Monday, February 14, 2011

Unfinished Critique of Black Swan

Note: Review is unpolished, partially formed, just posted because I wanted to have something up about this movie.

It’s over the top but that’s not the reason I have a problem.  More that it seems all surface and no real depth.
Movie combines Aronofsky’s styles from last several films, some calling it his stylistic apotheosis.  I like the style, though it has its downside.  Combines handheld behind the head following, spinning, lots of  steadicam, with surrealist imagery and story, makes reality and  illusion hard to distinguish--but not that hard.  Some people act as if impossible to know what’s going on, but I thought it was fairly straightforward.  Color scheme  emphasizes black-white-gray, striking but rather repetitive and not  particularly subtle or beautiful.  That is one way its very different from The Red Shoes, its not about beauty.  Not really about art, more about quest for perfection and self- mutilation in pursuit of ones goal. About how perfectionism can be destructive and psychologically damaging in any creative activity or sport.  I prefer to see story as one of Nina psyching herself up Method-style for her role as the Black Swan, rather than just a tale of a crazy girl getting crazier.  After Cassel tells her what she needs to do to get the part, she starts consciously and subconsciously attempting to unleash her inner black swan, though her success here ends up driving her over the edge.  She becomes the role so completely that she destroys her own psyche in the process.  There is never any real question that the things she sees are hallucinations.  The only things which are questionable are the sex scene and the apparent killing at the end.  Obviously she isn’t actually turning into a swan.
The lack of depth referred to is that few of these symbols have any complexity to them, or even much ambiguity.  There are not dark secrets in Ninas past to reveal, or new depths to her motivations that become apparent.  Everything is text in this movie-- there isn’t any subtext.  Many of the thrills are just gotcha scares, though I think they work well for what they are.  The Tchaikovsky-comboscore is intense and occasionally too loud--but this is all just identifying it as an intense psychological thriller, and less of a slow-burn tension building piece.  I don’t think one of these is categorically better than the other, so I don’t think it a crime that the movie moves so fast and so loud.  But I do see it as in many ways a companion piece to Pi, and its rather disappointing to see how little Aronofsky has advanced in intellectual depth since then. Pi was quite good for a first film, filed with distressing images, tight pacing, and a high concept intelligent premise.  But as a philosophical inquiry it had little to offer.  Its math was supposedly complex and exciting, but It had to be kept simple enough for general audiences so it never got beyond a few basic concepts.  Michael Crichton novels have involved far more complex mathematical discussions.  Overall, the movie wished to suggest great intellectual depth without actually going so deep as to be hard to follow.  It was enjoyable on a visceral and movie-movie level, but intellectually it was hollow:  Black Swan essentially does the same thing.
The constant sexual tension gets ugly and uncomfortable.  Trying for Cronenburg?  I feel to punish audience with such explicitness ought to have reason.  Sex not moralized, psychologized, realistic, or justified by nuance and delicacy, just for the thrill and titillation.  Leering, prurient interest.  Lesbian scene just there for inherent eroticism.  Whole film seems to be leering.
Natalie Portman’s performance has been acclaimed up the wazoo but I have a few qualms.  She obviously dedicated herself to this part to an extraordinary degree, training as a ballerina for hours everyday for close to a year.  But while this lets her look the part, she is still protected by editing and doubles to make her dancing perfect, and being able to do the steps does not a great performance make.  Through the course of the whole movie, she seems to maintain one facial expression--red-eyed, lip trembling on the verge of a sob--which could be expected in the real world to elicit constant expressions of concern from all those around her.  She is told a couple times that she needs to relax, but her obvious instability should keep her from being chosen for any part, let alone the main one.  The audience--or I at least-- quickly grow tired of this expression, wanting to shake her and tell her to either snap out of it or go home and sleep.  She only breaks this expression a couple times over the course of the film, and the effect is electric: when she gets the part and goes to the bathroom to call her mother with tears of happiness, and when she dances the Black Swan at the end.  Her performance when calling her mother is note perfect, and an obvious Oscar clip.  It is the climax, though, when the movie redeems itself and her performance finally opens up. When she finally takes charge and marches across the stage, fury and danger in every movement, the release is palpable.  The camera follows her out onto the stage gliding and swirling as she does, looking out at the crowd one moment and back at her face the  next.  This subjective camera is the climax of the films style just as it is the climax of the plot and of Nina;s character.  Here the pure virtuosity of the style makes up for any lack of depth in the story, any lack of complexity to the characters.  In the face of that orgasmic, joyful, terrifying finale, all my objections fall away.  That was a great ending.  In fact, it was perfect.

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