Sunday, January 2, 2011
On the Big Screen: BLACK SWAN (2010)
On December 31 I closed my moviegoing year with the film that may be the most divisive among reviewers and bloggers released during 2010. Black Swan is Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler, my favorite film of 2008 and reinforces the director's fascination with self-destructive personalities. In his new film Aronofsky brings his preoccupations into the world of ballet, practically daring film buffs to draw comparisons with Powell & Pressburger's Red Shoes. It's probably a mistake to assume that the director was attempting a modern-day Red Shoes and to judge him by that standard. It became clear to me pretty quickly that Aronofsky is not in the least interested in the romance of artistic life and performance that drives the British film. He makes little effort to make ballet beautiful or attractive, instead making everything orbit in subjective confusion around Natalie Portman. Only at the end, when a performance of Swan Lake traces the Portman character's mental breakdown, does he show any ambition to emulate or top the Archers. More often, I was reminded, perhaps appropriately, of American archetypes. Rather than his Red Shoes, Black Swan is arguably Aronofsky's All About Eve, or his 42nd Street ("You're going out there a newcomer, but you've got to come back a mental case!") or, as many, myself included, may be tempted to say, his Showgirls. I offer that last as a value-free statement; let each interpret it by his or her own lights. For some, it may be a recommendation, and if anyone feels that way I see no reason to disabuse them. But it has to be said that Black Swan is a camp classic or else no kind of classic. It's a work of authentic, naive camp; Aronofsky films the script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin as if unaware -- not indifferent but unaware -- that every character in it is an idiot. The entire story is founded on the notion, propounded by a choreographer (Vincent Cassel) whose intellectual or aesthetic credentials are never questioned, that a ballerina must tap into some sort of dark side in order to dance the role of the Black Swan in the Tchaikovsky ballet. This advice is given to a dancer (Portman) so repressed and infantilized by her mother (Barbara Hershey) that her success to date in the dance world is a mystery. There's a story in the mother-daughter relationship, mom having given up her own career to raise the girl and now feeling both vicarious triumph and jealousy over being surpassed, but the situation seems inadequate to explain the daughter's paranoia, hallucinations and scratching fits. The cut-throat competitive world of ballet contextualizes things a bit more, but Nina Sayers' aria of insanity seems more a matter of innate mental defect than a product of family or career pressure. The character is conceived entirely in reactionary terms and gives no evidence of an inner life. We never get any sense of Nina's own artistic aspirations or sensibilities, or whether she dances for her own pleasure or her mother's. Because Nina is a void, there's no pathos to her accelerating breakdown, nor much rooting interest in the possibility of her escaping it. And for this almost perfectly thankless role Natalie Portman is considered a favorite for the Academy Award. She certainly gives it her all, but Nina is such an overdetermined character that it's difficult to see what Portman could really contribute to the role apart from conviction and dance skills. Hers isn't a true camp-classic performance because it never transcends the material, but is captive to it. It proves, however, if the last three Star Wars films hadn't already, that Portman is a trouper. She balks at no hoop before jumping through it. Ask her to feign masturbation and she'll do it. Require her to make out with Mila Kunis and it's done; it may not even have been burdensome for her. Portman is fully dedicated to your entertainment, and that should count for something. But I've got to think that there have been better female performances in 2010, even if I haven't seen them yet. It's not Portman but Aronofsky who cements the film's camp standing, first with his unironic direction of the soap-opera setup, and then with a final half-hour payoff of visionary delirium that'll redeem the picture for a lot of viewers. It didn't quite redeem it for me -- or hasn't yet in retrospect -- because the buildup to it was so oppressively oppressed, but the film as a whole has clearly struck a chord with many people, if only because so many people see themselves, or imagine the people around them, on the brink of self or mass-destruction. If not the Red Shoes of our time, Black Swan is certainly a fable for it. What that says for our time is another story.