'Black Swan' review

Dateline: Sat 01 Jan 2011

Herein is revealed a secret desire to critique movies, or at least this one.

Saw it Thursday, and the images continue to haunt. 

Natalie Portman is brilliant as Nina, a New York City ballerina so buttoned-down and tight-up it makes you hurt -- literally, my stomach did flips -- to watch her masochism in private moments; there is cutting, scratching, skin-peeling, bleeding and the expected vomiting -- generally she has a torturous relationship with her body.  But she's extremely gifted, at least technically, a "perfectionist," and hence she is offered the role of the white swan/black swan in "Swan Lake."

Of course, the role has a price; she is expected to sleep with Thomas, (Vincent Cassel), the superfically cruel, arrogant French ballet master who takes a gamble on perfection and casts Nina in this starring role. He wants to bed her and make her his next "little princess," which would be a continuation of her diminuative and unhealthy role in life.

Still, he expresses awareness of her fragility, although he's hardly sensitive and caring.

The superficial question is: can the tightly-wound young woman with the tender ego deliver on the role of the black swan, which is a dark role that requires her to explore her sexual nature and cast caution to the wind on stage? Of course, Thomas is more than willing to help her tap her earthy side. She bites him when he makes an overture, forcing a kiss; so much for opening your mouth...or trusting either party.

As if life is not difficult enough, Nina, like the white swan, has a real-life doppelganger -- a very free ballerina (Lily, played by Mila Kunis) who also aspires to the part. Where Nina is white and tight, Lily is richly colorful, deliciously outrageous and free. She embodies dark-swanness.

Nina, however, is suppressed on all sides -- by her lifestyle as well as her mental state. She lives at home with mommy, (Barbara Hershey) a failed ballerina and now a narcissitic painter who, it is suggested, was forced to have Nina and thus lose her shot at stardom. Mommy has made a nest for her baby: a ratty NYC apartment with a bedroom for the baby, done in pinks and greens, (except for the black and white pillow on which Nina sleeps) and filled with stuffed animals and a music box with a ballerina that Nina winds at night to help her sleep...but of course, what she really needs/wants is to masturbate.

There's a hot lesbian love scene between Lily and Nina that has a lot of people talking, but I was more intrigued by Nina's deformed toes, her penchant for stripping her skin down and her incredible hallucinations.

This is a little like the (true) story of Sylvia Frumkin, a schizophrenic woman, (pseudonym),  told first in the New Yorker magazine and later in book form, "Is There No Place on Earth for Me?" Nina, like Sylvia, is clearly mad, and she does not live in her body.

The other line that came to mind is from my favorite novel about anorexia, "Life-Sized," where the main character, a young, talented, anorexic woman who is also wound tight and brilliant, learns to say, "I AM a body," as opposed to "I HAVE a body." Copy that, anorexic wannnabes.

Nina, alas, HAS a body which she does not inhabit, except in the flashing finale. Hence, the crucial story is one of madness, perversity, self-destruction and sex -- but told in such a dazzling fashion, with so much grief, that it is impossible to forget.

Kudos all arund. Portman deserves an Oscar. Director Darren Aronofsky, who is fascinated by an artist's relationship to his/her body (this is a companion piece to his earlier movie "The Wrestler") ditto.

Go see it, but do not giggle, as some in our audience did. It's not funny.


hendy [Member] said:

And for a contrast, see _The Tourists_ with Depp and Jolie. Lots of fun; twist at the end, not overly violent or morbid.

2011-01-02 19:58:38

Pasquale [unverified] said:

Ms. Holladay: I check your blog regularly and do enjoy your opinions, but I must say that this is one of the finest (and most succinct) evaluations of "Black Swan" that I have read. Really, really spot on.

But I do take one exception (of course): Aronofsky (and Portman) is so resolute and, well, serious that portions of the movie (especially the scenes with Cassel and Hershey, as well as the "hot lesbian love scene" and the glorious, glorious final 10 minutes) veer dangerously close to camp. That is the chance an artist takes when he/she refuses to temper his/her vision, but I hope you will be more forgiving of those of us who dared to giggle.

2011-01-03 20:37:49

ruthholl [Member] said:

Oh, dear. Now I have to try to remember where the giggling took place. And I don't!
But you are right; it DID veer dangerously, etc., and well said. So of course, when your sensibilities are tickled in that fashion, when you are aware of the camp, or even unaware but caught up in that moment, giggling is a natural response. I do get that; thanks.
My issue is that I always identify with the mentally ill, even before reading Sylvia Plath and writing a support letter to Tom Eagleton and all that jazz.
So for me it was RAW as one of my younger friends said. But then the woman I saw it with felt claustrophobic; she could barely stomach the apartment, Thomas breathing down Portman's neck, all that.
I guess Pauline Kael is correct; we each of us bring our unique experiences into the movies, which is what makes it so much fun. (or not, if it's mental illness...ha ha...)
Thank you for your kind words. Flattery will get you welcome.
Oh, and I have to say -- that "glorious final 10 minutes" with the red eyes etc. -- that WAS over the top. The costume, the crazy eyes -- so you got me there, too.

2011-01-03 23:00:10

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