Black Swan comes out on BluRay/DVD tomorrow. If you haven’t seen it, do so because it’s as good as you’ve heard. Natalie Portman absolutely earned the awards she’s received including the Academy Award for Best Actress. The work she put into the role is immediately apparent upon seeing the movie, and how she was able to do that while also having no less than three other movies in the pipeline is nothing short of amazing.
I saw another movie last week that reminded me of it in a number of ways.
BTW, some light spoilers on both movies if you haven’t seen them. You’ve been warned.
Both movies are about someone slowly going mad. Both movies deal with hallucinations and questions about what is and isn’t real. Both lead roles required the actor/actress to lose an unhealthy amount of weight for the role. And watching both gave me the distinct feeling of “this is what it feels like to go stark raving mad.”
In The Machinist Christian Bale plays Trevor Reznik; a character who works at a manufacturing shop and is plagued by insomnia that has lasted for over a year. His time is spent working, eating at a diner where he has a crush on the waitress, or with a prostitute for whom he is a regular. He is emaciated to a frightening degree, and the people around him at work and his prostitute begin to question his health and state of mind. His sense of reality is further threatened when first he notices a game of Hangman is being played on his fridge, and second when he meets a fellow named Ivan at work who has a bizarre and cavalier attitude about life. Ivan comes and goes, almost haunting Trevor as nobody seems to know who Ivan is.
Trevor’s life takes a terrible turn soon after meeting Ivan. Trevor is distracted by Ivan while performing maintenance on a machine at work. The machine is activated, costing a co-worker his arm. While Trevor blames Ivan, everyone else questions Trevor’s sanity because there is no Ivan on the payroll. Is Ivan a hallucination? What is real?
I’m crazy…now what?
You could say that Christian Bale has been type-cast. When you think about it, he’s been cast to play numerous roles where his character is someone with tons of issues and mental problems. Patrick Bateman, Trevor Reznik, Bruce Wayne/Batman, a magician who seems to have two personalities (yes, I’ve seen The Prestige and know what the deal really is,) his own Oscar Winning turn as Dickie Ward, hell even John Conner. Bale plays crazy people. He plays them reaaaaallly good though. Yeah, he’s had a few non-crazy roles, but overall? He’s one of my favorite actors, but the dude himself may be a little nuts. It’s probably why he’s so good at it.
While the source of their bent realities is quite different, both Black Swan and The Machinist present a terrifying view of what it must be like to go crazy or be crazy. A fractured mind living their life through a haze of reality and hallucination, seeing things that aren’t there, living events that didn’t happen. Having their surroundings change without their knowledge, all while somehow also living in the real world…
Portman’s Nina Sayers sees pictures her mother has drawn talking to her and making faces. Reznik is playing a game of Hangman on his fridge with an intruder trying to tell him a message. Sayers sees herself sprouting feathers and scratches at her skin. Reznik over a years time has lost so much weight he looks like a zombie. Sayers has a lesbian encounter with another dancer that never happened, and Reznik spends an evening with a waitress and her son that is somehow at the root of his insomnia. Sayers sees images of someone stalking her that could be herself, or the other dancer. Reznik is being stalked by Ivan, but why? Sayers insanity causes her to lash out and hurt her predecessor, while Reznik’s sightings of Ivan cause him to accidentally turn on a machine while his co-workers arm is inside. The site of his severed arm is terrifying, juxtaposing the horrors of real life with their imagined horrors.
As you watch both, a foreboding sense of claustrophobia and doom overtakes you. As each character succumbs to the violent false realities their minds have created, you become afraid of what is around the next corner in a way that Freddy or Jason can’t compete with. It’s the purest fear of the unknown—fear of your own mind. In Reznik’s case, he has repressed something horrible he’d done a year earlier and his mind is trying to make him realize the truth. In Sayer’s case, years of repression by her mother and her own terrible anxiety are the cause, but each persons broken mind is a sad and terrifying thing to behold.
These movies required their lead actor to put their bodies through heavy trauma for the role. Bale went for long periods without sleeping to understand the effects of sleeplessness, and he lost 63 lbs. for the role. Late in the film there is a flashback of him at normal weight, just in case you’d gotten used to his emaciated look. The level of dedication that Portman gave to Black Swan is no less amazing, as her intensive six month dance training gave her the thin, boney but muscular frame of a professional dancer. When you think about what actors sometimes put themselves through for roles, it’s sad. Renee Zellweger going up and down in weight for Bridget Jones and Chicago movies is another example. Portman is now pregnant, and Bale gained all his weight back and then some for Batman Begins.
Both were amazing movies, and each actor was amazing in the movie, so why did Portman get nominated for this, but not Bale in the past? Interesting question. Maybe people really do think that Bale is crazy, and therefore he hasn’t had to “act” that much, while Portman has had a wide variety of roles. Who knows.
I recommend both movies to anyone who wants to see what it’s like to go bat$#!+ crazy.
From Russia with Love
As an aside, something particularly interesting to me is that the roots of both of these movies lay in mid to late 19th century Russia. Black Swan is of course about Sayers trying to win the lead in a new production of Swan Lake, a ballet and musical piece written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. One of the chief influences on the Machinist was the works of author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. These men were contemporaries in the arts in Russia during the politically turbulent time of Czar Nicholas I. Commentators and critics said of their works: “With a hidden passion they both stop at moments of horror, total spiritual collapse, and finding acute sweetness in the cold trepidation of the heart before the abyss, they both force the reader to experience those feelings, too.”
The movies force the viewer to experience those feelings as well, and those themes are immediately apparent. These same themes are persistent in the life of both men. Indeed Tchaikovsky was known to have struggled with homosexuality, and I wouldn’t put it past Director Darren Aronofsky to have included lesbian tendencies in Black Swan as a parallel to that. Such similar movies being inspired and influenced by contemporary artists more than 150 years ago, artists who through different mediums explored similar concepts and themes.
And as a reflection of reality 150 years later, what do you see when you look inside yourself after seeing of these movies?