Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Black Swan (2010) **1/2

Black-Swan-2010

(Please be advised that there is no possible way of discussing this film without revealing spoilers. Consider the entire post one prolonged spoiler.)

I will never again watch Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake without wondering whether the ballerina playing the Swan Queen is certifiably insane. I have Natalie Portman and her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan (2010) to thank for this. Greatly aided by the deft direction of Darren Aronofsky and an outstanding production design, Portman’s complete metamorphosis into a gifted but mentally unstable ballerina is phenomenal.

black-swan-original-4Portman plays Nina Sayers, a sexually repressed ballerina in what I can only assume is supposed to be a company modeled on the New York City Ballet.  When the company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), chooses Nina to replace his former muse, Beth (Winona Ryder in an inspired but brief role), and play the Swan Queen in the season’s opening ballet, Nina believes all of her dreams have come true.  Technically precise and incapable of coming off as anything but innocent, Nina makes a wonderful White Swan.  The problem is that self-doubt begins to creep in when Thomas constantly berates her for her inability to lose her frigidness and dance with the passion that is required for the Black Swan.  Already suffering from mild hallucinations, the pressure to meet Thomas’ expectations and to fight off a would-be competitor in Lily (Mila Kunis), causes Nina to rapidly descend into a world of mental instability.  black swan wallpaper

Okay, I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to watch this film twice before I got it (at least, I think I did). Sometimes psychological thrillers need a second look—think the Sixth Sense (1999)—and when I wasn’t fully convinced that Nina and Lily were two separate people I had to re-watch it.  Think about it: Nina is almost always dressed in white, while Lily is always in black.  Then you have Lily’s creepy winged tattoo; plus, there is that now infamous lesbian love scene that didn’t really happen.  Oh, and let’s not forget the would-be dressing room catfight where Nina stabs Lily with a shard BlackSwan_050Pyxurzof broken mirror glass. Yes, I had a “WTF” moment when after delivering a scintillating Black Swan Pas de Deux Nina is congratulated by Lily.  This was my reaction: 1) If she was real and Nina stabbed her shouldn’t she be dead? 2) If she’s alive and unharmed, who got stabbed? If you were like me, you “got it” when Nina pulls that shard out of her own stomach.  But then you start wondering how she danced with it in her and then how she continued to dance the Coda after she pulled it out. Hence, why you might watch it again. This uncertainty is why I can’t convince myself this is an extremely good film.

However, I am convinced that Portman deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress (although, the competition that year was lacking).  No doubt having a degree in psychology from Harvard University helped Portman wrap her mind arounwhited her mentally unstable character.  She never seems to overplay just how deranged Nina is, which is one of the reasons her performance is so visceral.  Still, she had to do more than understand her character’s motivations for this demanding part.  She spent over a year physically preparing for the role by studying ballet with Mary Helen Bowers and Benjamin Millepied (whom she later married) and she transformed her body into that of a ballerina’s.  Portman has said that at one point during filming she felt as though she might die from exhaustion.  While she may have been tired off the set, her complete embodiment of Nina is anything but tired.  I haven’t seen her give such a raw performance since Closer (2004).

The overall production is also memorable.  Costume designer Amy Westcott (with occasional help from Rodarte) does a splendid job of outfitting an entire ballet IMG_5220.CR2company. The Black Swan costume in particular is a standout design, but her choices of clothing for scenes between Nina and Lily are also creatively crafted.  I especially liked the dresses she designed for them to wear to the benefit party. 

The other shining element of Black Swan is Clint Mansell’s score. Not just anyone could take a canonical piece of music like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and completely rip it apart and then reshape it into their own vision, but Mansell did.  Known primarily for his work on Requiem for a Dream (2000), Mansell re-recorded his version of Swan Lake with an 80-piece orchestra and totally revamped a timeless classic.  It is unfortunate that his score was not eligible for the Academy Awards, because he truly deserved to be recognized.  His music expertly sets the tone throughout the entire film.

While Nina might have found her performance “perfect” (even though she said this as she lay bleeding to death, so how perfect could it really have been?), I can’t go so far as to categorize Black Swan as such.  Still, I enjoyed watching Portman’s powerful performance, and I really liked the music and costumes. 

23 comments:

  1. We'll agree to disagree on this. I have a ballet dancer for a daughter (and no, she hasn't watched this and will not for years). I see this sort of quest for perfection, this unrelenting drive almost every day. I've also seen my daughter dance through things that would sideline most people and smile while doing it.

    I agree that Portman deserved the Oscar. It's the sort of performance that gets remembered...forever.

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    1. Those ballerinas are so physically and mentally strong, aren't they? I think if you have a personal connection to ballet you tend to love this film more than others, but I thought it was an interesting watch. My sister-in-law thought it was horrible, so at least I'm not in that category.

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  2. I have to say I really did not like this film at all. Like you, I admire Portman's performance and the look of the film, but I really had a pretty negative reaction to it. But, lots of folks loved it.

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    1. I think a lot of people feel the same way you do about the movie, but they also think Portman was quite good, too. Sounds strange to say it, but it seems to work that way for many.

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  3. Ive never seen this one as yet, but I have heard a lot about It! Richard

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    1. Glad you stopped by, Richard. Interesting user name.

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  4. I have not yet seen this film, but, have always wanted to. Now, that I have read your awesome review, I really want to see it..

    Beautiful photos.

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    1. Thanks, Dawn. It is an interesting watch.

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  5. You write very eloquently on a complicated movie – and hey, we both used the word »visceral« ;-)

    http://1001movies.posterous.com/861

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    1. I saw that when I visited your site. You write very briefly.

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  6. I also watched The Black Swan a second time - not because of uncertainty related to the plot or characters but to experience the film again and, knowing the outcome, to see if I thought it held up. It did. Darren Aronofsky is certainly one of the most creative and daring filmmakers out there today. Of the films I saw that were nominated for the 2010 Best Picture Oscar (The Social Network, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, True Grit, The King's Speech), it was my pick as the film of the year.

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    1. Aronofsky is a very talented director. He stuck with this project for over ten years. While I can't agree that this was the best film of 2010, I did think he was one of the standout pictures of the year.

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  7. I have to admit that when I saw the 2.5 star rating at the top I didn't expect to read a review that is one great thing about the movie after another. Judging from just what was written it really seemed like you liked the film quite a bit more than you did.

    As for me, I considered it the second best movie of all of 2010. I got it the first time, but then I had already seen all of Aronofsky's other films leading up to this one.

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    1. Ah, Chip, my rating system is a mystery to most. LOL! Still, to get a 3-star or above rating a film has to do something to (or for) me, and this one just missed that criteria. Still, I think it is a fine film.

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  8. Hey Kim,
    I was wondering how you viewed the movie Report, 1967. Thanks!
    Amanda

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    1. Amanda, I haven't watched it yet, but you can find it at:
      http://www.stickam.com/viewMedia.do?mId=192157747

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  9. Agreed... a must see! I don't know if I've ever seen a movie express desperation so well.

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    1. Portman has the ability to give very raw performances.

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  10. If you have been looking for the very hard to find Too Early, Too Late I just tracked down a working copy. I posted links to it in the Compendium. I don't know how long they will be good for, so I suggest you strike while the iron is hot. By the way, I also posted the English subtitles for The Baker's Wife that you asked about.

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  11. i think this was the best film of 2010. it may not have been to hollywood, but it surely was to me. i heard so many negative things about it... and yet when I saw it, i was entranced from the beginning. It was beautiful and dark and brilliant, and the ending... my god... perfect! Aronofsky is truly an artist.

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    1. It is a very artistic film, which is why I think a lot of people didn't like it. Still, it is entertaining to watch.

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