Okay, so true story: I was in the middle of writing a three-view review of True Grit, Tron Legacy and Black Swan when I hit a wall. Originally, I intended to write a review for both Tron and True Grit as is, meaning without comparing them to the originals. However, I found my lack of knowledge about the source material to be hindering and even hypocritical of me. So, I decided that I would do the rest of you a favor and watch both and do a compare/contrast for each film. This will absolve me of hypocrisy. Plus, it’ll be fun.
So, with that in mind, those reviews will be forthcoming after I’ve seen both originals, which should be this week. In the meantime, here’s Black Swan.
Surprisingly enough, I think out of all the films I saw this Christmas, Black Swan is my favorite. And not for the reasons that you may think. And those reasons are that I just wanted to see lesbian action with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Well, that’s true, but it wasn’t the biggest motivating factor in seeing Black Swan.
The real reason to see Black Swan is the haunting portrayal by Portman and the visceral direction by Darren Aronofsky, who has created a compelling body of work thus far with his signature filmmaking style. Aronofsky is an auteur, a filmmaker with vision and passion. The heart he puts into his films is obvious onscreen. This is not a guy who phones it in. For me, that’s a reason to get excited to see a film.
His previous films, Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler, all have the same visual grip that takes hold of the audience and shakes them to the core, all the way up to the end credits. Black Swan is no different. Aronofsky remains true to his style, diving deep into the emotional state of his characters by pulling them slowly apart and putting them back together again. Like his other films, Black Swan is a journey into the human condition.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company who is obsessed with perfection in her craft. She lives with her overbearing mother (played with stern creepiness by Barbara Hershey) and lives only to dance. When she gets the part of the swan in a new version of Swan Lake, Nina begins a journey into obsessive madness. She masters the part of the innocent white swan, but struggles to connect with the sensual and seductive part of the black swan. When a fellow dancer, played by Mila Kunis, presents competition for the role, Nina begins to slowly unravel.
It’s not a complicated story. There have been many tales of an obsessed protagonist losing their mind. It’s nothing new. The grace to this story lays with the brilliant performance by Portman, who unfolds her character magnificently, from the innocent, unconfident ballerina to the vicious, seductive woman who will do anything to achieve perfection.
With Aronofsky creating the tale like a master conductor, everything plays out like a composition. It builds slowly as we are immersed in the tone and theme, then builds gradually until it crescendos in the end. It’s the formula for all structured forms of art and music and it’s done with a deft hand.
Aronofsky tap dances his style a bit from the clean and refined look he used in Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain to the grainy, cineme verite look of The Wrestler. At times I feel that this is laziness over style, but it works just fine. However, a common complaint from moviegoers today is too much “shaky-cam” work, which is understandable. It’s cool in doses, but an overabundance of it can be annoying.
Fortunately, Aronofsky balances it well and it’s likely you won’t get motion sickness. Composer Clint Mansell continues his reign with Aronofsky and creates a score that both replicates and deviates from Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake score. It’s both haunting and beautiful at the same time and the non-adapted cues are right in line with Mansell’s usual style, exemplifying Nina’s struggle and passion.
Nina’s struggle is with perfection. She wants her ballet to be flawless, but in doing so she robs herself of transcending into the black swan, who has to be loose and free and sexual. Nina is completely closed off of her sexuality, repressed and closeted (quite literally). She lives in a vacuum where nothing matters more than being the best. However, in order to achieve that she has to let go and become someone that she isn’t. Or is she?
It’s the portrait of a woman who is closed off from the world so much that she loses the humanity in what she’s doing. She forgets that she is playing a part and the only way to get to a true understanding of playing that part is to experience it in real life. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis) who embodies everything that Nina is not: open, free, and rebellious, a slave to no one. Lily exudes sexuality and isn’t afraid to show it, especially to the director, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassell.
As Nina struggles to find her footing for the character of the black swan and Lily begins working her way into Thomas’s good graces, she falls apart. Thomas continuously tries to get her to open up, even pressuring her to masturbate. The masturbation scene is nowhere near as racy as it has been made out to be and actually turns out to be funny, which I certainly didn’t expect.
The vice tightens on Nina as she falls deeper into the role, slowly crossing over from the sweet, innocent white swan into the dark, malevolent character of the black swan. It’s a study in duality as Nina’s real life begins to mirror that of Swan Lake. In the end, you could say Nina is the ultimate method actor. However, her journey into madness is one that leaves you wondering what is real and what isn’t, which is exactly what conflicts her. When you fall that deep into something, how do you really know?
Nina’s sexual awakening blossoms when she goes home with Lily and they proceed to get busy. Lesbo style. The scene in question isn’t necessarily steamy, but it’s not raunchy or tasteless. It is, however, a sex scene, and I feel bad for the mothers and fathers who took their daughters to go see this film thinking it would be about “just ballet” and are suddenly watching Mila Kunis eat Natalie Portman’s pussy. I’d love to be a fly on the roof for that car ride home.
Oh, misinformed parents, how I love thee.
Nina’s obsession builds to the very end as she confronts everything she has repressed, including her overbearing mother. The crescendo to the film, just like the play, is amazing. Portman nails the final transformation and the scene where she finally gives way and truly becomes the black swan is a visceral feast. Many people who have seen the film have said that they were bored up until the last fifteen minutes. I could see that, I suppose, but I think the entire film lives up to the grand finale. Without the first ¾ the ending would mean nothing.
Portman has said that she is trying to take on more adult roles and I think this pushes her to the top of her class. Meryl Streep can’t reign forever and there have been plenty of young actresses stepping up to the plate in the last few years. For my money, Portman is at the head of the pack, especially with Black Swan under her belt.
Thematically, Black Swan is both a horror film and a psychological thriller. It’s anxious, haunting, beautiful, and a wee bit erotic. I enjoyed the hell out of it, for all those reasons. If there’s one thing I look for in a film, it’s vision. There are new films released every week and oftentimes they are devoid of style or signature from the filmmakers. They could’ve been directed by anyone. Black Swan screams to be recognized and is a unique take on a classic ballet. The inspiration for the story is felt in every scene.
I know people that hated this movie. They said it was boring. It’s “artsy” bullshit. However, usually those type of people are the ones that helped Grown Ups with Adam Sandler make more than a hundred million dollars this past summer. If you enjoy quality films, made with passion, heart, and vision, then Black Swan is your bag. If you prefer dick and fart jokes…stay away.
See you in a few for the Tron/True Grit extravaganza.