Sunday, December 5, 2010

Black Swan

Alison and I agreed that our Saturday was really about as perfect as they come-- so perfect that I'm going to tell you about it. We started the day with brunch-and-cheesecake at the New Apollo Diner downtown Brooklyn; attended the greatest craft sale in the world at the Starrett-Lehigh Building on W 26th street (have you been inside!? Those windows!); talked with a man as passionate about glitter as I am ('This glitter in particular is EXTREMELY useful,' he said in all seriousness while showing us the snow pack); saw the best movie I've seen all year; stopped for a glass of wine in a random Chelsea bar where we've NEVER been more popular; and ended the night in Williamsburg at a housewarming/Hanukkah party with a backyard and a bonfire and the best latkes on this side of the East River. Should I have used commas in place of semi-colons in that sentence? Who cares, it was perfection! But let's talk about the movie, or I'll go on for days about glitter.

Black Swan. Black Swan
is the story of Nina, a New York City ballet dancer played by a dramatically changed Natalie Portman, and her pursuit of a single dream. Nina lives at home with a controlling mother, tends toward bulimia and compulsive scratching, and doesn't have any life experience to speak of. She eats grapefruit for breakfast and sleeps in a room dressed in teddy bears. She's timid and dedicated and quiet and is suddenly handed the role of a lifetime-- Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

But alongside the iconic white swan, crowned in feathers and sparkles, and white, white, white!, Nina is also asked play her evil doppleganger-- the Black Swan. SEDUCE ME!, the director (Vincent Cassel) cries, while grabbing at her skinny limbs in want and in anger. He maintains that she’s suited only for half the double role, but offers both parts anyway as a sort of sick fascination with watching a little girl crack into a woman. It's a brilliant set-up: asking the Purest Dancer of All to lose control. And there our story begins.

I read somewhere that Darren Aronofsky tended toward a tight camera angle on the back of Portman's neck for much of Black Swan to hint at paranoia. We, the audience, therefore play the part of 'stalker'. By doing so, he brought the audience along with Nina in a rapid head game of feeling like someone is watching you, anticipating turning on the lights to someone standing there in the darkness.

The dancing is beautiful-- breathless at points-- thanks in no way to Aronofsky. It says something about ballet itself, as Aronofsky did his best to darken its shiny surface. He favorited cracking joints, quivering exhales, bleeding toes and emaciated backbones in place of the lightness we are used to. We see dancing swans through a shakey lens and the sound of heavy breathing. They become something else there before us-- puppets representing Dickensian archetypes: Good and evil. Right and wrong. Pure and tainted. Tchaikovsky's violins start to scream and that music will never sound the same, I assure you.

The movie could have been made about go-carts, Portman stated in an interview, making the point that it isn't about ballet at all in the end. But I disagree. The ballet world cradles such a story perfectly, for the very reasons stated above. It's an incredibly soft backdrop for such a harsh story. Without it, Black Swan could feel too mean, too terrifying, too destructive to matter. But because of the ballet, this baby will win awards.

Yes, the film is GRUESEOME-- a horror film or close to it. I closed my eyes for at least 10 minutes of that, but so did everyone else around me. Don't even really know what happened in that hospital room with Winona Ryder, I just heard a lot of tearing flesh. Ick. Honestly, a good chunk of that could have been cut out, but I personally don't like gore to begin with. To me, it wasn't necessary in leading the psychological downfall, but I will say that the blood and guts did lend toward a PHYSICAL reaction from the audience, which absolutely has its place in the film's lasting impression. You will leave completely shaken, trust me, and will have to force your mind away from it when crawling into bed that first night. Shivers. I still can't think about it at bedtime, to be honest.

Black Swan is my favorite film of the year, hands down. Portman especially is more deserving of an Oscar than any actor in my memory. And if not an Oscar (I am by no means an expert on these things) than at least a nod at unwavering focus and commitment to her craft. Forget the year of intensive ballet training, severe dieting, 16 hour workdays to get her body to look and move the way it did, Portman's fluid transition from scared girl to psychotic tour-de-force kept us at attention for the full two hours.

You will exit the theater completely shaken and undone. You'll need to talk about it, laugh about it, scream about what you saw. It's visceral, and its supposed to be. As most good movies are, Black Swan is really about the Human Condition and how far we can be pushed before snapping. And the snapping, in the end, is only a few steps away from normal. Scary, indeed.

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