Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Black Swan (2011)

Natalie Portman plays a dancer in a New York City ballet company. The director selects her for the challenging lead role in a new production of Swan Lake (real original, guy), a dual role that requires her to play both the innocent White Swan and the more seductive Black Swan. While her icily perfect technique makes her ideal for the White Swan role, he remains unconvinced that she has the passion and sensuality to play the Black Swan. Soon she's competing for the role with a rival ballet dancer (Mila Kunis) whose extroverted personality (ie sluttiness) make her far more suited to play the Black Swan. With opening night looming, Portman must explore the dark side of her personality, lesbianism etc. At the end she may or may not turn into a black swan.

Wow, this movie was not what I was expecting at all. Some of the criticisms I'd read made this film sound like a ridiculous piece of showbiz camp, like it's Showgirls or something. I was expecting something super melodramatic and over-the-top, like Requiem for a Dream, but for most of the film it's actually a lot closer to The Wrestler. Lots of raw, handheld camerawork, following Natalie Portman as she walks from place to place, like a creepy stalker. I think Aronofsky actually considers this film a companion piece to The Wrestler, and like that film it's about a performer pushing themselves to the breaking point. It also reminded of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, which I mention only because a saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Also like The Wrestler, it's full of tiny, interesting glimpses into her profession. I don't know how true-to-life it is, but it makes professional ballet look pretty shitty. Portman's got an eating disorder and can't eat a wicked-awesome cake. She fucks up her joints and gets lots of injuries. She's also acutely aware that her time to become a big success is rapidly running out. She's replacing a ballet dancer played by Winona Ryder, who is kicked out of the company due to her age and has a nervous breakdown. Is it making anyone else feel really old that Ryder is getting roles as an over-the-hill ballet dancer and Spock's mum? Anyway, if your 8-year-old daughter (or son) has unrealistic dreams of becoming a prima ballerina, this movie would make a good reality check. Just fast forward the bit where she has a sex scene with Mila Kunis. That's for adults.

This is mostly Portman's movie, but the rest of the cast is great too. Barbara Hershey plays her overprotective mother, a failed ballet dancer who hopes to live vicariously through Portman's success. It's easy to go overboard with this type of thing, but I think they struck a good balance. She's clearly unhinged (her bedroom is plastered with creepy paintings of her daughter) but she's not a cartoon villain. You never really doubt that she loves her daughter, and when she worries about her changes in behaviour you feel it too.

Vincent Cassel is also great as the director of the play, a total sleazebag who uses his position to take advantage of her. You can see where he's coming from when he says that she lacks sensuality and I think he believes his own bullshit when he feels her up during practice to try and bring out her passion. He's clearly across the line though. Hell, at one point he gives her a homework assignment to go home and masturbate, and one morning, just as she's about to complete her course requirements (I give her a B+) she rolls over to see her mother asleep in a chair across the room. Now that's scary.

This film has the kind of psychological horror I really like. No supernatural bullshit, no half-assed rationalisation, no bombardment of ridiculous twist endings, just a good old-fashioned descent into insanity. There's a few fun twists along the way, but unless you're particularly credulous I doubt you'll suspect there's anything going on beyond the psychological. There's a bit of Cronenberg body horror, especially towards the end, but for most of the film it's very subtle. A broken fingernail here, a mysterious scratch there; the kind of everyday injuries you wouldn't think too much of. I like how it all ties into her history of self-harm too. At least, until she starts growing feathers out of her back. She should probably see a doctor about that one.

I imagine this film will get an oscar or two, as it's so actor-centric and actors love to imagine that their work is something sexy and dangerous. I doubt it'll get Best Picture as it's a little too genre-y compared to something safe like The King's Oscar Bait, but if Natalie Portman doesn't win Best Actress or Best Female Actor or Best Actor With a Vagina or whatever they're calling it now, I'll eat my hat and shoes. Sure she did a lot of Actorly things like lose weight and train in ballet for a year, but really it's her performance that's incredible. I've never really been sold on her as an actor, but she blew me away with this one. When she finally turns into the Black Swan you know it, and it feels completely earned.

I thought this movie was super-fucking-good, probably the best movie I've seen all year. It's definitely a genre film though, so if you're expected a completely grounded, realistic character drama then you'll probably be one of those people decrying it as "too silly". I don't know if a steady diet of ridiculous genre films has made me thoroughly immune to movie silliness, but I got swept up like a motherfucker. I was expecting something melodramatic and operatic, which it was, but I was caught off guard by how visceral and immersive it was. This film did the best job of putting me in a character's head than I've seen in ages. Really good shit.

1 comment:

MichelleTheNerd said...

Well... it seems you were correct on two counts. Natalie Portman did get best vagina in a leading role, and The Kings Oscar Bait didn't lose either! :) Keep up the awesome work!