Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Swan Dive

Tonight's movie: Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010), a meditation on the crazy-competitive and arcane world of professional ballet--with an accent on the crazy. Black Swan has been billed as one of the year's most intense movies, and a slipper-in Oscar nomination for Natalie Portman.

Aronofsky made a splash in 2008 with The Wrestler, and he wrote and directed Pi and Requiem for a Dream, a couple noteworthy indie films a decade or so ago. He also wrote and directed the 2006 film The Fountain, which never really made it out of the gate. As it happens, I've seen none of these films, so I had no particular expectations about Black Swan apart from what I saw in the trailers. And the movie we see in the trailers is a little hard to pin down. Everybody likes a dark psychological and sexually-charged thriller, but the trailers show a good deal of unpleasantness the exact character of which we cannot quite decipher; we might almost think it's a horror film. Well, it's not a horror film, but there's plenty of horror just the same.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer with the New York City Ballet who becomes the company's principal ballerina when the former star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is deemed too old for the job (a determination that Ms. MacIntyre does not accept gracefully). After an anxiety-fraught selection process Nina is chosen for the lead role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in a new production by director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel. The New York City Ballet is the top of the heap in this rarified world, and the role of the Swan Queen is posited here as THE attainment for a ballerina. Director Leroy is (of course) a high-strung artiste whose every comment and facial gesture is treated as a sign from Jebus Hisself. Nina has the innocence and purity of the white swan in spades--these are the qualities one thinks of with a ballerina in a frilly tutu--but Leroy has some reservations about Sayers' ability to portray the darker side of the story: the black swan. His reservations quickly enough become the pivot around which Nina's life revolves.

So things aren't particularly sunny before rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) enters the frame; but the arrival of the free-spirited and sexually uninhibited young woman from San Francisco puts Nina's world in a tailspin. Leroy sees in Lily everything he can't quite coax out of the icy and staid Nina, and A Rivalry Is Born.

Scenes of this selection and rehearsal process alternate with those of Nina's life at home. But if we think these scenes are to act as a foil for the intensity and craziness of the ballet world, we quickly learn otherwise. Nina and her mother (Erica, played by Barbara Hershey) live together in a small apartment in the city. The two women are very close, but even here what appears at first to be a normal, loving relationship curdles a bit with more exposure. We grasp pretty quickly that the sacrifices needed to excel at this level in the world of Ballet are quite enough to preclude a normal life, and Erica is very much a full partner in this. She manages Nina's life down to the smallest detail, apparently following rules and patterns established when Nina was a little girl. (Maybe this is just the life of a star?) But she appears to have no independent existence, and she spends her time while Nina is away painting creepy pictures of her daughter.

This is a movie to make me wonder exactly what I like in movies. And what I don't. This is not a story about regular people or regular doings. Everybody seems to exist to varying degrees in the no-man's land between passionately engaged and nutty as a fruitcake--Nina and her mother in particular. Nina's mother cares for her daughter absolutely, but she's the wellspring of crazy here (well, one of many). As a story it's compelling in a train-wreck sort of way, but it's not enjoyable to watch--at least not enjoyable in the way I found the violence of, say, No Country For Old Men to be. On the contrary, I spent two hours cringing at what I knew what was coming, a denouement that promised not to be virtuosic or clever or satisfying or funny or cathartic; this was never going to be anything but grim and draining. Maybe that's somebody's bag, but not mine.

And worse, I just couldn't find anyone in the film to actually like. Not to say we don't care for Nina's story arc, but I would care more for her arc if I cared for her. But there's just not much to like about Nina Sayers. She's beautiful, but hard and one-dimensional; her beauty is remote and cold and she seems like a child. Her mother doesn't mean to be a monster, but she is. Leroy is a pompous egoist. All the dancers are highly competitive and exacting and in some cases full of jealousy. Nina is so focused on this world that she's more dancer than human. Maybe this is what it takes to make it in this world, but that's no feather in the cap of ballet, at least to me. And all the tension made the film seem to go on forever. I suppose I just wanted the implosion to come and for it to be over.

Aronofsky's innovation here is his use of a shifting perspective. Like a thin woman who looks in the mirror and sees a fat one looking back at her, we see and experience a lot of things in this story as Nina Sayers does. And our perception is only as sane as Nina's. That's not a ground-breaking idea, but it's very skillfully done here. And it keeps us continuously off balance, thinking the story is going places it may or may not be going in reality.

But I don't really think that will get me to the theater seat. And indeed I don't really know to whom I would recommend Black Swan. It's not a flawed film, and it's not a flawed story. Tchaikovsky's music is beautiful. There's a bit of New York in its setting and density and intensity (and in the large, enthusiastic audience for something so esoteric). It's beautifully shot, and I don't think any particular familiarity with ballet is needed to grasp the story (though I wonder how accurately he has shown us this strange world). Portman is brilliant, both fragile and steely, a maniac trying to act out a normal-looking life. So, a very worthy and valid effort--more than this, even, a compelling film in its own way.

But I don't need to see it again.

Grade: B+


dbackdad said...

I just saw it this last weekend. An odd film, obviously well-made and well-acted. But, ultimately, it didn't speak to me in any profound way. That's probably a shortcoming of me in not having a particularly artistic nature. An artist could probably appreciate the anguish of sacrificing for one's art more than I could.

I'm pretty sure I liked your review more than I liked the film. Kudos to you. :-)

wunelle said...

I'd wondered if you had seen it and what you thought, since we tend to have similar takes on movies. I think it's a good film, just not quite to my tastes.