Saturday, December 11, 2010

It Just Wants to be Perfect

I wrote a Rapid Review about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan immediately after seeing it, but the movie hasn't left me since I saw it the first time. That sensation did not cease upon second viewing. As more and more of you see it and we talk about it, the point I knew long ago is once again crystal clear: Black Swan is one of those films that truly draws you in and leaves you, quite literally, gasping for more as it concludes.

For those who haven't seen it, take a detour now, because this is gonna get really spoilery. But come back when you have seen it--if you're anything like me after seeing it, you won't be able to stop talking about it.

Swan is a movie that starts from the first time you hear about it. For me, that was its trailer, an exquisite work of art unto itself that teased you, enticed you, drew you close and then rejected you at the last possible second.

From the moment the trailer ends to the time you see it, you're filled with great expectation. What will this film really be like? Will it live up to its hype and incredible promise? Or will it fall short and be one of the greatest disappointments in film industry?

After the waiting (which, for me and a few others, was almost a year), the film begins. The first sequence is the dream, which already echoes the trailer.

"I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who turns into a swan.
But her prince falls for the wrong girl, and she kills herself."

The only other first scene this year that foreshadows and illuminates nearly as beautifully is that of The Social Network, a masterpiece of writing that sets the pace and tone while still enthralling us. Unlike that soon-to-be-classic scene, this one uses no dialogue, instead hinting at the corruption that will soon attempt to corrupt our beautiful White Swan. That swan, of course, is the incomparable Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers.

Portman is, as you no doubt have heard by now, a revelation as Nina, playing her in such great degrees and variations that all ring unmistakably true. She begins as a delicate flower just waiting to be stepped on, firmly ingrained in childhood by her overbearing mother.

Yet just below the lily-white surface, we see a hunger in Nina that can't be fed by simply remaining comfortable and complacent. She wants the role of Swan Queen in the new production of Swan Lake. Her mother, the bracingly good Barbara Hershey, is both encouraging of her process and reserved about Nina doing something so bold and out of her comfort zone. When she thinks she's lost the role, Nina's mother seems almost relieved that her "sweet girl" will be performing her usual part.

However, despite butchering her audition due to the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (the effervescent, mysterious Mila Kunis), Nina gets the role after her biting response (literally!) to her teacher, Thomas (Vincent Cassell, dominating but complex) after he makes a sexual advance. She still can't dance the part of the Black Swan properly despite her astounding technique when performing as the White Swan. Not helping matters are the ease of which Lily takes to dancing the Black Swan's role and a drunken accosting by the former lead ballerina, Beth, who has just been forced into retirement by Thomas. Beth, played with tenacity and venom by Winona Ryder, spits vicious accusations at Nina while Thomas attempts to calm her down.
Beth: "What'd you have to do to get this role, huh? Did you suck his cock?"
Nina: "Not all of us have to!"

The scene could play as camp bitchiness, and there are certainly elements of that, but Ryder and Portman have never been finer than in this scene. Portman gives us a glance of a different Nina, a darker Nina, while Ryder is going for the completely self-referential here. She's the "washed-up" talent who envies the younger, prettier one taking all her roles. It's a fantastic cameo and one if Aronofsky had allowed for more development would have been spoiled. Ryder's a spike of bitchiness that wakes the audience up. This is a movie that can't be ignored for even a second. It demands your attention. Every movement is precise, vital to the piece. What an incredible analogy.

Soon enough, Nina is letting the part get to her. A long-dormant scratching habit has resurfaced and she becomes paranoid about Lily's motives. She sees her reflection in mirrors--major credit to Aronofsky for making this suspenseful and interesting and not the cliché it could easily be. Her mother begins to control her more and more as a response to her new freedom, but nevertheless Nina finds ways to break out. And then we reach one of the most intriguing, strange, fascinating scenes in the entire film: Nina and Lily's night out.

Lily: "Someone's hot for teacher."
Nina: "I don't want to talk about that."
Lily: "You really need to relax."

Lily offers Nina some ecstasy to loosen her up, which results in several hookups in the club and an (imagined?) tryst between the two dancers. It's an incredibly explicit scene but one that rings undeniably true: for someone as virginal and pure as Nina, a White Swan to her core, such a raw, sexual experience, imagined or no, would be the ultimate corruption. It is only after this and after arriving late to practice the next morning (after an incredibly tense confrontation with her mother) that Nina realizes it was all just a dream. Thomas is unhappy with Nina and decides to make Lily her alternate, furthering Nina's paranoia. It is in these scenes, wherein we can see Nina's slow descent into insanity, that Portman really shines. She makes the character entirely believable while pulling off incredibly unbelievable things.

The finale is a scene that cannot possibly be described. It involves a character death, a transformation, a grand performance, and the height of Nina's delusions. The audience is completely on-edge, and not a moment goes by in which a surprise isn't lurking right around the corner. The final moments absolutely take your breath away, and you're left reeling as the credits roll. It is a masterpiece finale, that is for sure.

There are many, including the Los Angeles Times' own Kenneth Turan, who have trashed the film as being merely surface-level theatrics with nothing lying below. That criticism is not only factually incorrect, but it is irrelevant for a movie like Swan. It is a film that impacts and shocks, not one that is meant to have you talking as soon as you leave the theater. In fact, if it does what it sets out to do, you won't be able to speak for some time after it has finished. It is absolutely devastating, from the script to the direction to the superb acting.

What a film Black Swan is. It is, as it currently stands, my favorite film of the year. Is it the best? Possibly not. But its aim is not that of Nina, of the White Swan:

"I just want to be perfect."

Black Swan is not a film for which the technique must be perfect. It is about emotion, impact--what will leave the audience gasping for more? It is the cinematic embodiment of the Black Swan: sometimes messy, sometimes imperfect, but a devastating work of art.

It is a metaphor, it is histrionic, it is dramatic, and it is, at times, incredibly difficult to watch. But it is a beautiful film, and one that needs to be seen. It is quite possibly Aronofsky's best work. It is definitely Portman's best work. It is, without reservation, one of my favorite films of all time. It may not be perfect, but it doesn't need to be.

If you wish, please add your own comments and ideas about the film in the comments section. Also, read what some have already posted--between the ideas about mirrors, the reflection on what this film means to someone as an artist, and Nina's childishness, there are many more points to explore. It is the kind of film that can carry a conversation for days.

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