Sunday, 26 December 2010

(Everything Is Beautiful At the Ballet...except) Black Swan

Not long into Black Swan Thomas Leroy, the director of a prestigious ballet company, tells us that his new performance of Swan Lake will be stripped down to the bare essentials. Creatively, the decision seems sound when you remember there’s no production as stereotypically indicative of ballet as Swan Lake; moreover, when you consider that Aronofsky’s film only has 100 minutes to give us his story. It’s an especially slight story – Nina is the prototypical driven ballerina, a girl determined to sacrifice all she can for her art, goaded to perfection by her sinister mother who is (in typical fashion) a failed ballerina (an archetype in itself). True to form, Nina’s precise over-consciousness is firmly paralleled by a lighter and more spontaneous dancer in the company whilst the director, every bit as suave and oily as you’d imagine seems to be courting every girl in the company.
 Notice my constant allusions to archetypes? It is not coincidental, in the same way that nothing Aronofsky does in the film occurs with spontaneity. There’s a dual natured issue at the heart of my reaction to Black Swan that I find especially confusing. Aronofsky’s constant literal mindedness and meticulousness of execution renders the  film evident as a drawing board for Nina’s own perfection (and self destructiveness). It’s his attempts to get inside the head of his lead that makes the camera movements, cinematography all decidedly internal as an indicative of Nina’s trouble. What troubles more, though, is that even as Aronofsky crafts an especially psychological drama there is a palpable divide between Nina and him, and ultimately the audience. Aronofsky surveys Nina’s “plight” – but it is from a distance and with less interest in Nina, the dancer, and more care for the blatant obviousness of the artist at the mercy of her art. By doing this, he  never robs us of missing the essential point to his tale – and he knows this. Nina’s struggle isn’t a new one, Barbara Hershey is so grotesquely made-up it’s not difficult to miss the harsh severity of a character that’s almost gaudily realised, but it robs the film of a soul. Nina doesn’t develop like a true character, but travels from moments of pain and suffering to more pain and suffering, and so on. Dramatically consistent, but ultimately stifling – which, perhaps, is his intent.
I was worried about seeing Black Swan from the onset because reading the script an injudiciously long time before the release I was surprised by Aronofsky’s literalness. It’s not that the script for the film is the “problem”, but the blatant lack of subtlety is vaguely puzzling at times, it’s a true-to-form realisation of the concept of stripping it down to the bare essentials which makes you realise why any piece of art must have more than the “bare essentials” to soar. Yet, whereas the overly precise exactness doesn’t succeed as winningly in the script, it impresses more in the technical aspects. Aronofsky is an especially visual director, and film is – at its height – a visual medium, and his overemphasis on the contrast of light and dark works impressively, even when it’s too obviously emphasised – which is always.
When it comes to falling into a deluge of overexposure Black Swan is nowhere near as ingratiatingly ubiquitous as Inception was in the summer. Like that much fared piece, I’ve avoided reviews even though I’m been unable to avoid the asides about it that certain top critics have made while perusing year-end top 10 lists. I remember keenly a critic being irked that another one could be more impressed with The King’s Speech than Black Swan. I haven’t seen the former, but I was already sceptical – because there’s that palpable feeling emanating from all things Black Swan like Eva Peron, “you must love me”. Portman, especially, has gained effusive praise but I’m slightly irritated that a significant portion of the praise rendered her way takes great pains to mention her six-month long struggle to transform into Nina, which only reminds me that garish transformations are so easily misinterpreted as strong acting.
Not that she isn’t fine in the role – the strongest compliment I can pay her (with a clear conscience) is that she does everything the script asks her to. She doesn’t bring anything especially individualistic to the role, and that’s not a problem in itself– but I’m moved to think that Portman’s own “good” performance only seems excellent because Aronfsky refuses to let her sell the role on her own. Perhaps, it’s a continuance of his continuing attention to the unsubtle. It’s not that cinema doesn’t call for ameliorations from music, and lighting to emphasise character but I get that feeling that the visual frenzy we’re thrust into intensifies what’s there so it emerges as more forceful than it really is. It’s as I noted in my write-up on Portman, she thrives in the quiet moments, which of course makes Nina’s problems with finding the “black swan” within more difficult. And once again, it’s possible to read the any fickleness in characterisation as an extension of the character and not a fault of Portman. When she shines brightest, though, it’s especially luminous – like a bathroom call from her mother which is a perfect portion of the film that’s incredibly personal and not at all pretentious perfectly encapsulating Nina’s isolation and loneliness. The sort of scene that makes that final confrontation between Hershey and Portman at the film close all to obvious – even if I’ll single out Hershey as the film’s best-in-show despite of (and not because of) the film’s visual intensity where she’s concerned.
What I fond oddest, though, is that despite its overt tendencies and dedication Black Swan seems especially devoid of passion, which makes me return to my supposition that the film is a stand-in for Nina’s issues which makes me wonder in retrospect if the obvious disinterest the film has for Nina is indicative of Nina’s own slight self-loathing for herself. There’s something inspired in framing the beautiful wide-shots of dancing against the ugly images of broken toes and bruised skin – but it’s just too easy to serve it to us an excuse for perfection because in all her deluded intensity I never get the feeling of overwhelming passion that Nina should feel about the task at hand - her dancing; ironically Hershey’s stoic mother seems to suggest more passion for the dance than Nina which gives her plight a feeling of forced dedication but lacking any true impetus. And, it’s sort of how Black Swan ultimately emerges austere and mannered, and graceful and svelte even when it’s interested in the basest of emotions and the ugliest portions of dance. But, when my adrenaline races it’s not for an honest interest in the story, but evidence of Aronofsky’s obvious skill for visual manipulation – which is admirable, but not exactly emotionally moving.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of cliches, I also found the filmmaking techniques to remind me of ones he's used in the past. The grainy subway scenes like Pi, the last shot which reminded me of Wrestler and arguably Requiem. I feel bitchy talking about the visuals like this but that's what I saw.

Castor said...

Masterfully written review Andrew. As you note, it's a movie that screams to be loved by critics and the Academy. Portman's performance is much in the same vein. Very one-note but the type that the Academy (and critics of all sorts) simply cannot ignore. Happily surprised that we fully agree on so many points about Black Swan ;)

Alex in Movieland said...

I suspected you wouldn't like it :) now, what do you think of Mila Kunis's future Oscar nomination? wouldn't you find it rather absurd? :)

I liked Natalie. I loved her as the Black Swan in the dancing scene - perfect force there and it sells me the character arc.

but I strangely feel like I would rather vote for Bening if I had a ballot, even considering I liked her performance less.

PS: Your A/A- for Rabbit Hole is still confusing me... I thought the film was soooo zzzzzzzzlow. :P

Dániel said...

I loved this movie, but I am not that sure if I would pick Natalie over Anette. I think that it's going to be Annette at the Oscars too and wins a bit like Tandy. Overdue actress in a feelgood movie.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

paolo yeah, i get what you mean about the visuals. i know they were a bit too on the nose with the colour coding of kunis who had to be wearing black EVERY time she showed up...but i don't want to over-think it, the more i think on it the less i like it.

castor a bit one-note, but the register of that note is enticing i suppose. i'm surprised that so many early reviews said that it might be too "cool" for AMPAS and mainstream critics. i don't find it particularly esoteric, or high brow or avant garde...(though, that's not a BAD thing)

alex on kunis, i really REALLY don't understand the awards' response. i'd have understood love for winona more, who was absolutely fierce in her five minutes. and, what can i say? i LOVE rabbit hole (seen it four times already)

daniel but driving miss daisy was a strong best-picture contender that eventually won against pfeiffer's fabulous baker boys which wasn't getting buzz for much else. black swan seems like a more likely picture contender at the moment than the kids are all right. *sobs*

Simon said...

I think the point was that Nina struggled for perfection for the sake of it, rather than any real love of dancing. It's something, we can gather, she's been doing her whole life, and knows nothing else. If she can't be the perfect balletist, she's nothing.

Yay, lazy film criticism!

anahita said...

hmmmmn. I'm torn with this film. On one hand I do want to see it, for the visual side of it if not anything else, on the other hand I'm shit scared. Still, I AM curious to see what the fuss is about and I do like Portman so I'll probably drag myself into the cinema and hide behind the seats xx

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

simon hmmm, i like that theory! now i wish that aronofsky could have shown us something tangible to believe it, because you still get the feeling that she's supposed to love ballet.

anahita it's not THAT scary, just continuously unsettling, it's beautifully shot, too.

TomS said...

Andrew, an interesting review... I would love to have the opportunity to discuss it with you. I loved "Black Swan", for a numbner of reasons, although I can understand your view and criticism of it. It connected to me very personally on several levels...maybe because I'm so old, LOL!.... Either way, it's one of the most exciting pieces of filmmaking out there right now.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tom i plan to do a followup up post on reviews i've read, but it definitely is one worth seeing either way you look at it.

CrazyCris said...

another one I'm looking forward to, dunno when it will reach me! :s

Jose said...

See? We agree on how the film is Nina but while you found this to be the equivalent of stealing her soul I don't think she even had a soul to begin with. Nor does the movie. It's merely an exercise about what it takes to find a soul and the questioning of if that is even possible.
In a way this film reminded me of "Antichrist",both recur to horror techniques to express the needs their auteurs have to have these metaphysical questions answered. This isn't really about Nina at all, it's a movie about Aronofsky and given how he's been trying to answer that in all of his films, this is the one where he comes the closest to making the question make sense. He still gets no answers though.

Awesome review.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

cris it does suck when the good movies take ages to reach.

jose damn, you said antichrist and i think that was like an alarm bell going off in relation to my misgivings about this one. now you're forcing me to look at it in a different light, since that would explain why it's so overly conscious of itself.

Jose said...


Give it another try. Once you know the "twists" it works out majestically. Look out for how flawlessly (even if not very originally) it's structured.