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December 7, 2010 / Prof Cupcake.

black swan is not a yawn (and worthy of a better title)

To me ballet is the complex combination of sensuality, humanity and technical precession.  It requires its performers to transcend the limitation of the human form and achieve a state of statuesque grace that would steal even Pygmalion’s heart away.  It is an art that cannot be learned but must be lived. Sadly Natalie Portman’s turn as Ballerina extrodinar Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky new film BLACK SWAN does not live up to the formidable expectations I had for it. Technically astounding, with some exquisite editing, acting and costuming the film, like its heroine, is ultimately undone by its preoccupation with the elusive idea of ‘perfection’ rather then heart.

The plot focus on (the rather swift) decline of the mental stability of Nina Sayers,  (Nathalie Portman) as she prepares for the ballet role of a life time, embodying both the white and black swan in Thomas Leroy’s (the ever fabulous Vincent Cassel) version of swan lake. Battling a smothering mother, unrealistic expectations and a cast of fellow ballerinas who might just kill her for a part, Nina is a woman living on the edge of insanity. (With a possible, and yet ever so briefly touched upon history of mental fragility.) As the film progresses, though I do think the decline is all to swift, Nina begins to feel herself transforming more and more into the character of the black swan. Nina looses her self within the demands of the role to such a point that she begins to pull feathers from her skin and watch in horror as her flesh becomes avian. Her decline and simultaneous self revelation of both the power and nature of her own identity ultimately undo the young ballerina causing her to die in some artistic caesarian, where she is both mother and child of her own art and demise. The films rapid and often confusing progression as dreams, reality and hallucinations all merge into one draw here to a close, leaving the audience both terrified and slightly baffled.

The plot is gloriously self-contained and manages to set up a narrative and tragic story arc well within its running time. Yet ultimately this film which promised to be ground breaking and explorative is your typical Hollywood fair wrapped up in Indy packaging. The decline of Nina Sayers ultimately leaves one feeling as if they have just watched an exploration of a woman’s sexuality that leaves one with the ultimate warning, to be a sexually liberated woman means death. This plot feels both trite and anachronistic, that is should have come out some time in the mid 50 maybe. Nina Sayers the film so boldly states would have been fine, had her ambition and sexuality not caused her undoing. In the world of Black Swan, men are allowed to be sexual creatures but woman can only be whores or virgins. To try to be both, to live as the white and the black swan is to try and exist in a world where you are freed from masculine definition and must be extinguished. Mila Kunis as Lily is saved from the fate of death for instance for she is already a whore. She could never have the purity of the swan queen and as she is instantly identifiable with sex her character is not transgressive. Sexuality leaks from the frames of this film, so it cautionary tale of sexual awakening is rather baffling. Ultimately it is this illogicality of plot that makes me resent this film.  Black Swan feels like it wants to be a film that celebrates Nina’s decline into insanity and ultimately sexual freedom, allowing her to both live and straddle elegantly the worlds of whore and virgin. Yet instead we find our filmmaker reduced to exploring old archetypal characters.

The final few nails in this films coffin come in a variety of forms. First, the film is so preoccupied with its story that there are no narrative breaths. No moments of stillness where the plot is cast aside in the favor of character exploration. As such we have a very small view of Nina Sayers. Interesting from the standpoint that we then see her as the ballet audience does, a product rather then a person, but denying us that insight into her life removed from ballet, or the terror of her mother would have been enjoyable. Secondly, Natalie Portman though beautiful and talented, is not the most believable ballerina. Personally I feel that this all star Indy cast of Hollywood dreamlets shows how Darren Aronofsky was more concerned with box office returns that casting the right actress… maybe a ballerina perhaps.  Thirdly and finally, why ever would you cast a woman with so much plastic surgery as Barbra Hershey in the lead role of a poor artist’s mother. Her face looks like it cost more then my yearly wage and it becomes hard to relate to her.

Ultimately the fabulous production design, (Nina’s room is outstandingly evocative, and the only real character insight we get.) the incredible visual effects which heighten the dramatic tension and become truly terrifying as well as the sensational acting from Natalie make this film very enjoyable despite its flaws. Highly recommend seeing this in the cinema, as the remixed music of Tchaikovsky alone is outstanding.



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