06 February 2011

Black Swan (2010)

Culled from http://www.foxsearchlight.com/blackswan/.
Brief Summary (with major cast and no spoilers)

Ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has been driven, all her life, to be a perfect dancer, but will she achieve her greatest triumph as the dancer in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, or will it be the role that destroys her? Everyone she knows is intensely invested in her success (or failure): her mother's disappointment with her own career makes her obsess over Nina and her dancing (Barbara Hershey), the dance company director (Vincent Cassel) needs a successful season after forcing his aging star (Winona Ryder) to retire, the dark and sexy Lily (Mila Kunis) alternates between friend and saboteur, and members of the corps are similarly ambivalent, joyously celebrating Nina's success and/or bristling with envy that the success is not theirs.

My Comments (may include spoilers)

Of the many problems facing the filmmakers, two of the greatest seem to be depicting spectacular visual moments on screen with the intensity required by the film and representing powerful, intangible ideas in visual forms that will communicate effectively to audiences. Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky is known for the latter. In fact, I would say that, since Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Aronofsky has built his reputation on his ability to make audiences experience—viscerally—the most intimate, secret emotions of his characters. I'll never forget sitting in the theater after watching each of the main characters in Requiem for a Dream end the movie in the fetal position—literally—and gradually realizing that my body was half-way there as well.

Like Pi and Requiem, Black Swan is about obsession, addiction—the impossible quest for perfect transcendence of human limitations. Where the mechanism of that quest is mathematics and drugs in those earlier films, in Black Swan, the vehicle is dance—or art, more generally.

The dance scenes in Black Swan are brilliant. I don't dance (in public), but I found myself half-dancing in my theater seat, bending to the rhythm of Tchaikovsky's ballet, as if I were the partner of Portman's Nina. (I just hope no one noticed.) Aronofsky fairly demolishes the first problem of filmmaking: portraying the beauty and passion of ballet with awesome intensity on the big screen.

But what people are talking about is Aronofsky's fearless decisions in depicting Nina's interior horror. Let's get one thing straight: regardless of any adolescent late night comedy show comments about Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, and despite the scenes selected for the trailers, Black Swan is not about sex. As it turns out, the sexuality in Black Swan is a dead end—the autoeroticism that ballet director Leroy associates with "letting go" and "living a little" frequently leads to shame—or even terror—for Nina, not liberation. And it's not clear that the sexual encounter with Lily even happens (or if Lily is even entirely real, for that matter).

Actually, if it makes sense to discuss what Black Swan is "about" (and I'm not sure that it does make sense), it's closer to being about violence than sex. The damage done to the women in this movies is uncomfortable from the start of the film, and it becomes unbearable in little time. From the stretched, taut face of Nina's mother who clings desperately to youthful dreams (whether hers or Nina's)—and who paints similarly tortured, freakish versions of Nina's face, over and over, day in and day out—to the many injuries Nina sustains in the course of her preparation, pain is the norm for the women of Black Swan. And when the French director Leroy seduces Nina, it's not about romance or even sex. This isn't the tired old trope of the Svengali or the infamous casting couch. It's rape—a pitiless act of domination, of overbearing will, cloaked in the thin justification of artistic greatness. Like the impersonal, cultural forces that threaten the protagonists in Pi and Requiem, there's a whole system of abuse bearing down on frail Nina.

While watching Black Swan, I realized that there's a recurrence of sickening, self-inflicted wounds in Aronofsky's films. They're graphic, they're burned into my mind—and Black Swan adds to that gallery of images. I'm not sure what they mean in the final reckoning, but it's something about tearing ourselves apart in the process of attaining our dreams.

For the most part, Aronofsky's attempt to translate Nina's internal, infernal spiral is insanely successful—and the decision to intertwine that narrative with the plot of Swan Lake itself was utter genius. At the same time, the Swan Lake plot also led to Aronofsky's only misstep: trying to depict Nina's transformation into the black swan on screen. I'm afraid there's just no way to show a woman's final conversion into a bird without showing me a girl chicken suit. That one, climactic moment tipped the film into the arena of bathos, if only for a second. (I wondered, later, if it would have worked just as well to suggest that final consumation but to leave it off-screen: maybe a feather falling to the dance floor and a cut to that exquisite shot of fully human Nina on stage casting a double swan shadow.)

That said, though, I'd still give the movie 9 1/2 stars out of 10, and I recommend it for people who liked Pi and/or Requiem for a Dream, dark, psychological thrillers, or ballet (as long as those ballet-lovers aren't expecting pink tutus and happy dancing girls).

Random Tidbits:

  • It was infuriating to watch this movie with the audience I was with last night. It was like doing sex education with 6th graders. Every time anything remotely sexual was said or done on screen, there was giggling, laughing, and not-even-whispered comments. Seriously, American audiences need to grow up. No wonder more and more movie lovers are staying home these days. Why pay $12 a pop to see a movie with a bunch of cell phone using, giggling morons in a theater that smells like stale junk food and body odor, when you can stay home, rent the movie for a buck (or less) and watch with whomever you want?
  • I'm betting that sales of the Swan Lake ballet will be unusually high in 2010 and 2011. 


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