Thursday, December 16, 2010

Black Swan

(Natalie Portman in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

         Ever since Roman Polanski made Repulsion (1965) and Ingmar Bergman made Persona (1966), the theme of Women in Anguish has been slathered across the ensuing decades in films such as 3 Women (1977) and Mulholland Drive (2001). But even Repulsion and Persona had their predecessors; The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for instance, is one of the earliest, and perhaps the greatest, film about the persecution of a misunderstood female. Cinema’s casual obsession with the beauty and vulnerability of the female figure has been, by degrees, compassionate, feminist, trashy and exploitative. But the theme didn’t turn truly cynical until the 60’s came along, and ever since then, it has been a steady progression of Women in Really Hot Anguish.
            Now we are faced with Black Swan, a film that perfectly intersects the psycho-sexual gore politics of Repulsion with the neurotic expressionism of any Bergman film. While the film is, arguably, pure trash, it is also visually addictive and outrageous enough to verge on either black comedy or self-parody.
            The films stars Natalie Portman, who ends up being the most confounding part of the story. This is not because we don’t expect the gradual psychosis her character descends in to as she works herself to the brink trying to be the perfect Swan Queen in Swan Lake. It is not because we don’t know which of her violent and sexual fantasies are real and which are hallucinations (who cares). It has something to do with Portman’s natural demeanor. She has always been a female equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio; a woman-child, somewhat clueless, always trying a little too hard. She is both irritating and cute, nothing more. This works to the advantage of the story after a certain point. When we first meet her character, Nina, she is shy, helpless, and unwilling to stand up for herself. We keep waiting for her to tell her sleazy ballet choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to get lost, but she never does. We keep wanting her to stop apologizing and show some pride, but she is incapable of it. Yet just when it looks like we might be stuck with this infuriating character for the rest of the film, along comes Lily, played by a spunky, outstanding Mila Kunis. As Nina gets to know this seasoned ballerina from San Francisco, we watch her loosen up a little. She starts smoking cigarettes, dropping ecstasy and making out with strangers; she tells off her unbearable mother (Barbara Hershey). And much more. It is largely thanks to Kunis that these scenes carry any weight. She has grasped the feel of this movie far better than Portman, and besides, her character is more likable. She has a sense of humor and a wicked smile. Kunis is a far more subtle physical actress than Portman is, and she manages to communicate a sense of the demonic without straining herself. Eventually, our sympathies go to Nina, as she hysterically crams her stuffed animals down the garbage shoot and slams the door on her mother. But only because we know Lily is right around the corner.
(Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

            Like everything else in the film, Kunis’ gifts are both a problem and a saving grace. Nina is meant to be the pure one and Kunis is meant to be her menacing rival . Or is she? Is Lily merely a manifestation of Nina’s dark side? The answer is yes in both cases, giving us a confused impression that resonates everywhere else in the film. The parallels between the story of Swan Lake and the story of the film are clunky and obvious. Yet the way director Darren Aronofsky lets the visual rhythms flow is so insistent that all is almost forgiven. At the same time, Aronofsky has always been more of a music video director than a filmmaker; his jittery tracking shots and penchant for shrill horror-movie sound effects would drag the film to an amateur level if it weren’t for the director of photography, Matthew Libatique. Libatique has worked with Aronofsky twice before, and seems to have mastered ways of turning the director’s kitschy leanings in to off-kilter compositions that feel like actual nightmares. His camera choreography of the dance sequences, including several tense training sessions, communicate a palpable sense of spinning around on stage, not knowing when or how you’re going to fumble. But even his camerawork can’t make us care about our silly protagonist. Black Swan is a chain of contradictions and compensations. It is a deliberately incoherent film that we find it increasingly easy to surrender to.
            The real reason we surrender is simple and crude. Girls stabbing each other with glass, having random sex, suffering nervous breakdowns. It is one of cinemas most pornographic and cynical triumphs that these things are a joy to watch. Perhaps Bergman and Polanski wouldn’t care for Black Swan, but they’d see their own methods in it. Dreyer might be secretly turned on, like the rest of the crowd. Bring on the bombshells. 
(Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)