Sunday, January 30, 2011

Through the Opera Glasses - 71 - Black Swan

Black Swan opened in theatres over a month ago, yet I only saw it this past weekend due to scheduling challenges - because I simply had to see it with my co-ballet-freak sister.

I adored this film on multiple levels - but really, there's no other way to experience Black Swan.

The story in a nutshell: Soloist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) takes on the notorious ballet roles of Odette, the White Swan and Odile, the Black Swan - a cavernous dramatic stretch for the same dancer to pull off both roles convincingly. Nina attempts to find the darker, seductive side to herself in a make-or-break grasp at the principal role brass ring. In a career that is brutally short, Nina has to fend off the expectations of her mother, the competition of her company members, and the unrelenting efforts of the artistic director who senses her untapped greatness. Can fragile Nina handle the considerable pressure?

In an inspired casting move, Barbara Hershey plays Natalie Portman's mom, a former dancer who now appears to devote herself to her daughter's career. They have a strong storyline centered on a delayed detachment between mother and daughter.

Vincent Cassel is a perfect choice for the artistic director of the New York ballet company staging a fresh version of Swan Lake. He's all slash-and-burn business when it comes to retiring the prima ballerina and courting funds for his company. He resorts to mind games without blinking if it will give him the performances he not only wants but needs, in order to woo new audiences to a rarified art form.

Another soloist in the company with just as much to win or lose as Nina, Lily (Mila Kunis) has the passion and easy seduction of the Black Swan but none of the purity of technique required of the White Swan. She's also one of the only company members willing to remain friends with Nina after her promotion, yet her casting as the alternate for Nina's role puts a strain on their relationship.

For obsessive perfectionists like dancers, the prospect of deconstructing their painstakingly-crafted signature dance styles in order to transform into something uncontrolled like the Black Swan character is a recipe for psychological disaster.

There are many, many real dancers in companies all over the world who possess all of the aspects of Odette and none of the untidy brilliance of Odile. To take on the challenge really does require these women to confront and wrestle with their Ballerina Princess identities. I'm certain there is a long history of mental anguish associated with dancing the Black Swan.

That is also why the role is not handed over lightly.

For me personally, as a lifelong devotee of dance, the sequences of transformation from dancer into Black Swan gave me incredible chills. It's a private moment that happens for every dancer as she stands in the wings, whether she is Odette or whether she's in the corps.

And the sequences where the steadicam brings us directly into the rehearsal movements and onstage during the performance bring me as close to the dancer's POV as I will ever get.

However, this film - often billed as a psychological thriller or even an art house horror film - also takes us along the disturbing descent into mental illness. Aronofsky's use of fractured mirror imagery, through-the-rabbit-hole mirror-upon-mirror imagery, and the donning and removal of identities via ballet roles makes the realization that we may be in the point of view of an unwell narrator sneak up on us.

Read clinical psychologist Dr. Villarreal's review of Black Swan as a journey through a mental health crisis HERE.

I have to say that Natalie Portman's courage in taking on a role where it was clearly herself dancing a difficult role for a professional dancer - let alone an actor portraying one - is nothing short of mindblowing.

*insert my standing ovation here*

She executes really impressive lifts, displays very respectable arms, and does honest-to-God fouett├ęs. She's been a huge favorite of mine for years, but now...


Check her out:


Anonymous said...

I cannot wait to see this movie!

Great run down!

Pk Hrezo said...

Oh I can't wait to see it! I've been waiting for awhile now and it looks awesome.

Fantastic review! Natalie looks outstanding. What a brill role for her. So great to see.

Janet said...

Thanks for the lowdown, Julia - I've been watching the trailers and thinking I need to see this (huge Natalie Portman fan, myself), now I know I have to!

Your comments put me in mind of the anguish Heath Ledger went through in playing the Joker in Batman. Would you say most artists play in the mental circus at some point in their careers?

Julia Smith said...

Boobies and PK - Hope you enjoy it!

Janet - I do think that most artists will hit walls in their creative lives that equate to symbolic death experiences. Any artist, no matter what medium they're in, go to places that the average Joe doesn't have to. It's part of the job description.

It depends on what kind of transformation the artist is experiencing. If it's really life altering, it can lead to elation or to a period of mourning, or put the person through painful feelings of being adrift, or all of the above. Some artists are prepared for the turbulance and ride it with eyes wide open, but some just find themselves in the middle of Dorothy's tornado on their way to Oz and have a bit of a freakout.

Travis Cody said...

I've heard that Ms Portman does quite a bit of the dancing, and handles it very well. I'm not familiar with her dance background, but I would imagine there was some intense training for all of the actors during pre-production for the film.

As much as I love dance, I don't know if this film is for me. We'll wait for the DVD and consider carefully whether we want to take a chance on it.

secret agent woman said...

I've been mixed about seeing this - psychological horror I can handle easily (shrink that I am) but don't like physical horror. I don't even like to see a fist fight in a movie! Is it gory at all?

Julia Smith said...

Travis and Secret Agent Woman - your Spider senses are definitely tingling. Yes, there are gruesome images in this film.