Sick with the flu. A really bad bug. Managed to make it out of the house yesterday, though, as there was an errand that absolutely had to be run. As a reward for putting up with the obnoxiousness that is gift-season retail, my better half and I went to the movies for some uplifting holiday fare: Black Swan.
We are mostly Darren Aronofsky enthusiasts here at Contrarian HQ, and the chance to see what happens when the notoriously tough director puts the screws to the vapid Natalie Portman was too good to pass up. At my recollection, Portman hasn’t acted in a film since 1996. She has appeared in quite a few movies, however.
Now, I have nothing against Portman as a human being, and, like many fellas, have even gone through a “she’s kinda cute” phase. Which wore off after seeing her consistent inability to deliver lines like “good morning” with anything approaching authenticity. We heard that this was the role of her lifetime, though, and the word “Oscar” — which is rarely used in conjunction with “Natalie Portman” — has even been invoked.
Also, there are ballerinas.
Black Swan is, at its heart, a psychological horror film — equal parts Polanski, Cronenberg and De Palma. Specifically, The Tenant, Dead Ringers and Carrie. It’s cruel, pervy and studiously misogynistic like Polanski, splattered with gross-out body dysmorphia a la Cronenberg, and taut with dread, like the best of De Palma. If that doesn’t get America rushing to the theaters, I don’t know what will. (Certainly not that DOA Depp/Jolie vehicle.)
Aronofsky is not a subtle director. In fact, it’s taken me a while to come around to his style, which can be mopey and oppressive. I don’t think there will ever be a point in my life where I will willfully subject myself to another viewing of Requiem for a Dream. I still have those Kronos Quartet cello stabs lodged in my frontal lobe. I remember liking π (the drum-and-bass soundtrack was very cool for the 1990s), and more recently enjoyed The Wrestler, along with the rest of humanity. The Fountain was beautifully flawed and emotionally provocative, regardless of Hugh Jackman. So I was totally down for a classic ballerina-goes-insane story.
Viewed in a certain light, Black Swan is about the quest for artistic perfection and the physical and psychological costs of achieving it. Like The Wrestler, it shows both the grace and agony of a particular athletic discipline, in this case, ballet. Not for the squeamish, Black Swan features scene after scene of damaged dancer physiques, from smashed toenails to self-inflicted malnourishment. Yet it also reveals the beauty of dance and the power of classical composition. The story essentially mirrors Swan Lake, but to say any more would spoil the heavy-handed metaphor, around which Aronofsky somehow manages to construct a thrilling movie.
The incredible cinematography and powerful performances certainly help, as do the meticulous editing and sound design. Portman is every bit as good as the hype. Actually, she’s better than the hype. She transcends any pretense to “acting” by wholly becoming her character — the lithe, lovely and emotionally impaired Nina. Some of what she does could be termed “method,” such as losing a bit too much weight and possibly not getting enough sleep. But unlike, say, Christian Bale, who does this stuff like some kind of circus trick, Portman completely inhabits her damaged dancer. In this way, her performance is closer to Robert De Niro‘s portrayal of on-the-ropes boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
Black Swan is no doubt Portman’s movie, and she earns it frame by frame. The supporting cast is equally riveting, particularly Mila Kunis, who has come a loooong way from her squeaky start on “That ’70s Show.” Her turn as a free ‘n’ easy West Coast dancer new to the Big Apple serves as the perfect foil to Portman’s pristine Nina. And what would an Aronofsky film be without a creepy, overbearing mother figure? This time the role goes to the underused Barbara Hershey (I guess her stock dropped in Hollywood after playing Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ.)
We also get some amazing glimpses of Winona Ryder as an aged-out ballerina charting her own path to ruination. Through her role, as well as Portman’s, we see the dancers as thoroughbred horses, with a very finite amount of time to express their sole reason for existing. Let’s just say that ending up in dog food is probably a better fate than what befalls Ryder’s character.
Half the “fun” of the movie is watching Nina go nutso. Aronofsky serves up grim voyeurism as Portman begins to merge with her metaphorical “twin,” whose characteristics she is simultaneously drawn towards and repulsed by. I found myself rooting for Nina throughout, but nevertheless reveling as she comes undone.
Leaving the theater, I decided to see if I couldn’t get a new turn-of-phrase into circulation in tribute to Portman’s performance. I call it “dancing the black swan.” You know, for when someone goes a little bit around the bend for one reason or another — unemployment, divorce, a death in the family, etc. Here’s a sample conversation in which one could use the phrase:
“How ya been, Dave?”
“Well, pretty good at the moment, but I was dancing the black swan for a little while there after I got my walking papers from the factory. Things are OK now, though.”
Please feel free to use it!