Saturday, October 16, 2010

Love: Black Swan (Chicago International Film Festival Review)

Darren Aronofsky, who has wowed us with Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and The Fountain, is pulling in frenzied, rave early reviews for his ballet-centric thrill ride Black Swan.  The film will be released nationally in early December, but has been riding high on the festival circuit where critics and bloggers have taken to pronouncing the film, and Natalie Portman's performance, as all sorts of brilliant.  Portman plays Nina Sayers; a shy, emotionally vulnerable ballerina with a narcissistic, overly protective mother and some implied psychological damage.  Nina's life is ballet.  She lives and breathes it.  Her days are little more than practicing, puking, and moving to and from Lincoln Center dreaming of the day she will dance Swan Lake as The Swan Queen.  Miraculously, when her New York company's prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is forced into early retirement, Nina is given that chance.  She embodies the White Swan, but ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) insists he does not yet see the loose seductiveness of the evil twin Black Swan in Nina's performance.  Nina, possessed by a desperate quest for her own perfection, becomes fixated on Lily (Mila Kunis) a newcomer in the company who becomes both threat and obsession; the living embodiment of the Black Swan's dark qualities.  In many ways, what Aronofsky has done is adapt Swan Lake itself for 21st century, urban consumption.  A little Red Shoes here, a little Showgirls there, just a touch of Suspiria with a dose of MDMA.  The ingredients make for a devil of a film.  Black Swan is a fragile, delirious fairy tale that effectively toes the line between real and unreal.  Nina suffers for her art.  She pushes herself to her breaking point.  For the audience, however, it's hard to know where that breaking point lies.  Is Nina's experience fact or fiction?  Do we lose her early on?  Are we witnessing an elaborate fantasy or a chilling reality?  Does it even matter?
As the film crescendos and the audience is driven further and further into hypersexualized mania and Cronenbergian transformation, you're either fully invested or dubious.  I have to admit, I was dubious.  For me, Black Swan was just a horror film.  A well-executed, beautifully shot, carefully crafted horror film, yes, but of the genre we conventionally consider horror nonetheless.  I kid you not.  Don't be fooled by dramatic ad campaigns and claims of bizarro mind-fuckery.  At its roots, Black Swan is a snow pure, first class genre film.  Not in the wrenching way Lars von Trier's Antichrist was, but instead much like Carrie or the aforementioned Dario Argento film.  Its heart is melodrama, and its greatest assets materialize as atmospherics, intense musical strains, and little haunted house twists.

Perhaps I'm jaded, perhaps my definition of weird cinema has been slanted and enchanted by Jodorowsky and Makavejev (there's no going back), but Black Swan was not the blow-me-out-of-the-water surreality I'd been prepared for.  It didn't hit any of the marks that would cause me to label it 'disturbing' or 'unlike anything I'd seen before'.  The end of Showgirls, for those interested, was patently more unsettling (on a few levels) than any of the bad trip Aronofsky offers here.  No, Black Swan was a different breed of 'good movie'.  Just as it drifts between real and unreal, it fades in and out between "Oscar contender" and "B-grade Camp".  Cassel's Thomas is a near caricature of the grabby, manipulative stage director.  His lines are oft absurdly comical, Pepe le Pew-style instructions that Nina get into the spirit of the Black Swan via some late night masturbation.  Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) is the creepy, domineering archetype of bad, boundary-crossing parenting we've seen in a million horror films.  Nina herself is an adult-child.  She's high-strung and precious with a personality that, when it swings, seems as silly as it is menacing.  Portman does well in her role, though I'll admit that I'm almost surprised to hear so many early snippets buzz about her award potential when, at times, she seems to be quite deliberately overacting (this is a completely different kind of overacting than, say, the cheery fakery in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium).   
The acting aside, much of the heavy lifting that moves the film from cult classic to 'serious' art film (though it's undoubtedly still destined for the former) can be attributed to its clever construction.  The color dynamics, the symbolic uses of whites, blacks, pinks and grays, the twisting of Tchaikovsky's compositions into driving film score, the psychological interplay and the choreography lend themselves to film student circles of  discussion.  When you see it, you want to talk about Black Swan in ways far from simply remarking on its "awesomeness."   That conversational necessity, and the film's violent self-restraint (which could be said to mirror the control issues of Nina herself), transform Black Swan into that rare, tricky, respected piece of entertainingly clever genre work.

Thus, while Black Swan may not be the mind-blowing masterwork of unexpected cinema you wish it to be, in a largely tepid cinematic year, it's a stand out.  I liked the film as a fun, joyously trippy, often amusing (I laughed.  I'm pretty sure it was with the film, but there was a time where it could have been at it...) horror film.  Aronofsky's dirtied-up ballet saga feels self-aware in that way that noir-tinted dramas often are.  He's having fun with it, and, if the early promotional commentary is any indication, he knows he's made a film designed to be more midnight movie than Oscar bait.  Luckily for him, the two aren't mutually exclusive.  Think, for example, of Sunset Boulevard.  Sunset Blvd. manages high-camp in a way that's effortlessly classy (and classic).  Billy Wilder's Hollywood noir embraced its showier, more ridiculous aspects. It pushed at the boundaries of its characters and displayed their instability for an effect that was as comedic as it was unsettling.  Black Swan does the same, and while it's no Sunset Blvd. (its attempts don't always work, the supernatural gives way beneath a suspension of disbelief issue that will most certainly lose some of its audience, the script can be a little too trite), it's operating in a similar, popcorn-friendly vein.  As a psychological horror film, it's of the highest caliber (though not at all frightening), as a drama...meh.  

Decide for yourself when Black Swan opens on December 3.  Check out more of the Chicago International Film Festival here.

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