Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Tale Told In Gasps

I gratefully acknowledge my good friend J for being a first-rate discussion partner after the screening.

I’ve been anticipating Black Swan for months. MONTHS. The studio’s release schedule is one that’s pretty tough to figure out. I don’t get why they’ve screened the film to high heaven at festivals and previews, building anticipation to a fever pitch, and then have put it out an inch at a time.

No matter. It’s gone wide now, and whether or not it finds its way to a large audience remains to be seen. Now, onto the matter at hand.

Black Swan is a crazy ride of a movie, filled with moments that alternately make the head tilt, the body cringe, and the heart flutter. Natalie Portman's performance is the best I’ve ever seen her give. Period. Not only do I think she’ll merit some serious consideration come the year-end awards process, but I also hope she wins, since my other favorite performance (Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy) probably won’t be eligible. While the rest of the cast is strong, this is Natalie Portman's movie.

Portman is Nina Sayers, a member of a successful ballet company. After the forced retirement of the company’s aging star (a strong Winona Ryder), Nina is cast in the title role in Swan Lake, and must portray both the chaste, serene White Swan and the wild, lustful Black Swan. Her struggle for perfection, present from the first frame, drives her mad as her role becomes reality.

To be honest, Black Swan isn’t quite the film I’d expected. I’m not sure if the superiority of the last half of the film is due to an increase in quality or to the first half laying tracks for the train. Who knows? Black Swan kept me guessing, and made me wince more than once, which is a lot more than I can say for most other films. I am more inclined to think that it’s a film that requires time to build traction and gain momentum to make its way to a climax. After having heard so much about it, I was surprised to see this. I’d anticipated the type of mindbender that would engross from the get-go, much like the way Mulholland Dr. enthralls from the opening frame.

Here, I stumble over my own thoughts. Both films are fairly “quiet,” allowing the viewer time to take a deep breath before sucking the air out of his/her lungs. However, they’re very different in the way they go about telling a story, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe the divide. Let's try this. . . both films put the viewer down in drastically different places than he/she had been picked up in the first place. Where David Lynch’s film is a lyrically hypnotic dream in which the nightmare is in found in waking up instead of going to sleep, Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream simmers, simmers, and finally boils until it’s consumed.

The validity of perception is one of the biggest questions raised throughout Black Swan. As a viewer, it’s so easy to get caught up in Nina’s struggle to keep her head on straight that it can become tough to keep an objective perspective. By objective, I’m not suggesting that the film experience should be a dry and boring one that’s approached like a reporter covering a bake sale. What I mean is that, by the end of the film, it dawns upon the viewer how little of the story may have really happened the way it initially appeared to. For example, Nina’s mother seems to be a very controlling person, leaving almost no part of Nina’s home life unregulated. It’s in the reexamination of the narrative that I began to wonder exactly how accurate my perception of her actually was. I mean, if I thought that A, B, and C were all true, and they were proved to be tied up in Nina’s delusions, then it’s logical to conclude that the ramifications could spread through the entire alphabet, right?

However, with Black Swan, I really do want to understand the subtleties of the narrative, and will watch the film again (if not several times) with the hope of gaining valuable perspective. Conversely, with Inception, 2010’s biggest "head trip" movie, I’m not particularly interested in trying to plumb its shallow depths to try and figure things out. I just don't really care.

Darren Aronofsky’s direction reminds me very much of his work on The Wrestler, particularly with his prolific use of Super 16mm and his fascination with following his characters from behind as they move from place to place. However, I’m not a big fan of his prolific use of hand-held cameras, though I did warm to them a bit, at least in the way he tried to film the dancing sequences so as to capture their sense of rhythm and movement. There was one specific instance where I felt that he was trying to unnecessarily punctuate a certain surprise moment. I got it the first time, Darren. No need to go for a “da-DUM!” It may seem like a minor quibble, but it does detract from the air of gravitas he’s trying to establish.

Through much of Black Swan, I found myself waiting for the thrills I’d expected to manifest early on. Let me tell you, when they hit, they come with a vengeance. The last 10 minutes or so is gripping cinema that's tautly beautiful. I’m inclined to think that the film’s ending is quite possibly a perfect one. I have a very small number of narrative endings that I consider to be perfect, and I wasn’t expecting Black Swan to find a way on that list. The conclusion thrilled me, but, much more than that, I was enthralled, blasted back in my seat, in the happy delirium of the satisfied cinephile.


4 ½ stars (out of 5)

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