Sunday, December 12, 2010

Black Swan

"Black Swan," like the production of "Swan Lake" at its center, depends much on its lead performance to carry it. And so it's a good thing for the film as a whole that Natalie Portman is extraordinary as Nina Sayers, a Lincoln Center ballerina who aspires to become the Swan Queen in a revival of the aforementioned ballet. Director Darren Aronofsky is able to coax out of her some tones unseen by audiences before. This may be as good as she'll ever be. This is paralleled in the film with the ballet's director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is insistent that she must abandon her restraint and high focus on hitting all the marks to master the part of the Black Swan (just as important as the White Swan, whom Nina is excellent as).

Nina is so intensely driven and absorbed by the part that her own life soon develops into a mirror of the play. (The film's credits take this idea and run with it.) She encounters Lily (Mila Kunis), who she resents, since she is considered a more natural dancer than Nina. Even though Nina manages to win the part of the Swan Queen, she remains convinced that Lily wants to steal it from her. However, Nina still goes out tippling with Lily, after which she's so drugged out that one can't help but wonder where the cut-off point of reality is.

On the side is the underexposed character of Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey), who apparently sacrificed her career for Nina (no mention of a father anywhere). She acts as Nina's moral center and tries and tries to wrench her away from Lily's and also Thomas' attempts to turn her into an ideal Black Swan. Just like many seemingly happy mother-daughter relationships, there are layers underneath that, when provocation abounds, can blast the whole thing apart. Another cloudy individual is the suicidal Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who used to be the centerpiece of the company and who, when the film takes place, is basically being let go of. She further emphasizes Thomas' lecherous streak, suggesting (with a repeated term of endearment) the path that Nina may ultimately go down.

The film plays interestingly and contrastingly against Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" (especially because the two were originally thought of as a diptych). One follows the ascendance of someone who still has a long way to go in their career, the other observes the downward spiral of someone far past their prime. One is flashy and fantastical, the other is almost entirely a product of realism. In both, there are strained familial relationships, seen from different perspectives (as the main character is in one the child and in the other the parent). And finally, both end metaphysically, though it's interesting that the ending is left wide open to interpretation in the realistic film and clearly explained in the fantastical one.

The acting in "Black Swan" is outstanding from all corners, not just from Portman. Kunis (a winner at Venice), Hershey, and Cassel (in perhaps the most uncharacteristic role of his career, despite echoes to past performances) should be in the consideration for supporting acting awards. However, the film as a whole leaves something to be desired. It's vapid, garish, at times laughable (the mutilation; the masturbating while Mom slumps in the chair), and (due to the overall abundance and intensity of the images of Nina's insanity) onerous. By design, of course, but still, these are flaws to me. Aronofsky doesn't manage to improve on "The Wrestler," which found more power in having its devastation mounting and forseeable (an attribute that drew much criticism) than "Black Swan" does. Granted, Aronofsky does well in creating an edge-of-your-seat uncertainty, but such things easily slip from your mind. "The Wrestler" in its verisimilitude for me is harder to shake than "Black Swan," despite all of its successful scenes, masterful production design (including magnificent compositions by Matthew Libatique), and ability to unsettle at the moment. B

(Just to let you know, this film is rated R for a reason.)

The trailer for "The Tree of Life," which played before the film and is unavailable online (update: here it is), is perhaps the greatest I've seen. I nearly cried at it. Terence Malick seems as if he's pulled something unbelievably spectacular off.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review, Nick. I also saw The Tree of Life trailer before this film. Wow.

As for Black Swan, I liked how you compared and contrasted it with The Wrestler. I also agree that The Wrestler was the better film, but both films are fantastic, and I love melodrama, when done well. Also, both films hinge on their lead performances, which are, likewise, fantastic.