Saturday, March 5, 2011

Black Swan

I don't get ballerinas.  I see the appeal of ballet (dancing, music, women with the bodies of twelve year-old boys), but I cannot fathom the mind of a ballerina.  There is so much pressure, both mental and physical, and the payoff is disgusting feet.
Ballet causes leper feet.  Fact.
Does that mean that Black Swan will have just as little payoff?  That's a tough call.  The film stars Natalie Portman (which is good), is directed by Darren Aronovsky (which is typically depressing), and has some very strong sexual scenes (which is good) that are frequently referred to as weird and uncomfortable (which is less good).  Going into this, I was interested in the film's possibilities, but wary of the many signs that I would not enjoy it.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is one of the many supporting ballet dancers at New York's Prestigious Ballet Company, where the star ballerina, the apple of director Thomas' (Vincent Cassel) eye, is the aging legend, Beth (Winona Ryder).  For his next production, Thomas wants to do a new take on Swan Lake, one that is raw and passionate; just as importantly, Thomas doesn't want Beth to be his star.  The timid Nina sees her chance to seize greatness, and tries her hardest to impress Thomas.  Her form is technically perfect, but lacks passion.  That's a problem, because the lead in Swan Lake plays both the fragile and pure White Swan and the sexy and dangerous Black Swan.  Thomas eventually ends up casting her for the role anyway, thanks to a faint spark he sees deep within her.  Still, he demands that she find a way to unleash that trapped-up passion for the performance, and he points to the newest girl in the company, the raw and unpolished Lily (Mila Kunis), as an example of what it takes to be the Black Swan.

That doesn't sound too weird, does it?  Well, Nina lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who was also a ballerina; Erica places a lot of pressure on her daughter to fulfill her own ballet dreams.  For added creepiness, there is no lock on Nina's bedroom door.  Clearly, Nina's social life is not terribly exciting, but that's not too weird.  Well then, how about the unexplained rash on Nina's back that keeps getting worse as the movie progresses?  Or the flashes of goose-pimples (or should I say swan-pimples?) that pop up on her skin at key moments?  Well, if that's not weird enough for you, how about Nina's obviously loose grip on reality?  She sees her own face on the bodies of strangers all the time and sometimes has imaginary encounters with others.  What, exactly, is going through her tiny dancer's mind?

Darren Aronofsky has a tendency to make movies about things I don't really care much about.  That doesn't make him a bad director, it just means that he doesn't regularly deal in what I regard as cinematic awesomeness.  Whatever his subject taste might be, you have to admit that the man can shoot a movie.  The cinematography was very effective in Black Swan.  I thought the special effects (and there were a lot of them, surprisingly) were handled very well and the editing allowed for the greatest impact whenever Aronofsky wanted to get weird or creepy.  I didn't particularly enjoy the shaky hand-held camera scenes, but that technique was clearly being used to disorient the viewer and leave them uncertain of what they had seen.  All in all, the camerawork and editing were very effective.  I thought Aronofsky handled the actors well, too, although I believe this was more of a director piece than a showcase for great acting.  Aronofsky did a good job telling the story, too, even if I didn't particularly care for it.  Actually, that's putting it a bit mildly.  I think all the artsy storytelling and camerawork done by Aronofsky was wasted on a substandard story.

I don't know much of anything about ballet, aside from whatever I learned in the cinematic ballet masterpiece, Center Stage.  I don't know any ballets in general, or anything about Swan Lake, in particular.  And yet, even I was able to pick up on the intended parallels between the plot of Swan Lake and Black Swan.  I understand the artistic drive to add layers to a story, but this just seemed a little weak to me.  Do we really need the story of Black Swan to be so tied to that of the ballet?  Doesn't that neuter any suspense the film is trying to build?  Yes, it does.  It also makes the film more predictable and boring.  This story device just brings the rest of the movie down.

I was also left cold by the story itself.  I thought it was generally predictable, even with the strange/creepy moments supplied by Aronofsky.  Big surprise, ballerinas have issues with their image.  What's that, performers are extremely jealous of each other and protective of their positions?  I'll notify the Associated Press.  A young performer has been pushed into that profession by a parent's desire to succeed vicariously through their child?  Gosh.  Ballerinas are crazy?  I would never have thought that bulimics that do things with their body that nature never intended (look at their feet!) might not be completely sane.  A lot of this story was simply trite.  Yes, the direction is impressive, but the story is shallow and so are the relationships in the movie.
Now this looks like an interesting ballerina movie!  No cliches here!
A lot of the attention Black Swan received was for the acting of Natalie Portman, and I will admit that she did a good job.  She looked like a skeleton ballerina, and she did a very impressive job portraying somebody that is slowly going crazy.  She also did a great job playing an uptight character whose emotions were easily understood by the audience --- that's difficult when a character is reserved.  However, her character has a wild side waiting to be unleashed, and that wild side is played by another actor (for the most part).  That means that we never really see a wide range of emotions in Portman's performance, which is a shame.  Mila Kunis was surprisingly good as the carefree dancer; I normally despise her voice and her acting, but I thought she was pretty good here.  Barbara Hershey did a good job as the obsessive mother, although I think her character was one or two good scenes away from something startlingly vicious.  Oh, well.  Winona Ryder's small part was okay, I guess, but nothing too special.  As for Vincent Cassel...yeah, I guess he was fine.  I have had a hard time not hating him in movies ever since his yoga break dancing scene from Ocean's Twelve.

Overall, I think that the boring predictability of the story more or less negates the solid acting.  Portman was good, but her character was, as demanded by the plot, necessarily undeveloped.  I liked Aronofsky's direction, and the camera work was impressive.  But without either A) a cool story or B) any real relationships on-screen, this drama doesn't quite work.  I'll give it due credit for its impressive technical achievements, but I just didn't like or enjoy this picture.
Now, as a red-blooded American male, I cannot review Black Swan without commenting on the sexy Natalie Portman masturbation and lesbian scenes.  I will admit they were cool, but I think hat this really stupid and immature video (read: borderline NSFW) sums up my feelings.

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