billions of ill-gotten dollars. Coincidence?
Not hardly. Spitzer's enemies can barely contain their glee, one former SEC financial officer all but admits to having him spied on and ultimately tipping off the FBI, not as much in words as in his sense of satisfaction. The film questions why being caught in an extramarital affair for Spitzer is any more hypocritical than any conservative politician who denounces infidelity while indulging in it (sure, Spitzer had recently taken down a prostitution ring) and more importantly why Spitzer's downfall should be so epic when others merely move on in politics (like Newt Gingrich or David Vitter who got popped for the same crime, never resigned and was ultimately re-elected or even DuPre herself, who went on to pen an advice column for the conservative New York Post). While the film never garners the incontrovertible proof that Spitzer was the victim of a conspiracy--and he was, after all, guilty--the wider picture it paints leaves little doubt that he handed his enemies the noose and little doubt of who pulled the lever.
Client 9 is more remorseful than angry like Inside Job. But where the latter details the outrageous corruption of a system that allows legal theft, the former is an entertainingly informative and wry lament on the fall of maybe the one man who could have stopped the 2008 meltdown and saved us all a few billion dollars. Cold comfort, but who knows? Maybe there's another one like Spitzer out there. I'm pretty sure we'll need him.