Saturday, February 12, 2011

Black Swan

Portman as The Black Swan - powerful, destructive, hot....
Black Swan (U.S., 2010) directed by Darren Aronofsky, 1 hour, 50 minutes
Nominated for Five Oscars:
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Natalie Portman)
Best Cinematography
Best Directing
Best Film Editing
Best Picture

This is a frightening and dazzlingly beautiful film. Natalie Portman deserves all the accolades and awards she has received for her portrayal of Nina Sayers, a tormented ballerina tapped by ballet director Thomas Leroy (the caustic Vincent Cassel channeling a more butch version of Boris Lermontov in the The Red Shoes) to play the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake.

I won't rehash the plot which you can review here if you like but I will examine some of the issues about women and art raised in the film.

I feel that this film represents an accurate portrayal of a young female artist who is literally driven to madness in her pursuit of perfection within the world of ballet. A good friend who lived in that world as a teenager said that she found it utterly realistic except for the scene where the girls crowd around Nina when she is hurt and express concern for her (ouch!).

Natalie Portman strikes the perfect tone as the innocent Nina - she is earnest, hard working, self-punishing and relentless. Ballet makes extreme psychological and physical demands on a young dancer's body and mind and there are concessions that not all, particularly young girls with self-esteem issues, can manage. It can be a cruel world with petty jealousies - a beautiful world to behold from the outside, ruthless and pitiless from within.

The dancer's feet are the perfect symbol for this world. Underneath the satin and ribbon and beautiful design are punished, damaged feet with sprains, cuts, broken nails and other not pretty physical ailments.

To my untrained eyes, Portman is convincing in the physical aspects for the role but more so when she begins to unravel and hallucinate that her understudy Lily (the ravishing and seductive Mila Kunis) is trying to steal away her role as the Swan Queen. The true enemy appears to be Nina herself.

Her anxieties and low self-esteem morph into a frightening alternate personality which is personified in Nina's mind by Lily, the understudy. That alternate personality is violent, jealous, undermining, highly sexual.

Added to Nina's own internal pressures is, of course, the image of the controlling mother. Erica (Barbara Hershey) is a loving but overbearing mother who has subsumed her own artistic desires and goals as a failed ballet dancer into Nina's career. Is her concern for Nina's health motherly or jealousy over Nina's superior skills and success as a dancer? It is an intense and disturbing relationship which devolves into recrimination and violence.

My only disappointment in the film is the character of Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) as the prima ballerina whom Nina supplants. I have always found Ryder to be lacking in substance in her meatier roles - smudged mascara and disheveled hair signifying mental distress won't suffice. The image of the prima ballerina should be majestic, powerful, emanating intense sexual appeal and, sadly, I don't feel that Ryder has these attributes. I find her an odd choice for this role.

Portman as White Swan - fragile, virginal
We see the slow metaphorical transformation of Nina from the White Swan (virginal, sweet, pliant) who wears white and pink, inhabits a child-like room filled with pretty stuffed toys with a sweet, feminine feel into the more vicious and passionate Black Swan. The Black Swan persona is more reckless - experimenting with drugs and sex with strangers - and challenging both her mother and the ballet director. She is angry and passionate and extremely powerful.

In the final scenes of the film Nina seeks to destroy her rival Lily and succeeds only in destroying herself but dies happily murmuring, "I was perfect" before her astonished fellow ballerinas. She was, she is...but at what cost?

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