Friday, December 3, 2010
In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a tightly-wound ballerina who lands the lead in a New York production of Swan Lake, replacing aging Beth (a brilliantly cast Winona Ryder). Nina's existence is strictly within the confines of grueling rehearsals under the direction of Thomas (Vincent Cassel) and in the cramped apartment of smother-mother and former dancer herself, Erica (Barbara Hershey). Nina seems to be a bit of an outcast amongst the other dancers, and a nervous wreck, and is further undone by Lily (Mila Kunis), the company's newcomer--a breezy, loose California girl. As the production looms, Nina becomes more and more stressed and paranoid.
Black Swan is a combination of two of director Darren Aronofsky's best works: The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream. Those films have become so seminal in our young century, that it's difficult not to reflect on them while watching this one. The Wrestler still seems to me a stark departure for him, and yet a very fine film, with play-it-straight drama and an emotional punch, buoyed by Mickey Rourke's raw performance. Plumbing the perils of addiction, Requiem for a Dream goes in and out of reality. Black Swan has the shaky-cam, strict POV follow of Nina (including a Kim Novak-esque Vertigo bun motif), similar to The Wrestler (as are some of its themes) and the psycho-freakum shots (talking paintings, cuticle rips) recalling Requiem. Aronofsky is a gifted visual artist (another collaboration here with cinematographer Matthew Libatique) who also does fine work with actors. These are primarily the strengths of Black Swan which is such a compelling film to behold visually but also features some good performances. Portman is mesmerizing to watch. Aronofsky helps us experience her horror with a rich sonic landscape (bones crack galore!) and jump scare moments but Portman does a lot of the work herself and some extraordinarily realistic dancing. Cassel, as the masochistic director, gives a stormy, pitch-perfect portrayal. Hershey never rises to hysteric levels of Piper Laurie's mother in Carrie (an obvious homage) but she's sufficiently creepy and a welcome actor to have onscreen again. It's also nice to see Winona Ryder. She's a good sport by playing such a degrading role (her career is over, Thomas intones). She has a nice bit in drunken, runny mascara over-the-top mode. I wish Hershey and Ryder had more to do here and more good films to do in general. Kunis is nicely disarming and able to handle the duplicity of her role well. She's also somewhat of a breather in the bleak dun-dun-dun of the proceedings.
The problems with Black Swan rest largely on the creaky script and its not-too-subtle, Angela Carter-like re imagining of Swan Lake. The movie recalls All About Eve, which, with its illustrious dialogue, is one of the great all-time scripts. And because it recalls Eve, it also recalls dozens of other backstage dramas of varying value (there's a literal backstabbing broken mirror scene here that's dangerously close to the badness of Showgirls). The psychological dread and manicure-terror of the classic Repulsion is another obvious influence, though Polanski got to the tragedy quicker and more potently. Dialogue duds abound in Black Swan and gimmicks too. There are too many scenes where Portman sees another Portman... it's actually a bit cheesy. A night on the town with Kunis on E--complete with a strobe light dance club sequence and a shameless Freudian lesbian sex scene both straight out of 1999--fall flat. The tone too is often off. It veers between tony seriousness and Nightmare on Elm Street camp. Still, Aronofsky is a fine craftsman (those dance sequences, in rehearsals and on-stage are a marvel) and Portman is a compelling lead. The music too, including Clint Masell's adaptation of Tchaikovsky, is appropriately haunting and unnerving. The movie will likely endure (it's already spawning somewhat of a following) along with the universal struggle with achieving that vague thing called perfection. ***
-Check out this interesting writeup from ballerina Wendy Whelan on Daily Beast. She writes, "I have played the dual roles and understand firsthand the intense physical drain and the nervous energy that gets stirred up in both body and mind while preparing for it. When the body gets exhausted the mind can become fragile. It requires a particular strength and confidence in one's emotional core unlike anything else in classical ballet."