Friday, February 24, 2012

Film Friday: Black Swan (2010)

Academy Awards are not a measure of greatness. To the contrary, they’re often better at marking films you should avoid. Black Swan received five nominations and won for Best Actress. Bad sign. Add in that this was billed as a snotty, behind-the-scenes, “insider” look at the world of ballet, plus my displeasure with Darren Aronofsky over The Wrestler, The Fountain and Below, and this looked like a loser. Imagine my surprise when I watched this and found it to be one of the best films in years. Seriously.

On its surface, Black Swan is the story of ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who has won the role of the black/white swan in the play “Swan Lake.” She is plagued with doubts, a sexually harassing director (Vincent Cassel), a jealous stage-mom, and a young competitor Lily (Mila Kunis) with effortless natural talent. The story begins right before she wins the role and ends after her first performance. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?

Actually, this is a classic example of the marketing not quite telling you what the story is really about. In truth, this isn’t about ballet at all. It’s a psychological thriller. And you should give this film a chance without thinking it’s a film about sniping at a ballet. You won’t be disappointed. Before I continue down this path, however, let me put up the spoiler warning because pretty much anything I talk about after this point will be a genuine spoiler:

** Spoiler Alert – I recommend seeing this film before continuing. **

One of the first things to strike you when you watch this film is how nasty everyone seems. Cassel is a sexual harasser who thinks he has the right to openly demand that his leading ladies sleep with him. He’s smarmy, rotten, and indifferent to the harm he’s doing to these women. His last conquest, who he has apparently forced into retirement, lives in a perpetual jealous rage. Sayers’ mother is like a living version of Norman Bates’ mother. She watches Sayers like a hawk, even creeping into her room at night, and keeps her trapped in the apartment. She also pounds Sayers with constant barbs about how she gave up her career as a dancer to raise Sayers. Lily is even worse. She’s a flirt and everyone loves her, and she seems to try very hard to befriend Sayers, but this just hides her betrayal.

All of this gets woven together so wonderfully that my first thought watching the film was that Sayers was truly alone, surrounded by hateful people all with their own agendas, who are trying to destroy her to satisfy their own perverse desires. And as their actions become more extreme, this film seemed headed toward a spectacular explosion.

But you soon start to realize something is wrong with Sayers. In fact, the plot moves so expertly that you don’t see the signs until you are deeply within her psychosis. For example, we see excessive shyness and social awkwardness, but it doesn’t seem outrageous. We see a rash, which she scratches, and her mother obsessing over her scratching it. We see her sneak into the star’s dressing room and steal her lipstick because she’s dreaming about being a star. It seems harmless. None of this raises our suspicions, especially because her conduct seems to be a response to the nasty, aggressive people around her.

Soon we start to see the truth. She is intensely frigid to the point of being obsessive. And her view of the others as sexual predators may not be true at all. For example, Sayers sees Cassel as a sexual predator, yet he never actually forces himself on her. She sees Lily the same way, but maybe Lily’s just flirty and is genuinely trying to be nice? That rash? It’s no rash. She cuts herself and doesn’t remember doing it. The stolen lipstick? It’s part of an eerie stalker-like collection. And then you have the visions. When they begin, you think she’s simply mistaking one person for someone else she knows. But as they progress, it becomes clear they are paranoid visions of herself, and soon we don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.

Usually when actors try to play crazy, they shift around nervously to make themselves appear different or do something maniacal while saying things that make no sense. The idea is to standout and seem abnormal. Here, Portman and Director Aronofsky do the reverse. Rather than make Portman act crazy, she acts sane and troubled by the crazy actions of the others around her, each of whom seems slightly over-the-top and exaggerated. Thus, while Portman seems sane, it’s only because we don’t understand at first that we are seeing the world from her perspective.

The visions are the perfect example of this. Rather than treating the visions as real and overacting to them, as is typically done, Portman very cleverly, through her acting not her words, tells the audience that she knows these are visions and knows they aren’t real. This adds an incredible amount of depth to her portrayal of insanity. For one thing, this feels more real because this is how most people probably fear insanity would creep upon them, i.e. that they would slowly lose touch with reality rather than it all happening at once. For another, it allows the audience to feel her insanity because they are just as confused about reality as she is. Indeed, rather than being an observer watching her rant and rave, we are a participant trying to figure out what is going on. Finally, it makes the audience feel her despair because she clearly needs help, but there’s nothing the audience can do to help her. Any film that can pull an audience into a character and make them feel the emotions of the character is brilliant and Aronofsky and Portman achieve that here through their brilliant choice to understand her insanity.

I think there are some excellent lessons here. If you want to portray insanity, focus on how the insane person sees the world. Remember that for many insane people, it’s everybody else who’s crazy. And crazy need not be stark raving mad. Portman and Aronofsky should be commended for this film. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in years.

43 comments:

ScottDS said...

I just watched this a few nights ago. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. I discussed it with a friend of mine (a fellow fan) who nearly flipped his lid when I mentioned that one critic described this film as a "twisted version of Showgirls." He couldn't understand how someone could cite that film when talking about this one but it kinda makes sense. Take away all the psychological horror stuff and what you have left is your standard All About Eve-style plot. But this film obviously ratchets all that up a level or two. Besides, I like the description: "Showgirls as directed by David Cronenberg." :-)

I agree that the Academy Awards are not a measure of quality but I think it's a mistake to avoid a film solely because it's "an Oscar film." My friend and I had a similar argument: he views this film as "an art film" but when you say that, it brings to mind certain things and I didn't see those things in this movie. It's not exactly a Merchant-Ivory costume drama.

I sent an interesting article to BH about this film and "the elevation of schlock." Sure, it might've been promoted as an "art film" but Aronofsky compares it to, of all things, a werewolf movie.

tryanmax said...

This one was already on my "to watch" list and now you've bumped it up.

Scott, the werewolf movie comparison intrigues me. Just the other day I commented that a good comedy must still be a good story if the comedy were taken away. The same could be said of all genre films. Sounds like this film takes that thinking to heart.

T-Rav said...

Well, I haven't watched this, but I already read a bunch of the spoiler material at other sites long ago, so you didn't ruin anything for me.

It sounds very similar to A Beautiful Mind, where Russell Crowe's character is also insane, but we can't know that at first because there's little to indicate the people he talks to aren't real. However, he doesn't know this at first either, whereas Portman's character apparently does. And yeah, if I started seeing unreal stuff, that would freak me out.

T-Rav said...

Speaking of which, you guys can see this kitten sitting on my desk with the glowing eyes and everything, right? Right? Guys??

LawHawkRFD said...

You've succeeded in making me re-evaluate my decision not to watch the movie. I'm not interested in insider ballet drama, and the trailers left me completely cold. From what you've told us, the movie isn't at all what I thought it was. So I'll give it a try when it comes on one of my DirecTV stations.

Tennessee Jed said...

My desire to not see the film has been based almost exclusively on Natalie Portman and her relentless campaigning for the oscar. I felt like she would be the first to perform favors with academy voters if necessary.I don't like her particularly as an actress or a person. And, of course, I don't care for her politics, although even I have to admit Sean Penn can act.Admittedly, judging any actor on how they acted in any of the Star Wars films is a bit unfair. Nor did she do much for me in "V for Vendetta."

That said, she may have found a way to pull off a good, possibly even great performance, here. After all, Farah Fawcett, who basically started her acting career as a head of hair, turned in some noteworthy performances later in her career.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Showgirls was really an atrocity all around. I'm not sure the two are in any way similar?

I think the problem with the Academy Award is that they tend to pick things either because they are pretentious or because they insult America. None of that is true here. In fact, I remember everyone talking about this being "a scathing insider view of the vile world of ballet" and getting a chance to act like an insider looking down on inferior insiders. It seemed pretentious. Or it seemed like an "arthouse" flick, like it would have no plot and would be full of things which are supposed to be "above" the average audience -- like an un-funny Best in Show directed by Terrance Malick.

None of that is true here. I was totally surprised by this film. This film is more like a Hitchcock film than anything.

Comparing this to a werewolf film is an interesting idea. In fact, I kept thinking as I was watching it, that if this had been billed as a horror movie, it would have been considered one of the best horror movies of recent times.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, This was well worth watching, and I was very skeptical going in.

As I just mentioned to Scott, throughout this film I kept thinking that this was a heck of a good horror movie in the classical sense. There's no blood and things don't lunge out at you, but it's got this creepy "evil things are afoot" feel throughout. And if they had billed this as a horror movie, no one would have said "that wasn't a horror movie."

In many ways, this film makes me think of the kind of film Hitchcock would have done if he were directing today.

AndrewPrice said...

** spoiler**

T-Rav, What's interesting is that you have no idea that she's insane or that she knows it at first. Instead, she just seems a little
"everyday paranoid" about the nasty competition around her. In fact, she seems very shy but otherwise comes across as completely normal. It's the people around her who are crazy or just a little nasty.

It isn't until later when things start to really fall apart that you realize that she's imagining or exaggerating all of this in her head. And that's when you realize things like when she thought she saw another ballerina on the train, she's wasn't surprised that it might be someone she knew, she thought it was her evil twin. It's that kind of movie where it takes you a while to realize you can't trust what you are being shown.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, LOL! Yes, glowing kitten eyes... check.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I had the same reaction you did. Everything I heard, read or saw about this made it sound like some sort of insider-ballet drama. I'm not even sure why I bothered watching it. But it turned out to be something very, very different and was well worth the time. :)

ScottDS said...

...un-funny Best in Show directed by Terrance Malick.

I think we should work on that script once we're done with the Unstoppable parody. :-)

As for the Showgirls comparison, I admit I was merely quoting a blurb I read elsewhere, but both films are cut from the same cloth: a dancer, a rival, a lecherous director/producer, and a general sense of dread that falls over the whole thing. I'm sure the similarities (if any) end there. And yes, Showgirls is an atrocity but it's taken on a cult life of its own in the last decade or so. :-)

And I see, unlike Ben Shapiro, you managed to make it through the lesbian scenes without feeling like you're going to Hell! In his "review," he actually asked, "Did we need a scene with Queen Amidala masturbating?" I didn't comment but my first thought was, "Ben, you just increased BH's visibility in Google searches by 1000%!"

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm not a Natalie Portman fan either for all the reasons you mention. But the biggest was that I thought she was horribly wooden in almost everything I've seen her in. This was different. This was the first time I really thought she fit the role and that she made me believe the character.

What's interesting too is the comparison between her and Mila Kunis in this film. Kunis really nails her role too. She's supposed to be the girl with the easy natural talent and that's exactly how she comes across.

Portman on the other hand is very uptight and slowly falls apart throughout the film and she does an excellent job of conveying all of that, which are things I never thought she could have done if I'd just seen her in Phantom Menace.

I definitely recommend checking this one out.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That would be a hard script to write! LOL! I wonder if we could pull it off?


On Ben's review, I remember him saying that: "Did we need a scene with Queen Amidala masturbating?" And at the time I figured he had a point that this was just more arthouse stuff. BUT he's wrong... imagine that. That scene is very important.

** spoilers**

For one thing, it's highly uncomfortable and it gets you into the right mindset because the film wants you on edge.

For another, that's the moment you realize that she's more than just shy, she's frigid. Notice how uncomfortable she looks. This is a total struggle for her at first. And it's important to realize that she's frigid because that clues you in that the "sexual predators" around her aren't really sexual predators, but Portman is instead building them up as such in her head because they aren't frigid and thus her mind sees them as abnormal rather than herself.

Third, what happens at the end of that scene? She looks over and her mother is sitting right there and Portman AND YOU freak out. Again, you've been put in the right frame of mind. Also, this reinforces the idea that the mother is Norman Bates' mom. But later, you have to ask yourself, was the mother really there or was this Portman's subconscious imaging her to punish Portman and stop her from doing something she considered with a great deal of horror?

Apparently, Ben missed all of that.

ScyFyterry said...

Andrew, I saw this and like you expected nothing good. I was truly shocked. This was an excellent film. I also agree it could have been a horror movie. Scott's point about this being a werewolf movie is a good one. It has many of the elements of a film like that. But unlike a typical werewolf movie, where you know what's coming, you never know what's coming here and it shocks you when things happen.

ScyFyterry said...

Also, how in the world do you write a Terrance Malik script? I was pretty sure he worked without scripts or plots?

Also, Scott, I admit that I enjoyed Showgirl, but I can't tell you why.

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, That's an interesting point, this film really is unexpected, which is why I highlighted the spoilers and tried to talk around key moments. But now that I think about it, this really is a werewolf film in the sense of an unwanted transformation of which she is only vaguely aware. Interesting.

I give Aronofsky a lot of credit here. I was super impressed with "Pie" but really disliked everything else he's done. This film shows again that he has solid talent.

ScottDS said...

ScyFy -

I have no idea what Malick's process is, but it was just a joke, since we were all so excited about writing a script a couple weeks ago. :-)

I've only see, ahem, bits and pieces of Showgirls. By the way, the edited-for-TV version is hilarious. They actually airbrush bikinis on the girls during the nude dance/dressing room scenes!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I figured you were joking.

Although, to be certain, Malik has done some films that are more "normal" than others. Thin Red Line was one of those. I thought the movie stunk, but the visuals were really impressive.

In any event, let's stick with Unstoppable II first. There's plenty of time to branch out after we're all famous! :)

ScyFyterry said...

Scott, I enjoyed it in a watching a train wreck sort of way.


Andrew, I thought Pie was great, but The Fountain really sucked. You're right about The Wrestler too and I can't help but notice that no one talks about that film anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, I thought Pi was excellent and showed a tremendous amount of talent. I thought The Fountain showed talent, but lack of judgment. I think he came up with something he thought was truly deep, but it wasn't and he ignored the need to tell a good story.

Kelly said...

I haven't seen this, but you've piqued my interest! Thanks for the recommendation!

AndrewPrice said...

Glad, I'm happy to be of assistance! :)

Doc Whoa said...

Excellent movie. I also have a problem with Portman. I thought she was really bad in Star Wars and a couple other things. She was good as a child though, but I can't think of the name of the movie? I saw this with some friends though who wanted to see it and Portman won me over for this role, though I still don't know that I would trust her in most movies.

A Malik version of "Best in Show" would actually be an interesting movie, probably more from the "what the heck was that?" perspective than the "wow that was good" perspective. Someone should call Malik and dare him to do it! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I agree.

I think the movie you mean was Leon or The Professional as it's called here. She did a very good job in it, though her role wasn't really that demanding. It was a well-written script. I can't think of much I've really liked her in?

A Malik version of Best in Show would be interesting. It would probably be a trainwreck. In fact, what comes to mind is the fake film by Willem Dafoe in Mr. Bean's Vacation. :)

T-Rav said...

The Fountain is....awful. Just awful.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, So true. That's one of the few films where I looked at the screen about halfway through and I said, "why did anyone make this movie?"

Doc Whoa said...

Andrew, Yes, "Leon" that was it. I agree it wasn't her acting that made it a great role, but she did do a good job in that.

AndrewPrice said...

Glad I could help Doc! :)

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I feel like it had the potential to be a good movie, only it fell apart at the end and made no sense. It tries to present itself as "intellectual," I think, but there's that and then there's not being able to make a point of any kind. I once had an argument with someone over this, which, um, ended in me destroying one of his paintings. It got a little out of hand, I guess.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! So you're a painting bully? ;)

I think you're right. The film saw itself as intellectual but it wasn't. It assumed that the idea of these people living in three separate timelines, each of which is related to the tree, was somehow deep. But it wasn't.

And like you I felt there was a really interesting movie in there until it all fell apart when they simply ran out of any idea how to finish the story.

Ed said...

I haven't seen this and wasn't going to watch it for the reason you mention, but I think I will now. I'll let you know what I think! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed! Let us know what you think!

T-Rav said...

Andrew, yeah I feel bad about it now. He made what I thought was some very smug comment about "I'm sorry you don't like to think," which I totally took out of context. So the next day he made some weird, arty painting on the window of our dorm, which cannot be considered private property by anyone. A friend and I happened to notice it as we were talking about the argument and I was still blowing off steam, and--well, suffice to say that our room keys, a discarded metal shelf, and some wet paper towels later, there wasn't much left of that painting. And then he brought up some friends that night to show off his work. In the ensuing melee, we had to confess and apologize, because we were afraid he was going to have a nervous breakdown. So.

Not my proudest moment, and I do feel bad about it now. But it is a fairly effective means of dealing with hipsters.

T-Rav said...

Doc, I know the movie you're thinking of, but I can't name it either. I know Portman got a lot of buzz as a pre-teen, chain-smoking assassin-in-training, which actually doesn't sound that interesting to me, but it does have that edginess to it.

I don't really have anything against Portman. She does have a habit of spouting off the typical liberal shibboleths, but it doesn't bother me as much coming from her as it does from others. I can't think of anything she's done that's really blown me away, though.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, That's pretty funny. Just stay away from the Louvre!

In any event, I wouldn't worry about it. In the scheme of the universe, one jerk's window painting won't matter much.

As an aside, someday I should tell you about the Diplomat's Mercedes. Apparently, diplomatic immunity can't save you from a pissed off American with a screw driver. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, The move is Leon (known as The Professional in the US version). It was a great movie, but not because of her. Jean Reno made that movie!

On her liberalism, I've pretty much ignored it because she's so bland to me that it's hard to get excited about it.

ScottDS said...

I liked Natalie Portman in Garden State but the character she plays is now a cliche known as the manic pixie dream girl:

"...that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."

And having said that - and this sounds like blasphemy when I'm with my fellow geeks - but I can think of a dozen young actresses who are more attractive. (Hell hath no fury like a Star Wars prequel fan scorned!)

By the way, not to go off on a tangent but when did filmmakers in their 20s start to think that the only films they were capable of making were films about people in their 20s? I liked Garden State but Spielberg directed Jaws when he was in his 20s. What happened?

I suppose when you're starting out in the indie world, your resources are limited and you have to make use of what you have (which, in the case of many film school grads, would be a series of small apartments and rudderless friends!).

(Sorry for going off-topic - it tends to happen in the evening after the first few dozen comments.) :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't think she's very attractive personally.

I suspect the young indie filmmakers make films about 20 somethings because that's all they know plus they want to be seen as "hip." And you can't be hip if you do a film about "old" people.

Individualist said...

Andrew

** spoiler alert **

I had never seen Swan Lake when I saw this movie so what I learned of that particular ballet was from that movie. I liked that they talked not just about the part but the way it was supposed to be danced by a truely gifted ballerina. It actually made the show seem very intriguiging.

I also really liked the poetic nuance between her inability to play the Black Swan with its frenetic energy and evil rebellion because she was at heart too much the White Swan. As she explores the role and learns the Black Swan part, learns to "get it", she starts to unravel and becomes increasingly more insane until the end where she fulfills the ending of the ballet as she the dancer meets the same fate as the white swan in the play.

I agree it was a really great movie and I am glad you reviewed it. You are spot on.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Indi! I'm glad you enjoyed the review and thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

I totally agree with everything you said. In some ways, their discussion of Swan Lake reminded me of the film Amadeus, where it really made you want to listen to Mozart as soon as the film ended because it gave you a new appreciation for it.

** spoilers **
I also think you're absolutely right that what finally pushes her over the top is her attempt to "understand" the black swan part. That's why she keeps seeing herself in black -- the first set of visions. And when she finally unleashes her own black swan, so she can dance the part, it takes over and does to her what the swan does in the play. It's a brilliant parallel and very well done in the film.

DUQ said...

Andrew, Thanks for another interesting review. I haven't seen this, but I will now. :D

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks DUQ!

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