Black Swan

December 28, 2010 at 1:54 am (Movies and TV)

Oscar time is definitely here. I read very few reviews of Black Swan, because I wanted to form my own conclusions. That’s how I’m rolling with it this year, because I have a rep to protect. This is my first year reporting on Oscar films, officially as a film student. You can tell I’m a film student because I now call them films.

Once you go to film school, you realize that you will never watch one in the same way again. I can’t merely watch and enjoy anymore, because now my mind is occupied with things like continuity, editing, parallel structure, lighting, etc. — all the stuff I get graded for. In some cases, this will probably ruin the experience for me. Not this time.

The themes operating in Black Swan are fantasy versus reality, perfection versus imperfection; good versus evil, and of course sanity versus insanity. Darren Aronofsky juggles all of these themes deftly, while constructing a real-life story that parallels that of the ballet “Swan Lake” right down to the characters and their functions. In an ironic twist, it was announced hours before I saw this film that Natalie Portman is pregnant and engaged to her choreographer from Black Swan. Talk about the intensity of art blurring real-life boundaries! I wish them well, but can’t help but notice that many relationships starting on a  movie set aren’t long for the world once the bubble of that film has popped and removed the couple’s main thing in common. (See Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes, etc…)

I’ll get this out of the way now: I don’t like ballet. I’ll also get this out of the way now: when screenwriters explain the plot in lay terms to the audience, my first impulse is often to want to throw a shoe at the screen. Twice, Aronofsky’s characters explain the plot of “Swan Lake.” Once, Vincent Cassel’s narcissistic director explains to Natalie Portman’s Nina what is happening in the scene, so here is what he needs from her. The other example occurs in a night club as Nina tells the story of the ballet to a dopey guy who’s trying to get in her pants and clearly does not like or know anything about ballet. These explanations happen in a believable, uncontrived way, and don’t just explain things to uncultured boobs like me who aren’t into ballet; they also provide greater context for what we’ve seen and also, what we are about to see.

Portman’s performance is heroic. She is believable as the sheltered meekling who descends into insanity, and it is a testament to her ability that we are just as confused as she is at times about whether something has occurred in reality or whether she has hallucinated it. Each step of the way it is fascinating how she can’t take responsibility for her own behavior, and when she does, it represents character growth both horrifying and beautiful. That she will win an Oscar, especially after announcing her engagement and pregnancy the same day Oscar ballots were mailed, is not in doubt.

I have seen articles predicting a supporting nomination for Mila Kunis. I can’t say that I necessarily agree or disagree, because our entire experience of Kunis’ character is through the eyes of someone paranoid and delusional, and Kunis plays the whole thing with enough of a smirk that we can’t tell how real any of it is. If I were going to nominate anyone for support, it would be Barbara Hershey, who is purely diabolical as a former dancer-turned-stage mother.

Note the particular uses of black and white in costuming, and how the opening credits are white on black and the ending credits, black on white. At one point, someone puts X in Nina’s drink, and we see it affecting her faculties; that happened to me in 1989 and it did look a lot like that. The much-touted girl on girl sex scene is pretty vivid, but did not strike me as gratuitous, especially considering its metaphorical and psychological implications.

When Tom Cruise made The Last Samurai, my chief complaint with it was that it could only appropriately end in one way, but they still eked out a contrived, happy Hollywood ending. In Black Swan, the same does not occur, and you realize afterward that you were breathless at that moment. As Portman utters, “It was perfect,” you agree.

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1 Comment

  1. sueh said,

    The only film I’ve seen lately, and for the most part, I agree with your critique.

    However, I love ballet. I felt the dance performances were well done, but I never felt that breathless moments as created in The Turning Point.

    I liked Natalie and felt she did a nice job, but I honestly never saw any difference between her white swan and her black swan, other than the nifty screen effects and the red eyes.

    Some people just morph into another character on stage but I always saw Natalie Portman, who did a wonderful job and who probably deserves an award for her performance, but it won’t be for her ballet.

    JMHO

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