Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Black Swan

As many of you will learn, I absolutely adore ballet. I'm not a dancer but I revere ballet as an exquisite art form and respect the dancers who spend their lives honing their skills. It's an art form that apotheosizes the grotesque human body and transforms it into an object of divine aspiration. Why else do ballerinas dance en pointe, if not to elevate them higher and higher, closer and closer to the zenith of mortality?

With that in mind, I saw Black Swan about a month ago. I read and followed all the hype surrounding this movie for a good year or so and was expecting way too much from this film. I wanted so badly to love this film.

Natalie Portman studied dance when she was younger and she trained really hard prior to filming. Despite all her hard work, the skills were mediocre. For a film about ballet, there was very little ballet dancing. The camera lingers too long on her face and arms - arms which are far from principal dancer calibre - and doesn't delve deep enough into the douleur exquise that is ballet. And isn't that what Aronofsky tries to elucidate?

I shouldn't be nitpicky about the dancing because it's a film, not a ballet production, but I found that in addition to the poor ballet, the script was also poor, and for me, that's a dealbreaker. The overdone cliches had not an ounce of cleverness or wit to them. Caricatures only become compelling when they've been subverted by complex emotions or contradictory psychologies but Aronosfky's characters are all one-note players who spew nothing but tired cliches. Vincent Cassel's character, Thomas Leroy, the salacious, egotistical ballet director, was chock-full of these horrible, asinine quotes. The awful script read like a high school drama club play.

A friend of mine, trying to counter my position, said that "Aronofsky uses his scripts to create visuals" and that in Black Swan, "the mix of digital technique and mise-en-scene are spectacular . . . Dance as metaphor, which is Aronofsky's medium, is a more palpable way to approach ballet for a guy." And in that, I agree with him and everything he mentions in terms of the film as a cinematic medium. I do love Nina's complicated relationship with her mother. Although there was very little dialogue in that relationship, everything about it (the infantilization of Nina, the mother's vicarious thrills, their mutual obsession with ballet) is communicated superbly through set design, music, body language, props, etc.

And although I'm impartial to the doppelganger motif, I really enjoyed the extended metaphor of the black swan and the manifestation of the psyche on the body, not only in the form of self-destruction for the sake of art (bulimia, bloody toes), but also, in self-destruction as an entirely free agent of its own. It would've been easy for the film to have just been a documentation of Nina's transformation into the evil black swan but what I liked was the interrogation of the camera's perspective. We don't know if she's consciously or unconsciously expediting her transformation. I realized this when someone asked me: "Does she know she's scratching herself?" That ambiguity of whether or not she's crazy made Nina's character a little bit more interesting than the others.

A ballet movie that I'd have to recommend would be Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's masterpiece, The Red Shoes, a film based on the fairy tale by Hans Christan Anderson.

Similar story (the film was made in 1948 so I expected a 2010 film to have updated the story a little bit) but it's been overturned by the inventiveness of the directors. And if you like ballet, there's an entire dance sequence in the middle of the film (it must be at least 20 minutes long). I highly recommend this British classic over Aronofsky's dark fluff.


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