Sunday, January 9, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

Is ballet a kink?

For most of my life, I would have answered, “Yes.” Sure, ballet is full of fairytale stories, cupcake stage sets, and tinkling music. But I smelled a rat beneath all that frilly, tooth-rotting prettiness. It was human foiegras, a toothsome morsel for super-rich aesthetes, created through life-long cruelty to the consumable victim. Ballerinas were starved—from childhood—into gristly waifs, then forced to dance on pointe like cavorting skeletons in a medieval wood-cut. Ballet aficionados were sadists and perverts. What a bizarre idea of beauty: a taste for the pale, the scrawny, the weak-looking, the childish—easy prey. Ballet, I thought, was entertainment for sickos, and I’d considered ballerinas worse than go-go girls, fire-eaters, and contortionists*.

But having seen Black Swan, I’ve amended my opinion. I’ve been was too harsh on ballet. I still don’t get it, but my personal tastes can’t disqualify the normalcy or healthiness of an art-form I neither understand nor appreciate. If I thought that, I’d just be an asshole. Yes, Black Swan highlights the ugly underbelly of ballet, but in a perversely flattering way. The film is to ballet what Taxi Driver is to New York: a love song to all the worst qualities in its subject. In the hands of the brilliant Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan does something astounding: it makes ballet seem cool.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), is a young ballerina with a soul-crushing work ethic and a mom from hell. After years of dancing background parts, Nina is getting her big break: the company’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has chosen her to dance the lead in Swan Lake. The problem is that the Swan Queen is a dual role—White Swan and Black Swan—requiring innocence and sensuality in equal measures. Nina has the innocence part nailed. Sensual passion, however, is apparently alien from her nature. She must somehow unlock this forbidden part of herself, before opening night. Her life is further complicated by the venomous criticism of firebrand Thomas, the questionable friendship of newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), and the emotional stranglehold of her mother (Barbara Hershey), who is a failed ballerina. As opening night looms closer and closer, Nina is accosted by paranoid hallucinations. Is it the stress? Is she going nuts? Are they really hallucinations?

It’s tough to restrict Black Swan to a single genre. It’s a hallucinatory drama, with horror elements and flashes of jet-black comedy. It’s a drugged-up Repulsion in a tutu. (I’m still holding out for “Rosemary’s Baby On Ice.”) The entire cast is dynamite, so I’ll start with our star:

I never really liked Natalie Portman, but it’s not her fault. What was I basing my judgment on? The Star Wars prequels? Garden State? Sure, she was good in Leon: The Professional, but you can’t love an actress based solely on a childhood performance. (Isn’t that right, Mr. Hinckley?) In short, I just didn’t like anything she starred in. Until now.

Portman’s performance is heartbreaking and fascinating. Nina is such a pitiful skittish little creature that, in the hands of a lesser actress, she could have been thoroughly unlikeable. Not so, here. Nina’s awkwardness is tragic, but it never gets annoying. Given different breaks (a less needy mother, a less destructive hobby), Nina could have been a well-rounded human being. She’s not an insufferable broken doll like the Repulsion girl; she’s just an introverted workaholic, a victim of her mother’s surrogate ambitions (she lives through her daughter) and her own ruthless perfectionism.

Nina’s main struggle is to find a dark alter-ego that may not be there. It’s a Freudian search for a repressed id, for the lustful, angry, devious, animalistic traits so lacking in her general character. Her career depends on her becoming someone else, and this dark doppelganger haunts her throughout the film. Essentially, Black Swan is about a good girl fighting to overcome her goodness, forcing a much-belated coming-of-age, which threatens to tear her mind apart.

Like many coming-of-age stories, Black Swan is about sex, or the lack of it. Nina is chronically—no, pathologically­—frigid. She’s uncomfortable with her own body, and she must salvage her pleasure-seeking instinct to embody the Black Swan’s seductive persona. This belated sexual awakening becomes one more stress on her already overtaxed psyche. Her confused sexual longings find two targets: instructor Thomas and fellow dancer Lily.

Vincent Cassel is a damn seductive bastard, and he makes Thomas muscular, animalistic, passionate. It’s easy to see why Nina would fall for him, as he fills dual roles as mentor and torture-master. He’s charming—hell, even his cruelty is charming—so much so that it wasn’t till the credits rolled that I realized what an utter bastard the guy is.

Lily (Nina’s maybe-friend/maybe-nemesis) is perfectly played by Mila Kunis. Once the momentary shock of hearing a cartoon’s voice (she’s Meg on ‘Family Guy’) wears off, her performance is hypnotic. She embodies the raw, clumsy, hip-swinging confidence that Nina lacks. She’s hot (for a ballerina anyway), but her warm flesh hides the calculating heart of a master manipulator, a high school sadist. Is she out to usurp Nina’s role as Swan Queen, or is Nina just being paranoid?

Rounding out the cast is award-winning veteran actress Barbara Hershey. She plays Black Swan’s true villain, Nina’s mom. She’s a monster, a needy, clingy, passive-aggressive parody of motherhood. But there’s more to her performance than pure evil. There’s warmth. Her concern, if over-exercised, is still well-merited. Her well-meaning plight is reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn’s similar Mom role in Aronofsky’s near-classic Requiem For A Dream. Burstyn got an Oscar nom for that role; Hershey may well get one to match.

Aronofsky is a master of style. After the relative sanity of The Wrestler, it’s a treat to see his usual mind-bending tricks. Dazzling and jarring though they are, the stylistic tics and occasional CGI flourish almost never interrupt the viewing experience, never eclipse the dynamite cast. The cinematography is exquisite. The camera never leaves Nina, and it expertly reflects her loneliness, paranoia, and the frantic energy of the ballet scenes (the dance numbers are shot like martial arts fights). All in all, Black Swan looks superb.

(Speaking of special effects, Nina doesn’t eat a damn thing, yet she pukes four times in this movie. Where’s it all coming from?)

Black Swan may not be Aronofsky’s masterpiece, but it is a work of astonishing beauty from one of America’s most daring and talented filmmakers. See it. I anticipate his next project—an X-Men film, of all things—all the more impatiently.

*No offense to go-go girls, fire-eaters, and contortionists. I hope to meet many of you in the future.