Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Black Swan: Intense flight

Black Swan (2010) • View trailer for Black Swan
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor, drug use and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Director Darren Aronofsky grabs us by the scruff and buffets us into submission, much the way a terrier shakes the life out of a favorite toy.

Aronofsky’s films are far from passive experiences; they’re confrontational head trips about unhinged, deeply flawed characters, sometimes barely recognizable as human beings. And even when the approach is more or less realistic – as was the case with The Wrestler, which garnered well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei – Aronofsky can’t resist the occasional sadistic touches of Grand Guignol. (Recall the bout that put Rourke’s character into a broken glass and razor-bladed cage match.)
When Nina (Natalie Portman) fails to project the sensual heat required for a
segment of her performance in Swan Lake, ballet company director Thomas
Leroy (Vincent Cassel) gets aggressively physical with her. The result, far
outside the young woman's comfort zone, eventually proves quite unexpected.

Black Swan isn’t nearly that conventional, although Aronofsky once again narrows his gaze on a competitor in a highly stylized discipline: the world of ballet. But be warned: This isn’t the luxuriously romantic ballet of The Turning Point, with its soft-focus camerawork and beautifully toned bodies. This is more the unhealthy obsession of The Red Shoes: an aggressive depiction of an artform that involves punishing rehearsals, merciless competition and emotionally battered young women who – like jockeys – flirt with dietary dysfunction in order to make their weights.

Early on, we’re challenged with every bulimic purge, every toenail split down the middle by excess en pointe practice. The environment is punishing to the point where single-minded dedication becomes all-consuming mania.

Ah, yes: This is a story of madness.

Specifically, a descent into madness. Black Swan is the most riveting depiction of a woman coming unhinged since Catherine Deneuve lost her mind while inhabiting the claustrophobic apartment in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. And I suspect the similarity isn’t accidental; more than a few of Aronofsky’s touches feel like deliberate nods to Polanski.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is introduced in the protective cocoon of her bedroom: a frilly, fluffy, pastel-pink womb that would be the envy of any little girl. But Nina is many years beyond being a little girl, and this room – as lensed by Matthew Libatique – feels more than a little malignant.

Worse yet, the womb-like atmosphere also is an unsettling metaphor. The emotionally repressed Nina’s every move and thought are subject to the approval of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a control freak whose smothering embrace doesn’t quite mask long-simmering rage: Erica was forced, years ago, to abandon her own ballet career when she became pregnant. Ever since, this older woman has channeled her own desires through her daughter’s now-identical ambition, employing passive-aggressive mind games to get “little Nina” to cater to her every whim. And Nina, the classic victim, craves nothing more than this malevolent monster’s approval.

Nina is similarly mentally abused by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the hard-charging director of the New York City ballet company that counts her as likely heir apparent. The troupe’s current star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), has grown a bit long in the tooth for the ingénue roles that sell tickets and encourage grants from deep-pockets benefactors.

Or perhaps Thomas, who sleeps with all his stars, merely has grown tired of Beth.

The company’s new season is scheduled to open with a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Nina desperately wants the lead role. Thomas is torn; he knows that Nina is perfect casting for the virginal White Swan, but he’s not persuaded that she can bring similar credibility to the sexually ravenous Black Swan, which also competes for Prince Sigfried’s love.

A ruthless woman would recognize that the best way to secure the role would involve throwing herself into Thomas’ bed and demonstrating a wanton level of carnality. The woefully immature Nina, in a scene Aronofsky heightens for its ghastly discomfort, merely makes a verbal appeal; it’s absolutely the wrong approach. When the obviously irritated director impatiently forces a kiss, Nina responds with equal parts anger and terror.

Sensing some fire in the young woman’s soul after all, Thomas awards her the role and introduces her to the artistic community. Nina has her heart’s ambition: She is a star.

Meanwhile, the company has taken on a new dancer: Lily (Mila Kunis), an earthy, hard-scrabble hedonist who’s the total opposite of Nina’s sheltered, fragile porcelain doll. Lily is the dark to Nina’s light, which Thomas notices immediately. How can he not? The whole point of Tchaikovsky’s ballet is that the Black Swan tricks the Prince into falling in love with her, obliterating his devotion to the White Swan.

Nina, her hold on reality already crumbling, becomes convinced that the play’s narrative has spilled into her own life, and that Thomas will discard her in favor of this aggressively erotic interloper. Worse yet, even she can’t help liking – and lusting after – Lily. The latter knows this all too well, leaving us to wonder whether Lily really is angling after Nina’s starring role.

As the old saying goes, the fact that Nina is paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren't out to get her...

Portman’s performance is impressively layered, at times a masterpiece of subtlety. Nina intellectually understands what is demanded of her in terms of erotic allure, but she lacks the “language” to implement such physicality; watching this young woman attempt to break through her comfort zone – most often failing miserably – is heartbreaking.

And when she does succeed – with a little unhealthy assistance from Lily, the temptress – the situation gets even worse. Repression is too much a part of Nina’s very fiber; subverting years of introverted conditioning merely increases her instability and fragility.

This isn’t a depiction of madness that involves layers of a woman’s soul peeling away; in Aronofsky’s hands, it’s more like watching a beautiful, perfect statue being hit by a vandal’s hammer, with chips flying about and lost forever.

Kunis, too often saddled with ill-advised junk (Boot Camp, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Extract) after her eight successful years on TV’s That ’70s Show, finally – finally – gets a meaty role worthy of her talents. She keeps Lily properly mysterious: scheming and avaricious, to be sure, but not necessarily cruel. Or is she? Kunis oozes sexuality, her every move an erotic challenge to Portman’s prim, frightened-rabbit Nina.

Hershey is a quiet horror story who makes us shudder every time Erica appears. Cassel makes a suitable chauvinist jerk, but – and this is important – we never doubt that Thomas knows and wants what is best for his company.

Aronofsky sends things into screaming overdrive by the time screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin hit their third act. Those who remember Repulsion will anticipate what’s to come with the creepy paintings that fill the walls of Erika’s bedroom; other signs of Nina’s mounting instability are equally outrageous. We’re once again firmly in the aggressively unbalanced territory of Aronofsky’s 2000 arthouse hit, Requiem for a Dream: a realm void of comfort ... but, then, Aronofsky is all about discomfort.

Black Swan isn’t easy viewing; it’s also outré enough to shatter the sometimes delicate relationship between filmmaker and viewer. Some are apt to snicker, then toss up their hands at the overblown absurdity of the entire endeavor. Portman acts up a storm, yes, but often her delicately shaded work is overwhelmed by Aronofsky’s garish flourishes. At times, he seems at war with himself: Why would a director capable of extracting such fine work from his actors, turn around and then ostentatiously distract us from that very work?

Still, if successful films achieve their historic status through memorable moments, Black Swan has plenty of those, all involving Portman. I’ll not soon forget her expressions of utter despair, or the unsettling contexts that prompt them.

Much as I might prefer to.

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