Monday, August 22, 2011

Movie Monday: Black Swan

This week's movie is the horror/drama Black Swan!

I generally stay away from reviewing newer films for Movie Monday, because I figure there are so many great/weird/interestingly bad older films that deserve a spotlight.

But the film I had planned on talking about for this week (an Italian horror/thriller) turned out to be so boring that right after watching it, I could barely recall anything that happened. I happened to have received Black Swan via Netflix the next day, so I figured why not?

Just FYI, I won't be revealing any crucial plot details or the ending, in case anyone out there still wants to see it:

Black Swan
opens with a beautiful, wordess sequence of ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dancing with her partner:
It's a gorgeous way to open the film, but it also hints at what's to come: via camera movements, we feel a slight sense of disorientation, like something's not quite right.

And of course, something isn't quite right: while Nina is a young, beautiful woman, director Darren Aronofsky shoots Portman in unflattering light, and she looks tired and gaunt. She looks stricken when she sees another young woman on the subway who looks a lot like her, but we can't quite tell. Its one of many indications that Nina is not well.

Nina is currently in the running for the lead in Swan Lake, directed by the slimy, arrogant director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). She seems mousy, almost broken; and that is not helped when another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives and joins the company, who always seems to be around every corner:

Nina's home life is no bed of roses, either: her mother (Barbara Hershey) is passive-aggressive in her tight-fisted control of her daughter, treating this young woman like she's a tiny child.

Leroy tells Nina she's technically good enough for the lead, but lacks the confidence to "let herself go" the way the part demands. When Nina forces herself to loosen up, she gets the part (taking over from the company's aging and bitter star, played by Winona Ryder). But the good news doesn't last long: someone seems to be chasing after Nina, trying to drive her insane, like when she emerges from a bathroom stall in an empty ladies room to see this:
Aranofsky spends a lot of time dealing with the physical abuse the body takes: the extreme diet, compulsive washing of hands, a rash that never seems to go away. During one sequence when Nina puts on her shoes, her feet have turned into something straight out of a David Cronenberg movie:
Nina and Lily become unlikely friends, but Nina's unbalanced nature turns the friendship into something more (a lot more; there's a fairly explicit lesbian scene between the two that felt more than a little gratuitous).

She fights with her mother, and it gets so bad it turns physical. The mother seems to want to arrest Nina's sexual development, and there's a disturbing scene where Nina is in bed and her mother asks from outside her bedroom door: "Are you ready for me?" before entering. The scene ends, and you never get to see what the point of the sequence is. I've read theories that suggest the mother is sexually abusing her daughter, and its become such a part of their dynamic that its simply routine.

Nina prepares for opening night, and her confidence is undermined further when she learns Lily has been named Nina's understudy. This leads to a scene in Nina's dressing room that goes so far in the direction of horror that, via the use of some silly-looking CGI, it pops the bubble the film was sitting on for the previous 100 or so minutes.

Nina goes on, and delivers a powerhouse performance as the Black Swan:
sg this point, I will say no more about the film's plot. Not that the ending is some huge twist, but it is worth watching fresh if you're planning on seeing the film.

Overall, I liked Black Swan; the performances are compelling and you get wrapped up in the story, thanks to Aranofsky's skill as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, the film establishes Nina's mental health (or lack thereof) fairly early on, and once you realize that she's coo-coo for cocoa-puffs, the film is another ninety minutes of piling on, showing us example after example of Nina's loose grip on reality. To that end, there isn't much of an arc for Portman; and while I think she's a fine actress I'm not really sure she deserved the Oscar for this performance: she basically goes from twitchy and crazy to more twitchy and really crazy.

Mila Kunis is great in the movie; her matter-of-fact, sorta-Bad Girl character cuts through a lot of the melodrama and self-seriousness of the rest of the movie, and I enjoyed every scene she was in.

Having finally seen Black Swan, I have to admit I'm a little shocked at how many critical raves it racked up; basically this movie could have been something Hammer put out in the 1970s, just with a lower budget and less of a high-falutin' air. Anyone who thinks this is some "amazing original vision" is someone who probably considers B-horror movies beneath them; so when an A-list director and star borrows those elements, it seems so daring!


Craig Michael Patrick said...

Sold. Watching it this coming weekend.

studio gulag -- said...

I had a completely different take on this flick once I came to the realization that it's a wacky black comedy and that the only actor in on the joke is Vincent Cassel.

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