Sunday, January 9, 2011
Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Black Swan is indicative of a major problem in post-New Hollywood era Hollywood movies; there are less and less stories about people who work very hard to accomplish something without also losing their souls in the process. The bias toward countercultural antiheroes in place of those who believe in the social contract doesn't leave room for a lot of heroic stories about doctors or lawyers, for instance, unless they're somehow "fighting the system." In the realm of the arts, where post-boomerdom has prized bacchanalia as a prerequisite for uninhibited creativity, our heroes are drunks and drug addicts and pansexuals who find their voice by losing their minds. Natalie Portman's character is told early on by her pimplike director that her years of chaste, sober study of ballet are not enough to succeed: she must find her dark side to play the part. She does so through lesbianism, drugs and drink, while her mind begins to slip away - not as a result of those activities, but because her monastic life up until this point has been so repressive, or something. By literally going crazy, she achieves artistic fulfillment.
This is a typical story not only for reenforcing countercultural establishment myths about art but the triangle created between Portman, Mila Kunis as her ambiguously deceptive friend and rival, and the ballet's director Vincent Cassel, all three of whom give good performances. The backstage drama between the women, with its themes of competition and age, recalls All About Eve and Showgirls. The script allows for sophistication only from Cassel while the women gaze wide eyed at him with fear and hope and attraction, which is rather the point and thus suitable. Kunis plays the whorish one well although its highly unlikely in real life that a professional ballerina with large visible tattoos would be employed. Portman is well suited as a solitudinous central character as her peaked eyes invite empathy throughout her silence.
Aronofsky's healthy interest in singleminded protagonists unfortunately impasses with his trademark freakout shtick which has become art house cliche since Requiem For a Dream and condemns Black Swan to trite sensationalism. Watch, won't you, as poor Portman loses her mind? In shock moments whose special effects are alternately disturbing (broken legs) and cornball beyond belief (paintings coming to life) we have our silent empathy with Portman turned against us. Which is a shame, since her journey until that point is a refreshingly rare acting job of restraint and quiet intensity. When she loses her mind, there's nothing we haven't seen before. When Aronofsky makes us guess as to whether what's happening is in her imagination or not, she becomes a cipher for his predictable escalation of gimmicky directorial tricks.
The first half of the film is not rendered completely worthless by the second. A far better film about metaphorically and literally "losing yourself in the part" as performers like to put it is David Lynch's masterful and criminally unacknowledged Inland Empire (2006). Unlike Aronofsky, Lynch has the courage to place his audience directly inside the head of his schizophrenic actress protagonist Laura Dern, with no horror movie chair-jumpers to distance us from the madness. When Dern goes nuts, we see through her eyes for the next two and a half hours as the world stops making sense. Lynch tries to be a genuine empath to his women. Aronofsky would rather you squirm watching Portman's fingernails crack and bleed.