Black Swan

>> Monday, December 27, 2010

So I went and saw Black Swan today; I liked it, liked it a lot--but then, that's hardly surprising: I liked it a lot when it had a serial killer in it and was a cartoon.

I kid, I kid from affection. Black Swan is an excellent movie, one of the more visually interesting things I think I saw all year (up there with The American, Inception and The Ghost Writer--y'know, it's been a damn good year for movies). But it was hard, watching it, not to think that director Darren Aronofsky had finally gotten around to that live-action remake of Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue that he's apparently been jonesin' to do for awhile. A psychological thriller about a sexually-repressed ingénue surrounded by players with ambiguous or hostile intentions, her mental disintegration accompanied by escalating violence, told with a visual vocabulary that uses mirrors symbolically and literally in depicting the protagonist's downward spiral, all with generous debts and demonstrations of homage to Hitchcock and Cronenberg? Like I said, the only thing Swan is missing would be the serial killer. (And, one can't help observing with a dollop of snark directed at the run-of-the-mill Hollywood remakes of foreign film: there are plenty of live-action "adaptations" of Japanese films--animated or otherwise--that hew less closely to their supposed predecessors than the "original" Black Swan chooses to follow Blue.)

Which isn't a negative review at all, and indeed, I hope I've actually sold you on the necessity of seeing Swan if you're a fan of Kon's work.

And I hope I haven't put you off of seeing Swan if you're leery of anime for whatever stupid reason. 1

By way of a brief and hopefully spoiler-free plot synopsis: Natalie Portman is Nina, a repressed and neurotic ballet dancer living with her weird mother (Barbara Hershey) and dancing for a New York company. Dance is all Nina has, having no life outside of rehearsals and dealing with the daily minor injuries her art inflicts on women. Things change, not necessarily for the better, when the company director (Vincent Cassel) fires the company diva (Winona Ryder) and chooses Nina for the lead in the company's new production of Swan Lake. Under pressure, Nina begins suffering a psychological breakdown, accompanied by a fracturing of her subjective reality; a breakdown which accelerates with the introduction of the company's new hire (or is she really there at all?), played by Mila Kunis.

With a cast like that, do I even need to comment on the acting? It's well-played all around. It's the kind of material people could go overboard with, but nobody is wholly unsympathetic and nobody chews any scenery; fine restraint all around, in other words.

Director Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique eschew the blues that one would think are legally mandated in thrillers and suspense films (or any other film these days, really), preferring a wintry palette of blacks, greys and whites. As mentioned above, reflections are an important literal and symbolic part of this tale, and there's quite a lot of nice bits where scenes play out mostly in mirrors while the primary action occurs offscreen or so unfocused in the foreground that your attention is drawn to what's happening in a piece of glass. I have to confess, I still haven't gotten around to any of Aronofsky's other stuff despite a hellroad's worth of good intentions to, so I can't say how the visuals compare to his other films, all of which have been praised for their images regardless of their overall reception. But I thought Swan was a damn good looking film, and I'll even add that it's an honestly good looking movie, by which I mean that it's not quite like The American (which I loved), in which the look of the movie is incidental to everything else in it, or The Ghost Writer (which I also liked) in which the look of the film is almost just a casual byproduct of the director having a good eye that's been honed by so many decades as an auteur2: the lovely imagery in Black Swan serves the story quite well.

I should also say that you're unlikely to find somebody who knows less about ballet than I do, and ballet is hardly necessary to the whole thing, though I'm sure there are various nuances and references that a ballet lover will pick up and groove on. I'm not sure I've ever actually sat through one or ever watched one in its entirety on TV or elsewhere. (Not even The Nutcracker... or was I forced to watch that in school at some point? Huh. I don't remember.) About all I know about it beyond that is that it seems to lead women to abuse the hell out of their bodies, which, aesthetics be damned, makes it about as swell as a burqa in my book, but what do I know? It's fine art, right? At any rate, Black Swan isn't a ballet movie anymore than Psycho is about motel management.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the caveat: deciding you don't want to see Black Swan because it has dancing in it or because it bears more than passing resemblance to a foreign animated film would be pretty stupid and self-depriving for no good reason. You'd miss a tense, beautifully-shot, well-acted, disturbing psychological thriller. On the other hand, if you don't like Hitchcock, Cronenberg or, yes, Kon, then you might want to give this one a pass: it has body horror and sexual awakenings gone horribly awry and disturbing hallucinations, and the twists in the plot are less "twists" than confirmations that the movie is shot from the POV of an unreliable narrator.3 Black Swan is one of the better movies I've seen in a year full of pretty good movies, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to the squeamish, the faint of heart, or to people who prefer straightforward narratives and prefer to take what they see on a movie screen at face value with as little untidy ambiguity as can be managed.

For anyone else, of course, I hope you'll like it as much as I did.

1Let's point out the obvious: "anime" is a form--Japanese animation--not a genre or subject; in other words, while there certainly are animated films and TV shows from Japan about superpowered schoolgirls (just as there are such live action things from Hollywood, e.g. Buffy The Vampire Slayer), there are also Japanese animated films about other things, like completely ordinary children trying to survive the Allied bombing of Japan during WWII or magical realist Capraesque "fantasies" about homeless people spending their Christmas trying to figure out how to deal with an abandoned baby dropped in their laps.

In other words, making generalizations about "anime" that confuse it with genre are like saying "all live action films are science fiction movies like Star Wars" or "all television shows are police/legal procedurals like Law And Order." Movies and television--and anime--are media, media which can be used to tell whatever stories somebody wants to tell. If a lot of the ones that end up crossing the Pacific happen to be science fiction or fantasy, well, those things sell over here.

2Look, Polanski may be a morally-depraved creep, or undeniably was one nearly forty years ago, but the guy knows how to make a movie. Unless it's Fearless Vampire Killers, which, you know, he could fuck off and die if that was the only thing he'd ever shat out, but there's more to his résumé than that, okay?

3Links in there not because I expect you're unfamiliar with those terms, dear reader, but because, yes, I do mean them in their literary or critical senses. Or, if it happens you were unfamiliar with either of those terms, well: yes, they're meant in their literary and critical senses, as explained in those Wikipedia entries I linked to, and you should probably read those articles.


vince Monday, December 27, 2010 at 9:36:00 PM EST  

I already wanted to see Black Swan before your review, now I want to see it even more. The trailer hooked me (although trailers are sometimes the best part of the movie, I would have been surprised if this was true of an Aronofsky directed film.)

Since you mentioned it has body horror, it might help to know that ballet is extremely physical. Training takes 8-10 years; knee, ankle, and back injuries are very common; and typically by the time they're in their early to mid 30s their career is over.

Eric Monday, December 27, 2010 at 11:39:00 PM EST  

Vince: yeah, that's actually why I have limited use for ballet--I appreciate the physical demands, but it seems to chew women (particularly; men, to a much lesser extent) up and spit them out.

Black Swan uses that very effectively, both visually and the "lifespan" of a dancer is sort of a plot point in the film.

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