Dec 8, 2010

Black Swan

What I love about Darren Aronofsky is that he is not afraid of emotion. He immerses the audience in as much a subjective, emotional experience as he can.  As in The Wrestler, Requiem For A Dream and now Black Swan, he aims to get under the skin of his main characters, see what they see, hear, smell what they feel. They are people who live in strange milieus and do obsessive things with their lives. Whether it's junkies in Coney Island or second rate wrestlers in Jersey or frazzled ballerinas, their feelings are humongous and Aronofsky makes sure he rips their hearts apart, so we can see inside.
I saw The Social Network again this week and it is interesting to compare these two films. The Social Network is all brains. It comes from the head and stays there, a cold, flinty movie, all surface, since it is about surfaces. Black Swan is a weird ballet horror film. It's all guts, genitals, blood, heart, feelings, and chaos. It's about the deep end.
It takes a filmmaker with balls to pull off something like this.
Black Swan swings wildly, yet with unflappable confidence, between the truly scary and the ridiculous. It is rooted in cliché after cliché but transcends every commonplace with its visceral power. One could say that Black Swan is The Wrestler in a tutu. There are many parallels: main characters that are obsessed with their own performances, sacrificial figures that give their lives to the only thing they know how to do well. But whereas The Wrestler deals with an underworld of downtrodden Americans that are rarely portrayed on screen, and is a movie about the humbling of America in the world, Black Swan is more directly about art, obsession and madness. It is about the artist's obsession with perfection, which, since it is inhuman, it can kill. It's about the maddeningly impossible equilibrium between discipline and passion in an artist, a balance that if it's nurtured the wrong way (by twisted stage mothers, manipulative choreographers, and punishing exercise accompanied by virtual starvation) can easily become a tug of war between sanity and madness.
You can strive to be technically perfect but if you don't let go, if you don't feel passion, you are not an artist. This seems to be what informs Aronofsky's movies. He is much more invested in passion than in perfection. This makes him a highly unique American filmmaker.
In the end, Black Swan is also about the power of story. People keep going to the ballet, the opera, the theater and the movies to be told highly stylized symbolic stories. Balletomanes and opera buffs cheer and boo performances as if the world was coming to an end. They are there to abandon themselves to overwhelming feeling. And they do so vicariously through the sacrifice of the artist on the stage. If the artist doesn't feel it, the audience doesn't either. In the case of Nina Sayers, a sensitive, impressionable and highly unbalanced young ballerina, two things happen: she quests for perfection and the story takes complete hold of her mind and deranges her.
Black Swan is an enormously entertaining exploration of madness. Nina has horrific hallucinations so realistic that, like her, we don't know if they are real or not.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique uses a hand held camera that is on purpose at odds with the perfect symmetries of ballet. Except for Nina's anachronistically childish room, there is no fluffy cuteness in this film. Ballet is hard, surfaces are hard. Everything is shot from Nina's point of view, or actually from the point of view of her displaced personality, so that when she is on stage, we see the lights and the blurs, and the pit of darkness that is the audience and her partner, but not much of her dancing.

Nina is played with fearless and passionate abandon by Natalie Portman, an actress I disliked until now (always felt she was forcing it), and who I predict is going to win an Oscar. She will be rewarded by her training and sacrifice, but from the first moment we see her, the camera latched on to her in close up for most of the film, she is so alive with self doubt, vulnerability and anxiety, that she seems like she is about to break, and she sustains this intensity throughout the entire movie. Despite her innocence, which is not benign, but the result of stunted emotional development, she fanatically nurtures a core of punishing discipline. Portman is totally believable and very moving.
Her mother, played by the great, long missed Barbara Hershey, is a former ballerina who adores and smothers, envies, and resents her. In a fantastic scene, she buys a cake to celebrate Nina's getting the role, a gesture which in the precarious life of a ballerina, is akin to giving her poison. Nina's life is fraught with such perils. There is the jealously competitive hierarchy of the corps de ballet, with its inbuilt histrionics, and the manipulative and abusive head of the company, played with characteristic insouciance by my adored Vincent Cassel. I thought he was good, but he seemed stilted, as if the rarefied world of ballet stiffened him a little. Mila Kunis is very good as a naughty rival ballerina, the actual opposite of Nina.
Aronofsky seems to enjoy putting actors in roles that overlap with their broken careers and create stirring echoes between real life and the movies. As with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, the casting of Hershey is totally inspired. She's been out of sight for years and she looks properly ravaged. But she is an actress of great integrity and while she and Aronofsky do not go for the campy, they enjoy toeing the line. Same with Winona Ryder, cast as a spent prima ballerina, and looking like a train wreck. She has never been a good actress and her appearance is nothing but camp, but the resonance works.

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