Monday, January 10, 2011

Black Swan

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Some spoilers ahead.  

Natalie Portman was always a precocious actress. Starting out in movies in her early teens, she was a natural in The Professional and Beautiful Girls, commanding attention from just a smile. Then she starred in the Star Wars retreads (or is that pre-treads?) and it was hard to see the actress through epic story and CGI. She played an emo pin-up girl in Garden State, and played teenagers in Anywhere But Here, Where the Heart Is, and Cold Mountain.

She started taking more interesting parts with V for Vendetta, The Darjeeling Limited (in the Hotel Chevalier prologue), Closer, and My Blueberry Nights. With Black Swan, Portman confirms that she’s at her best playing characters that have something to hide; that are lying, putting on an act, or are in denial. In Hotel Chevalier, she plays a young woman whom we know little about, except she is the fickle object of Jason Schwartzman’s character’s desire. She meets him in the titular hotel, and seduces him. In Closer she plays a stripper, and in My Blueberry Nights, plays a prostitute. Each is a character good at deception, each played by Portman as if they had something to hide.

Portman follows in the footsteps of other actors like Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange who mesmerize when they play characters who are themselves acting. Nick Nolte was great in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, as a man who becomes all things to a rich, spoiled L.A. family, ending up a reflection of what they want him to be. Jessica Lange shone in Frances, about Frances Farmer, the actress who went nutty.

Actors are supposed to act like they’re not acting. Portman’s never done that for me. I always see a young woman who is natural and beautiful, who may be technically perfect, but a depthless shadow of an actress. And this is why she will never play a role better suited to her, both physically and emotionally, than she does in Black Swan. I cannot imagine this movie with another actress. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Black Swan works on multiple levels, each fascinating. On the plot level, it’s about a ballet dancer, Nina, who is up for the lead in a “new take” on Swan Lake, as conceived by director Thomas Leroy (French smoothie Vincent Cassel). Nina nails the white swan part but to land the lead in the production she must also nail the darker, more emotionally intense black swan part. She’s technically perfect (as is Portman in the part), but has trouble bringing emotional fire to the black swan. Nina rehearses hard to dance well, to dance perfectly. Her drive to be perfect as both white and black swans leads to her undoing.

Black Swan co-stars Winona Ryder, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey. So on another level, Black Swan is about the cutthroat world of actors. It’s the story of an aging beauty queen, Winona Ryder, forced to retire from the business to make room for the next generation of beautiful girls, as represented by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis (as another dancer). Ryder is only in a few scenes as Beth, the aging dancer who was a star in her day, but like any athlete must eventually, she is forced to retire and make way for the younger generation. Winona Ryder is an excellent actress.

Her few moments on screen, especially her first scene where she wrecks her dressing room after getting fired from the company, work so well that I wanted the cameras to follow her around for a while. She is relegated to a hospital room for half the movie: a literal wreck after getting hit by a car. Barbara Hershey, whose face looks ravaged by time and facial surgery, plays Nina’s mom, who was herself a great dancer but who gave it all up to have Nina. And never lets her forget it.

But it’s not Ryder’s or Hershey’s movie. It’s Portman’s. And she’s riveting for the entire movie. Black Swan is told entirely from Nina’s point of view. So, we closely witness through her eyes her domineering mother, the intense rehearsals, the feeling of persecution that begins to dog her, and we feel keenly her psychosexual dramas unfolding in almost real-time as Nina can’t help but be attracted to both Thomas and the new dancer to the company, Lily—Mila Kunis as a tattooed party girl; the antithesis of Nina. But Nina’s not really attracted to them so much as drawn to them when they show the slightest endearment or attention.  

“You really need to relax,” Lily tells Nina at one point. But relaxing is just not in the cards, for Nina or for the audience. Director Darren Aronofky doesn’t let us off the hook, as the pressure Nina puts on herself to be the perfect black swan manifests itself in various ways. With unflinching composition, we get to watch as Nina worries her skin bloody. She comes to believes Lily is trying to get rid of her to take over her part. Nina lashes out at anyone who gets in her way. 

But toward the end, it’s not really Nina anymore but the black swan trying to fight the white swan for supremacy. For perfection. Ultimately there is only one way for Nina to find perfection in her performance. And this translates into exhilarating moments as Nina finally achieves the state of perfection she has been driving herself toward. 

Portman’s performance is based almost solely on her body and her ability to move within each frame. This is what I mean by her being perfect for the role. I almost felt I was watching Natalie Portman the perfectionist actor in a movie about herself playing a damaged character trying to become the perfect black swan. And, toward the end, during Nina’s debut on stage, Portman and Nina merge. And you see the transformation not just as the character Nina views it in close first-person narration sense, but also how those around her view it, and ultimately how the audience at the ballet (an extension of the movie audience) views it. And within this conceit, Portman, and the movie, nail it.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, January 9th, 11:35 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks--Peanut Butter Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

The Adjustment Bureau. Matt Damon stumbles upon an concurrent reality where exists the adjustment bureau, a league of fedora-wearing men who control to the flow of daily events. But Matt met a woman he shouldn't have, and now he and Emily Blunt are running for their lives. Or something like that. Inception lite.

Water For Elephants. A Big McHuge Hollywood adaptation of the bestselling novel about a traveling circus, starring that guy from Twilight, Reese Witherspoon, and that guy who won best actor last year. Magical whooey.

No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play friends who end up sleeping together. And, I'm guessing from the plot twists exposed in the trailer, that he falls for her and she just wants the sex because she has a busy life as a doctor and doesn't have time for more? Could be cute, since the stars are both cute. Not sure Portman's made a rom-com like this.

Cedar Rapids. Ed Helms takes a stab at headlining a Sundance-Cute comedy. "The plot revolves around a small town Wisconsin man (played by Helms) who, when his role model dies, must represent his company at a regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his mind is blown by the big-town experience.” Welcome back, Anne Heche! With John C. Riley doing Will Ferrell's role.


Robin said...

Dell -- This is a fascinating look at a movie that teeters between reality and fantasy. I agree that Natalie Portman gave the performance of her life. Great review!

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin. Did you see it?

Robin said...

Yes, we saw it a few weeks ago. I thought it was beautiful, disturbing and thought-provoking. What an ending!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I haven't seen it...yet. But hope to soon. Thanks for the great review. :)

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Cyn!