Saturday, January 15, 2011

Without Feathers (Black Swan)

You know, I kinda like Darren Aronofsky. Say what you will about Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), or The Wrestler (2008), not one of them was boring. And while his new film, Black Swan (2010), may not be very good, you can bet your ass it isn't dull. Aronofsky swings for the rafters with this one, and even if he doesn't pull it off, I'm still glad that he was willing to make the effort.

There's a fine line separating a film about hysteria from one that's simply hysterical, and Aronofsky boldly crosses it. The story is about a frigid ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman), who still lives at home with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) in an apartment on the Upper West Side. As the movie opens, she's up for the lead in a production of Swan Lake, but while the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell), knows that she can play the white swan, he isn't sure if she can play her evil twin. Eventually he gives her the part anyway (because the plot requires it), and to help her get into character, he tells her to go home and masturbate as a "homework exercise" (which she does, as if the idea had simply never occurred to her before). Apparently, nobody in this movie has ever heard of sexual harassment.

Oh, there's more. Like the white swan, Nina has her own evil twin, Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer in the same company, who's as whorish as Nina is uptight (she always wears black, and has a giant, skanky tattoo of a lily on her back). Early in the film, while walking down a spooky corridor, Nina thinks that she sees herself walking towards her, when it turns out to be just a stranger in black. Later, when she suspects that Lily wants to steal her part, Nina starts to get confused about whether Lily is Lily or if she's Nina--as if, in addition to the part, she also wanted her face. At one point, Lily and Nina go back to her apartment, where Lily gives her oral pleasure... Or is it Nina giving Nina oral pleasure? This is Aronofsky's oh so delicate and subtle way of reinforcing the idea that Lily is supposed to be Nina's doppelgänger.

The movie has one idea about ballet, and it's incredibly facile: To play the black swan, Nina must become the black swan! Similarly, the characters are all miserable clichés: Nina is anorexic and obsessed with perfection; her mother is a failed artist who's living through her daughter; Lily is a slut, and therefore always late for rehearsals (as if there were some connection between promiscuity and tardiness). When Nina is confronted by the ballet's former leading lady (Winona Ryder) at a fundraising event, her mascara is running and she's holding her drink way up high where the camera can see it, so that we know at a glance she's drunk and upset (just one of many moments in the film that veer into self-parody). The movie relies so much upon this sort of visual shorthand and stereotyping that I seriously doubt the film's writers had any firsthand experience of the ballet world.

As for the dancing, Aronofsky only has one idea about how to film ballet: Shoot Portman from the waist-up with a handheld camera spinning around her really, really fast. Armond White has compared the film unfavorably to Kanye West's "Runaway" video, and it's not hard to see his point. While West's manner of filming his dancers strikes me as functional more than inspired (Jacques Demy he ain't), at least he seems to genuinely like ballet. Here, when Nina and Lily meet some frat boys in a bar, one of them asks, "Isn't ballet boring?" And judging by this movie, it looks like Aronofsky agrees with them.

In La Pianiste (2001), Michael Haneke covered much the same territory (domineering moms and sexual repression leading to madness and self-inflicted stab wounds), but like a million times better. Aronofsky's conscious model seems to be Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965)--again, a much better movie--and as in Pi and Requiem for a Dream, he uses non-diegetic sound effects and various horror movie tropes to place viewers inside the mind of a person losing their grip on reality. For instance, there are numerous moments when Nina suddenly backs into a person she didn't realize was standing right behind her. Ooooo!

What Haneke and Polanski have that Aronofsky lacks as a director is confidence and a gift for simplicity. In La Pianiste, there are several long close-ups of Isabelle Huppert just listening and thinking, and many scenes are played out in a single long take. Alternatively, Aronofsky shoots everything in close-up or medium shot, and covers even the simplest sequence from seemingly a dozen angles. This style is often a mask for uncertain direction: Cover everything and just pray that it comes together in the editing room. I'm not saying that's the case here necessarily, but just looking at the results, I'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Because Aronofsky sometimes shoots the back of Portman's head with a handheld camera, some folks have been comparing his style here to that of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The difference is that when they do it, in films like La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), and L'Enfant (2005), it's actually for a reason. By withholding reaction shots, and holding a shot for a certain length of time, they tend to objectify their characters. It's sometimes hard to know what they're thinking and feeling. In this film, Aronofsky gives us essentially standard coverage with lots and lots of reaction shots. According to the website Cinemetrics, Rosetta has an average shot length of 33 seconds, and in Le Fils, that number jumps to 70 seconds. I don't think there's a shot in Black Swan that lasts longer than seven seconds. (Requiem for a Dream, maybe Aronofsky's most aggressively edited film, has an ASL of 4 seconds.) This is not surprising since Aronofsky presumably doesn't want his film to be shown only in art houses, which would hurt its chances of winning an Oscar.

Incidentally, although to my knowledge Rosetta has never been released on DVD in North America, you can watch the film in its entirety on YouTube. The quality's actually not bad, and if you've never seen a film by the Dardennes, it's a better place to start than Black Swan.

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