A swan dive into madness ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A swan dive into madness

Black Swan
My rating:

I am less familiar with the films of Darren Aronofsky than I wish. I have only ever seen Requiem for a Dream (a long time ago, remember little about it, and it was on a crappy VCD copy anyway) and The Fountain (didn't understand it at all, but found it moving and profound all the same); I haven't seen Pi ('cos I can't bloody find it anywhere) or The Wrestler (I have the DVD and I really ought to get to it someday). And the man is, of course, one of the most innovative and original filmmakers working today. So no, I'm not gonna review Black Swan in terms of how it fits with the rest of Aronofsky's oeuvre.

I'm just gonna say whoa, it is powerful.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer in a prestigious New York ballet company led by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who announces that they will be performing Swan Lake. Nina is shy and timid and lives with her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) - a former dancer herself - and desperately wants the lead role of the Swan Queen. But her joy at winning the role is short-lived, as she struggles to meet Leroy's exacting standards; she is perfect as the pure, fragile White Swan, but lacks the passion and sensuousness of the evil twin, the Black Swan. And then there is Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the company's former star, bitter and broken over being discarded by Leroy - and Lily (Mila Kunis), a newcomer to the company who befriends her, who is everything Nina is not and therefore embodies the Black Swan perfectly. As Nina contends with her punishing training, Leroy's sexual advances, her mother's smothering affection, and Lily's possible conniving to replace her, she starts losing touch with reality. Her waking dreams and hallucinations of horrific bodily transformations all point to one thing: she is slowly and irrevocably going insane.

So based on the recommendation of the good k0k s3n w4i, I watched this on DVD first, intending to then watch the butchered censored version in cinemas. After my first viewing however, I balked. Partly because I am shamefully behind on my reviewing schedule, and watching movies twice would only waste time. But mostly because this is the kind of film whose merits I can acknowledge, but I don't really enjoy, and am not particularly inclined to watch again. It's a harrowing experience, watching a young girl gradually lose her mind, and it's made so skilfully and forcefully that you can almost feel every strand of Nina's mind snapping.

But yes, I did watch it again, if only to report on how badly the cinema version is chopped up. Two of the most overtly sexual scenes - one where Nina masturbates, and the lesbian tryst between Nina and Lily - were cut short, but not really too badly; all you lose is a not-very-titillating bit of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis making out, and a couple of somewhat more prurient shots of Portman's shapely and writhing ass, so I daresay you'll still get the full effect of the film. And the full effect was every bit as stunning the second time as the first, and helped clarify a few of my thoughts regarding it. See, my personal preference is not for bleak endings; I don't like movies that invite my sympathy for its protagonist only to shatter my hopes for his/her fate at the end. (Ask me about The Mist and Oldboy sometime.)

But Black Swan is different. Y'see, the fact that Natalie Portman is playing Nina, and that Portman has played any number of emotionally healthy and well-adjusted characters previously, blinded me a little as to what kind of person Nina really is - which is an extremely naive, sheltered and fragile little girl in an adult woman's body. She's like a mui mui chai from some small town in Kedah coming to KL for the first time, and both Portman's performance and the script (by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin) bear this out. She is friendless in her own dance company, and says only childish things in a high, little-girl voice; she's only ever articulate and self-assured when she's with her mother. It's not inconceivable that someone could be as kind-hearted as Lily seems to be, to go out of her way to befriend Nina and both protect her from the big bad world and get her to open up to it a little.

Which would make Lily a better person than me, since I didn't particularly like Nina at all. She is weak and simpering, bursts into tears at the tiniest slight, and occasionally given to as much cattiness as she gets from her fellow dancers. And while it's beyond doubt that her mother's smothering love made her this way, I actually thought Erica wasn't all that bad; her concern for her daughter's welfare supercedes any thwarted ambition she may have placed on Nina's shoulders. I hesitate to say Nina deserves her fate, as if she were some villain whose comeuppance you cheer; as I mentioned, the film does an incredible job putting you in her skin, so you couldn't help but feel for her. But what happens to her feels inevitable - even appropriate.

But what does happen to her? I fear I'm doing no better a job at telling you about this movie as every other review I've read. Okay, this movie is a mindfuck - and in the great tradition of mindfuck movies, the reality of everything you see is called into question. But unlike, say, Shutter Island, there's no final twist ending to reveal the "truth". I'd say it's pointless to try and puzzle out what's real and what is merely a hallucination in Nina's tortured mind, because everything that happens to her drives her toward a single goal: to perform the Swan Queen, in both its White and Black incarnations, perfectly. Even the revelations of the falseness of her memories are aimed at driving her to the despair she needs to portray on stage. It's as if her own desire for perfection has betrayed her, in exactly the same way the Black Swan and Rothbart the sorcerer betrays the White Swan in the tale of the ballet.

As such, nothing we see may be real. Lily's overtures of friendship, Thomas' sexual advances; even her uncanny resemblance to both Lily and Beth may all be in her mind. (And yes, you can bet that Portman, Kunis and Winona Ryder were all cast because they look alike.) Which brings us to the cast, who must all walk a fine balance between two or more characterizations. Vincent Cassel's Leroy; warm mentor, hard taskmaster, and/or sleazy sexual predator. Barbara Hershey's Erica; loving mother and/or emotionally abusive shrew. Kunis' Lily; seductress, conniving bitch, concerned friend and/or innocent bystander. They're all good - and in Kunis' case, more than just good, and hey, did you know Kunis trained in ballet just as long and hard as Portman did? - and I mention them because they're all getting overlooked in the wake of the praise Portman is getting.

Which she of course deserves. It's a showy role, given to broad and extravagant emoting, exactly the kind of performance that wins Oscars. But she is magnificent in it, exerting the same precise control over her most demanding scenes that Nina probably would. There's another dimension to her casting too; just like Nina, she has always been known for playing White Swan roles, never Black Swan. Has she ever played a seductive, destructive character? She did onesuch in No Strings Attached, and indeed, she wasn't very convincing in it. If this role - and the confidence borne of winning an Oscar for it - has grown her range enough for her to tackle other things besides all the nice girls she's played, we could expect even more great things from her*.

Oh, and one last thing: it is not for nothing that I put the "Horror" label on this review. Black Swan is very much a horror movie, not least because there are quite a few very effective jump-scares. Primarily because it is a horrifying movie, as a gradual and inexorable descent into madness would be. Few films have gripped me as tightly as this one did in its final act, and I was no less enthralled during my second viewing as my first. So yes, I think I will recommend, strongly, that you go see this in cinemas, censorship be damned. The local 20th Century Fox distributors deserve to make good money back on their excellent decision to bring this movie to our screens.

NEXT REVIEW: I Am Number Four
Expectations: need a little dumb fun, as a break from all the Oscar-nominated stuff

* I just had a thought that, if the current Batman movie series ever gets that far, Portman might make an excellent Harley Quinn.