Friday, December 31, 2010
Black Swan ****
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis
Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied
Once upon a time black swans were thought to be a myth. White swans had been considered the epitome of royalty and beauty since times immemorial but its dark counterpart was thought of as a representation of utter evil; the antithesis of the pure, uncorrupted beauty in the white swan. What must've been the surprise of explorers when they stumbled upon the actual species in the Southernmost part of the world during the seventeenth century?
What could it mean that this creature did exist?
This uncertainty and eventual shock are the central dilemma of Nina Sayers (Portman) a New York City ballerina desperate to be cast as the Swan Queen in her company's production of Swan Lake.
Nina has perfected the graceful technique to play the White Swan but she is told by ballet director Thomas Leroy (a slimy Cassel) that she completely lacks the sexual energy and imperfection needed to portray its evil counterpart.
She struggles to win the part and gets it just as a new dancer joins the company; Lily (Kunis) from San Francisco arrives exuding the raw sexuality Nina can't muster, soon she becomes convinced that Lily is after her part and the only way to keep this from happening is for her to find the black swan within.
She descends slowly down the kind of, not-so-subtle, spirals Darren Aronofsky usually throws his characters into but unlike some of his other creations, Nina's breakdown has a flawless structure.
On the surface Black Swan feels like The Wrestler meets Suspiria by way of Cronenberg but once you look at it carefully, it really has more in common with Carrie than with Argento's horror film.
Like Stephen King's character, Nina's breakdown is parallel to her discovery of things until then unknown to her. While Carrie unleashed her telekinesis in a terrified attempt to exert some control over the unexpected changes brought over by womanhood, Nina begins to be terrorized by her doppelgängers who walk by her on the streets, haunt her house and spy from beyond mirrors as she finds that deep within she can also be dark.
Nina has decided she wants to achieve perfection and in her limited world view this can only be obtained with control; therefore when Thomas asks her to "let go" she doesn't know how to handle this.
It's as if she's been living in a fabricated world all along and has no awareness of the evil that exists in the world. This is represented by Nina's home which she shares with her possessive mother (Hershey) a former ballerina living vicariously through her daughter.
Watching their softly lit blood tinted apartment, where even the hallways seem to constrict Nina, we understand that in a way she has never left the womb, not because she doesn't want to but because it's what she knows best.
Black Swan is anchored by Natalie Portman's fierce performance. Like the movie, she first deceives us with her fragile beauty and we are led to assume this will be yet another of the actress' performances in which her delicate features harbor contrived fear and contempt.
Soon we learn that this isn't the case and we see her shatter before our very eyes. Beyond her method immersion into the character (her ballet technique seems outstanding!) there is something transcendental in the way in which she lets go of all vanity.
We see Nina's transformation from outside (Aronofsky's technical team does wonders showing bizarre wounds as Nina literally begins to think she's becoming a swan) but we also detect that something has changed inside her. It's something in her eyes that demands our attention in the way her body can't.
In the final scenes of the film, the Portman we are watching isn't the one we started with. During one particular scene as Nina finally becomes aware of what the truth is, she makes a choice. This moment isn't highlighted as much by the external elements (although the movie owes itself to Tchaikovsky) but by a heartbreaking look Portman throws at us, seemingly out of nowhere. How she's able to encompass fear, resignation and something that scarily resembles pride is what makes her decay so beautiful to watch.
In her search for perfection we could draw parallels about seeking artistic accomplishment but on simpler terms the film discusses this search in life as a whole. Therefore we are left wondering if Black Swan is a cautionary tale about the peril that comes with perfection (and if so, is it an ode to mediocrity?) or is it a reminder that everything that's worth something comes through a certain amount of pain?
Structurally Black Swan resembles a Russian doll, each containing a miniature double of the one before it. In a way, Swan Lake is Black Swan is Nina Sayers (again with the doppelgängers).
One of the biggest mysteries about Swan Lake is the fact that we never know why the evil sorcerer casts the spell on the princess. Why is he turning her into a swan? When the ballet begins this just is and we rarely get time to even question it.
Why are we to assume that this spell isn't some sort of deserved punishment?
Similarly in Black Swan we are never really sure of who is casting this spell on Nina, is the movie perhaps a prequel of sorts to the ballet in which we are to assume that maybe the princess had an insane mother or couldn't cope with homosexual thoughts?
Or is it finally a questioning? Is the Swan Queen actually fulfilling her fate? However twisted and tragic we might perceive it as.
It should be noted that Black Swan is a completely self aware movie. There is not a single camera move Aronofsky hasn't meticulously planned. From the way in which sometimes we follow Nina as if the camera is afraid to look into her face and see who she's becoming to the film's mirror motif, one that's not in the slightest original but the film doesn't really brag about inventing anything new.
It's also a selfish movie for it never pretends to worry about creating some sort of universal code we can use as metaphor. We are not supposed to identify with Nina. We either like her, hate her, pity her but we are not supposed to love her. After all the Swan Queen is never truly able to break the spell.
Structurally the film itself mimics Nina or at least the version of Nina it's letting us see and then it reaches a point where just like the ballerina in distress, the film too realizes that it doesn't know how to become the black swan. But how do you make a movie that loses itself?
In practice this would perhaps mean the director recurred to some robotic device or simply let the cameras roll without choosing what happens in front of the lens. Symbolically though Aronofsky settles on making it dangle dangerously between melodrama, camp and horror. Up to the very last shot the film seems to be trying to decide which one it will become and by then audience members will have made their minds about what kind of movie they just saw.
And whether it is high art or trashy exploitation, by letting each one decide, Aronofsky has created the perfect finale: the one that goes beyond "the world as a stage" conventions and bluntly reminds us that in the end we might be the only ones applauding our own curtain call.