Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Swan

Oh, man. I feel so lucky.

Last night I saw an advance screening of Black Swan, the new movie by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman. The short version is, it's stunning, amazing filmmaking, and is, so far, the best movie I've seen this year.

I so love it when I see a film and it just hits me, right in the gut. A film that simply hits all the marks. A film that's deeply entertaining, and yet strikes right at the heart of something more about the human condition.

Darren Aronofsky, I am fully on the alter of your genius now. I was pretty much there with The Wrestler, especially after The Fountain. Once again, much like in Requiem for a Dream, he displays a vast, comprehensive mastery of technical filmmaking and effects work that is used, in intriguing and intelligent ways, to only enhance and illuminate the story being told. He's the real deal, a filmmaker that we'll be talking about for decades to come.

The trailers and promotion have been selling the sexual aspects of the film, and there is no doubt that sex is deeply entwined in the story being told. It also helps that our female leads, Portman and Mila Kunis, are both highly attractive. However, I think that is selling short the depth of what's being explored here.

Now, before I get to far into this, let's make a point. I am a performer, it's deeply ingrained into my personality and how I look at the world. Since Black Swan, at it's heart, a movie about performance I very, very much connected with the journey Portman's Nina was making.

Connected is probably not the right word. I understood it. I've felt the desires that drive her character, and I've known the obstacles she faces. Although, I can't say I've every felt so entrapped by them. Yet, what she goes through is very, very real.

As I was watching, Nina reminded me very, very much of actors and other artists I've known. On such an extreme level? No, thank God, but I've known that person.

Nina is a ballerina, and Nina is a very precise, technical dancer. The Artistic Director/Choreographer (Vincent Cassel)  for her company is looking for a dancer for the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, which encompasses two roles. Twins, the White Swan and The Black Swan. He tells her if he was only casting the White Swan, the role would be hers, but the Black Swan requires a commitment, a fearlessness to go beyond mere choreography and into feeling the role. Nina is so obsessed with perfection, with the technical aspects, to allow herself to let go, and become the character.

Of course, there's always a danger that can go too far...

I realize for any readers I may have who aren't involved with performance, that seems like a really nebulous concept. Frankly, it is, but I'm certain that those of you who do perform, in any manner, will understand the concept. What's lovely about the film, and Aronofsky's work, is that it makes this ethereal idea work visually, that's married to Portman's truly amazing performance, and I think any audience will understand what's at stake.

Swirling around Nina, and the role, is an almost universally strong supporting cast. Mila Kunis is Lily, who is weaved into Nina's life in many ways, a friend? A lover? A competitor? The film leaves you guessing on that score right until the last scene.

The aforementioned Vincent Cassel is really, really fantastic as Thomas Leroy, the choreographer/Artistic Director. Is he simply working to try to help Nina out of the emotional box she's place herself in, or is his ultimate goal more insidious and self-serving? I've seen similar relationships develop many times in artistic situations, it works, and it feels real.

Barbara Hershey's Erica, Nina's mother, is probably the weakest written character. There are elements that bothered me, but I also see as being very intrinsic to moving Nina's story forward. It works in the film, and that's where it's important.

I also want to make a rather nebulous comment about the actress that plays the company's fading prima ballerina. It's a known actress who's not been emphasized in the promotion, but it's an epically great piece of casting. She represents the same sort of actress/movie star that Natalie Portman is now, for an earlier generation. I'd advise not looking it up on imdb.com, in fact I probably shouldn't have mentioned it. Still it was a lovely choice that, again, shows how much thought Aronofsky puts into choices.

Lest you begin to think the film is some sort of navel-gazing exercise in "artiness," it's also scary as hell, and keeps ramping up the tension until the last moments. There's also laughs, and it engages the audience. It draws you into Nina's world, you're bonded to her on an emotional level.

It also feels honest and immediate. It's funny, but where Robert Altman's The Company felt forced and inauthentic, despite the pseudo-documentary "real life" style he used, Black Swan FEELS like a real artistic environment, and it's strengthened by the more fantastical choices. (And no, I've never worked in an artistic capacity with a ballet, but I think there's a universality to the environments you inhabit as a performer, of any stripe.) It's thrilling to see how Aronofsky seems to steep himself in the worlds he makes films about, The Wrestler felt the same way, with a very different sort of world.

I can't recommend this film highly enough, it's brilliant. Right up there with Inception, as far as movies released this year. It's times like these, when I see truly artistic AND engaging filmmakers doing such great work, that I feel a new golden age of film may be around the corner.

And, Quentin, you're not invited.


  1. I'm so glad to hear that this is good. I've been looking forward to it since I saw the first preview, but I've gotten too used to being disappointed by films. Can't wait to see it!

  2. I always get a little hesitant when the usual "oscar worthy" and "best movie of the year" get bandied about...especially at this time of the year. But, your review sparked my interest. I watched the trailer on Hulu and I think I know the "unnamed" actress is. Having explored performing myself and the inner spark it takes, I am very interested! Thank you my friend!

  3. would you say this movie "resonated" (instead of connected) with you?