Sunday, January 16, 2011
In Theaters: Black Swan
Audacity and showmanship. These things are, to my mind, what have been most deficient in the film industry as of late, and that’s why I’m particularly grateful for BLACK SWAN. It’s a fine film in its own right, Darren Aronofsky continuing his stellar track record, but it’s also willing to cross the line, and to go so thoroughly into the head of its main character that it ventures into outright surrealism. The film actually isn’t nearly as excessive as other reviews led me to expect- I think the relative realism of most art-house movies has skewed critics’ measures of such things- but it’s still a head trip, and a good one at that.
Natalie Portman is Nina, a ballerina at the New York Met, which is beginning production on SWAN LAKE to close out the season. Nina dreams of being the Swan Queen, but in order to do so she has to dance both the tragic White Swan and the evil, seductive Black Swan- and director Thomas (Vincent Cassell) isn’t sure the disciplined, delicate Nina has the passion for the latter. He unexpectedly gives her the part, but this is just the start of her troubles, for she now has to master the dual role and, in doing so, get in touch with her dark side. She’s not entirely sure she’s secure in the part either, not after a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) shows up displaying all the seductive and smoky attitude that Nina needs. Continued conflicts with her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) don’t help, and soon she’s picking at a rash on her back and starting to see things that aren’t necessarily there.
This is something of a breakthrough role for Portman. To be sure, the role of a dedicated, studious ingenue with a buttoned-down life is not, on the surface, a big stretch, but the film is told entirely from her point of view; Portman has to carry every single scene, and convey the slow erosion of sanity that the pressure to be perfect inflicts on Nina. Portman handles the big moments and the small gestures equally well, and though she has a very strong cast backing her up (Cassell is wonderfully sleazy), she deserves much of the credit for the film working as well as it does.
To get back to the point of what some other critics have said, I’ve seen excessive melodrama and surrealism that becomes so much stage clutter, and this ain’t that. What makes the downright Cronenbergian images of body horror and transformation work so well is that they’re given the right build-up. The film is aggressively normal in its earliest stages, at times even subdued given the dramatic nature of the material. Of course, this is all relative for people’s various standards of surrealism, but basically I went into this expecting a Dario Argento movie. Which would not have been bad either, but there’s a line and BLACK SWAN doesn’t cross it until it’s good and ready.
It’s interesting to see now how Aronofsky’s films have centered around the concept of obsession. Nina is consumed by the pursuit of artistic perfection, by the challenge of mastering not only the dance but the emotions underlying it. It’s not entirely a challenge of her own making, as her director, her mother, and Lily push and pull at her from many different directions. But while it’s horrible to see her mind put under such a strain, her reasons for doing so are compelling. What sets this apart from the standard pressures-of-showbiz narrative is the emphasis placed on the art itself; Nina isn’t in it for fame or applause, she wants to create something beautiful, but the creation of beauty requires great agony.
Ultimately, Nina’s story is something anyone ever involved with the arts may be able to identify with. It’s a story that’s dark, sometimes unpleasant, but never less than compelling, and Aronofsky brings a tight script to life with remarkable attention to detail. It’s not the sort of film that leaves you easily.
Story by Andres Heinz
Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky