Monday, January 17, 2011

BLACK SWAN (2010): Ballet Horror Flick

Black Swan is about a young dancer’s plunge into madness.  It is a joyless film displaying good choreography and an incredible work ethic on the part of the lead actress that will endear it to pretentious critics and the Academy Award Committee.  It is much like The Reader with its muddled storyline that some audience members will label as brilliance.  It’s much more like Carrie starring Sissy Spacek (though not nearly so good because Carrie really was intended to be a horror flick) in that both movies attempt to blur the line between reality and fantasy.

Nina (Natalie Portman), a naïve and somewhat sexually confused young woman, tries out for the lead in Swan Lake.  Along with this comes many of the more negative attributes of being in such a profession (self-loathing, addiction to overworking, eating disorders, etc.).  Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a controlling mother and failed ballet dancer that secretly wishes that her daughter would fail in any particular pursuit.  Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director of the ballet, is a lecher and a tyrant who spends his time humiliating his cast – and in particular, Nina, who he believes in as the “White Swan” but not as the “Black Swan.”  Beth (Winona Ryder) is the aging ballerina that used to be the favorite of Thomas before Nina began to impress the director with her (Nina’s) dancing skills.  Finally, there is Lily (Mila Kunis), who at first pretends to befriend Nina, but later becomes her competitor for the role of the lead in the ballet.  Thomas spends his time fondling Nina and insulting her alleged frigidity to supposedly help Nina metamorphose into the “Black Swan.”   He encourages Nina to masturbate which is somehow supposed to help her better understand her role.  Nina also begins to fantasize about having a lesbian encounter with Lily.  Beth is so jealous of Nina that Beth throws herself in front of a car and badly injures herself to gain the attention of Thomas.  Nina’s mother is so jealous of Nina spending all her time in training that she tries to keep Nina at home to sabotage Nina’s career.  All of this leads to Nina going insane.  The insanity manifests itself in hallucinations, fantasies, rages and the belief that she is growing feathers and has webbed feet and hands.  Nina nevertheless perseveres and gives a brilliant rendition of the “White Swan” and the “Black Swan” in front of a live audience.  Only at the end do we discover that she had pierced herself with a piece of broken glass and as a result she dies just after the performance of Swan Lake was completed.  (We’re not sure if she actually dies or if this is one more fantasy.)

There’s no question that Black Swan has its attributes.  The dance sequences are dazzling, and Natalie Portman is believable as the dancer determined to be a success at all costs to her own peace of mind.  There is a certain suspense that is sustained throughout the movie as we are always kept guessing at to what will happen next.  And juxtaposing the “Black Swan” role along with Nina’s mental state is actually some effective use of symbolism.

There’s also no question that the movie is a mess.  There is no coherent storyline, and nobody in the supporting cast does a decent job in playing their part. Hershey, Cassel, Kunis and Ryder come across as real and one-dimensional as plastic plants.  If the parts these individuals played were the only characters to provide Nina with guidance, one couldn’t blame her for committing (a supposed) suicide in the end.  The portrayal of sexuality throughout the film is relatively mild by today’s standards, but in the context of this particular film it comes out about as wholesome as if we watched a couple of hours of hardcore porn.  It’s gratuitous and completely false.  And the filmmakers did a bit too adequate of a job in making Nina’s flight into madness completely over the top.  It’s too easy hiding a faulty storyline behind the mental fog of a deranged individual.  It would be more difficult to attempt to make sense of the main character’s insanity by providing some plot development.  She was supposed to be an innocent girl, so why did she plunge herself into such depravity?  As it is, whether “White Swan,” “Black Swan,” or combination of “White Swan” and “Black Swan,” we never have the feeling that whatever direction Nina chose to go her destiny would have been anything but tragic. 

The movie runs for 108 minutes, rather short for a movie blockbuster, and this is at least a relief.  It’s directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also directed The Wrestler.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.  A female friend of mine felt that Black Swan was too much like a teenage boy’s idea of how young women dancers would speak and behave - when not practicing their dance moves.  Black Swan is one of the most disappointing movies that I have seen in years (usually I don’t expect much to begin with) because, as evidenced by The Wrestler, I thought that Anonofsky could hold such an unpredictable storyline together as we have in Black Swan.

We will see what kind of accolades Black Swan receives at all of the award ceremonies.  Not surprisingly, Natalie Portman won a Golden Globe award.  She was at least believable as a dancer and as a fragile human being.  The more important indicator of the quality of this movie will be determined over time.  Will this movie standup in ten or fifteen years?  I’m not convinced that it will because in just twenty-four hours I have no desire to ever see this movie again.  It is a movie that tears down yet never builds anything up in its place.  It is entirely negative in its treatment.  One walks away from this and so many other Hollywood movies with little to give anyone hope.

January 17, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011

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