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Oscar Flashback: Black Swan (2010)

Artykuł zawiera spoilery!

A film I viewed at the cinemas before the Oscars (thank you very much) is Black Swan, which was nominated for Best Picture; for which Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar; and for which Darren Aronofsky was nominated for the Best Director Oscar; Matthew Libatique was nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar; and Andrew Weisblum was nominated for the Best Film Editing Oscar (film year, 2010; awarding year, 2011). The other nominees in these categories were:

Best Picture

The King's Speech (Winner) *

127 Hours
The Fighter
Inception *
The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network
Toy Story 3 *
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Best Actress

The Kids Are All Right - Annette Bening
Rabbit Hole - Nicole Kidman
Winter's Bone - Jennifer Lawrence
Blue Valentine - Michelle Williams

Best Director

The King's Speech - Tom Hooper (Winner)

True Grit - Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
The Social Network - David Fincher
The Fighter - David O'Russell

Best Cinematography

Inception (Winner) *

The King's Speech *
The Social Network
True Grit

Best Film Editing

The Social Network (Winner) *

127 Hours
The Fighter
The King's Speech *

Of all of the potential Oscar contenders flooding the cinemas during the holiday/end of year glut (catching up, still), the selection I most looked forward to viewing was Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky is a fascinating director, and even if I don't love all of his films, I still find myself in awe of his unique creative visions, which are so visually and structurally cohesive in each of his films, regardless of the premises of each, which often explore the extremes of any given subject. I've seen Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and the Fountain (see my reviews in my archives) but not The Wrestler, which is buried somewhere on my Netflix queue. I liked Pi to a point, I struggled with Requiem (because of the addiction subject matter), and loved the Fountain as a testament to the timelessness of love and as a sorely underrated picture. So, I knew that paying the price of a theater ticket would be worth whatever experience I came away with from Black Swan. I also enjoy Natalie Portman as an actress quite a bit. In many ways, she strikes me as a younger, female version of Johnny Depp: a bit eccentric, seeking a wide variety of roles with the chops to make a good showing if not pull them off outright, and yet possessing an almost ethereal element in their talent and their performance craft. Black Swan promised to be perfect - or the next best thing to it.

In Black Swan, Portman portrays Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer with a prestigious New York City ballet company, who lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer who controls Nina's life to the point of fragile, festering repression. The ballet company is preparing to audition for Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and the director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), wants to cast one principal ballerina to play both the virginal and innocent White Swan and the darkly sensual Black Swan in an exploration of duality. Nina achieves the part, against Thomas' better judgment and at the expense of several others who audition, including the prior prima ballerina (Winona Ryder), who is ousted from the company for being too old and stale. Thomas believes that Nina can portray the rigid and precise White Swan because of her technically flawless dancing but cannot become the Swan Queen because she lacks the passion and lucidity to portray the Black Swan. When, after a manipulative seduction on Thomas' part, Nina bites Thomas in her fierce commitment to the role, she wins the part but not without a price. In order for Nina to reconcile the White and Black Swan in her dancing and characterization, and in lieu of the stress and pressure of being a prima ballerina, she finds herself struggling to buck what she has known at the hands of her mother, her discipline, and her self-motivation in order to achieve an emotional center equivalent to what Thomas perceives to be the Black Swan. Her mind begins to play the most graphic of tricks on her, and everything she sees begins to lack any root in reality as she strives for perfection at any cost.

Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar (amongst other awards) for Black Swan, and while I have not seen any of the other nominated performances, it is hard to believe that Portman did not deserve her accolades. Her performance is truly riveting, even otherworldly. The success of the film as a cohesive story and as a piece of visual artistry is almost entirely dependent upon her all-consuming illustration of a dancer at the pique of inner conflict, on the very precipice of a crippling nervous breakdown. The camera never leaves Nina out of frame. The viewer always sees Nina in the throes of her highest highs and lowest lows (and worse). Without Portman's creation of a character that totally and utterly allows the viewer to forget that she was once Queen Amidala, the picture, even with Aronofsky's fastidious skill at directing, would have failed. She is so connected to this character and her turmoil that her skin turns utterly red in the heat of frustration, the tears overflow in times of great sadness, the crack in her voice when her psychosis is at peak levels so carefully channels a place of sincerity. One gets the feeling while watching that Portman probably connected too well with this character, even though, by all rights, she is a well adjusted young woman. This performance marked a career high for her, and the film should be watched, if for no other reason than for that.

The entire ensemble was quite good, however. Hershey was perfectly cast as the repressed mother, living vicariously through the success of her fragile and fastidious daughter. Cassel was perfectly cast as Thomas, with his ability to play the arguable moral ambiguity of a ballet company director who uses sex as a means for creative inspiration. Plus, he's actually French, which further helps the suspension of disbelief. Mila Kunis did a remarkable job as Lily, who Nina believes is her chief competition, a ballerina who is less precise but, in most ways, more naturally and emotionally connected to her dancing; unfortunately, she will always channel Jackie from That 70s Show or Meg from Family Guy until she learns to soften some of her vocal inflection, at least when her characters show any kind of excitement (any kind).

Aronofsky's overall visual palate was a brilliant stroke, relying on a 16mm camera and a gray, subdued look that betrayed the sinister qualities of Nina's growing psychosis. The cinematography was a character unto itself; nothing was lit brightly. Every interior, with the exception of Nina's bedroom when in her fantasy state, contained its share of shadows, as if a darkness threatened to overtake even the physical environment of Nina's everyday life. The point-of-view camera shots focusing almost solely on Nina's face ensured that the viewer would be glued to her every move, her every thought, and her every desire without the ability to look away. It was nothing short of genius.

The one downside of Black Swan, however, centered on how Aronofsky let the thriller aspect of Nina's mental degradation overtake the picture to become something less psychological and more horror movie/fright night by comparison, and it begins in Nina's private dressing room as her opening night nerves and inner emotional break collide in spectacular fashion. Up until this point in the movie, Nina's journey is such that even the viewer questions how much of what Nina is experiencing is real because her inner mind is thrust upon the audience so completely. Upon Nina's taking of the stage and embracing the Black Swan character, however, the film begins to feel more like a garden-variety horror movie. The visual presentation is an understandable artistic choice, but the Black Swan the viewer sees, the one that was advertised to tease the picture, is so surreal and so disconnected from Nina prior to the point, i.e. the Nina that the viewer has been following from the intimate interiors of her private life, that the hypnotic hold the picture has on the viewer is disrupted at a key sequence in the film. It's almost as if a symphony orchestra is working its sound into a grand and triumphant finale swell that completely moves, only to have a noticeably wrong note played somewhere in the brass (it's always the brass, ok?) to jar the listener out of that sedated pleasure of being lost in the music. Or, it's as if a vinyl record album skipped a groove on the turntable. The viewer is disconnected from Nina deliberately, when her character is making another, and truly, the most critical connection of her own.

The ending is spectacular and more than makes amends for the odd few minutes preceding it. Also, Swan Lake is one of the most fascinating ballets to watch, from any perspective, but this choice, this disruption, kept me from seeing the film to be a masterpiece.

At its best, however, the film is still extremely good, and I would be remiss if I did not find it in my heart to award Black Swan an 8.5 on the patented ratings scale for being between having minor flaws but being very good and being perfectly entertaining. The film passes the test, too! I want to own this one and the Fountain for certain because, without doubt, Black Swan is a haunting, searing examination of the inner workings of a fascinating and competitive artistic discipline, and Aronofsky achieves his usual balance of startling, even disturbing emotional undercurrent and visual prowess in this movie as he does in all of his previous entries (that I've seen, anyway).

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