Sunday, April 17, 2011

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky, 2010 (8.4*)
Natalie Portman is aspiring ballerina Nina Sayers, vying for the lead role in a New York ballet company's season opening performance of Swan Lake. The company's director, Vincent Cassel, is retiring their current star, Wynona Ryder, due to age, and he wants to move into a bold, new direction. He tells Nina she is the perfect white swan, but that her competition, a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) is the perfect black swan, and he needs someone who can be both. He urges Nina to get in touch with her sensual side, which he can't see in her rehearsals, telling her she must become more intuitive, and lose herself in the role, unaware that this may send Nina over the edge in a leap into the void of madness.

Her mother, Barbara Hershey, is a former ballerina herself, who gave it all up to have a child - now she wants to control and dominate Nina, hoping to avoid the mistakes she made. The result is that Nina's entire world is her dancing, she has no lovers, and seems alienated from real human contact and affection altogether. We watch her try to cross this void and literally get in touch with her body, but as she does she descends into a neurotic self-absorption that borders on complete madness. Her desire for success on the stage threatens her tenuous connection to reality. Her fantasies, particularly erotic ones, drive her dancing toward the sensual side that Cassel demands, while at the same time hindering her quest for perfection, which was probably demanded by her mother from an early age. Her move to the dark side also demands a severance from her mother's domination. Like the daugher played by Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen, her independence and tranformation into adulthood require severing a psychic umbilical that keeps each tied to their mothers; each feels pressured to achieve their mothers' dreams and neglect their own.

Natalie Portman drew on her ballet training from ages 4-13, and resumed training a year before principal filming began, working with former New York City ballet dancer Mary Helen Bowers. Professional ballerinas Sarah Lane and Kimberly Prosa were her dance doubles. Using special effects, Natalie Portman's head was placed on Sarah Lane's body in several scenes. According to interviews with Prosa and Lane, Portman's dance scenes in full body shots were the doubles. Often Portman was shown dancing from the waist up, showing only face and arms. It's questionable how much dancing she actually did, but the result is seamless - we never question the technical aspects as we get lost in the metamorphosis of her character from the light to the dark side.

There are some disturbing images here; as usual, an Aronofsky film is not for the squeamish. There are shots of self-mutilation that will haunt viewers long after the film is complete. Perhaps they are a bit over-the-top, but may have been necessary to show the inner changes to her character. At times, it seems a little Hitchcockian, as if a demented psychotic is struggling to gain control of a professional artist whose entire lifestyle is one of self-control and discipline.

Darren Aronofsky's direction shows in how driven the main characters are in his films; they are always intense, exhausting, and riveting performances to witness. He's gotten career best performances from Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Rachel Weisz in The Fountain, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and here from Portman. His style won't ever be as popular as directors who won't take big risks, who rely more on safe, successful formulas. This is much more daring than King's Speech or The Social Network, the two films that won the most awards for best film this year. Neither of those held any surprises, telling historical stories in a typically straighforward manner that guarantees any audience can comprehend their stories. Of those two, I thought Social Network was more interesting (and also had a great music soundtrack); King's Speech just stuttered along (pun intended) with no pace.

Even though this is now ranked #73 on the IMDB top 250, a bit high to me (it will likely fall over time), it only won one award for best film of the year, at the Independent Spirit awards (where it also won for director, actress, and cinematography, while King's Speech only won foreign film there, and wasn't nominated for picture or director). Overall, it won 35 awards out of 124 nominations. Portman won 17 awards for her performance, sweeping all the big ones: Oscar, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, and Golden Globe. Matthew Libatique's cinematography also won several awards.

Note: many complained that Kunis wasn't nominated for supporting actress, but she was bland and uninvolving and didn't deserve any awards. She was totally blown away by veterans Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone (the Indie Spirit winner), and Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. Being young and popular doesn't equate to talent; I've yet to see any real acting from her in anything (I don't even think she's very pretty either, I just don't get all the popularity)

My favorite films from 2010 (so far, with The Fighter still to be seen..): 1-Winter's Bone, 2-Inception, 3-Toy Story 3, 4-Animal Kingdom (Australia), 5-The Social Network, 6-Black Swan, 7-The Tourist, 8-The King's Speech, 9-The Kids Are All Right
[Inception and Toy Story 3 are most likely the ones that will be rewatched the most; I've already gone back and watched Inception again, it's a very complex script]


Adam April 23, 2011 at 4:43 PM  

Can't wait to see this, and great idea for a blog!

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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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