Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What happened to my sweet girl?

The commercial success of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is kind of astonishing, not just because sexually explicit films usually scare audiences away but because it's the most thematically slippery mainstream hit in recent memory. A dizzying collision of high and low art, that owes an equal debt to Powell, Polanski, Argento and Verhoeven, Black Swan flirts with camp even as it reaches for transcendence. The film's mixture of close-up character study, literally black-and-white archetypes, overt symbolic archetypes, horror movie tropes and kinky sex should be a complete mess, and yet Black Swan is the most wildly entertaining movie of the year. I can list all the elements and influences that the film draws from, but ultimately I can't explain quite why the damn thing works. What a thrill that an an American film in 2010 should be so pleasurably elusive.

It's that indefinable spark of pure creation that eludes Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer with a prestigious ballet company in New York. The hardest-working dancer in the company, Nina is given a big break when she's cast as the Swan Queen in the company's production of Swan Lake. A driven perfectionist, Nina is perfect for the role but struggles with director Thomas' (Vincent Cassel) insistence that she also play the seductive Black Swan. Nina, who lives with her controlling, emotionally unstable mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), is a deeply repressed, fragile innocent who cannot "let go," as Tomas repeatedly demands of her. To Tomas, a virile, possibly dangerous man who Nina is smitten with, to "let go" means getting off - ceding technical perfection to emotional release as one does during sexual climax. But Thomas' rather narrow concept of letting go does not anticipate how deeply Nina has buried so much of herself; as Nina begins to let go, her world begins to spiral dangerously out of control.

Like Repulsion and The Tenant, Black Swan is a film of interiors - from beginning to end, we rarely stray from Nina's fragmented point of view. The way that Aronofsky frames Nina's inner life is a fascinating extension of his previous films - the bold use of archetypal imagery of Pi and The Fountain married with the grittier, character-driven approach of The Wrestler. Aronofsky and DP Matthew Libatique relentlessly follow Portman's every move in the early scenes, the grainy 16mm images threaten to disappear right into Nina's mind at any moment. As the more hallucinatory elements of the film emerge, Aronofsky never shies away from following the black/white sexual dichotomy through to its logical end (one nice touch - the color pallette of the film, largely muted pinks and greys at the beginning, grows darker through the film). The result is bigger than life but not heavyhanded; Nina's perception merges with the elevated emotion of ballet in, its a way that does feel true to the creative experience.

Portman is stunning in the role, not just because she convinces as a professional ballerina but because she throws herself wholeheartedly into every moment of Nina's journey. In its own way, Black Swan derives as much of a charge from the parallels between Nina and Portman's public persona as The Wrestler did from Randy the Ram/Mickey Rourke. While Portman has always been a talented actress, there's a strong sense in much of her work ("Hotel Chevalier" aside) that she's quite inhibited in many ways, and she has confirmed as much in interviews. Here, as Nina begins her long descent, Portman's work is unflinching; not only is she fearless in scenes that would terrify just about any actor in their frankness, but she's also never been so completely emotionally exposed. The result is stunning - there are closeups of Portman that are worthy of Maria Falconetti. She's aided by a strong supporting cast - Cassel is wonderfully hammy, Hershey is frighteningly well-cast as Portman's mom, Winona Ryder kills in her few scenes as a bitter older dancer, and Mila Kunis is terrific as Lily, the sexually confident dancer who aims to take Nina's place (or so Nina believes). When the much talked-about sex scene between Portman and Kunis arrives, Aronofsky and his actresses have developed the tension between the two perfectly that it feels less like a hook-up than a collision. And though yes, it's a scene of two attractive young women having sex, it's at least as creepy as it is sexy, especially in light of what it ultimately reveals about Nina. The entire film is like that, seducing us into some very dark places.

So what, finally, is Black Swan really about? Aronofsky describes it as a movie about performance, a companion piece to The Wrestler, and it is most certainly that (though the final shot's callback to the earlier film's ending may be a bit too on-the-nose). But it doesn't quite fit, with its more horrific elements, next to The Company or All That Jazz as the real-life story of a dance company. At the same time, it's not quite a horror movie or, if it is, it defies our expectations of what happens in a horror movie. Is what Black Swan has to say about the creative process muddled by its pulpier thriller-movie tropes, or is it a thriller movie which its director is trying to elevate about its roots? Perhaps the answer lies in ballet itself, which strives for physical perfection and deeper meaning even as it embraces melodrama and emotional excess. Perhaps the world of ballet is the perfect setting for a director who, clever as he can be, is completely incapable of ironic detachment. In that sense this is a logical step forward for the director; he's blown my mind before, but this is the first time he's seduced me.


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