Thursday, March 10, 2011

Black Swan


I have now viewed the films in competition with The King's Speech for the Best Director Oscar, and I rank the Colin Firth starrer fifth out of five. The Social Network and True Grit show far more cinematic acumen, though the latter is some way from being the Coens' best effort.
Darren Aronofsky would get my vote for Best Director, for Black Swan, which I saw yesterday. It's a movie that takes many risks; brimful of cliches, stereotypes and melodrama, but making something unexpected and disturbing from them. The film gives us a glimpse of the heart of darkness, while we imagine at the start that the protagonist's gradual discovery of an edgier self will bring relief and catharsis to us the audience.
Let me step back and explain what I mean. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a pretty ballerina (see what I mean by cliches? Aronofsky riffs off everything from ABBA to fairy tales, Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Roman Polanski's The Tenant in the course of the movie's hundred minute running time) who is selected to play the main role in a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Swan Lake is about a woman cursed to take the form of a white swan by day and requiring true love to become fully human again. Just as she appears to have found such love through Prince Siegfried, a scheming doppelganger named Odile takes the Swan Princess's place, and tricks Siegfried into declaring his love for her. This woman, Odile, is the Black Swan of the title.
The director of the ballet company is certain Nina will make an accomplished White Swan, but fears she is too goody-goody to be an effective Black Swan. He encourages Nina to walk on the wild side a little, to lose control. He thinks of this in sexual terms, asking her at one point to go home and touch herself. While Nina may be too repressed to touch herself, she is used to scratching herself, a form of self injury that complements her bulimia.
As she seeks her dark side, an abyss opens up much deeper than anything the ballet director could predict or desire. Starting off as a tale of self-overcoming not too far removed from The King's Speech, Black Swan shifts register and genres till, near the end of the ride, you're in the horror film neighbourhood, which is a bit like starting at the Lincoln Center and finishing in the Bronx.
Natalie Portman is excellent in the lead role. It's obvious she isn't a professional dancer, but she trained enough to be a plausible imitation, which is as much as you can expect from an actor. Her love scene with Mila Kunis was entirely removed by the censors.

9 comments:

VV said...

Analytically, your review is spot on. But the movie did not reach out to me, personally. Portman did with her fantastic portrayal, but I found the cliches to be too cliched; [the oh-so-French director saying oh-so-French things in a sultry oh-so-French accent]; the melodrama too underwhelming- like the supposedly domineering mother; the horror movie bits too self-indulging and almost silly. I thought the director went overboard just for the sake of. But then, I thought he did the same in requiem for a dream as well. and he had exactly the same ending in his Wrestler (which I thought was nothing more than an artsy Rocky)!
I dont know if I can explain, but I ended up having way more WTF, eyes-rolling moments than the eerie, mesmerizing discomfort or the exhilarating, Lynchian anxiety that I know, the movie wants me to feel.
But everyone I know loved it and if it had won the Oscars, I would have heartily applauded. And I do think it was more Oscar-worthy than King's Speech. My vote would have been for Social Network. I think turning a boring tech business-y subject into a Fight Club-like thriller is quite Oscar-worthy.
-- VV

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks for the note, VV; I see your point, just as you see mine. I wonder if one's reaction to a film like Black Swan depends heavily on one's mood and the company. Apart from one's general disposition of course.
It might be that on another day I'd have found the stereotypes so absurd that I'd have walked out like my pal Adrian McKinty did.
I found Aronofsky's The Fountain a bit ridiculous, so he always walks a dangerously thin line between potentially sublime and practically absurd.
The Social network is, indeed, a very accomplished film. A great leap ahead from Benjamin Button, though Seven remains special among Fincher's films in my mind.

seana said...

It was an odd lot to choose from, though, this year, wasn't it? I saw The King's Speech and Winter's Bone, and liked them both in their own ways, but it didn't surprise me that King's Speech had been drafted when it was 'discovered' as a play, and I think that told against it, despite the star turn in it. Winter's Bone was wonderful in it's way, but too small and understated for Oscar's glare. I was scared off Black Swan, and though I tried to make myself go see True Grit, the remake status couldn't be shaken off. And I was totally prejudiced against Social Network, as I am about as interested in seeing a movie about Facebook as I am in watching endless commentary on Charlie Sheen's downward spiral.

Now that the Oscars are done, I feel perfectly content to let them slide away into obscurity.

Girish Shahane said...

Seana, I agree, the nominated movies make a strange group. Not a vintage year for Hollywood.

VV said...

And as you point out in your post on King's Speech, I think the reaction also depends on your expectations. I expected nothing from Social Network [I went to see the movie with probably a tad more excitement than what Seana has for the movie] and it really surprised me. I went to see King's Speech expecting a good time and I got that and I went to see Black Swan expecting a Polanski-ish film (after all the hype) and, of course, I did not get that.
Since pre-oscars, there is this stupid ad on TV for King's Speech where they pick some average Joe from the streets who talks about how moved they were about the movie, yada yada. If I were to see the movie now after seeing that annoying ad, I am sure I would enjoy it far lesser than I did.

seana said...

Yep, the time to see King's Speech has probably already passed.

I probably will see Social Network on Netflix at some point, VV. It's just that that sense of needing to rush out and see things was a bit lacking this year.

DS said...

Finally saw Black Swan. Why did I keep thinking of Crowe as Portman Swanned? Agree with VV and expectation. And Innaritu and Bardem exceeded expectation biutifully and the best.

seana said...

I haven't even seen biutiful, but I have a feeling that it is going to be looked back on and people are going to wonder why it didn't win. I say this because the only thing I've heard against it is that it's depressing.

Girish Shahane said...

DS, Seana, I think there's a tradition of nominating special foreign language films for the Best Picture Oscar (because the selection system for Best Foreign Language Film is so wonky), but I can't think of any non-English film that's won Best Picture or Best Director. Ang lee came closest with Crouching Tiger. Of course Roberto Benigni won Best Actor for Life is beautiful; so Bardem could've got it. But then, he won a Supporting Actor award just two years ago, which probably did his chances in.