December 4, 2010

Black Swan (12/04/2010)

Lettergrade: Complicated

In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a big-time ballerina who experiences some extreme mental strain whilst preparing to appear in a new Carnegie Hall rendition of "Swan Lake." I can think of no other movie this year that was as (intentionally) excruciating or which caused me to squirm as much in my seat as this one did. I can't really call it enjoyable, and to be honest with you I'm not even sure that it's all that good. But it is a hell of an experience to sit in a theater and watch it, and if nothing else its effectiveness at making the viewer feel creeped out makes it noteworthy.

The movie was directed by Darren Aronofsky who, having made Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler prior to this one, further demonstrates his interest in private spaces where obsession and addiction fester, and ultimately lead - in most of his films, at least - to some kind of dramatic self-destruction. I was in college when I saw Pi, and it would take more words than I'm presently aware of to accurately describe how much I hated it. The only one of his movies that I've really liked is that last one, The Wrestler, mostly because he abandoned the crazy camera stuff and the insane film-student-run-amuck stylistics, and filed the void instead with a surprising amount of humanity, which I would argue made the extraordinary things that happened in that movie much more relatable.

Black Swan is much more like his earlier movies. Its visual DNA is probably more like Requiem than the others... There's no shortage of shaky nervous camera angles, blood and open wounds, alternating scenes where Portman masturbates then vomits, and non-stop creepy visuals. For a picture about dancers, it's much more like A Nightmare On Elm St. than A Chorus Line. Aronofsky is great at making it scary and disturbing, but what's the point other than to provide a good jolt every now and again? I'm not really sure what this movie is about, and none of the characters in it seem like people who exist outside of movies.

I think that's the root of my problem with Black Swan: The filmmaking is stylish but cold, and the relative thinness of the characters just kind of put it into fantasy territory for me. When we meet Portman's character at the beginning, she's already, like, 95% unhinged to the point where she's imagining people who aren't there and seeing her reflection do things that her body isn't doing. That doesn't seem as interesting to me as a movie about how she got so messed up in the first place might be.

The other characters around her are designed to provide some clues to that backstory, but mostly take the form of cruel caricatures: The Swan Lake auteur, Vincent Cassel, is predictably slimy and lecherous. Her mother is at once over-bearing and protective, but occasionally whips out the crazy. It's intentionally unclear if her attempts to subvert her daughter come out of concern or jealousy, and maybe it's both. Portman herself has virtually no interests outside of dancing and doesn't seem to have any close friends or contacts at all... Can one become a prominent Carnegie Hall ballerina and completely lack interpersonal skills or understand a thing or two about politics? I'm not sure I buy that. We know that she has multiple OCD habits that include scratching herself in her sleep and practicing endlessly. We know that she's super driven to succeed, but we're not given much of a window as to why she feels her career is more important than her own mental health. Lots of symptoms in this movie, but very few causes.

The one person she does interact with outside of the dance hall is played by Mila Kunis, who is kind of a punk rival ballerina, sorta along Tyler Durden lines. Kunis is supposed to be a professional ballerina too, but she treats it more like juvenile detention... she drinks, smokes, does drugs, stays out late, and has a lot of large tattoos on her back. Maybe I'm naive here, but it just doesn't seem like anyone even remotely like that would ever be performing at Carnegie Hall. I think the tattoos alone are kind of a deal breaker, aren't they?

At certain points of the movie, I wondered if all of these characters (again, ala Tyler Durden) might be imaginary. I don't think they are, but the movie does spend a great deal of time showing them do things that they're not really doing. This kind of thing drives me up a wall: You quickly lose track of what's even happening in the movie's "reality." We're shown elaborate sequences, and then told they didn't actually take place. There are a lot of bat-shit crazy characters in the movie, and we see them do a lot of bat-shit crazy things. But which of them actually happened or at least have consequences that ripple into what is really happening? Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Are all these sequences just dramatizations of what's going on in Portman's head? Is she even a ballerina at all? Is New York City actually there? Did Tchaikovsky even write Swan Lake in the first place? I'm sure the plot to Inception explains all this somehow, but I have no clue how.

It's one of those movies that was egoistically designed to be watched several times before you really "get it." Sitting here now, I've got virtually no interest in seeing it again, and unlocking whatever brilliant subtext Aronofsky decided to make so unclear to first-timer viewers. In fact, I don't even really want to think about it much more than I have already. And in fact, screw it: I'm going to work on my journal entry for True Grit, a much better movie, instead.

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