Wednesday, December 08, 2010

MOVIE: Black Swan

Does any filmmaker tie music into his movies as well as Darren Aronofksy? His latest, Black Swan, has healthy helpings of the spiraling madness of Pi, The Wrestler's authentically grim look at the cost of being a professional, and the tightly orchestrated rhythms that made Requiem for a Dream so compelling. The end result is slighter, however, in that the film is meant to mirror a fantasy ballet -- that of Swan Lake -- and thereby really only succeeds in showing the precarious edge between genius and madness: the potential cost, that is, of perfection.

It's an art-house suspense flick, in which the hero, soloist Nina (Natalie Portman), is hunted as much by her preening rivals within the company -- most notably Lily (Mila Kunis) -- as she is by herself. And yet, the film is exquisitely shot by Matthew Libatique and scored by the reliable Clint Mansell (and with healthy doses of Tchaikovsky) to the point of suffocating tension: her pressures and struggles are larger-than-life phantasms and everyday demons, all at once. The film mainly focuses on Nina's troubles, but it does at least hint at the wider implications of fame: her career mirrors that of the company's former star Beth (Winona Ryder) -- now a drunken, broken, discarded wreck -- and rebels against the never-a-lead-dancer ways of Erica (Barbara Hershey), who is now little more than a vicarious, controlling stage mother.

What Aronofsky captures so brilliantly is the sense of high-stakes pressure: there are constant close-ups of the en pointe twists and the agonizing sound effects of physical therapy (foot joints acrackle), the infinite reflections of mirrors (closing in and endless, all at once), and a sense of isolation for the lead -- scorned by her fellow dancers, castigated by her forceful director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and given her own room. Nina is shown constantly in motion and usually in white, all aflutter and spun around -- manipulated, even -- by those who would lift her up for their own gain. This, of course, fits perfectly with the ideal of beauty that Odette -- the White Swan -- represents, and it's no surprise that Nina begins to crack as she attempts to also portray Odile, the evil Black Swan. After all, she has been told to "lose herself" in the role, to "loosen up" in order to be more perfect, to find the passionate misstep that is in fact the right step toward transcendence.

The thematic motifs -- color shifts between white and black, to say nothing of Portman's increasing aggression, or of Swan Lake itself -- are what elevate the film to art itself, what make it more than a one-note descent into madness. At the same time, the limited colors -- polar opposites, setting the film always at one extreme or another -- are what keep Black Swan from being a masterpiece. The craft is perfect, and so the transcendent surprise is absent; the airtight pressures choke us up, but also suffocate our emotions. It is a swan that does not fly, and yet whose grace nonetheless keeps us spellbound. ---- B+

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