December 15, 2010
Black Swan (2010) ***1/2
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Black Swan (2010)- Not as much burrowing under the surface as under Ms Portman's skin. Impressive telling of a preposterous tale ***1/2 of 5
Aronofsky is so very talented, and this is never clearer than when he pushes the limits of visual flourishes in hopes of enriching and enhancing his storytelling. He's audacious and unapologetic, and match that with the results he puts out there on screen, and Aronofsky earns my respect completely. He has the potential to be one of the great filmmakers of his generation.
However, when I see a film like Black Swan with its pseudo-cleverness and its moments of downright lunacy, I have to say that, despite his unlimited promise, Aronofsky still has a long way to go in terms of his decisions and his focus. Out of the three Aronofsky films I've seen--Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler being the other two--his best film by far is The Wrestler. Not only does he strip down his gimmickry to tell a grounded story, but he also has a performance for the ages in Mickey Rourke which provides the extra push needed to elevate the film to greatness. Black Swan, on the other hand, is filled with contrivances and the lead role has neither the writing nor the consistently transcendent acting necessary to bolster everything else that surrounds it.
The plot is eerily similar to the Powell/Pressburger film The Red Shoes, which I just saw and reviewed recently, except that film is much less of a carnival side show. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a late-20s professional ballet dancer who is an icy perfectionist, always knowing every dance move perfectly, but lacking the true emotional depth to elevate her performance to the level necessary to play the dual roles of The Swan Queen and The Black Swan in the staple ballet Swan Lake. When the lead dancer in the company, played by Winona Ryder, is pushed aside because of her age, Nina gets the role despite rejecting the sexual advances of the ballet company's director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel.
Nina's overbearing, unstable, former ballet dancer mother Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, clings to her daughter's successes, still treating her like a child which is clearly seen by the stuffed animals and the pink satin bed linens donning Nina's bedroom. There are boundary issues between the two, which causes a huge stir once a rabble-rousing dancer from San Francisco named Lily, played by Mila Kunis, befriends Nina and introduces her to a world of sex and drugs that shatters both her naivety and her innocence.
As Nina buckles under the pressure to be perfect, she begins to see her stress and anxiety manifest in some truly alarming ways. She starts to have deeply disturbing hallucinations, and the torture being inflicted on her body goes way beyond what is expected for a professional ballet dancer. As Nina actively works to lose herself in the character of The Black Swan, she may end up losing more than she ever imagined she would.
Granted, we're dealing with the melodramatic world of ballet, specifically one where humans play animals who transform into other animals. This does logically allow the film to enter into sequences of body horror that are so over the top that at times they come across downright campy. These monstrosities exist in Nina's subconscious, and yet they play out in graphic detail right in front of our eyes. Yet, these gotcha and gory moments feel recycled out of any number of supernatural horror films, which is too bad since Aronofsky could have really used them to deliver something truly novel rather than provide tired cliches meant to nauseate and titillate at the same time.
Another problem is the fact that early on, it's clear that what we're seeing on screen may not be literal reality. In many ways, we experience this world through Nina's eyes, which Aronofsky often emphasizes with over the shoulder, first person camera shots which he also used effectively in The Wrestler. Once I'm told that I ought not to trust what I'm seeing on screen, then I begin to question everything from there on in. As such, the surprises at the end don't prove surprising at all. After Nina starts to lose her grasp on reality, never once did a scene play out that I thought was real which then turned out to be fantasy. With its trickery foreshadowed so clearly, it's not the audience's fault if it's always two steps ahead of the material.
Yet, despite its many flaws, Black Swan is actually quite a good film. Visually, it's so textured and rich that it's impossible to look away, even during the most extreme moments of suspense and violence. There's a frenetic energy, similar to Requiem for a Dream, that never lets up, and the sound design of the film especially transports the viewer into an almost disorienting nightmare. Yet, unlike the visual dalliances, the aural flourishes never draw attention to themselves, despite being executed with an almost arresting aggression. The final ballet sequence has a character go through some admittedly laughable physical transformations in front of our eyes, but the sound accompaniment is executed so well that it does accomplish what Aronofsky set out to do which is to literally take one's breath away.
None of the performances in the film are bad, but with such a heightened reality as this one, some actors do give into the temptation to go too far, losing the nuance of their characters and almost turning them into cartoons. Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother and Vincent Cassel as the director both deliver huge performances, but in many ways, especially with Cassel, they don't quite command the screen as intended. Mila Kunis, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. She underplays the role of the femme fatale, which is not the sort of role that merits understatement. There's little difference between Kunis' performance here from the sort of vapid disengaged delivery we saw week after week on That 70's Show.
Of course, as far as on screen talent goes, Black Swan belongs to Natalie Portman. The only gripe I have is that she introduces Nina's innocence and perfectionism with a performance that's just a bit too on the nose. Portman speaks with the pitch of a prepubescent girl, which comes across as a manufactured crutch when really she should communicate the subtext in how she delivers her lines, not how childish she can sound. That being said, Portman is asked to do a lot in this film, and she's clearly up to the task. As a dancer, she's maybe a little too stiff and dull at first, which again may be her choice of blatantly literal acting early on, but, by the end, when she gives a performance that results in a standing ovation from the ballet audience within the film, she's fantastic and completely believable as a dancer. Like Leo DiCaprio, Portman is one of those actors who is at her best when asked to do the heavy lifting. She might want to work more on believability during her moments of normalcy.
Black Swan is gross and messy, and not all of it works, which is understandable when one considers Aronofsky's ambitions. Yet, it's undeniably powerful and beautiful. Only a director of the highest creative caliber could produce something so devastatingly rich. Here's hoping Aronofsky continues to challenge and focus that creativity in his future endeavors.