Friday, December 31, 2010

Black Swan

EDITED TO ADD: I just realized that there may be some spoilery things in be careful. But really, you shouldn't be reading this if you haven't seen the movie yet.

"Maybe it was all that White Swan/Black Swan split-personality stuff, but as Black Swan ended I found myself confronted by two outwardly identical but attitudinally opposed thoughts: "That was something... (?)" and "That was something... (!)." In other words, I can't yet tell you exactly what Black Swan is, exactly what it means to me, or exactly when the film is genius and when it's trite, but I can tell you that it got under my skin, that it's powerful in sum, if not incessantly, and that I expect its spell will linger."
                                                                                                   ----- Jason Bellamy

Black Swan is ultimately about an identity crisis (and how!), but it's also a genre mash-up that I can't stop thinking about. Like Jason explains in the quote above (from his piece with Ed Howard at The House Next Door), I find myself thinking that the film is often brilliant in its excess and often hackneyed in its execution. I'm no Darren Aronofsky acolyte, but there is something about his movies that keep me coming back. Like his obsessed characters, I find myself thinking about his films – love 'em or hate 'em – for days. Black Swan is, as Jason puts it, "powerful in sum." If Aronofsky is anything, the one thing he isn't is subtle. And you know what, I like that about him. I like the audacity of his head-long brashness to make the film arrive at the conclusion that, certainly, almost everyone can see it approaching. For once, Aronofsky's aesthetic didn't get in the way of me enjoying the movie. My observations after the jump...

  • One of the most fascinating themes of the film is that of identity, and how we can lose that identity in the pursuit of perfection – all under the guise of ambition. To make the world's most obvious observation: all of Aronofsky's films are about some form of obsession. Black Swan is thematically most akin to the director's previous film, The Wrestler. Not only does Nina (Natalie Portman) destroy her body in the name of art a la Randy "the Ram," but Aronofsky films her – over the shoulder hand-held – in the same way, too. The ending, Nina doing one last "move" and having to jump off of something is similar to Randy's one last "move" (in the pro-wrestling sense) – all for the admiration of the crowd that will forget them when the next star comes around. Nina is that next star now, but her obsession makes her realize that she could, at any moment, be like Beth (Winona Ryder), the dancer she replaced. It's a film about losing your spotlight much in the way The Wrestler is about two past-their-prime performers trying to make it in a world dominated by people younger than them. When the end of Black Swan does finally arrive, I couldn't help but think of The Wrestler as both endings are virtually identical.Both films end with their characters in crucifixion like poses, and both films end with their characters -- seduced by the stage lights -- disregarding their own wounds (in a sense their both self-inflicted wounds, although Nina's are much more literal) in the name of stardom.
  • Speaking of The Wrestler, I loved how Aronofosky continues the motif of an obsessed performer preparing for a performance. When Nina tapes up her feet, cracks her bones, and prepares her shoes (which, apparently, is quite the process), it reminded me of the way "The Ram" needed a solitary moment pre-match to tape himself up, go over his spots, and psyche himself up. Throughout all of Aronofsky's films, he's been just as relentless with his explication of preparation (none more viscerally presented than the "shooting-up" scenes in Requiem) as his favorite theme of obsession.  
  • One of the things Aronofsky does extremely well is place the film within Nina's psyche. He does this by employing a lot of close-ups. It reminded me of the way he had his audiences running, strapped to the chests, with his characters from Requiem for a Dream. Black Swan may be a lot of things to a lot of people, but it's never boring; it's never at a loss for energy as we bathe in the psyche of Nina for 110 minutes. Amidst this energy, there is a film about obsession and suppression. Everyone that surrounds Nina is trying to get her to let go – to let loose and find herself. So, the film is also about discovery. Whether it's her director (Vincent Cassel) telling her that she should be the one seducing him during a dance practice as he tries to get her to tap into her "black swan," or whether it's her co-star Lily (Mila Kunis) trying to get her to loosen up at a bar and have some fun (both of these instances, one ordered by her director in an attempt for her to free herself and the other brought upon Nina's own repressed sexuality, result in Nina trying to unlock her sexually repressed self via masturbation) these instances are in stark contrast (much like the film's aesthetic) with Nina's home life where she lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey doing her best Piper Laurie) who only wants her "little girl" to remain innocent (Nina's room is peppered with pink stuffed animals…and one black swan). 
  • The conventional angle on the film – and from the point of view of some of the characters – is that Nina must get in touch with her repressed sexuality in order to become the person she wants to be. However, I think Aronofsky is approaching it from a different perspective (although certainly that psycho-sexual reading is there): I think Nina must overcome her timidity to be the fully-realized starlet she wants to be. This is a film about a young woman who must overcome diffidence to truly get what she wants: a starring role. In order to do that, it is not her repressed sexuality that she must embrace, but it is her individual power – her confidence. Nina has created the antagonists in her mind so that she can squash them in her pursuit of perfection, and in her pursuit of becoming a fully-realized woman. This feminist reading is a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but I feel that the sexual angle (read: Nina finding the lipstick lesbian within her – making her a more realized woman) wasn't as prominent as some people think it is.However one reads the film, I still find Aronofosky's treatment of Nina pretty disingenuous.  
    • Natalie Portman is this movie. Good or bad it is hers. I asked some friends after we saw the movie whether or not they think that Portman is a good actress. Most agreed that she was and pointed to the scene where Nina breaks down in tears of joy on the phone, as she tells her mother that she got the lead role. It's a strong performance, but I have a hard time ever believing the weepy Portman (I had the same problems with her "big scene" in V for Vendetta) when she emotes. I can only think back to a film like Beautiful Girls where I actually remembered a Natalie Portman performance (I did think she was a strong lead in V for Vendetta, save for that one scene). I found her in this performance to be a lot better as the traditional horror film character type: the girl in peril. Since the film is being told from Nina's unreliable, subjective point-of-view, we can't help but empathize The problem is, and what I find disingenuous about the Aronofosky's treatment of the character, is that I feel like Portman is trying her hardest to make us feel something more for this character than the director ever intended for us to feel. It's a fine performance, but it doesn't make you forget that you're watching an Aronofsky movie like Mickey Rourke's performance did. The supporting cast is top notch, especially Barbara Hershey as the resentful mother who still clings to her daughter because she is the last visage of hope for her to have an in with dance community that she abandoned years prior in order to have Nina. Mila Kunis is serviceable as Nina's doppelganger. The standout supporting performance, though, is Vincent Cassel as Thomas. He's the stereotypically heelish dance director who promises a more stripped-down, controversial version of "Swan Lake." Cassel plays on all of the tropes and cliches these characters employ in dance films and pulls it off wonderfully. Thomas is a brilliant man who we are never quite sure of because we see him through the lens of our unreliable protagonist. Is he helping Nina find the Black Swan within her, or is he as subversive and slimy as he comes off in certain scenes? It's a great performance from Cassel. 
    • What appear to be parlor tricks are actually still visceral moments that don't lose their power. That's one of the most amazing things about the film is Aronofsky's ability to mash-up the narrative – the film is a waking nightmare of "is it?" or "isn't it?" that reminded me just a tad of Eyes Wide Shut* (I can't be the only one that saw this, right?) – with elements from dance films, psychological thrillers, body horror, and slasher movies. There's an energy here that reminds me of why I keep coming back to Aronofsky's films even if I despise them (The Fountain) or feel ambivalent (Requiem for a Dream) towards them – there's something that is always pulling me back, and I think that what that "thing" is that pulls me back is best articulated in Black Swan
    • So sure, there's nothing terribly surprising about Black Swan, but there's nothing terribly surprising about slasher film tropes (which Aronofsky employs), either, yet we still watch horror movies because we enjoy them so much (at least I do); we like to see different people riffing on such a broad genre. That's what Black Swan felt like to me. To be honest, it felt a lot like the visceral energy found in the 70's Italian horror of Dario Argento. If Aronofsky ever wanted to make a giallo, I think he would be rather adept at it. When the film begins spiraling out of control by the end, and Nina is left alone in the dance studio, Aronofsky employs all kind of maddening aesthetic and false scares that, for me, played out brilliantly. It's a moment that gave me chills. Like Jason mentions in the quote that started this piece, Black Swan is a film that gets under your skin, and during this specific scene (especially when she goes to her apartment and begins REALLY freaking out) I was invigorated. I was energized. I had a big goofy smile on my face as Nina, and the film, just kept devolving before my eyes. All set to the paradoxical music of Tchaikovsky (it's almost like we're in Thomas' stripped-down version of "Swan Lake") -- music that is simultaneously beautiful and manic. It's a brilliant scene. 
    • There's nothing new in Black Swan whether you're considering it under the guise of a dance film (there's plenty of clichés from movies about performance here), or whether you're considering it within the context of Aronofsky's oeuvre (close-ups abound, the typical Aronofsky hand-held follow shots are prevalent, the aesthetic is grimy and in-your-face at the same time being controlled and beautiful to look at); however, as many people have pointed out, the film gets under your skin. There's something wonderfully affecting about Black Swan that I can't quite explain. If pressed, I suppose I would say that I admire Aronofsky's headlong vision; his unabashed attitude towards his overt themes (he is definitely not subtle about mirroring/doubles/doppelgangers) and aesthetic (contrasting black/white images are all over this film); his ability to just be able to unapologetically move his film forward with his oddball vision. I have to say that I admire that about the director. Much like what he did in The Wrestler, Aronofsky has an ability to show his hand early and often (not to mention the overuse of certain shots), yet he continues to engage the audience on his protagonists' obsessive journeys because he just steamrolls ahead with his narrative. Despite its flaws, Black Swan is a film that will stay with me for some time; Aronofsky's choices don't always work, but there's something infectious about the kind of energy he brings to the film.
    * I have purposefully avoided mentioning one specific scene (since there's more to the movie than that one specific scene) and one specific movie that you cannot help but think about when you watch Aronofsky's film. Why do I fail to bring attention to this movie (which I suppose I am doing so now)? Maybe because I want to be different? Actually, it's because you need to click on the link that start this piece off and read the conversation between Ed and Jason about Black Swan. Then you need to read Ed's review of the movie I fail to mention. When you're done with that, you need to read through the comments thread of Ed's post. It's amazing. There. I sorta mentioned the movie. 


      1. Hey Kevin.

        So much to catch up here. WIsh you a great year ahead.


      2. I also caught a definite whiff of Eyes (and mentioned it in my review). Even If I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's just the sexually charged atmosphere paired with classical music, and stylistic repetition.

      3. JAFB:

        Thanks for the kind words! Same to you!


        I definitely caught in the way movie is essentially Nina living through a waking nightmare. I also caught it in the editing of the scene where Thomas ushers Nina through the party, and the film fades out of and into the same setting.

      4. Nice piece, Kevin, thanks for the shout-outs. Sounds like we basically agree that, whatever its problems, this is a fascinating film with a lot going on. I like your counterintuitive feminist reading, too. As you say, it's a stretch, but an interesting one. It is a film about a young woman who's held back by her timidity and repression, which is certainly a cliché, and Aronofsky treats it all like an exploitation film premise, but there are at least seeds of a more progressive reading in there. I assume that's what you mean by Aronofsky being "disingenuous" in his treatment of the character, trying to have it both ways.

      5. Thanks, Ed! You're correct in your assumption about what I mean by Aronofsky being disingenuous towards Nina. I was left wondering, after my second viewing of the film, that if the film had taken a slow-burn approach to Nina's devolution that the ending would have resonated more with me (in the same way I wish Scorsese would have re-edited SHUTTER ISLAND to show Leo's character having to deal with what he did from the beginning of the film...making his quest for "truth" more interesting). If Aronofsky wasn't mashin' things up here, I think I would have been with Nina all the way to the end. Instead, I saw her strictly as horror protagonist in peril, a Final Girl if you will, and to that extent I thought Portman's performance was right on; however, if I was supposed to feel anything genuine about her descent into madness -- if she was meant to be a character I empathize with -- I think Aronofsky's muddy-aesthetic gets in the way from me feeling that (much like I could never really feel bad for Connelly's character in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM despite her fantastic performance at the end of that film).

        But yes, we were in agreement for the most part about BLACK SWAN. As I've mentioned to you and Jason already, I really appreciate the work you guys put in on The Conversations. I love having a resource like that so readily available after I've finished writing about the film. I don't think I'll ever be done thinking about BLACK SWAN, and I hope it's the one movie -- warts and all -- that people look back and recognize Aronofsky for.

        Finally, I was thinking about the BLACK SWAN'S reputation. When was the last time a film that was being pretty overt about its horror-ness nominated for so many awards, specifically the lead actress? I suppose THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS?

      6. First of all, thanks for the compliments on the convos piece. It means a lot.

        Secondly ...

        The conventional angle on the film – and from the point of view of some of the characters – is that Nina must get in touch with her repressed sexuality in order to become the person she wants to be. However, I think Aronofsky is approaching it from a different perspective (although certainly that psycho-sexual reading is there): I think Nina must overcome her timidity to be the fully-realized starlet she wants to be. This is a film about a young woman who must overcome diffidence to truly get what she wants: a starring role. In order to do that, it is not her repressed sexuality that she must embrace, but it is her individual power – her confidence.

        Yes. The film's sexuality can't be ignored, but I think a lot of people have confused what Thomas tells Nina will unlock her with what actually unlocks her. I think it's key that the moment Nina walks up to Thomas and surprises him with an aggressive kiss comes after she's triumphed as the Black Swan. In essence, she becomes a woman first. Only then does she actually become sexual.

        This film does linger. I've seen it twice now. I agree: there are still faults. And in many respects my initial reaction quoted at the top of your piece still stands. But with each day the question mark gives way to the exclamation point. It's my favorite film of the year.

      7. Black Swan, eh?

        Hey Kevin, what's the weather like by you these days? How is it going in school? What did you get for Christmas? Are you planning to make a ten best list? Heck, let's discuss 'Inglourious Basterds.'

        Ha! Superlative work here, I just have over-engaged, though a second viewing was a bit better than the first.

      8. Jason:

        I like what you say about the question marks turning more and more into exclamation points. I feel the same way. My brother (if you haven't read his piece yet you should) had a different reaction to it than I did. I think he was ready to move on after the movie was over...I was thinking about it all night and the next day. I'm ready for a third viewing!


        Yes, this is another we just have to disagree on. My Christmas was great, by the way! Hehe. Oh, and I finish Grad school in two months! Woo Hoo! Hehe. My ten best list (and year in review) will appear, as it usually does, towards the end of this month to celebrate the anniversary of the blog.

      9. Fantastic news Kevin about graduate school!

        Gentleman, scholar and all-around nice guy adds up to a winning combo!

        And I eagerly await that year-end list!