Monday, December 6, 2010

Roll Out the Black Carpet

When your film opens the Venice Film Festival, it's kind of a big deal. When your film is chosen to open ahead of megastar George Clooney's film The American for that festival, it means something. When your film is on most critics' shortlist for Best Picture several months before it's even released to the general public, expectations are made. That's what it's been for me with The Black Swan, the latest film by Darren Aronofsky. The director, whose previous film The Wrestler was a critical darling and helped relaunch the career of Mickey Rourke (and was one of my favorite films that year), had originally thought of the two films in the same story, but decided to split them into two separate films when there proved to be too much for just one film. So The Wrestler focused on what many consider to be a low-class performance, while Black Swan did the same with what many consider to be a high art form, despite both being physically taxing and exhausting on their respective performers.

In Black Swan we meet ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a mid-career dancer who has never had a chance to be a star. Hoping the producer will feature her more this season, Nina tries out for the lead role of Swan Queen in the classic show Swan Lake. For the role, producer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) wants a dancer who can embody both the two distinct characters of the White and Black Swans. Like the White Swan, Nina is technically proficient and innocent, but the Black Swan is the manifestation of seduction, and Nina has a difficult time putting emotion and seduction into her dance. While fearing being replaced by the technically-awkward but graceful newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina's pursuit of perfection on the stage lead a whole new side of her to emerge, manifesting itself in shed skin and black feathers.

Like The Wrestler, the feeling of Black Swan is gritty and dark, a refreshingly ground-level look at the world of ballet, as dancers are constantly in danger of being replaced by younger, fresher variants and careers on stage end long before those of your average athlete. Nina is square in the middle of that conflict, young enough to hope for more focus and to replace the company's lead veteran (Winona Ryder) while old enough that the appearance of Lily has her metaphorically peeking over her shoulder. As a result, and in order to achieve the perfection she so craves, Nina's descent into darkness comes as no surprise. It's easy to see where Aronofsky was influenced by such films as All About Eve, in which a veteran actress is eventually replaced by a younger, energetic protegee, only for that young woman to undergo the same situation as soon as she's square in the spotlight. Comparisons to The Wrestler are of course expected, though the former focuses on recapturing old glory and redemption, whereas the lead in this film seeks "merely" to be perfect. And that is expressed perfectly every time Nina is shown stretching (in which we're shown ways in which the average American could never find themselves) and in dance, which always manages to look beautiful while apparently uncomfortable to the person performing.

Like Thomas thought of Nina, I knew Natalie Portman would do a good job of portraying the innocent, timid ballerina, but wondered how she would pull off having to be more emotional and seductive in her performance when the Black Swan took over. To my relief - and glee - Portman proved to be every bit the actress needed. Not only did her performance astound my senses as an innocent woman forced to adapt to survive her chosen profession, but her dance was also inspired. I'm not a ballet aficionado, but while I was pleasantly surprised - if somewhat bored -  with her ability early in the film, it couldn't hold a candle to a late-film performance in which the Black Swan has taken over, and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. Cassel plays a theatre producer who uses sexuality to get his performers to create art, rather than just dance. Though Nina has the hots for him, he's hardly an attractive man. His charisma is undeniable however. In a scene in which he he seduces Nina, then walks off saying that was what he wanted in reverse was brilliant, one that exemplified all that was good and bad about the character. I'd never been particularly impressed with Mila Kunis in the past, but she puts on a great show as Lily, Nina's complete opposite. Playing the Anne Baxter to Nina's Bette Davis, Kunis does a great job as the seductress who might be after our hero's job.

The supporting cast is also strong in two small roles. Though the overbearing mother of a dancer is something of a cliched role, Barbara Hershey is perfect in this role. Technically, the elder Sayers never actively seems to push Nina in any direction, but her complete lack of respect for Nina's privacy among other things leads one to believe that Nina feels the pressure from her former dancing mother. Hershey plays well the role of supportive mother, though one perhaps a bit misguided. Winona Ryder plays Beth MacIntyre, the company's veteran dancer and former star who is being forced into retirement. Though she's Nina's idol, she feels the same of Nina as Nina feels towards Lily: unbridled fear of being replaced. Ryder is actually amazing in this small role, which doesn't see her much screen time but allows her to put all her emotion into a few brief scenes.

The film does have a few small problems, but the biggest is it's special effects budget. The film tries to show more than can be believably implemented in quick sequences, involving one scene with rapidly-growing feathers. Darkness helps these bits somewhat, but the cheapness of the effects is still a minor distraction. The timing of these effects however is actually much better, as the director shows a good eye towards making you think "did I just see that?" in an otherwise normal scene. Also, there's certain level of confusion towards the film's finale which doesn't feel fully believable. It's hard to explain, and it's only one bit, but still, a bit more exposition wouldn't have hurt there. The film also surprisingly has a sense of humor, which is certainly funny but at times detracts from the idea that this is a psychological horror film, and doesn't blend in as much. Still, when one character finds out that another had a sex dream about them, he cry to her retreating form "Was I good?" elicited chuckles from the packed theater I was in and does a good job of lifting the dark film's mood. And on a final note, Tchaikovsky's familiar melodies are still as lively and energetic as I remember from when I first heard them so long ago. Hearing the music is like being accompanied to the show by a familiar friend, and makes the experience much more enjoyable.

As I said at the beginning, when a movie like Black Swan garners so much early attention, expectations are made. Sometimes these expectations exceed the actual quality of the film, but in this case they don't. Black Swan was everything I expected and even threw a few surprise curves my way, making this a unique experience compared to anything I've seen this year, and it's portrayal of the dangers of seeking perfection is expertly told. With great performances, excellent mood, wonderful art and a truly shocking emotional transformation by the film's lead make Black Swan my new #1 film for 2010. But really, are we surprised?


Opinioness of the World said...

While I only read the 1st and last paragraph to avoid spoilers, I am SO glad you praised this film so highly. I can NOT wait to see it!!!

THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

Love your review .... and the film. But I think you need to rethink the stories foci AND the ending. I small change in perspective, I believe, reveals the disturbing clarity of the finale.

And I agree ... Best film I've seen this year.