Dec 27, 2010

Black Swan

Black Swan tells the story of “the exquisite Nina Seyers” (Natalie Portman), a ballerina chosen to re-enact the Swan Queen in a new edition of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in New York City. The director of the play, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has doubts about Nina’s capabilities as the Black Swan but is impressed by her charms as the innocent White Swan. When Lily (plays by Mila Kunis) is entered into the company from San Francisco, Nina feels threatened and finds her position in danger. Her striving for perfection and effort to keep her lead role start to trouble her and eventually lead her into a psychological downward spiral.

For Natalie Portman, this is the role of a lifetime, and Portman, of course, is fully aware of this. She’s trained for months, lost weight, learnt ballet, cracked a rib, and all other sorts of things most film roles wouldn’t require her to go through. But when you see her on the screen, you can see that all the effort, and bruises and calluses pay off, as she immerses herself completely in Nina Sayers. From frame one to the very last frame Portman proves that she’s in top form. She plays Nina with such depth and in so many layers that the sense of endless anxiety and scare which could have been easily overplayed feels fresh at every turn. (Her best scene in terms of performance, in my opinion, comes earlier on in the film, with more excitement and relief rather than scare, when she calls her mother to tell her about the casting. I can’t express quite how much I liked that scene, and I know I’m not the only one who loves it so much.)

Again, I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but Kudos is in order to the casting director for matching the actors so perfectly with their screen persona. Natalie Portman’s own acting skills (and looks) have kept her more on the “virginal innocent” side of the spectrum in her past roles. To see Leroy challenge her to play the darker, more vicious Black Swan really materializes the idea that Aronofsky was challenging Portman to do the same with the role on the screen. Barbara Hershey – in a terrific performance as Nina’s mother – plays a ballerina who never had the chance to shine. Hershey herself is an actress who never really had the spotlight to herself but has proven that she deserved it. And lastly, Winona Ryder – in another brilliant performance – plays a ballerina who had the centre stage, but her age and the emergence of newer stars have driven her out to the sidelines. And what’s happened to Ryder in real life?

The below-the-line talent is no less impressive. The bird theme in the settings, the decoration of the pink room, the costume design that feels original despite the countless variations of Swan Lake that have been out there before, and Matthew Libatique’s dynamic camerawork all amaze us as much as Natalie Portman’s turn. Above all, Clint Mansell does to this film what he did with Requiem for a Dream, which is to say Black Swan would have been completely unimaginable in its current shape had the composer been different. His job here must have been more challenging given the familiarity of Swan Lake and its abundant use in the film, but yet again, Mansell proves to be a worthy collaborator for Aronofsky. For films of a director as provocative as Aronofsky, Mansell’s progressively creative scores are a perfect match.

Black Swan is a blend of different genres but the fans of horror cinema will be the ones coming out of the theatre most satisfied. Although Aronofsky’s frequent use of sudden and loud music may overshadow the thrill that runs through the film from beginning to end, but in reality, it is the general atmosphere that oozes an indescribable feeling. Maybe it’s the duality in Nina’s character; maybe it’s her downfall that terrifies us; maybe it’s her unpredictability; or maybe just the architecture of her apartment with all those long dark corridors. Whatever it is, Aronofsky’s definitely succeeded in giving us a chill.

His work is by far the most audacious directing of the year. He succeeds in combining campy horror with a backstage drama with a ballet film and make the audience laugh at the right times. The elements all fit their place. As I mentioned, the casting is brilliant, the design of the film is really terrific (and it’s not just about how good it looks, it’s about how the black and white of Leroy’s office and the pink dolls of Nina’s room are integrated into the context of the film), and most importantly, Aronofsky realizes how outlandish his endeavour is, so he never takes himself too seriously. He doesn’t try to be perfect; he doesn’t “let himself become his own worst enemy”, but he lets go. And consequently, we can only really enjoy the film if we, too, let go. The truth is, as surreal as the film may be, you can’t look at Nina, but you have to become Nina and Aronofsky easily gives us the chance. We’re as terrified as Nina is when the lights shut out backstage, or when her mother tries to break into her room. We cringe when we hear her foot cracking a few times as she stretches and we feel her distress in the final climactic scene in her dressing room.

What I find interesting in Aronofsky’s direction here is his adherence to most formulas that we’ve seen in his own past work or in the works of others, many times before; but the film still feels original. The story of the film is not really new, his directing techniques are reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream. Even in the super-hyped lesbian sex scene, Aronofsky doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before; it’s the same sexual coding used since the 60s: show the orgasmic woman’s face and that’s all the “sex” they see on screen. Yet, nowhere through the movie will you feel that you’ve seen any of it before. Black Swan itself embodies what Leroy states about Swan Lake in the beginning of the film: “Done to death, but never like this”.

Black Swan is by no means a perfect film. It’s overly melodramatic; it’s loud, surreal, and over-the-top. Yet, when you overlook the flaws and immerse yourself in Aronofsky’s journey, these imperfections only make the film more endearing. Black Swan is the boldest and most visceral film of the year, and is a reminder that if more directors would so fearlessly paint their pieces with all their heart and soul as Aronofsky does, we’d be in for a hell of a treat every time we stepped in the theatre.