Friday, December 17, 2010

Black Swan (***1/2)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky


On the surface, it seems odd to hear Darren Aronofsky talk about his latest film, Black Swan, as a "companion piece" to his 2008 film The Wrestler. One is a gritty journey of realism that is told from the abrasive world of the wrestling mat. The other one - the newer one - is a surreal psychological thriller about the ravishing art of ballet. But there are a lot of similarities, both thematically and visually. In The Wrestler, Aronofsky stripped down one of the more brutal physical activities (professional wrestling) and really exposed some of its beauties, showing how the form can be seen as an art form. It's the inverse in Black Swan, though, as the alluring grace of ballet is broken down into its most unattractive and emotionally demanding. And both show the kind of obsessive personality it takes to perfect either activity... and neither is too pretty.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a perfectionist, which is a very valuable asset in the New York City Lincoln Center Ballet in which she performs. Her meticulous dedication to her craft has vaulted her to the very top of the dancers in her troupe, and this has captured the attention of her sultry, but punishing French instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassell). Thomas' latest show is a modest, but visceral "re-imagining" of the classic Swan Lake, and he chooses Nina to play the lead role: the captivating Swan Queen. The part is broken into two sides: the virtuous White Swan, and the seductive Black Swan. Thomas knows that Nina has the innocence and precision to master the White Swan, but does she have the passion and emotion to create a palpable Black Swan? Thomas hopes to bring it out of her, but finds it hard to overcome Nina's stringent, almost too perfect, mechanics. She's spent her entire life consuming herself in her dancing, so when Thomas asks her to "let loose", it doesn't come terribly easy to her.

That Nina never obviously comes across as the archetypal "naive girl caving under the pressure" is a testament to Portman's technically proficient performance. Nina's not a deer in headlights, but is in fact someone becoming harassed by her own mind. When Thomas uses his own pulsing sexuality to bring the Black Swan out of Nina by kissing her passionately in his office, she bites his lip. This is not the behavior of a girl who is shy or tentative, but someone whose own sexual repression runs very deep. Thomas asks her if she's a virgin, and for a second she has to think about it, before responding meekly, "No". It's pretty hard for the audience to believe her. Any passion that she may have comes through in her technique but not in her execution, and to everyone else in her life she's cold and unresponsive - careful to light up her beautiful, but fake smile to anyone can see it. In trying to become the allusive Black Swan, Nina's biggest obstacle is herself.

Of course, the people in her life don't make it any easier. In addition to Thomas' various advances, there is the arrival of the ethereal Lily (Mila Kunis). She's friendly, but also wild and fierce, with an exotic tattoo nearly covering her entire back. Basically, she's everything that Nina is not. Thomas and Nina watch as Lily moves through her routine on the practice floor, not nearly as skillfully as Nina, but certainly more effortlessly. "She's not faking it," Thomas tells Nina. In terms of a screenwriting concept, Lily works pretty brilliantly as a foil, and is embodied in an entrancing performance from Kunis. Lily works to bring Nina out of her steel shell, but her threat in the dance house sends Nina further down the rabbit hole of fanatical practice. When Thomas casts Lily as the Swan Queen's alternate, Nina becomes convinced that Lily is trying to destroy her.

The script to Black Swan (which is credited to three different writers, though none of them seemed to have worked on it together - for the sake of this review, though, let's just credit Andres Heinz, who apparently created the script's "story") is exposed by the end of the film to be a pretty generic psychological horror film. I guess it's up to individual viewers to decide to whether or not that's a bad thing. But Aronofsky is able to kink the storyline to make sure that the haunting brutality of ballet stays one of the main themes. It goes beyond the physical toll of practice. A sub-plot including Thomas' former main star and lover Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is important, showing the possible fate of these professional performers. Thomas has cast her aside for Nina, but Beth isn't particularly supportive of Nina's newest venture as the Swan Queen. The flip side of that is the character of Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina's mother. She was a former dancer who now lives solely to see her daughter succeed on the stage. But her maternal love is extreme, transitioning from unrelenting support to controlling oppression, making sure that Nina's obsessive behavior does not change. Making sure that Nina lives out the dream that she was forced to leave behind.

If you look through Aronofsky's films, from The Wrestler to Pi and Requiem for a Dream, we can see that he enjoys characters with that have radical, sometimes draconian behavior (do you remember Aronofsky's other film, The Fountain? The main character is trying to cure cancer). Black Swan is not much different, as we see that Nina's meticulous preparation leads to her own mental disintegration. I found it to be unnecessary that the film occasionally relies on the convenient crutches of the thriller genre (moving still figures, characters popping up from out of nowhere), especially considering how well the intensity and suspense is ratcheted by simply following the frightening transition happening within Nina's mind. Frankly, Black Swan's flaws are prevalent and real, not imagined or subjective to the viewer.

Perhaps, it is Aronofsky's own comparison to The Wrestler that put expectations of Black Swan so high. The film's themes cross over, but they're also shot in a similar fashion, utilizing handheld 16mm throughout. But that worked to supply The Wrestler with the gritty realism that it really needed. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does some truly beautiful work in Black Swan (and it is important to point out that the two films did have different DPs), but it clashes at moments with the film's ethereal surrealism. By the end, the film evolves (or devolves, based on your interpretation) into a 'Is it in her head or isn't it?' psycho-drama, and the shaky, docudrama shooting style is not exactly a perfect match with that. I know it's unfair to compare Black Swan (a film I've seen for the first time just recently) to The Wrestler (a film I love and have seen upwards of twenty times), but it's hard to separate the two. Especially after Aronofsky went out of his way to call them "companion pieces".

Watching this film reminded me greatly of the viewing experience I had during Danny Boyle's 2007 film Sunshine - which was basically Boyle's masterpiece until an unfortunate third act that allows it to tumble into a place that's far less sophisticated then anything that preceded it. Black Swan is a better film than Sunshine, and Portman's performance here is far more outstanding then any of the acting in Sunshine as well. But they both share that same flaw. But do the flaws within Black Swan in fact make it a 'flawed film'? I feel like I'd have to see the movie again in order to answer that honestly, but my early answer is no. Whether or not you care for its sometimes easy thrills (I blow hot and cold on it), Aronofsky's film is a truly intense experience all the way through that is careful to show the beautiful and the savage behind the elegant art of ballet. It contains a collection of excellently casted actors, led by transcendent work from Natalie Portman. It is probably the most interesting film of the year, if not the most hyped; and whenever you can get career work out of someone as talented as Portman, you have no choice but to take a look, don't you?

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