Saturday, December 18, 2010

Black Swan

"The Red Shoes Diaries"
"Losing Control (She-Bop, Sh'Bop, Sh'Bop)"

Black Swan is a head-trip, alright.  Darren Aronofsky's latest of his films exploring the limits of obsession—the pursuit of it, the need for it, and its cost—never travels too far afield from the whirling dermis-dome of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman—brave).  A "girly-girl" to the nth degree, Nina still lives with Mom (Barbara Hershey—even braver) in a 12 year old's bedroom, blushes in embarrassment when sex is brought up, and still pursues the girl's version of what the Bible calls "childish things"—prima ballerina.

And like the dervishes who spin to achieve some form of religious ecstasy, she is looking for an epiphany in her pursuit of perfection.  Be careful what you wish for.

From the loges, it all looks so elegant, but on stage it's a board-thumping, sinew-stretching, bone-popping athletic performance, practiced to such an extent to be made to seem easy.  The body takes a beating.  Callouses form, bones snap, nails bear the brunt of the quest for perfection.  It's beautiful but brutal.  And, as any athlete will tell you, it's as much a challenge of the mind, as well.  There's the discipline to do the job unerringly, but there's also physical acting, as well.  Synapses fire to work the muscles, but those same synapses are under assault psychologically, fraying from the pressures on-stage and backstage.

For Nina, it's an obsession for perfection.*  Her director (Vincent Cassel) knows she can nail the star-part of the pure white swan in "Swan Lake," but the vixenish back swan is more of a challenge.  "Perfection isn't about control.  It's also about letting go."  For the more sensuous black swan, Nina is at a loss, so bottled up in being perfect, she's afraid to open up from the discipline.  "Live a little," he suggests, telling her to touch herself.

As if there isn't enough self-abuse going on.

The pressures start getting to herGiven to obsessively scratching her shoulder, she develops a rash at her shoulder blades.  Toe-nails split.  Her fingernails turn bloody (at one point she tears off a length of finger skin down to the second knuckle).  She seems to be coming apart at the seams, and if she can't bear up, she'll be replaced like the departing prima Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder**).  The number one candidate for the job is Lily (Mila Kunis), an earthy dancer from San Francisco, who typifies the black swan, and who becomes something of a paranoid obsession to Nina from their first glance.  By the time Nina actually pulls the bud of a black feather out of her scraped-raw shoulder, it's pretty apparent Nina has crossed a line and, like an exquisite ballet, fantasy has disguised reality.

It's scary, almost a horror filmAronofsky keeps the film taught, his restless camera taking a position directly behind Nina's head, clod-hopping behind her, seeing what she sees, agitatedly cutting out the dull parts.  Then it spins as she does, picking out the neck-snapping details that Nina sees in the blur. Fully a quarter of the film involves a reflective surface (even a shot of Nina looking at her mother's obsessive portraits of her—of course, Mom is trying to "get" daughter perfect, too), even if those mirrors don't always behave well.

And, as he did with The Fountain, Aronofsky proves himself a master of subtle sound-work, using extreme fields to further enhance the disorientation the audience feels inside Nina's head (more than once, I looked to see if there was someone behind me in the theater), and altering reality—making a toe-nail clipper sound like a guillotine, making you feel the gristle of toe-bones as they snap.

And he gets the best out of Portman.  It's a technically tough performance—she's in every scene, and her face, typically beautiful in serenity, is constricted in constant struggle, disrupting the planes of her face into a worried mask that seldom shows her at her best, veering into moments of hysteria.

For the sacrifice of art, she's not pretty, nor is the film, despite its subject matter and occasional forays into the dance-fantasy.  How can it be?  We're not sitting comfortably in the audience, but perched precariously in Nina's whirling head, dizzy with the spin, that even braking to a screeching stop, continues the momentum in our own minds long afterwards.

Black Swan is a Full-Price Ticket. 

* I don't want to get too far into this, although I'm sure Aronofsky and his scripters (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin) probably did.  There's something called the "Black Swan Theory," about large, unexpected events and their shock-wave effect on human psyches that must come to grips with it.  What's most relevant about it are the ten principles the theory's author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, concocts to create a more predictable world: 

  1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become Too Big to Fail.
  2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
  3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
  4. Do not let someone making an "incentive" bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.
  5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.
  6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning.
  7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to "restore confidence".
  8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
  9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible "expert" advice for their retirement.
  10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.
Hmmm.  Some of this relates. 

** A glance at the four lead actresses, Portman, Ryder, Kunis, Hershey, and most of the supporting ballerinas reveals that they are all similar-looking women—a long line of raven-haired ingenues, like their own organic mirror images.


Simon said...

I just saw this, and it was beautiful. Except the camerawork reminded me of a toss between Enter the Void (all the back-of-the-head footchases) and David Lynch (Inland Empire, anyway). Is that weird?

Barbara Hershey should get an Oscar. She was so subtley wicked.

Yojimbo_5 said...

No. Not weird. Subjective (in all manners) but not weird.

The weird thing about Hershey's Mom is you have to admit she's doing the best she can (not unlike Nina) whether that's the RIGHT thing...both Portman and Hershey's performances are not the least bit vain, which is entirely appropriate, and counter to their characters...!!

One bit I wanted to put into the review, but as I used it before (for Adaptation.), decided not to, was that Black Swan reminded me of the Looney Tunes cartoon where Daffy Duck, desperate to achieve stardom, auditions for a booking agent by consuming all sorts of volatile materials and then swallowing a lit match *BOOM* The agent is ecstatic: "That's the most amazing thing I've ever seen!!" And the ghost of Daffy (once the smoke clears) says "Yeah, yeah...but I can only do it ONCE!"

The Mad Hatter said...

Am I the only one who started getting visions of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM while watching this movie?

grtgigs said...

This was such a creepy movie! Almost every character tortures and is tortured. (You have to suffer for your art? Ugh! Can't we get beyond that old trope?)

If I hadn't been there with someone, I would have joined the others who walked half way through.

Not saying it wasn't well acted and executed. Shot weirdly close for a movie whose metaphor is "Swan Lake" (though I understand that this contributes to the feeling of paranoia by the lead character), but then why is ballet your story?

If you want to see a horror movie, great. If you want to see a ballet movie, pass ... big time!

Yojimbo_5 said...

Thanks for commenting, grtgigs. One walks into these things (hopefully) with few expectations. I suspect you wanted to see more dancing. That's okay. I gnash my gears a bit at your "old trope" comment, because you do not "suffer for your art" in all spheres...except for ballet...and maybe sports...any kind of dance or expression of self involving "the self." And that's an important distinction. In DO. It looks pretty from a distance. On-stage, it's sweat and strain and creaking toes, and quivering muscles.

I'm glad you thought it was well-acted and executed. But if so, why would you possibly want to walk out half-way through? Frankly, anyone who walks out of Black Swan is a wuss.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Tetch...I won't ask what you mean by "Visions of Requiem for a Dream

The Mad Hatter said...

@ Yojimbo... I just meant that in some of the later sequences when Nina is really becoming mentally unhinged, I started harkening back to similar moments in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

Just me?

grtgigs said...

Yojimbo: But in the case of "Black Swan" it's not just sweat, it's torture. I understand the concept of you have to become what you are portraying (ask me about a show where we had to cross the 9th mountain to the 10th kingdom sometime ... no more productions involving soviet tanks!)

"Black Swan" was the most misogynistic film I've seen in a long time. I would have walked because I don't need to see brutality to tell a good or even effective story. I hate that this is a movie that will pull in young dance students. Really, this is what you've got? Dance is torture?

Mike Lippert said...

I think there is a Looney Tunes cartoon to explain everything. I have one that I use to explain Last Year at Marienbad all of the time. Great review!

Yojimbo_5 said...

grt, we're gonna have to agree to disagree on this...and misogynistic?? You'll have to explain that one. I see that as a bit of a stretch, even if you adamantly despise the movie (It IS, after all, about an extreme case...right??) Think you need to get a smaller brush.

Mike, there IS a Looney Tunes cartoon to explain just about everything...except Congress. ANd Last Year at Marienbad? Would that be "Duck Amuck?"