Friday, December 3, 2010

Exciting and Visceral Cinema: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan

With American cinema in the perpetual doldrums, it’s fallen to a handful of directors to provide quality movie-making that doesn’t insult the intelligence and displays an original and striking mindset. David Fincher’s superb The Social Network was one such recent release, as was Spike Jonze’s perceptive 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are. Now, talented filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) weighs in with Black Swan, which does for Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet Swan Lake what Jaws did for sharks, that is, brilliantly reveal the dark undercurrents roiling beneath a placid surface.

Set amidst the hot house atmosphere of a New York ballet company, Black Swan focuses on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who, like everyone else in her group, hopes to land the starring role in an upcoming revisionist new production of Swan Lake. Driven company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is interested in utilizing Nina as the ballet’s lead, but bluntly points out to her that while he’s sure she can play the innocent White Swan of the ballet, essaying the Black Swan, representing the darker side of human nature, is, he fears, out of her emotional range. He gives her the role anyway, but a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has conveniently just joined the company, is being held in reserve as an alternate, just in case Nina can’t pull the part off. Pushed by her disturbed perfectionist mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself, and none too stable in her own right, cracks begin to appear in Nina’s world. It revolves around her cutting herself, imagining plots against her – which may indeed exist – and, just possibly, undergoing a split personality, thus replicating the plot of Swan Lake. Needless to say, as opening night fast approaches, things come to a messy, powerful head.

Vincent Cassel & Natalie Portman
There’s more than a whiff of Roman Polanski’s fractured and graphic psychological thrillers Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), wafting through Black Swan, which is, by the way, a good thing. (Co–writer Andres Heinz admits to screening the former movie before shooting began on Aronofsky’s movie.) But Aronofsky isn’t just aping the Polish master’s obsessions; he’s got more than a few ideas of his own on tap here, from the characters in the movie echoing their counterparts in the original ballet to a sensual and (homo) erotic take on the two lead dancers’ interactions. As Nina’s world view becomes more and more opaque, the viewer is equally put off guard, not sure what is real and what is not. All this is directed with such sublime artistry and ratcheting tension that a slight technical projectionist’s glitch towards the end of the movie’s press screening, made me realize, with a start, how thoroughly involved I was in the riveting drama playing out on screen.

The genius of Aronofsky lies, too, in his casting. Natalie Portman (Brothers, Garden State) is a good actress but rarely has someone taken such great advantage of her unique fragility and power as Aronofsky has. Those attributes are also evident in the performance and persona of Winona Ryder (The Age of Innocence; Girl, Interrupted), who plays a troubled older dancer, and the company’s former lead star, who is unwillingly forced into retirement by Thomas. Cassel (La Haine, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1), too shines in the film, as the mercurial Thomas. It’s no coincidence that he’s French; no American would dare be as sexist and politically incorrect as his character. As for Barbara Hershey, not only as is she superb as Erica (aided, in a way, as Critic at Large’s Kevin Courrier pointed out, by the actresses’ history of plastic surgery, which adds a tragic veneer to her perfectionist character), but she deserves kudos for taking on a such a psychologically difficult role. The movie’s twisted mother/daughter relationship even goes places the daring Polanski didn’t go. And while I’ve never before had much brief for That 70s Show’s Mila Kunis, she’s just right as the disingenuous and/or duplicitous Lily.

Ravishingly shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Black Swan (which has received more than its share of criticism from the ballet world, who have objected to its unvarnished depiction of ballerinas and their phobias) sucks you into its vision and only lets you go when it’s good and ready to do so. Libatique also photographed Aronofsky’s one-of-a-kind Kabala mystery Pi (1998), his shattering and grim drama Requiem for a Dream (2000), and his loopy time travelling science fiction epic The Fountain (2006), but not his more conventional wrestling story, The Wrestler (2008), which is a reminder of how atypical the latter movie is, in Aronofsky's oeuvre.

Black Swan does have its imperfections, notably in its story, never an Aronofsky strong suit (the screenplay is credited to three writers, including Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin). Thus, another rival dancer Veronica (Ksenia Solo), who seems set up as a key protagonist at the movie’s outset, gradually recedes into the background of the film and then disappears entirely. Nor do you ever really get a sense of how the disparate parts of the ballet troupe function. (Robert Altman’s 2003 ballet movie The Company, which generally failed to bring its characters to life, at least got that aspect of its story right.) Normally, these types of flaws would seriously damage a film but when the movie-making is this thrilling and sensory, they don’t matter nearly all that much.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.

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