Sunday, April 3, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

Nina Sayers dreams of being the Swan Princess.  Her mother, a failed dancer, encourages her to a fault.  When a new staging of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet is announced, Nina is chosen as Swan Queen.  Pressures abound as Nina deals with her mother, a sexually rigorous artistic director Thomas, and an ambiguous new dancer named Lily, and even her own fears and creeping insanity in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, winner of the 2011 best actress Academy Award for Natalie Portman.

Natalie Portman is terrific to watch.  I don’t care that she studied ballet.  That doesn’t interest me.  It’s her intensity that is all consuming.  When Nina first rehearses for Swan Lake, Portman is controlling and terrified.  A tardy dancer disrupts Nina’s performance, and Thomas asks Nina to make way for the next girl.  The look on Portman’s face is incredible.  She is blistering red, veins running along her neck, and she looks haggard.  It’s not makeup or the dancing; Portman looks like a woman whose hopes have been lost.  I can’t find the words to do her performance justice.  Nina goes through many such highs and lows throughout the picture, and never once is Natalie Portman unconvincing.  But let’s talk about the dancing.  She dances like a ballerina, at least to my eyes.  It’s not important that Portman be perfect in this respect.  It’s acting.  As long as she can sell her talents to the audience, as long as every emotion, every expression is convincing, she’s doing her job right.  It is the best performance of the year, though not surprisingly.  Portman has always been terrific.  She probably stands alone as the best young actress working in Hollywood.  At times in Black Swan she resembles Audrey Hepburn, the most beautiful, elegant woman of her day.  The same words can describe Natalie Portman.  She is brilliant, and is the head of a terrific supporting cast.  Mila Kunis as Lily is a revelation.  Given her prior work I never would have guessed she could be so intense onscreen.  Her performance isn’t perfect.  Maybe the role isn’t as nuanced as Portman’s, but Kunis is a terrific talent and I hope she can develop herself into something more than a just another Hollywood beauty.  On that subject, she is gorgeous.  I hope I’m not selling her short, but she is stunning and very erotic and funny.  I loved watching her.

It’s the performances that really sell this movie, and I haven’t even mentioned the great French actor Vincent Cassel as Thomas.  Director Aronofsky is too intrusive.  Blood, special effects, and an odd use of camera during some of the film’s most important sequences really keep the film from being masterful melodrama.  Black Swan is not the film many have made it out to be.  It is certainly not a masterpiece, and not even a palpable psycho-drama.  It’s cinematic sleight of hand and narrative implausibilities prevent it from being truly great.  Come to think of it, Thomas uses a similar criticism against Nina during their rehearsals.  Isn’t that odd?

The dance sequences are horribly shot.  I know nothing about ballet, the dance, but the chorography seemed brilliant to my understanding.  The camera is intrusive.  I understand what Aronofsky was getting at.  There is a visceral feeling to these scenes; we feel as Nina must feel.  In fact we may as well be on the stage with her, but the problem is I cannot make out any of the chorography.  I know the impact doesn’t lie in one staging of the ballet or another, at least where the film is concerned.  But whenever I see dancing on screen, I refer to Fred Astaire’s approach to the camera—shoot in long shot.  This way we can see the full body in beautiful motion.  In Black Swan we see close-ups of Natalie Portman’s face, we see her hands performing, and we see the more than occasional insert shots of her midsection, much too much of the ballet shoes.  The tension does lie in the outcome of the ballet to a degree, and to see clearly all the work Nina has put in and to expose mainstream audiences to this not-so-mass art would have been a terrific choice.  I believe the film would have had a greater impact if we were allowed to see more; if we, the audience, could have looked at the material more objectively.  This is a problem that the film has in more than one way.

I still don’t know if Nina was under too much pressure from her mom, Lily, ballet in general, Thomas, or herself.  That’s a great uncertainty to have at the end of a picture like this.  The problem is there are many inconsistencies.  I don’t want to give away the ending.  As much as I feel it could have been a lot better, there are many surprises in the last 20 minutes that I won’t ruin.  But given that a character who we thought has been killed really isn’t, and we know this, I don’t understand what could have happened to Nina afterwards.  It is physically impossible for what does happen to have happened.  Not only that, if it didn’t happen, the point of the movie would have been more effective.  As it stands, it plays into convention.  If the ending has expressed this much—that rehearsal and prep for the ballet is hard work that pays off—the film would have been more natural and the ending would have tied together nicely all the material that preceded it.  But I can’t rewrite the film.  I know this, so I should comment on it as it is.  It works, especially the first time through.  In fact, while there are implausiblities, they don’t ring as such when watching the movie, so in my book that is a success.  I just wish the material were more original.

There are two other areas that I found great faults in.  One is the liberal use of special effects and the other is the amount of blood and violence in the picture.  Violence is too strong a word, but gore isn’t right either.  Regardless I was really put off by all the images of nail cutting.  Nina has a problem with scratching her back, so she’s constantly cutting her nails and constantly cutting too short.  Maybe because it is such a visceral pain it got to me, but I really didn’t need to see it in a movie like this.  Another image is that of someone stabbing themselves 7 times in the face with a nail file.  I’ll be honest; I closed my eyes at all of this.  I hate wasted blood on the screen, and the reaction it illicits is cheap.  The special effects got in the way, too.  Nina’s transformation into the Swan Queen should have been handled only by Portman’s performance.  Do her calves really need to bend backwards, or does her neck have to stretch like that of a swan’s?  Does her skin need to change texture while she’s dancing?  Also, several times when we think we see a character, CGI is used to make that character look like somebody else.  Can’t they do that in a cut?  CGI looks rubbery and fake.  A story like this could have been spared special effects.  Just have faith in the actors, the dancing, the music, the costumes, and save the production millions in computer effects work already!

Black Swan is great entertainment, not art.  That’s nothing to hold against it.  It’s just not one of the best pictures of the year.  It is easy to see why it became so popular.  It’s a great story with a wonderful backdrop and a special performance by Natalie Portman.  But it’s not the mind trip a lot of critics have made it out to be.  It’s predictable in many ways.  Nina’s relationship with her mom is familiar, for example, and the film unfolds just as we expect it to.  But it’s well made, very entertaining and worth seeing.

Black Swan (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz
Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel
In English
Runtime: 108 minutes

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