Monday, December 20, 2010

What's Black and White and Blood Red All Over?

Natalie Portman in Black Swan, of course! I scurried down to Chicago last weekend just as the film was opening in Grand Rapids, only to drop in on Landmark Century the first chance I got and see what I'd been missing. How fortunate that I had the weekend away from my computer, thus rendering me unable to speak too hastily, because amidst such fervor (and this film has whipped up a bona fide typhoon of fervor) it can only be healthy to step aside and speak with a little clarity.

So we all know where I stand, I loved this. It was rapturous, which is something so few movies aspire to be (perhaps a good thing, I don't know), and the sheer tenacity of the performances, of the direction, of the cinematography, it made for a furious onslaught of passion and horror the likes of which aren't to be found in any corner of cinema. It is the most obvious of films. The colors and symbolism scream at you, the dialogue brings every thought to a roaring boil, and the credits assure you that all this is according to plan, as it casts the players in both character names and their balletgorical alter-egos. But great cinema has never held fast to the sober line of subtlety. Must I innumerate the countless films built on overarching themes and broadly sketched archetypes. From Greed, to The Seven Samurai, to Network, to There Will Be Blood and oh yeah, the granddaddy of all ballet films, The Red Shoes, movies have long carried the torch of mythic storytelling, where characters at their core embody ideas, and the whole plot unfolds on the field of the impossible. Black Swan knows this game, and Aronofsky is playing on steroids.

I will come back to Aronofsky - he's the off-screen partner in this mad-minuet - but the star here is Natalie Portman, and not even the blood-drenched cinematic cacophony of the proceedings can cut down her impact. It's a fearless performance, and one that caught me entirely unaware, because nowhere (even amid the marvelous ensemble of Closer) has Portman indicated she was capable of this. She is born into the film from a world of dreams concocted in the comfort of her bed, and over the course of two hours plumbs the depths to the point where the dreams become nightmares become reality, only to confine her once more to a mattress not unlike the one she woke up on. Her character, Nina Sayers, is the model of self-destructive passion, but also of rebellion and paranoia, and her fall from grace is so damn unnerving because Aronofsky would seem to have built everything around Portman's wholly organic performance.

There are other players of course, and to their credit they re never shamed by the virtuoso lead, but rather succeed quite magnificently in their supporting capacity. My second favorite performance was Vincent Cassel, playing the Boris Lermontov to Portman's Victoria Page, and if he's no Anton Walbrok, he can be forgiven. His impresario, Thomas Leroy, both terrifies and beguiles Nina not by stifling her, but by dragging her out of the womb she so adamantly refuses to leave behind. Mila Kunis, who I harbored doubts on since her snippets in the trailer, turns out to be a revelation, and I hope this is a sign of great things to come. Barbara Hershey is terrifying as the most smothering of mothers and between her and Winona Ryder's limited appearance as a ballerina in the twilight of her career, they ignite a powerful fear within Nina, the doom to eventually fade away as they have unless she can somehow break the cycle. And in the final 15 minutes, she breaks it spectacularly.

There's also the stark cinematography, steeped in mirror images and conducted by the gifted Matthew Libatique; and the gloriously Grand Guignol art direction, where hues light, dark and sanguine battle it out for prominence; and Clint Mansell's masterful accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's flawless composition. All come together under Aronofsky's maverick orchestration. Here is a film of profound assurance, one that bucks its head at those predisposed to dismiss entrenchment in the body genres and through niether fearing nor analyzing the cliche, carries these conventions into uncharted territory, insane though it bloody well is. It is in many ways the opposite of Inception, a film that wants so badly to be daring, but is ultimately too concerned with offending the casual movie-goer that it settles for something less. Black Swan doesn't give a damn if you love it or hate it, and it's reputation I suspect will thrive for decades off such passionate debate. There's another film like this, one that I'm on the hate it side of the debate, but for that reason can all the more appreciate its status as a sacred object; it's called 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Damn, I just stumbled into hyperbole, didn't I? No, I don't mean to suggest that Black Swan belongs among the pantheon of all time great movies. Even if it did, I would need several more viewings and a few years in between before making such a brazen statement. But it is very good, insanely good, scarily good, and it's a rare fusion of explosive performance and visionary direction that set it well apart from the rest of the year's output, for better or for worse. Cassel explains to Portman within the film that perfection comes not from treading safely and knowing all the right moves, but from also from instability, from spontaneity. This is Black Swan's own brand of perfection; it trips in places, but gets back up with increased vigor, and as it bounds forward toward its exhilarating climax it does achieve a kind of transcendence, at least for those still on board.

1 comment:

  1. I could not agree more with pretty much everything you've said here, up to and including the opinion on "2001".

    And I'll go the extra step- I do think it belongs among the greats, although I'll gladly accept your caveat about a second and third viewing. To quote Nina Sayers' self-referential final line, it "was perfect".