Mad Swan

After a post earlier this week concerning ballet, I had to go see Black Swan, a film that appears to go right to the heart of the artform or at least the concerns I spoke of the other day.

I personally avoid reviews that contain spoilers.  How do I talk about this without giving the film away?

While Black Swan may not be perfect–“perfection” being a concept haunting the film–I hope people will see the film. It’s an accomplished piece of work from Director Darren Aronofsky, including a series of performances from people who are a bit hard to recognize in their new guises.  You may remember Vincent Cassel as the Russian Mafioso from Eastern Promises, or Barbara Hershey (a huge star for such 1980s films as Beaches, Hannah and her Sisters and The Last Temptation of Christ), Mila Kunis (whom you may remember from That 70s Show), and Winona Ryder.

But they’re all spear-carriers in Natalie Portman’s film.

Nina --Natalie Portman-- looks into the mirror

The mirror is like another character in this film. What will Nina see?

For awhile in the first half-hour I found myself questioning how it was done, as the camera indeed played with us a couple of times, bringing the viewpoint up from the feet as if to tease us, saying “yes this really is her, not some double.”  In places one can’t help wondering how it was done, although much of the dancing is unconvincing as a representation of a real star.  But that’s a quibble, considering how persuasive much of her dancing is.  I was swallowed up by her portrayal of Nina the troubled ballerina.  If the Academy really prefers performances that cost stars a great deal—for example, Robert De Niro’s weightgain for Raging Bull.—then Portman merits serious consideration.

The movie reads a bit like a horror film.  It shouldn’t be mistaken for a film like The Turning Point or White Nights, films that explore backstage dramas in the lives of ballet dancers.  Any parents thinking this is an introduction to the ballet will drag their kids out in the first hour when they see what they’ve blundered into.  Instead, we get an intensely psychological exploration of a girl’s psychology, using ballet as both the subject and the pathway into the girl’s soul.

The question of virtuosity is central to Black Swan.  Yes i am obsessing about the subject, if you look at my previous post.  In this case, as in so many others pertaining to dance, we’re confronted with pure skill for its own sake, strutting before our eyes for no other reason than to show what the artist can do.  Why do they do it? First and foremost, they do it because they can.  Ballet is ostentatious, showing us the body because the body –in motion or merely posed delicately—is arguably the subject and object of dance.  No wonder dancers  obsess about the body, at once their instrument & their work of art, simultaneously what they’ve made and what they employ to create.

Aronofsky gets completely inside the head of Nina.  Part of the job is accomplished by Portman, part is through the ingenuity of Clint Mansell, whose score of original music is woven through with bits of Tchaikovsky.  I wonder if his achievement will be appreciated, because what he does is blend the score so seamlessly into the film as to fool us.

That being said, there are problems.  I will sound like a stickler when I say that in some respects the film is a mess.  But there’s a gaping continuity problem at one point, when we appear to be headed towards a performance and then somehow an extra day or more of rehearsals puts off the climactic premiere of the ballet.

But some of the messiness is very good.  We’re often placed in an ambiguous position, unsure what’s real and what’s imaginary, wondering whether we’re seeing objective reality or a projection from inside Nina’s mind.  I liked that, even as I heard gasps and sobs in the theatre.  In places it’s very scary.  Whether it’s in Nina’s head or not, we see an awful lot of blood in this film.

I am still stuck on the question I was turning over in my head a few days ago, concerning ballet and virtuosity.  There’s a fundamentalist streak to the art form, a feral refusal to compromise that sometimes makes the form seem to be captive of arty nerds, and at other times, to seem like a tower of integrity.  Perhaps that split personality is true to the madness that we see in this film.  It’s scary because the madness appears to be the trap lurking at the heart of the artform, a reflection of its aspirations & ambitions.

I want to see it again.

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