Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Mirror Has Two Faces (maybe more) in "Black Swan"


directed by Darren Aronofsky
starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

“Black Swan” isn’t a horror movie, but it comes close. Artfully close. Indie darling Darren Aronofsky doesn’t tread that line so much as hopscotch it, deploying cheap thrills and shock tactics ostensibly in the service of a more high-minded theme: the destructive effects of an artist’s obsession with perfection. Is the latter just an excuse for him to engage in pulpy excess? Perhaps. But he carries it off with such gleeful panache that it’s a pleasure to watch.

Natalie Portman takes on her Oscar-baitiest role yet as Nina Sayers, a dancer in an unnamed ballet company — clearly meant to evoke the New York City Ballet — that’s getting ready to put on a production of Swan Lake. The company’s director, a slinky Svengali type named Thomas (Vincent Cassel), has his eye on Nina for the lead; he also has doubts she can pull it off. Nina may be a perfect fit for the innocent, virginal White Swan, but can she play the seductively evil Black Swan? Especially with the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis, very good), who has all the easy sensuality that Nina lacks? That’s the test our heroine faces for the rest of the movie, and in the process of rising to the challenge and unlocking her dark side, she quickly loses her grasp — never very firm — on reality.

I haven’t seen the two films “Black Swan” appears to have borrowed most heavily from, the tormented ballerina flick par excellence, “The Red Shoes,” and Polanski’s “Repulsion.” But it doesn’t take a cinephile to recognize the tropes and images used to convey Nina’s mental dissolution. They aren’t original, and they aren’t subtle; this movie has no interest in being subtle, and as a result occasionally verges on the ludicrous. Still, there’s something admirable, if a bit calculated, about the sheer conviction with which it, like Nina, literally dances towards and (arguably) leaps off the edge. Aronofsky doesn’t merely plant suggestions that much of what we see is the product of Nina’s imagination; he flags it and embellishes her hallucinations so extravagantly that only one of two responses is possible: laugh and detach, or submit and revel in the fantasy. He doubles down on doubling, as virtually very female character in the film is in one way or another a double of Nina: Lily, of course, who functions as both her rival and not-so-obscure object of desire; Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former ballerina, whom Nina still lives with and who both cossets and psychologically smothers her; Beth (Winona Ryder, whom I’d like to have seen more of), the company’s former star and Thomas’ ex-lover, who gets kicked to the curb in favor of younger, fresher meat; and a phantom doppelganger, of whom we see fleeting glimpses in Nina’s reflections and, er, projections. Nina confronts them all in turn, and their encounters inevitably culminate in some intensely graphic scenes that are by turns violent, erotic, creepy, and just plain grotesque.

The whole film plays like a fever dream, an impression enhanced by Aronofsky’s unrelenting use of hand-held digital camera and extreme close-ups of Nina’s face. The latter device may also owe something to the fact that for all her grueling training and preparation for the role, Portman isn’t quite up to snuff technically to be truly convincing as a first-class dancer. Perhaps as a consequence, the choreography seems oddly uninspired, particularly for a ballet as iconic as “Swan Lake.” In many ways, the ballet is the least interesting part of the movie, which is less of a problem than one might think.

Some have charged that “Black Swan” is shallow and exploitative; that the characters border on caricature — not excepting Nina, who comes across as more of a symbol or a construct than a fully dimensional human being. All true; and what of it? The broader truth is that Nina doesn’t have to be a fully believable or even sympathetic human being for the movie to be effective. She just has to live, breathe, and bleed, and she does, with a vengeance. It helps, of course, that Portman does a bang-up job evoking Nina’s mental Molokhov cocktail of ambition, artistic drive, stunted development, and sexual repression. “Black Swan” may not be a great film, but it’s undeniably brilliant in its ability to shock, unnerve, get under your skin, and stay there. Like a horror movie. A really good one.



Blogger EC said...

black swan definitely felt like a mash-up between the paranoia of pi and the physical self-sacrifice of the wrestler. the ending felt so similar to that of the wrestler, that i felt that arovnofsky probably should have worked on a different project instead of doing these two back-to-back.

1:34 AM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

You probably know that Aronofsky sees "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan" as companion pieces - in fact, I read somewhere that he originally conceived them as part of one movie, before deciding to split them off into two separate ones. So some of that shows, thematically and yeah, those endings (though I that last shot in "The Wrestler," for my money, has much more emotional impact than that of "Black Swan.") What separates the two primarily is style/genre.

12:04 PM  
Blogger EC said...

ah, i didn't know that. that's good to know.

6:16 PM  

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