Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan + The Celebrity Connection: Natalie Portman

The story of Swan Lake: A princess is turned into a swan. True love is the only thing that can break the curse but her love is tricked and falls instead for her evil twin the Black Swan. The princess, who cannot live with the curse and cannot live without love frees herself through death. In a sense, this is the story that director Daron Aronofsky has been working his entire career towards telling. The film may revolve around the trails of a ballerina but Black Swan is no more about ballet than Requiem for a Dream was about drug abuse: it’s about a character chasing an impossible dream outside of their human grasp. That’s what all of Aronofsky’s films have been about.

One of Aronofsky’s great attributes is that he isn’t afraid to follow his characters unapologetically into their own oblivion and thus Black Swan isn’t so much a film as a memorizing thought piece constructed of ideas, fears, hopes and despair that doesn’t so much tell a story as ram headfirst right through a character’s psychological state as it dissipates under mounting pressure. Rarely has self-destruction been so hauntingly beautiful.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, the naive, precious ballerina who lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hersey) who gave up her own career and now lives vicariously through her daughter. Nina, having dedicated herself entirely to the perfection of her art, wants nothing more than to be cast in Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) newest rendition of Swan Lake. Leroy, a fierce, sexual, genius, knows that Nina can play the White Swan, but believes her to be too rigid in her perfection to play the Black Swan, who’s technique needs to be lose and seductive. 

The toying Leroy, maybe out of French masochism and maybe because he sees a buried sexual frustration, casts Nina in the part regardless. She is thrilled but practice is torture as she can’t quite nail the part. She is too frigid, too pristine and too desexualized for the Black Swan. Also along to torment her is the new girl Lily (Mila Kunis) who isn’t half the dancer that Nina is but is promiscuous and dangerous and has the dark allure of the Black Swan, a temptress driving Nina slowly towards the brink. There is also Beth (Winona Ryder), Leroy’s former star who has now been forced into retirement and is hospitalized after a (intentional?) car accident as well as Nina’s mother who shelters the girl like a child, keeps her away from all other outside pressure (sex, drugs, life) and gruelingly pushes her towards the perfection she never achieved.

Slowly all of the outside pressures begin to eat away at Nina, destroying her sanity as Leroy abusing her, molesting her, degrading her in order to bring out her inner Black Swam, pushes her, along with Lily, towards discovering her dark side. She is consumed by fear and hatred and sex and even murder as she begins having hallucinations of her being transformed into the Black Swan.

On the surface Black Swan appears to be about the way an artist’s ego will slowly lead them into oblivion as they strive to find perfection and meaning in their art. That was, in a very different way, more or less what Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was about as well. However, by conveying Black Swan’s plot and by trapping it into a defined thematic explanation is to subvert away from the hectic, driving, narrative free fall that the film is. Like Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan is more experience than story (this is filmmaking as state-of-mind at its most forceful and, at times, unbearably painful), and is thus more a meditation of how we are slowly driven insane by reaching desperately to achieve the things that are least important in life: fame, money, recognition, perfection ect.

Aronofsky, throughout his career, has always chosen the perfect mediums from which to explore these concepts: math, drugs, cancer, professional wrestling and now ballet: all areas that place value on superficial endeavours and distract from life's essentials: love, friendship, happiness. These are the arts of self-destruction. He makes films about people who are exposed to a plane of their existence that is foreign to them, sending them spiralling into an obsessive state until they have cut themselves off from anything that could provide them solace.

What Nina finds is that to split a personality down and limit it to the influence of either black (Leroy and Lily) or white (her mother) is to create a weak emotional state in which, when one is introduced over top of the other, it will ultimately consume and destroy it’s counterpart. In Black Swan, Nina is ultimately on a quest to find perfection at any cost just to discover that perfection can only be achieved through a sacrifice more grand than anyone should normally be willing to make: a complete and utter sacrifice of the self.

And so Black Swan cannot simply be spoken about in terms of aesthetics, technique, acting, writing: the general pieces that comprise a film, which I have not done here, because it is more than film. It is emotion, expression, ideology and, above all else it is violent, unapologetic rapture. This is one of the year’s best films.

An now a related Celerity Connection:

Could Natalie Portman really be Dakota Fanning in Disguise?
You Decide.


  1. I agree that the film is very good. However, I don't like it quite as much as you do. Since I agree with all the positive things you've said about it, let me give an inaccurate distillation of my feelings toward it by concentrating on what I consider to be its negatives. The first negative is sort of generic, so I won't give a spoiler warning: In many places it's a bit too on the nose, psychologically and thematically, even if it's constructed extremely well within that familiar psychology/thematics.

    As for the second negative, SPOILER WARNING! I think this film may be more indebted to Fight Club than to Aronofsky's other works, even though its thematic similarities to his other films are clear. At the end I turned to my friend and said "At what point did you realize she was Tyler Durden?" I was being a bit intentionally provocative by saying that, because as you correctly point out, it's never entirely possible to have a definitive understanding of the story -- much of it could be in the character's mind, but much of it might also not be, and Aronofsky is not interested in giving you a clear answer. I did think back to whether any other characters had talked to or directly referred to Lily, and I saw that they had, so it wasn't exactly what Fincher was doing in Fight Club. But it was enough like that that I couldn't keep from noticing the parallels, and in that sense, I did not find it as original as I would have liked to.

    That said, it's a bold, lacerating piece of art with a cavalcade of haunting images (I still think back to the scene with her finger skin), and I think the performances are great. In a relatively weak year for actresses -- Anne Hathaway is going to get a nomination for Love and Other Drugs (which I didn't see)? -- I wonder if it could be Portman's year to take the statue. She would deserve it, if so. I always love Mila Kunis, thought Winona Ryder was haunting (not something you can always say), and was scared shitless of Hershey. It's a very good and thought-provoking film, but the couple shortcomings I listed above leave it just outside my top ten for the year, with a lot of prominent movies still to be seen.

  2. I'll see this just because you suggested it and gave it a 5/5. :D Thanks! Happy holidays if I don't make it back over here in time

  3. Wellllllll, the Fight Club comparison is a bit inaccurate, the only thing going for it is "location, location, location."

    And Aronofsky keeps the focus and the internal movie logic, where Fincher does not (people SEE Tyler Durden...and Durden fights his counter-part, with witnesses...?)

    Nice review touching on several things that didn't whirl around in my own mind while watching (which is, of course, why I come here!) :D

  4. Vance - I have to second Yojimbi here in that I don't make the Fight Club connection for 3 reasons: 1) Fight Club is social commentary, 2)Fight Club is a comedy and 3) I really despise Fight Club. I can see where you would make some connections but like Yojimbo said, Black Swan is more filmmaking mirroring a state of mind where Fight Club is trying to make an actual physical statement through experimental narrative means which.

    Wild Celtic - Great to hear from you and thank you for the kind words. How is life in the U.K. treating you?

    Yojimbo - Thank you sir. I was personally suprised at how many people reviewed this as just being a "ballet movie" when ballet is just the medium through which Aronofsky has chosen to express his story.

  5. That's hilarious that people think of it as a ballet movie. I had someone ask me if it was just like watching a filmed version of Swan Lake. My answer was, um, no, not in the slightest.

    I'm not saying the film had the same intentions or was even in the same genre as Fight Club. I just think the idea of a physical manifestation of another side of a person's personality is similar. Perhaps my saying it was "indebted" to Fight Club is what rubbed you the wrong way.

  6. Of course. How're things with you? UK life is treating me well. Have a touch of the holiday blues, but I'm hoping they pass once I'm in my frieds living room with her family singing Christmas Carols and opening Christmas Crackers, lol. :D I'm hoping next year is a good one. Have any New Years Resolutions?

  7. Like Vancetastic, I enjoyed the movie although not nearly enough to give it a perfect score. Certainly, it was an entertaining movie but ultimately just a high-brow horror movie. Thomas kept pushing Nina for more passion and being able to let go but we are with a movie that is cold and unemotional. Sure, it's one of the best movie of the year but I wouldn't give it a perfect score ;)

  8. Vance - Indebted maybe wasn't a great word but I think other than the whole idea of creating a new personality, these two films don't belong in the same room.

    Celtic - Things are good but busy with work and what not. No New Years resolutions, I don't even bother because I never keep em.

    Castor - Apperently cold and unemotional is what turns you off as it did with Inception. Fair enough although, where I agreed with you on Inception insomuch as that film was based on an idea so big that it didn't have the room to settle down and create interested characters, this one on the other hand let's it's ideas flow through the characters. It may be cold but I wouldn't say it's unimotional because, indeed, it is quite emotionally haunting while also being intellectually stimulating.

  9. Thank you. I was tormented wondering who Portman reminds me in that scene with red eyes. Thanks for giving me the answer.

    I was very impressed by the movie. My second favorite this year.

  10. I wouldn't call it devoid of emotion, since it's very austerity is a valid emotion in itself - but the film seems especially lacking in passion, which is odd since the movie in theory should make us understand Nina's devotion to dance, I don't believe it does - and in theory I suppose her over-preciseness would account for there never being any palpable sense of appreciation for the ballet, but - for me - it robs the film of becoming more than a very good stylistic foray with a somewhat archetypal story since every character in the film has a single emotion and each emotion is collectively broad to the point of being almost monotonous.

    (I think, perhaps, though it is a counterpart to The Wrestler, the overwhelming parallels to Requiem for a Dream may be a reason this doesn't thrill me. I am no particularly fond of it.

  11. "One of Aronofsky’s great attributes is that he isn’t afraid to follow his characters unapologetically into their own oblivion..."

    Very well-spoken. I don't think I've ever heard Aronofsky's vision put so succinctly yet accurately. I saw this film recently and was not quite sure how to pinpoint it. You have definitely given me a new appreciation for this film. Thank you for that.

  12. Lesya - I started that that picture for quite some time thinking of who it reminded me of before it came to me

    Andrew - I think movies all great art has the power to move us in 2 ways: emotional and intellectual and the best can do both. Although Black Swan is maybe emotionally cold, it is intellectually stimulating from beginning to end. The film lacks passion? Isn't the true description of passion to be about pain and suffering, in which case this one has plenty of passion.

    Graduate - Thank you for your kind words. I believe the very best revieiws are the ones we read because they can teach us something outside of what we already know. It's an honour to know that this review did that for someone.

  13. The movie might have been made with passion, but I don't find the characters as having any sort of emotional scope. They're all very much set in their ways that their almost stolid. For me, at least. (Yes, even Nina.)