Movies: Black Swan

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by Raj Ranade

There’s a tendency in many art-house movie-goers towards devout reverence to any film not explicitly labeled as a comedy. This is a good thing overall, since the alternative is the all-consuming irreverence of texting teen chatterboxes. But this can lead to a sort of audience civil war when a director decides to toss out a tonal change-up. Take the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, where Anderson intentionally and brilliantly sends his brooding character study flying off the rails into unhinged lunacy (spoilers, duh). The audience I saw the film with split, at this point, between those who couldn’t help laughing (Anderson’s intention, I think) and the serious-minded folks glaring at them, the people who seemed intent on taking the line “I drink your milkshake!” as seriously as possible.
My point is this: it’s okay to laugh at Black Swan, now showing at the Kentucky Theatre. At least, I think it is (sorry, angry lady sitting in front of me!). Yes, this is a movie about the ultra-tony high art of ballet, a movie that has deservedly been garnering high-brow critical acclaim and awards nominations, and a movie with thematic preoccupations such as Struggling for One’s Art. But it’s also a movie that is silly in many ways, one that mixes its pinky-out haughtiness with weapons-grade trash-cinema material. And it’s also a very good movie, largely because director Darren Aronofsky is willing to indulge in an operatic, exhilarating kind of silliness – and I’d be surprised if Aronofsky isn’t doing at least a little chuckling of his own.
Really, it’s about time. Aronofsky made his name as a talented visual stylist in films like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and he revealed an impressive talent for working with actors in his last and best film, The Wrestler. But Aronofsky’s past films are as stiflingly self-serious and humorless as any director this side of Christopher Nolan. They could use a dash of uncontrolled wooliness and wildness, and with Black Swan, it seems someone has loosened the lid on his wackiness salt-shaker.
The trouble begins when Nina (Natalie Portman) is cast as the lead ballerina in a production of Swan Lake, a ballet in which an innocent, enchanted princess turned into a white swan clashes with an seductive, evil-twin black swan. Life, of course, begins to imitate art. Nina may still live with her hyper-controlling mother (Barbara Hershey, channeling Carrie’s mom) and sleep in a stuffed-animal-laden bedroom fit for a small child, but she’s stirred by the advances of the company maestro (Vincent Cassel) and a new ballerina (Mila Kunis) who, in a company of dancers wearing white leotards, has a predilection for wearing (wait for it) black. More distressing than the outside pressures are the pressures within. This young perfectionist’s obsessive practice grinds away at both her body (Aronofsky lingers on Nina’s protruding-ribcage gauntness and blooded toes) and her mind, as hallucinations start to shatter her grasp on reality.
What follows is a character study spruced up with a grindhouse-worthy compendium of horror-movie jump moments, late-night-Cinemax lipstick lesbianism, and creepy jolts of flinch-inducing gore. Aronofsky seems be to pulling more than a little bit from that great artist of trash, Brian De Palma (Carrie, Blow Out). De Palma is often criticized for the consistent sleaze of his topics, but he wields sleaze like a surgeon, employing stock cheese to masterfully manipulate his audience, and Aronofsky is approaching De Palma’s level of skill. Placing these elements into unfamiliar high-class contexts has refreshed them enough to shake any hint of staleness – and indeed, probably the most inspired thing about Black Swan is the extreme contrast between high and low, which is found in everything from the plot to the way that cinematographer Matthew Libatique favors shaky handheld tracking shots even when capturing the most graceful of subjects. Ultimately, though, the lurid is what reigns here, whether it’s in the portrayal of Nina’s sexual awakening (in both sex scenes, the stuffed animals are watching), the way that fractured glass appears in scene after scene like a ghostly omen, or the entire final third of the movie.
Style is more important than content here, although more passionate defenders of this film might argue the point. The “self-destruction for one’s art” thing is a fine theme, but it’s not exactly novel* and Aronofsky doesn’t seem particularly interested in handling it with any degree of finesse. As for the film’s discussion of women, I’m torn between wanting to praise the film’s exploration of how the feminine ideal is often sought after by self-mutilation and wanting to mock the film’s weird 1950s take on the dangers of female sexuality. And furthermore, I’m not entirely sold on the ecstatic praise that Natalie Portman has been getting for her performance here. Her physical transformation and dancing ability is quite obviously a marvel (it was the result of almost 10 months of ballet training), but there’s a certain monotony to her repressed good-girl performance – she never seems to truly cut loose even when the plot needs her to, ironically the same problem that her character is seeking to overcome.
But the key thing here is Aronofsky’s seizing on the valuable core of his ideas, novel or not, and pushing their cinematic representation past any reasonable aesthetic limit, and then pushing some more. What I ended up laughing at was not at any true fault of the film, but at its sheer audacity. And, yes, the film probably goes a little too far to hit with the gravitas of a truly great film (for this viewer, the tipping point was when the CGI kicks in). But there’s pure cinematic delight in seeing a director whip up the kind of gloriously unhinged frenzy that you see in Black Swan – and it’s even more fun when you allow yourself to giggle a little.
*In the promotional materials for his brilliant new album, another example of self-excoriation for one’s art, Kanye West has become fixated on ballerinas – coincidence?

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